Granblue Fantasy: Versus review - A surprisingly unique take on fundamentals that occasionally interrupts the fun with unneeded stumbles

Why are we still releasing games without proper frame data?

Posted by Dakota 'DarkHorse' Hills • March 2, 2020 at 5 p.m. PST

Granblue Fantasy: Versus may appear as a fairly straight-forward and simple fighting game when it's first picked up, but below that surface lies some nice depth and real dirt. The problem at times can be digging those nuggets up from their hiding places, however.

As a brand new fighting game developed by Arc System Works and Cygames, Granblue manages to stick its initial landing strongly despite some shortcomings which are often times repeating issues for players / fans of series like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue.

Like many titles in the genre that have released in the past handful of years, Granblue prominently features autocombos and simplified inputs to try and help ease players into the experience. The game goes beyond what others have generally done, however, since it melds those as core options to take advantage of at almost all skill levels instead of being something of a crutch for beginners.

It helps give the game some unique building blocks which make it stand out among the competition though GBVS certainly does still have a number of flaws or missing amenities that may turn some players away.

Almost everything is in place for a great experience between competitive play and single-player content, but Cygames' first attempt at a fighter sometimes struggles to guide people to advance beyond the basics — I suspect not all of that lies on the hands of the developers.

Granblue feels like this generation's Persona 4 Arena in many regards considering it serves essentially as ArcSys' culmination of what they've learned and built on in Guilty Gear Xrd, Dragon Ball FighterZ and BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle over the past seven or eight years.

If you're a fan of any of those previously mentioned games or more grounded series like Street Fighter, this new EVO mainstage title might be right up your alley especially if you enjoy playing neutral and footsies.

Now, let's take a deeper dive into what makes Granblue Fantasy: Versus worth the wait beyond its initial delay and the extra month set back for the west.

Gameplay

Those who haven't touched GBVS before will likely be surprised upon first picking it up for how sluggish it feels to move around though that sentiment dissipates quickly once you learn how to really move in the game.

Walk speed is almost painfully slow for most characters and there's no air dash to quickly approach from the skies like most ArcSys-developed fighters. It feels like players will be doing almost anything else to get in on their opponents that isn't walking up in their face.

Almost every character has extra movement options built into their moveset like Lancelot's command dash or Katalina's charging strike. That doesn't mean they're perfect tools, however, since most moves like that are quite punishable unless you burn the EX version to try and force your way in.

Granblue features six distinct — and very pad friendly — buttons with inputs dedicated to light, medium and heavy normals plus a unique skill for each fighter, a button for quick specials and a manual guard.

Autocombos can be performed by hitting any of the three normal buttons in quick succession while in range which at its base level gives you an easy four hit combo to pull out by finishing it with a special.

These aren't optimal of course, so once you get your bearings, you'll need to hit the lab and find out which normals link into each other. That can then come full circle by linking into an autocombo at points for extended yet still easy damage opportunities.

Simple specials work in a manner similar to Super Smash Bros. where pressing a direction and R1 on PlayStation 4 will instantly perform an attack even if it would normally require things like a charge.

This gives almost every character on the 11-man fantasy roster a one-button reversal DP to use as an anti-air or get off me tool, but taking those shortcuts comes at a cost.

Under the health gauge, fighters have individual meters for each of their specials which will require time to recharge after every use, and using the R1 versions of attacks will always resort in a longer cooldown period.

To offset that burden, traditional quarter circle and Shoryuken motions can also be used to input special attacks like most other fighting games. Performing moves this way will give you back fireballs and most other moves near instantly instead of needing to wait — using EX moves though will still have an extended wait time.

In practice, this combination of inputs actually blends together quite well with situations like needing a fast, invincible reversal or if you don't have time to charge one of Charlotta's Blanka balls. I still find myself using both input styles for almost every move in each match depending on what I'm trying to do.

The end goal still seems to be to eventually move away from the simple inputs if you can.

"Granblue will force you to be mindful of how and when to use specials. It'll also force you to get better at meter management"

Meter management will also play a big role during these times as well to pay attention to for both yourself and the opponent since during that cooldown time, the character will not be able to perform that attack no matter what. Some of these wait times feel like they can reach around 10 seconds on certain simple EX abilities, and that's a long time to be missing one of your tools.

If you burn three EX moves in one combo to get the maximum damage potential with wall bounce, that's three specials you won't have access to until they come back. This leads to a unique strategic mindset of being aware of what tools you and your opponent do and more importantly do not have at any given time to decide approaches.

Forced your rival to use an uppercut to break out of a blockstring? That's okay because now they won't have that option again, letting you pressure harder without worry for a short period.

As for your defensive options, Granblue features another unique control variable by allowing players to guard by holding back or by using the guard button. I find myself switching between them both depending on the circumstance like cross-ups and lows though the button has a different use.

Pressing back and the guard button will cause your character to perform a spot dodge with around 20 frames or so in invulnerability. This is a great tool when you have a read on the other player, as it opens up bigger punish opportunities than simply blocking.

