The moment that the cranked heavy metal riffs start spilling out of your TV’s speakers, you know this is Guilty Gear. It’s arguably my favourite fighting franchise – sorry Virtua Fighter – offering a level of extraordinarily in-your-face action, and enthralling world building that none of the others have ever quite grasped. The Guilty Gear series has always been built on the belief that being the loudest and the coolest will make you stand out from the pack, and after going hands on with the Guilty Gear Strive closed beta, I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with them.
Arc System Works have become the kings of the 2D fighter scene in recent years, and it can all be traced back to the last Guilty Gear game, Guilty Gear Xrd. While part of a storied franchise in its own right, Xrd’s use of Unreal Engine 3 to create its beautifully cinematic cel-shaded visuals set the tone for everything Arc System Works would subsequently produce. It paved the way for them to hit the VS jackpot four years later with Dragon Ball FighterZ.
To be fair, Guilty Gear fans were left scratching their heads over quite what the difference between the two was, but combining those incredible visuals and the Dragon Ball franchise together, alongside its accessible mechanics, has arguably made it the fighting game of the generation. With the forthcoming release of Strive, Guilty Gear has come to stake its own claim, by ramming a sword or two down your throat while cranking the music up to 11. It’s a winning formula.
The closed beta give you access to seven of Strive’s protagonists, with Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske at the head of the pack. Like Ryu and Ken, these two epitomise the series, and they’re the most accessible and welcoming characters on the roster. In the hand they immediately feel familiar, powerful, and as much fun as they ever have. It’s a fantastic start, but returning players are going to have a few things to say about the changes that have been made from Xrd.
The biggest change so far is to Gatlings, which are Guilty Gear’s combo system. Previous games stressed the importance of chaining attacks together from cancelling normal attacks, but Strive seems to have de-emphasised this, limiting the potential of Punch and Kick as starting points and removing much of the fluidity that Guilty Gear was known for.
It feels as though there are going to be more ‘canned’ combos, similar to other recent fighting games like MK11, and less opportunity to find your own. On first impressions, the accessibility of the Gatling system has actually been dialled down, making the current build tougher on newcomers, and less freeform for vets. A tough sell to both parties. That said, this is a closed beta for a game that’s still got six months development time left. It’s more than possible that things will have changed a week after this beta ends, but returning players are likely to be concerned.
May appears here – as adorable as ever – slapping people around with her giant anchor, but it’s while playing as her that I unknowingly fire off a Burst move, and it’s a beautiful thing. Waves come crashing in, whales flop heavily against poor old Axl Low, and I lose track on quite what I’m supposed to be doing before I compose myself. This game looks absolutely in-cred-ible. The extra detail on all of the characters has to be seen to be believed, and while Xrd and its sub-sequels were no visual slouches, Strive is pushing the envelope for what we can expect from this generation of console.
This attack does big damage though – huge – and that’s another immediate takeaway from this beta. Damage has been buffed across the board. Potemkin, already a character to be feared if you find yourself trapped on the end of one of his punishing combos, can annihilate you in a couple of exchanges. It’s closer to Samurai Shodown than the series has ever been, and while the last SamSho was fantastic, I’m not sure how I feel about it here in Guilty Gear.
It’s going to be those visuals that draw a huge number of players in though, and they follow through on Xrd’s and Dragon Ball FighterZ’ legacy. Using Unreal Engine 4, the introductions and win animations from each bout look as though they’re taken directly from an anime, or indeed a cutscene from any number of game’s on publisher Bandai Namco’s books. The fact that they pan around and then allow you jump directly into their shoes is a trick that is never likely to get old.
The stages are all similarly spectacular, offering a huge landscape to wage war across, and the new wall breaks mean you can brawl across more of it as well. The pre-fight pan shows you just how big each setting is, and if the narrative is as well done as we’ve seen in previous games, this is going to be a fighting game world you’ll never want to leave. Whether they keep the bulk of the narrative pared off to the side away from the action remains to be seen, but either way it’s going to look amazing.
What isn’t spectacular is the weird 2D lobby that you have to take part in to find a match. It’s probably not helped by it being beset by connection issues and being all-round broken across the whole of the closed beta weekend, but it’s a clear step back from what we’ve become used to seeing from Arc System Works titles. The customisation of your character is fine, but it’s largely just a mess of players congregating at the bottom of the screen. I found it worked better to just stand in one place, and the matches just kind of happened around you. Hopefully this is one thing that will see some serious improvement for the full release.
The close of each bout sees you rated on your performance, breaking down each element of your play. Offense is rated on Damage and Variance, while Defense is made up of Guard and Evasion. There’s the Guilty Gear-centric Heart value that’s all about Guts and, amusingly, Judgement while your Technique value breaks down into Input and Versatility. Quite how much stock you put into your Guts rating I’m not sure, but there’s definitely some interesting aspects to be taken away to help you analyse your play – at least if it proves to be accurate in the long run.
The start of every bout in Guilty Gear Strive sees each fighter framed by “The greatest glory in our lives lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall”. While the franchise may have fallen from some player’s memories, visually Strive looks to be making an emphatic play for their hearts, and I’ve every confidence that this Closed Beta, and future open ones, will help the team hone the action to within an inch of its life. Change isn’t always a bad thing, but it’d be a shame to lose part of Guilty Gear’s own DNA by chasing the pack.
My only real worry, if it is a worry, is that Strive could lose out on its impact if it strays too close to the launch of the next generation of console. Fighting game fans should keep their targets firmly set on this one though, new consoles be damned.