Arc System Works has become one of the most high-profile developers in the fighting game genre over the last decade, pumping out new games and massive expansions to previous titles at a regular pace. While plenty of the studios latest releases have garnered hype and built fanbases, Guilty Gear -Strive- is easily the team’s most talked-about title in a while – for better and worse.
As the latest entry in one of the most iconic fighting game franchise ever – a franchise that hasn’t seen a new major entry since 2014 – Strive has big shoes to fill and plenty of fans to satisfy. Since it was announced, though, it’s been clear that Arc System Works intends to make big changes to the DNA of Guilty Gear, partially to help newcomers feel at home with the usually overwhelming and mechanically-heavy fighter. So, does Guilty Gear -Strive- manage to remain faithful to the roots of the franchise while also providing a streamlined experience for newcomers to embrace?
The visual style of Guilty Gear -Strive- manages to maintain the overwhelming cool factor that the series is known for. The game moves beyond the faux 2D look of Guilty Gear Xrd, embracing 3D spaces and enhanced visual effects while still retaining the sharp anime aesthetics that Xrd brought to the series. Guilty Gear protagonist Sol Badguy is still a chiseled hunk of meat with physics-defying hair, but the details on the character model and lighting of the game world bring a renewed sense of awe to seeing him occupy the screen.
There’s just as much flair to the fights, as well. Counter-attacks bring screen-slowing zoom-in effects and screen-corner attacks will trigger a momentum-lurching glass-shatter that sends your opponent flying into a new region of the environment. They’re like a purely aesthetic version of Tekken 7 stage breaks. It’s easy to overlook when you’re wrapped up in the fast-paced combat of Guilty Gear -Strive-, but seeing the game in action as a spectator, it’s one of the most vivid and visually explosive fighting games on the market.
That explosive sense of momentum and fluidity that the updated visuals provide also ends up translating to the feel of combat. There’s more weight to Guilty Gear -Strive-, but at the same time, the tightness of the screen space makes it feel almost faster than Xrd. Characters take up more space on the screen, but it doesn’t lead to the slower pacing of something like Street Fighter IV. Every attack and action has a sense of explosiveness to it, and even matchups involving slightly slower characters like Potemkin or Giovanna rarely contain a dull moment. It’s hard to get a sense for the final balance of the roster, but nearly every character feels like they have solid utility. Newcomer Giovanna sports some shockingly short-ranged attacks that make her a challenge to use against zoners like Zato-1, but the pain packed into each of her attacks helps to make up for it.
The single-player offerings available in Guilty Gear -Strive- aren’t overwhelming, but each one still has plenty of unique charm. The story mode plays out more like an extended CG film than a glorified arcade mode – there aren’t even any fights in it. The previous story modes in Guilty Gear Xrd and Revelator were cheesy anime-style affairs full of fantastical world-building and sometimes silly character interactions. Strive, though, wants to be a Hollywood action movie so badly.
Things like the White House and the President of the United States take a surprisingly hefty amount of the narratives focus, with almost constant use of West Wing walk-and-talks. It’s a really weird tonal shift for the series, and it kind of works, but with a sole focus on Sol Badguy doing his Die Hard thing and not many other subplots helping carry the weight, the story mode ends up dragging a bit through the second half.
No matter your attachment to Guilty Gear, you likely have no clue how any of the absurd lore of the series fits together, much less this conclusive White House Down chapter. The GG World mode, an interactive Pepe Silvia flow-chart of character relationship and story events spanning the entire series, helps fill you in on the more obscure elements of the narrative and it might come into play throughout the rest of the Strive story mode.
Spicing up the Arcade is a surprising tag-team system. Beat the stage 1 opponent in Arcade, and they’ll come back during stage 8 to fight on-screen with you against the super buffed opponent of that section. Like the co-op Dramatic Battles of Street Fighter 3, these tag-team sections in Strive are some of the most overwhelmingly incredible and insane experiences I’ve had in any fighting game. It’s fun, fast, flashy, batshit crazy, and I want more of it. Thankfully, a fleshed-out version of these moments is intended to be added to the game post-launch, according to the developers.
One problem that loomed over Guilty Gear -Strive- during each pre-release open beta was the incredibly rough Online Mode. I was hopeful that this mode, with its uninspiring visuals, clunky navigation and network errors, would be a lot more polished in the final release. Unfortunately, it’s only kind of polished. The new online lobbies for Strive are still shockingly ugly – Arc System Works has abandoned the cute and chunky chibi characters of their previous lobby systems and opted for a side-scrolling, pixelated aesthetic that is the furthest possible thing from “cool Guilty Gear visuals” imaginable.
Thankfully, navigating these spaces to actually find an opponent isn’t as much of a headache as it was in the betas. You can just walk up to a fight-station and wait for an opponent to join you there. The game employs a Floor system where you’re automatically designated and moved to one of 10 floors, with the skill of the players occupying each floor meant to increase as you go further up. You’re prevented from going to floors beneath you unless your skill rating goes down, but low-floor players can choose to go to any higher floors whenever they want.
It’s an interesting system that helps alleviate the common fighting game issue of newbies being thrown to the sharks, but it also adds yet another layer of complication to the task of trying to find someone to fight. I’ve also had more than a couple times where I ran a match and wanted to go for a rematch, only for the game to force me into a new floor before I got the chance to. It also doesn’t help that, unfortunately, network issues are still aplenty in the full release of Strive.