Preview: Is Fantasy Strike too simple for its own good?

Unless you have been hiding under a fighting game rock (and I’d understand if you were, that rock has invincibility frames), you have probably noticed that modern day fighting games are going to great lengths to be more accessible to casual players. Despite the alarmist cries of some hardcore fans, this is a natural and necessary evolution of the genre.

Early fighting games were more random and imbalanced, and your competition was limited to whoever you found in your local arcade. This allowed players of mid to low skill levels feel like they were at least somewhat competent. Modern fighting games are more balanced and network technology has opened up the competition pool to the best players in the world. Simply put, it’s harder to deny your own lack of skill in the current fighting game environment.

Naturally, no one wants to play a game they suck at.

This modern trend toward accessibility is an attempt to let casual players suck a little less. However, if the ultimate goal is to ease casuals into the more complex and nuanced strategy of professional fighting game play, then developers haven’t been doing a great job. Fighting games have only started including serious tutorials in the past couple of years, and only a few tutorials (most notably the ones from Arc System Works) have actually been effective teaching tools.

So how do we get someone who has never done anything but mash buttons to understand spacing, timing, frame data, and more?

Burn it all down and start from scratch.

Down to Basics

This is where the “minimalist fighting game” comes in. These are games like Divekick and Nidhogg, which remove most of the complexity from the fighting game experience and boil it down to simple mindgames. These are games that are easy to learn but hard to master, featuring only one or two buttons and simple goals. Yet, these games don’t do a fantastic job of transferring newly learned skills over to more complex fighting games. Masters of Nidhogg will still find themselves getting bodied in Street Fighter.

Enter Fantasy Strike, a new fighting game by former pro David Sirlin, creator of the Yomi card fighting system. It exists in a strange middle ground between the complex and minimalist fighting game. To the outside observer it has all the trappings of Street Fighter, from life bars to super meters to blocking and combos. However, when you actually begin playing it you quickly notice that all the bells and whistles have been removed in order to create a much simpler learning experience.

Think of Fantasy Strike like a combination of Street Fighter and Smash Bros. Instead of multiple attack buttons of varying strengths, there is only one “normal attack” button and different attacks are executed by holding different directions. There are no special moves but rather two special buttons which also perform different attacks based on what direction you are holding. Aside from these three basic attack buttons, players have a jump button (though you can also jump by pressing up), a throw button, and a super button.

With so few buttons, characters have very few options, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Imagine a Street Fighter character reduced to only their best normal and specials. That’s what every Fantasy Strike character is like. There is no ducking in the game, so characters don’t have to worry about high low mix-ups. This allows most characters to use only two jumping attacks, one for air-to-air situations and one for air-to-ground situations. Similarly, most characters only have a few ground attacks: one that is slow and long range, another that is fast and short range, and another that is somewhere in the middle.

Much of Fantasy Strike’s depth lies in special moves. Zoners throw fireballs, while aggro characters have attacks that move them across the screen and do easy combo damage. Grapplers have special throws, and “wild card” characters have moves that produce odd effects or move them in interesting ways.

Each character’s archetype is labeled on the character selection screen, letting newcomers know exactly what type of character they are choosing. That being said, these archetypes don’t necessarily match up. Grave, for example, is basically a Ryu analog and he is labeled a zoner. Ryu (and therefore Grave) can very easily get aggressive, whereas more dedicated zoners like Dhalsim play in a much more conservative fashion. Fantasy Strike doesn’t quite do enough to teach players this distinction.

In fact, that is the major flaw of Fantasy Strike. It teaches players a lot, but not enough.

Narrow Move-Sets Stifle Creativity

Instead of having a health bar, life is broken up into distinct hit-points. Each hit-point corresponds to one hit taken. Only very specific attacks and super moves can do two hit-points of damage and only one attack in the whole game can do three. On average, characters have about six hit-points, though fast combo characters have less and slow grapplers have more (maxing out at eight for the dedicated grappler, Rook).

