Review : DnF Duel : Fighter & Fighter

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A little over a decade ago, fighting games were nearly extinct in the eyes of the average gamer. It was a far cry from the heyday of the fighting game bliss in the 1990’s, where every gamer played them and fighting games were king. Since then, other genres took up the mantle of competition, leaving fighting games niched in relative obscurity. But then a resurgence occurred, bringing more eyes onto the genre. Developers brought more quality, and players took note. One of the developers that was paramount in lifting the genre back into contention again was Arc System Works.

Arc System Works, known for the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series of fighting games, also dabbled in several other projects, including Dragonball FighterZ, Persona 4 Arena, and Granblue Fantasy: Versus. These games were are all very high quality fighters, propelling Arc System Works to the top of the most desired developers in the fighting game community. Each new project helmed by the Arc System Works development team garners instant attention, and so it was when DnF Duel was announced.

The start of a beautiful duel.

At first glance, DnF Duel looks like it could be mistaken for Guilty Gear Xrd or Strive, utilizing very similar styles for art, animation, and flair across its 2.5D stages of battle. Diving into it, however, the results seem much more akin to a hybrid of Guilty Gear and Granblue Fantasy: Versus. The gameplay is a bit slower than even Guilty Gear: Strive, which slowed its gameplay a tad from the Xrd games. However, it is faster-paced than Granblue, mixing in the MP (Magic Point) system from that game while instilling some of the pizzazz from Guilty Gear. After sprinkling in some unique features, DnF Duel is a fighter that’s instantly comfortable, yet unique enough to warrant its own seat at the table.

That seat was a surprise, as DnF Duel seemed to come out of nowhere. Publisher Nexon, via its subsidiary Neople, created the MMO beat ’em up Dungeon & Fighter. While that game saw some success in other markets, it was basically a niche game outside of Korea, Japan, and China. As such, seeing that Arc System Works would be developing a fighting game based on Nexon’s MMO beat ’em up, created nearly two decades ago, was quite the surprise. Viewing early art and gameplay, however, and knowing Arc System Works’ pedigree, it seemed that the fighting game community was in good hands.

The art is incredible.

Turning the game on and witnessing the intro animation immediately shows the care put into this project. Rummaging through the main menu directly after, it is apparent that the Arc System Works blueprint is in full effect. The Online Mode offers Player Match, where you can join or create rooms to battle in casual affairs. When you’re ready to step it up, there is also the Ranked Match option, where you’ll be ranked and situated accordingly. Between matches, there is a Ranking menu where you may compare your statistics with those of your friends and the world.

When not online, you may play a slew of offline modes via the Local Mode menu, which offers Free Battle, Story Mode, Arcade Mode, and Survival Mode. Free Battle is where the party is at, choosing characters and stages, and then battling your friends in the room, or CPUs of your choosing, until the wee hours of the morning. Arcade Mode delivers the arcade experience, presenting a gauntlet of eight stages, with the eighth stage being the boss. Survival Mode offers three courses, each presenting a number of stages (15, 30, and 100) needing to be completed in a row in order to reach the end of the course.

Many exciting modes await.

Then there is Story Mode. This works in a fashion reminiscent to BlazBlue’s Story Mode, but without the “choose your own adventure” aspects found in BlazBlue. You choose your character, and each has their own story which interweaves among the others. Without needing to choose your path beyond your character, the story delivers a focused tale that is decently engaging, but without some of the whimsy and character found in BlazBlue’s efforts. It provides a good number of hours, especially if you want to do each of the fifteen character’s stories, leading to a sixteenth one (no spoilers here: this character’s silhouette appears on the character select screen, but I’ll say no more).

As you play in the various modes, you’ll earn Gold which you may spend to unlock things in various places, including the Collection menu. Here, you’ll find the Player Profile, allowing you to customize your player card. There’s the Replay Library, allowing you to view up to one hundred of your previously saved match performances. A Glossary will get you familiar with the terms in the story, including a nice touch incorporated from Granblue wherein you can view these terms as they appear during the story. And then there is the Gallery, which offers illustrations, movies, and a neat Sound Gallery that allows you to hear every tune and voice sample from the game.

There are many places to spend your gold in the Gallery.

