When it comes to the fighting game scene, the name David Sirlin may not illicit the same reaction as those of legendary players like Daigo Umehara or Kuroda. However, he’s certainly a guy who knows his stuff when it comes to competitive brawlers. A respectable Street Fighter competitor in his own right, Sirlin has a good idea of what makes these games tick. After all, the 3DO alumnus was the lead designer behind Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix during his tenure at Backbone Entertainment, and published the book Playing to Win: Becoming The Champion, which dissects the fundamentals of competitive gaming while finding parallels between chess and Street Fighter players. Like I said, Mr. Sirlin is a man who knows a thing or two about fighting games and what makes them work.
So when it was announced that Sirlin had formed his own eponymous studio and begun work on his own one-on-one fighter, Fantasy Strike, I more than eager to see what was in store. And now, having sunk plenty of time into the game’s Early Access build, I have to say there’s a solid foundation here. However, the game’s focus on accessibility could come at the cost of pushing away technical players who’re looking for something a bit more robust and nuanced to sink their teeth into.
Eschewing the precise timing and complex button and d-pad combinations that have served as the backbone of 2D fighting games for nearly three decades, Fantasy Strike puts a premium on accessibility. There’s a single button for jumping and standard attacks, while special moves are mapped to individual buttons as well. Additionally, you can unleash a few different attacks by keeping your d-pad in the forward, neutral, or back positions. It’s all very streamlined, and virtually makes looking at your command list pointless, as you’ll be able unleash volleys of fireballs, flaming arrows, or throwing knives to your heart’s content with a tap of a button, no fancy d-pad inputs or button combinations required.
On the plus side, this means you won’t need to worry about memorizing dozens of different special moves for each character, leaving you free to focus on the fight at hand. The down side is this also means that each character’s move set is pretty paltry when compared to most other games in the genre, which sadly limits your offensive options considerably. While I can appreciate the desire to focus on ease-of-use, this does create some problems out of the gate. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long before every fight simply devolves into a game of rock, paper, scissors as two opponents unload special after special until whichever attack that has priority ends up breaking through their opponent’s defenses.
Still, when two experienced players go toe-to-toe things can get pretty interesting. Now you’ll spend more time reading your opponent’s reactions than wondering if you’ll be able to pull off that 360 degree spin of the joystick required to perform that nasty flying pile driver you’re itching to unleash.
Not even health bars, those iconic yellow symbols of fighting game vitality, are safe from Sirlin’s meddling hands. Each health bar is now divided into six individual units, and every attack, be it a standard punch, special, or move that requires an entire Special stock, will cause exactly one unit’s worth of damage. Chip damage is no longer a thing, either. If an opponent blocks an attack your meter will flash. If they hit you again you’ll lose that entire meter. However, if you can shuffle to safety and avoid getting hit then the unit of health can be regenerated.
This approach serves to punish turtling, but it can also make matches fly by at a blistering pace. A single well-timed combo can decimate an entire health bar in seconds. And with just six hits standing between you and victory, fights quickly become a race to see who can land the most hits in the shortest period of time. To make up for this, each fight has a minimum of four rounds. However, I have to admit I’d prefer longer health bars in favor of this approach, as the rapid-fire nature of bouts can make them feel less than impactful when combared to other games in the genre.
While some of Fantasy Strike‘s mechanics are questionable, there’s a lot to like here as well. For starters, the cast of characters, while not without its share of tropes, is fun and interesting. Each character is grouped into one of four types: zoners, rush-down, grapplers, and wild cards, making their styles easy to identify. The spry kunoichi Setsuki is a favorite of mine. She plays quite a bit like Street Fighter III: Third Strike‘s Ibuki, with her gliding aerial attacks and penchant for hurling throwing knives. Trading Setsuki’s speed for pure power, Root is a massive golem with some impressive throws and a hell of a wingspan, which gives him a serious pressure game in the hands of the right player.
While these characters are pretty straightforward, Fantasy Strike does have some more unique pugilists in its roster. Jefferson DeGrey is literally a haunted ambassador who can beat the snot out of his foes with the help of his spectral companion. Meanwhile, Midori is an aging warrior in traditional Chinese dress who just so happens to have the power to turn into a massive dragon. Oh, and that transformation can carry over into the next round, so good luck dealing with that. The coiffed combatant Geiger is a talented craftsman. In fact, he’s so talented that the watches he makes can freeze time altogether, rendering that combo you just unleashed futile. Oh, and he loves to rain showers of crushing cogs on his opponents, too. Let’s not forget Valerie, a manic artist who fights with an enchanted paintbrush. When she gets going, nothing can stop her from painting the arena red.
Of course, a fighting game is only as good as its online component. Thankfully, Fantasy Strike is rock solid when it comes to its online brawls. Powered by GGPO, online battles unfold without a hitch for a virtually lag-free experience. Speaking of online play, Sirlin Games’ focus on accessibility rings true here as well. Playing with friends is incredibly painless and is easy as choosing your friend from the in-game menu and starting up a match. No esoteric invite or lobby system to worry about, just tap a few buttons and you’re ready to rumble.
In its current state, Fantasy Strike is a fighting game with promise. Its interesting characters, vibrant visuals, and seamless online experience lay a strong foundation for a quality fighter. However, only time will tell if the game’s focus on accessibility keeps it from holding the interest of fighting game veterans. Still, in a time where the genre is increasingly populated with complex fighters that scare away newcomers, Fantasy Strike is a welcome breath of fresh air for novices just looking to enjoy some good, old-fashioned fisticuffs.
If you want to check out the game for yourself, jump on over to Fantasy Strike‘s Steam Early Access page. The full game is slated to release in Q3 2018 for the PlayStation 4 and PC.
Full disclosure: This preview is based on a Steam Early Access key for Fantasy Strike provided by the game’s publisher.