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Guilty Gear: Strive review: A Well-Considered Reboot Looks To Revitalise The Series

Guilty Gear Strive wants you to remember one thing: no matter how experienced you are with fighting games (and even Guilty Gear itself) you’re welcome here.

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Right from the outset, Guilty Gear Strive looks to welcome new players and the fighting game curious. A brief, basic controls tutorial, flavoured with a little character dialogue, sees Ky Kiske impose a compulsory training exercise on the reluctant, archetypal dude-with-attitude protagonist of the series, Sol Badguy.

“Remember that you can check what you’ve learned today at the DOJO,” explains Ky. “There are also more practical skills you could learn from there.”

Guilty Gear Strive
Guilty Gear Strive. Credit: Arc System Works

“Hey are you telling me that I should head to the DOJO?” asks an incredulous Sol.

“As I said it’s all just formality,” replies Ky, before adding “you don’t really have to head over” as a mischievous aside.

It’s a neat way of breaking the fourth wall and telling the player they are free to jump right in and button mash to their heart’s content whilst flagging up the resources available for further training and learning.

And what a lot of resources there are. One of Strive‘s strengths is its wealth of information. Mission Mode makes a return in the form of over 100 missions split into five areas of ascending difficulty, covering newcomers seeking a deeper understanding of the how and whys of a 2D fighter as well as offering advanced tutorials that will challenge the execution of seasoned players. There’s also a set of tutorials dedicated to how to beat each character in the game, so if you spend some time here you are less likely to get hit by the day one cheap stuff that puts people off playing online. Mission Mode is an invaluable resource for beginners keen to get started in fighting games and will teach you absolutely everything there is to know. This is as accommodating and helpful a training system as you will see in a fighting game, and should set the standard moving forward.

Guilty Gear Strive
Guilty Gear Strive. Credit: Arc System Works

And if that’s not enough information for you, there is plenty more to be found in the game’s story mode. Since the Guilty Gear Xrd series, Story Mode has been – in the literal sense of the word – unplayable, instead offering a feature length movie to advance the game’s complicated lore. We were only provided with the first chapter for review but, based on its length, it seems Arc System Works have once again produced a fully fledged story. Pausing the movie presents you with a colossal glossary, reminiscent of the Mass Effect codices, as well as an exhaustive timeline of events and a sprawling “Character Correlation Diagram” – a giant, interactive family tree detailing every character’s relationship to each other. The effort put into this mode is admirable, and those fully invested in Guilty Gear‘s story will be able to pore over every detail. Be aware that, story mode aside, single player features are very thin on the ground. A barebones arcade mode and a simple survival mode won’t satisfy anyone looking for a mainly single player experience.

Guilty Gear Strive
Guilty Gear Strive. Credit: Arc System Works

In an attempt to trim the fat, several of Xrd‘s battle systems have been removed from Strive, and advanced play now centres around the revised and improved Roman Cancel system. Crucially, the changes don’t stop Strive feeling like a Guilty Gear game; fights feel meaty and satisfying, and Arc System Works have once again worked their magic to make you feel like you’re playing out a grand, cinematic anime fight scene. Characters are stylish, fun and varied – speedier, small characters such as ninja Chipp Zanuff dazzle the opponent with an array of air dashes, flurries of attacks and cunning tricks. That is until he gets caught by colossal wrestling robot Potemkin, whose super move sees him catch you mid air and literally fly up to heaven with you for the world’s highest bodyslam.

If neither of those characters interest you, there’s a mysterious teleporting doctor with a paper bag on his head; a rock star witch; a vampire samurai; a dolphin-summoning sailor girl; or long blonde-haired rockstar Axl Rose – sorry – ‘Axl Low’, wielding twin sickles on a chain. It’s the inventiveness of the character design that makes a Guilty Gear game unique and fun, and Strive is no different.

