Game Review

by David Cabrera,

Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-

Playstation 3

Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-
It's a reunion tour with Sol Badguy, Ky Kiske, and their amazing friends as the classic fighting game returns with mind-blowing 3D anime-style graphics, over-the-top action, and a whole lot of heavy metal.

The last fighting game release in the Guilty Gear series was (putting aside several patches) GGXX Accent Core in 2006: rights issues put another GG fighting game out of the question. After the strange, brilliant, and largely ignored Guilty Gear 2-- a combination of DOTA, Starcraft, a 3D fighting game, and Mario Kart-- GG altogether disappeared from mainstream radar. Blazblue-- effectively GG tuned to a modern anime sensibility-- has succeeded Guilty Gear as Arc's flagship for the past six years.

For the director of this game, series creator Daisuke Ishiwatari, it's been even longer. He's been away from Guilty Gear (the fighting game) for over a decade. He took his hands off after 2002's Guilty Gear XX #Reload, this game's model.

GG's absence was noted: while Blazblue is a quite competent game that eventually came into its own, Guilty Gear XX was a genre landmark, a foundational piece upon which a whole wing of the genre directly builds. Its absence was conspicuous.

After seeing Xrd, perhaps it's better that everybody was away from Guilty Gear for so many years: Ishiwatari's Team Red comes at the project with such passion that you can tell they missed Guilty Gear more than anybody else possibly could have.

The first place you see that passion is in the game's graphics, which fully establish the miraculous illusion that so many CG studios have tried and failed to produce: 3D graphics that are completely indistiguishable from hand-drawn 2D pixel art.

This isn't just extremely competent CG and animation like we saw in the otherwise deficient Jojo All-Star Battle. It's a step above, and perhaps past, the cel-shading aesthetic we've seen in games like Valkyria Chronicles. These 3D models breathe, with every bit of the personality of their sprite predecessors. Their bodies stretch and squish for emphasis during moves like a hand-drawn character would. Heavy shading completes the effect, and until the camera spins around the action at the end of the round, a viewer would never even guess that the game is CG.

What Xrd accomplishes with its graphics alone is a completely new plateau in videogames, and something we're unlikely to see topped for quite a while. The animators did this the hard way, with painstaking effort given to every frame of every move. Any thought that animating this game in 3D would be “easy” compared to 2D gets knocked out of one's mind upon seeing the level of this work.

And the detail is quirky: one character can have his ponytail knocked loose, at which point violins swell and his long hair remains down for the duration of the battle. Another character, while falling to his knees in defeat, takes a split-second to flash a thumbs-up and a smile.

(The PS3 version plays in 720p rather than the PS4's 1080p, and some effects can be sacrificed to keep the game running at a consistent frame rate. This is next-generation stuff, and it presses the current system hard.)

All this effort is in service of Ishiwatari's personal aesthetic: a singular combination of the chains, flames, and wailing guitars of 80's metal, the offbeat superpowers of shonen manga, and the proud audacity of Queen. Characters' weapons range from swords to scalpels to dolphins, to magic hair and at one point a wedding cake. Guilty Gear is nothing if not creative.

Even without knowing what's going on, players will find the tempo of a Guilty Gear fight is extremely fast; Xrd is slower than the pre-HD games, but compared to Street Fighter it might as well be a tape playing on fast-forward. Characters run fast, attacks all chain together, and damage is high: for first-timers, just running at each other and mashing buttons is its own spectacle. But there is great nuance to Guilty Gear play as well: players are making split decisions with every dash forward and every one of those lightning-fast chained attacks. High-level GG is thrilling stuff.

New characters are suitably offbeat. There's Ky's son Sin (four years old, fully grown), who does devastating damage with his flag but has to eat huge chunks of meat in the middle of battle to keep it going. There's the moe character Elpheldt, who is obsessed with firearms and the institution of marriage with equal measure, and uses them both as weapons. There is Bedman, who, as his name implies, is a young man sleeping in a weaponized hospital bed ala Roujin Z. All of these characters bring very unique mechanics: Bedman an “instant replay” ability, Elpheldt a weapon loadout out of a first-person shooter.

You won't see too many “vanilla” characters in Guilty Gear: if you want that, the game has Sol and Ky. On the flipside, that novel character that's catching your eye might be very difficult to learn how to play in practice.

Most of the core GG cast returns, but it's clear that Arc are keeping certain aces in the hole (like Bridget, the rollerskating nun-boy who sparked a craze) for future releases. Johnny and Dizzy appear in story mode, but they don't come out to play in battle.

Players who see all this anime and want to watch an anime made out of it are well-served by an excellent story mode. When you start this mode up, the game tells you to sit back and put the controller down, because there will be no fights. And for eight to ten hours, there aren't any. Rather, starting exactly from where the arcade mode ends, you get a whole new chapter of Guilty Gear story. As an “anime” it would be low-budget-- the meat of it is talking heads discussing how best to deal with the coming cataclysmic, world-threatening event-- but it's well-paced and paid off with full-on cutscenes that depict the GG world on a bigger scale than a 1-on-1 fighting game can quite convey. There's also a friendship montage about learning to like Tabasco.

