Fighting games are fun, flashy and rewarding, but they can also be incredibly daunting. Between complex controller inputs, endlessly long move lists and massive rosters, getting a decent grasp of most modern brawlers requires a huge time investment. Fantasy Strike (PS4, Switch, PC; $30) aims to lower the barrier of entry to the genre without sacrificing competitive depth, and succeeds with flying colors.
Picking up Fantasy Strike is simple. You've got a normal attack, two special moves, a throw and a super attack, all of which require a single button input. Some attacks change properties when you're moving or jumping. However, there's no crouching — so no need to worry about guessing whether your opponent will hit high or low.
In perhaps the game's most brilliant design decision, you counter throws by simply doing nothing — a true show of mental confidence that's appropriately called the "Yomi Counter." The game's basic inputs mean that you can be competitive with basically any controller, whether it's your keyboard, fight stick, gamepad or even the Switch's tiny Joy-Cons.
While Fantasy Strike's controls are easy to grasp, you'll still need strong fighting game fundamentals to succeed. Because there are no complex inputs to wrestle with, I found myself focusing fully on making smart decisions, such as knowing when to hit my opponent out of the air, or keep them away with projectiles and long-range attacks. The game goes even further to encourage smart play by indicating, with red and blue on-screen effects, whether or not an attack will leave you vulnerable if blocked. This is a first for the genre, and a feature that I'd love to see other titles emulate.
Thanks to that visual aid and the game's general lack of an execution barrier, I felt like I was being instantly rewarded for smart play, and caught myself pumping my fist every time I timed a super attack correctly or punished an opponent's mistake.
A fantasy fighting world
Fantasy Strike's visuals won't wow anyone looking for something on a par with the likes of Mortal Kombat 11 or Samurai Shodown. But what the game lacks in pure fidelity, it makes up for with a vibrant, distinctly cartoony sense of style and a cast of memorable characters. This is a game in which a gambling-obsessed Panda can fight a martial artist who transforms into a dragon, all against colorful backdrops that run the gamut from sparkling casinos to snowy mountaintops.
The game's 10 characters offer solid variety, with a good mix of long-range zoners, high-damage grapplers and "wild card" characters who have unique bags of tricks. There are certainly some familiar archetypes here — Argagarg and Setsuki bring Street Fighter's Dhalsim and Ibuki, respectively, to mind. But each fighter still feels distinct both visually and mechanically, and thanks to the game's easy controls, I found myself trying out a bigger chunk of the roster than I would in a typical fighting game.
Fantasy Strike's robust training mode has all the options you'll need for practicing against specific moves and situations. The game offers a helpful interactive tutorial, as well as in-game videos for learning each individual character.
In terms of single-player content, Fantasy Strike sticks to the basics, but with a few twists. You've got a standard arcade mode with illustrated intros and endings, as well as daily challenges and a survival mode that has you take on waves of enemies.
The game's most interesting solo mode is Boss Rush, which has you battle a series of overpowered opponents while choosing from a variety of power-ups that can help you turn the tide. These modes all provide decent diversions, but with no costumes or characters to unlock, there isn't much reason to revisit them often.
Taking it online
While Fantasy Strike's single-player content might not hold you for long, the game shines when played online, with seamless options for casual, ranked and friends-only fights. Fantasy Strike's approach to ranked matches is different than that of most other fighters, as you pick a team of three and get automatically placed in an 8-person tournament bracket to see who has the strongest crew.
While I was initially a bit put off by the team-only approach for ranked play (I generally like to focus on a single character for fighting games), I eventually grew to enjoy it. Having to switch randomly between three fighters in a first-to-three-wins series is a great way to learn new fighters and matchups, especially when each character is generally easy to pick up. And the way that Fantasy Strike places you in a mini-tournament rather than just throwing random opponents at you makes each match feel like it matters more.
Fantasy Strike utilizes the popular GGPO netcode to ensure online matches are smooth even for less-than-ideal connections, and I've yet to run into any significant lag during my online bouts. Of course, this could change when the servers become more populated post-launch, and I'll be sure to update this review if it does. The game makes it easy to challenge or watch a friend, though I would like to see options for custom lobbies and tournaments down the line.
Fantasy Strike does a fantastic job removing the barriers that typically keep newcomers from enjoying fighting games, without sacrificing the tactical depth or visual excitement that makes the genre so compelling. Its varied 10-character roster is full of fun, dynamic and easy-to-learn fighters, and the game delivers a refreshing approach to online play, complete with smooth netcode and on-the-fly tournaments.
If you're looking for a fighting game with AAA visuals and heaps of single-player content, you're probably better off with the likes of Mortal Kombat 11 or Dead or Alive 6. But for $29, Fantasy Strike is an excellent entry point into a normally daunting genre, and a great game in its own right.