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DNF Duel Review: Battling Atop the World (PC)

DNF Duel is a traditional fighting game reimagining of the popular MMO Dungeon Fighter Online. Developed by Arc System Works, it offers a roster of 16 characters attracted by their will to fight against each other. Let's see if it lives up to the hype in this review!

DNF Duel Review: Battling Atop the World (PC)

Arc System Works is having a winning streak lately. After the large success of Dragon Ball FighterZ and Guilty Gear Strive, they still haven’t stopped. Strive is still being supported, they released the improved rollback netcode to some of their older games and re-released Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. They are basically competing with themselves at this point, and don’t think they’re going to stop soon, because DNF Duel has arrived and we’re reviewing it.

After so many wins in the hardcore fighting game scene, ArcSys is now seeking to cover one more base by focusing on streamlining many harder mechanics in DNF. Mind you, this isn’t the first time they’ve done something of this sort, because 2020’s Granblue Versus is similar in quite a few ways. However, DNF tries to sidestep the complaints that Granblue got about the cooldowns, weird gacha game mechanics, and a lack of rollback netcode.

DNF Duel is an unexpected combination of the popular Korean MMO Dungeon Fighter Online (DFO) and ArcSys’ fighting game expertise. A lot of players in the west may be unfamiliar with DFO, but it’s popular in the east, boasting 15000 daily players according to the website MMO Populations. That’s impressive for a game released in 2005.

DNF Duel Review - Yep, this game is flashy.

DNF Duel Review – Yep, this game is flashy.

In this review, we will take a look at all the modes available in DNF Duel, apart from online play. Unfortunately, the online servers were disabled during the pre-release window which I got to play in, but don’t worry because I will update the review to talk about the online next week.

Also, I did play dozens of local matches against multiple friends of mine, because how would you review a fighting game without at least running one or two tournaments between your friends?

Oh, one last thing before we start: I am the most average fighting game player ever. Don’t expect me to meticulously analyze frame data and matchups on here. I know the genre, the terms, and how to play common character archetypes, but my actual skills are still not the best. Still, I will discuss the mechanics, just not every single one of them.

DNF Duel is a traditional 2D fighting game developed by Arc System Works and published by them in partnership with NEXON and Neople. It’s available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows via Steam. You can get it for $50 in all platforms.

DNF Duel|Official Launch Trailer

Story — Fighting Game Plot Syndrome

ArcSys is known for some good or at the very least interesting stories in their fighting games. They’ve shown that mainly with the BlazBlue franchise, which is full of alternate endings and unique campaigns for each and every character. I love those. They usually aren’t long or challenging, but exploring a complex web of tales and their endings in the visual novel format while breaking the pace with battles is an interesting structure.

But DNF Duel doesn’t really work like BlazBlue. Surprisingly, it doesn’t even work like Granblue Fantasy, which had a whole beat ’em up RPG mode. That mode adapted to dungeons would have fit DNF like a glove, but Arcsys chose to make the game’s campaign a standard arcade mode with some cutscenes in between without any choices to be made.

There is a separate, dedicated arcade mode that sports scores, difficulty modes, and randomized matchups, but the story mode also has you fighting eight battles with your chosen character to get to the final boss. So the story mode is basically just another arcade mode that has rigid matchups for each character, offers no difficulty choice, doesn’t score you, has cutscenes, and… ends up being insanely boring.

Don’t get me wrong, I just said that I can enjoy fighting game stories. I like the standard arcade fares like The King of Fighters, but at least you get multiple endings in that game. Yes, I’m not kidding, DNF Duel has the exact same plot for all the characters.

DNF Duel Review - The Story Mode may look great, but it doesn't offer much else.

DNF Duel Review – The Story Mode may look great, but it doesn’t offer much else.

While the production value for the visual novel sections is impressive, sporting tons of unique character art, the story events stay almost unchanged between characters. Let me explain the premise first before we dive into that.

DNF Duel takes place at the beginning of the Dungeon Fighter Online timeline. After the universe of Terra was shattered into multiple pieces in what’s known as the great metastasis, which separated the people who lived in each part of the universe. The game is set in Arad, a planet divided into three layers, which have seen the gates known as Wonders that served as pathways between them stop functioning without warning. People can still travel to other layers, but it takes way longer and is way more costly.

Recently, the wonders have been reactivating, and a group of strong-willed adventurers started sensing connections between both themselves and the wonders. That’s when the story of whatever character you chose starts, and they start climbing up the three layers while fighting other adventurers. It’s an interesting premise with tons of weird terminology that can be quickly explained to you in the glossary with the press of a button. It’s also intriguing, and opens up the path to many interesting stories, right?

