I mean this in the kindest way possible: DNF Duel is a ridiculous fighting game. With the game coming from anime fighter pioneers Arc System Works and Marvel vs Capcom 3 developers Eighting, DNF Duel has some real fighting game pedigree that should, at the very least, be competently designed. After getting my hands on it, “competently designed” is the tamest way to describe this high-octane gem of a fighting game. DNF Duel prioritises the rule of cool at all times, and beyond the varied cast and smart input designs, it’s just pure, simple fun.
At first glance, it’s hard not to compare this to Granblue Fantasy Versus – another Arc System Works-led fighting game foray into the universe of an absurdly popular overseas online RPG. In the case of DNF Duel, it’s based the South Korean beat-em-up MMO Dungeon Fighter Online, a game that’s one of the highest-grossing entertainment media IPs of all time, let alone video games.
Being a huge Granblue Fantasy fan but a complete novice to the world of Dungeon Fighter Online has made the roads to launch for both of these games such a night-and-day experience. While it was a blast predicting which of my favourite story characters would pop up in Granblue Fantasy Versus, the DNF Duel character roster thrives purely on vibes for me. Rather than bringing in named characters from the lore of the series, every playable character is based on one of the playable classes from the original game, and with 16 base classes that each sport about 4 separate sub-classes and multiple costume/character appearances to each sub-class, there’s a lot to pull from. The game doesn’t skimp, with a 16-character strong day one roster full of varied choices.
DNF Duel shares the same 2.5D cel-shaded aesthetic that recent Arc System Works games have, so every character is rendered in a slick anime-adjacent art style that perfectly blurs the line between 2D and 3D. Even without any prior knowledge of the series, it’s hard not to fall in love with some of these character designs. Characters that seem basic on paper, like the self-explanatory Grappler or the ninjutsu of Kunoichi, have an extra sprinkle of personality to their looks that make them so much more than just the cookie cutter stereotype their names imply. More out there designs like the tiny, evil puppeteer Enchantress or the Ghostblade with a glowing demon-arm and a Stand-style spirit companion just ooze cool to me. Despite each character having origins as a blank-slate player class, they’re all given just enough unique charm and personality in DNF Duel to feel like real, fleshed out heroes and villains.
Once you select your preferred Adventurer and hop into battle, you’ll have to put some time into learning the unique yet surprisingly approachable mechanics of DNF Duel. Like Granblue Fantasy Versus and even upcoming fighters such as Street Fighter 6, DNF Duel aims to invent new solutions to the difficulty of mechanical attack inputs beyond the tried-and-true auto-combo system. In this game, you’ve got two standard attack buttons, a skill button, and an MP skill button. All four inputs have directional variations, but MP skills are particularly powerful attacks that drain your numerical MP meter on use. Your meter recharges over time, but if you manage to drain it to 0, you’ll enter Exhaustion and be without regenerative MP until enough time passes or you land some non-MP attacks. Each MP attack has a simple one-direction input, but if you bust them out with quarter-circle or Z motions instead, they’ll use less MP.
So, here’s the thing. In most fighting games, the idea is that your singular attacks, even with simple-input methods like these, are just kind of okay on their own – outside of a few stellar special attacks, you’ll ideally want to be stringing together multiple buttons to create overwhelming pressure and lengthy combos. DNF Duel is no different in that regard, but what’s very different about this game is that every single button at your disposal is down right ridiculous.
It isn’t just one-button MP attacks that create giant flaming projectiles or homing teleportation rays, your normal attack buttons have some of the wildest properties I’ve ever seen in a big-budget fighting game. Ghostblade can teleport, Ranger can shoot you faster than a frame, and every character equipped with a sword has a standard attack range of “as far as you can possibly imagine a sword reaching, and then double that.” It’s genuinely fascinating and laugh-inducing to explore the wild attacks everyone on the roster is equipped with, and it’s the kind of genuinely jaw-dropping, heart-warming sense of discovery I only experience with bizarre, ironically good niche fighting games.
DNF Duel is so much more than just kusoge-style fighting game cheesiness, though. The mechanics at play beyond your MP meter and simple-inputs encourage a really unique sense of playfulness that most games fail to. With the ability to dodge through attacks or turn white-health into combo-extenders and bonus MP at the press of a button, you’re allowed to act on instinct at every opportunity during battle. The game becomes less about the mental juggling act of remembering your optimal inputs when every input is streamlined without sacrificing efficiency. It creates moments of split-second decision making that lead to some of the most fun fighting game encounters I’ve had all year.
Now, as crisp as the combat is, be prepared to appreciate the game mostly for it’s mechanical prowess and beefy roster if you decide to pick it up. Single player offerings are slim, with each character having a 45-minute long Story Mode with a bunch of brief visual novel vignettes that never really go anywhere. you only need to beat a single character’s story to unlock the secret boss character. He’s the only substantial unlockable in the game, too – there are no bonus character colors, songs, stages, or any other sort of substantial unlocks. You can spend coins on avatars and title-cards for the online lobbies, or on a variety of random promo art within the gallery.
The Rollback netcode ensures that you’ll never have a sour online battle experience, but the identikit arcade room lobby system feels a little out of place and severely underwhelming compared to the many systems and options in Guilty Gear Strive’s online mode. Still, these are minor complaints that fail to detract from the driving force here – DNF Duel is simple, silly, and fun, but with a surprisingly high skill ceiling for those who decide to try and conquer it.