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DNF Duel Review: An absurd fighter that pulls no punches

Certainly one of the wildest fighting games we've seen in a while.

It’s a chaotic moment in the world of fighting games right now. These games, typically at their best when played next to some other tryhard at a weekly tournament at some bar with cheap pints, or at a packed, sweltering hotel conference room filled with PS4s and a few CRTVs buzzing away desperate for death, were ripped away from those environments. The Fighting games genre was hit hard by the pandemic, and only now as DNF Duel releases is the scene returning to something approaching business as usual.

An adaptation of the hugely popular MMO action RPG Dungeon Fighter Online, Arc System Works is back at it again bringing a popular IP to a shiny 2D stage. The difference this time around is that it’s working in collaboration with Eighting - the developer behind Marvel vs Capcom 3 - which will perk the ears of those who like intense, madcap fighters.

DNF Duel is launching in an ideal release window, between the big hitters of 2021 and the oncoming giants expected next year like Street Fighter 6 and Project L. It’s coming at a time when the core players are dying to grab some games and flex their skills with friends and the wider world.

Watch the DNF Duel launch trailer here

DNF Duel - like every other game in its genre - is all about punching, kicking, stabbing, and shooting the other player until either you or your opponent's life bar hits zero. However, DNF Duel does have some interesting quirks to split it up from the pack. Simplified inputs is the first you’re likely to run into and has become somewhat of a defining trait for modern releases. In short, special moves that had previously required a level of dexterity in the past to pull off consistently and in an instant can now be done with a simple mono-directional input and a button press. So long quarter-circle punch for fireballs - now it’s just forward plus the special button.You can still opt in to those legacy inputs though - and doing so offers slight advantages that can build up in importance as a match goes on. This creates this nice situation where beginners can keep things simple, while those with a mind for efficiency can opt to take on the extra effort.

In terms of the attacks at your disposal, you have light, heavy, special and MP skills. The latter of which is the main consumer of your character’s MP bar - a constantly recharging resource that you'll want to keep an eye on as you play. You can also use it to extend combos, making it central to intermediate play and up. Depleting it completely forces you into an exhaustion state - unable to use MP for a short time - which significantly limits your options and makes you look like a bit of a mug.

DNF Duel features mechanics that initially appeal to those who want to avoid the looming barrier to entry that fighting games have a reputation for, but possess that depth that keeps games alive years down the line. Easy to input moves and recharging resources tempt newbies in and let them have fun, before slowly and subtly encouraging them to start digging into the more complicated side of the game. It’s a practice we’ve seen Arc System Works refine with releases like Granblue Fantasy Versus in the past, and it’s managed to implement it excellently here. It puts players on the slow ladder to improvement, likely without many of them realising it.

If that all sounds a tad dull for you, as a longtime fan of the genre, don’t worry. When it comes to one-on-one action, DNF Duel is probably the stupidest fighting game released in a while.This is probably its greatest strength. Each of the game’s sixteen launch characters (a damned respectable figure for day one by the way) is jam packed with absolute nonsense. It feels as though the team behind DNF Duel looked at each fighter as an opportunity to push each character archetype to its limits. This could have easily resulted in a mess of a game, with vast chasms in quality between the cast. However, having mucked around with each, I think they managed to strike a fine balance between unbridled gameplay and a baseline of fairness.

Take the Grappler - whose play style is as their namesake suggests. Super close range, generally short-ranged attacks but with a couple of longer distance special moves that leave them open for counter attacks if thrown out haphazardly. You’ve also got some devastating grabs that can lead to big damage. Classic grappler stuff - anything your typical Zangief player could get behind.

The Grappler charge in DNF Duel
An armoured charge is invaluable for the Grappler.

But then you’ve got an air grab, the ability to charge special moves for additional damage and effects, and an air grab that snatches opponents off the ground if you get the timing right, and this otherwise traditional member of the cast becomes the walking, talking dream for anyone who considers themselves a fan of that kind of character. What’s amazing is, compared to the rest of the cast, he’s one of the tamer choices.

Swift Master has some disgusting, rancid avenues of attack as an aerial-based attacker, able to keep you guessing where the next hit is going to come from. The Crusader is a big burly bruiser, able to put up walls and slam you relentlessly with huge swings and vertical beams of light. The Enchantress is a puppet character - literally - through moving and hitting buttons you control both your fighter and a small bear at the same time. This means with the right positioning, you can hit from two directions at once. Arc also gave her a powerful special grab which temporarily stops enemies from blocking if hit. What on earth were the team thinking? The result is a game that will rip a smile from you on the regular, and have you consistently blown away by what each character can pull out of nowhere when in the right hands.

