Review : Guilty Gear Strive : Strive to be Better

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When asked to picture a phoenix, many different versions of a fiery bird would likely go through people’s minds. There may even be some abstract visions that transcend the typical image of resurrection. I am not sure many would consider the Guilty Gear franchise as their choice, however, but maybe it should be. The Guilty Gear franchise was not exactly the most well-known fighting franchise when the first games released those many years ago, but it was a well-respected one in the fighting game community. It was also fast. Blazing-fast combos and combat systems married surprisingly well with a truly rocking soundtrack, providing a fighting experience that was fun, visceral, and engaging to all skill levels.

Yet, for all of its triumphs, the Guilty Gear franchise was lost to obscurity when fighting games fell in popularity. A few glowing embers flickered through the years, but it wasn’t until Guilty Gear Xrd Sign was released that the franchise would see a massive resurgence. Like the immortal phoenix, Guilty Gear proved it would not only survive among the fighting games left in the glowing ashes, it would soar above them. Guilty Gear Xrd Revolution, and then its Rev 2 expansion, would further distance themselves from the fighting game crowd, with very few other fighters providing any competition.

As amazing as those games were, there were still some that found the incredibly robust and technical fighting systems to be too complex. In an attempt to alleviate that complexity gap while retaining the heart of what skyrocketed Guilty Gear to the stratosphere, developer Arc System Works (ASW) went back to the lab and cooked up an experiment that took quite some time to balance. A year before its final release date, it was considered a mess. The developers thankfully decided not to settle for mediocrity and gave it some more time in the beakers. Did the formula finally work now that it has finally released? Let’s dive in and find out!

Perhaps the first thing gamers will notice going into -Strive- is the incredible graphical style. It exudes character and quality in every aspect, even during a jaunt through the punchy menu interface. The passion of the ASW team is on full display upon every screen the player will encounter. But when the characters are chosen and the battle lines are drawn, prepare yourself. It is hard to put into words how incredible the art and animation is that blisters off of the screen, and how fun it is to control that action.

Remember back to your favorite cartoons as a child, whether it be Thundercats, Voltron, or whatever your animated jam may be. Did you ever wish that you could control that same animation and participate in their battles? That is exactly what you get with -Strive-. It is the equivalent of taking something like Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair and applying that very art into a fighting game system. If you have played the Xrd games, then you know the ASW team did a fine job regarding this in those games, but -Strive- takes it a step further. From the little details found in the well-detailed stage backgrounds to the mind-melting character art across the 15 varied combatants, make no mistake: Guilty Gear -Strive- is the best-looking fighting game ever made.

While graphics are nice to look at, what makes or breaks a fighting game is its fighting system, characters, and balance. Since the first of these required ASW to build their Jenga tower from the bottom up, it was the most intriguing aspect throughout the development of -Strive-. Fans of the Guilty Gear series wondered how much their beloved franchise would be butchered to make way for accessibility. While some things have changed, I think a fine balance was struck between refined systems, ease-of-play, and deep technicality. The technical aspects of the Xrd Guilty Gears were so deep and advanced that, even streamlining much of that, -Strive- is still deeper than virtually all other fighters on the market not named Guilty Gear or BlazBlue.

Some purists may argue that their favorite systems have been watered down or hacked away, but the depth in -Strive- is there in spades. The focus, however, has been overtly and obviously structured to a much more neutral game focus. What this means is that the “footsies,” where players are trying to their best to control space when in a neutral (non-advantageous) situation, is more paramount to success than learning long combo strings and working on 50-50 strategies (situations forcing an opponent into a rock-paper-scissors guessing game when at a disadvantage). Make no mistake, combos, 50-50s, wake-up strategies, and meter and resource management, along with series staples like roman cancels, are all present and accounted for. Some things have been changed, such as the strange decision to neuter the gatling combo system, and every character has been reworked with this new balance in mind, but when viewing the game that is present instead of wishing it to be another Xrd, balance (mostly), fundamentals, and engaging game play are there in spades.

The characters are very detailed and breathtaking to see in action. Each of the returning 13 characters have had their move sets touched in some way, but they still feel like themselves; their hearts are intact. Faster characters like Millia, and especially Chipp, who relied on their speed to apply head games and enact combos, feel at home in the new system. They do not feel exactly the same, but the heart of their characters are there. Even Faust, who had probably the biggest redesign of all the characters, still feels at home at mid-range. The characters will take a bit of getting used to from players who are used to their approaches working a certain way, but they feel great in the new system, and they retain what made them fun to use throughout the series.