What's underneath all the anime, on the other hand, is basically #Reload, the middle version of Guilty Gear XX. It's a stable foundation, not the kitchen sink as was deployed in Accent Core +R. Xrd explains its systems thoroughly while making some key alterations.

A major and frequently justified complaint about fighting games is “I don't know what I'm doing, and there's no way to find out”. Guilty Gear is a particularly heavy game, with an unorthodox control scheme, a complex combo system, and a whole lot of unique moves and terminology.

But Xrd makes absolutely sure that you can't say that it doesn't explain every single one of those things. On top of the normal, customizable “do what you want” training mode, there are three more seperate training modes going from the absolute basics, to combo training, to advanced training that even features matchup advice for how to deal with the tricks of specific characters. Learning to reliably execute a string of attacks is one thing: the real tough stuff is in that last mode. Get ready to practice up.

The hardest part about learning XX was the Roman Cancel system (Arc has a way with naming their terminology), an extremely versatile system that allows players to stop what they're doing at any time. For example, players can eliminate the lag time after throwing out a projectile attack, or they can cancel a risky attack that would have left them wide open.

The problem with Roman Cancels in the old games is that the most useful ones were designed to be extremely precise, often in the 1-3 frame range (at 60 frames/second). This was tough stuff even for seasoned fighting game players, and players were often obligated to spend disproportionate amounts of time learning difficult cancels before they could even get a handle on how a character was meant to play.

Xrd has an elegant solution to this issue: Roman Cancels now slow time. Frame-tight precision is no longer such an issue when an RC gives the player a healthy pause to consider their next action. Super moves (overdrives) exist and have their uses, but seasoned players will find the versatility of the RC often trumps them. Characters who weren't approachable (for example, I-No) suddenly make a lot more sense.

Once you've put in some time training (and this is a hard game, make no mistake, you will be training), it's time for a little versus mode. Xrd's online versus mode is a little baffling at present: players pile into lobbies sorted by one's region of the world and start lobbies that can host up to 8 players playing up to four games at once. The problem with this setup is that the person who starts the lobby is the host, and if they decide they have to go (and they will eventually, with seven other people fighting at once), the whole lobby goes up in smoke, usually in the middle of someone else's match.

Right now (I write this early in the life of the Japanese release and just before the US release), players don't like to start these lobbies because of the feeling of obligation to stay open. The only people hosting lobbies are in fact streamers over on, who leave their streams on all day so that they can broadcast other player's games. Ranked matches-- and, confusingly, even more unranked lobbies-- are hiding in a menu system. Hopefully this stuff is patched up to some degree, especially given how strong the online mode in Blazblue is.

The quality of online play itself is about as smooth as can be expected, considering GG is a faster game, not specifically built for online play like Blazblue is, and the speed of light is only so fast. Offline play will always be superior, and the stuff the game teaches you in training may simply not work in many online matches. Knowing this, the online mode helpfully displays how many frames of lag the player can expect in the upper corner of the screen. 2-4 are optimal, 6-8 is going to get shaky, and 10+ is reason enough to just save yourself the trouble and not fight. As always with online fighting games, use a wired connection or go home.

If you want a break from all that stress, there's an expansive “RPG mode” in M.O.M (Master of Medallion). This is an endless series of fights that's structured like an RPG dungeon crawl: choose your opponent from the hex grid and hope for good loot. Abilities go way over the top in this mode: you can level your stats and equip other characters' special moves like Mega Man. Enemies will take on fierce “boss forms” that will plow right through your attacks. The loot scales up the longer you go without losing, and so does the difficulty and power of the boss enemies. Even if you don't want to play against other people (I don't understand you, but I know you're out there), M.O.M supplies hours of entertainment.

A severe unlock curve makes a lot of the single-player modes compulsory: the locked character (Sin) takes so many World Dollars to unlock that you'll have to finish Story Mode and clear a large amount of single-player challenges to get him. (You can also pay $2.50). Other unlocks include a large selection of music from GGXX and GG2 to be used in-game, and the usual art and sound gallery. DLC is the same lineup that Arc has been doing since Blazblue: two paid characters (one comes with early orders) and cosmetic options like extra colors. The (paid DLC) ability to have any character replace the announcer, in-character, is frequently inspired. (Chipp, I-no, and May are recommended.)

Xrd is not just a next-generation fighting game, it's also a complete package in every department. Everybody who ever wanted anything from a fighting game-- flashy graphics, an in-depth story, heavy mechanics-- has it here. Welcome back, Guilty Gear, it's been entirely too long.

Overall : A
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : A
Presentation : A

+ Fast and hard 2D fighting action with a heavy metal fixation and a shonen-manga weird streak, revolutionary graphics which express "2D anime in 3D" better than most CG-animated "anime-style" films
Online lobby system is confusingly designed, can be buggy and inconvenient, well below the standard of Arc's usual offerings

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