If you've only been a fighting game fan over the past console generation, you may not know what Guilty Gear is. The fighting series was the first breakout hit of Japanese studio Arc System Works, with entries spanning from the late PlayStation era through the PlayStation 2's reign. When the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 came around, Arc System Works upped their game and created BlazBlue, a high-resolution hand-drawn 2d fighter that built upon what the studio had learned with Guilty Gear. Outside of Guilty Gear 2: Overture, a Dynasty Warriors-style action strategy game, Guilty Gear fans have had to find solace in re-releases and BlazBlue for the entire seventh console generation.
Guilty Gear Xrd is what happens when you use current technology to emulate past experiences. To prevent from cannibalizing the success of BlazBlue, Arc System Works tried to re-envision Guilty Gear in a different manner. (The first re-envisioning was Overture.) What the studio came up with is an Unreal Engine 3-powered 3D fighter, that plays like and mimics a hand-drawn 2D fighter. Guilty Gear Xrd is intended to please classic Guilty Gear fans, reach out to new players, and provide enough visual impact to make Guilty Gear a major name in the fighting game community again.
Arc System Works has largely succeeded.
To whit, without the Unreal Engine 3 title card, I wouldn't have believed this was an Unreal Engine 3 game. Most of the game plays out on the 2D plane and it looks gorgeous in motion (1080p, 60 fps if we're getting technical). The characters animate fluidly and there's enough stretch and skew in their movements to make you think you're playing a hand-drawn game. Arc System Works wanted to show off its work though, so Dust launching attacks, Overdrive specials, and match finishers rotate the camera to show the action in a 3D perspective. It's a cool effect, but used sparingly so that it doesn't ruin the flow of a match. There's some odd animation lag in the character introductions at the beginning of each match, but for the most part the 3D/2D illusion works.
Moving to 3D is more economical on Arc System Works' part, allowing them to build characters without drawing every single frame of animation. The shift allows them to get away with things like Xrd's Story mode, which is 5 hours of animated cutscenes explaining the plot. That's right, the Story mode has no fighting whatsoever, unlike the studio's previous work in Persona 4 Arena. You start each episode up and just watch the fully-voiced story pass by. It's something the studio probably couldn't do if it had to hand-animate the entire thing, but here it allows those who care to get deeper into the game's world without putting their fighting skills to the test.
The excellent visuals are complemented by the absolutely amazing hard rock soundtrack. From the moment the opening theme, Heavy Day, kicks off, you know you're in for something special. Just like previous Guilty Gear titles, the music is a high point and almost worth admission on its own. Guilty Gear creator Daisuke Ishiwatari is also the game's composer; he retains the unique sound that he's had since the very first Guilty Gear title in 1998. (Voice work fans will be happy to know that there's an option to switch between Japanese and English voice tracks. This extends to matches and cutscenes, unlike Persona 4 Arena's option.)
Character-wise, this shift from 2D to 3D predicated a slight restart, so the roster is smaller. Returning characters include Sol Badguy, Ky Kiske, Millia Rage, May, Chipp Zanuff, Potemkin, Venom, Axl Low, I-No, Faust, Slayer, and Zato-1. Millia and Potemkin feature the most drastic character design changes, while the rest are slight and simple translations of their previous 2D looks. In addition to the old cast, Arc System adds the emotionless villain Ramlethal Valentine and the odd Bedman to the initially-playable cast. Sin Kiske returns from Overture as an unlockable character, and Japanese fans have already received the game's two DLC characters, Elphelt Valentine and Leo Whitefang.
The roster itself is a bit lean, but it's a first outing, so that's to be forgiven. I'm looking forward to seeing what follows Xrd, if only to see the roster fill out a bit more.
