A few years ago, Guilty Gear Strive was announced, and it was evident from the get-go that it wasn’t going to be an expansion on the previous games, but an entirely new one.
This came as a big surprise to me as an avid follower of the series considering the last one wasn’t really that old. But here we are with what looks like not only a visual revamp of the game, but how it works within the broader terms of its mechanics.
When reworking a fighting game to this degree, the designer is essentially attempting to reset the skill ceiling of the game. Meaning a lot of specific knowledge about the game and its previous iterations won’t really carry over to the next installment. Ideally this gives new content for veterans to interact with, and levels the playing field for those who are completely new to the genre.
What Daisuke Ishiwatari and ArcSystem Works have attempted here is a deconstruction of their strongest IP. Where they’ve taken apart everything and boiled it down to its core components, figuring out what really makes Guilty Gear, what it is.
So what defines Guilty Gear? Is it the complex and branching combo routes and setups? Could it be the high-level play through interactions with its special mechanics? Maybe the break-neck pace where the game demands the most intense attention from its audience? Perhaps the endless references to rock music? Or has everything I’ve been talking about is simply a load of bullshit that happens to be blazing?
So far, my experience has been a bit of a mix, there are some things I dislike though there’s a ton of things I’ve honestly enjoyed through this game. There was a lot of questionable decisions that was done leading up to the release, but Daisuke stood tall in the face of all this. He was just stayed there, cooking his game in his Guilty Gear-themed kitchen, telling us to calm down. Because he was so certain he knew what the game should smell like, and after the dust has settled and the flame burned out, I think he was absolutely right.
Guilty Gear Strive succeeds in becoming a game that is simple to play but at the same time invites you to learn the depth of the gameplay at your own pace. Where it has made some compromises to make a broader appeal and even tackle the online gaming hurdle that has more or less put fighting games on the chopping block. Despite how simple and bare the game may look when looking beyond the actual fights, it has actually achieved so much that I would daresay it lit the spark to get this genre roaring back to life.
So here it is folks, my review of Guilty Gear Strive.
Production (5 / 5)
Well. For the lack of a better term, the game is gorgeous.
Their first attempt at 3D was already great, where they went to retain the exaggerated 2D animations into their 3D models by seamlessly drawing sprite effects along with the faster motions of their characters. Sometimes even fully deforming the character models to round-out their effects. However, this meant that the animations only looked good at certain angles. And well, Diasuke wanted more.
Some characters got barely changed but others were changed a lot, particularly for the female characters. I think this is mainly to let them match the new demands set by modern tastes as well as how each character is expected to move around the screen. But I think all of us can generally agree that the changes are more than welcome for each and every character.
While they’ve lost some of that edginess, they were able to retain the original identity of each character and still carry the distinct aesthetic they’re known for. They’re still quite over-the-top, undeniably anime, but this time with extra girth and well, softness.
One thing that does stick out a lot to me is the fact that the maximum distance between characters quite reduced. It’s a lot tighter, making movement not as wild and far-reaching as previous games. I do have my suspicions as to why, but I’ll get to that later. Let’s just say that the game can feel as visually constraining as samurai showdown. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The voices of every character fit their designs well. From a very gruff Sol Badguy to the sugary saccharine tone of May. There is support for English and Korean audio as well, where I think each of them is also very well done. I just have a personal preference for the Japanese voices since that’s what I’ve come to associate all the characters with. What’s even more impressive is how all of the dialogue in story mode is also fully voiced, which might as well be a series of anime movies at this point.
What I found most unexpected from this game is the fact that everyone gets vocal soundtracks created by Naoki with all the epicness that comes along with it. Each of the songs explore different genres and feel like a good match for the character they’re meant for. Where my personal favorites would be the themes for Chipp, Nagoriyuki, and of course, May.
With the music, voice and revamped graphics spoiling our eyes and ears, it’s hard to get enough of Guilty Gear Strive, where I look forward to seeing and hearing more each time.
Mechanics (4.5 / 5)
When designing a fighting game there’s multiple dimensions of balance to decide on: Up to how much damage should each character be able to deal or withstand? How much influence should a certain game mechanic have? Should super meters or combo escape functions be easy to build or regain? How many buttons should there be and how much is too much?
ArcSystem Works has actually been working hard at this, for years, trying to figure out where the balance for every aspect lies. And this doesn’t get any easier when you decide to completely revamp the systems you’ve had already working before. So, while I do believe they succeed in many aspects, it’s inevitable that they’ll run into a few snags that do hurt the experience. But they were so invested in making their release great that they even went so far as to make 2 open betas to really see how their players would push the limits of the system they’ve put together. And the current result is something I find rather promising.
I’ve gone over some of these during my impressions for the beta, so I’ll just kinda skim the details for those who still need to catch up.
Gatling is no longer a thing. Veterans who are used to connecting big combos by using weaker moves into stronger ones? Well, that’s not really a thing anymore. There are still combos, but are quite specific rather than the free-form style that we’re used to. Punches and kicks are more for pokes and maybe connecting hits, while the slashes are more for dealing damage. They’ve also reworked dust to not only be chargeable but also double as the grab function.
