As if someone somewhere deep within the bowels of Nexon’s corporate machine finally said “there should be a fighting game about that”, DNF Duel is a 2D fighting game based on the characters and world of long-running smash hit MMO beat-em-up Dungeon Fighter Online. While adapting belt scrolling action to traditional fighting formulas is not new, publisher Nexon has teamed up with fighting game powerhouse Arc System Works & fighting game funnymen Eighting Co. to produce an undeniably unique title. Does it all work and is there enough here to please? Let’s get on with the review and find out.
At first blush DNF Duel is another high-octane anime fighter from Arc System Works, but the formula borrows and adds in several unique mechanics to create something very different in no small thanks to the chops of co-developer Eighting. The game is structured around 2 normal attack buttons (Light and Heavy), a Skill button for meterless special moves, and Mana Skill button for spending MP to access a second set of special moves. Let’s talk about MP for a moment, because it’s one of several breaks from tradition that DNF Duel makes in favor of mechanics rooted in DFO. This meter is spent upon using MS moves and regenerates after a delay, with each move have an associated unique cost value rather than simply costing 1 “stock” or a fixed amount universally. MS moves are also where the game’s attempts at “simple” execution are the most prominent since this game borrows the direction/motion input hybrid system of Granblue Fantasy Versus.
Any MS move can be performed using a direction or neutral position and the button, or you can enter a motion input (such as quarter-circle-forward/back or dragon punch generally) to reduce the amount of time your MP regeneration is paused by spending it. This is a relatively minor difference that keeps the gameplay immediately accessible to people uninterested in or not yet capable of consistently performing motion inputs while still giving players a goal to optimize towards. This is actually a competent analogue to meter management in MMORPGs, where constantly spending a class resource like mana without running dry at a critical moment is a skill requiring constant practice. The other way MP meter can be manipulated is by taking damage, where your maximum MP cap will increase as you receive more damage during a match. This as far as it goes with anything akin to “comeback mechanics”.
Health bars also play a part in metered mechanics in DNF Duel, with “conversion” cancels and “Awakening” desperation super moves. Conversion is a return to what Baroque cancels were playing with all the way back in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom where you sacrifice all grey health accumulated on your health bar to cancel the recovery of normals and specials. The other way your health bar lends to a mechanic is “Awakening” which is essentially a choice between passive buffs on your character or a damaging super move that becomes available when your health is at around 25% or lower. Awakening plays into MMORPG analogues with status effect icons appearing near the character portrait and Conversion canceling being available on hit, block or whiff lends everything a satisfying leniency.
Characters are based on classes from Dungeon Fighter Online (but are not strict imitations either) and are appropriately diverse. There are a variety of archetypes here from zoning to rushdown to varying degrees of in between. Hitman, Troubleshooter and Ranger all feel like they’re aiming to portray similar archetypes with varying degrees of gun zoning and melee strikes, but everyone else is strongly contrasted against each other. I’m generally appreciative of small rosters that provide significantly diverse play styles to encourage meticulously studying each matchup, which I think DNF Duel delivers on. It’s inevitable this thing will see a tail of DLC character additions (and we’ll get to that later) but as it stands I like the cast.
Now we can talk about combos which I can only describe as hilarious. Since the game has very few buttons to press characters often have short auto combo strings and special moves almost always cause a reel or launch state to allow for combos from simple confirms. The way this works out in practice is reminisce of previous games developed by Eighting and I’m here for it. Lots of loops, launches and combos that really shouldn’t work but do. My favorite setup by far is definitely using Crusader’s pop-up wall and install special to slam my opponent with a big Heavy hammer into the wall over and over popping them up to the top of the screen until I’m out of install time. Other characters like Swift Master and Kunoichi provide just enough nonsense to put on the screen to create precise combos with layers of mix left for the wakeup. Grappler is a Grappler with a capital G, and there’s just so much in here that can be described as stupid. I’m generally on board with the structure of offense.
