The weekend before Christmas, in festive tradition, there’s a beta test for DNF Duel. It’s a combined effort between developers Neople, 8ing, and longtime anime fighting game creators Arc System Works, in the style of many of Arcsys’ most recent games. That is to say, a sort of 2D-styled 3D that they’ve been perfecting since Guilty Gear Xrd. Duel is based on extremely popular Korean MMO beat-em-up Dungeon Fighter Online (known as Dungeon & Fighter in its homeland), which retains a huge playerbase in Asia. It features some of the many classes from that game duking it out one-on-one in a format familiar to those who’ve played Arc System Works’ other titles. It inherits a distinctive style and a pick-up-and-play sense of fun that strikes a better ease to enjoyment ratio than many others that have come before it, and despite some deserved skepticism about its online play it seems to have succeeded at that, too.
Note: This beta was only for online play, and there’s been no indication whatsoever of the game’s offline features. While I’ve seen people speculate they might include beat-em-up-ish stuff like Granblue, it’s just that – speculation.
In particular it’s reminiscent of Granblue Fantasy Versus, released in early 2020. Starring the characters from big-time Japanese gacha game Granblue Fantasy, its main feature was the streamlining of fighting game mechanics for the audience of the original mobile game. This included one-button specials, a pared-back combo system, a block button, and very minimal system mechanics. It was quite well-received within the fighting game community, bridging the gap between ‘anime’ games like Guilty Gear and more ‘traditional’ games in the vein of Street Fighter. DNF Duel skews a bit further towards the anime end of the spectrum, in my opinion for the better. The online play for GBVS was also infamously not very good, releasing right at the point in the global spread of Coronavirus that made this a massive problem. Thankfully, DNF Duel does a much better job in this regard – much like Guilty Gear Strive, it implements rollback netcode extremely well, making matches that would be unplayable in an old-school delay-based game feel just fine as long as the connection is stable.
There are also a lot of mechanical differences when compared to a game like GBVS. For one, the cancel and combo system is much less restrictive than GBVS. In that game, there was a very strict limit on hitstun and damage scaling – leading in many cases to it being more effective to do less hits in a combo for an unscaled ender, either in a super or an EX special. This meant that many characters focused on hit-confirming stray hits into special moves or supers, which gave the overall experience a traditional vibe – it’s a design decision rather than necessarily a weakness, though the limited combo game did turn off a few people. DNF Duel is a lot more freeform – most characters have the classic anime-fighter chain combo, and many have complete freedom on how to use special moves or metered special moves. This means that the main constraint is usage of MP, making for a theoretically quite unique resource-management game compared to the traditional meter gauges in many other fighting games.
While some moves use very little MP, others use a ton, and this varies heavily from character to character. I mainly played Striker, a beginner-friendly close-ranged rushdown character. She has access to MS (meter special) moves which are extremely cheap on MP, and seems to regenerate it very quickly, enabling her to keep up pressure easily once she gets in. Other characters like the Crusader or Inquisitor can burn through their resources much more quickly to unleash fairly devastating buffs and powerful, long-ranged attacks. I’m not really sure how much the balance is struck here in many regards, and perhaps long-term play will reveal additional matchup-based frustrations.
The fast rate of meter regeneration for many characters, especially while applying pressure on block or scoring hits, seems to render the costs a bit moot, and as long as you avoid totally bottoming out (becoming ‘Exhausted’) the regeneration keeps the MP flowing. This keeps the pace high and the energy going, though hopefully depths will reveal themselves on investigation. Supers are flashy, cinematic affairs, though they do little else except damage.
It also features many system mechanics long-term Arcsys veterans will be familiar with. You can do a guard cancel reversal while blocking and there’s an interesting variation on the traditional GG Roman Cancel mechanic. It’s a bit like the Baroque system from 8ing-developed Tatsunoko vs Capcom, a slightly obscure tag fighting game they released for the Wii in 2008. In TvC you spent health that could otherwise be restored by tagging out the wounded character for an instant recovery cancel. In this, named ‘Conversion’, you ‘spend’ your accumulated grey damage (chip damage from blocking moves, or from being hit by normals without an MS follow-up). It’s a cool system, but it feels like it’ll be unfortunately rarely-used. Once you spend a while learning the hierarchy of your character’s moves, you’ll rarely end a combo without using a decent MS move, which erases the opponent’s grey life. In most cases, whether or not you’ll have the resource available to perform a Conversion at any given time is a bit finicky.
I’ve always liked it when games open up the possibility of health as a resource pool, but beyond staging a comeback after blocking a long pressure string (like the Inquisitor’s ridiculous flaming wheel) and gathering some chip damage, it feels a bit like an underutilised opportunity for DNF Duel. There’s also a guard bar, but it’s so irrelevant I wonder why it’s even in the game. I’m assuming you get guard broken if it depletes, but even against the most patient of opponents I never saw it go below 50%.
