Arc System Works struck video game gold with Dragon Ball FighterZ’s massive success, but people new to the developer’s library may not know that the company has been cranking out top-quality fighting games for decades with its BlazBlue and Guilty Gear franchises. The latter is getting a new installment in the form of Guilty Gear -Strive-. We participated in the game’s recent closed beta test and came away with mixed feelings. Though Guilty Gear -Strive- is a potential thrilling series entry due to its fun, fast-paced combat, Arc System Works needs to fix the game’s lobby system before the title launches later this year.
For the uninitiated, Guilty Gear -Strive- is the seventh installment in the core Guilty Gear franchise. 2014’s Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign- brought the series to a wider audience thanks to its impressive Unreal Engine-powered, cel-shaded graphics (the same technique used to create Dragon Ball FighterZ). Despite the new engine, Xrd and all subsequent sequels retained the franchise’s iconic, overly-stylized anime look and deep fighting game mechanics. Guilty Gear -Strive- also keeps many elements found in its predecessors, but streamlines the base mechanics to make combat more accessible to newcomers.
Guilty Gear is known for its open-ended combat system that lets people rack up huge combos. Though series veterans love this gameplay component, it is something that intimidates casual players. Strive streamlines the combo system by utilizing dial-a-combos, akin to those found in Mortal Kombat. There is little room to experiment, since you can only link a limited number of attacks. This will surely disappoint people who prefer the old Guilty Gear mechanics.
Like last year’s Samurai Shodown, Guilty Gear -Strive- makes it possible to deplete upwards of three-fourths of an enemy’s health with only a few moves. That may sound great, but it’s not fun when your own health bar evaporates into nothing after a few hits. Despite its exaggerated characters and special moves, Samurai Shodown’s high damage works because its combat is based on real-world, weapons-based martial arts. You’d expect a sword to quickly destroy a health bar. However, considering that Guilty Gear goes full anime, you’d expect the characters to be more resilient. After all, anime characters who like to throw hands often endure ridiculous amounts of damage. It’s disappointing when bouts end before they really get going. Hopefully, Arc System Works adjusts the game’s damage values before launch.
Still, Guilty Gear -Strive- is an incredibly fun fighting game. The combat feels fantastic, with punches and kicks delivering satisfying and brutal impact animations. This game is almost as fun to watch as it is to play, as the exaggerated animations and quick camera cuts and zooms expertly punctuate the action. And the roaring heavy metal score—a series staple—is the icing on the cake. If you’re a fan of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Helloween, or Gamma Ray, your head will explode (in a good way) from the metal madness burrowing into your skull.
Online Matches and Netcode
Guilty Gear -Strive-’s online lobby system, an area where you match up with other players, is a confusing mess that cannot be ignored. Instead of being as visually stylish as the rest of the game, the lobby is a flat, two-dimensional world that’s aesthetically similar to pixel art indie games. You and other players’ avatars navigate the lobby in an attempt to connect to one another. I use the word “attempt” deliberately. With so many avatars huddled into a small area, it’s hard to select a particular person to start a match. Fortunately, it was far easier to simply set my avatar to receive fight invitations from anyone.
Not everything about the lobby system is sloppy or poorly realized. There are five lobbies, each represented by a different floor inside of a 2D mansion. Low-ranking players reside on the bottom floors and higher-tier players populate the upper levels. You only advance to the next floor by continuously performing well in matches. This lobby system prevents top-ranking players from mopping the floor with lower-tier combatants. However, everyone is free to test their skills on higher floors. This ranking system works extremely well.
In the beta, Guilty Gear -Strive-‘s rollback netcode worked well. Most contests ran without hiccups, but I also quit a few matches due to severe lag. Modern fighting games live or die on their online play; here’s hoping that Arc System Works gets its rollback netcode working up to snuff when the game launches.
To The Future
Guilty Gear -Strive-’s closed beta was a mixed bag. The overhauled combat system, though simplified, contains just enough depth to make players invested in learning its intricacies. And the anime-style graphics and ripping metal music capture that distinct Guilty Gear flavor fans have enjoyed for decades. One major drawback we experienced was the woefully clumsy lobby system. The few lag-filled online matches weren’t a joy, either.
Fortunately, Arc System Works has time to streamline and overhaul those two aspects. Despite some hiccups, Guilty Gear Strive is a fighter worth keeping an eye out for when it releases in 2021 as a PlayStation 4 exclusive.