Regarding the balance of these characters, ASW did a mostly incredible job. There is almost always a viable answer to what is coming your way from any character, which is admirable since -Strive- is a massive redesign from Xrd. They still need to patch in some balance work with some characters, especially Sol Badguy who has a couple moves that keep his advantage while being quite challenging to deal with, but now that the game is in the wild, ASW can utilize quite a lot of data in determining future balancing. It is not perfect right now, but it is very good, and every character feels viable, including the two newcomers: Nagoriyuki and Giovanna. Each feels very unique, and they fit right in with the already bizarre group of heroes and misfits.

ASW do their best to ensure all players, new and experienced, can fit in with the cast as well. A series staple that has really shined since BlazBlue entered the fighting realm is the incredibly deep training mode, and it is back to ease everyone into all that -Strive- has to offer. Whether you are brand new to fighting games, or simply trying to work out the present changes, Guilty Gear -Strive- will have you understanding every aspect of fighting games and the unique systems to Guilty Gear through a series of fun and engaging tutorials and activities. Also, much like what was found in the Xrd series, there are specific match-up tutorials explaining how to combat and counter the situations certain characters can inflict on others. Is there a character that keeps you across the screen with a bevy of spacing and zoning projectiles? You’ll learn how to deal with scenarios like these and be confident when you utilize them against actual opponents.

When matching up with these denizens of the online fighter-scape, you will be tasked to create a look for your online persona, and then enter a portal where several other players will be battling each other or waiting for you. It can be clunky in its execution to ready up for a match, including the occasional disconnect while in the lobby itself, but when the actual match is underway, the roll-back net code is phenomenal. I have been playing on a PS5, and while I have read that the PC version may have even better net code implementation, the matches on PS5 have been very smooth and responsive. The players you see in your lobby are based on a tower-like ranking system, but you can also invite friends via a bit of a convoluted system to join you in player lobbies as well.

For those looking to lay the smack down on A.I. opponents, the single player modes have a decent amount to offer, with much more promised down the road. Out of the box, you have your tutorial modes, an arcade mode that provides a bit of a story path depending on your chosen fighter, a survival mode where you try to defeat as many opponents as you can in a row, and a mission mode that tasks you to successfully execute and complete various situations for your character. These are the single player modes at the moment, and though others were planned to be included with the game, they were cut due to COVID issues. Representatives from ASW have stated that these other modes will come later when they have time to complete them.

There is also a story mode, but much like the Xrd games, there is no game play found there. It is basically a somewhat interactive anime movie, and though it lacks game play, I highly recommend it as it is high quality and a great way to learn about the goings-on in the Guilty Gear universe. It does continue an ongoing story, but the included encyclopedia covers an insane amount of Guilty Gear series knowledge. However, because there is so much established story and lore, there will be things missed even if you read the entirety of the enormous encyclopedia. Still, all of the needed elements are here to enjoy the story at hand, and, besides, a fighting game is all about the fighting!

For all of the concerns that were levied against it, Guilty Gear -Strive- is a tremendously fun fighting game and is among the best in the genre. It does have some blemishes, such as some disconnects in the online lobbies, minor balance issues (looking at you, Sol Badguy), the strange streamlining decision regarding the gatling combos, and the lack of modes such as the iconic “MOM” mode from the start. But, it is an insanely fun fighter that will have you rushing down to play one more match, over and over again. The focus on the neutral game helps pave the accessibility path for newcomers, and the incredible amount of depth still found ensures that this fighter has some legs. With more modes, along with DLC fighters and stages, coming soon, Guilty Gear -Strive- is one dog that will have some bite for years to come. It does not need to strive to be better than its competitors. It already is.

Final Verdict: 8.5

Fun Factor: 10
Technical Prowess: 9
Time Investment: 5-7+ hours
Replayability: 10

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By Patrick Shields

I love the outdoors as well as the indoors, and when I'm not gaming, writing, or being musical, you can find me outside, climbing trees and getting lost off the road less traveled. It is a known fact that I've been blessed with the greatest kids in the world and an incredible wife who is an awesome nurse and my superhero. I've played games on nearly every system ever made and regularly go back to the classic games that helped raise this fine fellow. When asked which system or computer I prefer, there's only one answer: yes.

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