One of the questions I’m sometimes asked by friends is what the best entry-level fighting game is for someone who is new to the genre, but who also doesn’t want to spend hours in a training mode or immediately get completely blown up when they play online. My answer is generally, “such a game doesn’t exist, but the closest you’ll get is probably Fantasy Strike.”
Fantasy Strike is a fun, easy to play fighting game with simple controls, tight and strategic fighting mechanics, a well rounded cast of 12 unique fighters, and some wonderful innovations in the genre that I wish other, bigger franchises would take note of. Visually, it’s very bland and lacks its own unique personality, but if you look beyond that, you’ll find one of the most daringly different fighting games of the last decade – not to mention it’s free-to-play, has great netcode, and full crossplay support between PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch.
Breaking the Rules
Fantasy Strike throws the basic rules behind most fighting games out the window, instead writing its own with the goal of making things as intuitive and accessible as a traditional fighting game can possibly be. You can’t crouch, which eliminates all high/low mix-ups; the life bars are broken up into segmented chunks of HP, so you always have a clear idea of how many more hits are needed to win or lose; your super meter fills up automatically; there are no complicated input commands; you can counter throws by just standing completely still. The list goes on and on, resulting in a very distinct flavor of a familiar whole.
Fantasy Strike Screenshots
Fantasy Strike uses a three button fighting system with each character largely sharing the same basic input commands for each of their moves. While on the ground, every character has three light (A) attacks, one medium (B), one heavy (C), and one super. While in the air they also have one attack for each button along with an aerial specific super as well. This makes it very easy to jump between and learn new characters, which is great because online ranked play requires you to create a three person team.
Despite the similar movelists, these characters all play dramatically different from each other, even those within the same archetype. Jaina, for instance, is a zoner who can fill the field with projectiles, but can also be incredibly nasty up close with some very tricky cross ups and respectable damage. Argagarg on the other hand, despite also being a zoner, focuses on poisoning his opponent and utilizing his projectiles to push his adversaries away and keep the poison active. Every character in Fantasy Strike feels like they have something unbelievably powerful that only they can do, which makes the entire roster very fun to play and also satisfyingly challenging to play against.
Accessible By Design
Even beyond the simplified inputs, one other area of accessibility that Fantasy Strike absolutely excels at is using visual cues to tell you everything you need to know about the properties of a move. You’ll never wonder why you got hit by something, or be confused as to how to counter a specific move. When enemies glow blue, they have armor; when they glow white, their attack is unblockable; when they get you with a command grab, big bold letters appear that say “Jumpable,” letting you know that you could have jumped to avoid getting hit; when you see blue sparks after an attack is blocked, you have frame advantage; when you see red sparks after an attack is blocked, it’s punishable. It’s all incredibly intuitive, and the stuff that isn’t outright taught in its excellent intro tutorial is easy enough to pick up on with experience.
There are so many design choices present to make things easy and accessible that you would think the depth of the gameplay would suffer as a result, but surprisingly, it doesn’t. Fantasy Strike successfully manages to lower the skill floor of all of its characters without ever dropping the skill ceiling, and it does so not only through excellent design of its movesets and character archetypes, but also by giving players the right tools to understand those movesets and archetypes.
Embedded within Fantasy Strike are excellent spotlight videos for each character that go over everything one would need to know in order to be competent with that character. These videos are short, comprehensive, and most importantly, they’re presented in a way that makes it very easy to understand complex concepts like set-ups, cross ups, frame traps, and more. Within just an hour or so, I already felt comfortable enough with a character to jump online and start having competitive matches. After a few of those, I was on my way to winning my first ranked mini-tournament. These kinds of tutorial videos are absolutely something that should be standard among future fighting games.
As good as all of this is, there’s no getting around Fantasy Strike’s bland style. Its roster, while very mechanically interesting, are among the most boring character designs I’ve played in a modern fighting game. Rook is just a stone golem with no distinguishing characteristics; Setsuki is a kunoichi with rainbow hair that feels randomly colored in with a paint bucket tool; and Grave is the prototypical Ryu-style character who just wants to improve and fight strong opponents, just to name a few.
These boring looking fighters aren’t helped by a weak arcade mode that does very little to give them any much needed personality and is hampered by inconsistent voice acting throughout. Looks aren’t everything of course, but when the competition even among indie fighting games includes gorgeous options like Skullgirls, Under Night In-Birth, and Them’s Fightin’ Herds, Fantasy Strike’s isn’t even in the same league on the audio/visual side.
For the solo players, in addition to arcade mode, there’s also a daily challenge mode, a standard survival mode, and an interesting twist on a Boss Rush mode that throws all concerns about character balance out the window by rewarding you for each victory with your choice of an incredibly overpowered perk after each fight. What’s great is that many of these power ups are specific to each character and designed to either cover their inherent weaknesses or ridiculously enhance their strengths. In one Boss Rush run, I had a Rook that could deal 6 damage off of a standard throw by just the third round, basically allowing him to one-hit KO a lower health enemy as soon as I got my hands on them. It’s an amusing distraction, but not one I felt the need to come back to after a few runs.
All For Free
Fantasy Strike’s actually been around since 2017 as a Steam Early Access game, but as of July 21, 2020 it became completely free to play with the full roster of 12 characters available immediately. That’s unprecedented in a genre where other free-to-play games lock most of their characters behind some sort of pay wall, and it truly makes Fantasy Strike the best entry point for newcomers interested in fighting games. You won’t get access to the single-player modes like Arcade, Boss Rush, or Survival without paying at least $20 for the Core Version, but you’ll still be able to access Fantasy Strike’s full suite of training modes, and most importantly, you’ll be able to play online in both casual and competitive playlists. However, if you’re playing for free, you won’t have access to local versus multiplayer, and you won’t be able to start a private room with another person unless at least one of you owns a paid for version, which is a humongous bummer even in spite of all that Fantasy Strike offers for free.
Instead of charging for characters, developer Sirlin Games has introduced a very unusual subscription service called Fantasy+ that gives players access to special Master level costumes that can’t be purchased in the shop, XP boosts on all characters (which is just a show of how experienced you are with a character and opens up the Master costumes at level 20), and access to Replay Theater. Replay Theater is the star here, and it is actually a pretty fantastic innovation on how players are able to view recorded matches, and though it doesn’t quite justify a $5 per month premium fee, it is a great perk for those who want to show support for the developers who are offering a substantial amount of value by keeping the whole roster free to play.
Many fighting games have the ability to rewatch your own matches and replays of high level matches, but with Replay Theater, you can actually filter what you want to see based upon the rank of the players and the specific characters used in the match. You can even set the filter so you can watch only matches of one specific character vs another, which is super helpful if you find yourself having trouble with a particular matchup and want to see how high level players deal with it.