Before diving into any of this, however, it is likely you’ll want to take some time studying up in the Practice Mode. It is here that you’ll learn the basics for every character, and it does a terrific job explaining how each move works and the situations to best utilize them. Across all of the fighting game developers, no one does this as well as Arc System Works, and getting into DnF Duel is so much easier for new players, and fun, because of this incredible resource. You’ll find yourself enjoying the time you put into Practice Mode, and you’ll really enjoy seeing the fruits of your efforts on the field of battle.

Jumping into the battlefield, let’s go over what is new, what is familiar, and what works or doesn’t. First, this is very much an Arc System Works fighting game, and as mentioned earlier, it initially appears highly reminiscent of the Guilty Gear Xrd and Strive games. The animation is mind-bendingly good, and the detail in every frame is staggering. I dare say that DnF Duel actually animates even more smoothly than Strive, which is saying something! The stages are also a delight to behold, with great art and fantastic details in each, along with exciting and memorable music.

Spirit of the fight.

When the fighting begins, the unique characteristics of DnF are quickly noticed. When you take damage, it is either red or white, and the utilization of this system runs through the core of the game’s mechanics. Red damage represents health that is gone for good, but white damage may be regained over time. Getting hit by a special move, however, will convert any white damage to red, depleting it instantly. Instead of healing any white damage, however, you may instead press your conversion button which converts any white damage into a corresponding amount of MP, or magic points.

Each character has a certain amount of magic points which recharge over time, and every special move uses a specific amount of the MP gauge. When the MP gauge is depleted, that character becomes “exhausted,” and an amount of time relative to MP overuse must be waited out in order to regain MP and use special moves again. Being able to convert white damage into instant MP can negate that penalty, allowing for utility and combos that otherwise were not possible. It’s a high risk gamble with a great reward, especially as the white damage bar increases.

Manage this…

Managing these meters and resources has further nuance added with each of the characters’ unique aspects and abilities. In DnF Duel, each character has no name, instead being referred to as their corresponding character class from the Dungeon & Fighter MMO. As such, you choose from the likes of “Dragon Knight,” “Berserker,” and “Ghostblade,” among many others, lending that RPG feeling to the character selection process. Each feels unique, bringing very specific move sets, along with their own Awakening Effect and Skill.

Should your character reach thirty percent of their health or less, they enter an “Awakened” state. During this state, two things happen. First, that character’s passive Awakening Effect takes place, introducing a trump card that can change the tide of battle, such as reducing the time that MP begins its recharge or allowing specials to cancel into each other. Second, the character’s Awakening Skill becomes usable.

I have the power!

Awakening Skills are over the top, insanely powerful moves that can take off more than half of an opponent’s health, should they connect. These are a sight to behold, freezing the action for an animation spectacle that results in the pulverizing of an opponent and a lot of salty tears. The balance of this is that it is all or nothing. Once the button is pressed, you are locked in, and if the move misses or gets blocked, it cannot be used again.

Due to the overwhelming power of the Awakening Skills, I could see them being off-putting to some who might call their implementation a cheap gimmick that can punish the player who worked to put a player in an Awakened state in the first place. Of course, each player has access to an Awakening Skill, so there is balance in that way, too, but I see them as a more unique implementation of a comeback system similar to the Samurai Shodown series. In that series, a player getting pummeled has their attack damage increased, and characters can become ridiculously powerful. With DnF’s Awakening Effects and Skills, the matches can feature comebacks, but skill and situational understanding are very much involved in the process.

Swift Beating.

A couple of interesting nuances in DnF’s systems will interest the true fighting game fans among you. First, there is a block button, and you may also press backward to block, bringing the best of both worlds as options. While the block button can better shield against cross-ups, there is a greater block delay than pressing back to guard, so the best choice must be implemented. However, that block button can also be used during a dash, allowing for instant stop, as opposed to the few frames of vulnerability that normally come at the end of a dash. Skilled players will be using this in their footsie efforts, allowing for some impressive ins and outs.

Something else that is peculiar is the move sets themselves. This game fills the screen with massive moves, and until you get your bearings around each character, it can get overwhelming when moves that seemed relegated to 3-bar specials in other fighting games are spammed in succession. All can be blocked, and these typically are the moves that deplete the MP gauge, but it can be jarring when facing them at first when not understanding the mechanics, and the ebb and flow of the game.

