Boy are we impressed with Guilty Gear Strive. We sank hours and hours and hours into the game's open beta over the last weekend, and we were still itching to play more when it shut down midweek. In short, we haven't been this excited for a fighting game since... Tekken 7, maybe, and that turned out to be a banger as well.
Now don't get us wrong — the beta wasn't perfect. With Strive set to release on the 9th April, developer Arc System Works still has time to tweak character balance and make improvements to the overall experience, but it's abundantly clear that the core of Guilty Gear Strive is something special. From the utterly fantastic character roster to the almost unbelievably good online play, this could well be the next great fighting game.
Let's start with said character roster, which will feature 15 competitors at launch (with many more to be added as DLC, we imagine). It's not a particularly impressive number, but each character feels completely unique. Guilty Gear has always prided itself on its diverse cast of crazy fighters, and Strive is no different. It could even be argued that this latest instalment takes it to the next level — further refining the inherent strengths of its characters.
It feels like every character is built to be an extreme. Ky Kiske — a blonde swordsman who's marked as the game's easiest-to-learn combatant — is an all-rounder, but the concept of a typical 'all-rounder' is pushed to breaking point. Ky can do everything, and do everything very, very well. He's got projectiles, great pressure moves, a range of effective aerial attacks, fluid combos — the list goes on. Likewise, Axl Low — Guilty Gear's classic long-range fighter — is better at keeping opponents locked down and out of the action than ever before. Potemkin is incredibly slow, but he hits like a freight train and has new moves that allow him to get in with relative ease. It feels like every character has at least one or two hugely potent tools that crack the game wide open — and it's this kind of character specialisation that makes the cast so engaging.
We could gush endlessly about Guilty Gear Strive's characters — the visual designs are absolutely superb as well — but let's move on for now. As you may or may not know, Strive plays quite a bit differently to its immediate predecessor, Guilty Gear Xrd: Rev 2. Many of the fundamentals are still here, but the general flow of gameplay has been altered significantly. Combo potential has been dialled down to make for a more accessible experience, with a greater emphasis on spacing and pokes. There's no question that Strive is a slower game, but the actual speed of combat is offset by the sheer amount of damage that can be dealt in just a few short seconds.
Indeed, the damage in Strive is often enough to make you gawk at your health bar in disbelief (especially if you're fighting against Potemkin). It makes for some seriously intense matches, and thankfully, unlike the previous closed beta, the damage scaling doesn't feel completely busted this time around. Again, we can see Arc System Works making some adjustments here and there, but overall, Strive seems to have a decent sense of character balance ahead of its release, which is good to see.
Playing Guilty Gear Strive is a pleasure, but what about playing online? A lot of top notch fighting games have been let down by shoddy netcode over the years, hampering their ability to establish a healthy playerbase — but Strive could be a genuine game-changer. Implementing its own rollback netcode, Arc System Works has blown our tiny minds with how good Strive plays online. Simply put, this is the best netcode we've ever experienced in a fighting game. We sat down with a fellow UK player for a whole bunch of battles, and the connection was flawless, to the point where our friend might as well have been sat next to us on the sofa. Even more impressive is the fact that you can match up with people across the world and enjoy a similar experience. Like we said, it's a game-changer, and every other fighting game developer must take note.
Having said all that, we did have one major issue with the beta's online play. We are, of course, referring to Strive's cursed lobby system, which is a total pain in the arse. A quick rundown: you control a blocky little avatar in online lobbies as you walk around looking for opponents. There's a charm to it, with unlockable customisation items and emotes, but the bottom line is that you spend way too much time looking and waiting to fight instead of, you know, actually fighting. In a fighting game. This is just the way Arc System Works does things — past Guilty Gear games have a similar system, as does Granblue Fantasy Versus — but Strive's take on cute little lobbies is clunky at best.
Actually matching up with a potential opponent means having to either wait for them to draw their sword, or draw your own and stand about until someone picks you out. Then you select 'battle' from a pop-up menu, you wait far too long for the match to start, and once it's over, you're kicked back into the lobby with no option for an instant rematch. Frankly, it's terrible. Thankfully, it does sound like the finished game will feature both a rematch option and private lobbies — but we're still concerned that public lobbies will be more hassle than they're worth, and that means players will actively try to avoid them. Hopefully Arc System Works can simplify and improve the process of challenging another player for the full release, because it was just far too convoluted in the open beta.
But yeah, aside from the Lobby Horror Show, we adored our time with the Guilty Gear Strive open beta. This is shaping up to be a special fighting game, bolstered by immaculate visuals and an outstanding character roster. Oh, and the soundtrack is on another level. We can't wait to play more.