It’s hard not to see the similarities between DNF Duel and 2020’s Granblue Fantasy Versus: they’re both 2D fighters developed by Arc System Works; they’re both based on a franchise that’s wildly popular abroad but not as well-known in North America (in this case, Dungeon Fighter Online); and most notably, they’re both deceptively complex. Simplified controls and a guard button can easily be the death knell for a true competitive fighting game, but ArcSys and 8ing (the team behind Marvel vs. Capcom 3) haven’t added them at the cost of skill. Instead DNF Duel is a game of resource management, patience, and creative problem solving wrapped up in a beautiful package, although it may not be as friendly to newcomers as intended.
DNF Duel joins the growing number of fighting games using simplified inputs to help ease you into its control scheme. Special moves can be performed with only a button press, or a button combined with a direction, but those who go the extra length of using the more traditional quarter-circle motions are rewarded with better resource recharge. It’s nice to have the quick option while still being given a boost for putting in the extra effort, and the simplified inputs mean fights are about understanding what each character’s moveset can really do.
DNF Duel Characters
For instance, the Striker can chain special attacks together in a way that other characters can’t, making her especially adept at continuing pressure and often tricking opponents into thinking they’re safe to counterattack when they’re actually not. Many characters also have invincible reversals on wake up, quick pokes that can be converted into big damage, and gigantic screen filling objects like Inquisitor’s giant wheel or Kunoichi’s fire tornado. These are some truly wild characters with some truly nonsense moves, and much of the difficulty curve consists of learning how to deal with these attacks. Getting beatdown by one gave me concrete goals to lab against in training mode, and a major sense of satisfaction when I didn’t let someone get away with it later. But until you know what to do in a given situation, tying so much of each fight up in learning these tricks can be rough to deal with.
Rather than assigning inputs to a cooldown like Granblue Fantasy Versus, DNF Duel ties your MP Skills and Guard Cancels to an MP meter, with the most powerful screen-clearing moves often consuming the most MP. The twist in this comes from the ability to Convert white damage (the temporary damage you gain from blocking and being hit by less powerful moves) into MP. When you perform a Conversion, it also returns your character to a neutral state, allowing you to chain moves together that normally wouldn’t be possible, or making certain risky moves safe by letting you block when you would normally be punished. Finding creative ways to use my MP and knowing when to Convert my white damage often meant the difference between victory and defeat, and I really liked the flexibility the system offered.
Movement also took me a while to wrap my head around. At first, DNF Duel felt heavy and unwieldy. Although it’s an anime fighter, there’s no air guarding, no double jumps, and no air dashes other than some character-specific moves, so the action stays relatively grounded. There’s also Exhaustion to consider, the state you enter when you run out of MP and your MP specific skills no longer function. Combine that with characters that can harass you from a full screen away and completely lock you down if you’ve used all your MP, and you have a pretty frustrating on-ramp as you learn the systems and roster. But once DNF Duel starts to click and you learn what moves to look out for, when to press a counterattack, and when to bet it all on Conversion, its quick decision making leads to some really fun and satisfying moments where you can take a big risk for a bigger payoff.
Dungeon Fighter Offline
Thankfully, there are a few offline options to help you learn these myriad systems as DNF Duel has several offerings for those who prefer their battles to be solo affairs. The Arcade and Survival Modes are standard fighting game fare, with Survival allowing you to use your accumulated score to make purchases of greater attack power, health recharges, or even things like increased guard crush to break through your opponent’s defenses. The arcade mode is simply a series of eight one-on-one battles, and they can get pretty tough on the hardest difficulty. It was a good way to get familiar with characters and help build my understanding of how to keep myself out of bad situations.
Unfortunately, the DNF Duel Story Mode is fairly dull even by fighting game standards. All of the 15 starting characters have a series of visual novel-like vignettes during which almost nothing interesting happens before they are forced into fighting someone else for the thinnest possible reasons. Each character story can be completed in about half an hour, and other than giving some bare insight into the personalities and relationships among the cast, there’s little reason for completing more than the one needed to unlock a secret character. There is some cool custom art accompanying each story, but you can also unlock those in the gallery for a small amount of the in-game currency you earn by playing various modes.
The training mode options are at least pretty extensive to make up for this, even if the menus required some fiddling around to set the conditions to what I wanted each time. There are gameplay mechanics breakdowns, character-specific tutorials, and combo challenges, all of which were valuable as I learned the ins and outs of each system. I especially loved reading the info panes for every character, as they provide useful insight into how certain moves were intended to be used by the developers.
Dungeon Fighter Online
After the fantastic rollback netcode of Guilty Gear Strive, I went in expecting DNF Duel to play really well online, and thankfully that appears to be the case so far. Most of the matches I’ve played felt smooth, even ones I’ve played against people in Asia despite some rollback frames. Arc System Works once again gets a little too cute with physical lobbies for my taste, working as they do in Dragon Ball FighterZ or Granblue with in-game arcade machines you walk up to in order to join a match, but getting into Player Match rooms is a breeze. You can also set your lobby character, Player Card, slogans, and the information you want displayed for a bit of neat customization after purchasing different options with in-game currency or unlocking them through specific challenges.
"once DNF Duel starts to click … its quick decision making leads to some really fun and satisfying moments…"
While queuing for a ranked match, you can standby in the Training, Tutorial, Arcade, and Survival modes, which is always a nice way to alleviate long queue times since there’s unfortunately no crossplay between the Steam and PlayStation versions. I haven’t had issues queuing yet, but DNF Duel only just released and is a bit of a niche title already, so hopefully the player pool remains active enough that the lack of crossplay doesn’t become a problem.
A Thing of Beauty
DNF Duel continues ArcSys’ trend of having fantastic 2.5D art. If the developer hadn’t cemented itself as the leader in this space after Granblue Fantasy Versus and Guilty Gear Strive, that reputation should be rock solid now as both the characters and the stages are simply gorgeous. Each member of the cast has a distinct look and are easy to differentiate between in the heat of the action – that’s impressive given how incredible they are in motion too, with clothes rustling, colorful effects flying about, and supers that are as unique to their skillset as they are bombastic.
The music doesn’t quite hit the same bar sadly, as it’s mostly unremarkable rock with a few fun highlights here and there. But all of the art, music, and character voice lines can be perused in the gallery mode after you purchase them with in-game currency. There are tons of pieces to go through, and fans of the original DFO should find plenty to love here as well since the art options aren’t limited to just DNF Duel.
DNF Duel’s simplified inputs make it a great game for beginners to pick up, press a few buttons, and get right into the action. However, that simplicity doesn’t mean it isn’t also a great game to play online after you really understand the complex mechanics underneath those inputs and how any two characters interact with one another. Getting from that first point to the second may dissolve into a series of frustrating knowledge checks until you learn the hard way what you can and can’t do, but on the other side of the grind is a fun fighting game with enough hidden depth to hopefully sustain a player base that thrives on continued discovery.