What this means is DNF Duel is incredibly fun to play casually with both players slapping buttons and not thinking too hard, intensely engaging if you’re willing to sit down and decipher the science behind the game’s untamed ferocity, and a hilarious spectator title. You’ll be seeing videos of DNF Duel combos on Twitter and community hubs for months, some of which will look straight up bizzare. Hell, some guys in New York got the game a week ahead of time and are already posting electrifying combos and vile mixups. I have no doubt in my mind that people will be having a blast with this game for a while - and that it’ll have an invigorating tournament life.

In terms of what game modes are on offer with DNF Duel, it’s less extraordinary. The game comes with a selection of four single-player modes, ranked and unranked online matches, your typical slew of tutorials and training options, and a gallery featuring a range of art from both this game and Dungeon Fighter. That is in line with what you could expect from a modern fighting game release these days - where the multiplayer component acts as the main draw 10, 20, or 1000 hours down the line. However, that’s not to say the offline in DNF Duel is worth disregarding entirely.

The story mode is the obvious first stop for anyone with a history in Dungeon Fighter and a love for the worldbuilding, characters, and narrative that’s been written and expanded over the years. In it, you can choose one of the cast and follow their journey across multiple worlds and brawls in a short individual experience that lasts around 45 minutes per character. With fifteen character stories available, that's around eleven hours of total content for you to play through - in which you’ll get a healthy mix of one-on-one fights, text-based dialogue between characters, and the occasional gorgeous piece of artwork.

It’s not exactly the most substantial offering we’ve seen from single-player story modes, clearly meant to act as both an introduction to the world of Dungeon Fighter while also popping in the occasional hint or nod to places or people fans of the IP will be familiar with, but that’s largely it. As someone not entirely familiar with the world, glossary prompts through this mode did help connect some dots on topics that weren’t fleshed out too much, but frankly there’ll still be moments where the game will refer to something like“The Order” as if it’s a big deal, and you’ll kind of shrug and continue shuffling through the chitchat. It’s clear this wasn’t meant to be the newfound best way to indulge yourself in the narrative tied to Dungeon Fighter, so if you’re looking for something deep for this setting your best bet would be jumping back into the MMO. That being said, you do need to complete it at least once to unlock the full cast, so you’ll be forced to experience it yourself.

The in-game glossary in the DNF Duel story mode
The Glossary does come in handy at points for those not read up on the Dungeon Fighter story.

You’ve also got an arcade mode, so older players can pretend we’re still in the ‘90s, although jokes aside as far as arcade modes go it’s a fairly competent one with eight stages per run and options to pick out your next fight providing an ounce of choice for players to mess around with. If that doesn’t have you hot and bothered there’s also a survival mode! Here you can pick between three courses with 15, 30, and 100 fights respectively which get harder and harder the further you push through. I won’t beat around the bush here, I didn’t manage to finish off 100 stages; I got to around 30 before I got bogged down by the process. Thankfully, due to a sort of auto-save feature between each fight my progress isn’t lost, which will come as good news to those who aim to topple that particular challenge.

When it comes to online multiplayer, rollback netcode is present and damn is it good here. Matches from the UK to as far as New York City are great and I experience no game-ruining skips or desyncs.This for many is the most important aspect of the game and it was relieving to see it implemented well here. This ensures that players who love DNF Duel will be able to play high quality matches with each other regardless of distance, which is crucial for the long term value of the title. Plug in an ethernet cable and it’s smooth sailing.

In terms of other offerings in DNF Duel, you’ve got the gallery, which is essentially a collection of original art from Dungeon Fighter and DNF Duel. This, obviously, is one for the super fans. One thing I’m not sure about is the gold requirement to unlock entries in this hoard of official art pieces. Why lock them away? This in-game currency isn’t used for anything else in the game aside from online avatars. The crowd who’ll want to see all the art are most likely those who are already planning on investing a lot of time in the game, so for everyone else it’s funfair prize bucks. Good to swap in for a little prize every now and again after you play a few games but useless once you walk out the door.

DNF Duel gallery art
Some of the art, especially the older stuff, is quite interesting to take a gander at.

DNF is a perplexing cocktail of well implemented accessibility options that make it pleasing to the senses on the initial sip. Keep drinking, and you’ll be confronted with a bewildering mix of intense flavours that will surprise everyone, hit the spot for some and revolt others. Drink deeper still and you see the full depth of the glass - with subtle tones that you can spend hours figuring it out.

In an industry slowly and often clumsily stomping towards some nebulous washed out esports future where it feels as though all games must be perfectly balanced with big bucks competitive gaming in mind, I’m happy that some developers like Eighting and Arc System Works remain willing to make games that are still a little jank, still a little busted. DNF Duel is unapologetic - and a lot of fun. For Dungeon Fighter fans this is obviously a great purchase, for fans of the genre the same thing goes.

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