The good old fighting game has certainly enjoyed a massive resurgence over the past ten or so years, one that many pinpoint as having been kickstarted by the release of Capcom's Street Fighter 4 back in 2008, and nowadays the popularity of the genre has returned to something akin to that which it enjoyed back in the glory days of the late 80s/early 1990s.
All those big old household names; Tekken, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Soul Calibur and indeed Nintendo's very own Smash Bros., have returned with vastly expanded rosters of characters, complex reams of fighting mechanics, convoluted backstories for characters who have now taken on almost mythical status and an almost disarming wealth of training and tactical options for fans to really get their teeth sunk into. It's an embarrassment of riches for sure if you're a long-term fight fan but one that, for newcomers to the genre, can be more than a little overwhelming due to the now huge number of game mechanics and complex moves they're expected to learn if they intend to do anything more than stick to the solo modes on offer.
This is where Fantasy Strike hopes to step in. Developed by ex-Street Fighter dev David Sirlin, it labels itself as a “strategic fighting game for everyone.” In a bold move, it strips away the complex strings of commands we’ve grown accustomed to in the genre in favour of a system that sees moves performed by single button presses. From the simplest of kicks to the flashiest, screen-filling special attacks, every move here is a simple button push. Every character on the just ten-strong roster of pugilists is designed with a relatively small moveset to get your head around, the idea being that the player’s primary focus is taken away from fumbling over complicated button combinations and onto actually playing and enjoying the game, having fun and, in the process, developing an understanding of the nuts and bolts of what makes a fighting game so fun and addicting to play.
Jumping into Fantasy Strike for the first time is certainly an odd feeling for any seasoned fan of the genre, so many of your bog-standard movement options are gone here; there’s no crouch, you can’t run or dash and, to begin with, it almost feels a little claustrophobic, like you can’t quite move around the screen how you want to. Luckily, before any fighting begins, you’re thrown into a pretty comprehensive tutorial, voiced entirely by Sirlin himself, which gives you all the tools you’ll need to play the game, and it's a disarmingly simple setup.
The Y button controls your basic attacks and depending on the character you’re using and which direction you hold as you press it, you’ll punch, kick or sweep your opponent. Both X and Y perform specials, from fireballs to flaming arrows, ninja teleports to crushing windmill attacks. The B button is jump, left shoulder button performs a devastating super attack while the right shoulder is throw. Block is performed by holding back and, because there’s no crouch, you don’t even need to worry about low or high blocks here. Alongside the tutorial there are also impressively detailed videos for each character that explain not just their moves, but how best to deploy them so new players get a grounding in the tactics at play once you've got to grips with the controls.
Alongside those hugely streamlined controls, another unique addition to Fantasy Strike is the Yomi Counter, your way of breaking out of a throw, a task which might usually see you need to time a counter throw perfectly. With the Yomi Counter, you simply let go of all the controls and do nothing if you think your opponent is going to attempt to fling you across the screen. If you’ve guessed correctly your character will automatically perform a reversal move which does damage to your opponent and instantly fills your super meter (which just recharges by itself over a short period of time), meaning that a situation where a better fighter might usually begin to put pressure on or trap a lesser player can, with very little practice, be totally turned around, with a reversal immediately followed by a super move for big damage.
It's a great way of introducing counter attacks into your game and it's further enhanced by the inclusion of easy to read, and easy to deploy, unblockable attacks, alongside moves which can absorb a hitpoint of damage. Stuff that can very easily get lost in the maelstrom for beginners and basic tactical options get a chance to breathe and become straightforward to pick up for newbies because the actual controls are so simple and intuitive.
And that’s it, at its most basic level that’s pretty much all you need to know to get started. It’s a simple system to get your head around but, crucially, it does have depth - there are layers here that you’ll discover as you get to grips with the moves each fighter has to offer. Every move can be countered and tactics and strategy quickly come to the fore making for reliably entertaining matches because, even though that control system is basic, it’s married to a cast of characters whose move-sets are well designed, fun, and combine to create explosive and fast-moving bouts.
The ten fighters on offer here are smartly split into groups based on their styles, with zoners, rushdown fighters, grapplers and wildcards. It’s a great way of breaking the selection of characters down so newcomers aren’t choosing at random and ending up with a fighter who doesn’t suit their style of play starting out. At the same time, it’s also introducing these concepts such as zoning and rushing to players who may never have gotten to the point of learning about them because they’d fallen at the first hurdle of learning all the controls. Characters are also rated from one to three stars in terms of how difficult they are to learn, although we found that even the three-star players really don’t take too long to get your head around and more often than not provide the most interesting offensive options.
The characters themselves do a good job of covering all the bases you’d expect in a fighting game, even though they've certainly had their move-sets stripped back to a few basic moves combined with a handful of specials and supers in order to maintain that clarity - which is such a big part of what Fantasy Strike is setting out to achieve.
Zoning characters are a great place for absolute beginners to start out and in particular Grave, very much Fantasy Strike’s Ryu, is a good first port of call with an instantly recognisable fireball attack and powerful sword slashes - he easily controls the screen and helps players settle into the rhythm of things. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Street Fighter’s DNA continues throughout some of the roster, with heavy-hitter Rook, a grappling Zangief replacement, dominating the arena with big throws and spinning attacks while Argagarg, another zoner, is a close match for Dhalsim's stretchy-limbed antics, keeping his opponents at bay with his long limbs, vine attacks and delightfully odd water-based specials.
