Guilty Gear has always been massively underappreciated as a fighting game series. The franchise, which first threw punches on the original PlayStation all the way back in 1998, has steadily accumulated an incredibly loyal fanbase over the last couple of decades, but it's never been able to crack a more mainstream crowd. And that's a real shame, because Guilty Gear, at least in its more recent forms, should be revered for its artistic achievements and engrossing gameplay.

Guilty Gear Strive is specifically designed to break through the barriers and deliver a more welcoming incarnation. Complete with jaw-dropping visuals and more accessible gameplay (we'll expand on both of these points later), Strive represents a new direction for the series, as it attempts to walk a very fine line between appealing to newcomers and sating its established hardcore audience.

Most fighting games shy away from drastic change as they make their way from one instalment to the next. Tekken, for example, has never really altered its core mechanics — it's simply added to, or evolved them over the course of seven mainline titles. And while this is also largely true of Guilty Gear, Strive makes some significant, system-level changes when compared to its predecessor, Guilty Gear Xrd: Rev 2.

Guilty Gear Strive still feels like Guilty Gear — but it's definitely a different kind of Guilty Gear. The aforementioned Rev 2 was and still is an extremely dense fighting game, boasting layers upon layers upon layers of technical depth. Perfect for Guilty Gear veterans, daunting for new players.

Guilty Gear Strive, on the other hand, is far more accessible. For starters, it's a much higher damage game than Rev 2. That is, characters have less health, and fights are generally over a lot faster. As such, there's less emphasis on complex combos — combos that require deft fingers and extensive knowledge of the game's various mechanics. Beginners can jump into Strive and immediately dish out big damage with cool looking moves that are easy to use — and that's a crucial hook for any modern fighting game.

However, to say that Strive lacks depth is absurd — it's just that it's way more welcoming on a surface level. At the time of writing this review, it's obviously still early days, but the intricacies of higher level play are already beginning to blossom. Between character-specific matchups and use of the Roman Cancel — a mechanic that can be used to cancel into and out of different moves — there's still so much to learn.

But right now, the most important success for Strive is that it feels fantastic to play. It may not be quite as fast, frenetic, and twitchy as Rev 2, but boy does it feel great to land a big old counter hit square on your opponent's face. The animations, the sparks, the crunching sound effects — it all adds up, and it's glorious.

Indeed, Guilty Gear Strive is a ridiculously good looking game. It's easily Arc System Works' most impressive release yet, and that's saying a hell of a lot when we already have the likes of Rev 2, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Granblue Fantasy Versus to gawk at. We think it's easy to argue that Strive is the best looking fighting game ever made. From the immaculate character designs to the eye-popping graphical techniques that the developer employs, Strive is a visual marvel. Even if you have zero interest in fighting games, you can watch Strive in motion and be left in awe of its artistic accomplishments.

And visuals are something that fighting games need to nail, lest we be reminded of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite. Arc System Works is pushing the boundaries with Strive, and deserves to be applauded. Fortunately, Strive also has the gameplay to back its artistry, which is why it's so easy to sink hours into learning different characters and strategies.

Speaking of which, Strive's character roster isn't exactly huge at launch — there are just 15 fighters to choose from — but they're all brilliantly designed and diverse in both their appeal and style of play. Most are returning characters who retain their overall approach and many of their special attacks from previous games, but an altered combo system means that you can't just hit the same buttons that you were hitting in Rev 2 and expect similar results.

This is really where one of Strive's biggest, and arguably most controversial changes enters the equation. 'Gatling' combos — a staple of the Xrd titles — have been watered down to a huge degree. Basically, 'Gatlings' let players tie together all sorts of attacks in order to create unique combo strings, and there was a lot of fun to be had in discovering optimal routes for maximum damage.

In Strive, combos are much less freeform, opting for routes that are (mostly) set in stone. There's an undeniable loss of creativity here in the pursuit of accessibility, and it's a decision that won't go down particularly well with some Guilty Gear diehards. That said, Strive's Roman Cancel system, which has been adjusted to be more flexible, does give way to a different kind of creativity. And again, being a higher damage game, Strive's more grounded mechanics work extremely well in practice. To reiterate, Strive is still Guilty Gear, but it isn't Xrd — and that's perfectly fine, as long as your expectations are in check.

Now then, let's talk about Strive's online play. A pivotal component of any modern brawler, netcode quality can make or break a fighting game. In Strive's case, this is where it puts the competition to shame. Quite simply, Arc System Works has implemented the best fighting game netcode that we've ever experienced. We've played against people in Japan and the connection has been unbelievably smooth. Going up against players closer to home is like playing locally. This is, without question, the new standard for fighting games going forward. Without getting too technical, the unparalleled benefits of rollback netcode have been preached by key members of the fighting game community for years, and with Strive, those benefits are crystal clear. Once you've tried it, there ain't no going back.

The outstanding netcode makes Strive a joy to play online, whether it's against friends or strangers from across the globe. It's a shame, then, that Strive's avatar-based lobby system feels so unintuitive. It can be circumvented by searching for opponents while in training mode, but it still comes off as an unnecessary obstacle, especially when the matches themselves are so hassle-free.

As for Strive's single-player offerings, they're not bad — but they're not great either. Its arcade and versus CPU modes are pretty standard (minus the outrageously cheap secret boss in the former), and that's about as good as it gets. There's also a full story mode, but as was the case in the Xrd games, it's entirely cinematic. To be fair, it's incredibly well made — parts of it are genuinely up there with watching a high quality anime — but unless you're deep into Guilty Gear lore, prepare to be completely lost on the finer points.

Our biggest problem with Strive's single-player modes is that you're barely rewarded for playing through them. In-game money can be spent on 'fishing' — essentially rolling for random items like avatar cosmetics, concept art, and music tracks from old games. There's a lot of stuff to unlock, but the amount of money that you collect from single-player modes is inexplicably stingy.

For context, fighting online and levelling up your chosen character's rank nets you thousands of in-game dollars. Beating 20 opponents straight in survival mode? 30 dollars. Playing against the CPU? Zero dollars. Replaying arcade mode with your favourite character? Zero dollars. While we understand the push to play online, we don't see why players should be penalised for playing alone, and potentially learning the ins and outs of the game at their own pace. A baffling decision considering Strive's positioning as a more accessible Guilty Gear.

Finally, we need to mention Strive's soundtrack, because it's a collection of absolute bangers. It's the series' most instrumentally diverse score yet, but it still has booming heavy rock at its core. Every character gets their own theme, and overall, the soundtrack ties the title's artistic vision together. It's an old joke among players to say that Guilty Gear soundtracks come with a free game, and with Strive, the music is certainly a standout feature — especially since a catalogue of tracks from previous titles is also included.

Conclusion

Guilty Gear Strive is a different kind of Guilty Gear. Veteran players may not appreciate some of the changes, but there's no denying that this is still an exceptional fighting game. On a mechanical level, Strive is immensely satisfying and hugely rewarding. On a visual level, it's quite simply unmatched in its genre, and the same can be said of its outstanding online netcode. Where it matters, Strive is a borderline masterpiece.