Does Not Fail
Ever since Capcom released Street Fighter II 30 years ago, the fighting game genre has attempted to strive for perfection. Oh sure, the methods, modes, mechanics, and artistic styles for every ring-rocker are very different, but every one of these games is pushing toward the same goal: the capture of a community; a passionate player base that will keep said fighter alive, kicking, and perpetually on its feet, lest it falls to a 10-count like so many contenders that have come before.
Today, it is incredibly rare that a developer makes a “bad fighter.” Whether billion-dollar franchises such as Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter itself, to mid-size slugfests such as The King of Fighters, Guilty Gear, and Skullgirls, to cultish outliers such as Melty Blood, Samurai Shodown, and Them’s Fightin’ Herds, almost every modern fighter — regardless of budget, visual style, or gameplay — brings its A-game. This is reflected in the fact that all of the above have delivered great efforts in the past 10 years. The days of Kasumi Ninja, Ballz, and Survival Arts are long dead. And they can stay that way, Jack.
No, the true goal of a fighting game today is not to simply be “great.” They’re all great. The challenge today is to survive; build a community; retain full lobbies; be repped at tournaments; to hold their own against more recognizable brands. That is the true fight, the real challenge, and it is one that now stands before DNF Duel, Nexon’s long-awaited Dungeon Fighter Online spin-off. The FGC is eating well right now, and next year is set to bring more food to the table.
DNF Duel has what it takes to be a contender, no doubt about it, but it has a helluva scrap on its hands.
DNF Duel, as previously stated, is an adaptation of Neople’s 2005 MMO Dungeon Fighter Online, more commonly known as “DFO.” Given that game’s natural proclivity for frenzied fist-throwing against lush fantasy backgrounds, it is a no-brainer that this world would translate so easily to the fighting game genre. While Neople has already provided a universe packed with lore to provide a backdrop to the action, Nexon has wisely chosen two veteran studios to adapt DFO for the one-on-one stage.
Enter Arc System Works (Guilty Gear, BlazBlue), and Eighting (Bloody Roar, Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom), two respected developers equipped with skills that will indeed pay the bills. This is Nexon’s wisest core decision for DNF Duel. While the fighter steps into the ring sporting an unknown and unproven brand (at least among western audiences), the publisher has ensured that it has recognizable developers with proven track records working to deliver a competent and solid fighter.
And “competent” is an understatement. DNF Duel is straight-up wicked.
A four-button 2.5D fighter, DNF Duel offers the player both simple and standard inputs. That’s not simple or standard, like the upcoming Street Fighter 6, both controls exist concurrently, which can present some confusing first impressions. DNF wants to be all things to all players; a fun smack-around for beginners; and a deep, complex fighter for veterans. And, despite this lofty ambition, DNF somehow manages to achieve both of these goals, if at the cost of some initial stumbling.
The four-button layout corresponds to Weak (W), Medium (M), Skill (S), and Magic (MS). The player holds back to Block or uses a dedicated Block button. Maneuverability consists of walking, crouching, jumping, backstepping, running, and dodging (an invincible forward movement with slow recovery, ala The King of Fighters‘ roll). As a rule of thumb, Weak links to Medium, Medium to Skill, and Skill to Magic, so even new players can perform satisfying chains with relative ease.
Skill blends Heavy & Special. Much like Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, or Super Smash Bros. hitting Skill and any direction performs a fairly light special attack. In general, forward + S is a projectile or dash attack of some sort, down + S is a defensive move or anti-air, while back + S is something more subjective — perhaps a parry or a command grab, as defined by the fighter themselves. The Magic button works with similar directional input, although these attacks are a little meatier and a lot more damaging. Magic attacks may include huge projectiles, environmental traps, launchers, or teleports. With me so far? Ok.
Secret of Mana
Skill attacks are free to use, but Magic attacks drain the player’s Mana meter, with each attack costing a set amount of Mana dependent on its power. Mana auto-replenishes after use, and replenishes faster if you use the standard input instead of the simple input, (for example, QCF + MS instead of simply forward + MS). By combining standard attacks, Skill attacks, and Magic attacks, players can bust out powerful and visually arresting combos with ease, offering accessibly entry not just to new DNF players, but to new fighting game players, period.
And it doesn’t end there. Once a player is below 30% health, then their character enters “Awakening.” This is a comeback state which activates the character’s unique passive skill — maybe you become faster, like Kunoichi, score heavier chip damage, like Launcher, or regain health on hit, like Berserker. In addition, an Awakened fighter gains access to a one-button Super, resulting in some gorgeous, and hilariously OTT animations. Time it well — if you whiff the move, you lose it. Sorry, MK Krew.
In addition to the above, there are also combo-breakers, strategic ways to extend your Mana meter, and even the ability to convert your grey life into Mana itself — risking it all for the ability to go HAM. In DNF Duel, ArcSys and Eighting have attempted to create a fighter that would allow two new players to engage in flashy anime warfare at the simple press of a few buttons, but not at the cost of sacrificing the opportunity to create a deep, strategic, and highly competitive fighter. And, amazingly, it seems that the developers have pulled it off.
