Dueling Blades’ combination of fun combat and variety packs a powerful punch.

If you’d asked me a week ago, I probably would have denied the likelihood of finding an innovative fighting game in today’s casual market. Even sensations like Nekki’s Shadow Fight present clever spins on old ideas, and the challenges thus seem to lie in translating the successes of other platforms onto mobile devices or Facebook. So imagine my surprise when I started playing Dueling Blades and found an hour zipping by before my realizing it (after I ran into the inevitable energy wall). It’s fun. It’s challenging. And it’s what the casual fighting genre has needed for a while.

But let’s back up a bit. Dueling Blades caught our attention a few months before its release on Facebook earlier this year, but vanished before we could craft a review. It’s back exclusively on mobile devices and Kongregate (for now), and happily it’s apparently shed whatever glitches warranted its first removal. That is, at least in my experience. I’ve heard concerns that some players are experiencing lockup issues while updating the software for Dueling Blades after their initial download, but I’ve seen none of that on my iPhone 4S and iPad 2.

Dueling Blades

What I have seen, though, are hours of fun and simultaneous turn-based strategic combat. It’s quite unique. First there’s a flash of disappointment as you watch the two combatants face each other as in every other duel-based fighting game, followed by slight surprise as the perspective shifts to slight bird’s eye view above a square arena. Then there’s wonder, manifesting itself as you decide your hero’s next move within a limited circle while anticipating the direction your challenger will move in.. You’ll then decide on the direction of the attack you choose, which can vary greatly depending on the weapon you’re using. And then you let go, watching the animations to see if your character lands a hit.

All that’s fun in itself, but it’s the framework for the full experience. Memorable and useful skills such as blinding powders that limit your opponent’s sword swipes enrich the succeeding levels, as do wide, arcing sword swipes that pack smaller punches but humble nimble foes. The goal is always to get your opponent to fall into the arc for your abilities, and should they overlap, you’ll enter a clash mode in which the player who performs best in a tap-based mini-game delivers a devastating counterattack.

Developer Hourblast provides tons of options here–including the ability to spec into different classes (such as samurai, knight, and the like), which results in some spectacularly pleasing battles an hour or so into the game. As a downside, this delicate dance of movement and skills means that all battles rely heavily on guesswork, with the upshot that some of the otherwise exciting PvP matches drag on for minutes if each turn ends with a mutual miss. In most cases, however, the specialized abilities amassed through each class trump these concerns, particularly through useful retaliation skills that let you score a hit even if you’re having bad luck with movement.

Dueling Blades

All this suffices for hours of entertainment on its own, but Dueling Blades also features a decent storyline to complement the action. It’s predictable stuff, mind you (filled with the usual business of a young hero finding his parents dead and setting off to overthrow an evil empire), but it’s handled well for what it is. Quests come piled on top of one another–affording plenty of options for XP and gold for gear–and the enemies and bosses ease you into the game’s eventual challenges. As Dueling Blades is a freemium title, you’ll eventually run out of energy. If you’re as into it as I am, its 15 minute recharge timer for a single unit of energy feels excessive, but it’s hard to fault Hourblast too much considering the multiple opportunities they provide to regain energy and other goodies with a slot machine mini-game after each victory.

Simply put, there’s a lot to love here. Once you advance past the starting levels, there’s a surprising level of depth waiting beneath its cutesy veneer, and a surprisingly extensive wardrobe of cosmetic options that should please players of all ages and persuasions. However you approach it, you’ll find that Dueling Blades is a rare game that feels at once fun and unique, and its design suits mobile platforms of all stripes.