Alright – the headline is a cheat, because Guilty Gear Strive is basically the only major fighting game releasing this year, except King of Fighters XV (maybe). Yet Strive is important not just due to the absence of peers in a tough year. It’s a reinvention of a storied fighting game franchise – a franchise that, despite having a small playerbase, holds an important place in the collective fighting game community consciousness. If you’re not familiar, consult this excellent Medium post. However, the import of this year’s potential new game stretches even further beyond the dangers of messing with a formula that’s been scratching series fans’ itches for two decades. The recent open beta proved that Strive has real chops in terms of one-to-one online play, but questions still remain about the complete package. Put simply, it’s all about the user experience, and it could be make or break.
What is Guilty Gear Strive and why does it matter?
Guilty Gear Strive is the newest entry in the Guilty Gear franchise, which has been coming out since 1998 courtesy of Japanese developer Arc System Works (Arcsys). Its distinctive, heavy-metal-inspired anime style and amazing soundtrack shot them to a level of cult fame within the genre fandom, and it’s been a staple of the fighting game community (FGC) ever since. It has a bit of a rep for being intimidating for outsiders, especially once the game on the current engine has a few revisions under its belt (we’re on Guity Gear XX Accent Core +R and Guilty Gear Xrd Rev2), but with the sort of depth that gives it real staying power among its devotees.
In this newest reinvention, Arc System Works are aiming towards a broader appeal for the Guilty Gear series, a vision that could either expand the series’ horizons or alienate long-term fans. I’m personally not certain that the key to the masses’ hearts is necessarily simplification, however. Dota 2 is massively popular, and it’s one of the most oppressively complicated games I’ve ever played. To me, the key is a more general view of user experience from the very fundamentals. I’ll elaborate what I mean by splitting it into three points.
Guilty Gear Strive’s online experience must be good
Like it or not, with the year we’ve just spent even the staunchest of FGC offline play advocates can’t deny that online play has become the core fighting game experience. And there is fundamentally nothing more essential to this experience than connectivity between players. It defines more than just stuttery games and disconnects – allowing for fast matchmaking times, high amounts of potential matches and a wide, continuing community is core to the way we expect games to work.
In a way here, Guilty Gear Strive’s netcode is being judged more harshly because of its ambition. Had it done what Granblue Fantasy Versus did and simply used the same old delay-based schemes that Arc System Works have been using for years, we’d have just written it off as another anime fighter with shitty online. Nothing new there, status quo restored. Not so; whether due to pressure from fans or a sense that their most iconic series should push the genre in the right direction, Arcsys are joining the cool kids.
It’s looking like Strive‘s netcode is a success. The extended open beta which ran from last week into this week showed that people could play stable, impressive matches even from across continental lines. This is a massive improvement over games like DBFZ or GBVS, which struggle to maintain playability across countries. This is becoming more important with every passing day, and it’s hard to imagine that the presence of an incoming game like the aforementioned Riot one – by the inventors of GGPO – wouldn’t influence this.
Ease of use, user interface, that awful lobby
If you want people to play your game, you have to make it easy to play your game. Again, I don’t think this necessarily means that your game has to be easy, or lose the depth that separates experienced players from novices. What I mean is that as a function of ergonomic user interface, finding your way around the game’s available modes and using them to access the core experience has to be straightforward and, preferably, enjoyable.
Fighting games have historically been bad for this. From having to ask my friend what a ‘Battle Lounge’ is, through the charming-but-baffling extremes of Arcsys’ chibi-fied lobby systems and the simple ugliness of SoulCalibur VI’s entire user interface, it’s hard to find a fighting game where it’s simple to just ‘go’.
Often this isn’t a problem for enthusiasts like me. I’ll dive through menus, suffer not being able to instantly rematch in lobbies, and deal with having to find which little man my tiny Goku has to talk to in order to start a game. While advanced functionality is important, you need to make it easy to use. Don’t test the patience of new users who may well just decide to go and play something else. I’m a little worried on this count. Guilty Gear Strive’s matchmaking system in the beta was horrific. A gimmicky, opaque mess, somehow even worse than before, and all implemented in the name of being able to wander around a sub-Habbo Hotel 2D environment waving sticks.
To me, unfortunately, this just looks like another case where in a few months the central concepts will be abandoned by the playerbase. People will voluntarily sit on the highest floor available to get matches, the middle floors having been largely abandoned. New users will be confused or frustrated. Experienced players will probably go and play private lobbies instead. I really hope they reconsider on this one, but from interviews it looks like it’s here to stay.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. I love that, when I played the beta, they had added a simple overview card to the character select screen, telling you the sort of things a character can do. As excellent commentator and FGC personality Majin Obama remarked in a video (while Facerigged as a dog), one of the key things in a fighting game is how quickly a new user can start doing cool stuff. This is one of the strengths of Dragonball FighterZ, for instance – while players who seek to become more advanced will quickly grow past the autocombo system, it allows anyone picking the game up for the first time to immediately do something cool. Letting people immediately jump into the game and just play with a vague idea of what their character does and their key moves is essential, and might spur people on that road to mastery considered so essential to this genre.
Content is king
I’m going to cheat a little for this last one and tie it in. As is often remarked, fighting games are pretty bad at tutorials. Tekken 7, one of my favourites of all time, doesn’t have one whatsoever. Arcsys have, however, been making strides in this department. By Rev2, they had honed Guilty Gear’s tutorials to a fine point, covering both the very basics in a colourful and energetic manner and very in-depth subjects and interactions. From the looks of this one, they’re trying to do more of the same.
I consider this basically a function of a game’s ‘content’, as weird as I find that word. A barebones competitive experience is probably fine for hardcore enthusiasts, who have no real need of a tutorial and would barely touch any other modes except training and multiplayer. But the stripped-out ‘eSports model’ infamously adopted by Street Fighter V isn’t enough for the majority of releases if the genre wants to keep moving forward (and wants to keep selling them as full-priced games).
Despite not being taken as ‘seriously’ as the big Japanese fighting games, Mortal Kombat is consistently among the genre’s best-sellers. MK11 included a thorough training mode, an impressive cinematic story mode and an array of other offline features. There is no good reason why competitive favourites shouldn’t do the same. Guilty Gear tends to include pretty full-featured arcade and other singleplayer modes, even though in Xrd its ‘story mode’ was more like a long anime cutscene. Though you couldn’t access most of them in the open beta, it looks like Strive has a solid variety of offline content on par with previous entries. A lack of well-featured singleplayer modes is something that casual players immediately notice.
With Granblue Fantasy Versus, Arcsys teamed up with a mobile game developer and ended up introducing a plethora of interesting ideas for extrinsic motivation to play the game – something that fighting games often lack. These included stuff like cosmetic equippable weapons obtainable through the game’s gacha-inspired singleplaye content. Again, for the devoted, the rewards of systems-based mastery is enough, but for people who have yet to catch the bug, a hook is required.
Guilty Gear Strive bears a lot of weight of expectation this year. If it can nail these essentials, I think it can manage to carve out a new niche for the series. While I doubt it can instantly reach the highs of license-bearing games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Dragonball FighterZ, which are inherently able to draw a wide audience, with focus and determination it could defy its genre’s stereotypes and create a healthy playerbase of new and old fans alike.
The question is – can it achieve this without paying the cost in depth?
We’ve not written a huge amount of fighting game content, but you can find my view on why DBFZ was my favourite game of 2018 here, and Nevi’s review of Street Fighter comics here. This has nothing to do with Strive at all (though you can expect more from me on that game) but you can also read my review of a Star Wars book.