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Guilty Gear Strive review - finally, a Guilty Gear for all fighting game fans

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With Guilty Gear Strive, Arc System Works has made its famously complex fighting game series easier to get into, but no less rewarding.

Guilty Gear Strive is quite wonderful. It has gripped me ever since online play was enabled earlier this week. It is finely balanced - each of the 15 characters offering a unique look, attitude and playstyle. And unlike previous Guilty Gear games, which have proven too complex for so many, Strive will show you the door that leads to its brilliance.

And what brilliance! Guilty Gear Strive has trimmed the fat from the series to reveal a bristling core, a responsive, stylish and vibrant fighting game that's an immediate blast to play, but enticingly creative. Some of the complexity of previous versions has been shunted away, yes, but Strive remains deep.

Arc System Works has done a fantastic job of walking this tightrope. How do you keep veteran Guilty Gear fans on-side while also appealing to newcomers? The designers at the Japanese studio came up with a number of answers. Strive feels slightly slower and, as a result, more manageable, although much of the pace of proceedings comes from the sheer heft of the game. Strive packs a punch. It feels present, there on the screen, impactful with every slash. In this game a counter hit - that most common of fighting game mechanics - rocks the screen, slowing down time ever so slightly, the announcer declaring "counter!". Even the word "COUNTER" pops in front of your eyes, in case you somehow missed it. You counter a lot in Strive - in most fighting games, really. But here, you really feel it.

A full online match, including lobby.Watch on YouTube

Strive is less combo heavy than previous Guilty Gears, but flashy combos are still possible. Most of the characters are governed by universal mechanics, such as the Dust overhead, the Dust launcher, and the Dust sweep. There is a modest number of special moves and command normals to learn per character, and they all follow established fighting game input commands (quarter circle motions, hold back then forward, that sort of thing). Guilty Gear's universal Gatling combo system has been changed to focus on stronger attacks - slash and heavy slash - rather than chaining attacks all the way from weakest to Dust. It's another example of Arc System Works trimming the fat. Before, generally you'd need to nail a long combo to do lots of damage. Strive requires shorter combos to do significant damage. A slash into a heavy slash followed by an Overdrive attack is all you need to clear a huge chunk from your opponent's health bar. As a result, Strive feels more at home in the neutral space - that is to say with both characters at the kind of distance where neither is at an advantage. Both are standing, no-one is in the corner, and no one player is pressuring the other.

Don't get me wrong - combo masters will of course excel. But again, Arc System Works has added a mitigating mechanic. As in most fighting games, pin your opponent at the end of the stage and you have a distinct advantage. More damage, longer combos, and the pressure that comes with having your opponent against the ropes. Strive adds the wall break mechanic, which sees the imaginary stage wall eventually smash - once it's received enough damage - for a stage transition. Both characters land in this new area, the wall breaker with a slight recovery advantage against their knocked down opponent, but crucially with both characters back in stage neutral.

This is a really interesting new feature for Guilty Gear, one that encapsulates the designers' goal for the game. Getting smashed against the wall only lasts so long before you have the space afforded by the stage transition reset to neutral. You have another fighting chance.

Despite all these mitigating mechanics, a game of Strive can all be over in the blink of an eye. Strive turns the damage dial up to, as Arc System Works has said, give newcomers the chance to make some kind of impression with a hit or two. Rounds speed past, especially when you're on the receiving end of a rushdown character such as newcomer Giovanna, or find yourself crushed under the weight of Potemkin's Buster.

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Strive feels most fun when you're rushing down your opponent. While there are characters who offer an alternative playstyle - brawler Potemkin, hard-hitting vampire samurai Nagoriyuki and the tricksy Faust - the bulk of the cast suit an all-out attack strategy. Poster boy Sol Badguy, for example, is a great pick for his relentless attack, as is May, a character who summons sea animals such as dolphins to drown her opponent. Strive actively discourages conservative play and constant blocking. You'll get a negative penalty to your Tension meter if you do. You'll get a positive bonus to your Tension meter if you kick ass. Blocking, I imagine Arc System Works' designers saying to themselves, is for Tetris. Guilty Gear is for beatdowns.

And what a fancy-looking beatdown! Strive is easily the best-looking 2D anime game ever. It's silky smooth, detailed and eye-catching. The arenas have a lot going on, some atmospheric lighting in parts, others with giant monstrosities moving in the background. Guilty Gear's aesthetic is all over the place but it somehow works. It's sci-fi knights, guitar-wielding witches, giant sword-gun bounty hunters, demonic assassins, crazed surgeons and, well, pretty much everything you can think of mashed into a magic-infused future America. There's... a lot going on. It's not all to my taste. Guilty Gear creator Daisuke Ishiwatari's relentless rock soundtrack grates after a while. But Guilty Gear Strive is never boring.

