Review: Guilty Gear Strive attempts to make the series more approachable and is mostly successful

My time with Guilty Gear Strive has been a series of ups and downs. One day I’m feeling pretty positive toward it, the next I’m more frustrated by it. In many ways, that’s just fighting games: a series of good and bad days that leave you oscillating between positive and negative feelings toward them as you slowly gain a better understanding of how to play them. Par for the course, really. With Guilty Gear, though, it’s… a bit different.

Guilty Gear is a series I’ve tried to learn before, but always failed to click with. In part because the general maximalist approach to its design felt overwhelming, but also because a lot of the finer points just… I don’t know — they never felt right? Tried multiple times because I know folks who are way into the series and wanted to play with them. With Strive being pitched as a more approachable entry in the series, I was hoping that maybe this would be the one to click with me. And it has! Kind of. I feel like I’m actually gaining some kind of footing in this game unlike its predecessors, such that I have some sort of idea of what I’m doing, but there’s still plenty of the odd quirks of Guilty Gear here that I struggle to wrap my head around. It is definitely more approachable than other games in the series thanks to it reducing some of the raw complexity of the series, but it is still very much Guilty Gear as well.

Guilty Gear Strive‘s primary goal is to try reducing the complexity of the game and its systems to make it more approachable. Considering how many different unique mechanics were at play in previous games, both on a basic systems level and those exclusive to certain characters, that’s an understandable change in direction when you’re trying to bring more people on board. Strive does this by trimming away at the core of Guilty Gear until it’s down to the bare essentials. In place of long, complicated combos and setups are shorter strings that deal heavy damage. Instead of several different defensive options with different applications you’re down to just a few with clear uses. For people who are deeply familiar with Guilty Gear, Strive represents a huge shift. For folks like me that never truly got deep into it in the first place, it’s just another game to learn and adapt to.

Strive is all about neutral. Where in most 2D fighting games you want to push your opponent to the corner to keep them locked down, as one mistake is much more costly when you’re cornered than when you’re around the middle of the stage, Strive wants to avoid that by any means possible. If you end up the corner and you get hit, chances are good a wallbreak will eventually happen, causing a change of scenery and resetting the match to neutral again as you and your opponent return to round-start positions. The change in focus essentially means you have to win neutral multiple times as you can’t just lock down your opponent and overwhelm them. On the other hand, because of that, you effectively have more chances to turn the match around in your favor. After all, the more times your opponent has to win neutral, the more chances they have to screw up and give you an opening.

The biggest change, however, is the way normals chain into one another. In previous games, all your basic attacks can be chained together in roughly this order: punch > kick > slash > heavy slash > dust. Each character had their own quirks regarding certain attacks and what you could chain into, but that standard was mostly universal. In Strive, things are a bit different. Now the punch and kick buttons can only be chained into command normals (a direction and an attack button), kick having the extra exception of being able to cancel into dust attacks, while slash can still chain into heavy slash into a larger combo. All attacks are still special cancelable as well.

It’s a strange approach that takes a while to get used to. Splitting up attacks like this is far from intuitive. Most fighting games usually go all-in on letting you chain attacks together or not. It takes something that used to be straightforward and makes it unwieldy at first as the ways you need to use the punch and kick attacks aren’t immediately clear now that they can’t naturally chain into other normals. Depending on the character you play, your options vary. Some can easily chain into a command normal into a special for an easy combo. Others take more effort by requiring either a hit on a crouching opponent or quickly mashing more complex special inputs to properly combo.

It took until I asked some folks what those buttons’ purpose is now to understand their utility. As it was explained to me: punch is now your dedicated “mash out” button when you want to try exploiting gaps in your opponent’s pressure, while kick is your general “poke” to start pressure and perform quick, basic combos. Pretty standard fighting game stuff, all told, but Strive‘s execution just… doesn’t feel right.

Because these attacks can’t naturally chain into other basic attacks, even if they’re general role is clear, the actual use cases aren’t. Even now, after having plenty of experience with the game, I still don’t have a good sense of why I’d want to use the punch normals anywhere when the reward for a hit is so small and when there are still other plenty fast attacks I can use to mash out with that I could get better positioning off of, even in pressure. I understand the theory, but the actual application still eludes me. Maybe I’m just a fool and am missing something obvious. Maybe if the game had bothered to explain and demonstrate their uses itself I’d get it. I don’t know. Just doesn’t feel right to me.

Strive‘s tutorial is… technically fine, I guess? It’s very much in line with Arc System Works’ usual tutorials, particularly that of Granblue Fantasy: Versus from last year. It covers all the basics and some of the more advanced aspects of its systems, ensuring you have at least some idea of how everything works. Perplexing is how the part of the game that is titled “tutorial” isn’t really much of one. It simply gives you the briefest overview of how to move and attack and calls it there. The majority of the game’s lessons are tucked away in the “mission mode,” which isn’t where one would traditionally expect to find them given the presence of a properly labeled tutorial.