Also, there is now a 6th button, sort of. It’s a dash macro, which makes pulling off certain moves a lot simpler rather than frustrating. Personally, I find this as a boon for pad players, like me.
Roman Cancels still feel pretty familiar, but have a lot more functionality to them. They come in 4 colors, each one working a little differently. They still cost half a full meter, but it’s much easier to build in Strive than its earlier counterparts. There’s also the idea of being able to dash forward while doing the cancel itself, which opens up the possibilities of this game by quite a bit. And I honestly don’t think it’s something we can fully unpack in a few play sessions through a week or two. But, I can sense a lot of possibilities with this function even now.
Keeping the opponent in a corner is no longer a thing, at least if you want to make big combo damage. Getting them hit against the wall enough times will cause the wall to break, where the attacking player may choose to fully break the wall, and get a bit of extra damage as well as a buff for the fight. Or not, which allows the defending player to recover, but stay stuck in the corner. Either way, this is meant to keep game from getting too one-sided too fast. Allowing the defending player a chance to fight back or recover, while not taking too much away from the guy who was playing better at that point.
Based on the maybe hundred matches I went through getting killed by many Potemkins, Sols, Mays, Axls, Nagos, Giovannas, actually, no I was getting beaten a lot by everyone, let’s leave it at that. Anyway, I was once put off by how much damage you get from a slash or maybe a 3-hit combo. But looking back at it now, if you got caught for maybe a similar opening in previous games, you’d receive roughly the same amount of damage, just with more hits. Yes, you heard it here folks, damage wise, Xrd is just Strive with extra steps. But seriously speaking, on higher level play, the amount of time it takes to finish a round doesn’t feel too short. You’ll get wrecked here and there because you simply don’t know what to be ready for yet, but when you know what you’re doing the game doesn’t feel like it’ll be decided by some random hits.
Wrapping up on the mechanics side, how the game works feels very well-thought out. I mean yes, we can meme about how counter hits and overdrives are kind of overkill. But when you try to see what they were gunning for in terms of accessibility while maintaining a certain depth to the gameplay, I can see it all there, and I think we just haven’t delved deep enough into what the developers want us to discover. And hopefully, over time, will be revealed by the community playing it.
Content (4.2 / 5)
Guilty Gear Strive opens up with 15 playable characters at launch. And while we’re used to seeing massive amounts of characters in one go, having over 10 when starting from scratch is actually quite a lot already. When the number of characters available starts having a huge roster, certain characters will start feeling quite similar. Being different only with specific tools or gimmicks they may carry.
Guilty Gear characters tend to all have some sort of gimmick, except maybe Sol. Just kidding, his gimmick is his ridiculous far slash turning into a big combo. Anyway, each of them arel quite distinct from each other, from normal moves, to stats, and even style of play. Somebody busts out lightning bolts, or dolphins, while others move so quickly you won’t see them. We’ve got onlyfans and even the best (or worst) back realignment experience you’ll ever get. And a whole lot more, you just have to try them out.
There’s also a story mode that continues how it was executed in Xrd. Which is basically an anime movie created in-engine. It’s generally an okay watch, you’ll wish the scenes and dialogue flowed faster or more naturally, but you eventually get used to it and let the story play through. What’s more impressive is how they stepped up the production value of every scene. Originally they’d be generally talking across each other maybe on a table or generally open areas. This time they interact with even random NPCs and objects within their reach. They even go so far as setting up hallways, chase scenes, moving through places and debris, and even full-on fights, where they don’t just talk about how strong they are. Given how dynamic the new models are, the camera can move about more freely and make for more interesting angles. So I was hardly ever bored watching any of the characters, since you won’t see them like this in any other way.
I’m sure the next question would be ‘hey man, so how’s the story?’ Honestly, it’s a big improvement from how the story was explored back in previous versions. It doesn’t rely on a heavy exposition dump from the very beginning. I mean, it’s still there, but in easier to digest bits and pieces. It’s also much easier to follow since we’re all playing on one timeline. As for the plot itself, well I guess it’s old movie reference time. It’s something like old 90’s action flicks where everyone is set to a have fun time while on screen. Like Con-air and Die Hard, if anyone can still remember that which means you’re also a dinosaur. Complete with one-liners, hilariously ridiculous stunts, and even a pretty good Joker performance. Honestly if I were to make a clip show of all the cool things that you can see throughout the story, well, it’s going to be about half of its entire run time.
While a lot of the action is centered around Sol and his new buddy, the characters are able to share moments to show not only of how cool they are, but are also given times to show something more profound about their characters. Like did you know how well Axl can control time? Or how Chipp has a dating history with one of the side-characters? Or even how Zato-1 can type with blindfold? That one came at me completely from left field, also have you seen these keyboards? WILD. The game is able to show much more of what the characters are like and how they fit in this universe through story mode. Anyway, watch it. If you like anime stuff and badassery, watch it.
