Need to know
What is it? A beat ’em up that forces style and substance to make friends.
Expect to pay $ 50 / £ 41
Released June 28, 2022
Developer Arc System Works, Eighting Co, Neople
Publisher Neople, Nexon
Reviewed on GeForce GTX 1650, AMD Ryzen 5 3550H, 8 GB RAM
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
A shirtless, phenomenally torn man with spiky hair and a sword the size of a refrigerator with a freezer, and a woman pulling out a bazooka for one of her weakest attacks? Yes, this is another anime-styled beat ’em up to throw yourself on the mound. That said, you will want to hang on to this one. The brilliant extravagances in the character design and the attack animations are here to decorate, not distract.
Although based on the MMO Dungeon Fighter Online, you do not need to know anything about it (and not just because BlazBlue and Guilty Gear have already taught Arc System Works fans to expect largely impenetrable storytelling). What you do need to know is that DNF Duel is surprising in some very positive ways … starting with how it handles character damage.
There are two types of injuries; red injuries and white injuries. Red works as you expect, ie it is part of the health bar that is gone immediately and permanently. White, on the other hand, will slowly regenerate if you can let it. Most attacks result in some white damage, and some red.
Each character has special attacks that require a portion of their slow regenerating MP meter to activate. These MP attacks, if not blocked, do nothing but red damage –and instantly convert any white damage your opponent carries to red. I return to MP attacks, but what should already be clear is that the use of weaker attacks to “knock” white damage to the opponent’s health bar to wipe out later is a valid, and often important, tactic.
Basically, it’s as complicated as the game gets – or, more accurately, DNF Duel goes out of its way to provide explanations to those who may need them. There is a lot in the systems that can and will only be fully utilized for high-level games, but this is incredibly inviting for newcomers to the genre. This is partly due to the training mode. The command list will not only tell you how to perform each move, with a short clip, it will even give you hints on how to use the move offensively or defensively. It tells you, for example, whether a move is good for defending yourself against air attacks, for completing a combination, or if and how it can make you vulnerable.
Surprisingly, there is no automatic combination option. You know, where if you hit one button repeatedly like an angry chimpanzee, you can trigger an even set of destructive moves? Not an option here. That’s not necessary. There is a wonderful simplicity to the controls; each attack is triggered by either just one push of a button, or one push of a button in connection with holding a single direction (although a few have options for slightly more complicated inputs if you prefer).
Beat me baby
Yes, this means that button-bashes have the full range of attacks on their dirty fingertips – including many that extend largely or even the entire length of the screen – but skills will always prevail. Everything except throws can be blocked. Everyone has a forward dodge that can safely pass through anything. A mistimed attack will make an opponent completely vulnerable in a fraction of a second, and that’s all you need to do serious damage.
It is a fighter jet with four buttons. Two buttons are for common attacks, very weak, but the fastest in your arsenal and great for starting combinations. Another is for your special attacks. These are more powerful and can be used without restrictions, but never threaten to unbalance the game. Ghostblade, for example, has a special technique where he teleports through the opponent several times, and cuts them with the sword on each pass. However, if the first hit is blocked, it is very easy to punish him for trying.
It is really the MP attacks, and their relationship to the red / white damage system, that will cut a clear line between the good players and great players, and where the slightly more complex elements of the game branch off. You start with 100 MP, the maximum increases as you take more and more damage. MP relocation costs mean that you can rarely perform more than a few in a row before using the meter. This stops people spamming them. You can perform an MP move that costs more MP than you have left, but your meter will then remain empty until excess MP is completely regenerated in the background.
DNF Duels risk and reward mechanic is called Conversion. At the touch of a button, you can turn all the white damage you carry on to red, in exchange for an MP boost. The more of the health bar you sacrifice, the more MP you will be rewarded with. This way, you can expand a combination or create a surprising MP meter recovery by edging closer to death. It is a very simple but potentially match-flipping mechanic.
There are things like this that give the game depth and a tactical team – a team as visible to random players as to those who make spreadsheets about hit boxes and invincible frames. This is not to say that beginners will have great chances against genre veterans, but if they want to spend time learning to have a chance, it is easy for them to do so.
The concept of characters being awakened – that is, entering an authorized state when they are at their last part of the health bar – is familiar to anime fight fans. As with so much, DNF Duel handles things a little differently. The awakened state is triggered automatically when it is close to death, and with it each character enjoys a unique buff. Striker, for example, gets an injury boost, while Berserker heals a little for each successful attack. It also gives access to the character’s super powerful Awakening attack. However, this trait can be missed or protected just like everyone else; and using it eliminates the buff, whether the attack was successful or not.
DNF Duel is no more complicated or deeper than other beat ’em ups. It is deep in another way, and what partly means is that it is deep in a way that is easy to explore and understand for people of all skill levels. I’m not interested in gatekeeper, just good game design, and the latter has been spread all over here like blood and teeth at the end of a particularly intense match.
There are 15 characters, plus an unlockable boss, just like in the good old days. It may not seem like much when the average Naruto game tends to give you enough playable characters to populate a small town, but it does mean that each fighter looks and feels unique. The simple nature of the controls means that it is quick and easy to become comfortable with a new character, but you have to spend a lot of time on each one to really learn them.
The character that is closest to being overpowered is Lost Warrior (the boss of course), who has three attacks that can hit from any distance, two of which are MP attacks. However, everyone can be blocked, and you can not hit an opponent in the air. In the same way, Inquisitor’s giant wheels of burning death can be incredibly annoying to get caught on – but it can be blocked or avoided. Learn what each character is capable of, stay calm, and you always have a chance to come out on top.
Beat ’em ups are really coming alive online, and despite some issues during the launch week that have resulted in rare but annoying disconnections, this is no less true for DNF Duel. Make sure you put the hours offline to prepare and you will be in for an incredible time.
There are three types of players. Most people play a balanced game, and feel around the systems to find out how and when they can best attack and defend. However, a small number have discovered a character (usually Ghostblade) or combination that they can and will ruthlessly cheese. Finally, an even smaller number of players have somehow already mastered the game, and will start throwing you around in the air like juggling balls made of pain in seconds.
This is par for the course for pretty much all beat ’em up, but the nice thing about this is that if you notice, you will (almost) always have a chance against the handsomest or, to a lesser extent, most skilled of opponents . Sacrificing the entire MP at the beginning of a fight for a Guard Cancel, for example, is a great way to send a cheeseer flying before going on the counterattack; and a perfectly timed dodge can give you an opening against even the most fearsome opponent.
The more time you spend learning characters and their movements, the more brilliant the online battles become. Keeping an eye on your opponent’s MP meter will tell you what they are and are not capable of at all times, and knowing the range of each Awakened move can make all the difference between a win and a loss. All of this is easy and fun to learn, because each character is so damn fun to play as.
There is no shortage of players, and absolutely no shortage of joy when you win a close match (or actually rage when you lose one you were destroyed in). This is a game that feels as good as it looks, and it says something.