Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
The Guilty Gear series spent years being underappreciated in the fighting community, but I believe Guilty Gear -Strive- is going to completely change that. This release continues the fantastic production values and tight fighting mechanics the series has long been known for, but ups its game with great netcode and broader accessibility than we’ve seen in the past.
Guilty Gear’s humble beginnings saw it as a 2D fighter that was somewhat lost in the genre. It released at a time when fighting games were incredibly common, and many of them adopted a similar anime aesthetic that made it challenging for Guilty Gear to stand out from the pack. Arc System Works developed other fighting games that seemed to draw more attention (such as BlazBlue, which seemed to gain more traction years ago), but Guilty Gear continued to release with notable improvements. Guilty Gear -Strive- seems poised to be the biggest success in the series yet, for multiple reasons.
The timing for this release really couldn’t be better. There’s nothing else really big in the fight genre (outside of the surprise Virtua Fighter release on PS4 for PlayStation Plus users) to muddy the waters. Guilty Gear -Strive- is also available on the PlayStation 5, allowing the fluid animations to really shine on the new platform – which again doesn’t have a ton of titles right now competing for attention. Lastly and most importantly: Guilty Gear -Strive- is just a really damn great game.
We’ll start with the presentation, which is what is most likely to grab eyes and ears right out of the gates. The actual combat is still 2D, but built with fully rendered 3D models. This keeps the combat incredibly smooth (and on the PS5, the fluidity is simply fantastic), with characters cleanly moving from one move into another, flashy collisions and special moves, all set against vibrantly colored and eye-pleasingly animated environments. During certain moments, such as the last move of the fight, the camera spins around giving you a glorious view of the battle’s conclusion in 3D. The Guilty Gear franchise has always had slick visuals, and -Strive- continues that trend. For my money, it’s the best-looking fighting game I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.
The music is another standout for me. It’s not uncommon for fighting games to have hard-driving musical scores that try to complement the frantic tempo of the combat, but the pacing of the game and the soundtrack here are ramped up to an 11 out of 10. Admittedly, the heavy metal soundtrack, complete with lyrics being yelled in the background, is not likely going to be for everyone – but it suited me perfectly and also fit the vibe of the overall game. The developers boast that the digital soundtrack has over 55 songs, featuring 15 vocal themes and over three dozen background tracks and I believe it. This is an OST I will gladly listen to outside of playing the game.
The combat is the highlight here, however. I mentioned the pacing above, because it is an integral part of what makes Guilty Gear -Strive- tick. Fighting games have a great deal of inherent strategy baked in, but often what separates them is the pacing of the combat. Some games rely more on angles, others focus heavily on counter-attacks and the Guilty Gear series has always tried to push the action. You have some pretty standard attacks – punch, kick, weak and strong slashes. Characters move with different speed, having varying amounts of power to their attacks and create different zones based on their range that provide balance to them. What one character does well allows another character to do something else even better. That’s common in all fighting games, and one of the quibbles someone might raise is that Guilty Gear -Strive- has a somewhat small-ish roster at just over a dozen characters. That being said, the characters are quite unique from one another. Moves might be pulled off in similar fashion in some instances, but their impact and range vary greatly. That being said, I expect the roster to expand through future character / season pass DLC, but it will likely never reach the three dozen or so characters you see in some long-running fighting franchises.
Beyond the characters however, there are systems in place that keep the action driving forward as well. Probably the one that impacts the pace the most is the tension gauge. As a concept, it is not completely unusual: perform actions to build up the bar that allows you to pull off enhanced moves. However, many fighting games differentiate this through how the gauge accumulates. Sometimes it is based on damage taken, but in Guilty Gear -Strive- it is about pressing the action. Moving towards your opponent, landing attacks on your opponent. You can also perform actions in the battle that causes the gauge to fill even more quickly, like breaking an opponent through the wall boundary in the environment.
The other gameplay mechanic that the series is best known for is Roman Cancel. This first debuted in Guilty Gear X. It is a bailing out of your current move by pressing any three attack buttons at once (while having at least half of your tension gauge available). One nice new wrinkle is that the cancel now comes in four different colors / effects. It adds a bit of additional strategy to the mix and is key for setting your opponent up, because they may be planning to counter one of your moves. If you see that starting to happen, Roman Cancel out of it and you can now be the one countering what you opponent had set up. That it’s based around the tension gauge only further incentivizes offensive playstyles.
The Guilty Gear series has never been especially accessible to new players. The mechanics are deep and aggressive. Turtling is seldom a sustainable strategy. Combos are generally not of the ‘mash a button’ variety (though Xrd had a combo system that allowed you to roll through the four different face buttons in a particular sequence). Combos are still doable, but they are strung together in more character-specific ways. That being said, generic attacks feel more damaging than in games past, allowing for a degree of shallower skillset affording a chance of victory. This still does not supplant actual skilled players knowing how to zone and use deeper move sets, but I think Guilty Gear -Strive- may be the most accessible game in the series for some time now.
Like the somewhat smallish roster of fifteen characters, the number of modes might ruffle some feathers as well. Not because any of them are bad – but there are not as many of them as what we find in some series. Games like Tekken often shoehorn in something ‘extra’ like bowling or a 3D brawler, and Mortal Kombat has the puzzle / adventure-like Krypt while Street Fighter has timed attacks and more. That being said, Guilty Gear -Strive- provides plenty to do still. The arcade mode is likely where most of the action will take place, as it can crank out some variant paths for your chosen character and can inject a few surprises into the journey now and again.
The story mode is likely to be the most divisive as it is not a ‘game’ but a mini-movie using the game’s engine. It’s a story – you don’t interact with it at all. It’s not even a visual novel like some of the older BlazBlue spinoffs from years past. It looks and sounds fantastic, and when coupled with the game’s rather large, detailed encyclopedia of terms and characters, provides a pretty solid narrative. Many people use the story mode to learn the basics of fighting games, but you are better off using the combination of training / dojo / missions to learn the broader systems and the skills of specific characters. I am fine with a more coherent, almost movie-quality story mode that doesn’t shoehorn in odd battles that make no sense like say Mortal Kombat.
There is a survival mode, which is exactly what it sounds like as you take on an endless supply of enemies. You can collect and look through artwork and music by spending currency or participating in a rather odd fishing mini-game that links to the online lobbies. This is one of the areas that struck me as really interesting. The netcode supports the experience well so far, which is a huge help. But essentially, you create a sort of 8-bit pixelated avatar that roams about either a ranked tower or wide open park area. In the tower, you will move up and down based on your performances, doing its part to match you against similar skilled opponents. There are various things you can interact with outside of your fellow players, such as clothing rooms, replays of prior matches and the aforementioned fishing game. This mode feels like it could be expanded upon in the future as well, but it is pretty well-constructed.