Good things come to those who wait. I’m pretty convinced that will be the case with anticipated fighting game Guilty Gear Strive. Recently, Arc System Works launched a closed beta to test online lobby and match features, as well as give players a taste of what they can expect when the game launches in 2020. It was interesting to say the least. The gameplay, fighting, control, and presentation are outright gorgeous, but the connections, online lobbies, messy UI, and a few other technical issues tell me that Arc has a lot of work to do before that launch later this year. Bear in mind, this was based on a closed beta, and certain features that were not in it have already been announced, so it’s not fully indicative of the final product yet.
"The Colors... The Colors" of Guilty Gear Strive
While I awaited online servers turning on, the Guilty Gear Strive closed beta treated me to a Versus Com mode against AI-controlled fighters. There were no difficulty settings or other customization here, so it was mostly opponents using programmed routines of attacks and special moves rather than real fights. However, short of a proper training mode, it did give me a feel for the characters, and I got to see what character select and match presentation looked like.
The trailers have looked absolutely gorgeous from the Day 1 announcement for Guilty Gear Strive, but even they don’t quite do it justice when you get to see it in action. Character intros and the lead up to Round 1 are beautifully animated, and that’s the calm before the storm. Once the fight is underway, it’s a fast-paced tapestry of flashy moves and smooth animation as you figure out how to put your normal and specials together in some meaningful combos. Even in stumbling through moves as I was reacquainting myself with the new and returning mechanics of familiar characters, everything is so flashy. It’s worth noting that Guilty Gear Strive seems to let the character take up more screen real estate than previous games. The fighters feel huge and bulky on the screen even in comparison to Guilty Gear Xrd, but it still manages to keep the beauty of the animation and the underlying strength of Guilty Gear’s fighting mechanics intact.
Speaking of which, the inputs, returning moves, and new moves of each character are slightly changed, but it feels like it’s for the better. Franchise director Daisuke Ishiwatari has mentioned previously that he wanted to rebuild the Guilty Gear experience from the ground up to create a game in which veterans and newcomers were on equal ground. Some of the combos veterans may have come to know like the back of their hands may be gone. That said, each of the characters, from the relatively balanced and easy-to-use Ky Kiske to the somewhat more difficult Axl Low, have a number of new and interesting tools to acquaint oneself with in addition to understanding how previously existing tools have changed.
As an Axl main myself, I enjoyed getting a look at what he had to offer this time out, and throughout all of it, I didn’t feel like the game was asking much of me to accomplish his move set. The only thing that ever threw me off was that his super move (overdrives in Guilty Gear) had a different button input from the one I was used to in previous games. Gameplay is shaping up pretty nicely in Guilty Gear Strive. It’s a bit simplified and won’t ask much of beginners, but longtime players will still enjoy learning what nuance exists in this system. Plus it just looks phenomenally head-and-shoulders above the visuals of any other 2D or 2.5D fighting game that has ever come before it. Battles are shaping up great in this game.
If I had any complaints about fights in Strive, it’s that they need to fine-tune the damage across the board. Characters do far too much damage for any given move the way they are now. It only takes about two good openings or a few hits and a well placed super to really rip a character’s health bar up, and that’s even true of low-damage fast characters like Chipp. Meanwhile, burly grappler Potemkin can take 60 percent of your health bar away if he hits you with just one command throw. That’s a bit too much and will definitely deter newer players if Arc System Works doesn’t find a better, more forgiving balance once people start to learn and understand the game.
More Hell than Heaven outside the battle
You might not think that UX, UI, and other technical features would be a thing Arc System Works was having trouble with for as long as they’ve been making fighting games, but that is definitely where Guilty Gear Strive showed it needed the most work throughout the beta weekend. The game is slated for rollback netcode which should fix a lot of problems the series has traditionally had with the current delay-based system, so we won’t speak to that for now. That said, the user interface both in the character select and in the battles of Guilty Gear Strive have taken it on the chin for a while now in small demonstrations at fighting game events. I’m not particularly offended by the character select screen, but I can see where people are coming from on both.
There’s a general lack of polish that just stands out in the character select (although I like the style and difficulty categories of characters), and it just doesn’t feel like the battle UI tells you what you need to know in a good and sensible way as of yet. Where it felt like Guilty Gear Xrd had this figured out, Strive’s battle UI feels pretty far from finished for how simplistic and dull it is. The colors look drab compared to the characters and animations, the portraits look strapped on, and special mechanics like RISC, Burst, and more barely noticeable in the current form.
Then there’s the online lobbies. This feels like another area where Guilty Gear has created a problem that didn’t need to exist. Where Xrd had lobbies where you’d jump on arcade machines and wait to battle other players, Guilty Gear Strive had a super ugly hotel of players all crammed into small space where it was difficult to tell who was looking for a fight. It doesn’t help that the player avatars just look downright like Robotron 2084 characters in a Guilty Gear game. The whole thing looks out of place and feels completely unintuitive. Unfortunately, this just feels like it can be said of a lot of the Guilty Gear Strive experience outside of the fight itself based on what I played in the beta.
Heaven or Hell? Let’s wait a little longer to decide
Don’t get me wrong. Guilty Gear Strive is still, in many ways, shaping up to be exactly what I want it to be. Mainline Guilty Gear titles always feel like they’re stretching the absolute limit of what we should expect, both visually and mechanically, out of a fighting game in its matchplay. The Guilty Gear Strive closed beta convinced me that this entry will continue that pedigree when it comes to the gameplay. Yes, the UI and UX are still not where I want them to be, but this feels like something that Arc can fix after they have the characters, fighting, presentation, and balance where they want them to be. Such as the case, my hopes continue to remain high for Guilty Gear Strive when Arc System Works launches the game in late 2020.