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August 2018

Fantasy Strike

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Sirlin Games
Release Date: 2018


PS4/PC Preview - 'Fantasy Strike'

by Thomas Wilde on Sept. 21, 2017 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Fantasy Strike is a 2D brawler with a diverse cast and deceptively simple controls that provide an intuitive experience while maintaining the precision and timing-based gameplay that create the rich depth and quality veterans of the genre have come to expect.

You'll be able to tell how much attention a given writer pays to the fighting game community by how much, when discussing Fantasy Strike, he or she discusses its designer, David Sirlin. Sirlin is a vaguely controversial figure in the FGC; he's notorious for winning a Street Fighter Alpha 2 tournament by repeatedly pressing one button, and depending on who you talk to, he's either a monster or a genius for his work in balancing the cast in the HD "remix" of Super Street Fighter II Turbo.

More crucially, Sirlin has written a lot about the psychology and mindset required to win in a fighting game, and in so doing, has armed generations of stream warriors and forum debaters with a new set of vocabulary for the purpose. Sirlin's tabletop game Yomi is named after one of Sirlin's terms, which he uses to refer to the ability to get inside an opponent's head and predict his next move.

Fantasy Strike is, in turn, based on and starring the characters from Yomi, making it an adaptation of an adaptation. Sirlin has called it a "fighting game for everyone": It's designed for accessibility, with no particular execution requirement. The idea is that you don't need to memorize inputs or practice your combos in Fantasy Strike in the way that you do with other contemporaneous fighting games. Instead, victory's largely down to your reads, spacing, tactics and timing. The idea is that it's simple enough for anyone to play, but also deep enough that it could be played in a tournament setting.

At first, when I played it, it seemed almost too simple. Fantasy Strike is a six-button fighting game, but there are no quarter-circles, command moves, or combos. Each character has a standard attack, two special attacks, a super attack, and a throw, each of which is linked to a specific button. Your attacks change if they're done in mid-air, but that's as complicated as things get.

After some time playing it with a group in my living room, it basically takes about five minutes, if that, to fully master a given character's moves, even for players who don't have a lot of experience with the genre. Fantasy Strike does make use of a few fighting game staples, such as parries and invincibility frames, but makes them as visible as possible; a character who's invincible flashes white, and a character's who parrying flashes green. Even the super meter refills automatically by itself at a reasonable and predictable speed.

Every character's health bar has a set number of blocks on it, from five to nine, and any successful attack against them takes off one of those blocks. Some particularly high-risk moves can knock off two. Rounds in FS tend to be brutal and short, as a few bad choices in a row can get you knocked out in seconds. By default, FS matches are set to best of seven, which is good, because I've never seen so many perfect rounds and five-second wins in my life as I did in a single evening of playing this game.

When you have a decent amount of human competition, Fantasy Strike feels a lot like high-level poker or chess. Since execution is dead simple and the longest combo is maybe five hits, there's a strong psychological element to the game that comes out almost immediately. With a lot of fighting games, these are factors that tend to play a role at medium- to high-level, when you and your typical opponents have mastered all the mechanics and are down to figuring out how to manipulate your opponent. With Fantasy Strike, that's where you start.

It is a game that relies very heavily on your competition, however. Fantasy Strike features an arcade mode, but when it's played against the CPU, it might be one of the most boring fighting games I've ever played. You really need a human opponent because you need a mind to play mind games against.

The cast of Fantasy Strike are slightly redesigned characters from Yomi, and according to my research (i.e., I played the video game with a guy I know who plays the card game), the characters play a lot like they do in the card game. Since Yomi was initially going to be a Street Fighter adaptation, the cast is fairly blatantly based upon SF, with similar tactics: Grave is Ryu, Jaina is Ken, Rook is Zangief, Setsuki is really obviously Ibuki, etc. However, each character has a few tweaks to make them distinct. Jaina, for example, has a really powerful flaming uppercut with a big invincibility window, but it deals a block of damage to her every time she uses it. Grave is a lot like Ryu but can call up gusts to wind to push or pull on an enemy, as well as having a really effective counterattack move.

Right now, Fantasy Strike is in pre-alpha, and considering that, it looks and plays very well. The frame rate takes a sharp dive in the menus and character selection screen, but goes back up to playable levels when you're in a match. It was easy to set up the game with USB controllers, and it ran without problems on a relatively low-powered laptop. I'd argue that the roster could use some balance changes — Valerie and Rook, in our play sessions, seem to have a lot going for them — but the game isn't done just yet.

If you have a lot of fighting game experience, Fantasy Strike takes a lot of getting used to. It feels like it's nothing but training wheels at first, and the relative fragility of the characters makes every round a game of rocket tag. At the same time, there's such a low learning curve that you leapfrog over a lot of the "let me figure out my buttons" awkwardness and go straight into the deep end. If you're one of those fighting game fans who thrives on the genre's complexity, this isn't for you, but it could be an excellent gateway game for casual players and interested novices.

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