The Best Just Gets Better
Arc System Works have been churning out new fighting games in recent years. In the last three years and change this it their fourth major fighting game release. Yet somehow they keep managing to put their stamp on these games while making them feel unique. It’s a truly remarkable accomplishment, just as Guilty Gear -Strive- is. By being unafraid to strip things back, they’ve been able to give us a game that still contains an enormous amount of depth while feeling more accessible to new players. This may just be the best game yet in one of the best fighting game series running.
Style And Substance
Guilty Gear’s whole vibe is a post-apocalyptic rock concert on steroids. You can play as a witch who shreds a mean guitar or an Axl Rose lookalike actually named Axl. Want to play a young kid who fights with an anchor or a near-immortal warrior loosely based on Freddie Mercury, who has a combination sword/cannon? Yeah, they’re here too.
There’s a fantastic variety of characters, each with very different styles. Some are powerful and fight best in close. Others are super fast and best when just whipping around the screen. There are characters I struggle even to describe, who feel entirely unique among fighting games. Move lists are a bit shorter than in many fighters and even some recent Guilty Gear titles. A lot of the combat systems are universal. That doesn’t stop the characters from differentiating themselves, though, because of their movement, speed, and the specific moves they do have.
Don’t Be Intimidated
Despite the streamlined move lists, this is still a very complex game. There are systems upon systems for players to learn, many of which I still struggle to fully wrap my brain around. Four varieties of roman cancel, a move designed to break a movement and let you move into another, are just one example of that. You have breaks, different types of blocks, different types of combos; there’s a lot to learn.
For a player who isn’t entirely initiated, though, there’s a lot to help you learn. A training mode is presented right when you start the game, which helps you learn the basics. Beyond that, there’s a deep mission mode that goes over pretty much every mechanic of the game’s fighting system. Don’t understand something? Just play that a few times, and you’ll start to get it. A few missions, for some reason, decide to hide information that would be very helpful to see, and the sample videos available on most just aren’t there for some missions, but for the most part, this is where new players should start. Training mode is also present and offers a tremendous amount of options to help you hone your fighting style.
Plenty has changed since the last Guilty Gear title, Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, hit in 2017. For one, things feel a little bit slower. It isn’t a huge shift, but I went back and played a bit of Rev 2 to be sure, and things definitely feel a bit more deliberate. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Some fans will take a moment to adjust, though. I ended up falling in love with Giovanna, one of the two new playable characters in the base game, largely due to her feeling so fluid and faster than most. Not only does she feel great to play, but she also has an incredibly cool spirit wolf that she fights with. The other new character, Nagoriyuki, is a vampire samurai who wields an incredibly cool blade. His attacks can be tremendously explosive.
Playing on PS5 has advantages as the entire game is very quick to load, though perhaps a bit slower than I would expect out of a PS5 title. That’s definitely me being spoiled by games that can load in seconds, but it takes a bit longer than many PS5 games to get to the title screen. It’s still faster than pretty much anything older, however. Getting into matches is also snappy, at least offline as online you will have to wait to connect to the servers and for other players. There’s only so much an SSD can do there. It is hard to tell if the litany of cutscenes and transitions before each fight are hiding loading times or if they’re more about style. If they’re hiding loading, though, it isn’t much as you can pretty quickly skip them.
Also present here is a new wall break mechanic. Typically in 2D fighting games, locking someone in the corner allows you to punish them in a way that is hard to stop. It can be satisfying, but it doesn’t feel great if you’re on the receiving end. To combat this, you can still trap people, but eventually, the corner will break, and the match will reset. The player who completed the break gets extra energy for their effort, but it gives the other player a chance again. I found it satisfying on both ends, and the sequences that play out when this happens look fantastic.
Did I Mention Style?
Actually, pretty much everything in Guilty Gear -Strive- looks fantastic. This is quite possibly the prettiest 2D game I’ve ever played. Character models are huge and incredibly detailed, as are backgrounds. The animation, though, really is what stands out most. It really shines in motion where it looks just astonishing. The soundtrack brings the rock, which you would certainly expect from this series. Each character has their own theme, all vocalized, and they sound great. Each character really feels represented.
The story mode is similar to other recent titles in the series in that it’s not even slightly playable. Instead, it’s just a long movie for you to watch. While I wish they made a bit more effort to incorporate gameplay since this is a game, what’s here is entertaining. The characters are well represented, and it makes you really care about the entire cast. Clocking in at around five hours, you can save and pick up later if you don’t have long enough to watch the whole thing in one viewing.
The story can be confusing if Guilty Gear -Strive- is your first game in the series, but there are options for you. The game contains a series of charts and files, but these are a bit dry for my taste. Arc System Works has released a series of comics to catch you up on their website. They also make the story modes of several recent games in the series available to watch on their Youtube page.
Around The World
While there’s a lot of excellent content even for solo players, most players will likely spend most of their time online. This is mostly a great experience. Lobbies have a cool retro-inspired feel to them. There are several different ways to queue up and get into matches, including general rooms for all players and skill-based rooms. Despite their charm, they’re a bit clunky in execution but never to the degree where they should prevent you from getting to the matches.
Once you’re there, you’ll be in for a treat too. -Strive- may be the smoothest playing online game I’ve played. Rollback netcode has been implemented here, and it does a fantastic job of keeping the experience smooth, even when your opponent is on the other side of the globe. The game even shows how that is being implemented, which is a cool touch. I don’t remember even one example where I noticed any sort of lag in all of my online matches. This could change when the game actually releases and more players are online, but it’s a great sign compared to other fighting games I’ve played before release.
If you’re new to the Guilty Gear series, there isn’t a better place to start than -Strive-. If you’re a returning veteran, enough has changed to keep things feeling fresh, but I have a feeling you’ll be up to speed in no time. While definitely complex and at times a bit intimidating, it does a fantastic job of initiating players. Guilty Gear -Strive- never holds back. If you remotely enjoy fighting games, this is a stunner you shouldn’t miss.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS5 (reviewed), PS4, PC; Publisher: Arc System Works; Developer: Arc System Works; Players: 2; Released: June 10th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PS5 review copy of Guilty Gear -Strive- given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.