Forward plus block also has a function that performs something like a short King of Fighters roll that can move characters forward and avoid singular hits. Doing this is great for getting past fireballs or avoiding zoners' ranged normals like Ferry.

Putting all of these tools together creates an impactful boost in the game's depth beyond the surface to the point where mind-games flourish on the battlefield, and close matches lead to tense decisions and appreciating match ups.

Unless you're fighting someone like Lancelot, most player matches start out slow-paced and very neutral focused until one person manages to get in. At that time is when the combos really come into play where even grapplers like Ladiva can do crazy long extensions in the corner thanks to the wall bounce and juggle abilities.

Even with a rather small starting roster, pretty much every fighting game archetype is represented here. Gran and Katalina are essentially the Ryu and Ken of this game in terms of story and specials though there's an Abigail-like bruiser in Vaseraga and traditional charge character like Charlotta also waiting around the corner.

Online

When you first boot up Granblue's online mode, the game will force you to go through around four or so ranking "placement matches" against computer opponents before you can attempt to fight an actual person. Then you'll fight one or two people before being given your rank — I got placed into B rank right from the start even though I lost my match against the other person.

Once this is complete, you'll be able to access normal ranked play, lobbies and player matches which should all look quite familiar to you if you've played an ArcSys fighter in the past decade or so.

That also means, however, GBVS still uses delay-based netcode instead of rollback like many have been asking for Guilty Gear Strive.

How your playing experience will go will likely depend on how your luck generally is with ArcSys netplay and matchmaking.

Personally, my early impressions came out overall positive on my wired connection to the point I forgot about the delay at times. There were still rounds of course when it felt like I reacted but the game couldn't match if it reached about eight frames of delay or more.

It's hard to say what the average will be since during the time of my review, no one was hardly playing on the North American servers, so I had to base a lot from matches against Japanese players.

Surprisingly, they were almost all playable and enjoyable even though the game rated them as a one bar connection.

There's no option to filter for connection type, but you can change region, connection strength and rank difference when looking for a match.

Lobbies are also the standard fare for ArcSys fighters with the ability to choose from a chibi avatar to walk around with and sit down at arcade cabinets to battle players one at a time.

Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be a way to spectate two other people who were already in a match.

Training

Granblue Versus' Training options are pretty much the definition of mixed bag here with some nice modern additions and painful exclusions for a game released in 2020.

It's super easy to record and playback dummy inputs with shortcut buttons on R3 and L3 allowing players to quickly take control of the other character to practice specific situations without digging through the menus.

You'll also have access to pretty much every dummy and match option you can think of for a current fighting game like block timing, but that's also about as far as it goes.

Another nice little touch is the fact that you can change characters, stages and music from within training though it'll take about 13 seconds on average to load any alterations.

The biggest oddity / disappointment with Training mode options comes to the game's frame advantage display. After you perform an attack, it'll simply tell you if your on advantage or disadvantage afterwards. That's it.

There's no in-game frame data or display to tell you just how punishable you are at any given point. This is weird because that means the developers already went through the work of conveying that data to the players... they just didn't do the one extra step of showing us what the numbers are which are already in the game hiding just below the surface.

I don't even think I'd consider what's there very good either since the red / blue color change only really happens once the attack finishes and only stays on screen for a very brief flash — which can make it harder to internalize what's really going on.

Moving beyond Training mode though, Granblue's missions do an adequate job of teaching you all of the basics of the game though it gets quite muddy beyond that.

Each character only has five combo trials which are easily completed, and some of the mission descriptions left me scratching my head a bit wondering just what the game was asking me to do. I'm not sure if that's a game issue or the localization in English. That left it feeling up to trial and error at points.

The most useful function it provides is match up trials where you can take your fighter of choice in to learn the right punishes for each characters' specials and most-used moves.

Replays may actually serve as Versus' best teaching tool without going to external sources like guides. You can turn on input tracking for both players along with the ability to slow matches down to about half speed or even frame-by-frame to really digest what's going on.

It's especially helpful to pick up some replays for your main from those near the top of the rankings to see how others are approaching the character and probably using their tools in ways you hadn't considered.

There's a surprising amount of exploration to be done.

RPG Mode

RPG Mode is one of Granblue Fantasy Versus' biggest selling points with the promise of offering a big piece of single-player content with its own story, beat 'em up-styled levels, upgradable gear and giant bosses coming across quite alluring compared to most fighting game offerings.

While things do start out quite slow, I actually found myself enjoying RPG Mode for its take on how to approach this sort of stuff in the genre though not everything implemented was a winner.

The story starts out seemingly after the first main storyline has ended from the original Granblue Fantasy mobile game, so everybody already knows each other and the locations. It does explain stuff well fortunately for those who are not familiar with the skydom.

You'll clear quests by taking out one to three rooms of enemies, and most of these goons are only found in this mode like goblins, slimes and soldiers which gives it just a bit of variety.