The problem is that, as detailed as it is for system mechanics and very general advanced strategies, it’s lacking in a lot of areas. Namely, the complete absence of any sort of in-game character primer. The game can teach me how to dash Roman Cancel all it wants, but without any sort of basic idea of how to play each character, that knowledge is harder to apply because I’m spending most of my time trying to figure out how the character works instead of focusing on system mechanics and how to apply them.

Something as simple as the “tactics” section from Under Night In-Birth‘s mission mode would suffice. There, the game gives you a very basic overview of the character along with some notable moves, an example of a blockstring that you can confirm into a combo, what their reversals and anti-air options are, and so on — basically the stuff that you ideally want when picking up a character for the first time. Similarly, Them’s Fightin’ Herds goes even further, going over not just the basics but character specific quirks and how they work, basic combo theory, as well as links and resets with examples of what those look like for each character as part of its tutorial. Rivals of Aether also goes to similar lengths, explaining the core concepts that have come to define competitive Super Smash Bros and platform fighters writ large pretty well along character primers that get you familiar with what each of the characters’ moves do and how you might want to use them. None of these tutorials are perfect, mind you, but they’re leagues better than Arc System Works has put forth so far.

When I first started playing Under Night, and by extension got into fighting games, back in 2018, the tactics section was crucial in helping me learn the game because it gave me something to work from. I had some small idea of how my character played and what I could do with them. It wasn’t just, “here a few combos; figure the rest out yourself,” or “here’s how the game-specific systems work; figure out how to actually play for yourself” like so many other fighting games I’d played before that, but actively giving me a broad, albeit extremely basic understanding of the character so I could have some sort of basis to work from. Combined with the tutorial and how it demystified a lot of basic fighting game concepts for me (despite the jargon and its own weird terminology), it made the learning process much less intimidating.

While I could just look up community made guides and check wikis, those sorts of resources take time to build, and at the time of Strive‘s launch they weren’t really in place yet. But also, frankly, it shouldn’t be on the community to provide the basics. Deeper, higher levels of understanding, sure — people are always inevitably going to learn and understand a competitive game better than its creators eventually — but the absolute basics? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want the game to provide that info. That sort of information may now be easier to access a month after the game’s launch since the community has had time to pour over the game and learn all the ins and outs (and I greatly appreciate the work everyone does to help, doubly so speaking as someone who has contributed to a wiki and knows firsthand how hard it is), but it doesn’t excuse the lack of such guidance in the game itself.

That Strive positions itself as being more approachable for beginners but is still leagues behind its peers (many of which are made by teams with nowhere near the same amount of budget or resources that Arc System Works has) in terms of teaching people how to play is frustrating. No fighting game tutorial is perfect, but the standards have increased such that there’s really no excuse not to go as far as possible with them. ArcSys’ tutorials have been coasting on being just sort of okay for a while now. It’s time they start catching up and learning from what other games are doing.

(Quick aside: Having the move list include detailed descriptions on an attack’s properties and even a video demonstration is very nice. Granblue Fantasy: Versus from last year did the same and it was just as nice to see there as it is here. Hopefully more games start adopting something similar going forward.)

One thing Guilty Gear Strive undeniably got right, however, is the netcode. Strive uses rollback netcode, which basically means it allows matches to play out nice and smooth online across vast distances. I’m on the west coast of the US and I’ve been able to play with friends over in the EU without issue, compared to fighting those same people in games with delay-based netcode where the results were… technically playable, but often unstable and far from the ideal experience. Being able to play friends without worrying about whether the connection will be playable or not is a godsend. There’s still the occasional issue with getting matches started due to network errors and the like, but more often than not it’s good and reliable.

It also means you have more immediate access to a wider range of players at any given moment, almost ensuring you’re likely to find someone close to your skill level rather than be forced to play the strongest players and hope you can maybe learn something while being completely trounced. There’s been plenty of games that demonstrate why rollback is good and necessary, and Strive is yet another example.

For as much as I’ve been frustrated by parts of Strive‘s design, though, when I’m actually playing the game, and not thinking about all the stuff I could be doing better, I’m usually having a good time.

The thing about learning any fighting game is that, at least in my experience, once you learn one, you feel the need to do the same to some degree with every other one you play. It’s not enough anymore to just load up and start mashing whatever mindlessly. Knowing that you’re capable of more makes it easy to get lost focusing on how to play well than how to play at all. And when you’re slow to learn games like this like I am, it’s easy to get frustrated by how slow progress can feel, by how much you’re struggling to wrap your head around the game’s concepts.

I fall into this trap a lot since getting into Under Night because that was the first time I actually got kinda okay at a fighting game. And the process of doing so was, while extremely difficult and taxing, pretty fun on the whole as I could actively chart my progress. It felt good! But because it took so long, it’s kinda untenable for me to do that again. Best I can do is gain basic competency and coast on that.

Once I stopped trying so hard to learn the game and just focused on playing super casually, I started feeling more positive toward it. Still have some bad days every now and then, but I’m not feeling as frustrated now. Guilty Gear is never going to be a game I ever really invest myself in, but at least with Strive I can play just well enough to enjoy playing with folks I know who are way, way better at it without feeling like I’m wasting my time or theirs. If nothing else, that’s a victory in my book.

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