Even if the name is unfamiliar to Nintendo Switch owners, David Sirlin is a man with pedigree. As the lead designer on 2008’s Street Fighter HD Remix, Sirlin knows what it takes to create a crowd-pleasing fighting game. In Fantasy Strike, the debut game from Sirlin’s own label, a new bar has been set for accessible, deep and enjoyable fighting games. This is the real deal — and perhaps the best new fighting game since, well… When was the last time a fighting game was this important?
Don’t get me wrong. I love Street Fighter Alpha 800, Tekken 25, Smash Brothers Ultimate Melee Remix DX 2 and all of the other classic rehashes, but they are, in honesty, just delivering the same old same old thing. I mean what did Mortal Kombat 11 do that 10 didn’t? Why does Injustice 2 exist at all when no one cares about a single character in DC’s universe except for Batman?
I digressed, but nonetheless, Fantasy Strike has ambition that runs much deeper than its cast of brand new, never seen before (outside of a physical card game called Yomi, also released by Sirlin) characters. The best fighting games are always like this — think about how amazing Tobal No. 1 was, but can the average gamer name a single character from it? Of course not, even I can’t and I spent about 200 hours playing it.
Call this another digression if you will, but Fantasy Strike is important because like Tobal No. 1, it does something that you’ve never seen before and ironically, it is the simplest of things. Fantasy Strike strips fighting down to the absolute basics in terms of moves, skills, blocks and counters, yet it lacks absolutely none of the key features that are present in the most technical of competitive fighting games.
Each character is categorised by the kind of fighter that they are and what their archetype is best at. There are Zoners, who use ranged attacks like Jaina (who controls fire) to keep their opponents at bay, or like Grave, who uses the wind to either speed him up or to compel his opponent towards him. Grapplers, like Rook, are the opposite and need to get in close to deal large amounts of damage.
The Rushdown and Wild Card characters round out the roster of only ten characters, with the Rushdown pair of Setsuki and Valerie offering fast, unpredictable combos and the ability to close for an attack before escaping again at will. Degrey and Lum, the Wild Cards, are genuinely unpredictable, with Lum simply chucking projectiles of all kinds all over the place as he goes and Degray summoning a ghostly companion to detain his adversary.
These characters are wildly diverse and hugely inventive, with differences not only in the archetypes, but also in the individuals within them. Setsuki, for example, plays very differently to Valerie, but both are undoubtedly summed up by their Rushdown classification. They also have much smaller health bars than the other characters, especially Rook and Midori (the Grapplers) who have about twenty five percent more health than average.
This is all important detail, because Fantasy Strike is one half fun, one half lesson in how to play fighting games. Nothing here is hidden — from the purpose of the characters to the actual moves they can perform. A tutorial at the beginning of the game teaches the player about the single attack button, the two special buttons, how to perform their super and throw moves and how to use blocks and counters.
Fantasy Strike also features numerous practice and tutorial modes. Every character has a video explaining the core concepts about how to use them and the practice mode is interactive enough that various scenarios can be tested. There’s an arcade mode (complete with a basic story) and a survival mode, as well as a daily challenge. Then, of course, there is the ability to play online as long as you subscribe to Nintendo’s service (the Switch version being the one we reviewed.)
The arcade mode is the perfect place to start, pitting the player against six opponents that can last as many as nine rounds each, given that the first player who achieves four victories will win (by default.) Because characters usually have only six health chunks (Grapplers have seven or eight and Rushdown characters five), they can actually only be hit six times before being KO’d, which makes the blocking and countering system in Fantasy Strike all the more important.
Blocks work like in almost any other game, by holding away from the opponent. Block too much, however and the piece of health you’re aiming to protect will begin to flash and then eventually disappear, should you fail to break out of whatever corner you’re in. Some moves make your character invulnerable for a brief moment (indicated by a flash) and learning when to use these moves and the timing of them is very important.
Even more important is countering, including the Yomi counter. In simple terms, if an opponent attempts to throw you, a Yomi counter will be executed if you are not pressing any direction — meaning that it happens automatically. Conversely, a special throw must be jumped out of (and a Yomi counter won’t work) which gives Fantasy Strike some additional balance and depth for players to grow into — again based on how well they know the traits of both their own character and their opponents.
When it comes to offence, Fantasy Strike keeps it beautifully simple, but again not at all lacking in depth. A single basic attack button can be combined with forwards or backwards to create several different flavours of standard assault. The two special buttons have more interesting but often niche effects, and again can often be combined with a directional button to change their output.
Unusually for a fighting game, the other face button is used for jumping, which can of course lead to various forms of airborne attack — from classic free kicks and diving lunges, to defensive projectiles thrown at various angles in order to maintain a safe distance. Throws are as simple as pressing the right bumper under most circumstances, whilst the liberally filled special meter can be unleashed by pressing the left bumper.
When these unheard of, but welcome new characters combine with Fantasy Strike‘s deliberately accessible gameplay, its hard not to feel engaged. Play more, however, and you’ll begin to peel back the layers that demonstrate considerably more depth than you might imagine. The straightforward approach to health management, the counters, the simple move set — it all combines to enable every player to perform at an optimal level in such a way that the whole experience feels elevated.
It takes maybe four or five games of Fantasy Strike to understand what a character is capable of, to learn their speed and their range, and to understand how to use them. Complete the arcade mode and then take those skills online, and you’ll find that everyone else has plateaued at about the same level.
I’m not saying that elite gamers won’t be better at Fantasy Strike or that bad players won’t be worse, but I feel as though good and bad are found in the top and bottom ten percent, whereas with most fighting games, the majority of players are just bad, whilst only a couple of percent of players are actually good. Fantasy Strike, as a result, is simply a better experience all round for almost everyone involved.
And that, really, should be the end of the review. I am reminded by standard reviewing conventions though that I need to talk about things like graphics and sound, given that they are so important in fighting games. Visually, Fantasy Strike is pixel perfect. It’s not so much that the chunky, Street Fighter IV inspired characters don’t look great — which they do — it’s more just that Fantasy Strike gets the movement, timing and range animations absolutely perfect. You will rarely feel cheated by animation or a faulty visual cue, and that is a really important thing to bear in mind.
Sound, on the other hand, is perhaps the one weakness that Fantasy Strike has. Again, the actual music and sound effects that give the battles their pace is all present and correct (and that is the most important thing) but the voices are kind of broken. All spoken words, screams of anguish and howls of delight sound as if badly compressed, like a very low quality MP3 from a bygone ere. Against a backdrop of such near perfection, this anomaly stands out, but is by no means game breaking.
So there you have it, Fantasy Strike is both the best new fighting game series and the most important fighting game that I’ve played in years. As someone who no longer has hundreds of hours to sink into perfecting combos and timings, I need this level of accessibility and I also want to feel special. Fantasy Strike gives me both of those things, in a good looking package, with characters that I feel immediately warm towards. What more can I ask? Oh, loads of modes for both on and offline play, as well as steady net code would be nice, and Fantasy Strike has both. Take the leap; you won’t regret it.