As the flurry of high quality 2D anime-style fighting games continues to flow from Arc System Works, it looks like Neople’s and Nexon’s DNF Duel is next in line to wet our appetites for the time being. While the more hardcore audiences that games like Blazblue or older Guilty Gear games tend to cater to might not immediately appreciate DNF Duel‘s comparatively simpler approach to the genre, I suspect the fun characters, solid story mode, and outstanding, chef-kiss level presentation are likely to make up for that for most.
Of the several offline modes that you can play, the story mode will probably be the one you gravitate towards first. Story content is presented in a few different ways; from some beautifully animated cutscenes that bookend each character’s story, to simple still images with dialogue, and some comic book-style frames that overlap and shift around, to more standard RPG style sequences with static characters that move in and out above a main dialogue box. The latter of which has an odd feel to it as some characters are still images while the more important characters are actually animated with different poses and expressions.
These different styles are all done well enough, but switching around between them on such a whim can be a bit jarring aesthetically and can make the story mode feel a little thrown together at times. And it is undeniably weird seeing a fully animated character model cycling through their idle animation while talking to a completely static 2D image. A small gripe, but a gripe nonetheless. Even though most of the stories seem to share major beats with each other, with characters and events being introduced at largely the same times regardless of who you play, the dialogue that does unfold for each version of it is well written and makes them all feel distinct enough from each other that it’s worth playing through them all – if for nothing else than for some good practice before you jump online.
"While the more hardcore audiences that games like Blazblue or older Guilty Gear games tend to cater to might not immediately appreciate DNF Duel‘s comparatively simpler approach to the genre, I suspect the fun characters, solid story mode, and outstanding, chef-kiss level presentation are likely to make up for that for most."
Something that might repel more seasoned players a bit is that the story mode is firmly on the easy side, but for those looking for a challenge, the survival mode does deliver an incrementally harder series of single-round bouts that will eventually provide a challenge for just about any skill level. Here, in between matches, you can cash in your points and purchase more health, increased attack power, faster recharge speed for the MP gauge, and a handful of other things that can keep you going against the increasingly difficult AI. The staying power this mode provides makes it feel like the crown jewel of the game’s offline offerings as it will certainly have longer-term appeal than the much more straightforward story and arcade modes.
The fighting itself is a rather friendly and recognizable set of systems to get into. The guard gauge and MP gauge correspond to your effectiveness at blocking and special MP attacks respectively. Both gauges gradually fill back up as long as you take breaks from using them, and the cap for MP also goes up as your health goes down. Once your health is low enough and your cap is totally gone, you then have the ability to dish out devastating awakening attacks that cue a unique over-the-top cutscene of your character completely demolishing the opponent in their own way.
It’s a solid system that’s immediately understandable and easy to keep track of, and actually managing everything is a fun back and forth on top of mastering the combat itself. Your ability to dish out more spectacular and devastating attacks increasing as fights enter their final – and most crucial – moments is a winning formula that many similar fighters have used to great effect over the years, and it’s no different here. You also have an equally familiar set of rules when it comes to damage, where, depending on the type of attack you land, white or red damage can be inflicted, with the white damage gradually recovering over time and the red damage being permanent. Standard attacks mostly generate white damage while in MP skills and the big flashy awakening attacks cause red damage and also convert any white damage the character has at that time to red. So, while the white damage might be less of a concern at first as it can theoretically recover, it can also just as easily become red if you’re up against an opponent that knows how to constantly convert it by chaining together different types of attacks.
"Something that might repel more seasoned players a bit is that the story mode is firmly on the easy side, but for those looking for a challenge, the survival mode does deliver an incrementally harder series of single-round bouts that will eventually provide a challenge for just about any skill level."
Take all of that and mix in a diverse roster of characters with drastically different styles and you got a pretty solid foundation for a fighting game. More interesting, however, is that with a notably familiar set of rules and uncomplicated combo systems that set DNF apart from many of its contemporaries, the game has a real shot at attracting and even keeping fans that enjoy fighting games but might feel a little apprehensive about wading into the depths of other franchises that have been around a long time. The move sets themselves tend to stay on the safe side with skill sets geared towards grappling, ranged attacks, slow-but-heavy chargers, and other customary priorities, but what the roster might lack in innovation it more than makes up for in balance and execution to me, but hardcore veterans of the genre might understandably see it a little differently as there is little in the way of truly new gameplay ideas. Only time will tell on that, but as somebody who enjoys the workout of a deep 2D fighter myself, I still ended up enjoying splashing around in DNF Duel‘s comparatively shallower waters.
As mentioned, DNF Duel’s visuals will look familiar stylistically to anyone who has played any recent Guilty Gear or Blazblue titles. Characters seemingly exist in a beautifully rendered 2D space, but special moves and cutscenes give you glimpses of the action from a 3D perspective, making the game feel like it exists between the two styles while still playing like a standard 2D fighter. It’s a cool style that has yet to get old to me despite not really evolving much since its inception.
More importantly though, the designs and animations from each character are outstanding and full of personality. From the arrogant Ranger snapping his fingers after each victory to the humble Inquisitor, steadfastly focused with divine purpose, and plenty more in between, there are likely at least a couple characters here for everyone, making it easy to see why this budding franchise would work well as a fighting game. I do wish there was a bit more in the customization department, or even a customization department at all, as outside of a handful of different color variations, there doesn’t seem to be any way to mix up the character’s looks, which is a little bit of a shame. Predictable gameplay notes aside, the personality and diversity of the characters themselves carry the experience well – even if that might make it more enjoyable in small doses.
"From the arrogant Ranger snapping his fingers after each victory to the humble Inquisitor, steadfastly focused with divine purpose, and plenty more in between, there are likely at least a couple characters here for everyone, making it easy to see why this budding franchise would work well as a fighting game."
As has become pretty standard for the genre, the music in DNF Duel is top-notch. Some rather technical guitar and synth work give way to several stand-out melodies throughout the game’s soundtrack. It moves away from some of the heavier stuff you’d hear in Guilty Gear but in exchange it winds up with some of the most melodically catchy hooks I’ve heard from the genre in a while, and that’s saying a lot as the music for most games in the genre these days is quite good. With that is top-notch voice acting and appropriately chunky sound effects that always seem to match the moment well. Perhaps just as much as the visuals, the audio here truly excels.
With remarkably digestible combat for the genre and more unrestricted approach to where and when you can land your attacks than most of its contemporaries, DNF Duel could prove to be somewhat divisive, especially down the road once all of its nooks and crannies have been thoroughly explored by the masses. But as with any fighting game, it really comes down to the variety, personality, and execution of its ideas – old hat or not. DNF Duel walks that dangerous tightrope between accessibility and longevity extremely well, and while that might not be a balancing act some fighting fans are even interested in, it certainly is a space worth exploring, especially if it’s going to be done this well.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Outstanding graphics and audio across the board; Fun and diverse roster; Addicting survival mode.
Almost no customization; Not as deep or complex as many hardcore 2D fighting fans might want.