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EVO, DLC & The Assault Upon the Celestial Tower: A 90-Day Evaluation of Guilty Gear -Strive-

EVO, DLC & The Assault Upon the Celestial Tower: A 90-Day Evaluation of Guilty Gear -Strive- - Article

by Issa Maki , posted on 12 September 2021 / 3,362 Views

I've earned the Platinum Trophy in Guilty Gear -Strive- for PlayStation 5, and I'm about to do it again on a second platform. If I could break it down chemically in a Winnebago and drive around selling it with my former student, I'd probably just look into getting one of those Steam Decks so I could have a portable version. Needless to say, I've been having quite the time these past few months; I might go as far as declaring it a 'hoot'.

So in honor of -Strive-'s orientation and probation period, let's examine what has already made it the most popular entry of the series. With a recent EVO Championship and two DLC characters under its belt, there's a fair amount to discuss. I'll share some thoughts regarding my attempt to ascend the 'Tower of Power' in pursuit of the Celestial Floor: an invitation-only room reserved for the most devoted online warriors. Then comes the rambling (my specialty), and after that are those buffalo chicken egg rolls from that pub downtown... so we better get started!

Originally, my intention was to have separate sections about character balance and the results of EVO (the world's largest fighting game stage), but the two are so symbiotically bound, it's difficult keeping them apart. Regardless, -Strive- is in a surprisingly stable position for its maiden voyage; heading into autumn and beyond is looking promising.

As far as us players go, we've been growing steadily in a diverse environment. Despite Sol Badguy's nomination as the game's strongest fighter, he failed to win any of the four regional EVO tournaments, with only one Sol reaching Grand Finals (and entering from the loser's bracket, no less). Since then, the junkyard dog has been tweaked slightly, yet has lost little of his effectiveness. The fears that ArcSys was going to overreact similar to Capcom's infamous Sentinel nerf in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 have been abated – at least until October.

Instead, the highest levels of play were represented by a mix of the old guard and unexpected guests, with an infusion of new blood to thicken the sauce up. Nagoriyuki, who was almost entirely written off by so-called 'professional' players, not only made two Grand Finals appearances but took North America, defeating fighting game legend SonicFox in the process (go Hotashi!). I advised against these judgments concerning the samurai-vampire months ago, but if the FGC knew anything about fighting games, Street Fighter V wouldn't have been their champion throughout the 8th generation.

It was Chipp Zanuff who walked away with the most gold medals, taking both Europe and Latin America. Super Smash Bros. god Leffen effortlessly proved the President of Eastern Chipp Kingdom's status, making a case for who might be the most frightening character to see let loose. Asia was won by Axl Low against his time-displaced girlfriend/counterpart, I-NO, in the most unexpected Finals of the series. Across the internet, 13 of the 15 fighters on the launch roster were able to crack Top 8 somewhere in the world. This is a testament of quality, mathematically undeniable to Pythagoras himself.

At the 90-day mark, I'm comfortable in my assessment that the current pecking order consists of: Sol, Ramlethal, Chipp, Nagoriyuki, and May, with the recently buffed Leo Whitefang and Zato-1 (who has yet to be mastered) not far behind. Giovanna sits comfortably around here, sharing a seat with Potemkin. Millia Rage and Axl round out the upper-middle echelon, requiring more specialized game plans to achieve results. I-NO and Ky (who were already underappreciated) have been given some nice changes which are certain to cause a rise in station, but we'll have to wait and see if Anji Mito and Faust have what it takes to crawl out of the cellar. As a practitioner of 'kancho', I don't go anywhere near Faust unless I'm packing my sword.

Two new challengers have entered the mayhem since June, with somewhat mixed results. Traditionally in fighting games, adding characters is tough to do without disrupting the entire ecosystem. As a result, they either end up far too powerful for their own good or have little impact. It's still too early to be certain (especially in Jack O's case), but the trend appears to be holding true.

First up was Goldlewis Dickinson, combination of that uncle you never see and a freeway overpass. Armed with his casket bearing an 'AREA-51' warning sticker and what would appear to be an extraterrestrial (Goldlewis insists that it's a 'cryptid'), the Secretary of Absolute Defense can dish it out but can't take it. If this wasn't enough, he has difficulties setting up his own game – with an execution ceiling rivalling Zato-1 in technical nuance.

Besides a killer musical theme and enthralled alien, the main thing Goldlewis boasts is absurd power. Able to outshine Nagoriyuki in this category, 100% damage combos are possible even against the mighty Potemkin. Combined with a penchant for consistently 'Guard Crushing' opponents (forcing them to block or 'Burst'), if things go the way Mr. Secretary wants them to he enacts the role of a can opener. Unfortunately for him, we Laconians have a very famous saying: “If.”

