Single-player modes are a white whale for fighting games. The genre is rooted in one-on-one competition, so finding ways to remix and reimagine a system built for PvP combat into a solo experience can be tricky. Some stick the landing, but Granblue Fantasy: Versus' RPG Mode does not.
Granblue Fantasy: Versus is the latest fighting game from Arc System Works, a studio well-known for its work in the anime fighter realm. It's the same company that brought you BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, as well as 2018's knockout success Dragon Ball FighterZ. Pairing it with Granblue Fantasy, a very popular gacha-style game replete with stylish characters and magical abilities, seems like a perfect fit.
And it is, mostly. Granblue Fantasy: Versus is, so far, my favorite fighting game experience of 2020, and it's set a high bar for the year to come. The way its systems meld approachable inputs and concepts with anime style is really engaging. Its roster, while admittedly slim at launch if you don't pick up any DLC, is varied and deep in the playstyles it offers.
Sadly RPG Mode, the single-player campaign of Granblue Fantasy: Versus, doesn't really capitalize on that foundation. It even obfuscates what's good about its own systems.
The RPG Mode is set in the Granblue universe, with a few scattered cinematics and a different take on combat. Outside of a few one-on-one fights, the RPG Mode pits you against groups of enemies on the same 2D plane. In theory, it's a little like the beat 'em ups that thrived in arcades. The action is more limited than a game like Streets of Rage, though. Movement is restricted to a 2D plane, and your abilities in-game are what they are in a normal versus match.
While this starts out as a nice and easy on-ramp to playing Granblue Fantasy: Versus, especially with early levels teaching you how to link basic attacks into combos and other helpful concepts, that falls away quickly in favor of an overall bland beat 'em up. The 2D plane is maybe its largest negative. Without side-stepping or spatial depth to consider, fights feel overly flat and repetitive.
Combined with the smaller and static arsenal of moves—a boon for Granblue's multiplayer, but a bane here—the moment-to-moment combat of RPG Mode becomes tedious. Enter a screen, do a quick combo, end with a special, repeat. Even on the normal difficulty, blocking was a waste of time, outside of holding the button down to activate one of my support skills.
That's too bad because Granblue Fantasy: Versus' actual combat is one of its high points, especially its unique control scheme. While you can still do quarter-circle or down-down inputs, each fighters' specials are also assigned directions that can be activated with a simple tilt of the stick and the "special" button, with only a slight cooldown penalty. Between that and a dedicated Guard button, Granblue Fantasy: Versus feels geared toward fans of Super Smash Bros. as much as fighting game players.
This simplicity works incredibly well for one-on-one combat. Newcomers can quickly get acquainted with the pace without feeling overwhelmed, and some interesting movement and posturing options even open up due to the unique control scheme.
RPG Mode doesn't highlight this well though, as most enemies will fall to the same repetitive combos. Worse, due to the player's character not having a fixed facing position during fights, some inputs don't always work as intended. When playing as Gran, I would sometimes end up inputting a quarter-circle-back motion to use his flying boot attack, and instead he'd turn and throw out a fireball. The opposite could also happen, leading to small but frustrating moments throughout.
Outside of combat, there are a lot of menus and other factors to sort through, including an entire system based off gacha draws and elemental affinities. At first, I thought this might be a good incentive to spend time grinding missions and building up weapons, but I quickly learned that while having a leveled-up weapon and the proper grid could help, having the inverse rarely ever hurt. In the eight or so hours it took for me to beat RPG Mode, I rarely spent time in those screens, and by the end, I was making liberal use of the built-in automation.
The actual narrative of RPG Mode is also a let-down, as it follows a fairly predictable plot. Gran and company tour the skies, stopping at different locales to fight their friends who have been mysteriously driven to chaos and violence. While it gives the player a quick overview of each fighter on the roster and their general backstory, it ultimately culminates in a last-minute villain reveal that feels lackluster.
RPG Mode's greatest strength, by far, is its boss fights. Whether fighting a massive colossus or a literal deity, Arc System Works designed some really cool encounters that actually take advantage of the 2D plane. The best victories feel earned, as the game slowly conditions you to read the enemy's body movement to anticipate how to dodge or block certain attacks, then strike for damage. The effectiveness of the boss fights end up making the common encounters, with little variety or challenge, feel superfluous.
Calling in help from players can also make for a lot of fun and enjoyment. In most fights, you have a CPU ally backing you up, generally acting as a second character on the screen with as much agency as you. And while the computer is fairly competent, it's miles more engaging to play these missions with another person, where coordinating attacks and balancing support skill usage during a big boss fight can create a lot of tension.
Working your way through RPG Mode eventually opens up a Hard Mode with even more challenges and rewards, as well as a tower mode, but neither seems terribly appealing. The prospect of adding more difficulty or just plain more didn't really entice me. The single-player combo tutorials in the Mission Mode and the actual meat-and-potatoes multiplayer felt more rewarding, in both the short and long-term.
I've been sincerely enjoying my time with Granblue Fantasy: Versus. Its mix of accessibility and approachable gameplay with Arc System Works' usual flair results in one of my favorite fighting games in some time, maybe even since Dragon Ball FighterZ. It's a game I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone wanting to play or learn fighting games. But for those looking for an in-depth, satisfying single-player experience that doesn't involve going online and fighting other players, RPG Mode doesn't deliver often enough to stand out.