Duels of Fortune – air-dashing action between simplicity and openness

Bonus issue out of hiatus! This article is part of my ongoing “Indie Fighting Game Thursday” review/retrospective series, now on supercombo.gg (yes, I know it’s not Thursday, but once in a while I can break rules too)! This week we talk about the early access version of Duels of Fortune, a game by the dynamic duo Cosmic Hat Games, who after four years of development has published a first open, early access build!

Four years of rollercoaster

Development takes very different paths and shapes from the beginning of an adventure to its end. There are developers, like yours truly, who prefer to cobble together an alpha showing the game’s concept and immediately put it in the hands of the players—sometimes to the effect of receiving scathing reviews or heavily negative feedback.

There are others, however, who prefer to struggle with a close cadre of iron-clad-willed beta testers and release the fruit of their fatigue to the world only when it’s polished enough for their standards.

The dynamic duo Cosmic Hat Games belongs to the second category and, after four years of development builds, finally decided it was time to show their brainchild to the world—the colorful 2.5D fighting game Duels of Fortune!

The characters Black Heart and Rattlebone are fighting in a city hit by meteors and invaded by small star-shaped aliens. Rattlebone's head is detached from his body and moves towards him.

Rattlebone lost his head, but this is hardly a problem for him. It’s more an issue for his opponent.

Welcome to Duels of Fortune!

Duels of Fortune is, under many points of view, a sort of singularity in the current fighting game panorama. Its cartoony, cel-shaded 3D style stands out even as a part of the indie scene and its focus on single player content is nothing short of a black swan—a status shared by a small number of other titles like Beatdown Dungeon. The premise of the game is—on the surface— pretty simple: casino tycoon Sylvan Blackjack invites everyone to his own island, where a tournament called Duels of Fortune will be held and the winner will be able to wish for whatever they want.

This obviously attracts the attention of several characters, including the fiery fire user Clyde, the shy engineer Annie, the anger-driven Red, the emotionless Shoto, and… a cadre of animated skeletons. Plus an interdimensional wannabe superheroic disaster (who might or might not be canon to the game). And a living stickman doodle (who is DEFINITELY not canon to the game, as he breaks the fourth wall as often as Deadpool).

Suffices to say that the character variety is the least of this game’s concerns, and the colorful style really sells it. Seeing the game in motion feels like watching a cartoon on the TV, in the best possible sense of the expression.

A fight between the characters Callowman and Shooting Star, a secret boss. The two characters fight in a space station. Shooting Star has a huge energy star near him.

Boss battles can be wild. Shooting Star pulls a Frieza every time he has full meter. Good luck avoiding it.

Low skill floor, high skill ceiling

Mechanically speaking, Duels of Fortune is a pretty interesting game, using a 8-button system that is perfectly comfortable on pad, but might be hard to use properly on other peripherals. At its core, it is a 2.5D game with simplified controls and air-dashes.

There’s your standard Light, Medium and Heavy attack buttons which can be chained together on hit, going from the weakest to the strongest attack, and allow for one reverse beat per combo. Then, there’s a Special button which is used to access each character’s unique moves. Specials and command normals are performed by simply pressing a direction with one of the attack buttons. There are no motion inputs in the game but there is a character with charge specials (more on this later).

The other four buttons are used for a variety of extra actions:

  • the Burst button can be used either defensively, for breaking out of an opponent’s combo or offensively, to extend one’s combo and reset part of the damage scaling. Burst gauge works more or less like in Guilty Gear and will slowly fill while receiving damage;
  • the Taunt button, in combination with directional inputs, causes the character to mock the opponent. Some characters, like Sylvan and Callowman, use taunt to access specific power-up states;
  • the Super button, which can be used when the super meter is at least 50% full, gives access to a powerful super attack. Each character has access to two supers, the second of which performed by pressing down plus Super. Usually, the first super is a raw damage offensive super, while the second super is a more of a support tool, be it a power up, a lockdown projectile, a combo extender or a command grab;
  • the last button warrants a couple additional words: the Block button. Duels of Fortune allows players to choose between back-to-block and a dedicated block button. Originally, the game supported only the a directional block button (with no automatic cross-up protection), but after feedback from the testers the option to add back-to-block was added. The Block button is used for Guard Cancels and Reversals in back-to-block configuration, though, effectively making it required anyway.