Yeah, things don’t work like this, unfortunately. It’s a shame that the cast of characters in DNF Duel is so diverse and well-designed because they don’t get to shine nearly as much as they should in the story. No matter which one you pick, you get the same plot beats that end in the same ways, are reacted to by the characters in a similar manner, and don’t even offer a unique ending.

DNF DUEL - The 2D artworks add charm to the story.

DNF DUEL – The 2D artworks add charm to the story.

There are 16 characters in the game, 15 of them have a story and the last one is a secret unlockable boss which is awesome looking. What I mean when I say that the characters don’t have unique endings is that they get the exact same resolution and even the same final cutscene.

Look, I’m not asking for much here. I don’t believe these endings would need brand new artwork or anything, I just want to see the reaction each character has to what happened in the story, or know what they did after the end. Even the 90s KOF games do that, so why doesn’t Arcsys? It’s depressing to have to clear each campaign knowing you won’t get a conclusion at all.

To make things worse, almost all battles in the story are unrelated to the plot. You get to the designated location, find another adventurer who has a strong will that your character senses, beat them up, and proceed. There’s also no definitive campaign — each one is an alternate universe that has different characters winning their own scenarios. That makes sense on the surface, but it makes arcs like Striker’s revenge against Grappler ring hollow when you play her story since when you play Grappler’s side, he wins instead.

There are no definitive ideas or character beats that get developed as a result of this. Even the plot-relevant battles do a poor job of developing them. It’s a complete grind to get through them because it’s the same situations with the same conclusions every single time. Every campaign has a boat pilot getting tied up and being left like that after the hijacking is done. Every campaign has your character escaping to the same bar and getting welcomed in the same way. You play every stage in the same order. It’s mind-numbing.

The game would have severely benefited from an introductory campaign that branched off into the other characters later, an actual dungeon crawling mode like in Granblue, anything. Instead, we get mediocrity. If you were planning to buy DNF Duel because of the story, you’ve come to the wrong place.

DNF Duel Review - The survival mode offers optional buffs and debuffs that affect your score.

DNF Duel Review – The survival mode offers optional buffs and debuffs that affect your score.

Apart from the story, you get the standard single-player fighting game fare with CPU Battles, Arcade Mode, and Survival Mode. They’re cool, but nothing special. There’s a lack of meaningful single-player content here, and that shows in both how limited the modes are and how we have such a low amount of stages available at launch. I don’t particularly mind a smaller roster (and DNF has a decent-sized one) because I know how much work needs to be put into each character, but if we could get at least two more stages the lack of content would sting less.

Well, at least the gameplay rules.

Gameplay — Complexity In Simplicity

As I mentioned at the start of this review, DNF Duel strives for streamlining the fighting game experience in multiple ways while avoiding what the community didn’t enjoy in Granblue Fantasy.

So, how do you make a fighting game more approachable without making it unappealing for hardcore players? ArcSys’ answer is the mana system. Before we look at it, let’s go over your main four attack buttons: There’s Light Punch, Heavy Punch, Skill, and MP Skill.

The motion inputs for special moves do not exist in any of those apart from the MP skill. The regular skill button follows that trend as well by providing simple directional inputs like the way specials work in Super Smash Bros.

All motion inputs reside solely in the MP Skill button, and they aren’t complicated at all. They’re universally quarter-circle forward, quarter-circle backward, and dragon punch, which is right then quarter circle. Even if you aren’t that familiar with fighting games, you’ll probably recognize at least one of them as the Hadouken input.

But, if you have trouble stringing combos like that, don’t worry, because you can just press one direction and the special move will come out in the same way and deal the same damage. The only difference is that your MP bar takes longer to recover if you do it the simple way. Oh, we need to talk about the MP system.

DNF Duel Review - If you do a motion input the classic way, your MP starts recharging faster.

DNF Duel Review – If you do a motion input the classic way, your MP starts recharging faster.

All characters have a mana bar that starts out maxing at 100 points and gets progressively larger as they get hit. The lower your current life is, the higher your max mana gets. To use MP Skills, you use up a bit of your current mana, and if you blow all of it on an attack that cost more than you had, you get a longer cooldown before being able to use MP Skills again.

This creates an interesting balance that at the same time is way less and way more restrictive than cooldowns. That doesn’t matter, though, because it feels great. You don’t actually have to regulate your mana that much, just don’t spam everything and you’re fine. Since most projectiles are used with other buttons like the regular Skill one, you also don’t need to worry about them.

It just feels like a good balance to have this bar as a complete gauge of how crazy the next interaction is going to get. Taking advantage of an opponent that has blown their mana is delightful, and opens up easy-to-understand game plans for newcomers.