Where I am not on board is the structure of defense and movement. Defense up first, DNF Duel borrows from GBVS again by bringing the Guard button back. I think precious few games are designed in a way that makes block button sensible and DNF Duel is not one of those games. Characters like Ghostblade who thrive on cross ups are a lot less scary when directional guard becomes optional. Combo rules don’t really allow for a sufficient mix of high and low either, since the game only really has the simplest of chains. In my opinion each character is not complex enough individually to justify left/right mixups being made easier to defend against.
Blocking is complemented with guard cancels, but V-Reversals these are not. DNF Duel’s offensive game has an obsession with big fast buttons, so it’s a little souring that guard canceling comes down to a singular slow strike reversal with poor range. Since the game also features a guard bar that can be depleted down to guard break I’m not sure it makes sense that guard canceling is so weak. Conversion canceling to extend a blockstring into guard break was already being experimented with during this game’s beta tests and has made its way into setups found in the final product — Guard cancels being covered and punished appropriately of course. A proper burst, barrier or push block system would’ve made much more sense here.
The other wrench thrown into the works is the pace of movement. Universally characters in DNF Duel have forward and back dashes and most characters can run but grounded movement as a whole doesn’t feel fine-tuned. Many characters are unjustifiably slow, with run startup being this slow acceleration curve that is jarring relative to the animations. The other option available to all characters is a roll (which also isn’t a roll most of the time? c’mon now). You would be mistaken for thinking this game aspires to move like The King of Fighters, since rolls are not invincible if performed out of wakeup and can only be used as a sidestep perhaps more akin to KOF98’s Extra mode dodge with some movement thrown in.
I feel that the free form offense is ultimately weighed down by clunky movement and defensive options best left ignored outside of limited scenarios, which makes player interaction feel surprisingly vanilla sometimes. I praised The King of Fighters XV for its commitment to free form movement and effective defensive choices, but DNF Duel fails in these aspects.
This is where I leave a word of warning about the balancing in DNF Duel. As I write this review I tabbed over to Twitter for a moment and read the words “Crusader Infinite”. Now we know Crusader can OTG hit you to death from a successful counter with his opponent against the corner. This is the same game that had an inescapable guard break to touch of death combo setup for Inquisitor in the beta tests. Also the same game that had an air grab infinite on grappler, in the very first beta test. We’re not bucking any trends here. When people speak of Eighting in high regard it is an expression of affinity for the kind of bullshit found in games like Fate/Unlimited Codes, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Naruto Gekitou Ninja Taisen. You may argue to me that these games are from a bygone era where what’s on the disc is sacred and all these things will see patches in time. I agree with you! However it may be days and weeks before anything deemed “broken” by developers gets patched and you will live with the $49.99 purchase you made infinites patched or not.
"God truly is infinite. Therefore nothing can oppose Him."
— David Broweleit (@Dacidbro) June 30, 2022
The singular perk of writing reviews with no review copy is I get to add in all the funny stuff the community comes up with.
The developers behind the gameplay are known for a specific blend of nonsense that other fighting games would never dare let settle competitive matches, that players exploit to commit highway robbery against each other. You’re either here for it or not and there’s no wrong answer, but I suspect that the niche hardcore base that the titles I just mentioned garnered will likewise mean that only the true believers will see a game with engaging competitive play in the long run.
Where Eighting is to thank/blame for the gameplay, Arc System Works has lent its services towards a signature level of quality in the overall presentation. Junya Motomura returns to guide the conversion of DFO’s anime fighters to Arc’s signature rendering style in Unreal Engine 4, and the results are appropriately attractive. Curiously, DNF Duel is the first licensed ASW fighter post-Xrd to not have unwavering commitment to the source material’s visual signature. To be clear Dungeon Fighter Online is anime as hell but there are artistic liberties taken in translating them to new character illustrations and 3D models. This is mostly evident in simplified outfit designs, brighter color palettes and perhaps a more playful and vibrant tone overall. The adjusted art style lends to a game that is very readable, with the battle HUD being appropriately eye catching.