The character designs in Guilty Gear have always stood out as rougher and more outlandish than those in BlazBlue. The latter title tends towards designs that are more streamlined and more fanservice-y; they play better with certain audiences in Japan. The Valentine sisters, Ramlethal and Elphelt, feel like Arc System Works' attempt bridge the divide and pull the BlazBlue audience into Guilty Gear. Elphelt in particular is feels like creator Daisuke Ishiwatari went in search of the otaku heart; the personality and mannerisms, the dress, the bunny ears, and the boob window all scream "moe" from the rooftops. (Elphelt is also one of the more annoying online matchups, as her gun and grenade combo gives her great control of the battlefield. She's also free until January 5, 2015.)
The entire roster does cater to a number of different playstyles. Rushdown fans will stick with series mainstay Sol Badguy, while a character like Chipp is a highly-mobile glass cannon. Billiards-playing assassin Venom is all about the setup. New fighter Bedman is literally a comatose dude nailed to a robotic bed; he plays long-range, but also has the ability to dash in all eight directions. There's something for every fighting fan and certain Dust attacks stretch each character's style farther, though not as far as Persona 4 Arena's Personas.
Guilty Gear Xrd is a return to form for the series, but it isn't as technically demanding on the high-end as previous Guilty Gear games. Again, Arc System wants this title to act as an introduction to the series for new players. It's streamlined, while still featuring basic chain combos, double jumps, Super jumps, air dashes, and air recovery techs. Buffered inputs for combos are now a feature and the Roman Cancel, letting players cancel out of special attacks, is easier to implement and understand. (Combining both features lets you pull off some interesting moves.) It doesn't hold your hand on the low-end as much as Persona 4 Arena Ultimax did, but there is a tutorial mode and a host of challenges for each character to get you up to speed.
The rest of the Guilty Gear Xrd is padded out with M.O.M., an RPG-style mode allowing you to take characters through a hex-grid filled with unique encounters, and the Gallery, where you spend in-game currency to unlock new art, music, cutscenes, and Sin Kiske.
Then there's the online mode, which stands as the game's primary misstep. Like BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, online play requires you to enter online lobbies. The problem is Guilty Gear Xrd's online feels like a step backwards. The avatars are gone, replaced with pictorial cursors. Getting into a match requires going into a region, picking a room within that region, hoping there's rooms set up within that region to play in, and then hoping there's a open cabinet that you can play on. There's far too many steps just to participate in a single match. Guilty Gear Xrd's online lacks the efficiency of previous titles and is a far cry from the simple matchmaking options found in Ultra Street Fighter IV . Once you've found a match, it is much easier to play your opponent again, but the rest brings down the whole experience.
When it comes to netcode, I generally played within a frame delay of 4-9 frames. Some have reported worse, but today's launch also offers up a patch to improve the netcode for those players. I did however run into a few online error messages like "Could not find a room" or "Host is not responding". It wasn't frequent, but it did happen enough that I feel it should be noted in the review.
For a game that's intended to bring in new players, it's also quite hard for new players to find places to improve on online. I found many rooms listed as "Training" but they weren't functionally different from regular rooms. If you're really new to Guilty Gear, you're better off honing your skills offline first.
It's a shame, because with a better online system, Guilty Gear Xrd could've been the best of the best. As it stands, the title is a great first step for Guilty Gear and a wonderful return for a series I had thought was lost. If you're a Guilty Gear fan, welcome back. If you're not, Guilty Gear Xrd is definitely worth checking out to see if this is your jam.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: 3D models that look like hand-drawn art. You won't find such a distinct visual style in any other fighting game.
- Sound: Once again, Ishiwatari's soundtrack is hard rock magic. This is a soundtrack worth buying.
- Interface: It's well-designed and does what it needs to do.
- Lasting appeal: Once you've played through arcade mode, watched the story, completed the challenges, and unlocked everything in the gallery, there's still online play.
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is a triumphant return for a fighting series that stayed in hiding for an entire generation. Arc System Works has laid a visual salvo with 3D models that animate like 2D art. Combined with the amazing soundtrack and technical gameplay, Xrd is a great fighter. The only thing that holds it back is an obtuse online match system and a relatively lean roster. If you're a guilty Gear fan, it's definitely worth a purchase.
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