Setsuki, one of your Rushdown options, is a fast-moving ninja and probably the hardest character in the game to defend against with her quick teleports and flying attacks, whilst Jaina's a really powerful zoning character with fiery arrows to keep opponents at a distance and a wicked uppercut for when they get too close. Midori and Geiger are also both interesting choices, the former with the ability to transform into a huge dragon whilst the latter can freeze time during matches to reposition himself for attacks and line up combos. You’ve also got wildcards Lum, a panda with a slot machine full of surprises and DeGrey, who partners with a ghost to take the fight to his opponents. In fact, the only entry on the roster we didn’t really enjoy was Valerie, although that may have been mainly because aesthetically she’s the weakest of the bunch.
Speaking of aesthetics, one issue we would take with the roster, and perhaps with the game as a whole is that everything is a little generic and bland looking. Characters have got plenty of flashy and satisfying moves, for sure, and the screen regularly explodes in colour and detail during a fight, it's just the characters themselves aren’t very inspiring to look at and lack the detail we've perhaps come to expect from the genre. The same goes for the selection of stages on offer; it's a pretty generic and static bunch and there are no hidden areas or walls to break through here, although they are at least colourful and chunky and easy to parse if you’re playing in portable mode. The cast are certainly, for the most part, a fun bunch to fight with, they just don’t stand up particularly well aesthetically. It may just be the fantasy vibe the game is going for, or an attempt to keep character and stage design clean and simple to understand, but it just doesn't come off all that well and feels mildly uninspired.
In terms of modes, however, there’s plenty on offer here with an Arcade mode replete with the usual cheesy backstories for each character; Survival, where you take on a series of shadow and metal versions of the roster; Boss Rush; Single matches; a daily challenge to take part in, but it’s online; and especially in ranked team battles, where the brilliance of Fantasy Strike’s easy to learn control system really comes to the fore.
In most fighting games the online suite of modes is a terrifying prospect for finely tuned killers only, a place where you absolutely expect to get pummelled mercilessly. Jump into a match here though and you’ll find yourself holding your own and becoming engaged in the mind games that make fighting games so hugely compelling rather than struggling frustratingly to get to grips with the fact that your opponent is pulling off moves you’ve never seen before.
In ranked battles, you choose a team of three fighters to take part in a mini tournament and almost every round we played ended up being the kind of epic, fun encounter you rarely find in fighting games these days. In some ways it's almost reminiscent of something like Nidhogg, with combat so stripped back that controlling your character is pushed to the back of your mind and the moment-to-moment tactics, the back and forth of battle, are what drives everything. Of course, we're not saying the game is anywhere near as simplistic as Nidhogg, it just has that infectious fun to it whilst playing online. You can always see where you're going wrong or how an opponent is angling to get behind your defenses. The ranked team bouts here are absolutely some of the most fun we’ve had with a fighter in quite some time and it feels like a great addition to the Switch's catalogue of online fighting options, a mode that should especially come into its own when played with friends. And, happily, finding your friends to play against online is also a really clean and well-designed process and you can add players you’ve met to an in-game list making it quick and simple to check if they're online in order to hook up with them in the future.
In terms of single-player content, Boss Rush is easily the strongest mode, with your character gaining special silver and gold level power-ups as each round progresses, stuff like lightning attacks when you jump, or 50% faster movement speed to help them survive against buffed versions of the rest of the roster who have remixed move-sets. You might find yourself fighting a version of Midori who can rain down giant rocks like Rook or a Setsuki who has access to Lum the panda’s box of explosive tricks. It’s another mode that highlights the fact that there’s real depth to the fighting here, even though it’s got such a low bar of entry initially.
Fantasy Strike has been in early access on Steam since September of 2017, constantly receiving tweaks and updates in that time, and it really shows. This is a well-designed and technically polished game, from its opening tutorial to its robust training options, character specific videos, solid netcode, and how it helps its players get the most out of its systems. We had all sorts of reservations going into this one about how a fighting game could possibly remain engaging over time when so many of the usual complexities and huge rosters of characters have been removed, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find a game that delivers endlessly entertaining scrapping here and one that really shines against other human opponents.
In terms of performance on Switch, the game runs great in both docked and handheld, although presently there is a little stuttering from time to time in menus and when things get really hectic in Boss Rush matches, something we hope will be ironed out shortly after release. Online has been relatively quiet pre-release but every match we did manage to connect to was delightfully lag-free.
Fantasy Strike isn’t going to blow anyone away aesthetically and its arcade mode is a little barebones. However, in terms of gameplay, it absolutely achieves what it sets out to, offering fun and accessible fighting action to newcomers whilst at the same time possessing enough technical depth in its roster of characters to keep more seasoned fighters interested. Online ranked team matches and Boss Rush modes are an absolute blast and, in stripping away many of the complex layers that have built up around fighters over the years, this is a game that’s rediscovered the simple pleasures that lie at the beating heart of the genre.