DFO refreshes character designs as “Awakening” variants, but most of the fighters in DNF Duel are based on the original concepts. This does require little nips and tucks to the designs to drag them out of the mid 2000s and into a style that permits the illustrations to match the character rendering.
Sound effects are appropriately punchy, with a variety of weapon sounds used to portray the fantasy mix of medieval swords, futuristic firearms and burly fists. Voice acting is served in Chinese, Korean and Japanese with Korean being the default. The voice work is well done and is paired with eye catching intro and outro animations that bring literal nameless class archetype characters to life. This is not easy to do! But after seeing each character show little quirks in animations and drop lore references in dialogues I think DNF Duel succeeds in igniting new player interest in the larger world of Arad.
Said world is also depicted in its stages which appear to be mirrors of zones found in DFO. They’re not that interesting beyond a few neat ideas (I like the train), but they are colorful and avoid being intrusive. This is where I can talk about the soundtrack, which is mostly limited to stage themes. No character themes, and sparse menu music, and all of the music that is here loops at around 2 minutes and 30 seconds. I could feel myself wishing to turn the music off after prolonged periods of play even with just a few days of playing in, even though I actually like the punchy electronic and rock tracks. They’re just too short and far too few.
In summary I think DNF Duel’s presentation channels much of the magic that Arc System Works has mastered in bringing licensed characters and worlds to life. It does feel like a more frugal venture than previous joints in a few key points but it’s hard to call anything here less than great.
DNF Duel’s retail price being $10 off the usual is perhaps an implicit acknowledgement from the publisher that there really isn’t a lot here. The modes and features on offer feel a little anemic for the price even still. The package is about as bog-standard as they come, with an assortment of single player modes: A story mode, arcade mode, survival mode and of course the tutorial and training content. The story mode was the part I speculated on the most prior to launch, as Granblue Fantasy Versus’ RPG mode laid foundations for something akin to Dungeon Fighter’s side-scrolling action to be featured here. Alas all we’re getting is a dialogue-driven shuffle between CPU fights that seems to exist purely to waste your local TO’s time unlocking the boss character for the setup. Stop doing that.
The tutorial content is perhaps the most interesting. DNF Duel’s tutorial is split into 3 segments: Basic game rules and actions, character combo trials and gameplay challenges. The gameplay challenges are the most interesting: The game will ask you to perform anti airs, counter hits and even defeat the training dummy with a punish combo that depletes their health to zero. All tutorial segments can be completed with any character (except the boss) and the tooltips and challenges will adjust accordingly. This is cool! It’s really only a few and the rules for completing each challenge are a little finnicky but the game does make a decent attempt to educate the newcomers who will inevitably cross from DFO to DNF.
We’re not replacing Dustloop in any capacity with these tutorials but they do at least challenge you to use the character effectively.
Since there’s basically nothing to talk about in terms of offline content we can talk online. This is also perhaps barebones but I prefer playing online to be as straightforward as possible. You can either queue up for a ranked match or play in private or public lobbies which feature the chibi avatars Arc loves to shoehorn in, but at least there’s no Habbo Hotel to be played here. Plus the netcode is great. Having played both beta tests prior I knew the game’s rollback netcode is as good if not better than Guilty Gear Strive. Mistakes were still made though, since there is no ping indicator prior to accepting matches and no wireless indicator. Pretty annoying that this otherwise sensible approach to online play is hampered by poor connections going unchecked. We know this game does not offer cross play but I do hope it’s on the table to keep people in queues consistently well after launch.
Keeping people interested is what concerns me the most. There is nothing in terms of progression aside from ranked matches that players can invest themselves in to self-improve, barring going out into local casual or competitive play (which is true of any game). While I’m sure that might be a relief to some readers in the era of FOMO-driven gamification of habit building I do think you’ll ultimately feel like you’ve seen it all within a month or two of playing DNF Duel. As I write this review nothing has been said regarding DLC plans, but I can’t say what’s here would compel me to buy into a character pass or two. I’m frankly worn out of character releases being the only effort made by a developer to remind people that a fighting game exists after launch.
