It began with a declaration of war. Ramlethal, a mysterious young woman from another dimension, proclaimed that all who were unworthy would be destroyed. Genocide isn’t a new concept in the Guilty Gear universe – it’s only been a year since the showdown in Overture – but there’s good reason to take her seriously. She backed up her boast by summoning The Cradle, a magical structure the size of a mountain. Within seconds, an entire city full of people was wiped off the face of the planet. The Cradle vanished as quickly as it appeared, with the unspoken threat of a future attack. It’s up to Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske, the two most powerful and iconic fighters in the franchise, to join forces and save what remains of human civilization.
It’s not the most ideal partnership, of course. As any Guilty Gear veteran knows, the rivalry between Sol and Ky is the stuff of legend. As a direct sequel, Xrd examines how they and the returning cast are dealing with the fallout of the previous game. Ky has matured into a competent king, though political realities and responsibilities have forced him to rethink his morality. Sol is still a gruff and bitter bounty hunter, though he’s kept his word and raised Ky’s son as his own. Sin doesn’t have his father’s brilliant mind, but he certainly has his idealism. May is similarly positive, but vague hints at her backstory (and foreshadowing of events in the next game) imply that all is not well with her and the Jellyfish Pirates. Faust is still crazy, though he’s embarked on a long, wacky road to redemption. The Assassin’s Guild is still operating under Venom’s leadership, and he’s even managed to end the longstanding feud between himself and Millia. More importantly, Zato – long dead and possessed since XX – has been magically resurrected. His surprise reappearance is a herald of something far more sinister.
Not everyone is back, unfortunately. The Guilty Gear series is known for its bizarre and unique designs, but some of the biggest fan favorites didn’t make the cut. Baiken is arguably the most missed; her incredible swordplay was among the best in any fighting game. The same can be said for Johnny, who gets nothing but a few scenes in Story Mode. Dizzy gets a similar treatment, though she’s out of action for plot purposes. The newcomers have enough personality to distract you from such shortcomings, though. Ramlethal pretends to lack emotion, but she enjoys summoning giant swords and viciously slashing you to pieces. Elphelt is far more cheerful and ditzy, but she’s a bride that takes the term “shotgun wedding” literally; she tosses grenades instead of garters, and pumps any runaway spouses with lead. Bedman looks like a harmless coma patient in a silly-looking hospital bed…until he starts summoning spiky wheels of death with his mind. Sin isn’t as terrifying, though his long-range spear combos are powerful. He’s balanced by a stamina gimmick akin to the Monster Hunter games (he has to eat steak to prevent exhaustion), but he’s lethal in the right hands. That goes double for Leo Whitefang, the exclusive DLC character. Imagine a hulking man/lion hybrid who dual-wields greatswords, can change stances to attack you backwards, and whose every word is dripping with deliciously hammy voice acting. Yes, Leo is hilarious, awesome, and a perfect fit for the game’s setting.
Speaking of which, Xrd’s story is surprisingly easy to get into. Guilty Gear’s lore is notoriously convoluted, but this game alleviates much of the problem. While the new Story Mode has the underlying assumption that you know what happened in Overture, it occasionally retouches some of the major points – such the importance of Justice and That Man – to keep new players from getting lost. If you’ve endured the stories of Persona 4: Arena or any of the BlazBlue games, don’t worry; Arc System Works forgoes its usually sprawling narrative in favor of focused storytelling. It takes only a few hours to finish, with plenty of cameos and no repeated scenes. As usual, the majority of it is told through voiced dialogue. Instead of simply plastering the characters’ avatars on the screen, however, it uses drawn scenes. They aren’t fully animated – there’s a lot of standing and talking – but it gives players something interesting to look at. Considering the costs for such a production, having a relatively brief story makes sense. If you miss anything, there’s an entire in-game library to keep you informed.
However, you’ll probably skip over all of that and dive right into Arcade Mode. If you’ve played any of the XX games, it’s like returning to a childhood home: familiar and nostalgic. It utilizes most of same move setups as before; there’s the usual array of punches, kicks, slashes, and heavy slashes that create a wide variety of combos. Every character comes with their unique special attacks, like Sol’s iconic Dragon Install or Venom’s billiard-style ranged tactics. That’s on top of the guard crushing, air dashing, Overdrives, Psych Bursts, Faultless Defense, Instant Kills, and the other returning features. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that Xrd is a hyper-aggressive button mash-fest. Blindly running into battle, however, will get you slaughtered. While not as intensive as BlazBlue’s commands, the inputs in this game require a good sense of timing and attention to frame animation. Unlike the Persona 4 fighting games, Arc System Works didn’t implement any kind of auto-combo control scheme. If you take the time to learn the fundamentals, you’ll be surprised at how far they carry you.
