Guilty Gear -Strive- Review: PC
Mankind knew they cannot change society. So, instead of reflecting on themselves, they blamed the Beasts. Heaven OR Hell. Duel 1… Let’s Rock!
Guilty Gear has been one of the staple fighting game franchises in the FGC since 1998, when Daisuke Ishiwatari and his team, Arc System Works, developed the very first Guilty Gear title for Playstation 1. The game was instantly a cult classic among fans, praised for its tight, fluid animation, excellent character design in the form of 2D sprite work, and a unique compressed heavy metal soundtrack that distinguished it from many fighting games of the era. It introduced such characters as Sol Badguy, our quintessential edgy-as-a-knife-face protagonist of the game with his spiky hair wrapped in a bandana, split leather jacket and tank top circa 90s Japanese biker gangs, and his bright red sword with a rectangular blade, Fireseal, nicknamed “Blazer” by Sol himself. Polar opposite to Sol, we have Ky Kisuke, our deuteragonist. A stoic, proud, steadfast religious warrior of the Sacred Order of Holy Knights, and Sol’s eternal rival. Clad in white and wielding a longsword on his hip known as Thunderseal. Ky is the Yin to Sol’s yang, and they and eight other unique, fun characters propelled Guilty Gear into the higher echelons of fighting games and throughout the years have been getting sequel after sequel, the most recent of which being the Xrd series and the last entry being Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2.
Of course, new times call for a new style of Guilty Gear. The FGC is bigger than ever and fighting game fans desire something deeper. A sequel to Xrd which looks stunning, and adds more layers than its predecessors, and that is exactly what Guilty Gear directors Daisuke Ishiwatari and Akira Katano claimed they have accomplished. Guilty Gear has always had many complex systems in place which can at first glance appear imposing to some new players, so, to put it into Katano’s words, “We wanted to change things and tweak the UI and oversimplify the concepts of Guilty Gear, to present an impression of simplicity, while in reality, offering a level of depth previously unseen in early Guilty Gear titles.”
So, that is what they strived (hah) to do. But the question is, did they succeed in making this the quintessential Guilty Gear game for people new to fighting games, while also developing something truly spectacular? Or did they drop the ball and create a game that dumbs down every mechanic and provides nothing old or new fans of the franchise could possibly enjoy? Well, take a ride with me, and I’ll go over and cover every aspect of this entry and we’ll reach the conclusion together. If you are new to fighting games, hopefully I can convince you by the end why you should give them a go and hopefully this will be the perfect place for you to start. Let’s dive right into the smell of the game.
Guilty Gear -Strive- has taken a direction its art style that is undoubtedly for the better. Cel-shaded, sharp contrasting tones make it feel borderline comic book-esque, the color scheme has a large emphasis on blood reds and deep blues, clearly a nod to the two most popular characters in the roster. The particle effects and animation lines during fighting are also shaded in a way that they perfectly bleed into the color palettes. But while the color and the cel-shaded visuals are exceptional and enjoyable, the environments and backgrounds of stages are where the art style truly shines.
I do not exaggerate when I say that I have never seen stages in a fighting game look so animated and meld so seamlessly into the foreground with the fighters. I’ll use Original Times Square as my example, the default stage for my main. The random people walking on the street going to their 9 to 5 job or on their phone, the taxis whizzing by the street, the sound and pitter patter of rain drops on the sidewalk and street, and the florescent changing of traffic lights as this whole world goes on in the background of this one stage while two badass fighters beat the hell out of each other on the street. Then I rush down my opponent into the corner and beat them into the glass wall of the current stage; in a flash it shatters, and they fly into a new stage. My opponent lands on their back and I quickly follow. All of a sudden we are fighting in a new location, and I see in the background a woman starring in disbelief at us while tugging on her husband’s shirt to try and get his attention so he can turn around and see our brawl, but he’s too absorbed in the painting he’s staring at. All this attention to detail and effort put into this one stage, and there are many more, with four or so backgrounds to every stage, and ten stages in the game.
