Fighting games always have one thing in common, and it’s the question behind the barrier of entry; is it too high, or is it good enough? Some titles like Dragon Ball FighterZ try to circumvent this by adding simpler control schemes or automatic combos at the repeated press of a single button. Where does DNF Duel, the game we’re here to talk about today, fit in this equation? Well, it’s a weird answer.
Let’s talk about game modes for a bit first, though. You have the standard fighting game modes like local versus, online versus, training mode, and Arcade Mode. Story Mode has you pick a character and go through their individual story, culminating in a fight against the Lost Warrior, and beating him unlocks the character for your usage. Character Story modes can take around 15 minutes if you skip all the cutscenes and around 30 if not.
Outside of those, you have a normal Arcade Mode, the game’s tutorial, and a Lore section, which dives into terms, characters, and regions you may see throughout the characters’ Stories; neat information if you have no idea of anything going on, but not really important to game mechanics or anything like that.
Now, the online play. Online play has two modes; Ranked Match and Player Match (there’s no park or social space like Guilty Gear or BlazBlue). Ranked lets you pick the character you queue in with and then allows you to sit there and wait or visit the Training mode to pass the time. There are two things to note here; the first is that, rather than placements or starting from the bottom, you actually pick your starting point between Bronze, Silver, and Gold.
Secondly, and it’s a more annoying side effect of the PC version, if your opponent instantly cancels a match you’ve found, you could be staring at a still image for close to 25 seconds, unable to do anything about it. Thanks to this, I thought my game soft locked and crashed multiple times, and it should be a top priority to fix by the developers in the next update.
Speaking of the PC version. If you’re a gamepad player, you’re probably going to have a bad time depending on your choice of controller. I tried playing DNF Duel with the PlayStation 5 DualSense and the game didn’t even bother detecting it until I used DS4Windows to circumvent the detection issue. I ended up settling for an Xbox Series controller, which was detected just fine.
As for Player Match, you make a lobby, and up to seven players (eight if there’s a spectator) can join your lobby and battle each other without worrying about your Rank going up or down. Room settings include a win limit, who stays on the cabinet after a set, character selection being on or off, and rounds needed to win a game, for example, so there are decent options there.
Now let’s talk about one of the game’s more sizable chunks, the tutorial. DNF Duel’s tutorial is pretty good, all things considered. It isn’t a super long library of text like the BlazBlue games, nor is it exceedingly short like Street Fighter V’s; it strikes a nice balance point. First off, you pick one of the game’s 16 characters, and then the game tells you of its general mechanics (such as the above MP meter and Conversion), movement, and other tidbits, ending in a brief rundown of your character’s special moves and Awakened passive and Awakening Skill (think V-Trigger from SF5 or Instinct Mode from Killer Instinct for the former, and super moves for the latter).
After that, you can choose to go into each character’s combo trials, and these aren’t useless combos, thankfully. For instance, I am a degenerate Troubleshooter main who loves rushing down scrubs with far-reaching MP attacks, and the game has taught me how to use them in my favor. The game does a good job of showing you how to use his mechanics well. Now that we have discussed the tutorial, let’s talk a bit more about the game’s mechanics and inputs.
Mechanically, DNF Duel has traits from various other fighting games that make the experience unique. For one, it handles special moves like a mix of Super Smash Bros. and Granblue Fantasy: Versus; at the tap of a button and a direction, you can unleash various specials, like projectiles, invincible reversals, and advancing attacks, like the former. Where this game does things like Granblue is that you can also input specials normally, gaining a slightly faster MP recharge as compensation.
MP is the big backbone and the most crucial meter that you need to manage as you play. Every special move costs MP to use, as well as a couple of system mechanics (Guard Cancel being one of them). Mismanaging this resource can leave you in Exhaustion status, which prevents meter build and access to these specials and mechanics, meaning you have to consistently choose between dumping everything for max damage or saving some for a favorable wakeup position.
Secondarily, you have your own Health as a resource. There’s a mechanic called Conversion that acts a little bit like a Roman Cancel from Guilty Gear and slows time down upon activation. The cost? Your gray life, which is accrued from taking damage of any kind (hit or block). Special Moves essentially “cash-out” on gray life, dealing all possible gray life as well as its damage in the combo, meaning, if you happen to suffer a guard break (which is another thing), it’s going to hurt a lot.
Guarding has its own meter alongside your MP and Health bars. It’s as simple an explanation as can be; block too much (either normally or with the Mortal Kombat-styled block button), your guard gets broken, and you’re left wide open for your opponent to outright wail on you. Getting your guard broken is quite the disadvantage, so for the low cost of 100 MP, you can use a Guard Cancel to strike through whatever the opponent’s doing. Beware, though, as this can be baited, making you eat a hefty counter hit combo if it’s blocked.
By the way, that gray life can be taken away by any enemy player if you so much as dare to get hit. DNF Duel isn’t a game about mercy as you’re going to see in the later paragraphs and any move that uses MP takes your gray life away. So if you didn’t use it for a conversion, you essentially wasted your entire game.
One last thing to discuss is what happens when you hit 30% health. Once down there, you get your Awakening Effect, a buff to your character that lasts for the remainder of the round. For example, Striker’s Awakening Effect is that her damage is increased by about 10% and her minimum combo damage is much higher.
Once again, DNF Duel has sixteen characters at your disposal (fifteen if you decide not to complete a character’s Story Mode and unlock Lost Warrior). Each character has unique traits that make them different from one another, but there’s a lingering theme here; space control. What I’m getting at is that if your character has great space control, chances are, they might be a good character.
