Guilty Gear -Strive- Closed Beta Impressions

The flagship franchise of Arc System Works’ ever-growing portfolio of anime fighting games returns in striking fashion. Guilty Gear -Strive- takes their 3D anime visuals to the next level while massively overhauling its gameplay with greater accessibility in mind. Set for release later this year, I got a chance to play in the closed beta. After a few hours of play against the computer and online opponents, there was much to unpack.

We should start with its visuals. At this point, it’s impossible for Arc System Works to recreate the shock value that came with seeing the hand-drawn anime style translated in 3D. We’ve since seen them improve upon this formula in Dragon Ball FighterZ to the point where it it looks like you’re watching an episode of the show. Even so, this game takes yet another leap in graphical fidelity.

The game relies more heavily on cinematic camera angles during big moments. During counter hits, the the word “counter” will appear in all caps across the screen as the camera zooms in on the contact. When players are smashed through the stage, the camera flies along with the character to show every moment of their treacherous trajectory. And of course, final hits look simply stunning as the scene freezes and camera rotates around the final blow. Even light punches can look devastating when rendered this way, giving players a satisfying and conclusive end to each round.

The details don’t stop there. Lighting takes a leap as characters appear different depending on the light sources within the stage. Characters near fireballs will be lit by the glow of the projectiles. Characters also move with a level of fluidity that is unmatched. There’s an attack where the already-creepy Faust…crawls out of himself…and it makes my skin tingle every time I see it. He even smoothly transitions into other attacks while crawling out of his own skin. Arc System Works has yet again raised the bar for visuals not only in fighting games, but gaming as a whole.

Despite my desire to get into the Guilty Gear franchise, its gameplay has always proven to be overly-complex for my liking. Even now, as a seasoned fighting game enthusiast whose cut his teeth on many different games, I’ve always drowned under the franchise’s myriad of system-level and character-specific mechanics.

Nevertheless, the game’s core audience has always loved it for its complexity and depth. Watching pro-level Guilty Gear Xrd players work their magic is a sight to behold, as its framework allows top players to express their strategic, tactical, and creative chops in ways that less-complicated games can.

Because of that desire, -Strive- has given many of the franchise’s most loyal fans cause for concern. The team behind the game have said that they’ve reworked how the game plays for a more streamlined experience. Does too much of what makes Guilty Gear special get lost in translation?

Certain core elements of Guilty Gear remain. Its Tension meter rewards aggressive play and punishes defensive play by rewarding players who attack and move forward with resources for Roman Cancels. Bursts are here and can be used to quickly gain meter among other benefits. Players still get access to a Dust button for sweeps and launch attacks.

This is where some of the seismic shifts really crop up. Dust launchers only occur now when landed on counter hit. It sends the character flying and you can jump with them to continue hitting them in the air. What you can do once skyward feels pretty limited, though I may not have a full grasp on air combos. Even so, these combos have the potential to score huge damage if you can manage to land a counter hit. You’ll need to get creative in order to land these with any consistency, as it can be hard to create Dust counter hits within the regular flow of a match.

With Dust launchers being less of a factor, the game doesn’t rely as much on complex air juggle combos. Furthermore, with the removal of the Gatling system where all four of your normal attacks could be chained together, combos as a whole feel much shorter than what I’m used to seeing others perform.

I still don’t have a full grasp on what’s possible within this new framework, but I felt comfortable enough performing multi-hit combos that did pretty decent damage after a few hours of play. For a fighting game fan who has struggled with Guilty Gear in the past, this felt much easier to grasp. Had a lot of fun during my initial session and after watching pro players push the boundaries of what’s possible within this game, I felt like what they were doing wasn’t beyond my grasp.

One striking new feature of the game is how combat works in the corner. Fighters can splat against the wall, sticking to it for enough time for their opposition to dole out even more damage than normal. Besides looking really cool and fun to pull off, smacking an opponent while they’re stuck to the wall will smash them through the wall and onto a different part of the stage. You’ll score extra damage and meter by landing that massive blow, but lose the positioning advantage of the corner. It’s a neat tactical choice one needs to make over the course of a fight.

Where the offensive creativity really seems to come into play is with the game’s revised Roman Cancel system. In traditional Guilty Gear, Roman Cancels allow players to cut off their attack animations to create movement or attack possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. In -Strive-, activating Roman Cancel also triggers a slow motion effect. When an opponent is hit during a Roman Cancel, they float in the air for a moment while you still move at normal speed. Besides looking incredibly cool, this opens up many combo opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

One major note about the closed beta. This build of the game features delay-based netcode. Derided for being an inferior technological approach, Arc System Works fairly recently announced that the final build would get rollback netcode instead. No need to judge that aspect of the game for now. Fingers crossed that we get a proper implementation of rollback for a superior online experience.

Also, the sessions I played in were very buggy. The beta crashed a lot and struggled mightily with matchmaking on night one. Night two was much better, but it was far from perfect. In particular, matchmaking had a quirk where it struggled to create matches if there were too many avatars standing too close together in the game’s lobby system.

Even if they figure out the technical hitches, I cannot stand Arc System Works’ insistence on using avatar-based lobby systems. Hated it in Dragon Ball FighterZ. Hated it in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle. And even though this one is different in execution, it’s actually even more clunky, confusing, and pointless here. I don’t care if I can dress my avatar to look like Jauquin Phoenix’s Joker. Just let me matchmake through a menu and cut the nonsense.

I can’t speak for whether this game has the chops to appease the franchise’s core audience. And to be fair, the game isn’t complete. But from what I’ve seen thus far, it’s got incredible potential. Guilty Gear -Strive- is already one of the best looking video games ever made. At this juncture, the streamlining of the game’s mechanics are such that I can actually enjoy this one and feel somewhat competent from the jump while knowing there’s more to explore. Furthermore, with the promise of rollback netcode on the horizon, this has the potential to be the best in the series to play online. Though it’s too soon to pass final judgment, this experience has done enough to hook me in. Can’t wait to try the final build later this year!

And please ditch the awful avatar-based lobby system!

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