In the heat of the moment, when you’re smelling the game, nothing else will occupy your mind other than Guilty Gear Strive. In a 1v1 match up against an experienced opponent, everything else will fall away. Squaring up against a formidable foe while in any of the vivid and detailed stages is a sight to behold for any onlooker, but when your head is in the game, you may as well be sitting in a void. This is the kind of fighting game that requires all of your focus and a decent amount of time to improve your muscle memory, so it’s good that the series has taken steps to become more approachable, though that might be for nothing when other aspects are still incredibly daunting.
Guilty Gear Strive is another fighter from the wizards at Arc System Works, and the team has once again made a game that is stunning to behold. After introducing their unique graphical style with Guilty Gear Xrd, they honed it further with Dragon Ball FighterZ and Granblue Fantasy Versus, both of which managed to increase the amount of detail they could display with their unique blend of hyper-stylised 3D visuals – but Guilty Gear Strive is a step above even those. It may not have the dramatic energy blasts of DBFZ, but it does have some of the sharpest character models of any fighting game, and when they’re animated in front of you, at 4K 60fps on PS5, it really does look stunning.
But beauty is only skin deep, and underneath this gorgeous exterior is a deep and rewarding fighting game that is still trying its best to be easily understandable and approachable for newcomers – to mixed results. On the one hand, Strive has robust rollback netcode that has proven itself both in previous beta tests and with our retail version of the game. This supplements the new tower system in place for Ranked battles, which allows you to match with other players in set lobby rooms designed for tough opponents. Depending on your performance, you can get moved back to a lower tier, or promoted to a higher floor. This should relatively ensure that you are able to find matches close to your skill level – though you can jump straight to the highest floor, if you’re feeling daring or dumb.
This can help less experienced players, but spending an exorbitant amount of time in the lower lobbies can be just as demoralising. Luckily, one thing Guilty Gear has gotten right since Xrd is the Tutorial mode, which is incredibly robust. Through the tutorial mode a player can learn about every mechanic in the game, and then follow up with the Mission mode, which tasks you with completing small challenges of increasing complexity. At first you’ll be dodging projectiles by double jumping – pretty standard – but later you’ll be using far more complex mechanics to overcome tiny moments – the kind of momentary engagements that will be dynamically thrown at you in a real battle. Completing all of the Tutorial and Mission challenges is a tall order, but one that can teach a player everything they need to know – and after that, it’s just a case of putting it into practice in a real fight.
Most players, when looking to learn the ropes of a competitive game, head straight for the story mode – if there is one. Most players won’t touch the multiplayer mode of a game like Uncharted 4 unless they’ve finished with the campaign, and the same holds true for fighters like Mortal Kombat and Injustice. Arc System Works has always treated story modes a bit differently, however. Instead of being a neat way to introduce the player to the game, it’s purely there to give context to the world and characters. As such, there are no fights in Guilty Gear Strive’s story mode, which can last between four to five hours. Instead it’s a lengthy animated cutscene, essentially. I don’t know anyone who actually understands the lore of Guilty Gear, and I’m pretty sure anyone that says they do understand is a filthy liar, but it’s worth pointing out that the quality of the animation in Strive’s story mode is a considerable step up from Guilty Gear Xrd and DBFZ.
So away from the story mode, players looking to hone their skills and kill some time fighting off NPCs can do either in the Arcade mode, which is exactly what you’d expect from it – fight different enemies in order, get some quirky back-and-forth lines between them – and a Survival mode, which is essentially an endless Arcade mode, with top-scoring players having their records added to an online leaderboard. Arcade mode is always a nice way to acquaint yourself with a new character or strategy, but Survival mode ends up feeling more like a battle with the human limits of your own stamina, rather than a fun challenge to pit yourself against.
And then there’s the gameplay itself, which feels distinct from other Guilty Gear entries. There are still incredibly flashy super moves, and a hard-rock aesthetic complete with an album’s worth of tracks good enough to throw on a gym playlist, but the gameplay feels unique. Damage is way higher for your stronger normal moves, while scaling kicks in pretty early, so you (probably) won’t be finding any touch-of-death combos on day one. The combo routes in this game are changed from Xrd, previously you had an “Easy Beat” combo system which allowed you to easily combo Punch (P) > Kick (K) > Slash (S) > Heavy Slash (HS), or P>S>K>HS, and it would work for every character in the cast, making it easy enough to just start pressing buttons and feel accomplished. Strive does away with that system entirely though, going with more traditional, and tougher, combos. The fact that combos are more difficult to perform is offset by the high amount of damage your normal moves can do, so even if you are up against a tough opponent with a lot of talent, you can win by focusing on fundamentals and short combos. Though this also has the adverse effect of making it feel less rewarding to actually learn those longer, more difficult manoeuvres.
Though there are some changes here which will make high level play much more engaging and interesting. The Rock, Paper, Scissors nature of fighting game decision making is here, and one of the new introductions in the changes they’ve made to your Dust (D) attack. Holding D will now charge your attack, and launch opponents into the air. Jump after them, and you’ll be given a free air combo – though your opponent can break out. This is a bit of a risky move to pull out since it needs to be charged, so it ends up only being useful when an opponent is turtling and being defensive. It can break through those defences and lead to more damage than a throw, which has a shorter range anyway. A charged D can easily be used as a shimmy punish thanks to that bit of extra range over most throws.
But those only come up in select, oppressive situations. Most of the time you spend playing GGST will have you air dashing around the stage at speed, fishing for cheeky cross-up and counter hits – or maybe that’s just the style of my May. When playing with friends, Guilty Gear Strive delivers on what those enthralling visuals promise. It’s a fast-paced and fun fighter with a colourful cast and some truly excellent tunes. It’s easy to play it for hours online as an experienced fighting game player, or just blast it for 30 minutes with some friends over the weekend. It can be chaotic and unpredictable, but it’s always gorgeous and engaging. Guilty Gear Strive is easily the best fighting game of 2021 so far, and there doesn’t seem to be much on the horizon that can top it. If you’re looking for a new fighting game to play this year, this is the easiest decision you’ll ever make.
Guilty Gear Strive is now available on PS4, PS5, and PC via Steam for Deluxe Edition orders, and will be available for everyone on June 11. Tested on PS5.
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