Some free–to-play games begin their life cycle as traditional paid titles, with notable games like Dungeon & Dragons Online finding its niche with a robust population that was much larger than the initial gathering. Most titles, however, do not begin their cycle with a freemium model in hopes to one day release a paid, digitally distributed version of the game, which essentially feels like a nuts and bolts adaptation of the free-to-play iteration.
Where its older, more immersive brother focuses on polished action, Dungeon Fighter Live makes an attempt to delve a little deeper and provide the obligatory console narrative. Yet, with Dungeon Fighter Online’s incredible success on the PC without so much as a lengthy anime cutscene, it’s difficult to argue in favor of adding a more in-depth storyline, especially one as clumsily told as DFL’s. The overly clichéd set-up has a plague known as Phantasmalia affecting the very young and elderly (and clearly not our three adventurous heroes), as well as acutely increasing monster activity in the land of Hendon Myre. The bland cutscenes look they came from an anime B-roll, there's a narrative flow that likes to teeter between complete stoppage and begrudgingly slow, and non-existent voice work save for some unintentionally sexified cries and grunts that serenade the ears; it’s hard to call Dungeon Fighter Live’s story anything short of laughably boring.
Luckily, DFL’s allure comes in the form of the engaging beat ’em up action. Like its free-to-play brethren, combat focuses on a concoction of normal attacks strung together for combos, and a decent collection of skills that also link with normal attacks to create some devastating combinations. Skills draw from a pool of magic points, and the game gives some liberty in how they are performed, rewarding more talented players who have the ability to remember and execute the Street Fighter-esque inputs by shortening the cooldown and cheapening the MP cost of each skill. Players can also utilize hotkeys that are mapped to the face buttons when holding either the right trigger or bumper, allowing for eight abilities or restorative items to be allotted. Abilities are upgraded by attaining SP through leveling, which can be spent at shops to strengthen or buy new skills.
The wide variety of skills that are available for purchase and upgrade are very welcome, giving traditionally melee or ranged characters supplementary abilities that play well with their given style. The RPG/beat ‘em up action can be a ton of fun; comboing through hordes of enemies while pulling off Capcom-styled maneuvers provides plenty of entertainment and provides some much-needed depth to the time-tested action. Yet, traversing each dungeon kills any momentum that hopes to build. Even when utilizing the double-tap dash, characters move egregiously slowly.
Each dungeon is a painstaking task due to movement speed, and quickly turns a dungeon exploring romp into a tedious affair. Dungeons are relatively non-linear, allowing a small sense of exploration with each dungeon, but the effect is hampered by the game's movement speed. This is exacerbated further by the extremely large amount of repetition that is required to progress through the game; many of the dungeons need at least five runs in order to find the correct item needed to finish the umpteenth fetch quest. Towns, which operate as quest hubs, don’t exactly invoke many emotions, as they are standard RPG cities that can’t be explored, only contain a few shops, and are carbon copies of PSP dungeon crawler hubs. It’s serviceable, but that’s about all it is.
To try and stave off the monotony of repetition, DFL features both local and online co-op, supporting up to four players for dungeon questing, as well as also loot department. Equipment slots are typical, ranging from helmets to armor to rings, but loot is plentiful in the game, helping to keep the mediocrity to a minimum. Multiplayer sees competition for loot, where it’s a first come, first serve basis, and puts a nice spin on the co-op action. MP is a great way to get some friends together and enjoy the beat ‘em up RPG adventuring, yet when four people are in a game together, pacing feels just as slow, and a new problem arises. While the menu already feels pretty awkward – navigation is restricted to left and right, which takes some time to become comfortable with – it’s even worse due to the menu’s small size, which becomes even smaller when more people are added. Size becomes a serious issue with a full squad, further making navigation a tedious task. Other design flaws permeate the experience, particularly after finishing a dungeon, where no matter what, the group must be disbanded and a new party search begins. It kills any flow that's being created, and just adds to the questionable design frustrations.
Though movement speed and repetition don't help DFL's cause, character classes don't do much to improve the situation either. With only three of the PC version's eight characters, the game lacks any real variety in play style. The Gunner provides the ranged option, but the Slayer and Fighter are too similar to justify not including one of the more unique classes. Another problem arises with the very small level cap that hits its threshold at twenty, where DFO sees the ability to choose a subclass and another one at an even greater level. It's a shame, too, since DFOnline allows for more varied styles of play with more character options, but Dungeon Fighter Live falls utterly short of the same rich gameplay because of its questionable design limitations.
Dungeon Fighter Live features a throwback art style reminiscent of the SNES and the early-to-mid-90s arcade beat 'em ups. Complete with detailed, hand drawn characters and enemies, and a retro fantasy backdrop the doesn't leave much to be desired, the visuals provide a great complimenting touch to the fun, RPG-infused beat 'em up action. Like the visuals, the soundtrack provides the same effect and is generally a joy to listen to, mashing up some great electronic beats with some serious metal riffs.
Without some design flaws that detract from the experience - awkward menus, shoddy matchmaking, and slow movement speed, just to name a few - Dungeon Fighter Live could have been a surprise co-op hit, especially with some great visuals, music, and superb gameplay backing it up. Yet, due to its limitations, it's hard to recommend the lesser version of a free-to-play title that has double the characters, a much greater level cap, and more depth at $10, even moreso when I've got the sneaky suspicion that level caps and more characters are on the way as paid DLC.