Guilty Gear Xrd is a superb reinvention of a much missed series - a stylish anime fighter only slightly let down by its small roster.
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The Guilty Gear series has never quite taken off like Capcom's top fighters. Its mish-mash of mechanics is often seen as a deterrent to new fans, and so too is the rougher, heavy metal twist to its universe - filled as it is by vampires, anchor-wielding pirates, and doctors with giant scalpels. But after spending most of the last generation on mute, there's a tremor of a real comeback in Guilty Gear Xrd's PS4 release.
It looks gorgeous, which is a start. The sprite artistry of Arc System Works has served the series well till now, but the move to 3D characters and stages is impeccably handled, mimicking the hand-drawn style of earlier games. In battle, what unfolds is an explosion of vivid cel-shaded colour - of flame trails, lightning arcs and whiplashes of gold hair. It works amazingly well, and it's impossible to see exactly where its DNA overlaps with other Unreal Engine 3 titles.
To dip into tech territory, it's also a bonafide 1080p60 fighter to match the best of them. Character intros animate at 15fps at deliberate points - a noticeable drop, but one that plays to its anime influence. However the actual flow of gameplay is absolutely spot on and never skips a beat.
For long time fans, it's also a massive relief to see The Big Reset doesn't upset the game's balance. I had worried it would be an all-style-no-substance affair. It isn't. Series director Daisuke Ishiwatari, who also has a big hand in producing its guitar laden soundtrack and character designs, goes the route of matching the frame data of the 2D games. As a Slayer and Chipp player, my combos worked straight from muscle memory - it's a startlingly close experience to those thumb-blistering sessions with Guilty Gear X2: Reload on PS2.
It's unfortunate, then, that not all characters in Guilty Gear's pantheon make it back, though it's understandable why. Bread and butter essentials like Ky Kiske and Sol Badguy are in, of course, joining a motley crew of around 17 in total. Four of these are entirely new additions (two sneakily being paid DLC only), including the Story mode's arch-nemesis, Ramlethal, and the frankly bizarre Bedman - a comatose child in a sentient hospital bed. Because why not?
A steep learning curve awaits, but the combo potential shows after a little time spent in its tutorial modes - each of which are exhaustive, and cater to newcomers and old pros alike. Every new face slots into Guilty Gear's surreal, metal-themed aesthetic too, though perhaps with the exception of the bunny-eared Elphelt, whose look could easily check in with its sister series, BlazBlue. Sadly, popular fixtures of the series are missing, such as claw-armed samurai, Baiken, but no doubt a fuller lineup will file in with future expansions.
Every character who makes the cut looks incredible, and a full 360 degree pan-around shows the care put into their designs. Thankfully this 3D trick is restricted in use; only overdrive specials, instant kill moves, and dust attacks (upper-cuts to launch the opponent) switch to a new camera angle during play. I was worried this might be a distracting gimmick, but it only interjects at points where you have no control anyway. Just like Street Fighter 4's sparing use of cinematic angles, it's a flourish that simply adds punch to those special moments.
In terms of balance, the series clearly looks to usher in new players by rejigging its mechanics. To make the combo system more flexible, Roman Cancels can now be triggered during any action, taking either a 25 per cent or 50 per cent chunk of the tension bar (depending on the scenario) to let you interrupt a move and start another. Unlike previous games, it also slows a foe down for a few frames too, letting you make the most of a follow-up hit.
At first I didn't like this hand-holding at all, and on balance I still prefer the frame-perfect demands of False Roman Cancels (a version restricted to select moves in earlier games). However, top-end players are given more defensive wiggle room this way, with rare purple flashes allowing players to bail-out from attacks gone awry. A new Blitz Shield move also makes it possible to rebut projectile attacks, but again, this is another leech on the tension meter.
With a Danger Time state added as well, to resolve clashing hitboxes, Guilty Gear's systems are actually vaster in number than ever before. Fortunately all are well explained through a fully voiced tutorials and challenges, and both English and Japanese dubs help you to ease through them. A sizable database is added too, covering the finer points of the story up to this point, and its gallery mode adds rows of unlockable bread-crumbs for single player progress.
Arcade mode is where that ball gets rolling. It's a straight run of duke-outs, peppered with cut-scenes loosely tailored for each character. Those expecting a seamless, Mortal Kombat style shift between gameplay and story will be disappointed in Guilty Gear Xrd's efforts though. Scenes mostly unfold with static shots, and rarely does its cast shift stance as passages of dialogue are reeled off. With its fiction being so obtuse as well, there's really no shame in tapping the skip button.
Picking up where Arcade mode leaves off, the Story mode amounts to five hours of similar, bare-bones animatics. This is structured into ten episodes, with zero player input along the road besides tapping X to start the next part. Anime fans, and perhaps insomniacs, might get something out of this, but I suspect for most it'll be a tedious slog.
Either way, it's a disappointment given the step away from the branching paths in previous games, featuring actual match-ups. A stash of coins is awarded for seeing it all through, but really, that's time you could spend on its other far superior modes. The real meat of its single player is surprisingly in Mansion of Millionaires, a quest across a hexagonal map with an RPG twist. Here you spend medals on stat buffs for a chosen character, and also on consumable items such as bombs. The series' notorious difficulty spikes really hit hard here, and likewise for the Arcade mode's finale - where enemy health and abilities are augmented to ludicrous degrees as you struggle to keep in play. There's no mercy, but it's a brutal challenge that shows Guilty Gear at its very best.
When you're braced for it, there's the online multiplayer too. Building on the sturdy groundwork of the BlazBlue line, Guilty Gear Xrd makes the best of each connection I've had online, with a helpful indicator to show the extent of any frame delay. Provided the signal is all green, this is among the better turnouts for a fighting game you could hope for, even for cross-play between PS3 and PS4 versions. The menu layouts are a touch messy, but crucially, the features are well built - from the freeform lobbies to its ranked matchmaking.
It's been a while, but Arc System Works picks a ripe moment to revive the heavy metal fighter that gave the studio its start. Guilty Gear Xrd is a vibrant, expertly handled return for Sol Badguy and company, with updated mechanics that should help wean newcomers onto its aggressive style of play, while appeasing the old guard with new options. It's among the PS4's best presented games to date, and a real highlight of the series.