Guilty Gear Strive
Guilty Gear Strive. Credit: Arc System Works

Whilst the changes to Roman Cancel promote a greater freedom of expression and variety in playstyle, there is a risk of lowering the skill ceiling; with any top level fighting game play, part of the meta is working out how to maximise combo damage from various situations and then implementing those optimised situations in real matches. Strive’s simplified combos all tend to have a high damage output, so when optimising damage output is less of an issue, there is a possibility this could hurt the game at the top level long term. As well as simplifying the basic “gatling” combos the series is famous for, Strive also slows the pace a little compared to previous titles to help newer players react to advantageous situations. On landing a counter hit, (hitting an opponent as they start a move of their own) the action enters super slow motion, enormous particle effects fill your screen and “COUNTER” appears in gigantic letters, loudly reinforced by the announcer. This gives you a generous window of time in which to capitalise on your advantage. It’s the first major change you notice, but these grand, over the top visual cues sit well alongside the game’s trademark bold, 3D presented as 2D art style, which looks as impressive and beautiful as ever.

Guilty Gear Strive
Guilty Gear Strive. Credit: Arc System Works

Unfortunately, pre-release online access for review was limited due to server downtime and maintenance, so we are basing our online experience on the beta tests leading up to release. When taking the fight online, Strive‘s netcode is the best available. Matches are consistently smooth and feel as close to fighting a friend offline as you could reasonably wish for. It’s even been possible for players to venture into regions not local to them and still have a good online experience. During the beta, many complained about the form over function approach of the lobby and matchmaking systems. Previous Arc System Works fighting games established an excellent lobby system that seems to have been unnecessarily scrapped here. It’s something we expect will improve over time, and the developers have listened to feedback throughout the beta process and implemented improvements.

There are some neat new features to ranked online play, however. Players complete a tutorial mission which is used to assess their skill level before entering the ranked tower at a recommended floor. The goal is to reach the 10th floor of the tower in your region by winning matches. Play well enough on the 10th floor, known as the Hell floor, and you will be given access to the coveted Celestial Floor, secret floor 11. Your glimpse of paradise is accompanied by an unforgiving mission – win four out of five of your next matches and you get to stay here for a few weeks. Lose more than one match and you are cast from the Celestial Floor back down to Hell. The matches must be won against “VIPs” – players who have already completed this intimidating challenge. It’s a really neat and fun way to bring new drama to a ranked system. Most games simply rank you up and down based on points. Strive reframes the ranked grind in a way that feels less demoralising and adds a fun narrative, yet still demands you master your craft if you want to take your seat amongst the gods. It’s a neat, smart little innovation that deserves a lot of credit.

Guilty Gear Strive is out now on PS5, PS4 and PC. We reviewed the PS5 version of the game.

The Verdict

The Guilty Gear series is 23 years old. Hardcore fans of any game series will lament even the smallest changes to a long running series, but sometimes it is necessary to reboot. For example, when Resident Evil 7 was released, fans baulked at the idea of a first person perspective. It turned out to be the strongest entry since 4, using new techniques to recapture the feel of the original games.

Arc System Works have put together an attractive blend of “easy to learn, difficult to master” mechanics, with all the tutorials you could possibly need to improve your skills. The pace is not quite as blistering as previous titles, and series stalwarts may find the streamlining too much to bear, but Strive shows real potential for depth of personal expression. With many changes aimed at attracting new players, Strive is looking to build its fanbase whilst still giving plenty for veterans of the series to get their teeth into. But can it have its cake and eat it? Will newcomers keen to learn feel encouraged to hang around once they hit their personal plateau? Conversely, will pro players and content creators find enough here to keep them entertained beyond the first few months? The stage has been set, it just remains to see whether people will take their seat.

Pros

  • The series’ distinct visual style is just as impressive as ever
  • A dizzying array of information and tutorials give beginners and enthusiasts everything they could ever ask for
  • The impressive rollback netcode makes online battles feel like offline

Cons

  • Slower pace and simplified execution risks alienating the hardcore
  • Little single player content beyond the feature length anime
  • There could be skill ceiling limitations at the highest level of play

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