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Guilty Gear Strive review: A new era for online play wrapped in a beautiful package

The sun rises and points to a new future

Posted by Dakota 'DarkHorse' Hills • June 7, 2021 at 3:01 p.m. PDT • Comments: 52

Arc System Works aimed to create a new era for the franchise which helped put them on the map that both veterans and newcomers can enjoy, but did they succeed in that mission?

Well, Guilty Gear Strive is finally upon us, and it's arguably the most beautiful fighting game ever crafted that contains perhaps the best online play the genre has to offer. It does, however, stumble in some key areas that could have easily made it a slam dunk for the ages.

As the fourth mainline entry in the series, Strive serves as a direct sequel to the events of the Guilty Gear Xrd games, boasting the same magical world and iconic characters who will always stand out amongst the crowd.

There are 15 characters available to choose from at launch between the returning warriors of Sol Badguy, Ky Kiske, May, Axl Low, Chipp Zanuff, Potemkin, Faust, Millia Rage, Zato-1, Ramlethal Valentine, Leo Whitefang, Anji Mito and I-No as well as the cool newcomers Nagoriyuki and Giovanna.

The modes included with the base game features just about everything you'd expect from a modern fighting game release between online play, Training, Story, Versus, Arcade and more, which largely fulfill the role they're meant for, but they don't really break the mold outside of Mission mode.

Strive's updated gameplay engine is going to be the most divisive and controversial aspect of the title with the developer's decision to cut back on long combo strings and taking battles to the skies.

Overall, the team at ArcSys still managed to create a fun and engaging system for new players and those at the top though those in the middle may struggle a bit making progress. Let's dig into that a lot more now.

Gameplay

At it's core, Guilty Gear Strive controls just like its predecessors between the punch, kick, slash and heavy slash buttons as well as the Dust, Roman Cancel and Burst options to compliment them.

What's immediately striking about the new game, however, is the fact that pretty much every character feels much heavier than they did in the Xrd games and especially the XX series. This weight keeps combatants largely pulled towards the ground, which puts a larger emphasis on keeping your feet planted though that doesn't mean the skies are all clear either.

Jumps and air dashes, despite the new approach, are still very strong tools for pretty much the whole roster for both offense and defense with aerial / jump-in combos or air blocking. The reward for pulling them off, however, isn't nearly as great except for characters like Chipp and Millia or you decide to burn some Tension meter.

"Landing something like Ramlethal's giant slash as a counter hit is one of the best feelings around though the cancel timing after the large Counter text definitely takes some getting used to"

Heavier characters has also lead to heavier buttons in terms of how they feel upon hit and how much damage they do. Landing something like Ramlethal's giant slash as a counter hit is one of the best feelings around though the cancel timing after the large Counter text definitely takes some getting used to.

Guilty Gear Strive is a very high damage-based fighting game with simple three or four-hit combos taking out a third or more of a character's health, so at optimal play, rounds can end after just a handful of exchanges.

This is further strengthened by another new addition to Strive's gameplay mechanics with wall breaks. Hard-hitting attacks can make an opponent bounce or splat against one of the sides of the arena, which leads to huge opportunities to rack up the pain, and once a wall takes enough damage, it'll break and cause a stage transition that causes even more destruction.

Wall combos and breaks will probably remain as a pretty divisive issue for the game for some time, as it can greatly benefit some characters like Ramlethal, Sol and Chipp, who can easily push their enemies around and put them in dangerous setplay. While this sounds like a potential hazard to keeping matches fun and engaging, it's not going to come up all too often for beginner and intermediate players, and those well-versed in the game will likely save their defensive Burst for such an occasion or try to avoid it entirely.

Causing the wall break doesn't offer too great of an advantage either, since it brings the characters back to neutral position and nets the one who landed it a Positive Bonus, which slowly boosts Tension meter.

The removal of most Gatling combo strings, however, does present a problem for pretty much everyone regardless of skill level. ArcSys says they took that ability of natively progressing from all weaker buttons to stronger buttons away to cut down on the combo count and not intimidate new players that would need to learn long, complicated strings to win.

"The lack of universal Gatlings can actually make the characters feel less pick-up-and-play than if they have access to them"

In practice though, the lack of universal Gatlings can actually make the characters feel less pick-up-and-play than if they have access to them. Without going into Training mode and testing out the possibilities of all moves, new players probably aren't going to find combos that go beyond two or three hits, which can't really be carried over from character to character.

It can also make some punch and kick attacks feel kinda useless outside of quick pokes if they can't be easily confirmed into specials. All of this might sound like the developers gutted Guilty Gear's combat to achieve this, but that's not ultimately the case.

The overhauled Roman Cancel system will perhaps be Strive's saving grace in the hands of more advanced players thanks to the many possibilities it opens up. At the cost of 50 percent of the Tension gauge, Roman Cancels easily open the door to tons of new combo routes that normally are not available.

