Review: Guilty Gear Strive (PS5)

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A game like Guilty Gear Strive comes with a lot of expectations. It’s the latest entry in a franchise that was once niche, but built a dedicated fanbase over the years to the point of now being a household name. That puts any new game in the unenviable position of needing to stay true to what earned that cult following in the first place, while also appealing to new players—and when it comes to fighting games, that sort of tightrope always comes with the spectre of “dumbing down” the game for a casual audience, whether or not that’s actually the case.

Guilty Gear Strive is an interesting case in finding the right balance. In some ways, it feels very different from previous Guilty Gears, with a different tempo and a game system that—at least on the surface—aimed at creating back-and-forth between players, rather than the unrelenting offence that largely defined Guilty Gear games of the past. There’s a bit more focus on ground-based neutral and “footsies” this time around, with less opportunity to get big combos or strong setups off quick, weak pokes. It’s a less combo-heavy game in general—though with the right conditions and setups, every character can pull out some flashy, elaborate things.

But it’s also still Guilty Gear in the details. The range of options in any given situation creates the complex dynamics, systemic interactions, mind-games, emphasis on reading opponents that define this series far more than 20-hit combos. Strong offensive setups, the active defence that allows you to escape those setups, and the risk-reward judgement that comes with employing all those tools are still as crucial as ever. And again, the big combos that eat more than half a life bar in one go are still present and still look as cool as ever, they’re just more of a prize for a good read or a well-executed gameplan now, rather than being bread and butter.

It’s different from classic Guilty Gear, but less different than you might expect. And more importantly, it’s still a lot of fun to explore those systems, develop strategies, and gradually build an ever-deepening understanding of the game and the expertise that comes with it. It’s not a game where you spend half an hour in training mode and then have a full toolkit with which to “play the real game”—it’s a game in which “playing the real game” is an ongoing process of self-improvement and mastery, and that’s at the heart of Guilty Gear.

In saying that, the trade off is that it’s not as “casual friendly” as one might expect—though it’s worth noting that this was never Arc System Works’ stated aim with Strive. It’s still a game where—rightfully—more experienced players are going to have a major advantage over newbies, but the changes in tempo and increased focus on neutral game, perhaps counterintuitively, make it trickier to intuitively see ways to get better. Fighting games are hard because any competitive game designed around skill and experience is going to, by design, gives more practised players the upper hand. But where a game like Guilty Gear Xrd, with its relative complexity and its more freeform combo systems, makes it easier to see and work towards those incremental but very tangible markers of improvement, Guilty Gear Strive’s simplification makes growth more dependent on more esoteric skills that are harder to pin down. 

Again, “beginner friendly” was never the goal with Strive, and I certainly don’t think it’s a problem for fights between players of different skill levels to be terribly one-sided. But there’s a perception that Strive is somehow more approachable, and that this means beginners will be on at least a slightly more even footing with advanced players. If that’s what you’re expecting, you’re in for a rude awakening when you jump online.

But one thing players of all skill levels can enjoy? The character designs in Guilty Gear Strive absolutely rock. I don’t just mean from a visual perspective, though this game certainly takes Guilty Gear’s sheer indulgence and eccentric, creative energy to new heights with both the newcomers and fresh designs for returning fighters. But in playstyle, Strive is the rare sort of game where no two characters are even remotely alike; even when the fall into the same broad fighting game archetype (“zoner”, “rushdown” etc), every fighter feels completely unique, with a wealth of techniques and strategies to explore that won’t be fully known for years to come. Some will scoff at the fact that Strive has “only” 15 characters at launch, but I’ll take 15 deep, original characters over 30 copy-pastes every time.

The character designs couple with a rich new art style that takes Arc System Works’ trademark 3D-2D aesthetic to new heights. Where Guilty Gear Xrd looked like an anime in motion, Strive takes its cues from the series’ vivid, stylized concept art. The camera work mid-match is more cinematic and fluid, combining with the overblown visual effects and art style to create something that looks utterly phenomenal. It can be a little overwhelming at first, honestly, but it doesn’t take long for everything to click into place and this new-look Guilty Gear to really stand out. It’s going to make watching tournaments exciting, that’s for sure.