As a $49.99 buy DNF Duel’s sell is ultimately how much you resonate with its competitive gameplay. I criticized The King of Fighters XV for a similar product package, but at least KOF has a legacy base that just needs a roster to feast on to buy the thing (last time I talk about KOFXV I swear). DNF Duel enters the anime fighting game space at a time when games including Arc’s very own Guilty Gear Strive see updates to diversify the content on offer so such an anemic launch begs a meaningful content roadmap from the developer. Or you can just pick it up on sale.
PC Version Hands-on & Input Latency Comparisons
The PC version of DNF Duel is simultaneously the best and worst version of the game at launch. We’ll start with the bad news: While DNF Duel has listed its minimum and recommended PC specs to the same as Guilty Gear Strive, in practice the PC I tested this game on could not achieve the same level of performance. The most frequent issues were the occasional dropped frames during animations or momentary freezes when battle effects appear on screen. It’s not a shader compilation stutter as the game’s performance did not eventually level out either. I guess the game’s recommended specifications are generic assumptions, so I’d approach buying this game on Steam with caution as you may wish to ensure the game runs well for you before committing to the purchase. After all there’s no way to test this aside from buying it and refunding it if it doesn’t pan out. There are also a few launch bugs specific to this version, and the biggest one is that keyboard users with custom action bindings cannot record training dummy actions correctly. The developer has mentioned a fix is in the works for this issue.
The good news for PC players is that the input lag is once again far below the console versions. I regretfully must deliver the worst news: The console versions of DNF Duel run with unusually high amounts of offline input delay. With generic PC measurements reporting around 2 frames of delay, the PlayStation versions clock in 4 frames at best on a PS4 Pro up to a shocking 7 or more frames of input delay on PS5 consoles. Frankly I would not feel comfortable buying any console version of DNF Duel if I did not already own a PS4 Pro. Thanks to @kimagreGaming for the analysis, linked below:
It’s been interesting to write this review in the post-launch period and watch people either get on the grind or bounce off DNF Duel entirely. I’ve observed online commentary criticizing people announcing on social media that they simply do not like DNF Duel as if that is some sort of performative act, but I think this is a side effect of how our enthusiast crowd consumes new releases. I think if you’re a certain type of FGC enthusiast you’re probably buying every fighting game that is either a new release or getting a rollback netcode patch, and it’s not necessarily that you even really like them all. Since the vast majority of publishers in our genre completely neglect to offer demos or F2P slices of gameplay, it’s easy to just mindlessly pre-order based on marketing hype cycles or launch day impressions. This is where DNF Duel clashes hard with its audience, since it’s decidedly not a game for everyone.
This is a niche game. I think this is the first time in a while the FGC has to contend with that when it comes to a new release. It’s easy to be hooked by Arc System Works’ beautiful character animation and buttery smooth online play and buy this on the spot, but to actually enjoy DNF Duel is a much greater challenge to personal tastes. As a product it’s an anemic package at a steep price point, and as a competitive game it’s a weird mix of elements that run the gamut of satisfying and clunky.
With plenty of anime fighters competing for your attention DNF Duel does not offer enough to stand out at its price point. If you’re looking for something truly off the wall that lands the essentials, ArcSys & Eighting deliver.
DNF Duel is available on PC via Steam and PlayStation 4 & 5. SuperCombo was not provided with a review copy.
PC Version Optimizations
- Enable audio while the game is out of focus (tabbed-out):
- Navigate to: C:\Users\<shib>\AppData\Local\DNFDUEL\Saved\Config\WindowsNoEditor}
- Open Engine.ini and add the following to the bottom of the file:
- Save the file.
This review was conducted on:
- PlayStation 4 Pro, internal HDD.
- Windows 10 PC: AMD Ryzen 3 2200G CPU, Nvidia RTX 2060 GPU, ADATA SU650NS38 SSD, 16 GB of DDR4 RAM.
- All network functions were tested on a wired connection.