It's far more than just a combo cancel as well, considering inputting a dash in any of the four cardinal directions before hitting RC will make the character drift that way on the screen. This is useful for getting in close for extended follow-ups, launching up for air combos or even backing off if you need to go on the defensive. That pretty much just covers the red and purple Roman Cancels too. Yellow and Blue RCs can be used on defense to slow down the opponent.

Within the 15 characters on the base roster, Strive covers just about every archetype and play style you could ask for from rushdown ninjas to giant grapplers, so there should be at least one member to fit your particular style. What's more, each of them feels completely distinct from one another, which will keep learning characters and match ups feeling fresh for some time.

Guilty Gear Strive is definitely slower than the previous two entries in the series, but that doesn't stop it from feeling like Guilty Gear in just about every aspect. That also doesn't make it a slow fighting game either. And if you're looking for characters to press a bunch of buttons with, Chipp, Millia and Giovanna should have you covered there.

Matches in this game are some of the most intense I've felt in a long time, especially once you take the fight online.

Online Play

It's not a stretch to say that Guilty Gear Strive offers the best feeling implementation of rollback netcode in all of fighting games, which Arc System Works and their collaborators need to be commended on.

Between the previous two betas and the review process, Strive's netplay made me constantly forget that I was playing online against opponents from all over the world. The vast majority of matches run just the same as they would offline without any stutters, slowdown or visual rollbacks on display to interrupt or detract from the action on screen.

It's easy to get sucked into long sets where both you and your opponent just keeps hitting rematch because it just works and feels good.

One thing that can take away from the experience, however is actually getting to those matches, due to the game's lobby system / structure. Gone are the old chibi arcade lobbies from previous ArcSys games, and they've been replaced with 2D side-scrolling maps to track down opponents.

While these new lobbies were pretty dreadful to use in the first two betas for the game, the developers did update them to function similarly to how they did in past titles with the introduction of duel stations.

After making your own custom avatar, the game will make you play a tutorial match to help determine your initial ranking (though it always put me at the sixth floor no matter what) before you can chase down other people to punch online.

Instead of a more traditional ranking system, Strive uses floor rankings that will change depending on wins and losses though the game hides all of this from the player outside of which floors they can play on. Players can choose to go as high as they want among the floors, but not lower than their rank to avoid strong competitors from just going to stomp the newbies around the bottom.

This system seems functional although in all of my play time, I've only ranked up or down around three times. Perhaps that'll change once more players are on the servers.

That aspect of the online can also be avoided entirely by going to the open parks and player rooms where you can match against anyone with an infinite amount of rematches (ranked is limited to three times).

Physically running around the lobbies looking for a match can feel like a chore at times, but luckily there's a few ways to get around that too. Players can simply choose to wait for a match to occur while they sit in Training mode, or they can pull up the list of members to find who among them is currently looking for a fight and teleport to them.

"Players can simply choose to wait for a match to occur while they sit in Training mode, or they can pull up the list of members to find who among them is currently looking for a fight and teleport to them"

During the review period, however, I still ran into issues where some matches would not connect on the first or second try and would present an error though that could normally be bypassed by simply trying again.

I had to travel to the Japanese regional servers to find a bad connection, but even then, only one of them ended up being unplayable.

It appears as though once the rollback frames listed during matches reaches seven or above, connection issues like visible rollbacks and stutters can occur. These numbers do not indicate, however, the amount of input delay.

Overall, Guilty Gear Strive is one of the few fighting games I feel like I could sit down and play all day because the netcode is just that strong.

If you wind up picking up the game, try heading to other continental servers to see just how far away you can get and still have good matches. This might be one of the more exciting advancements the scene has seen in a fighting game like this.

Story

Strive also boasts a substantial cinematic Story mode as part of the package here though unlike other games like Mortal Kombat, Guilty Gear doesn't allow you to control any of the fights on screen. That's pretty much a non-factor, however, considering there's not too many battles to be found within.

Picking up after the events of Xrd, I-No sets free a being from inside of Ariels who calls himself Happy Chaos and will be the primary antagonist for the majority of the chapters.

While it's nice to see the cast of the game talking and exchanging witty banter, the tale here is a very slow burn with not much action to speak of. In fact, a good portion of the cast is relegated to simply looking at computer screens for exposition for pretty much the whole run time.

Happy Chaos feels odd as a new villain set up in the climax of the series' story up to this point. He doesn't feel all that menacing either at times despite his powerful mind control powers and magic prowess, but his inclusion does reach a pay off with big ramifications for the lore of Guilty Gear going back to the original game.

One unfortunate casualty of Chaos stealing the spotlight is the other new characters of Giovanna and Nagoryuki get very little chance to shine throughout the chapters, especially the former who is absent for much of the middle section. They still got it better than some roster members though who don't even make an appearance at all.