It’s rare to say this about a fighting game, but the online experience with Guilty Gear Strive is near flawless—when you’re in a match. This is a genre that revolves, fundamentally, around one-on-one fights that demand such timing and precision that even the slightest bit of lag can create problems, and that’s part of why local multiplayer is still the optimal choice and tournament standard. But with one of the best applications of rollback-based netcode in a major commercial game, Strive is the most viable I’ve seen online fighting get. Individual connections depending, obviously, playing with other players in the same region is, functionally, like playing in person—there’s obviously still latency, but it’s so well hidden that it has no noticeable impact on execution, reactions, and the like. The experience gets a bit rockier if you go further afield, but even then, I’ve been able to get decently playable (if not flawless) experiences with people as far afield as Japan and Korea. Guilty Gear Strive is the new gold standard for fighting game netcode.

But you’ll note I said it’s “near flawless—when you’re in a match.” Actually getting to that point is a rougher experience, thanks to a lobby system that creates a lot of needless faffing about between matches and takes an inordinate amount of time just to connect to other players in the first place. Once you’re in a match, everything’s smooth, but getting there involves a lot of mystery connection failures, a lot of trying to challenge people who are somehow both waiting for a challenger but unable to be challenged, and a lot of simply waiting around for stuff to happen. Before you even get into the lobbies, the connection takes forever as it seemingly cycles through the same sequence of generic “connecting to the server”-style messages.

Network problems aside, the lobbies mostly work well enough. Strive’s equivalent of a ranked mode is a battle tower with players separated by skill level (as determined by AI analysis of your match performance, your win rate against other players on the same floor, and various other factors). Generally speaking, it does a good job of matching players of similar skill levels, while also giving people the option of visiting higher-ranked floors to fight stronger opponents if they want (but not the other way round). The longevity of this will ultimately depending on the the player base persists, and there’s a risk of empty lobbies once the initial hype dies down, but certainly for now, there are plenty of players of all skill levels to ensure you’re always finding people of a similar skill level, whom you can learn and grow alongside. There are also open lobbies and options for private lobbies, too.

Where Guilty Gear Strive falls a little short is in some of the bells and whistles. The core fighting systems and netplay are rock solid, but if you’re a more casual player who just wants to play around and have some fun, options are more limited. Singleplayer is limited to genre-standard arcade and survival modes, and a mission mode that’s squarely aimed at teaching players some of the nuances of the game—which works great as an extended tutorial and a primer on playing Guilty Gear on a competitive level, but isn’t really designed to be anything other than a series of interactive lessons. This isn’t unexpected, and is pretty standard for the genre, but there’s a lot of value in having more simple, fun modes that aren’t built solely around the competitive game—things like the RPG-ish M.O.M Mode in Guilty Gear Xrd and Mortal Kombat 11’s Krypt.

There’s also the Story Mode, which continues the trend Guilty Gear Xrd started of stories that are pure narrative experiences with no interactive elements. It’s a controversial direction, sure, but one that I love—the overarching Guilty Gear story is a fascinating one, and this approach allows the story to just unfold in the way that it needs to, without shoehorning in fights for the sake of “gameplay”. With its new visual style and a greater focus on more cinematic storytelling, Strive takes this to new heights. It’s basically a Guilty Gear anime packed in with the game, which is hardly a bad thing. The story itself is full of all the high stakes, the dramatic turns, the chaos, and the eccentricity that Guilty Gear is known for. It’s a wild ride, although it feels a little incomplete—no doubt ready to be expanded with future DLC and updates, but it’s still a shame to see some characters not make a showing at all. 

Ever since its announcement, there have been concerns about Guilty Gear Strive and the new direction it’s going: concerns that it would try too hard to make the game approachable at the cost of depth, that it would oversimplify things, that it’d lose what makes Guilty Gear Guilty Gear. And sure, Strive is a different beast, with a different tempo and a different focus, but it’s still got all the quintessential pieces of Guilty Gear in place: the tactical depth, the interplay between systems that creates fascinating strategic opportunities, the rich characters, the hype, the big juicy combos. It’s a little lacking in bells and whistles and the lobby system leaves a lot to be desired, but the core of the game is rock solid—and, really, that’s what’s most important.

Score: 4.5 stars

Title: Guilty Gear Strive
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Arc System Works / Bandai Namco Entertainment

Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC (Steam)
Release date: 11 June 2021


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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.