DNF Duel Review - Kunoichi can charge her MP Skills to open up multiple follow ups.

DNF Duel Review – Kunoichi can charge her MP Skills to open up multiple follow-ups.

My friends to which I’ve shown the game have wildly different skill levels, and all of them could play reliably decently after just a couple of matches. For someone used to complex systems, DNF Duel still works as a footsie-focused fighter that’s unusually grounded for an anime game.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I’m not the best fighting game player ever, and I’d say the way that DNF streamlines the gameplay still helped me get used to more complex gameplay opportunities in less time. Part of this is because of the DNF’s link system.

The act of performing combos is often a reason why people drop traditional fighters, and to be honest, I get it. Before trying to understand the genre in a deeper manner, I also had dropped multiple games because I couldn’t execute combos if my life depended on it. After all my time with the genre, all I know for my mains are mostly bread and butter combos, which limited my performance in ranked matches (even though you can get pretty far by only knowing the fundamental mechanics).

DNF Duel Review - Sorry, I'm not doing all of that.

DNF Duel Review – Sorry, I’m not doing all of that.

Now, after playing DNF, my life got way easier. The game eases you in by having extremely simple links in which you do a whole string just by pressing the main four buttons in order. After getting used to that, a new player may start sprucing up that basic combo little by little and end up enticed enough to try out “real” combos to deal more damage while also getting more versatile. That’s a beautiful thought.

There are some pretty tricky combos hidden in the trials, so don’t worry if you like doing those. Just know that the individual motion inputs aren’t that tough. After this explanation, you may have asked yourself if that’s it for the mechanics, and wonder if this is just a half-decent streamlined attempt at a fighter. It’s not! There are still the characters and their specific mechanics!

Each one of the 16 characters in DNF Duel has unique mechanics that completely change up the way you view them. Ok, fighters do that. But, here it plays more like the differences you’d notice between characters in a MOBA game. They fit different roles entirely, and DNF enforces their game plan on a system level, namely with their unique mechanics and Awakenings.

Every character has a quirk or two. Striker can cancel her MP Skills with themselves, allowing for long pressure and mixups, even if they’re not that damaging. Berserker can trade his own HP to buff his damage, and Kunoichi can charge her MP Skills to do extra damage and allow for juggles. It’s pretty easy to understand the characters, but getting used to and optimizing their specialties is a different beast.

It gets better with the Awakening state, which kicks off when you have 30% health remaining. In this state, you get a character-specific buff alongside a universal desperation super move which you can use at the end of some combos. It deals massive damage.

DNF Duel Review - When awakened, you get tons of buffs and skills.

DNF Duel Review – When awakened, you get tons of buffs and skills.

As for the character buffs, they make things way more lively. When Awakened, you are rewarded both for playing safe and for being extra aggressive, and that can easily make the match more interesting for both players. An example of the buffs is that Hitman gains an extra MP Skill that knocks your enemy down without giving them the opportunity to tech out, which you can take advantage of to combo with your back Skill.

What I’m saying here is that things can still get interesting with the simplified controls, and I can’t wait to see all of the optimizations the playerbase will bring to the table once the game is out for a while.

The defense mechanics are a bit exploitable, however. The main complaint that I’ve seen from the people who played the beta express is that you can get your guard broken easily with just one string from the enemy, even if you blocked perfectly. You can use your guard break skill to shake them off, but it costs 100 MP, which is a steep price for something that doesn’t fully get you out of the situation.

Couple that with MP Skills like the Inquisitor’s Burning Wheel and you get an unusually restrictive defense system for a game focused on footsies. It blows, but at least it can be fixed with balance updates. Maybe the answer is to make your block gauge bigger or to make guard break cost less MP.

DNF Duel’s combat is both incredible and easy to parse. If you’re new to the genre and want to experiment with playing a fighting game that makes learning easy, this is it. If you’re an FG veteran in search of something to play in between KOF XV and Melty Blood: Type Lumina, this may also fit your bill, even if you already have Guilty Gear Strive for that.

Graphics & Sound — It’s lonely at the top

Ever since ArcSys shifted its focus from 2D sprite-based characters to fully 3D animated ones, its appeal for general audiences went way up. I’m not going to lie here, I absolutely love this new style. It offers cel-shaded characters animated on 2s so that they look like a 2D anime, and it’s done with such flair that it ends up being a blessing more than a blight.

DNF Duel Review - No matter which frame you end up screenshotting, it will look great.

DNF Duel Review – No matter which frame you end up screenshotting, it will look great.

Now ArcSys can make cinematic angles on command without extraneous work, and the style blew up alongside the popularity of their recent titles that work like this. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I also miss the 2D sprites, though.

