Guilty Gear -Strive- review

By Luke Albigés,
Pour one out for your favourite fighting game, for it is now ugly. Held up against the absolute beacon of beauty that is Guilty Gear -Strive-, all things pale. Last gen's Guilty Gear Xrd was a revelation — one of the greatest optical illusions in gaming history, no less, lulling onlookers into believing that it was a very pretty hand-drawn 2D fighter only to drop jaws and blow minds by panning and spinning the camera at key moments to show off characters and environments in all their 3D glory. Strive takes that divine presentation to a whole new level in so many ways, and all while refining core systems to make this not only the best-looking entry in the series to date, but also the most accessible.

ArcSys has a fantastic track record with tutorials that teach players not just about the game itself but the genre in general, and Strive's comprehensive suite of lessons is up there with its best efforts. Each task is presented via best-of-five practical attempts after a short introduction, and while that feels like overkill for the basics, it's a great way of making sure that the trickier topics are properly understood and not simply fluked. It's all system-level stuff, which seems like a weird shift at first — fighters, especially 2D ones, have long followed the pattern of offering daunting lists of character-specific trials, after all. But it makes sense. Those kinds of modes arguably place too much onus on the idea that learning huge impractical combos is a crucial part of the game/genre, when the truth is that the basics should always come first, with combo optimisation following once you know how to create and exploit openings to actually use them in a proper fight. Despite many concessions to make Strive the most approachable Guilty Gear so far, we'd be lying if we claimed it didn't still have a hell of a lot of complex mechanics under the hood. Both Bursts and Roman Cancels come in multiple colour-coded flavours for experts to experiment with, for instance, although most people will be able to get by simply knowing that the Burst is a 'get off me' combo breaker button on a cooldown and Roman Cancels a way to interrupt animations (whether to extend combos or make risky attacks safe) at the cost of half of your Tension gauge.

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Resource management is a key feature of fighting games, and aside from a few of the more complex characters, Strive makes this easy. Tension (read: super gauge) builds quickly and is reset each round, encouraging creative and aggressive play, while the only other thing you really have to worry about is when to use your Bursts. The cooldown timer for these carries over between rounds, so it's important to learn when to chuck it out there and when to save it — perhaps instead of burning your breaker in search of a last-ditch comeback at the end of a round in which you're getting absolutely battered, you might be better off keeping it to help give you some momentum in the next round? Burst cooldown is also affected by several other factors, such as the type used and whether or not it hits, so smart players will be able to find ways to bait out and waste opponents' breakers while also making them go without for longer, which can be devastating when combo damage is as high as it is here. If your foe manages to land a charged Dust attack or solid counter hit while your Burst is on cooldown, expect to hit the deck around half your starting health lighter.

On the subject of counters, Strive must have one of the most intuitive, user-friendly, and visually striking counter hit systems in all of fighting games. That 'counter' text pop-up usually relegated to the side of the screen is instead here blown up huge and worked into the action on the screen like some kind of bombastic moving manga panel, also slowing the bout down with significant hit stop that lets you drink in the awesome visual moment, react to the counter hit, and tailor your follow-up accordingly. It's not dissimilar to Street Fighter V's Crush Counter system in execution and also leads to stagger states and extended juggles, although here it applies to literally every move rather than just a handful per character. The system is extremely satisfying and makes for hype moments in pretty much every match, since it takes only a modicum of skill to recognise and use these openings to launch into one of those impressive combos you've been working on in the lab. Few fighters are this generous with ways to launch into amazing strings, and it's going to make Strive an absolute joy to watch when it comes to high-level play.

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The default roster numbers just 15 fighters, but the variety among them both in terms of design and play styles is absolutely incredible. Faust's ghoulish redesign is a personal highlight for me as a former Faust main — the mad doc has gone from goofball character to absolute nightmare fuel, and while he still has some of those wackier attacks (including a command throw that gives the opponent an afro and a super where he runs into them with a wheelchair), they take on a much darker tone when he has other moves that depict him literally bursting out of his own skin. Like good ol' Faust, a lot of the returning characters have been given an overhaul, if perhaps not quite one so dramatic. In another nod to accessibility, the character select screen even goes so far as to give each character a difficulty rating and a short play style descriptor, which should help you find someone that clicks with how you like to throw down. The two newcomers fill their niches well, too, with vampire samurai Nagoriyuki offering another option for those who like heavy hitters (albeit with the caveat of having an extra gauge to manage) and Giovanna serving as another potential pick for rushdown players, replete with an interesting tool set, some flashy-as-hell combos, and a supernatural wolf friend.

