Guilty Gear Strive Closed Beta Impressions – It Certainly is Blazing…
Developer: Arc System Works
A few weeks ago Arc System Works had its first closed beta test for the highly anticipated Guilty Gear Strive, the next entry in their flagship fighting series. Some fans had the chance to play an early version of the game at the ARCREVO America 2019 World Finals last year in California, but for the most part, most players were in the dark as to how the game actually played outside of second-hand information. This closed beta lasted three days and had a roster featuring Sol Badguy, Ky Kiske, Potemkin, May, Axl Low, Chipp Zanuff, and Faust. A fairly healthy roster for a first beta. What followed was a mix of highs and lows as many fans left the beta disappointed and concerned for the future of one of fighting game’s most beloved series.
First, let us start with what went well in the beta. Surprising absolutely no one, the visuals in the game are absolutely gorgeous. The character models and animation are flawless and blur the line between cutscene and in-game combat animation. Some of the characters blend a little too much into certain backgrounds, but it isn’t a huge issue. The stages are also beautiful ranging from a pristine forest area to a cyberpunk floating platform with mechanized Buddhas flying through the sky. The stages really capture the wacky anime and heavy metal infused art style that Guilty Gear is known for. One character that shines, in particular, is Faust. Sporting the most drastic redesign of the characters we have seen so far, Faust is a marvel of character design and animation. The way he creaks around the stage and awkwardly shuffles, flies, and limbers around give him a distinctively creepy feel. Like if the baby from Eraserhead grew up and got a medical degree. So much of the character’s personalities are shown by their animation. A few examples being how May’s bubbly demeanor shines through by how she skips in place while idle, and Potemkin’s robot appendages shifting and turning constantly. Guilty Gear Strive might be one of the best looking games ever made.
Secondly, and again a surprise to nobody is the game’s music. Daisuke Ishiwatari and his team deliver amazing banger after banger for each character’s main theme and they complement the combat beautifully. While fighting Sol Badguy as Potemkin I landed a Heavenly Potemkin Buster right as the chorus of “Smell of the Game” kicked in and it was one of the hypest things I had ever seen, and it came completely naturally through a combination of gameplay, animation, and music.
The gameplay is where, unfortunately, there are fewer positives to speak of. The movement does feel smooth, but air dashing feels a little awkward as you can no longer “Faultless Defense” (blocking with two buttons in the air to return to the ground faster after air blocking) in the air. This combined with the slower and more telegraphed nature of air dashing in Guilty Gear Strive makes one of the series most universally viable options for approaching far riskier and less intuitive. The Roman Cancel, or “RC”, system though is great in Guilty Gear Strive. By pressing the punch, kick, and slash buttons together, players can cancel whatever action they are currently doing and slightly slow down time while moving forward at the cost of half of your super meter. Meter runs ABUNDANT in Guilty Gear Strive and it is clear that the game wants you to be Roman Cancelling everything CONSTANTLY. It is one of the only outlets for creative combos players have in the game, as overall the gameplay feels very stiff and restrictive. Especially for a Guilty Gear game. Add to this that “gatlings” are also severely restricted in Guilty Gear Strive. Traditionally in Guilty Gear players could use the gatling system to chain together certain attacks in ascending order of strength. A to B to C, etc. Most characters have certain moves that can be used to gatling into combos which is where a good portion of the fluidity and free form structure of Guilty Gear’s combos come from.
There is an overall design philosophy in Guilty Gear Strive to make things more accessible to newer players. This is something a lot of fighting game developers have been doing more frequently in recent years. Usually, this amounts to simplified controls like you see in Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid. But Strive also does this by limiting some of its mechanics and opening others (like Roman Cancelling) up. There is an overall problem with this design philosophy, however. For players that are truly new to a game, none of these changes actually matter. For those still in the learning process, changes and restrictions from previous games that were made mean absolutely nothing to them. They will still be lost and not sure what to do, at least at first. That is, after all, how you learn. For advanced players, it will more than likely just frustrate them, but they will still be able to abuse whatever system is in place because they are already skilled players. Who this really affects are the players in the middle. The ones who aren’t scrubs but aren’t experts either. Advanced techniques will either be easier for them to perform or no longer exist. What fighting game developers need to realize is that lowering the skill ceiling doesn’t help new players, because by doing so you also lower the skill floor at the same time. In doing so, nobody truly wins out by making these sorts of changes. It is better to give players freedom and let them express their creativity, and newer players will adapt to this if they wish to keep playing. Middle-level players will still crush newbies, and good players will still keep winning regardless, accomplishing nothing in the end.