Everything oozes style, including the character designs. Sol and Ky’s look remain a sharp take on a great classic, but so many characters get new little takes to their designs. Potemkin gets full face iron and now properly looks a walking human tank, Ramlethal the cute, tan brigadier gets a few new designs to her cape, her massive swords, and a new proper military hat. The new characters like Giovanna, are equally sharp, her blouse and loose-fitting slacks so she can kick faster, the martial arts gloves she wears, and her stance akin to that of Bruce Lee being taken every time while idle. Stylishness is this game’s language and it is extremely fluent in it. Visuals and art design in Guilty Gear -Strive- are excellent and get full marks from me.
Sound Design and Music
Guilty Gear’s sound design has always been top notch but Strive takes it to a new level. Let’s start off with sound. Every impact, whoosh from a projectile, and slow down during a counter hit is punctuated perfectly, I got so used to hearing them while playing, the satisfaction of hearing them was so satisfying. It’s impressive when a fighting game makes you want to play it more and get better at match ups through audio cues alone, isn’t it? Every hit is distinct and defined well enough to be addicting to the ears. Even the menu sounds are gratifying, with little wavey chimes and page turning sounds when you go back to a previous option. But that’s sound design during matches, how does the music hold up? This is goddamn Guilty Gear, how do you think the music holds up? No other fighting game series is better known for its metal soundtrack than the Guilty Gear games. But I am, let’s just say, beyond ecstatic, to report that Strive has the best soundtrack of any Guilty Gear game. Nary I say to you dear viewer, not even the best Guilty Gear soundtrack, but one of the best fighting game soundtracks I’ve ever heard in my life, right in line with Killer Instinct remake being helmed by the legendary Mick Gordon, and Skullgirls having the wonderfully talented Michiru Yamane. Guilty Gear -Strive- has Daisuke Ishiwatari. How one single man can be so good at melding so many different genres together confounds the hell out of me.
The main theme of the game is of course, the very first track released as promotional material for it, “Smell of the Game”. It plays ala instrumental during the character selection screen, but you can select the actual song during duels too. Sol’s theme is titled “Find Your One Way” - it has an almost early 90s, nasty crunch to it found in most Southern thrash metal, pinch harmonics squealing into the sky while simple chugging riffs in the background break for the verse’s lyrics. The riffs and guitar work itself is a remixed version of Sol’s older themes from previous Guilty Gear titles, as is Ky’s. Ky’s theme is called “The Roar of the Spark”, and I like it considerably more. From right out of the gate, it hits you with two power chords, followed by beautiful synthesizer organ style triplets straight out of a Castlevania game. Gothic power metal would be what I describe it as, and it literally soars through the air as you air dash with Ky into a beautiful combo. Then we look at May’s theme “The Disaster of Passion” and the game suddenly takes a sharp 180 degree turn into bouncy J-pop!? What the fuck, am I even playing the same game? Yet it’s incredible, consistently happy and catchy, making you want to dance, capturing the feeling of the opening of a slice of life anime, matching the bubbly, fish-controlling, anchor-wielding little pirate girl to a T.
That is not even scratching the surface of this game’s soundtrack either. My main and favorite character, Giovanna, her theme “Trigger” is pretty much a Beastie Boys and Faith No More crossover song. Millia Rage’s “Love the Subhuman Self” is basically symphonic prog metal. Ramlethal’s theme “Necessary Discrepancy” is phenomenal, it’s like futuristic jazz fusion metal. The rhythms are complex and take off and come back into place, just like her fighting style of throwing massive energy swords she carries at her side. Potemkin’s theme “Society” hits like a tank, just like him, and is so massive, you can almost match up the kick drum to each one of his huge ground-shaking footsteps. I could go on but, basically you got the gist of how truly incredible this game’s music is. I could show this OST to someone as normal music and it’s highly likely it would floor them, especially if they were a musician. Sound design and score in Strive are masterfully done. Hunt for this soundtrack everywhere you can, it’s worth it.
