Guilty Gear Strive Review: A Welcoming Fighting Game?

Fighting games are hard to get into. Let’s just get that out of the way before anything else. From the outside, it's easy to view fighting games as an insular community that’s impossible to break. Needing to hit training mode for hours on end before seeing even the tiniest bit of progress isn’t my idea of fun in the slightest, and it’s bounced me off every time I’ve tried to get into a Street Fighter game.

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Arc System Works has built Guilty Gear Strive with this in mind though, and the game tries extremely hard to make me, as a newcomer to the genre, stick around for long enough to get good. So then, this review is for those of you who, like me, have found it tough to get into fighting games in the past. If you’re a series fan, then just go buy the game. The depth and complexity are still there to the extent that plenty of people online are able to do amazingly impressive combos without a second thought.

Look at that presentation

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On a visual level, Guilty Gear Strive looks absolutely gorgeous. My poor little base-level PS4 takes a while to load up at launch, but once it’s running, the animations are something else. Each character has their own style, and they’re extremely unique from each other in both look and function, which I really appreciate. The frame-by-frame animation is brilliant, and gives so much life to the character, even when you’re just sitting on the character select screen choosing who’s about to get beaten up.

Zato-1, a tough-to-use technical fighter, stands ominously as his hair flows, drawing attention to his blindfolded eyes, hinting at his backstory which can be discovered more both in story mode and in his actual fighting style. Each of the 15 playable fighters is gorgeous visually, especially in matches. The animations do a solid job of letting the player know what move is about to come out. It gets a whole lot easier with more time, especially since the fifteen fighters all have a different set of moves, characteristics, and special abilities, but on the whole, I don’t feel hard done by when I keep holding forward and get hit by an attack - you can usually see them coming.

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Old pitfalls, new solutions

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I was really curious when I first picked up Guilty Gear Strive. How am I going to be taught this game? I know there’s a ridiculous amount of depth to it, and it’s daunting to even approach it. At first, I was pleasantly surprised.

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The ‘Missions’ mode is essentially a bespoke tutorial intended to teach new players all the basics of the game. There are lessons in everything from dashing in to whiff punishing to highly-specific match-up tutorials for each of the fighters. If you focus, you can really learn the game’s basics and take them into matches with relative ease, and I really appreciate this mode’s existence. The soundtrack goes hard too, with the song playing often shouting ‘YOU ARE NOTHING’ as you attempt to pull off your Overdrive attack.

To me though, it’s a shame it has to exist at all. Someone like me can’t just get into a game of Guilty Gear and figure it out as you go along, such is the reasoning behind many other difficult games’ challenges. No, if you’re new to fighting games and hop into a Guilty Gear Strive fight, even against a CPU, there’s a decent chance you just get wrecked. Even if you don’t, you’ll end up finding a couple moves the CPU doesn’t block and just spam them until you win (I found running up and grabbing pretty reliable).

When picking up a new game, particularly one of a new genre, it makes a lot of sense to require a bit of a tutorial to make the game’s unique quirks make sense, and this is the case for players of other fighting games just getting to grips with the Guilty Gear nuances. Strive has a great guide system, especially in comparison to other games of its genre, but it fails to teach you the game particularly well outside of it. Unfortunately, a lot of potential new players will hit a wall when it comes to spending hours in tutorials, a shame because of how brilliant it feels to get immersed in a fighting game after reaching that high skill floor.

Games can make things easier, and they should

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I wish Arc System Works had gone the whole hog when it comes to making things easier for newbies. Having to pause in the middle of a fight to check the command input list is a real downer, and even though Guilty Gear’s special moves are generally easy to pull off (albeit with a bit of frustration when you miss an input and end up trapped in a sick combo), but it feels unnecessary to force every player to do this.

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My PS4 controller has unbound buttons when I play Guilty Gear Strive. If special move command inputs were optional, and could also be bound to an unbound button plus directional input, it would give a lifeline to those newer players. You could even take away this lifeline for higher levels of online and tournament play to give that extra level of satisfaction when you learn the ‘real’ way to pull off your favourite combos and elevate yourself to a competitive level.

It feels like I’m watching a film through a window without sound - I know there’s more to this game but I won’t be able to access that joy until I sink a few hundred hours into it.

Verdict

For new players of 1v1 fighting games, this is the one to pick. With a command input system that’s slightly easier to grasp than many of its contemporaries and a brilliant visual style, Guilty Gear Strive is a solid first foray into the genre.

You’ll still need patience though. If you’re desperate to get good, this game will allow you to, but if you’re looking for a super casual experience, Strive still falls into the same pitfalls as other games of its type.

Also, if you’re into getting extremely deep into a game world’s lore, this one has a ridiculous number of spider diagrams and flowcharts detailing everything you could possibly want to know about Guilty Gear’s universe. I’ll be thumbing through that for a long time yet.

3.5/5

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Reviewed on PS4.