Another new mechanic in Guilty Gear Strive is the wall break mechanic. When forcing a character into a corner, if you hit them multiple times, the corner will start to crack and break. If broken the player being attacked will fly through and receive extra damage and the attacking player will receive a “Positive Bonus” which lets the attacker gain more meter faster. Also, both players will be reset to a neutral position on this new portion of the stage. There are a few problems with this, however. Damage in Guilty Gear Strive is absurdly high. While this will almost assuredly be toned down for the final release, a single counter hit can lead to death in many situations without too much effort. By the time you get an opponent in the corner, combo them, and break through the wall, you have more than likely dealt at least about 50-60% damage without much trouble. Considering meter is already so plentiful in Strive, this bonus doesn’t effectively add any true benefit as the next hit is more than likely going to kill regardless. Also, this wall break mechanic is designed to limit the offensive options in the corner that many anime games, especially ones from Arc System Works, are infamous for. This discourages corner pressure which, again limits the player’s options and creativity, and forces players to actively not interact with a mechanic in the game. That is never good. Guilty Gear is all about crazy rushdown. High paced, high-intensity offense is the nature of the game, and trying to artificially stifle this with the wall break mechanic doesn’t feel very “Guilty Gear”. Which is, unfortunately, a common theme among many of Strive’s weak points.
Counters also play a big role in Strive. You’ll notice because when you do land a counter hit the screen zooms in, the words “COUNTER” explode on your screen, and this leads to MASSIVE damage. Not only is that jarring, and defeats the purpose of counter hits being something you have to really pay attention to and look out for to take advantage of them, the biggest issue is the camera zoom in. This slow down can actually cause you to drop combos. Fighting games operate on very tight timing, and changing the flow of that via the game’s internal mechanics is not good. While players can, and will, “get used to it” it isn’t very fun. If a mechanic isn’t fun or doesn’t serve a specific purpose to increase the player’s enjoyment of playing the game, then it shouldn’t be in there. This isn’t helped by the fact that because of the zoom-ins, zoom outs, and wild camera angles that can happen within a single combo, it is easy for the game, and therefore the player, to get lost and not be sure where the character is going. Even though the combos in the game are extremely, almost insultingly, easy. It also doesn’t help that the netcode in the game isn’t very good. Throughout my three days of playing and dozens of matches (considering the first day was a wash due to constant drops and crashes), I played only one match that felt truly stable where both my opponent and I could react to each other’s moves.
Overall, the gameplay in Strive feels very restrictive. Which is the opposite of what Guilty Gear is known for. When you are Roman Cancelling constantly, landing solid hits and doing extended combos the game does FEEL fun. But it feels as if a wall can be reached very early in this game’s lifecycle. This is why creativity and options are so important in fighting games. You want players to be able to come up with crazy tech and strategies, and by limiting this you can end up having a game plateau extremely early if that room for invention isn’t there. It remains to be seen if this will end up being the case for Strive, but considering how open-ended games in the series in the past were, it is a bad sign that we are even asking the question in the first place.
Despite all of that, those weren’t even the biggest problems with Strive’s beta. For that, we need to talk about the lobby system and UI. The lobby system in Strive is, for lack of a better or more subtle term, terrible. When you first join the lobby you create a customized 2D pixel art avatar and are assigned a room after playing against a CPU opponent that will rank you from 1 to 10. The lobby in Strive has 10 different floors that all correspond (in theory) to your skill level. You can travel to higher floors if you wish, but you cannot go down to floors below your ranking. Which is the one aspect of the lobby system that I do appreciate, and that I think is an actually good idea. Once you have your pixel person ready to go, you travel through a mansion that looks like a SNES version of Clue and brandish your weapon (which you pick during customization) and “cross swords” with another player to initiate battle. If this sounds like an overly convoluted way to start matches to you, then you would be correct. Arc System Works does not have great netcode in its games. This is a fact even its most ardent fans will admit and is just something that players have to deal with. Because of this, each Arc System Works game needs to come up with a cute way to work around this. This is what gives us the hub in Dragon Ball FighterZ and the infamous arcade cabinets from Guilty Gear Xrd. This lobby system is that philosophy taken to its most frustrating extreme. Players just wind up wandering around the room, weapon in hand, trying to make a connection.