Now, the most quintessential part of any fighting game. How does it play? The meat of the whole package, how does it feel in the hand, on the pad, through the stick and buttons, and all that good jazz? Well let’s talk about movement first. You have your standard staples of most hyper six button fighters: forward and backward, forward dash and backward dashes. Aerial dashes and double dashes come into play too, every character moves very differently and have definite variations of all these movement staples. Potemkin moves extremely slow and heavily because he is a tank and he also has no dashes or aerial dashes. Instead, being the staple grappler of the game, he has dedicated anti air grabs. Other characters you can hold forward dash and they will run in a solid line across the stage. My girl Giovanna, you can’t hold dash down on ground but you can chain dashes in succession, which is very advantageous to the rushdown character playstyle she has.
Impacts and hits feel tight and heavy, especially when you get counters. Guilty Gear -Strive- has a heavy emphasis on counters and punishment moves, so much so that when you get land one, the screen shakes and slows down and the massive words COUNTER or PUNISH show up on screen with the announcer’s voice yelling them (since we fitegame boys can’t read, evidently). This fighting game more like any other before has the heaviest emphasis on teaching new players to learn how to read their opponent and react with the right move or mix up accordingly, actively encouraging and refining the fighting skills of those newer lads who this may be the first fighting game they’ve really wanted to put the time and effort into. Of course, you also have your supers and special moves for each character, a lot of which are activated through half circle or double quarter circle motions and a single button press.
Roman Cancels of various varieties are here on offer, too. For those not sure what those are, it’s a shockwave using the EX Burst Meter below your character’s health bar to either get out of a stun block chain, slow your opponent’s recovery time, increase your recovery time, and so on. Activated by three simultaneous button presses, each Roman Cancel has dedicated button sets and colors to differentiate it on screen. Also there is the Tension gauge, because what fighting game would be complete without a super meter? It fills as you fight and land hits or take hits, building faster with variety in moves, and has two bars. One bar is burned upon triggering a super, called an Overdrive in Guilty Gear because everything in this beautiful series has to be a reference to a motorcycle gang term.
May's ridiculous Overdrive attack.
You can also perform a perfect guard and mitigate chip damage while blocking at the cost of burning meter as well, so you have to choose wisely and decide in what situation you want to use the Tension gauge. There’s also a side stage break mechanic I touched on in visuals earlier, allowing you to beat your opponent into the corner against a glass wall, eventually doing enough damage pushing them against it that it shatters, and they (or you) fly off the background and into a new background of the stage while dealing a decent chunk of damage. Nailing it at the end of an Overdrive combo is ridiculously satisfying and makes you want to fist pump in the air.
All in all, this game feels incredible to play. Ishiwatari and Katano have an intense passion for their series, and you can tell in the way the characters move and fight, the amount of polish is unreal, and they absolutely succeeded in their intention to make Strive simple to grasp and jump into for new players, being a deceptively simple, yet incredibly deep and multilayered fighter underneath its surface. If you are new to this series or playing these kind of games, this would be a perfect place to start and I am going to enjoy playing this for years at tourneys and on my own time. A quick addendum as well, I could not get much online time before launch since the servers were down the majority of the time for maintenance, but Strive has excellent, consistent online modes courtesy of a beautifully implemented rollback netcode system, which if you read my previous article about Rollback Netcode and its importance in the scene, which will definitely help Strive retain a consistent player base.
