by Heidi Kemps,

Granblue Fantasy Versus

Granblue Fantasy Versus
An international mobile game hit, Granblue Fantasy has topped the charts, charming players across the globe with a plethora of lovable characters and story-driven mechanics. Now, legendary fighting game studio Arc System Works and Cygames are teaming up to bring the universe to home console in an action-packed head-to-head fighter.

It might be hard for people who don't dabble in mobile gaming to understand how big of a deal Granblue Fantasy is, but believe me when I say that it is HUGE. Millions of accounts, tons of merchandise and media, even a yearly event for fans around to globe to come visit. But developer Cygames isn't content leaving the expansive world of Granblue as a mobile- and browser-only game. The company's made a big push to expand the scope and reach of the Granblue Fantasy universe, starting with the PS4 and PC fighting game Granblue Fantasy Versus. It may be the first step for a Granblue game out of the mobile comfort zone, but Granblue Fantasy Versus puts its best foot forward, delivering a superb fighting game experience for one-on-one combat newbies and veterans alike.

Fighting game spinoffs of established franchises are always crowd-pleasers in theory – everyone loves to see their favorite character fight another guy's favorite character – but difficult to pull off in practice. Fortunately, Cygames wisely brought Arc System Works (Of Guilty Gear, Blazblue, Persona 4 Arena, and Dragon Ball FighterZ fame) on board to handle the task of making Granblue Fantasy Versus into a worthy competitor. Compared to Arc's other fighting games, Granblue Fantasy Versus is considerably simpler and more subdued in an effort to make it more inviting to new players. But turning a typical Arc fighter's complex web of intertwining systems down a notch or two isn't necessarily a bad thing: instead, you get a game more focused on fighting-game fundamentals.

From the start, players can see that Granblue Fantasy Versus is trying to appeal to a broad audience, including those who aren't familiar with fighting games. One of the big way it's done this is by offering players a choice of executing special moves through either traditional controller-rolling or charge movements or though simplified single-direction plus button inputs. Using the simplified inputs is certainly easier and faster, but one of GBVS's unique quirks is that moves have “cooldown” similar to an RPG – you can't re-use that same skill until the cooldown timer's reset. Using traditional inputs results in lower cooldown times, while simple inputs extend how long you have to wait before you can bust out the same special move again.

Cooldown might sound like an odd idea at first, but once you start playing, you get used to it very quickly. Not being able to spam special moves rapidly puts more emphasis on normal attacks and combat fundamentals for the sort of player who just want to spam specials because they look cool. It also adds some unique strategy: Like many fighting games, GBVS offers high-powered versions of standard special attacks, but unlike other fighting games, using these variants doesn't consume anything from your super meter. Instead, you have a cooldown before you can use that particular technique again, making using these skills less about meter management and more about skillful timing.

There's also a block button, which is a rarity for 2D fighting games. Unlike special moves, there isn't much of a downside to using the “easy” option of the block button versus traditional hold-back-to-blocking – in fact, the block button is generally the better option in a lot of defensive situations. You still have to know whether to block high or low, though, and the game will tell you if you screwed up your guarding so you can learn from it. You'll also see the game display information about move properties, like if a technique has armor or invincibility effects.

What really makes Granblue Fantasy Versus stand out in its accessibility efforts, however, goes well beyond making inputs easier or telling you move properties mid-fight. A mission mode not only acts as a tutorial for basic fighting game controls, but also goes out of its way to teach new players more advanced concepts like blocking cross-ups, punishing an opponent's whiffed attacks, and hit confirming combos before teaching you about character-specific special move properties and even versus-character matchups. There's also an incredibly detailed training mode and a massive glossary in the game that covers not only a bunch of Granblue Fantasy-specific lore terminology, but also describes a lot of commonly used fighting game terms. Don't know what fuzzy guard, plinking, and okizeme are? GBVS has you covered!

