Taking popular free-to-play titles and transforming them into fighting games is becoming a bit of a trend, isn't it? Following in the footsteps of Granblue Fantasy Versus, DNF Duel is based on South Korean action RPG Dungeon Fighter Online. Its character roster is made up of playable classes from the source material — nameless adventurers with specific combat styles. The tone and design of Dungeon Fighter certainly lends itself well to a one-on-one fighter, with a fantastical art direction and over-the-top battle techniques at the heart of the property's identity.
DNF Duel is a cooperative effort from fighting game juggernaut Arc System Works (Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, the aforementioned Granblue Fantasy Versus), and lesser known Japanese developer Eighting, which has had a hand in loads of different projects over the years. There's a lot of experience here, and it shows in how crisp the game feels from the moment that you boot it up.
This will be our third mention of Granblue Fantasy Versus in as many paragraphs, but it's hard to ignore the similarities between the 2020 release and DNF. Both games are designed with accessibility in mind, featuring simple button inputs so that players of all skill levels can pull off crazy techniques without spending hours in training mode. In this case, each character has a bunch of special moves that can be activated by pressing one face button along with one direction. Super moves, which are only made available once your health drops to a certain point, are also tied to a single button. Easy-peasy.
While the importance of approachability is something that's perhaps overblown when it comes to making fighting games more attractive to a wider audience, there's no denying that DNF does a great job welcoming new players into the fray. A decently sized roster — 16 characters at launch — a number of single-player modes, and impressive visuals go a long way in heightening the game's appeal.
What's more, the title nails the most important aspect of all: it just feels great to play. It's not quite as fast paced as some other anime-styled fighters — the lack of an air dash or air block means that you're almost always stuck to the ground — and in that sense, the feel is comparable to titles like Granblue Fantasy Versus (sorry), or even Street Fighter, because of how important spacing seems to be for most of the cast.
Once you land that big hit, though, DNF morphs into a more recognisable anime-infused brawler. Combo pressure is absolutely brutal once you have the momentum and your opponent is trapped in the corner of a stage. We're talking big damage if you're unlucky enough to get clipped by someone who knows what they're doing, and the game's health-sacrificing system makes aggressive play even more oppressive. Indeed, by giving up a chunk of your grey health — that is, health that can be healed back over time — you can continue your combos to the point where your opponent's guard can be crushed, leaving them completely vulnerable.
And then there's the range that most of these characters have. Almost every fighter — whether they wield oversized swords, actual firearms, or both, in one particular case — can cover a huge portion of the screen with their specials and a lot of their normals. This means that matches can become a bit of a fishing fest at times, where both players are standing at range, hitting their safest, longest-reaching buttons in order to find an opening.
Doesn't sound hugely engaging, does it? But again, the game explodes into action once that all-important attack lands, and it should also be noted that each character comes equipped with a forward dodge that grants brief invulnerability. You can use this technique to weave through projectiles or other predictable moves, closing the gap and retaliating from a much more dangerous position.
Although we do have some concerns regarding character balance — even at this incredibly early stage — the bottom line is that DNF is really good fun. There's a satisfying chunkiness to a lot of the attacks, and it's generally fantastic to watch because of Arc System Works' excellent graphics engine.
Our only real worry is the game's overall flow, which, at the time of writing, heavily favours aggressive play. As mentioned, it's easy to get locked into combos that seem to last an eternity — even if you're blocking. There is a reversal mechanic that pushes your aggressor away, but it costs a whole lot of meter, and it doesn't actually give you an advantage in terms of retaliation — it just resets the play, allowing your opponent to restart their offence while you're sitting there with no resources.
The awakened state is a potential problem as well. When you drop below a certain low health threshold, your damage is enhanced, and you gain access to your super attack. Much like the rage mechanic In Tekken 7, this awakened state acts as a comeback tool — a last-chance attempt at turning the tides. Except in DNF, it's so powerful that a full combo, complete with a super move at the end, is enough to melt 90 per cent of a health bar. You can play a perfect game up until that point, and still have victory ripped from your grasp after being touched by a single combo-starting attack.
It's fair to say that this kind of extreme shift in momentum won't be to everyone's taste, and combined with lengthy, relatively accessible combo routes, it cements DNF Duel as one of the most all-or-nothing fighting games we've played in a long time. Again, this is an undeniably fun fighter, but that enjoyment may dwindle when it feels like one hit is all it takes to win or lose.
Fortunately, if you can stomach the aforementioned momentum shifts, the game's online offering is very hard to fault — primarily because its rollback netcode is up there amongst the genre's best. Getting into a ranked match takes almost no time at all, and there isn't an awkward lobby system to contend with. Naturally, connection quality does start to dip if you challenge players from regions afar, but for us, going up against other European competitors felt great for the most part. It's not quite as impressive as Guilty Gear Strive's netcode — which remains the best in the biz — but it's not far off, and you'll be hard pressed to find a match that's unplayable.
Elsewhere, the single-player modes are solid. Story mode gives every fighter their own storyline, depicted through nicely drawn stills, dialogue between characters, and fairly easy battles. The plot's typically convoluted and the writing certainly isn't going to win any awards, but it does help inject each character with some personality. Meanwhile, if you're looking for straightforward action, you can try the eight-match arcade mode, or survival. The tutorials are decent as well; each character has their own strategic overview alongside combo trials.
DNF Duel is an approachable, explosive fighting game. Although it doesn't quite stand out from the crowd in terms of having an instantly recognisable style, it's great fun to actually play — at least when you're the one attacking. Crazy combos, a cool character roster, and a nice selection of game modes makes for an appealing package. We have concerns over the game's hyperaggressive gameplay flow, but with great online netcode backed by what is hopefully decent post-launch support, DNF Duel could be a surprise hit for the genre.