Story and Gameplay Modes
To say Guilty Gear has an over the top and unnecessarily deep amount of lore would be one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever spoken in my life. Thank God this game has a glossary and timeline of all the events of the series and every character and term from it, because if it did not, every new player would be more lost than a blind, mute child in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. I’ll gloss over the details of the series and story mode for you real quick. Basically, back in the 1900s, wars became out of hand to the point where half the world’s population was wiped out, and eventually a single individual among mankind discovered the existence of magic and used it as a limitless supply of energy for all mankind. Science and industry, sources of environmental pollution and weapons of mass destruction, were thus outlawed. But the outlawing of technology did little to soothe mankind’s suffering, bringing about the war to end all wars.
During this war, Gears were developed- ridiculously powerful biological weapons created by fusing human and animal DNA and then magic on top of it. The Gears were used as slaves by each military faction to wage war, destroy, and conquer lands until a single Gear by the name of Justice became self-aware. She gathered all hear Gear brethren and declared war on humanity, and the War of the Gears started, killing countless people. Humans eventually put aside their differences and ended their own wars and formed the Sacred Order of Holy Knights to combat the Gears, and the War of the Gears lasted a further hundred years. That is just the set up for the very first Guilty Gear title. There is a staggeringly large amount of lore during the game series as well, but I implore you to check it out yourself. An entire light novel series or anime could be made from all this shit, and it is ridiculously over the top, edgy, and stupid but in the best, most Japanese of ways. Strive of course has its own story mode as well, among many other game modes it presents. The English voices are also perfectly cast and they do an excellent job.
The Story mode is enjoyable to play and sit back and watch while you digest the insane plot Strive offers. Additionally you have your quintessential single player modes as well, 1v1 via local with CPU battles or other local players, a training mode, and an extremely in-depth Dojo with many, many missions that gradually teach the player the mechanics of the game while helping you get better at fighting games in general while steadily increasing in difficulty. There is also an online lobby with pixelated characters you play as where you can customize your little avatar, fish for new customization items, and duel other people. I can see what they were trying to go for since it is very similar to Dragon Ball FighterZ’s lobby modes, but it’s hit or miss and nowhere near as streamlined, honestly. This game is spectacular when you are in matches, and its just something quick and insignificant you sort of trip through to get into one. I do appreciate the effort to try and implement something different for online lobbies, though. Once you get into a match and enjoy that sweet, sweet Rollback though, its smooth sailing will bring a smile to the face.
I knew to at least expect a decent new entry into the Guilty Gear lineup with Strive, with unique artstyles and pretty solid gameplay. I certainly did not expect it to be one of the most solid 2D fighters I’ve ever played. Every movement and impact in every match feels tight and concise. The art is beyond gorgeous and every stage an immaculate world. The character designs are flooring, with attention to detail. The music is pure serotonin for the nerves and senses. It encapsulates everything a stylish Japanese 2D fighting game should be, and will go down as an incredible fighting game and be played for years to come inside the FGC scene and out. I am elated it turned out so well and will no doubt put it in the upper echelons of fighters, right along Third Strike, Skullgirls, UMVC3, and many more. I recommend wholeheartedly that if you’ve ever been interested in fighting games but just couldn’t find the right one to jump into, you pick up Strive and give it a go. It’s worth it ten times over. And if you don’t believe me... THAT IS BULLSHIT BLAZING, STILL MY HEART IS BLAZING. YOU ALREADY KNOW THE SMELL OF THE GAME~
So why should you play it?
You love fighting games.
Trying to get into them but don’t know a good place to start.
You are a fan of insane batshit crazy anime plots and characters.
You adore the feeling of satisfying feedback in a fight.
You're a fan of radical character designs and cel-shaded graphics.
You have a pulse.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
You genuinely hate fighting games and have no desire to put the time in to get good at one.
Over-the-top Japanese shit doesn't appeal to you and think it’s too dumb for you to deal with.
You can’t handle the tension of a clutch match in a fighting game because it stresses you out.
A review code for PC was provided for the purpose of this review.
Joshua is a game reviewer and columnist from Indiana in the United States. His favourite genre is fighting games where you'll frequently find him in the lobbies or labbing in the dojo. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com