Because so many players can be in a room at once, more often than not you will just be sticking your sword in a large group, hoping one of those connections go through, but then you won’t know who you are playing. Or you end up connecting with someone you aren’t even facing because of the huge delay. Even worse, you rank up and down constantly in the lobby, seemingly bouncing up and down between floors every time you win or lose a match. This means if you rank up or down, it is impossible to have a rematch with the opponent you just faced. It is an overly complicated way to do something that should be the most basic and simple function in a fighting game lobby. Connecting to an opponent and playing a game. The best fighting game lobbies do this with ease and Strive adds all these unnecessary and frustrating hoops to jump through to accomplish the most simple of tasks. I was also unable to meet with friends in the lobby as well. Despite us confirming we were in the same region, and on the same floor, we were not able to have a match together as neither of us appeared in the other’s room. Also, the art style of this lobby just doesn’t fit Guilty Gear at all. Guilty Gear is, at its heart, a fusion of rock and roll, heavy metal, and anime. None of which is represented in this mansion setting that looks less like a place where Sol and Ky would be fighting, and more like someplace where you would find Colonel Mustard with the candlestick.
The last, and arguably greatest, offender is the UI of Strive. There isn’t an easy way to put this, so it just has to be said plainly. The UI is an absolute mess, and possibly the worst in the entire PS4 catalog. There are at least five different fonts on screen at a time, the gauges move with the characters, making it sometimes impossible to see your health or your R.I.S.C. gauge. This is extremely important in Strive because if you block for too long and your R.I.S.C. gauge fills up you will automatically receive a counter hit. Which, as we discussed earlier, means you’re basically dead. It should not be made difficult for players to see vital information, especially in something as fast-paced and reaction heavy as a fighting game. The game screen can literally fill with effects making it impossible to see in certain situations. It, just like the lobby, does the opposite of its intended purpose. That being giving the player all the vital information they need, easily, at a glance. The UI in Strive is so bad that players have taken it upon themselves to fix it. As you can see below, professional fighting game player Dawn Hosie has designed her own UI that not only makes all this information easier to see, more digestible, and consistent, but it looks like it belongs in Guilty Gear. The only aspect of the UI that feels well done is the character select screen. The select screen divides characters up into multiple categories; Balance, Speed, Power, and Tricky. Also, each character has their own rating for how difficult they are to use and ranks how well they perform at the close, mid, and far ranges. This is an excellent way to deliver a lot of important information to players, especially those not familiar with all of the characters. If only this kind of thought and attention carried over to the rest of the UI.
Guilty Gear Strive is in a very precarious position. Despite how gorgeous it looks and how killer the soundtrack is, the most important aspects seem to be the most in trouble. The gameplay feels worse than previous entries, despite it still being overall mostly fun and enjoyable, if not extremely shallow. The online system is counter-intuitive and messy, making it difficult for players to simply PLAY against each other. Changes to the gameplay can be made before release, and with the overwhelming backlash against the UI, I can see even that getting some changes as well. But I fear it is far too late in development for the lobby system to receive the massive overhaul and complete do over it needs. Also, while gameplay changes can be made before launch, it feels as if the overall design philosophy for Strive would have to be drastically changed for it to fit in line with what most players want. I am just not sure if Arc System Works is willing or able to make that kind of drastic shift, whether it is needed or not. The game is scheduled to release in “late 2020” so there is still time left to fix some of these glaring issues. Overall, this beta may have done more harm than good for the game, as it has left a bad impression on both newcomers and veteran players alike. People still rag on Street Fighter V for its disastrous beta in 2015, and that game doesn’t play even remotely close to the mess it was back then. In fact, it is in the best shape now than it has ever been. But that just goes to show how powerful a first impression can be, and it remains to be seen if Guilty Gear Strive is headed for that same fate.
Disclaimer: Invite to closed beta was provided by the publisher.