DNF Duel is an accessible 2D fighting game with smooth online play, a diverse roster, and a beautiful visual presentation.
DNF Duel might seem like a confusing title to most gamers these days, but the DNF (short for Dungeon & Fighter) franchise has been enormously successful since 2005. The original Korean game is a fantasy-themed 2D beat 'em up that allows you to hack and slash alongside friends online. DNF eventually saw an English localization in 2015, when it was released as Dungeon Fighter Online. That release didn't quite set the English-speaking world on fire, so the Arc Systems Works-published fighting game spin-off is simply titled DNF Duel worldwide.
What's It About?
DNF Duel requires no knowledge of the Dungeon & Fighter universe or characters to enjoy from the get-go. Characters tend to be fantasy or action game archetypes (Berserker, Crusader, Striker, etc.), as envisioned through the edgiest of anime filters. The story is equally simple, with characters from various locations and time periods drawn to the same location to (what else?) fight.
Those invested in the DNF world will be happy to know that each character has their own unique path through the game's Story mode. That's a decent amount of offline content when you take into account the 15-character roster, but Story mode is sadly a bit of a disappointment. Characters bumble their way through the world of Arad, encountering their rivals one-by-one. It's a glorified Arcade mode that sprinkles in some uninspired Visual Novel segments between bouts. There's also a basic 8-match Arcade mode for those with no interest in the story segments.
No Dungeons, Only Fighters
But enough about the story – this is a fighting game after all! If you've played an Arc Systems Works fighting game (Guilty Gear, Dragon Ball FighterZ, Granblue Fantasy Versus), you know what to expect for the most part. Co-developer 8ing (Marvel vs Capcom 3) lends their expertise and proves that they still know how to construct a solid fighter. DNF Duel continues the trend established by Granblue Fantasy Versus to simplify 2D fighting game mechanics, but takes things a step further. Every character has a standard and heavy attack, but two buttons are entirely dedicated to special attacks.
Simplified inputs comprise the backbone of the game's mechanics, allowing you to perform a special move by holding a direction when pressing a button. This should feel familiar to anyone who has played Super Smash Bros., but it's unusual for a traditional fighter. Simplified inputs make DNF Duel a far more accessible fighter than most, but there is still plenty of depth. General movement can feel a little slow at times, but most characters have moves that operate as a utility for quick movement.
One button allows “standard” special attacks, while another allows MP-based attacks, with eight total attacks between them. There's also a one-button “Awakening” ability that can be performed at low health. Special attacks can (and will) be spammed to your heart's content, but MP-based attacks deplete your MP gauge. Finding a way to balance normal, special, and MP attacks without exhausting the MP meter is where the real push-and-pull of the game's mechanics lies.
A Well-Balanced Roster
With 15 characters to choose from, there's a fighting style for everyone in DNF Duel. Crusader is slow, with heavy-hitting, high-arcing attacks. Ranger slings his guns, both literally and figuratively, from across the screen. Striker, well, strikes. These are basic examples, but there are more complicated characters as well. Ghostblade, with his frantic katana slashes and dual teleportation, is a particular favorite of mine.
If you like how a character looks, give them a shot! Even the most mechanically complex character can perform a ton of flashy moves with the push of a button. Advanced players can take advantage of systems that allow you to Guard Cancel or convert “white (temporary) damage” to MP, but don't let that intimidate you. Study up using the very helpful Tutorial mode and beat up on some A.I. opponents to gain some confidence.
How Does DNF Duel Play Online?
Another trend that DNF Duel wisely continues is the implementation of “rollback” netcode for its online modes. This makes for a smoother online experience than with delay-based netcode, and I can vouch for a generally lag-free experience with my online matches. There is apparently an issue with the PS5 version related to the Unreal graphics engine that some claim makes the game feel “muddier” online, but I didn't experience this at all personally.
Ranked matchmaking occurs quickly, but you can spend time in Training mode between matches if things are slow. Player matches feature lobbies with “chibi” avatars in a virtual arcade. It's a nice, charming touch that adds to the visual presentation, if little else. You can also customize a “Player Card” with your favorite character and colorful designs/borders if you're feeling especially Patrick Bateman-ish.
DNF Duel Has Gorgeous Aesthetic Design
DNF Duel looks absolutely amazing, no matter which platform you're playing it on. The “2.5D” style of cel-shaded visuals popularized by 2014's Guilty Gear Xrd perfectly complements the art direction. Characters animate smoothly despite a multitude of lighting effects and explosions at any given time. The visual presentation more than makes up for somewhat generic (though intentionally so) character designs.
The game's sound, on the other hand, is somewhat disappointing. The soundtrack is lacking the energetic guitar-shredding of Daisuke Ishiwatari that is found in so many other Arc System Works games. Going with a more subdued musical style is fine, but it all sounds a bit bland and forgettable. There is also sadly no English language option, with all spoken dialogue in Korean. These are negligible complaints in the grand scheme of things, however.
DNF Duel indicates a willingness by one of the most popular publishers/developers of fighting games to push for more accessibility within the genre. An emphasis on simplified inputs and archetypal characters lowers the barrier to entry significantly for newcomers. Veterans, on the other hand, have enough variety and depth to keep them constantly coming back for more. And with solid online performance, the game is destined to attract droves of stream-watchers.
A lackluster Story mode and ho-hum music notwithstanding, DNF Duel is a solid release. It's flashy, fast-paced, and visually arresting, while being conscientious of the player's time. It's a fitting companion to Granblue Fantasy Versus, trading off a robust single-player mode for smoother online play. With no announcement for a season pass (yet), it also shows confidence by the publisher in the game's content. Based on my time with the game, I'm happy to say that confidence is completely justified.