Overall, the control system feels responsive enough, but I must emphasize how the absence of input macros make it impractical to play this game with a 6-button arcade stick. There is also a small quirk being worked out, as the game has currently no input buffer. This isn’t an issue per se for chains of attacks, but it might be a bit jarring while trying to buffer a forward dash or anything else out of guard. The fact that this game doesn’t use motion inputs for special moves, though, makes it a small annoyance at best.

The picture shows a fake poster with a joypad printed on that says "Attention! All Duels of Fortune participants. Diamondeye Co. strongly recommends the use of a gamepad. X-Input controllers are highly advised over D-Input controllers"

Real Duelists of Fortune use a gamepad.

Please notice that there is an underlying Unity bug in the input interpreter that causes the game to read the trigger buttons of two connected joypads as if they were pressed by the opponent. The bug can be solved by connecting the controllers after the game is started and surfaces only if more than one controller is connected at the time the game is booted up.

A more nuanced meter usage

The super meter is segmented into four sections. Two pips are required to perform any super move, but meter has also some additional uses:

  • by spending 25% meter one can perform an offensive Guard Cancel/Alpha Counter reversal. This is activated by pressing the Block button in back-to-block mode and by pressing the Special button in Block Button mode while the Block button is pressed down. This is also the only attack that can be performed while in blockstun and can be used to fend off the opponent’s pressure;
  • by spending 25% meter while one is knocked down, one can perform an invincible Reversal. This is activated by pressing the Block button in back-to-block mode and by pressing the Special button in Block Button mode;
  • as a unique oddity, Doodle can use up all his meter while performing his Meter-Burner super to increase its damage.

There are no ex-moves that use up only one pip of meter, but meter management is quite interesting as it is and—in the opinion of this writer—doesn’t need to become any more complex.

Scene from training mode showing the life bars at the top and the super meter at the bottom. The character Red is on the left side of the screen, using a super move against Shiverskull, the character on the right. Both characters are enveloped in colored hit- and hirtboxes. The stage is a moving train in the desert

Training mode has many tools one would like to have when labbing characters, like visible hitboxes and meter refill. Also, yes, that is the hitbox of Red’s second super. And, yes, it’s an overhead. Good lord.

What is cooler? Skeleton pirates or skeleton knights?

The cast is incredibly varied and sports a grand total of eleven playable characters, plus five utterly broken, weird or gimmicky boss characters.

  • Clyde Brightstar is a rushdown/mixup monster that can close the distance in seconds and has evasive dash attack tools;
  • Sir Rattlebone is the jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none skeleton knight with armored specials, head projectiles and a variety of close-range/mid-range tools;
  • Annie Dasteel is the zoner/trap character, with several ways to clog the screen with tricky machinery and the support of her hovering companion Gizmo;
  • Cole “Red” Maxwell is a heavy-damage character with a Rage meter that fills up the more punishment he receives and that powers up his specials significantly when active;
  • Shoto Kanji is—well—similar to a shoto in terms of moveset, but has much more emphasis on rushdown and on being a glass cannon;
  • Callowman is a pseudo-grappler who can dish out heavy damage and has a power-up taunt mechanic;
  • Black Heart is an ungodly mixup machine with a solid array of confusing moves and fake outs, plus some good lockdown tool;
  • Captain Shiverskull is a weird rushdown bad-to-the-bone skeleton pirate, with rotating assists and MVC3 Vergil’s spirit swords as a super (plus another super where he lets his crew shoot him as a human projectile with a cannon. Yes, he’s that level of dumb);
  • Sylvan Blackjack is the resident main villain and has access to some very tricky setup, once his Full House mode kicks in. Probably the most technical character in the game, as in Full House he can shut down the opponent’s projectiles entirely and has access to the most damaging super in the game. However, reaching Full House is quite hard, making this—literally—a game of chances or a risky bet;
  • Doodle is the 4th-wall-breaking character with solid charge specials and weird tools, including using part of the game’s UI to laser down the opponent;
  • Error CS1501 (accessed by pressing Start or Select/Back on the random selection icon—depending on the input configuration) is even weirder and probably one of the most bizarre characters I have ever met in a fighting game, capable of detaching his head, levitating or creating dimensional holes on the ground.

I will not talk about the five bosses, because it’s better if you go in blind and be surprised by them instead of reading about them—words cannot convey what these eyes have seen.

