There's a lot to admire in Arc System Works' latest, but it's undone by some familiar faults.
There's a widely held belief that fighting games are hard to get into. That their steep learning curve, niche appeal and high skill ceiling are just too much to swallow. Arc System Works, developer of both the hardcore Guilty Gear and the more accessible Dragon Ball Fighterz, has come up with a sweetener with Granblue Fantasy Vs. As an adaptation of a super popular mobile JRPG and created by arguably the best producers of fighting games today, Granblue has the potential to be truly stellar. Is this the fighting game for those who struggle to find enjoyment in the genre - or is it simply more of the same?
Starting with the roster, Granblue Fantasy Vs has a pretty shallow pool of 12 characters to pick from. If there's a silver lining to that slim selection, though, it's that the diversity of fighting game archetypes is surprisingly large. You've got everything from your classic fireball and uppercut fighters, long distance oppressors, and grapplers, alongside a myriad of others with vastly different play-styles. This character diversity comes hand in hand with the appearance of each character, as all of them seem to fill a wide range of tastes. Are you a tad edgy? Vaseraga is for you! You like things basic and simple? Gran is the most vanilla of protagonists you'll find all year. This lack of overlapping looks and fighting styles should ensure you'll find someone you enjoy.
If there's one aspect that the characters - and everything else for that matter - have in common, it's that they're all damn gorgeous. I can't imagine how much work it must have taken the artists at Arc System Works to achieve the aesthetic of Granblue, but all that effort shows. The beautifully animated 3D fighters pop out from the background and rarely get lost regardless of how detailed the stage is, their movements are smooth, and every attack looks as though it has some serious force to it, while stages range from high-fantasy villages with castles jutting upwards behind the buildings, to sweeping wildernesses. Granblue Fantasy Vs is eye candy of the highest calibre.
When it comes to the meat of it all, Granblue Fantasy Vs is everything you'd want from a fighting game in terms of depth but with a whole lot of tools and mechanics added so that it's easy to get to grips with. Additions like auto combos and universal super attack inputs have all been done before, but Arc System Works goes further with the addition of a special move button. Long gone are the days of practicing the direction input for a fireball until it becomes muscle memory, as it now comes out with a single touch of R1. I'd say it took me around 10 minutes to get to grips with a character in Granblue before I was performing decently against other players. It's important to note that the top tier of competitive play isn't just mashing triangle and hitting R1, as the most damaging combos still require a high degree of practice. Granblue Fantasy finds that sweet spot between a cake walk and homework.
Granblue Fantasy Vs' standout offering is its story mode. Rather than a slapdash inclusion without a huge amount of depth (I'm looking at you Street Fighter V), the story mode in Granblue Fantasy Vs is filled with enough features to prevent it from ever becoming a slog. These come in a variety of forms, such as weapon drops that significantly boost your character's stats and impact their abilities. Later in the story, you unlock additional features like support skills, a shop where you can spend excess cash, and the ability to bring along an AI controller character into missions with you. The rare moments when you and your companion combo enemies into each other adds a little oomph that makes normal fights feel special. There is also an arcade mode - but it's fairly unremarkable here when compared to the story, even if it's where you can unlock some cosmetics.
But as good as the story mode might be, it's dragged down by a perplexing misstep on the part of Arc System Works. This problem - one that overshadows many of the more positive aspects of the game - is Granblue Fantasy Vs' outdated delay-based netcode, a problem it unfortunately shares with far too many fighting games created today. Playing online right now is fine, not fantastic nor terrible. Sure, you'll find a healthy number of perfectly playable matches where you can pull off that one combo you've been practicing for hours, but the unignorable presence of laggy and unresponsive games counter the good ones. Granblue Fantasy Vs online fills you with a sense of fun and excitement one moment, just for it to come hemorrhaging out the next.
To be blunt, this is an issue that has been fixed for years in plenty of other games. Rising Thunder released in 2015, Skullgirls in 2012, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix in 2008! All of which were built with netcode that allowed for an online play that doesn't feel like trudging through a swamp. When indie devs with a fraction of your budget can create a game with decent netcode there's just no excuse for it. Not in 2020.
With this fault in mind, some of the other exceptional features sadly lose some of their allure. Take the dedicated tutorial that runs through all the basics you'd need to get you started. Relatively simple lessons like how to block different types of incoming attacks are present as you'd expect, which sounds incredibly boring right? Not many people enjoy sitting through tutorials - myself included - but the addition of mission rankings within Granblue's tutorial mode makes a huge difference. These optional challenges are potentially huge for new players as it rewards them for completing these while fully learning the techniques within them. If you feel encouraged to actually learn how each aspect of the game works, the looming skill wall that has caused a million people all over the wall to mumble "screw this" before booting up Fortnite might seem far less imposing.
Which would be a fantastic boon for new players, if they had an adequate online environment to then apply these lessons. This leads to the sad truth behind Granblue Fantasy Vs, that despite the stunning amount of reverence towards the source material and a truly admirable dedication to making the game enticing for new players, it fails in what is arguably the most important aspect of a fighting game - the act of playing against other people. For many, playing online right now will certainly be tolerable, but as the player base inevitably shrinks over time the number of playable matches will fall as well. I'm worried that players will celebrate a period of genuine enjoyment, up until the moment frustration overpowers perseverance and Granblue Fantasy Vs becomes just another untouched title - its colourful lobbies largely empty aside from a dwindling community of dedicated fans.
If an otherwise excellent game can distract you from the online issues, or if you have people nearby who'll play this with you IRL, then Granblue Fantasy Vs is a fantastic buy. Fans of the franchise will adore this game without a doubt, but I worry that a wave of could-be fans will be dissuaded to play not long after release.