DNF Duel PC Review

A new fighting game that involves Arc System Works at the helm is no longer all that surprising with the number of different fighting games the studio has released over the last few years. They have been busy-bodies bringing titles like Guilty Gear Strife, Dragon Ball FighterZ and Granblue Fantasy Versus. The latest property is related to Dungeon Fighter Online, a beat ‘em up online RPG that is over 15 years old. I was surprised by the announcement, as the South Korean title is old in relation to video game years. It sounds like the IP holders, Neople, a subsidiary of Nexon, are wanting to branch out Dungeon Fighter Online into other genres. Who better to help with that than Arc System Works? And in conjunction with Eighting, the two teams are co-developing this new fighting game, which is packed full of flare and style, so let the seeds of volition begin and bring forth this new challenger to enter the ever-growing fighting game genre.

I often start reviews about their story, but with fighting games, this can be a little strange, because not all developers treat their single-player experiences equally or care much for a good story. Offline content has become a thing that can define a successful launch for a fighting game. There are arguments for and against this since at the end of the day, a fighting game is about the one vs. one action and if that is fantastic then it should not matter about the content of the game. The issue with that is not everyone is super hardcore into fighting games, so those people would like to get through content when playing solo so that they feel value from the game they purchased.

Included content in DNF Duel is what I would imagine most people would expect to be the standard for the genre. There is Free Battle that enables action against the computer or local friends on the same platform. Next is Arcade mode with three difficulties (Normal, Expert, Slayer), which tracks its own high score, which is then also tracked uniquely for each of the game’s 16 fighters. Arcade mode features eight fights, with the option to pick between two opponents after each round, like the arcade mode in Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Survival is self-explanatory, allowing players to challenge their abilities against a wave of 15, 30 or 100 fighters to see how far they can reach. This is again tracked for each individual character. Survival does have a twist in that after each round the player can use their current score to purchase items from the shop that can help increase stats, such as attack and defence, while other items can increase health recovery. These stats are based on a level percentage, which can be looked up against the next opposition to see which statistics your character is stronger or weaker against. This little addition makes the Survival mode more engaging than if it was simply about fighting until health was depleted.

The last bulk of the single-player content is the Story mode, in which 15 of the 16 characters – the 16th character, who is the boss of the game, must be unlocked by beating story mode with one character – have a nine-chapter arc to playthrough. This is done in a barebones way, so unlike NetherRealm Studios’ flashy cinematic story modes, the one featured in DNF Duel is more the typical standard, a sort of visual novel with fights in between these static character portraits and voiced dialogue, although not English, but Korean, which is where the original IP was created. Fans of Dungeon Fighter Online will probably get a kick out of the general story for DNF Duel. Having never played Dungeon Fighter Online, I have no attachment to anything related, so to me the story was simply a gateway for getting people to fight each other, and collect each fighter’s Battle of Will while travelling through portals to meet new opposition. It gives each character a backstory and a reason to fight, but that’s all I felt going through the game’s story mode.

The more interesting aspect of DNF Duel is its fighting and mechanics. DNF Duel is one of those games that wants to not just be for professional fighting game players, but for casual players as well, because the publisher is expecting fans from Dungeon Fighters Online to cross over into DNF Duel. To do this, the control system is less complex than a few other fighting games and compared to Arc System Works’ other titles, this is the one that feels more streamlined. Even so, this game exhibits some of the loudest, fastest and flashiest combos going, thanks to the exaggeration of moves that these characters bring over from Dungeon Fighters Online.

Four buttons make up the command inputs, a light attack button, a heavy attack button, a skill button and an MP skill button. Those latter two are interesting, as skill attacks, which would be special moves in a game like Street Fighter, are a combination of a direction and the button, using simplistic controls to perform the moves, similar to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. MP skills are the same, but due to using an MP metre, there is an option to use traditional inputs, which means the MP starts to recover sooner than if a simple command was inputted. There is no option to select the control standard, so both are available during the match, using the input to determine how the MP skill was activated. It makes for a fascinating inclusion, but it gives the pros an incentive to perform the command inputs, but standard players can still do the same flashy moves and not be handicapped that much. For some characters, such as Grappler, I used simple inputs, as I felt more comfortable performing them during the combos.

Speaking of characters, the ones here are named after classes rather than unique names. These fit their playstyle. Berserker is all about offence, being a rushdown monster that can power up due to a frenzied state. Grappler…well he grabs, being able to grab people on the ground or out of the air, and even gain armour so that he can take a hit while getting in close. Striker is a combo machine, able to cancel specials into specials until all her MP has drained. It’s a scary thing when in the corner, as she is swift as well, enabling her to dash or dive her way in quickly to start a scary long combo.