Duels of Fortune stage selection screen, featuring 23 stage icons.

Look, I’m not one to flaunt his own crossovers, but for a developer this is undeniably cool. Both versions of Euterpe from Schwarzerblitz are available as stages in Duels of Fortune. And, huh, did I mention that some stages have toggleable hazards?

Minigames, mission mode and all those shiny single-player toys

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Duels of Fortune is not going to have any form of online netcode. Due to the specific engine used and how the code evolved in the last four years, it is very unlikely this game will ever have any true chance to receive the rollback treatment. However, to offset this, the game offers a great amount of offline content, ranging from the classic combo trials and arcade mode, to less conventional mini-games, even less conventional missions, boss battles, and quirky extras like stage hazards, weird physics and big head mode.

While all base characters and stages are unlocked from the very beginning, there is a wealth of unlockable costumes and stage variants that can be obtained by clearing arcade mode or mission mode. There are also five unlockable boss characters (that will be hardly tournament legal, if at all), which add more fun to the mix.

The included minigames range from the classic “break the car” of Street Fighter 2 fame, to a horde battle either against skeletons or against Schwarzerblitz‘s very own Haemophages (yes, it was quite the crossover event), to a ball juggling contest, to a “run through the stage before a shadow abomination grabs you” stage that wouldn’t feel out of place in Super Smash Bros. Melee adventure mode.

There is quite a lot to do, and this level of variety is something I hope more games will pick up on and take as an example.

Menu of the solo mode of Duels of Fortune. A list of modes is on the left (Arcade, Training, Missions, Combo Trials, Minigames, Boss Fights, Return to Menu). On the right, a picture of the character Red standing in front of a blackboard with the notation of a combo written down.

The menu art is nothing short of incredible. There is a lot to do in Duels of Fortune, which compensates completely for the lack of online modes.

How to play it?

Close up of Sylvan Blackjack saying "Yours truly." to the player, in front of a crowd cheering in a stadium.

The cinematic work done in Arcade Mode and for super moves is something worth noting. The game’s cutscenes are very well animated and Sylvan’s introduction in arcade mode has a sense of gravitas that is hard to overstate.

Parting notes

Today’s article was very personal for me. I have been in touch with Cosmic Hat Games since around 2019, I have been a closed beta tester for the game and even shared a character with them: Sir Rattlebone in Schwarzerblitz is a guest since 2020 and Johnson from my own game will feature in theirs relatively soon. Schwarzerblitz also offered a free Duels of Fortune costume set back in 2021.

In the meanwhile, Duels of Fortune got shaped more and more into a refined, little game, ending up with additional crossover content, such as a Shoto Goto costume from HYPERFIGHT. In 2022, everyone will finally be able to have a run at this game, and I’m feeling a little bit proud of having been a small part of its development.

Ben and Kaleb, the duo behind the Cosmic Hat Games moniker, still have a long way before the full release, but their first public step here is something that pours love and dedication from every pore and is totally worth playing.

Now, it’s time for all of you to head to Eagleton and try your luck. What will be the wish you’ll ask for, once you topple Sylvan forever?

Duels of Fortune's character selection screen, showing the character Shoto Goto on the left and the character Black Heart on the right. There is a grid with ten character slots, an option slot and the random selection button.

Shoto Goto from HYPERFIGHT joins the Duels of Fortune roster as a costume for Shoto Kanji!

Summary

Name: Duels of Fortune
Developer: Cosmic Hat Games (Twitter, Discord)
Available on: PC (GameJolt, itch.io)
Price: Free
Year of release: 2022
Engine: Unity
Status: Early access (version tested: 0.0.1EA)
Netcode: None (Parsec)
In one sentence: A polished, approachable game with emphasis on single player content, free-form combos and simple controls. Low skill floor, high skill ceiling in a cartoon-y world full of bizarre characters.

Special thanks to Kaleb and Ben for the amazing work they did on this game, for letting me access a closed beta build long ago, and for all the amazing crossovers between their game and my own Schwarzerblitz. Special thanks to my fellow beta testers (especially Mibeador, Bandana, Felix Kuma, Devi/Berks and YellowSlotCar) for sharing this wild ride together!

If you are interested in more coverage about indie fighting games, you can find me on Twitter at @AndreaDProjects

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