Guilty Gear -Strive- (PS5) - ReviewLee Mehr , posted on 11 July 2021 / 4,078 Views
I'm not the most dedicated fighting game enthusiast, but Arc System Works is among the few developers in the arena that consistently grabs my attention. Being one of those weirdos who hastily tried to return Street Fighter IV out of dismay towards Yoshi Ono's vision, Arc's BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger arrived shortly thereafter to sate my brawling needs. Considering that I'm neither a religious devotee to anime nor fighting games, it's surprising how this vector of the two consistently piques my interest ever since that formidable new IP debuted. Fast-forward a decade to Arc’s latest pride, Guilty Gear -Strive-, which acts as both a design reconsideration and a claim to the fighting franchise throne.
Hot off the events of Guilty Gear Xrd (Sign & Revelator), the wicked witch I-No has freed a destructive force from prison. This powerful entity promises to make her whole again, which will wreak havoc across the entire planet. Assisted by several series regulars, protagonist Sol Badguy sets off to prevent this from happening & to finally confront his nemesis: Asuka R. Kreuz – known as "That Man.” This resolution promises to conclude The Gear Hunters Saga.
If your reaction after seeing "conclude" in the plot synopsis has you worried... well... that's more than justified. Yes, it's effectively a long-running anime, which carries certain prerequisites like being as convoluted as possible. Guilty Gear is the Kingdom Hearts of fighting games. And after navigating through its encyclopedia-driven exposition, out-of-the-blue dialogue-detours about the nature of humanity, women with dual mammary mountains affixed to their chests, and superfluous belts and zippers, you'll eventually give in and say "anime's gonna anime."
-"I've now amassed the power of absolute zero!
-But I've amassed the power of infinity!
-We'll see who wins when our power collides! HYAH!"
I'm playing into hyperbole but you get the idea. Here's the thing: I still really, really like the story mode. Sure, it's purely passive by nature, making it more of a Netflix show season; that said, there's a special amount of earnestness to this inherently goofy story. The stakes get continually higher, most of the character dynamics are fun, and a majority of the English voice actors handle their roles efficiently. The script reeks of a hare-brained fan locked in his room for over a year, but professionally edited and tweaked to be a serviceable anime story. There's such enthusiastic energy and creativity here that also feels so well-paced. I promised myself on two separate occasions to take a break, but then I binged through Chapter 3 to the end credits.
It says something when a fighting game's silly-as-hell narrative makes me want to invest more time in its lore.
The main course of the event still comes back to gameplay. If you've played any modern competitive fighters, you know what you're dealing with: basic chest-high hits, sweeps, throws, jumps, crouches, aerial hits, burst gauge, tension gauge, and different block tiers. As with any fighter, there's a level of 'combat chess' constantly occurring that forces you to measure an offensive or defensive approach. The beauty of sneaking in a counter after a whiffed strike can be exhilarating, but even a 4-hit combo could eat a huge portion of health away. Since Strive is more of a high-damage template like the Samurai Shodown revival, maybe guns-blazing is more advantageous.
Divulging basic mechanics and strategies is one thing, but how does this compare for series fans? That's... going to be a bit more complicated. Even though I only had a short stint with Xrd Revelator, I immediately noticed how Arc seems more interested in keeping your feet planted here. Strive isn't bereft of aerial assaults and combos, of course, but it's clear the new dynamics at work intend to trim down Guilty Gear's previous complexity and speed. "Streamlining" tends to have wildly disparate meanings between PR and fans, but I think directors Daisuke Ishiwatari & Akira Katano were very honest in trying to be more approachable, which implies more than a rather robust tutorial.
This simplification doesn't tell the whole story. Arc's aim of having a less-steep learning curve doesn't distract from the very tangible skill ceiling. One critical component that feels different for the better is the Roman Cancel system. With your tension gauge (bottom of screen) you create a shockwave burst around yourself, which morphs into different colors depending on whether you're mid-attacking, blocking, or post-strike. Since you can also feint a Roman Cancel, other combo opportunities open up that way. By far, it's one of Strive's most interesting mechanics that I'm still terrible at accomplishing. Its intentions of keeping players more grounded is more of a lateral move too. This, combined with heightened damage output, makes Strive more a game of decision-making within the neutral space outside of hitboxes. I've had so many tunnel-vision moments where I'm trying to get just a few inches closer for that successful strike and it's still an extremely satisfying loop. Beyond mulling over reductions in character move sets or reduced options, Strive succeeds at being incredibly fun.