For more experienced players, there are several new advanced mechanics to master. Guilty Gear’s Roman Canceling system is back again, but it’s been expanded into three types. They still allow you to cancel attacks into other moves, but their effects are more situational. RCs depend on things like opponents’ hitstun status, timing with animation frames, using projectiles, character momentum, etc. It’s technically demanding, but mastering it pays off in spades. Elphelt, for example, has some ridiculously good unblockable setups with her grenades. The classic Dust Attack has been modified as well. The traditional homing jump version lets you launch foes skyward and follow it up with mid-air combos. The homing dash, however, forces your opponent into the wall and leaves them wide open for cornering tactics. For more defensive players, the newly-implemented Blitz Shield lets you repel oncoming attacks while sacrificing a quarter of the energy otherwise saved for Overdrive moves. It doesn’t seem like much in the midst of all the offensive capabilities, but using it well can completely turn a fight on its head. So can Danger Time, which randomly triggers whenever attacks clash. It basically boosts your attack power, countering, and canceling capabilities for ten seconds. Unlike the other features, this one feels tacked on; the randomness completely throws off the match’s pace and doesn’t fit well with high-end competitive gameplay. If Danger Time had to be included, it would’ve made more sense to make it a limited optional command, like Instant Kill Mode. It detracts from what is an otherwise solid and engaging experience.
Regardless, there’s a lot to learn. If you’re feeling intimidated, there’s a robust Tutorial Mode that covers every aspect of the game. It’s even structured as a series of lessons taught by Sol to Sin, which is amusing in itself. There’s also a Challenge Mode that focuses on increasingly demanding character-specific combos. However, the Mission Mode is more practical. It assumes that you already know the basics, and focuses on situational tactics instead. How do you block attacks while dashing? How do you perform air-to-air combos? How do you combo into an Instant Kill? You need to know if you’re playing competitively. Having a feature that focuses on advanced tactics is immensely useful, and it’s something that more fighting games should include. It could never replace Practice Mode, of course. It lets you customize everything from the health and special bars to computer competency and blocking techniques. The recording function is as useful as ever, but it’s the Input Delay – essentially a lag simulator – that’s the most important. When the crux of your strategy depends on how well you can handle the animation frames, mastering the inputs is a must.
Speaking of lag, the online multiplayer isn’t quite up to par yet. By no means is it unplayable, but it’s inconsistent. The majority of the matches played thus far have been incredibly slick and responsive – as expected for an Arc System Works title – and making the transition from offline has been easy. However, a few of the fights have slowed to a crawl or randomly disconnected. It’ll likely warrant another patch in the near future, but it’s questionable right now. Ranked matches are few and far between, though there are dozens of player matches going on at any given hour. The lobby system takes the next logical step from BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma’s design. The rooms are separated by continental regions, and then further divided by geographic location. Each place on the map has 32 rooms, which can accommodate up to 64 players each. Not surprisingly, most of the rooms are completely empty. If you find a busy location, you can set up lobbies with certain skill level requirements, connection speeds, voice chat, and even differentiate between casual and serious matches. Inside, you have the choice of pairing off with someone for a quick match, switching opponents, or waiting on the sidelines and spectating someone else’s fight. Despite the lack of a YouTube uploading feature for replays, there are a lot of options packed into such a simple design.
If you want something not so competitive, the offline M.O.M. Mode will keep you busy. It’s basically a huge, customizable survival mode. You begin at the center of a massive map of panels, and must fight across other panels to progress. The more you win, the more cash you’ll earn towards stat boosters, items, and equipment. For example, my Slayer can’t move quickly, but he hits like a truck and his health bar is three layers thick. You can spend time building up resistances to status ailments, reduce chip damage, etc. You’re not the only one with upgrades, either; at higher levels, you’ll run into enemies with increasingly broken movesets. You think Axl is bad at long range? Try dealing with a version of him that doesn’t flinch and can summon May’s whale. Only patient and masochistic completionists need apply. It’s worth the effort, though; everything you do in any of the modes will net you bonus points that go towards unlocking stuff in the gallery. It’s a little sparse compared to BlazBlue’s offerings, but it’s definitely a case of quality over quantity. Character avatars, cutscenes, voice acting, music…It’s all there, practically begging to be unlocked.
You’ll want every last bit of it, too. In an unusual move, the designers chose to use Unreal Engine 3 for Xrd’s graphics. Rather than attempting to make traditional hand-drawn character sprites, they decided to go with 3D cel-shading. It works beautifully with Guilty Gear’s anime-influenced style; just look at the way Ky’s hair moves when his ponytail becomes undone, or the way Ramlethal’s cloak flaps in the breeze, or how Slayer seems to slide across the screen in one fluid motion. Sol’s detailed Dragon Install animation – and the epic music track that activates with it – is the stuff other 2D fighters could only dream of achieving. Not to mention all of the fully-animated and voiced Instant Kills. The backgrounds are detailed as well. May’s airship drifts above the clouds before diving low enough to skim the ocean, and the bridge in the Japan colony gives a good sense of depth and perspective. There accompanying soundtrack is, as usual for Guilty Gear, a stellar blend of rock and metal. Tracks like “Storyteller” and “Holy Order III” steal the show with their awesome instrumentals, and “Lily” sounds like a long-lost Queen song. Considering who designed the game, there’s nothing more fitting.
It’s been a long time. After so many years, it’s great to have Guilty Gear retake center stage of the 2D fighting genre. Arc System Works has learned from their experiences with BlazBlue and Persona games, and it shows. It’s a reminder of what makes these games great: a small but unique cast of quirky and awesome characters, highly technical gameplay, and a style second to none. It’s not the easiest game to get into, but the streamlined story and in-depth tutorials are enough to keep newcomers hooked. The drastic changes to the old combat mechanics are interesting, though not everything is perfect. The online multiplayer still needs some reworking, though most of the matches work flawlessly. This game sets a new standard for the inevitable future titles. Judging by what Xrd has accomplished, Guilty Gear is back and here to stay.
*Originally posted here.