Though his slow run speed belies more unexpectedly nimble options, Dickinson has two serious caveats holding him back. Much like Iron Fist in the aforementioned Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, Goldlewis must already have his adversary on the defensive before he can effectively mix them up. This extra step, though a wonderful meta-joke on 'first contact' (that goes over everyone's head, by the way), is what relegated the Dragon of K'un L'un to the bottom of the barrel in 2011. In 2021, it remains the shackle it once was.

The other is Goldlewis' highly demanding, unorthodox execution. A whopping 8 of his special moves require 'half-circle' directional inputs (imagine rotating from 3 to 9 on the face of a clock). Churning this butter 2-4 times every combo becomes tiring very quickly, and developing the proper muscle memory for these unfamiliar rotations is difficult for us dinosaurs – and just try consistently landing that 720 degree Super! A single error will cause Dickinson to lose all previously established momentum, requiring meter to regain position or hope for another opening.

I don't think he's nearly as bad as people claim, but I do believe that a continued Goldlewis presence will be difficult to sustain; he's an all or nothing character by design. For now, he better not quit his day job - it is a government gig with benefits, after all.

The second DLC to grace our presence was Xrd fan-favorite Jack-O', Sol Badguy's squeeze and official demonstrator on how to properly bend over. Commanding a 'kawaii' robot army alongside awkward, effective normals, Jack-O' shows more promise out of the gate than Goldlewis, but her methodical style of play takes patience and luck to field properly.

What's striking about Jack-O' is how slow she can be in neutral. Her forward dash is reminiscent of Kula's deliberate skate from King of Fighters 2000 and lacks immediacy. The crazy setups and damage she can deal deserve respect, but Jack-O's greatest hinderance is that she needs to buy time in a game where nobody is willing to hand out a loan. Should the opponent close ranks before she's prepared, any progress made will evaporate before her eyes.

The other issue is that Jack-O' can't take a hit to save her life. With a defense and 'Guts' value equivalent to Millia Rage, Jack-O' is just as delicate as the hair-wielding assassin, yet has a fraction of the mobility. Her Super is also much more punishable than it looks, so make sure it counts. A defense boost might be in Jack-O's future, though with only two weeks since her arrival, everything as of right now can only be speculation.

At this point, it's fair to say that ArcSys deserves significant praise for the homeostasis created in -Strive-. I find it pathetic that Capcom can spend over half a decade failing to properly balance characters like Zangief and Vega, but ArcSys takes the same archetypes that Capcom invented, exaggerates them far beyond the boundaries Capcom would ever be willing to go (even in a Vs. series game), and ends up with a unique, better-rounded roster that's more fun to play as. I'm just glad brand recognition, money, and politics don't factor into supporting companies that haven't earned it with the quality of their products.

Of course, testing your mettle against others is the heart and soul of every fighting game, and this has been transferred almost seamlessly to the online world thanks to rollback netcode. The lobby system has been an ongoing source of criticism, but there's utility in its simplicity and it's nowhere near the boogey-man everyone pretends it is.

Parks and the 'Tower of Power' (as I refer to it) are the two primary destinations for the online warrior. If one was a recreation center, the other would be the proving grounds. Both have their reasons for being and work together to improve players, but the atypical design of these tools can result in people taking advantage of them and going against the spirit of combat. Which is sad, because there are some nice rewards for the dedicated.

The majority of people online reside in the various Parks distributed throughout the world. A casual, party atmosphere permeates the surroundings, where diminutive avatars dress up like centaurs and slide around on their bellies. Fighters of all levels are allowed to join in the festivities, leading to hilariously lop-sided battles or lines of people seeking to challenge a V.I.P. to test their skills. This is by far the most useful function of the room, as it allows players to learn the dynamics of important match-ups before going to the Tower and betting their position. Since everyone can see what characters are in the lobby, it's easy enough to find the matches you want to practice against; getting to play them is another matter.

This problem is starting to infest the Tower of Power adversely, affecting its population. When you play here, you're put into 1 of 10 different floors based on your relative skill. By winning battles, you ascend to higher levels, engaging with stronger competition, while losing has the opposite effect. But it's when you get to these upper stages that unsportsmanlike conduct starts to rear its ugly head, augmented further by cosmetic bragging rights only attainable by being among the best in the league.