Split up into under 10 chapters, don't expect to go through everything in one sitting though, as the Story mode scenes go on for a total of over four hours in length.

It's definitely worth the watch and includes some really creative shots and cinematography at times though think of it more like a hostage negotiation and less like an action movie.

For those who need to get acquainted with or brush up on their Guilty Gear lore, the game includes a nice glossary with a description for pretty much every character and term in the series as well as a character relation chart that can be accessed at any time during Story or on the main menu.

Tutorial, Training, and Mission Mode

Guilty Gear Strive's Tutorial should just be skipped unless you're completely new to the fighting game genre. The only thing it teaches players is how to move, attack and Burst while the real meat of the game's teachings are found elsewhere.

Mission mode is the main learning tool players are going to be using, and it's one of the best in the business. There's five different maps to choose from with increasing difficulty going from things like how to use air dashes to landing character-specific tech.

It's a great way for people to not only get into this game but fighters in general with important terms like meaty attacks and hit confirms covered with helpful advice and example clips. They even go so far as to cover topics like Kara command grabs for Potemkin, so there's stuff here for all skill levels.

Where it falters, however, is the complete lack of combo trials, which is a big missed opportunity to have players learn what's possible in the new battle system instead of flying blindly in the dark on their own. That may be getting a community solution to it with the Combo Recipe system, but at launch there doesn't appear to be a way to share saved combos with other players

What's more is the fact that Training mode only helps out so much with that considering they omit frame data all together, which is pretty much inexcusable for a new fighting game releasing in 2021.

The mode has pretty much everything else you could ask for between multiple recording function and custom combo recipes, but the lack of any type of frame display makes it much harder to play around with Strive's more open-ended combos / situations.

Presentation

Guilty Gear Strive's driving aesthetic has shifted from the metal genre to more of a hard rock approach, which makes just about everything in the game look more clean and shiny and may be a bummer to fans of the older entries.

Graphically, however, the game is absolutely gorgeous with immaculate character models that all look really cool in motion thanks to many particle effects put on moves as well as some dynamic camera angles. Those later aspects can get mildly distracting at times, but visibility shouldn't be an issue for most players after seeing moves a couple of times. Part of me does miss the saturated colors of the Xrd games, but what ArcSys has accomplished here is pretty astounding.

It's kinda nuts that ArcSys was able to outdo the previous bars they set in Dragon Ball FighterZ and Granblue Fantasy: Versus more recently, and the only fighting game that probably holds a candle to Strive at the moment is Mortal Kombat 11, which of course is going for realism or stylistic graphical design.

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While the actual attacks that come out of Overdrive Supers may look a little underwhelming in comparison, the start up animations for them, especially those for Sol and Leo, set a new bar for stylized 3D graphics. Those bombastic moves are always a treat to see though it does make me wish that instant kills were included in Strive as well.

Music remains a big focus of Strive as well with a combination of new tracks and updated versions of older classics that overall hit the mark with some great character themes like Nagoriyuki, but where it'll end up compared to the others will come down to personal taste.

Additional music, artwork and avatar pieces can be unlocked through a fishing option, which used the in-game currency earned through completing various modes and battles. it serves as a neat little bonus for things to do though you might be grinding for specific things for quite a while since it's all completely random.

Closing Thoughts

Guilty Gear Strive may change the way we approach online fighting games and their relevancy thanks to how overwhelmingly powerful its implementation of rollback netcode is. Intercontinental netplay tournaments may become something of a reality now, which could be huge for the scene given the proper time and testing.

It's gameplay hook has been toned down with the removal of universal Gatlings, but the character variety and depth added through the updated Roman Cancel system keeps battles exciting and engaging with the promise of more lying beneath as the lab monsters will soon get to work.

While the Mission mode is a great teaching tool for all players, Arc System Works does stumble for those looking to improve with its lack of frame data and combo trials to the point that it could negate some of the beginner's good will found in its other aspects.

Story mode is a lengthy slow-burn of a ride that gets a bit weird and confusing with the introduction of Happy Chaos, but his payoff and that of the cinematic tale in general serves as a decent way to close out the epic of Sol Badguy.

Overall, Strive has a lot to offer fighting game fans and those looking to dip their toes into the genre that will surely be sticking around for years to come thanks especially to its online play.

Pros

+ Rollback netcode offers fantastic online matches, even against opponents across the ocean

+ Mission mode is a great tool for players of all levels

+ Updated Roman Cancel system adds a ton of possibilities to explore

Cons

- No in-game frame data or combo trials is really bad for a new fighting game in 2021

- Story mode may be too slow to get going for some

- Removal of Gatlings could hurt new players and veterans alike

Editor's note: EventHubs was provided a pre-release copy of Guilty Gear Strive by Arc System Works for the purpose of this review, which was conducted on the PlayStation 4 Pro.

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