Every once in a while there comes a fighting game that promises to give new lifeblood to the community and genre. Often for different reasons, most of them without success. Mortal Kombat 9 simplified the franchise and showed that single-player content in fighting games can be great with effort put into it. Street Fighter 4 jumpstarted the dormant genre at the time. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate catered to ALL fans, new and old. Dragon Ball FighterZ broadened the appeal of fighting games as a spectator sport. With Guilty Gear Strive, Arc System Works set out to create a more inclusive entry point to a franchise earlier known for its incredible depth of gameplay and difficult point of entry, as well as revolutionise the way we play fighting games at home with excellent netcode. Hype has been brewing steadily for the past year, with some even expecting Strive to dethrone Dragon Ball FighterZ as the leading fighting game in both player base and viewership. The game has been out for a weekend now, a week if you play on PlayStation. Has the wait been worth it? So far it's a mixed bag. Incredible highs and terrible lows.
Let's run it back a bit. What is Guilty Gear? Arc System Works? The studio is known for making some of the best anime-styled fighting games of the past decades, with titles such as BlazBlue, Persona 4 Arena, and of course, Dragon Ball FighterZ. They all deliver intense combo-focused gameplay with seemingly simple mechanics that hide incredible depth. Prior to FighterZ, they delivered niche, highly polished 2D anime fighters. With Guilty Gear being their first and original fighting game franchise, it is nice to see the series finally getting some lasting spotlight with Strive, the latest game in this long-running heavy metal-inspired fighter.
Guilty Gear Strive looks to simplify the core experience of Guilty Gear while retaining the speed of battles and intensity previous titles were known for. You play as one of the 15 available characters at launch with all of their individual quirks and uniqueness, albeit with some returning characters feeling slightly neutered from previous incarnations while still keeping their identity. The gameplay is of the traditional 2D fighting ilk with all of the features of anime-styled fighters, such as air-dashing, double jumps and complex combo routes. The last one being toned down for this release, all while maintaining the core feel that makes Guilty Gear such an exhilarating franchise. Characters have simple-to-learn, hard to master movesets that makes exploring the roster incredibly rewarding. Some of them are so unique that you could imagine them coming from a completely different game. Fights are round and time-based, and each character's damage is tuned to give satisfying hits and short but exciting fights. Some characters, such as Potemkin, have devastating moves that deal over half the opponent's health bar in damage. One would think that this leads to short, unsatisfying matches. Strive proves otherwise; the combat system leads to some of the most consistently even matches you could experience in the genre. Every fight feels even, fights that look like dominating victories will turn around at the drop of a hat. All of this comes together to create one of the most addictive battle systems of the modern fighting game space.
The battles are the core of Strive, but how do you learn to play? As you start the game you are given a simple tutorial that fails to teach the more complex mechanics of the game but could instill a sense of discovery in newcomers. The full, actual tutorial that goes in-depth in character specifics and rules that apply to all lies within the mission mode. I implore newcomers to study this mode to get a full understanding of the game. Returning mechanics, such as Faultless Defence and the new and improved version of Roman Cancelling, the universal move that allows you to spend meter to cancel any attack at any time, are explained in great detail within this mode, allowing the player to retry and see examples of how to do everything. Experimentation is highly encouraged, throwing in some impromptu moves will not result in an automatic fail. This way of teaching inspires creativity, and might even entice people who normally never practice combos to explore the complex and detailed training mode the game offers.
There are two main modes reserved as single-player content: The traditional arcade battle mode with increasingly difficult AI-battles, and the story mode, which is essentially a five-hour-long animated film with no gameplay between cutscenes. The visuals are incredible and some of the character moments are great, but I imagine newcomers to the franchise might be confused by everything going on as well as the lack of gameplay. It feels like Kingdom Hearts-level gibberish at times. Not a bad thing necessarily! Just intimidating. Thankfully there is a hilariously detailed compendium explaining every detail of Guilty Gear lore, ensuring even more confusion for those inclined to read it. It's a wild ride.
To make up for the lack of single-player content, most of the game's long-term content lies within the network mode. Within this mode, you can fight players all across the globe with the best rollback-based netcode I've yet to experience in a game. While there are some outliers with incredibly bad connections, 99% of matches feel as if you're sitting next to each other on the couch. Gone are the days of feeling like online in fighting games is a gamble from one match to the next. With rollback, each mistake is your fault. Every match does not come down to hoping the opponent has a good connection and fully lets players focus on what's actually happening in each match. It's excellent.
Sadly, in what has become typical ArcSys-fashion, the lobby system is, as of launch, utterly broken. You create an avatar and enter these pixel-graphic styled lobbies which are different levels of the ranked tower, lowest rank being 1 and highest being 10 with levels even higher for the best of the best players. The idea is cool, literally climbing your way up a battle tower to compete with stronger and stronger opponents, but the implementation is lacking. To match with an opponent you need to ready yourself next to an arcade cabinet and wait for someone to do the same on the other side. Simple enough. Sadly, inexplicably, this does not work most of the time, often leaving the player confused as to what went wrong with unclear messaging and terrible responsiveness. If two players try to match with someone at the same time it might result in being kicked out of the lobby.
For the first weekend of the game matching with a friend in the player matching mode has been somewhat functional on PS5 and PS4, but completely unusable on PC. While I played the PS5 version primarily for this review, I tested the PC version on its launch, being shocked to find the lobby system in an even worse state. For the first two hours, I couldn't even connect to any other players. Other online choices are baffling as well, such as re-matching with other players in ranked being locked to a three-match maximum, even though best-of-3 is the standard in previous titles. All of these technical and conceptual issues are incredibly sad, as the core gameplay and network play are so excellent.
There's also a discussion to be had towards the simplification of movesets of the different characters. ArcSys has gone on record saying this is to not intimidate newcomers, allowing everyone to pick up and play. This is fine! Great even! The problem is, as this game ages, characters will be optimised by skilled players. The fear is that this will lead to derivative simple gameplay where characters lack the ability of player expression and end up performing the same optimised combo routes each match. It remains to be seen if this is a problem we will see with Strive, or if the universal mechanics are complex and deep enough to prevent stagnation. So far, character exploration and player discovery shows new options every day. Players are coming up with new strategies all the time. Let us hope this does not stop any time soon.
To conclude, Guilty Gear Strive is an excellent, genre-defining fighting game experience barred by some weird development decisions and technical issues. All issues we can expect to be solved by the developers within the coming weeks or months. As it stands, Strive is a must-play for fans of the genre, and a better introduction for newcomers than even Dragon Ball FighterZ. The new bar for network play is set, rollback is the future, and all titles without will have major hurdles to overcome. I simply can't go back to online gameplay without it. The wizards at ArcSys have taken the pseudo 2D-but-actually-it's-3D visuals to new heights, making Strive a true visual showpiece on any platform. The beautiful visuals and clear combat will lead to exciting and highly competitive tournaments throughout the year I hope. If you want to skip out on the frustrating lobbies, I'd recommend waiting a couple of weeks to purchase. If this does not bother you, Strive will present one of the most challenging, exciting, rewarding, and inclusive fighting game experiences out there. The score reflects the current state of the game, as updates will no doubt eventually make my negative points irrelevant. Let us hope this game stays relevant and is supported for a long time to come. As of the first season, we're getting five DLC fighters, and I cannot wait.