I’m going to be completely blunt for a moment; Did you like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and its chaotic gameplay and nature? If so, you’ll surely like this game, as it rivals the former in its absurdity.
You have characters like Launcher or Ranger who pepper you with projectiles the entire game, being extremely efficient zoners, while there are also characters like Crusader or Vanguard that swing big weapons and big buttons as their space control. There’s even a character named Enchantress, who has a puppet she controls that is its own conversation on how dumb that gets (but she’s hard to play, so I feel she gets rewarded for it).
Lost Warrior, the game’s sole unlockable character, has some really jank shit. He has relatively bad up-close frame data, but his forward special summons three projections of swords that track anywhere on the ground and hit you. He also has a tracking stage-length hit grab that swaps places with his opponent, damages them, and allows him to dash up and convert into damage.
Further still is his unique mechanic. Every time Lost Warrior hits you with a special move, he builds a stack of his unique debuff. What happens when he hits five stacks? You’re completely frozen in place, at the mercy of the Lost Warrior player to do as he pleases. Lost Warrior is also armed with a counter (albeit a not great one) and far-reaching specials, only adding to his absurdity.
Swift Master is another case of absurdly strong capabilities. He has extremely fast mobility (which is only further compounded by his Awakening Effect). Furthermore, he has specials to drag you to him, specials to push you away, a special move that’s a lot like Vergil’s Summoned Swords super in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and he can enhance all of those specials to be tall or wide hitboxes that reach to the top of the screen. Swift Master’s probably one of the game’s top-tier characters. But, honestly, I think the below video can show just how hopelessly broken (yet awesome) this game is.
When you contrast characters like the zoners, Lost Warrior, and Swift Master to a character like Grappler, you notice that the latter has none of these things. His entire gameplan is that he has to make very hard, conditioned reads on his opponent’s mistakes to get in, and if not, well, prepare to be sitting at full screen for very long periods of time. In the event he does get in, Grappler has some of the highest damage cash-out in the game, thankfully, so if you happen to make a mistake against Grappler, it’s going to hurt a lot.
It seems like complete nonsense that Grappler is even in this game, compared to everything else going on here. He has no projectiles to even contest zoning wars; all he has is armor that, if his opponent holds down, can just ignore every single time. He also has bad running speed and a horrendous disadvantage state, meaning, if he ever goes minus, just push him fullscreen and zone him out. He’ll have an extremely hard time getting in, if at all.
Speaking of Hitman, this character easily possesses the most ignorant block strings in the game. It’s literally just (insert anything here) into his forward special to rip through your opponent’s guard gauge. He can loop it without caring half the time if he feels like it, essentially giving him a super cheap way to get guard breaks, and that isn’t even getting into his Awakening Effect.
His unique Awakening Effect is Battle Command, which gives him the follow-up Shattering Strike. Do you know Hitman’s special moves? They now gain a follow-up, even his invincible reversal meant to be very punishable. Now, in Awakening, it becomes a safe-on-block “f*ck it” move that you can just throw out thanks to the follow-up making a normally -28 reversal become -5, pushes you away significantly, and if you happened to get hit? Full crumple state, allowing Hitman to run in and full combo you.
And then there’s Troubleshooter. His space control is definitely meant for the mid-range, but you can pretty much use it as a safe way to rush down opponents. Nobody can challenge him until he essentially gets outranged by characters like the Vanguard. You can also just be an annoying little devil who spams grenade throws and drinks beer because his grenade trajectory is hard to track (since the ‘nade is small).
He can safely jump in while everybody else has to measure their choices, he has a trap that keeps blockstrings going, and he has a huge two-sided DP that makes everyone question why they exist as they are set ablaze. It’s easy to bonk him in the head once you figure out his game plan, but he’s fun to play anyway, so I forgive him. There’s also the fact that he can downright switch between a zoner and a rushdown at will as his 236MP move essentially is a near-full screen barrage of explosive blasts that can be rekka’d and delayed. So, have fun challenging that.
Overall, DNF Duel has interesting mechanical choices and characters. Still, the experience is a little marred by that Ranked Match soft lock (it’s really annoying if it happens multiple times in a row, and it can) and strange balance choices like the above example. The game’s music is also forgettable; there are no character themes, and you’ll just be hearing the same six or seven songs online ad nauseam.
The game, to me, is a cautious recommendation; it’s great because it teaches you how to play the game effectively, its online has good qualities, and the characters all bring something to the table. However, if things like the Ranked Match queue bug and weird balance bother you, you’d be better off waiting for a sale.
The game is absolutely busted, however. There’s no way around it. Every character is powerful in their own right, and everything about them is fun (unless you play Grappler, then it becomes a Survival Horror game). While I think that the game’s meta will be set on who can deal the most damage with as little effort as possible, every casual and hardcore player can jump in without issue.
Undoubtedly, DNF Duel is a natural progression of the easy and accessible mechanics that has become a topic of discussion among fighting game players. Allowing them to freely use motion inputs without having auto combos or high-damaging routes keeps the game flowing at its most fundamental level. And honestly, this is precisely what I always wanted in every game I played in my fighting game history.
Whether or not the game will last depends on how good Nexon, Arc Sys, and every other team involved in DNF Duel’s development is at marketing it. A game like it (Granblue Fantasy Versus) stood no chance once COVID hit, but maybe DNF Duel can be a second hurrah for it. I just hope that it remains as fun and one-sided as it is now.
Reviewed on PC (code provided by the publisher).
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