If you showed a historian footage of For Honor, a game in which samurai, vikings, and knights fight each other, they’d spit their tea out and politely ask you to leave. It makes no sense for these chronologically distinct factions to be fighting for control of the same continent, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re fighting because it’s cool, and there’s something endearing about the way the game takes a gleaming broadsword to historical accuracy to make it as enjoyable a celebration of medieval combat possible.
There’s not a trace of cynicism in For Honor. You can tell the developers earnestly believe that burly warriors decked out in ornate armour pummelling each other with deadly weapons is as good as it gets. There’s a lot going on, from a confusing faction war metagame that sees players working together to conquer territory, to modes like Dominion where you fight to capture and defend points on a map. But, really, it’s all just noise. A flashy distraction from the game’s true, beating, ironclad heart: the combat.
It’s when you’re locked in battle with a single adversary that For Honor’s blade is sharpest. Each fighter can attack and block in three directions: left, right, and high. If your opponent goes for a high attack, an arrow indicating its direction will flash on the screen just before it connects, giving you a brief window to block. Sounds simple enough, but the skill lies in second-guessing your foe and waiting for precisely the right moment to block, attack, or dodge. As you slowly circle your opponent, eyes fixed on their sword hand, wondering if they’ll make the first move, it’s genuinely tense. Especially if they're human.
You can play For Honor against surprisingly competent and disarmingly ruthless AI bots, but nothing beats the unpredictable thrill of facing another player online. And doing so forces you to dive deeper into the combat system, which goes way beyond mere strikes and blocks. Advanced tactics include feints, which let you begin an attack, then suddenly cancel it. So your opponent will see the arrow indicating a left attack and go to block, but then you feint and quickly change to a right attack and catch them off guard. It takes some mastery, but fooling someone with this trick is enormously satisfying.
Then there’s parrying, stamina, throws, guard breaks, and class-specific special moves, which deepen the game further. Rickety bridges, cliff edges, and spike traps are particularly dangerous if you’re next to one and your opponent transitions from a guard break into a throw. Strike too often without pausing and your stamina will drain, making your attacks slow and laboured, which an aware opponent can exploit. There’s an impressive amount of depth and nuance to the fighting, which may be daunting for casual players. It demands time, dedication, and patience that some people just won’t have. And this may result in less committed players slowly drifting away, leaving a small, impenetrable community of hardcore players behind.
But before charging headlong into multiplayer, it’s worth playing story mode. These missions, flanked by largely forgettable cutscenes, teach you the basics of combat, as well as how to deal with certain classes when you finally go online. There are a few fun moments specific to the story, including a boss that fights alongside a pack of wolves and a cinematic battle on a frozen lake that’s being broken apart by catapult fire. But if you were thinking of buying For Honor just to play solo, don’t bother. The intricacies of the combat system only emerge when you’re fighting a living, thinking opponent.
In multiplayer there are 4v4 deathmatches, the aforementioned Dominion mode, and 2v2 brawls, but it’s the duels that kept me coming back. The purity of fighting one-on-one without any distractions—or other players stabbing you in the back—is where For Honor shines brightest. Duels are as much about waging psychological war on your opponent as besting them in combat. Lulling them into a false sense of security, wearing them down, taking advantage of their impatience. Every fight feels intimate and personal, which you don’t often experience in online multiplayer games. And it helps that the community the game has attracted is, by and large, well-mannered and respectful.
Outside of the fighting, however, For Honor is a needlessly bloated game. There’s a lot of tediously granular customisation, a tacky free-to-play-style storefront selling in-game currency for real-world money, and a tangle of ugly, confusing menus to wrestle through before you can get into a battle. And as time goes on, and those stalwart, hardcore players continue to hone their skills, it’ll be even more unwelcoming to newcomers. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find a rich, tactical fighting game with wonderfully weighty combat and hidden depths to uncover. But if you want something accessible you can easily dip in and out of, you may want to swear fealty to another lord.