There is clearly a focus on the skills and MP skills in DNF Duel, as both light and heavy attacks do not have normal variations, nor do they have any auto combo mechanics in place, which is often there when a game wants to make it easy for people. What I mean by a focus on skills over normals is that apart from being in the air or crouching, those attacks do not change. Often, characters can change their normal by pressing a direction, such as turning an attack into an overhead, but every character in DNF Duel only has six normals to attack with, while their skill buttons come up to at least 10. I haven’t seen a game that has such a clear focus on the special moves as DNF Duel and that helps it feel refreshing; this makes every character appear overpowered.

There are some subtle elements of DNF Duel which add strategy to the game. One of these is the health bar displaying both red and white health. Red damage is what you would normally expect, it is damage taken but cannot be recovered. White damage on the other hand appears when hit by any move that is not the MP skill attack. These moves still deal a little red damage but more white damage. White damage is recoverable, but the issue with white damage is that if hit by an MP skill, then that white damage turns into red damage. This can suddenly strip a player of a huge amount of health. White damage can also be used in a mechanic called conversion, which will remove the white health but give a certain amount of MP depending on how much was converted. Conversion also cancels a move, so with the gained MP, the player could reset a combo and use the additional MP for more damage. MP can also be used to Guard Cancel at the cost of 100, a standard full bar, and will push the opponent far away to help with pressure situations. Pressure is unreal when you are in the corner and trapped with block stun, so this feature is a godsend.

One final mechanic of the game is Awakening, which triggers when a character falls under 30% of their health. Awakening is a powered-up state, where each character has their own bespoke trait. Berserker begins to regain 20% of damage dealt as health, Launcher deals double white damage on characters that block, Grappler reduces white damage taken while guarding by 80%, and last but not least, Striker increases all her damage by 10%. The Awakening state also enables Awakening Attack, the game’s take on a Super/Ultra combo moves. These do high damage through a flashy cutscene, but once the move has happened, the player’s character returns to normal, losing their Awakening state, so ideal, these are used to end a combo and finish off an opponent. A nice feature is that there are tutorials dedicated to the mechanics, even to the point of breaking down each character’s awakening buffs, plus, each character gets their own combo trials and challenges to complete; the training mode included is decent for newcomers. Will DNF Duel turn casuals into pros? Highly unlikely, as the pros will still be the ones using the best-optimised combos and maximum use of MP, but at least the game lets casuals perform flashy moves at the push of a button that makes them feel they are doing awesome.

DNF Duel feels as if the developers did not want this to be another standard fighter, but instead uphold the IPs’ over-the-top gameplay and translate that into a fighting game. This means that everything is loud and in your face, which might not suit some people who want a bit more down-to-earth fighting game. DNF Duel is a baiting game on who can trigger the first hit and get that combo flowing. The Awakening state, buffs and moves help add a comeback mechanic to the game, so it is never truly over until that KO hits. There are some broken moments for sure, times where you think the character is busted, but I imagine every player is saying that about every character they came into battle with. There are some infinities in the game, so a patch will be needed to balance some of this out, but I do wonder if the game will stay in this ridiculous state because it is nice to have such a game that does not take itself as serious as some of the staple fighting games. I do not think DNF Duel will be a massive hit in the same vein as Tekken – it’s already missing the main stage at Evolution 2022 – but it could end up being a game that fans play for entertainment above anything else.

When it comes to online play, Arc System Works’ previous game, Guilty Gear Strife, was known for bringing some of the best netcode in the genre, offering amazing online play thanks to the use of rollback netcode. I can confirm that DNF Duel continues this success, and without the bizarre lengthy server login that plagues Guilty Gear Strife. Out of the 100+ matches I had during the review period, only maybe 2 felt laggy, the rest felt exceptional. I was impressed with how the developers managed to make the connection appear smooth when playing people in America from the United Kingdom in Guilty Gear Strife, and again this is the same experience in DNF Duel. I was playing on the PC version for the review and with that in mind, there seemed to be a decent number of players, so waiting for matches was short.

Disappointingly, once again, Arc System Works has not implemented crossplay with the console games to keep the player count high, so I do not know how long an active player base will last on the PC compared to people playing it on their PlayStation or Xbox consoles. Online has two modes, Ranked and Player, with Ranked having a basic ranking system where successful wins will push you up the tiers. The Player match is jumping into lobbies as avatars and finding other players to fight against, who sit next to arcade cabinets waiting for opponents to challenge them. Nothing amazing in features, but the near-perfect net code is what helps make the online a joy to play.

There is not much more to say about DNF Duel. The game does not push the genre forward, but what is here is an exceptionally fun fighting game that is slightly cheaper than full price. Its visuals are great, the combat is ridiculous, exciting and entertaining, the characters all feel bespoke and broken, and the mechanics, while not the deepest, have layers to them. This helps DNF Duel hold the interest of serious fighting game players, while not making the casual player suffer. Amazing online netcode is just the icing on the cake for this eccentric fighting game, a title that will most likely be remembered for the insanity that is ensured to happen in every match.

8 out of 10