Fantasy Strike threads the needle between Street Fighter and Smash Bros.
When Fantasy Strike was first shown off for Switch in a Nindies Showcase ages ago, I wrote the 2D fighter off. The pedigree was solid, coming from David Sirlin, who has a past as a pro fighting game player as well as a developer who led design on HD ports of Street Fighter games. But it just looked like another run-of-the-mill 2D fighting game. It wasn’t until I got my hands on Fantasy Strike for the first time earlier this year that the potential shone through. It has all the tropes and strategy of a fighter, but the game is designed in such a way to simplify the mechanics and boil it down to the tactical aspects in lieu of fast-paced button combos and nimble execution. That first gameplay impression made me eagerly anticipate the eventual Switch release.
After spending time with the final game on Switch, Fantasy Strike delivers on its promise of a highly strategic simplicity, but higher level play is still hard to wrap your head around. Thankfully, the team at Sirlin Games have an aid for that. I dropped into Fantasy Strike and immediately went to the arcade mode. I got my ass kicked fast and furiously. It wasn’t until I poked around and found the in-depth character tutorial videos, all narrated by Sirlin, that I was able to get a handle on each character. The videos hover around 5-10 minutes and offer a fantastic and straightforward rundown of how to play each fighter. As I bounced around playing, I’d spend time watching one of the videos, and then proceeded to generally succeed at playing as each distinct fighter. It’s a diverse roster filled with interesting takes on fighting game concepts. My personal favorites are Lum the gambling panda, Valerie the manic painter, and DeGrey, a stately diplomat accompanied by a ghost.
Each character is filled with their own nuances and unmistakable styles, but all of them have similar control inputs. Three main attack buttons are key, all with alternate uses when used in the air or while ducking. Additionally, a throw button throws and a special button triggers a powerful ability when your special gauge is filled. It’s extremely easy to grasp in a way that welcomed messing around and experimentation - and in my experience was also less of a barrier of entry for novice players. High-level play is still a cut above, with all sorts of quirks and secrets in each character’s abilities and moves. A straightforward playable tutorial nails the basics efficiently, even explaining the varying counter moves effectively.
Offline and for solo players, a standard Arcade Mode offers brief stories peppered with fights for each character. The Survival Mode provides an onslaught of enemies, but the real gem of the single-player experience is the Boss Rush Mode. At the start of every fight in this mode, you pick one or a few modifiers to boost your power. It could be adding some more health, making a specific move more powerful, or increasing walking speed. You have the ability to tweak and alter your fighter in a number of ways that makes for weird loadouts and altered play styles. The enemies you’re fighting act the same way, sometimes in seemingly unbeatable ways that force you think a little differently as you fight. I enjoyed Arcade Mode, but don’t see much reason to revisit it after romping through each character. Boss Rush, however, is something I kept going back to. It’s grand dopey fun that gets incredibly tense and challenging. Thanks to the variety of options you can choose you from as well as the variety of weird and tough bosses you can face, it’s constantly different.
Online play was solid in my minimal uses. It all runs on the beloved fighting game online middleware GGPO, though the Switch was running on a test server pre-launch. At launch, it will be crossplay with Xbox One and PC. GGPO makes for stable online so I feel reasonably safe to give it a stamp of approval, but if any funny business crops up, I will update the review. Online has a regular one-on-one mode as well as a ranked mode that makes use of the 3-on-3 team battles where each player picks three characters in a manner somewhat similar to Marvel vs. Capcom.
As someone who is primarily a casual fighting game fan, Fantasy Strike scratches an itch in a different way than Street Fighters and the like do. The simplicity of the control inputs puts it more in the space in between, almost like a less platforming-focused Smash Bros. The overall approachability makes it a great choice for less experienced fighters, but beneath the sheen of less combos and button inputs still lies a deep game with tense strategy, complete with a variety of ways to play it both online and off.