As you might expect, this makes combos incredibly powerful. Executing a simple jump-in, normal, special combo can take off nearly 75% of some characters’ total health! Anyone with a basic knowledge of how to combo in Street Fighter will have a huge advantage going into Fantasy Strike.

Once again, we see Fantasy Strike’s biggest flaw rear its ugly head. It doesn’t do anything to teach you what moves are cancelable and how combos work, and combos are one of the hardest things to learn in fighting games. In a game where health is so low, even a short combo can give you the advantage over an opponent. Hopefully, the final version will go more in-depth on combo mechanics, because otherwise there is this feeling of “unfairness” if you are facing an opponent who knows how to combo better than you.

This unfair feeling saturates the whole game as a consequence of its simple mechanics. Since each character only has a small selection of moves to choose from, it usually means that every situation only has one “correct” response. For example, Rook’s command grab has super armor. You cannot throw-tech it, you basically can’t interrupt it, and there is no back-dashing or ducking in the game to let you avoid it. The only thing you can do is jump. If you don’t know that jumping is your only option, you get hit. If you already jumped in while the attack is in progress, you get hit. If you mash buttons, you get hit. If you do ninety percent of what your character is capable of, you get hit.

This is how every exchange in Fantasy Strike feels, and while this is the absolute core of the fighting game experience, it also removes a lot of what makes fighting games fun. Responding to situations with creative tactics is much of what builds fighting game hype. Being put into a situation where you specifically cannot be creative kills that hype, and that’s what’s being done here. Players are being sat down and told to do drills. Jump when you see a throw… jump when you see a throw… jump when you see a throw… over and over again.

Granted, this doesn’t apply for the whole cast. Certain characters, such as Geiger with his super that stops time, can develop interesting setups and gimmicks. DeGrey’s back-sways all have different follow-ups, making him a natural mix-up machine. Midori’s ability to turn into a dragon gives him two completely different move-sets to work with. I had far more fun playing these characters than more basic characters such as Grave and Jaina, the Ryu and Ken analogs.

The Case for a Good Tutorial

Of course, as a fighting game veteran I’m not the target audience for Fantasy Strike. Newbies are. So I decided to run Fantasy Strike through a gauntlet of total fighting game newbies at a party last weekend. That’s where I noticed something interesting. Every time someone was learning something they weren’t having fun, and every time they were having fun they weren’t learning.

For example, one player ended up learning how to play a fairly competent Grave, however they quit after only a couple of matches. Apparently, they didn’t enjoy throwing fireball after fireball while responding to the opponent’s attempts to get around them. Meanwhile, a DeGrey player had a completely random win-rate by just mashing out different special moves. They learned nothing but played until the end of the night.

I think this disconnect is largely caused by a lack of feedback. Fantasy Strike tells you when you are crossed up or hit by a reversal or invulnerable move, but it doesn’t tell you what you should have done when you lose. Newbies lose in Fantasy Strike for the same reason they lose in traditional fighting games. They don’t know what they are doing and the game doesn’t tell them what they should be doing. Similarly, newbies have fun in Fantasy Strike for the same reason they do in traditional fighting games. Sometimes they can mash out something flashy and take a round or two. This is far less likely to happen with Fantasy Strike’s minimalistic move-sets, however, making it difficult to hook inexperienced players.

That’s not to say I don’t think this can change. The game is still in alpha, after all. However, it needs a good tutorial. It needs something to tell players what the correct way to respond to each situation is. It needs to teach players how to be creative within the constraints of the game’s mechanics. Essentially, it has to teach players not only how to play fighting games, but why they are fun. With a little work, Fantasy Strike can be one of the most invaluable teaching tools the fighting game community has. But as it stands, there’s nothing keeping casual fighting game players playing this any more than they would play, say, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite or Dragon Ball Fighter Z.