It might be welcoming to newcomers, but the most important thing about GBVS is that it simply feels very good to play regardless of your skill level. It doesn't have layers of systems upon systems like many of Arc's other fighting games – heck, it doesn't even have airdashing – but it does have a solid fighting engine and characters whose moves, both basic and special, feel good to execute. When landing a basic combo to finish off a foe feels just as satisfying as pulling out a super-powered Skybound Art skill, you know you've got a high-tier fighting game on your hands. (That's not to say that Skybound Arts are underwhelming – they're wonderful to behold, especially the low-health Super Skybound Art variants that can turn a match around!)

Visually, Granblue Fantasy Versus is a feast for the eyes. Arc System Works’ mastery of the 2D-in-3D look results in characters, animation, and cinematics that are vibrant and beautiful. The backgrounds are somewhat on the subdued side in comparison to the character models, though many of the scenes change as the rounds of each match pass. The music, too, is excellent: the tracks for the individual fighters are delightful, the RPG mode has a lot of remixed familiar songs from the mobile game, and the dramatic vocal music for certain encounters is suitably epic. The attention to detail in all areas is a delight to behold, especially for seasoned Granblue fans: there are a lot of little references in character dialogue, backgrounds, and animation that will make players say, “wow, I didn't expect THAT to show up!”

Unfortunately, the single-player aspect of Granblue Versus leaves something to be desired. The big selling point here is an RPG mode with a unique story that can be played to earn rewards and items like weapon skins (and even codes for in-game goodies in the mobile Granblue Fantasy). I was intrigued by this mode when I first heard about it, but sadly, it's kind of a dud. It's not an RPG in the traditional sense: rather, it mixes a side-scrolling beat-em-up using the GBVS engine with bunch of familiar elements from the mobile game tossed in (including the weapon grid, which is explained about as well as it is in the mobile game, i.e. poorly). You don't really learn much about versus combat here – fighting enemy hordes with multiple characters is very different from a strategic one-on-one battle – and the mode feels both short and overpadded, with too many battles against boring mooks and not enough of the more unique and challenging bouts against giant Primal bosses.

The story here isn't particularly great, either: it's a giant contrivance to make everyone's favorite friendly Grandcypher crewmembers take up arms against each other, then team up to fight Big Bad Bubs at the end. Many characters are introduced for a brief plot point -- and some, like Lowain and Percival, do have brief and delightful character moments – but are then never featured prominently in the story again. One bright spot is that this mode is fully voiced, and both the Japanese and English casts do an excellent job with the material: Patrick Seitz in particular does a great job as Ladiva, conveying the character's quirks and gender identity without leaning hard into uncomfortable stereotypes.

There's a basic Versus-CPU arcade mode and training mode to keep you busy solo outside of the RPG mode, but eventually, you'll need to fight against other players to really get the most out of GBVS. The game's already been enthusiastically picked up by several local fighting game communities, and being featured as an EVO main game has certainly helped drive more interest. For a lot of folks, however, online play will be the best way to fight others.

The GBVS lobby system, with its cute character avatars and tiny arcade cabinets, is certainly charming compared to the bland presentation of other fighting games. The netcode, however, is still not ideal: while many fighting game players have been clamoring for a switch to rollback-based netcode to make fights more playable over longer distances, GBVS stubbornly sticks to the same delay-based netcode in Arc's other games. It's fine (most of the time) for short-distance, low-ping online fights, but playing folks a ways across the continent will likely be a mess.

In the end, GBVS is an excellent fighter with a middling RPG-like mode tacked on. Like many fighting games, what you get out of it will be heavily determined by how much effort you put into it and how reliably you can play against others – which can be a bit iffy if you're planning on being strictly an online warrior. Still, for Granblue and fighting game fans alike, Granblue Fantasy Versus is a superb effort that I would not hesitate to recommend.

Overall : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B

+ Beautiful visuals and soundtrack, engaging gameplay that encourages both old and new players
RPG mode is a disappointment, online play is sub-optimal

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