Presentation is among its best qualities, as has often been the case for this series. This praise goes beyond the detailed artwork and animations – though those are near-immaculate. I came away digging little details, like the start of each match:
- Bald eagle flying to the venue with rock music in the background.
- The euphonious announcer says "Mankind knew they cannot change society. So instead of reflecting on themselves, they blamed the Beasts. Heaven or Hell?"
- Canned character dialogue before duel.
There's something so endearing about this repetition that hasn't worn on me. Words also can't describe how cathartic it feels when the visual-audio elements mesh together with a silky-smooth framerate. Pulling off a 8-hit combo while one of Ishiwatari's metal tracks reverberates through your skull is damn near impossible to top. I could go on about the flowing stage transitions in Wall Breaks, the meticulous sound design, or the ludicrously superfluous details in the striking character designs, but Arc can prove its own meticulous work via combo clips until the end of time.
Despite previous contentions, I still think there's a solid foundation here too. Arc did such a great job of helping me relearn my reflexes. As I got further away from the first few hours the more excited I became to memorize an advanced move or flex a new gimmick. It's a fighting system that's worth the extra hours of rehearsing moves and watching YouTube videos to grow past the basics. It's been incredibly fun to the point where I wouldn't mind playing as any of the 15-character roster. There's a lot of interesting nuance between them.
With all of this – deserved – praise being said, there are other individual quibbles I have as well. For starters, a bit more tweaking to hitboxes is needed. There's nothing blatant per se, but I did witness a few of Sol Badguy's strikes not catching the edge of a character's body and still registering as a hit. This one is more of a visual nitpick, but I think Arc overdid the size of Nagoriyuki, Potemkin, and Faust in relation to the zoomed-in camera. Even if they're not mechanically OP by default – except for Nago though - there's still this... slight “implicit visual bias” from their gargantuan statures and longer reach that bothers me. You can say 'get gud' but I think this issue would be ameliorated by further camera distance.
Even with these personal qualms and wrestling with its precursors' established design philosophy, Strive's fighting system is an engaging one. It's tough to express how charged I felt after getting into the swing of things and winning that first round against a friend with just a sliver of health left. It's hard to say where the meta will go in respect to high-level play and if that may run its course, but the satisfying foundation laid here makes high-level play worth reaching for me. That's what makes several fair criticisms not sting so harshly.
In regard to assessing its value, Strive's content is going to be measured on two planes: offline and online. For offline there's the story, tutorial, training gym, arcade, and survival options as the main courses. Oddly enough, Arcade doesn't (currently) have a selectable difficulty option, so you're in the CPU's hands there. Aside from that, there's this cute extra where you spend accumulated in-game currency to go "fishing" for items that go towards your collection: art gallery, past Guilty Gear music tracks, and so on. It's a shame it wasn't an actual fishing mini-game though. How much you weigh each of these options plays in heavily to the $60 asking price (PS4 or PS5 retail). For me? I'd say the tipping point in its favor is the surprisingly fun story mode & glossary – disregarding that you can find these online.
If counting the online support, Strive is worth every penny and then some. One of its widely advertised features is the new inclusion of rollback netcode. Since I don't want to bore you with details that you can see elsewhere, what this effectively translates to is an online fighting experience where I've yet to lose my online connection against a friend or random while fighting. I've also never gotten the sense I'm dealing with rough input delay or an unregistered move. On top of this, the matchmaking scheme is fairly comprehensive and transparent. A short bout with the CPU evaluates your performance and you’re assigned a ceiling and floor within this "matchmaking tower." From there, you're thrown into these retro 16-bit lobbies where you can walk up to any open console and challenge anyone else within that room. It's so simple and straightforward. To condense my thoughts on online: my experience has been so smooth thus far that Strive deserves a smidgen of extra credit for the work it's done. Rollback has been done before in fighters, but this is among the smoothest launch-window experiences I've had in years.
Guilty Gear -Strive- introduces some seismic shifts for the franchise in favor of approachability. Not every aspect of Arc System Works' design ethos will go over smoothly with long-time fans, but there's so much to otherwise appreciate in its altered DNA. It feels mechanically rewarding, visually sumptuous, & aurally satisfying to an insane degree; plus it's supported by one of the sturdiest online systems I've seen for a fighter. Even with some necessary tweaks and polishes, this is a title striving to be the next marquee fighting franchise.
This review is based on a digital copy of Guilty Gear -Strive- Ultimate Edition for the PS5, provided by the publisher.