Speaking of system mechanics, it’s the ones that aren’t present that are bothersome to me, more than anything else. While in GBVS the exclusion of double-jumps, airdashes and air-blocking was in concordance with the game’s more deliberate focus on poking, anti-airs and neutral interactions, I’m not totally sure that it feels good in a game that includes as many batshit anime-game moves as this one. Many of the game’s moves – normals too, but specials more so – are just gigantic, taking up huge chunks of the screen. While there’s clearly been a bit of care placed in regards to the vertical hitboxes of some moves to avoid egregious accidental anti-airs, it’s very often not the case. Maybe it’s just me being a little salty, though.
The roll mechanic can help to get around this, but it’s got a ton of recovery and even rolling clean through a move can leave you in a disadvantageous position. If it’s one of the (many) moves with multiple hits it can even get you hit if you’re not familiar with the matchup. There’s a definite clunk to the universal movement options, and the lack of double jumps means some characters need to very patiently dashblock from full-screen if the opponent isn’t coming to you. This is probably my biggest criticism of DNF Duel so far.
My general point is this; there’s a reason that games as mechanically ‘anime’ as this generally let you block in the air (usually at some cost or disadvantage) and double-jump. There’s a disconnect where jumping needs to be done as a very deliberate, potentially unsafe action, while doing an enormous full-screen blender move is very often completely safe, at least in my sodium-addled mind.
This does relate to a strength of DNF Duel, and one of the aspects that will most attract players both familiar and unfamiliar with the source material. The characters, as well as being very visually unique from one another, are very distinctive, with variations in core mechanics. A huge bruiser like the Crusader, who can buff himself to add armour to attacks and has enormous range, but suffers from a lack of cancel options on block, feels distinct from a zippy, short-ranged fighter like Striker or the game’s longest-ranged, gun-based character, Ranger. The characters offer a solid variety of gameplans, and the strong aesthetics and bombastic movesets will definitely draw people in. There are, apparently, absolutely loads of classes from the original game to draw on.
A little deeper down the fighting game rabbit hole, there is a slight problem. The entire roster are basically mids dispensers – there’s not even a single standing overhead move to be seen, no airdash and the presence of a block button invalidates cross-ups. Fundamentally this leaves it – like GBVS – as a strike-throw game. This isn’t inherently a problem; after all, ‘will I punch you, which beats your strike, or throw you, which beats passively blocking?’ has been at the heart of fighting games for a very long time. Looking at some other people play, however, I might have underestimated the system’s ability to do multiple overheads off a blocked jump-in.
Striker’s ability to turn almost any blocked hit into a rekka-like string of special moves would certainly be more interesting in a game where one of those specials was an overhead. Characters like Inquisitor or Kunoichi, who have slow lockdown moves that keep you blocking for a long time, would definitely feel more oppressive and dynamic if they had at least a classic, slow-ish universal overhead they could use to change it up beyond reacting to SF-speed jump-ins and blocking the occasional empty low. The diverse and interesting cast does make this a bit less of a problem, though – when you give people a lot of options, unique mechanics and flashy combos it makes them want to hit buttons on a natural level. As a wise man once said: this is a fighting game, not a blocking game.
The game’s input system is (as always) a minor point of contention with longtime fighting game players. Motion inputs are optional, with a simplified special move system – it’s speculated there’s a meter benefit to the full motion input, but it’s a bit unclear. I love doing motions and think they have value in fighting games – both on a fun level and a gameplay one – but I’ve accepted that many games are going to do away with them. It was also a little bit convenient, as my stick was playing up and so I had to play on the PS4 pad.
I really enjoyed my weekend with DNF Duel. It’s definitely a simplified game, there’s no getting around it, and long-term I don’t know if it would have the sort of depth a dedicated fighting game aficionado would need, but that’s fine. It lets you pick it up, get drawn in by big, cool moves and after a bit of figuring-out immediately get into the meat and potatoes of trying to apply strategies to matchups, play neutral, and all that other stuff. While it makes sacrifices to do so, some a little frustrating, it manages to make accessing the core gameplay experience very smooth. The game’s excellent online play (caveat: when the beta was working) means that players won’t necessarily be repulsed immediately by lagfests. Time will tell how the mechanics, roster and features pan out in the long term, but for what could easily have been a phoned-in tie-in, DNF Duel looks like a fast and fun entry point to the fighting game genre.
DNF Duel releases this summer, and I’m looking forward to diving in some more. It doesn’t quite have the depth of even the already-simplified Strive, or the star power of a game like Dragonball FighterZ, but if you’ve been looking for a low barrier-to-entry way to test out fighting games, this might be the one for you – if the screen-filling anime-game antics aren’t too much.
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