Characters level up, you collect treasure from fallen foes and then you can upgrade said gear to create gear loadouts which can seem a bit complicated at first.

"Weapons you pick up carry buffs for your character along with a given element to have type advantage over certain enemies. Some of them are actually skins you can use in every game mode though those are few and far between"

Playing through the initial run of story, selecting the perfect weapons to equip for their stats and abilities didn't really seem to matter much until I reached some later boss fights.

Most enemies feel like punching bags to try combos on, so RPG Mode is actually a good place to mess around with new characters. You might find some surprising results — I thought I didn't really like Charlotta until I used her in some missions.

Fighting the same three or so foes on a stage isn't always the most thrilling thing in the world, but the mode truly shines when you take on the giant raid bosses.

These behemoths actually provide a clever way to teach players about the game's more unique mechanics. For example, one of the latter bosses has a tail swipe that is unblockable and hits across the entire screen. After the first few times you're hit by it, you'll stop and think 'oh I should try spot dodging or using DP to counter it.'

This game's writing for its characters and plot points are overall serviceable though it's presented as a very straight-faced fantasy adventure with your friends trying to take down the evil guys doing bad things. I did chuckle at some parts though with Lowain and his bros or Ladiva.

To clear all of the main chapters, it took me three sittings and probably around five hours to complete. Once you beat the final boss, however, hard mode will unlock along with some new end-game quests to keep you coming back for better rewards.

RPG Mode certainly won't grab everyone who touches it, but there's a good chunk of content waiting within for those who want to mess around.

Playing in local or online co-op also increases the level of enjoyability you can find. My girlfriend can attest to this after I roped her in to playing a handful of missions with me.

Presentation

Granblue Fantasy: Versus is one of the best looking fighting games ever with Arc System Works finer tuning their 3D anime aesthetic from Guilty Gear And Dragon Ball to create something that's quite stunning at times.

Characters look great in motion, and the little details like their hair and clothes moving really helps sell the graphics.

From a visual fidelity standpoint, the character models, UI and backgrounds are super sharp and crisp when played on the PS4 Pro, but those with the base model will see things slightly toned down.

There's also really nice effect details placed on characters' weapons, their special attacks and even a nice-looking moving glow on the health bars which make it a treat to play or watch.

Granblue's soundtrack is also fantastic, but what can you expect coming from composers like Yasunori Nishiki and Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame leading the charge on many themes. I found myself just sitting there at times listening to the music while doing chores or other tasks.

This game also features an in-depth glossary with entries for every character, place, weapon and attack you see in the game or one that's only just mentioned. This is extra helpful in RPG Mode where names, people and terms will appear yellow; hitting the square button on these brings up their glossary entries immediately without leaving where you were.

"Granblue's glossary also includes sections specifically for fighting game terminology, so it can also be a great tool to teach people what words like Oki, OTG or punish mean"

XSEED's English localization is generally good / fine though I did come across some questionable things like I mentioned previously with the mission descriptions.

The English voice cast is also perfectly fine featuring talent like Patrick Seitz, Richard Epcar, Erica Lindbeck and Kira Buckland among their ranks though there are a few who I don't think sound nearly as good as their Japanese counterparts.

I'm also torn with how they localized Lowain and his bros, and I mean that term seriously. The goofy chef and his two partners in crime talk like they're surfer dudes from like 2005... though I'm told that's actually not too different than how he's originally portrayed in Japan.

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If you can get past its slower start, delay netcode and 11 character roster, Granblue Fantasy: Versus may very well poise itself to be among your top fighting games of the PS4 era.

Footsies and mind games are some of my favorite aspects of fighting games, and this title delivers beyond satisfactory levels in both of those regards.

There's a ton of depth lying just beyond the shallow-end of the pool, and those intense player matches will keep me coming back for more — or I'll be thinking about match ups when I can't play it.

I strongly recommend Arc System Works fans or players who like more grounded fighting games to check out the Granblue spin-off even if you have no idea what the source material is. It may feel a bit odd at first, but once everything clicks, you'll be in for some good old fashioned fun.

Pros

+ Simplified inputs work in tandem with traditional motions in the game design to provide a unique experience for new to mid-level players

+ Gorgeous visuals, great presentation and one of the best fighting game soundtracks this generation

+ Gameplay hook may not immediately click but grows strongly the more you play

+ RPG Mode has its flaws though remains a fun way to spend your time and learn new characters on the fly especially in co-op

Cons

- Frame Advantage training tool is lacking for a fighting game released in 2020

- Delay-based netcode woes continue

- Load times can be a slog in some modes

- Game doesn't do a great job teaching beyond the basics, and even then it can be spotty

- Small launch roster of only 11 characters (though at least you can unlock one more for beating RPG Mode's story)

Editor's note: XSEED provided EventHubs with a pre-release copy of Granblue Fantasy: Versus for the purpose of this review.

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