It’s more of a general grievance with the genre than anything specific with ArcSys, but it’s a shame how 2D sprites are falling so much out of favor that even the developers that were synonymous with good sprites like ArcSys and SNK are shifting to 3D, even if their games are highly stylized. It’s understandable given how these new titles ended up being extremely successful, but it seems that this trend will only grow. Hopefully, series like Melty Blood and Skullgirls can keep the 2D style alive.

But of course, I can’t say DNF Duel looks anything less than fantastic. From the walking and idle animations to the stages and cinematic specials, it looks absolutely gorgeous. You can taste the detail in the way that they bend objects to simulate motion like in traditional animation, such as when Ranger throws his pistols into the air or when Inquisitor spins her battle axe.

This insane amount of polish can also be seen in the story with its constant barrage of high-quality 2D artwork of secondary characters and two original CGs per campaign. It’s beautiful, and par for the course for ArcSys nowadays.

DNF Duel Review - All of the CGs in the game are beautiful.

DNF Duel Review – All of the CGs in the game are beautiful.

DNF Duel’s polish isn’t only present in the pure visuals, because the character designs are equally charming. We haven’t talked much about what DNF took from its DFO origins, so this is a great place to start.

You probably noticed that I haven’t named a single character, only their functions. This isn’t a DOTA 2 situation where characters have both function names and real ones in the lore, because the characters in DNF do not have canon names.

They are each based on the first evolution of different Advancement Classes from DFO, and since that is an MMO, you can name the characters whatever you want. It’s probably for the best to not give them canon names so as to not undermine the name choice available in it.

What the characters in DNF do have are great designs and personalities. The main reason I got upset about the story’s lack of ambition is that the characters made me want to see more of them interacting apart from the generic pre-battle lines you end up getting.

The designs are simple for the most part, but that’s what makes their small details stand out. Dragon Knight’s weird dragon-shaped shield, Enchantress’ poorly stitched-together teddy bear, and Berserker’s half-living sword are a few that come to mind.

DNF Duel Review - The character intros are just as polished as anything else

DNF Duel Review – The character intros are just as polished as anything else.

For such an expressive game, DNF Duel is also surprisingly light on your PC. The performance never hitched below the fixed 60 FPS I opted for, and my machine is fairly middling for today’s standards. It also takes up little more than 7GB of space, which makes it a good choice for installing in an SSD if yours has limited space like mine. This technical prowess isn’t a surprise because Guilty Gear Strive offers the same benefits, but it’s nice to know DNF followed suit.

Before we get to the end, I need to discuss the soundtrack. This is another big draw for ArcSys’ games, and I’m glad to say that DNF Duel doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Most of the tracks are complete reimaginations of DFO songs, reworked specifically to fit a high-energy fighting game such as this.

The thing is, DFO’s soundtrack is already awesome. I played it until I reached level 20 with a Witch character in preparation for this review, and the OST was a big standout. It mainly uses instruments associated with fantasy settings, and it works well with that game’s vibe. Alternatively, DNF’s songs are filled with high-pitched guitars, detailed drum patterns, synths, and a touch of the traditional strings and harps present in the original.

It’s a feast of melodies, and you can buy every single song in the gallery with in-game currency that you earn solely by playing. My favorite track was the main theme, Primal Wonder, which is also used in my favorite stage. Alongside it, Brawl of Hendon Myre also stands out on the tracklist. As you can see below, it straight up sounds like a Nihom Falcom song, which is a compliment I reserve only for the best.

DNF DUEL l Brawl of Hendon Myre BGM

It makes me happy to see that even with a tight release schedule, ArcSys has managed to keep their trademark polish with DNF Duel. I hope it gets big among fighting game fans as Strive did because it has so much potential for the future.

DNF Duel was reviewed on Steam with a key provided by Reef Entertainment.

DNF Duel is the one. It's the game that the hardcore fighting game community has been waiting for years to come and successfully merges casual appeal with hardcore potential. It may be more skewed to beginners than Guilty Gear Strive, but that only makes it more attractive for the new audience. The only apparent downsides reside in the lack of depth in the single-player content and some balancing quirks that can get fixed as time goes on. Looking at its reduced price point in comparison to other AAA fighters, it also offers a lot of bang for your buck if you're willing to play the online ladder.
  • Varied and charismatic roster of 16 characters
  • Easy to understand systems that still give space for complexity
  • Caracter-specific mechanics which allow for tons of options
  • Polished visuals
  • Energetic soundtrack
  • Lackluster story with repeated scenarios and no alternate endings for the characters
  • Exploitable defensive mechanics

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