I love fighting games, but I tend to be terrible at them. I still pick up the occasional fighting game because I do thoroughly enjoy them, but, even if I eventually make it through the the game’s Arcade mode, there’s almost no chance that my win rate will be above even 30% when playing online. I have no doubt that, when Sirlin Games sat down to design a more accessible fighting game, I was the kind of person that the company had in mind.
Upon loading up Fantasy Strike for the first time, I did what I always do when starting a new fighting game; I jumped straight into the game’s Arcade mode and chose the character that looked the most interesting. Characters in Fantasy Strike are broken into several classes, each of which has its own strengths: Zoners, which tend to have a moderate amount of health and seem to be able to control the enemy’s movement somewhat by way of their attacks; Rushdowns, which have very little health, but excel at taking enemies down quickly and avoiding getting hit; Grapplers, which are slower, have high health, can grapple from a larger distance, and deal extra damage when grappling; and Wild Cards, which I can only assume are those characters that don’t fit under any of the other three categories. Each character’s playstyle is defined by their move set, rather than their class, but classes represent larger playstyle facets that characters have in common. The lizard-like character that I wanted to play as isn’t in-game yet, so I chose DeGrey, the only Wild Card character that is available at present. Unfortunately, he and his ghostly companion didn’t exactly match my playstyle and I played quite terribly.
I then proceeded to play a few more matches as different characters, eventually deciding that I would likely play the best as Setsuki. Setsuki is a rushdown character that can quickly dash into her opponent and kick them, throw a kunai at a sharp downward angle while in air, and even turn invisible. Her fast-paced, offense-focused playstyle matched how I had ended up attempting to play the game. Having decided upon a primary character, I began learning more about how to play the character and the game.
Fantasy Strike’s core gameplay is responsive and, overall, the game feels great to play, but it’s also a bit odd. In trying to create an accessible fighting game, they’ve created a combat system that reminds me a bit of Super Smash Bros., but is arguably even simpler in nature. There are only a few buttons that are used, all of which are customizable: a jump button, attack button A, attack button B, attack button C, a grapple button, and a Super button. Each and every one of these buttons represents an individual attack and, rather than offering complex input combos, they offer different attacks based on whether you are in the air or on the ground—even your Super has air and ground versions. Attack button A also has the unique distinguishment of offering different attacks based on which direction you’re pushing the joystick in when you press it. Blocking can be done by moving away from your opponent, which is the same as many other fighting games. There’s also a counter mechanic, but I haven’t quite figured out how it works just yet. The game largely eschews combos and the few that do exist are limited to pressing the same button multiple times.
Despite the simplistic controls, Sirlin Games appears to have gone to great lengths to ensure that the game has a decent amount of nuance. Valerie has a move that can animation cancel into another move. Grave has one move that he is invulnerable during, while another of his moves is a parry. One of Setsuki’s combos allows her to quickly grapple her opponent and throw them to the ground. These aren’t the most complex mechanics, but their largely character-specific nature is fairly interesting, as they seem to have been used as additional modifiers for balance purposes.
Perhaps the most interesting mechanic, however, is that of the Yomi Counter. If your opponent tries to grapple you, you can simply stop pressing all input buttons to automatically counter their grapple. A cutscene will then play and your opponent will be dealt a small amount of damage. Yomi Counters are especially great for dealing with Grapplers, but timing them isn’t always as simple as it seems. In order to pull off a successful counter, you have to have the foresight to stop pressing every button, including movement buttons or joysticks, right as your opponent attempts to grapple you. More often than not, I’ve found that I’m just a second too late, usually due to the fact that I’m still trying to move as my opponent grapples me. I’m sure that that will improve with more practice, but it does emphasize that, in a fast-paced game like this, it’s not always so simple to just stop pressing buttons, especially in such a short window of time. However, you also can’t just stand still the entire match, waiting for your opponent to attempt to grapple you, or they will simply pummel you with other attacks. It’s a fairly clever mechanic that adds significantly to the metagame of trying to figure out what your opponent is going to do and react to it.
Health is also handled a bit differently. Each character has a certain amount of health, which is displayed as blocks in their health bar, each of which represents one point of health. Attacks always deal one damage. Some attacks may be composed of multiple hits, but each individual hit in the attack will deal one damage. The lone exception is when you block; with each hit that you block, your current health block will wear down slightly until it “breaks” and you take one damage. However, even if a health block is worn down, the next attack that you fail to block or dodge will still deal only one damage.
At present, I’m finding myself fairly torn on the game’s current mechanics. I am fond of the fact that the learning curve is much more manageable and that the game is based more on who makes good decisions and less on who knows their combos, but, at the same time, I am concerned that the gameplay will wear thin far more quickly than the average fighting game. Going forward, It will have to be impeccably balanced to ensure that each character can win against every other character and that they will each have several viable strategies, regardless of who they’re up against.
That being said, I can report that Fantasy Strike is definitely accessible. After only around half an hour of practice with Setsuki, I played four online matches and won two of them, which is a far greater win rate than I’ve had in any other 1v1 fighting game. It remains to be seen whether this will continue once others have had more time to practice, but it certainly points to the game being fairly easy to pick up.
The online mode works surprisingly well, even when the connection is only of moderate quality. The game boasts the use of GGPO, which seems to have been a wise decision, as I have yet to feel the effects of lag beyond a few animations that appeared to be slightly stuttery.
I did, however, find the current iteration of the game’s Arcade mode to be lacking. Given that the game is currently in Pre-Alpha, I expected that there wouldn’t be any sort of overarching narrative, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as barebones as it is. At present, the Arcade mode is the only way to play against AI. However, there are no difficulty options and your opponent is random to the point that you may end up facing the same character twice in a row.
The AI is also a bit erratic. While AI opponents are usually challenging, there are also the occasional moments when they simply don’t know how to counter your attacks. For example, I once faced off against Midori as Grave. By using Grave’s projectile attack repeatedly, I was able to trap my opponent in the corner and defeat him quickly. During this specific match, the AI didn’t even try to block my attacks; it simply sat there as I pummeled it.
Admittedly, though, it wasn’t Fantasy Strike’s gameplay that initially grabbed me. On the contrary, it was the bright, well-animated graphics. The game looks great in motion and the screenshots don’t really reflect that well. Oftentimes, fighting games will feature animations that end abruptly or don’t transition into one another well, but that’s not the case here. The action is smooth and well represented, even in the game’s current self-described Pre-Alpha state.
Fantasy Strike is a promising entry in the fighting game genre. While games like Divekick, Nidhogg, and Super Smash Bros. have all made the genre more accessible in their own ways, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a traditional 1v1 fighting game that focused on accessibility. Much to my surprise, it actually is succeeding at its goal and it looks great and plays well, to boot. The single-player experience is unfortunately a bit lacking at present, but the multiplayer experience is already rather great. Fans of the fighting game genre will find that the game already has a lot to offer, but everyone else may want to wait until the single-player experience is more fleshed out, as they may find learning to play against other players and the current iteration of the game’s AI to be difficult.
Important note: Sirlin Games sent us a copy of Fantasy Strike for the purpose of writing this article.