DNF plays with anarchic delight. Sure, it tends to lean toward chaos over precision at times, but that’s fine. While DNF occasionally feels as though the combatants are tossing nukes at each other, rather than engaging in human chess, stick with it. There is method to this mayhem. I fully expect release week to result in the discovery of about 20+ infinite combos, such is DNF‘s love of overkill, but all fighters typically find their niche only after they are in the public’s mitts. Balance will be struck, and we’ll all be having a blast in the meantime.
DNF Duel embraces its sense of wanton chaos, and we should too. Why should we always whisper? It can feel great to simply scream.
DNF Duel admittedly lacks some of the expensive visual polish and slick presentation of ArcSys’ flagship fighter, Guilty Gear Strive. The spirit is there, but the budget is not. There is a notable step-down in presentation and cinematic flair. DNF is still a sharp-looking game, with a roster of likable characters, given life through cool animations, dynamic intros, and outrageous moves. Oh, and almost everybody is hot af, with a lascivious level of design horniness I’m yet to experience outside of the Marvelous! oeuvre.
“Almost everybody is hot af.” Stick that on your accolades trailer. I double dare ya.
In or out of the bedroom, there is somebody here for everybody, be it the crunchy judoka pressure of Grappler, the airborne, controlled chaos of Swift Master, the meat-and-potatoes rushdown of Striker, or the complex-but-cute shenanigans of my new Goth daughter, Enchantress. In fact, the hardest decision you’ll make in DNF might be picking your main. I still haven’t found my muse, they’re all so interesting.
Word to the wise: You’ll be facing hundreds of Launchers in month one. You think Skullgirls‘ Peacock is a zoning nightmare?.. Launcher makes her look like fucking Zangief.
Speaking of online, the servers are not going live until launch day, and thus I was unable to check them out. I did, however, play the beta earlier this year. And — aside from some initial technical hiccups — I found DNF‘s online smooth and reliable, thanks to the modern powers of rollback netcode. As always with online stability, your own personal experience may vary. Crossplay is, disappointingly, not supported. Here’s hoping that Nexon can add this feature down the line.
Where’s there a Will?
DNF Duel features several modes for single and offline VS. play. There are standard Vs. and Arcade Modes, as well as a Survival Mode. The latter operates much like that of Street Fighter V’s effort, with the player sacrificing score for between-round boosts and upgrades. There is also a full tutorial, as well as the requisite, fully-featured Training Mode, which includes combo trials for all 16 characters.
Story Mode equates to an arcade ladder for each character punctuated by short narrative cutscenes. These sequences afford personality, background, and investment to our cast of heroes as they travel the world in a literal battle of “Wills.” This mode also features some delightful splash art, as well as fan-pleasing cameos from DFO regulars such as busty barkeep Sushia, pirates Captain Luther & Ludmilla, and the beautiful but mysterious celestial being, Nemyr. Yep, more hotties. Hotties everywhere.
While the narrative is a tad rote, the solid voice acting, handy glossary, and healthy sense of humor keep the action ticking along nicely. This engagement does crumble upon meeting the final boss, who suffers from agonizing “button-read” syndrome. Like so many Japanese fighters, you typically waltz your way through to the finale, only to face down a frustrating foe who has miracle defense in close quarters, yet stumbles openly into projectiles at range. It makes for something of an anti-climax.
Eye of the Tiger
DNF Duel has higher ambition than many would give it credit for. By taking an attractive MMO fantasy universe and marrying it to the sublime showdowns of an ArcSys/Eighting fighter, Nexon’s newfound scrapper is headed down the aisle full of vim and vigor, hell-bent on finding its measure of success in a generation chockful of excellent, well-established fighters. But, recalling our intro, it is not enough to “only” be a great fighting game anymore. (And that $50 price tag sure doesn’t help.)
It will be up to the players to take a chance on the underdog, spotlight it at locals, create content, and spread the word. DNF is a solid, exciting, and enjoyable fighter. It’s not the most marketable, nor does it carry the biggest budget, but it has the tools necessary to carve itself a piece of the fighting game pie. I’m telling you that DNF is worth checking out, but, ultimately, the summer season will decide whether the community offers the underdog a foothold. It deserves a place at the table. I hope that it finds one.
With enticing visuals, accessible-yet-deep gameplay, and a roster of varied, exciting characters, DNF Duel rises above its cult branding to offer one of 2022’s most dynamic, explosive slugfests. While its lofty price tag and niche IP might see DNF struggle to get through the ropes, once the bell sounds it easily holds its own against its contemporaries. Time will tell whether this particular entity cracks the scene long-term but, either way, DNF Duel is laser-focused on ensuring its presence is felt… Right on your jaw.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]