No one can avoid the wheel of time.

Another nuance is one that will be controversial for many in the fighting game community: all overheads are aerial. There are absolutely no ground overheads in the game, meaning 50/50s entirely from the ground aren’t possible with overheads. While that could sound like a strange, or even terrible, thing, remember that every fighting game doesn’t need to do things the same way. 50/50s are still possible via throws, which have a more generous range than some other fighting games to compensate. Also, aerial overheads often have knockdown effects, nullifying roll techs, which gives the player that landed it the opportunity to start a new 50/50 based on an aerial overhead, tap throw, fake-out meaty to low, or several other creative options.

So while I understand that some will not like the slower pace and the deviations from what is usually the norm, I found DnF’s systems very refreshing, and quite reminiscent to Granblue Fantasy: Versus. It won’t be to everyone’s liking, but it doesn’t have to be. These systems are not negatives on their own, they’re just different than other fighters.

Which will be your favorite?

However, some balancing issues, along with a few other blemishes, do hinder the experience. Due to the unique aspects of the white and red damage, along with a reliance on relatively safe moves that still cover a lot of space, there are a few characters that can wreak more havoc than what they should. Some, like Vanguard, Crusader, and Launcher, have safe moves that control an insane amount of space. Others, like the Grappler, have a much higher skill-gap for proper utilization. Now, in the hands of skilled players that understand each character, that balance is more aligned, but without a deep knowledge of the game’s characters and systems, certain fighters will absolutely destroy others until a few tough lessons are learned.

Another issue is the small amount of stages. At the time of this review, there are a grand total of 8 stages. They are fantastically detailed, and they’re varied, but it’s a very small number. Even Street Fighter II had 12 different stages, and that was quite some time ago. Variety is always nice, so it is a bummer to see only eight.

Dodge this.

A few other issues round out the negativity round-up. There is no English dubbing, and given that there is a story mode with a lot of dialog, it’s even more of a letdown. Also, the arcade mode has no endings; there is just a breakdown of your final score, and then it’s over. Endings are all relegated to the Story Mode.

And speaking of Story Mode, a personal complaint of mine comes from the fact that there is no other mode outside of it which utilizes the unique brand of Dungeon & Fighter. I’m glad that we get a story, but after seeing games like Granblue Fantasy: Versus implementing an RPG mode featuring loot, character levels, and other RPG commodities, or even BlazBlue’s Abyss Mode or Guilty Gear’s M.O.M. mode (which has been sadly absent from Strive), it’s a shame that some kind of implementation of a mode like this doesn’t appear in DnF given the property’s roots.

Story time!

Still, the most important part of a fighting game isn’t all of these other things, it is the actual fighting system and gameplay. As I’ve stated in other articles, purchasing a fighting game is akin to purchasing a chess set. All of the other modes and trappings help; they add value, but it’s not why you made the purchase. Is DnF Duel fun to play? Is it a good fighter that has it where it counts?

I cannot imagine someone playing DnF Duel and not having fun. It is extremely polished with great net code for its online offerings. The fighting system feels fresh, and it puts the focus on footsies and quality openings, making head games more reliant than guessing games. While it doesn’t feature some sort of RPG mode, it DOES have a Story Mode which spins an interesting yarn across all of its characters. The controls are tight, there is great variety in the characters, the music is energetic and fitting, the art and animation are top-notch, and the overall package is polished with great presentation. It’s a game that will have you losing track of time as you play, especially with old friends or new ones found online. DnF Duel proves that publisher Nexon was wise to place their trust in developer Arc System Works, because they know the art of fighting game duels better than absolutely everyone else. Who’s next?

Final Verdict: 8.5

Fun Factor: 9.5
Technical Prowess: 9
Time Investment: 10+ hours
Replayability: 10

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By Patrick Shields

I love the outdoors as well as the indoors, and when I'm not gaming, writing, or being musical, you can find me outside, climbing trees and getting lost off the road less traveled. It is a known fact that I've been blessed with the greatest kids in the world and an incredible wife who is an awesome nurse and my superhero. I've played games on nearly every system ever made and regularly go back to the classic games that helped raise this fine fellow. When asked which system or computer I prefer, there's only one answer: yes.

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