In addition to that, if you really want to get into it, there’s a full encyclopedia-like set of literature complete with a glossary of terms, a timeline, and even relationship charts. It’s literally what you’d find on a fan site, and it’s all there if you really want to make a deep dive into the lore of this universe.
Okay, so the story is cool, is there anything else I can play? Well, in fact there is. There’s the usual training mode that has all the options you might need to properly explore the character you’re trying out. But there’s also mission mode, a game that has a set of challenges and doubles as the tutorial mode for those who don’t quite understand how Guilty Gear Strive works. Even I, a long time fan of this series, had to go to this to understand some specific things, and I found it helpful. If you’re willing to put in the time and practice, which is basically what you need to get good at anything, you’ll be able to learn how to play this fighting game quite capably.
The amount of content that Strive has is a lot more than meets the eye, and is a very generous helping, to be sure.
Features (4.3 / 5)
Despite all of my talking about how well this title has done, that’s not the biggest miracle they’ve achieved here. The real miracle here is how badly they made the matching lobbies. Well, okay that’s not fair they actually worked on it a lot and improved it plenty over time, it’s quite evident if you followed the game. Just that it’s still bad.
Nobody asked for 2D pixel art avatars or lobbies. How can the gorgeous as heck graphics in the game have a lobby that looks like it belongs in the 16 bit era, I don’t understand! Granted, you can get a lot of customizations for your personal avatar, but they’ve done better for this before, much better! Aside from the lobby feeling like another bizzarro dimension, there’s also the lacking features that you would sort of expect since they’ve pretty much done this before. Easier queuing, being able to detect connection quality before you try to match up.
But it’s not all so one-sided. There’s still the amazing application of the rollback net code. Back then, getting even about 4 frames of delay was already enough to hurt the online experience substantially. But now even with nearly 200 ms of delay, Guilty Gear Strive makes for palatable matches online. It’s hands down the best implementation of online fighting game play I’ve ever experienced. And it’s no wonder, considering how much they designed around rollback net code to make the game feel as smooth as butter. If you study how each character’s moves work, how much they can travel through the screen, or how special moves start up and end. It’s to make the net code be able to correct the game’s state without making it look too janky. Honestly, I didn’t think online play with fighting games would feel this great, ever. But here we are. I have no doubt in my mind that this should be the new standard for online play for future games.
As for upcoming content, well. If you paid attention to story mode you can already tell at least two of the upcoming characters as DLC. If you find yourself to be a fan of the game, you might want to buy the season pass as that covers 5 characters already planned for the year.
Guilty Gear Strive has revealed itself to be a game aimed not only to make its original fanbase happy but also make it inviting for newer players who might become curious. While we had our doubts, we certainly can’t deny that they knew what they were doing. Even with many compromises made, the developer’s passion for the game shines through. After discarding so much of what this beloved series had built up, how does Daisuke answer the question ‘what defines Guilty Gear?’
Guilty Gear seems to be centered around two things, personality and freedom. When you look at any character and any other related content about them, you can see how it communicates the personality of every individual. Sol’s ‘in your face’ personality shows in how a lot of his moves are very direct and difficult to stop. Even Nagoriyuki’s default stance and movement suggests that he will strike in a very intentional, disciplined manner, and that meshes well with how you’re supposed to handle the blood meter. You can even compare the character themes for say Millia and Potemkin, and through the tempo alone you can tell which one is supposed to be the speedy character. Every element designed around a character points not only to their personalities but it also informs you of how their playstyle might feel like. Through this heavily layered way of showing, not telling, it’s easy for even the uninitiated to understand what each character is like simply by watching them.
Then comes actually fighting somebody in-game. Instead of dealing with a whole set of oppressive block strings where turns of attack and defense can take a while, the swap of roles can happen quite rapidly. The whole idea of ‘there’s always something you could do’ seems to stay in there. You obviously can’t challenge every situation, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of options. So long as you have even some tension, or a burst, there’s probably something you can do. The game offers so much freedom in how you can fight, but with it is a demand that you can decide what you do every second. This makes the game difficult to predict unless you know your opponent well, which makes it all the more interesting to watch.
Yes, it’s not perfect, there appears to be some infections of balance issues and some disastrous experiences with lobbies, but these are by no means a requiem for the game. Out of the box the Guilty Gear is not only a rock parade of amazing music, but a showcase of interesting, captivating characters that the developers themselves clearly share a lot of love for. They felt it necessary to deal with the glaring discrepancies between seasoned and new players, and while some decisions are questionable. Those who stand strong and put their faith in this game will be rewarded with a system that’s been refined through hellfire. You can find your one character you want to play hero with, and carve your way for whatever it is you want to fight for. I honestly believe that ArcSystem Works and Daisuke have triggered something significant here, as I think this game and what they’ve shown is the spark that will revitalize the genre.
What an amazing achievement.
Guilty Gear Strive is a game that should be by your side, scoring a 4.5 / 5
Available on PS5, PS4, and PC.