As a modern fighting game, it's safe to assume that the character lineup won't end here, either. In fact, we already know that the first season pass will add another five fighters into the mix, and some of them feel like pretty safe bets based on who shows up in the story mode. As with most ArcSys games, this is entirely non-interactive, but don't let that put you off — production values rival all but the biggest Netflix CG anime series and writing is often amusing, even if the whole thing is as mad as a bag of frogs. It's a good way to unwind between high-intensity sets and a stunning showcase for Strive's drop-dead-gorgeous visuals, plus there aren't even any trophies associated with it, so you can just completely ignore it if you don't care about Guilty Gear's wild lore. As entertaining as it may be, it's perhaps still a bit of a missed opportunity when there's so little meaningful solo content in Strive. Beyond single fights and the expected Arcade/Survival modes, there's not really a whole lot to do on your own, but it's a competitive game at the end of the day and the solid online suite and seemingly excellent rollback netcode support that side of things splendidly. Those who have been spoiled by Netherrealm's vast quantities of solo content will likely find the menus here rather bare, and while it'd be nice to see some slightly more interesting ways to play alone as we have in other ArcSys games, it honestly feels a little like nitpicking when everything else about Strive is as glorious as it is.

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On that note, I realise I've somehow made it this far without mention of Strive's remarkable music, a mistake I intend to rectify immediately. The wonderfully-named title track 'Smell of the Game' sets the tone for Strive's hard-rocking soundtrack brilliantly, with the chorus exploding into a yell of "THAT IS BULLSHIT BLAZING" — a perfectly preposterous phrase already cemented in my gaming vernacular and one likely to get many more years of use when things aren't going in my favour — as drums pound and guitars wail to perfectly complement the metal-flavoured fighting action. On top of all of Strive's ace new tunes, you can also unlock tons of legacy Guilty Gear tracks for use in versus battles via the fishing mini-game (naturally), and long-serving fans will know that there are some absolute bangers in that back catalogue. So long as you're not allergic to some good old-fashioned rock with extremely questionable (but brilliantly bizarre) lyrics, you'll probably find as I did that Strive sounds as good as it looks.

In terms of trophies, the vast majority of Strive's list should be totally manageable for players of any skill level. A lot of the common offending trophy types that so often stink up fighting game lists — play 500 online games, win 1,000 ranked matches, complete hundreds of gruelling trials, and so on — are thankfully absent, with Everlasting Thirst for a modest 100 matches in any mode coming closest but still being a pretty generous gold trophy. For the most part, the list simply rewards making full use of all of the game's modes, systems, and features, and you'll pop the vast majority just through regular play, especially if you know your way around the various offensive and defensive systems and use them as often as you should. Reaching level 30 with a character might raise a few eyebrows before you see just how much experience online games throw at you, and I actually managed to pull this off with several different characters inside of a single sparring session with a friend. A friend who now hates Potemkin, I-No, and Axl with a passion (sorry, Dom... or am I?). The only trophy I can see most folks struggling with would be the brutal Messiah Will Not Come, awarded for defeating an absolutely absurd 'ultimate' version of the final boss unlocked after a perfect run of Arcade mode. I'm pretty good at fighting games, and it took me upwards of three hours to slog my way through both versions of that last fight — at the time of writing, it looks like I'm one of just three people in the world to have unlocked it, and the first and only one to grab the plat. I'll take it.

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Summary

Guilty Gear -Strive- is nothing short of exceptional, and honestly only an additional solo mode or two away from picking up top marks. It’s visually stunning, offers a rich and varied cast of characters, and comes loaded with all the pinch harmonics and metal references you could ever want. ArcSys has been an underdog on the fighting scene for too long, and after Dragon Ball FighterZ helped carry the studio to the main stage at long last, Strive has everything it needs to do the same for the ever-excellent Guilty Gear franchise. Daisuke Ishiwatari truly deserves to be recognised as the genius that he is — the guy is legitimately one of gaming’s greatest polymaths, having been instrumental (if you’ll excuse the pun) in almost every aspect of the Guilty Gear series, from character design and directorial duties to music and even voice acting. Thanks to improvements across the board, most notably in terms of accessibility, Strive is Ishiwatari’s magnum opus, and this raucous ruck is without a doubt one of the best fighting games of the modern age. Throw those horns, get in the mosh pit, and see how the game smells for yourself… you’ll be glad you did. Spoilers: it smells like metal.
4.5 / 5
Ethics
Luke rocked out for around 25 hours in Strive, checking out everything the superb fighter had to offer and picking up the platinum (first!) in the process. A review copy of the game was provided by Bandai Namco.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Hey, I'm Luke! I've been playing games since way back in the 8-bit days, and have spent the last 15+ years writing and talking about them professionally for anyone and everyone who would let me. Monster Hunter fanatic, wearer of many fine hats, and always up for a raid.