What's occurring is that people are now starting to cherry pick their matches in the Tower (the equivalent of Ranked Mode), hampering its stability and general integrity. Those refusing to adapt to match-ups not in their favor can simply ignore them at will, focusing instead on making life miserable for legitimate contenders fighting for survival in deliberately stacked matches. A few changes could stop almost all of this from happening, but as it stands the only method we currently have for dealing with those abusing the system is to get stronger and learn how to cut them down. They stand in the way of that which we seek.

Hidden above the Tower of Power is a secret, invitation-only 11th area known as the Celestial Floor. Reserved only for the most disciplined, inspired competitors, the Celestial Floor is the source of longing for those following the path of the blade. Similar to The Gathering from Highlander, we feel “an irresistible pull towards a far away land... to fight for The Prize”, that being a cool winged badge for your R-Code, and for those who test in the top percentiles: a Dragon Ball-inspired fiery aura for your lobby creation. Flourishing one of these babies is sure to keep the riffraff at arm's length; which just happens to be all the people trying to cheat their way up the ranks in the first place. It's somewhat hard to blame them when the rewards are so cool, especially because it's ArcSys that dropped the ball. Take away the character portraits while inside the Tower and put the avatars in robes- it's not a hard fix.

The most underappreciated feature of -Strive- is the Arcade Mode. Beyond Stage 8 is an enhanced version of Nagoriyuki, accessible only if the player manages to win all of their previous matches with consecutive victories. Strangely, Stage 9 can still be accessed in defeat: as long as you lose both rounds and rematch, it won't count as a penalty. If any Vulcans out there understand the logic behind this one, feel free to stop by and explain.

Initially, 'Super Nago' gives the impression of being just another unfair boss in the vein of Mizuki, Goenitz, and Omega Rugal from SNK arcade classics. The reality is that he exists to teach the player valuable lessons about the fundamental tools they have available. Utilizing them all is the key to beating Super Nago; going online without taking the time to learn is tantamount to suicide.

The fight is overwhelmingly stacked against you, but there are advantages. Super Nago is constantly under the 'Blood Rage' status effect, except unlike usual he still retains access to his special moves. Predictably, this creates some rather ludicrous situations that are simply not possible within the normal boundaries of the game. Instead of trying to snuff Super Nago out, try and endure the force of the waves he generates and react accordingly.

The first consideration is that Blood Rage activates at the start of every round and can be punished by grabbing him. In fact, one of the most important takeaways from Super Nago is the importance of throwing in -Strive-. With a 2-frame startup, throws are the fastest move in your arsenal, so abuse the hell out of them. If you know an opponent can be punished but are unsure how to react, grab 'em! Roman Cancelling after allows for a combo, a crucial tactic in closing out tight rounds.

Super Nago will try and score as much chip damage as he can. This is where Absolute Defense steps in, negating it while pushing him back to create space. He will hit passive, defensive play with Dust Attacks. These cinematic sequences lead to devastating damage and will quickly train you to block high. His offense is severe enough to make challengers aware of the Burst Gauge and when it can be used; breaking a combo or potentially gaining full Tension is an important decision to make.

Aside from the free grab, Super Nago has one major weakness: he loses Blood Meter whenever he's damaged. Drain it completely and Super Nago will enter a dizzy state, granting the brief chance to hit him with anything. Should you develop a 6-7 hit combo and throw with regularity, sending him through the walls in each corner becomes standard hat. The temporary meter regeneration gained will keep Tension full, allowing for Roman Cancels to make combos and mix-ups more threatening.

Take these lessons to heart and you'll have an edge over 75% of the competition I've played against. If you can defeat Stage 9, consider developing your skill further in the lobbies. You might find out you're better than you know, and it only grows from there.

So far, the debut fighting game of the 9th generation has been a resounding success. The high-risk, high-reward gameplay of Samurai Shodown, fast-paced intensity of Marvel Vs. Capcom, and intimate roster of Street Fighter II have coalesced into a gem that might finally bring the series out of obscurity. More than likely, a year from now the FGC will still be adhering to relics like Tekken 7Street Fighter V, and for some reason, Skullgirls (which apparently will never die) – and that's alright. Guilty Gear fans have never been in it for fame or glory, and money isn't what drives them either. It's the thrill of the fight, the eye of the tiger. We call it: 'the smell of the game'. 

Come get a taste, and bring Tag Mode with you.

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JWeinCom (on 12 September 2021)

I actually think it's kind of interesting to kind of glimpse into particular gaming communities. That being said, I find it hard to really follow this without knowing too much about Guilty Gear. It's find it that was your intent, just to reach that niche, but if you want a wider audience maybe focus on one particular aspect you can expand on.

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