Okay, well, sometimes it's boring. Strive's story mode is a five-hour non-interactive collection of cutscenes that revolves around a Joker-like character who ruins the President of the United States of America's day. Let's be honest, the Guilty Gear lore is nonsensical. Superhumans, robots with bits of dead people's souls inside, demons, flying ships - it's all here. At one point the President's chief of security grabs a rocket out of thin air and chucks it away. That's fine! Unfortunately the plodding plot is a snooze fest. There's little action, leaving most of the overly long story to deal with characters who tap away at futuristic keyboards while nattering about grave matters indeed. Endless grave matters, each graver than the last.

Guilty Gear Strive looks gorgeous in 2D battles, but at times the story looks a bit broken. The characters don't run properly - they skate across the ground as their legs move at speed. The action, when it comes, isn't great, either. Series fans will get a kick out of seeing what happens to their beloved characters, and there's the odd heartfelt moment, but Guilty Gear Strive's story mode cannot compare to the best story modes fighting games have to offer.

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The story mode is part of a somewhat disappointing offering for solo players. The dojo includes a tutorial, training (you can queue up for matchmaking from training, thankfully), and Mission mode, which is an admirable attempt from the developers at teaching newcomers how to play Guilty Gear. There are even missions that teach you character-specific matchup tactics (take note, rival fighting game developers!). I also love the command list, which comes with little videos that show you what a move looks like, and a little blurb of context. But there's no combo challenge mode, and no digital figure mode at launch. Elsewhere, there's arcade mode, which unfortunately doesn't come with unique cutscenes, and a survival mode. And that's it for solo players. Mortal Kombat, Guilty Gear is not.

Online play is the draw, then. Thankfully, the netcode appears to be holding up well. Most of my matches have been playable, with the occasional game where the action pauses frequently. Strive uses crowd-pleasing rollback netcode and the experience is all the better for it. What is not a good experience is the lobby system. This 2D retro-themed lobby, which forces you to dress up an avatar and ready yourself for action at a duel station, is superfluous. Again, I understand what Arc System Works is going for here: something different, yes, and something it will add to over time. My little avatar can hold a stick. Or a sword. Or a bat. I suspect more accessories are coming down the pipe.

I do my best to ignore it all and jump straight into a quick match, which pushes you into training and does the matchmaking in the background while you practice. So, to a large extent you can ignore the lobby. But it does nothing to help the flow - especially when the game inexplicably boots you out of training mode into the lobby because matchmaking failed.

Ranked play sorts players into a floor in a tower. Do well enough in the floor you're currently in and you'll be allowed to enter the next one up. Do poorly, and you'll be demoted down a floor. You can compete in the floor above the one you're currently in, but you can never play in a floor lower than that which is recommended to you.

The point with Strive is to dig into its systems and express yourself in competitive play. This can be a hugely rewarding exercise. The key to it all is the Roman Cancel system - a mechanic that lets you slow down time for your opponent, making attacks combo that wouldn't otherwise. This is also a great example of how Strive retains depth. There are four versions of the Roman Cancel, each with its own, useful effect. It's great fun to experiment with them all.

I do not wish to overplay Guilty Gear Strive's accessibility. It is still a Guilty Gear game, after all. And it is still a fighting game. Arc System Works' 2018 fighting game, the equally wonderful Dragon Ball FighterZ, is easier to play. Strive is easier than previous Guilty Gear games, but it is not easy. The more you get into it, the more stuff you need to think about. I've already mentioned there are four different types of Roman Cancel. There are also four different types of block! There are four different gauges to keep track of: one for the characters' hit points, one for Burst (this lets you break out of combos - and there are two types of Burst!), another (tiny!) gauge for what's called R.I.S.C. (essentially an anti-turtling meter), and the Tension Gauge (like the super meter from other fighting games). It's a lot - and the Strive user interface is perhaps too busy with information.

And while the fact Strive launches with 15 characters - a little on the light side for a fighting game - makes things on the face of it more manageable, each is a game within a game. Most fighting games pad out their playable roster with characters who work similarly to others. I mean it when I say each of the 15 characters in Strive plays significantly differently. Take Nagoriyuki, the devastating vampire samurai, for example. He does not have a normal dash, air-dash or double jump. But, he is the only character in the game with a blood gauge, which lets him transform into beserk form. In this state his attacks change, and he gains access to a unique Overdrive.

"Guilty Gear's characters are nowhere near as iconic as, say, Street Fighter's, but Daisuke Ishiwatari's creations are way cooler."

Zato-1 is described as a "technical shadow warrior" and that just about sums him up. This blind assassin fights with his shadow, suffocating his opponent with confusing offense. Ramlethal Valentine is a "mid-range brigadiere" who wields two giant swords that float by her side, held aloft by flying ball creatures. I love the character designs in Guilty Gear, the evocative names for things, the outlandish outfits, the unusual fighting styles. I want to try each character out! Guilty Gear's characters are nowhere near as iconic as, say, Street Fighter's, but Daisuke Ishiwatari's creations are way cooler.

I've never been able to get into a Guilty Gear game before. I love fighting games. I love Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs. Capcom and Tekken, Soul Calibur and Virtua Fighter, but Guilty Gear has always remained just out of reach. Strive extends a helping hand, one I have gripped, firmly. And I have no intention of letting go.

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