I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Author’s Note: The following article uses standard fighting game numpad notation to refer to moves in game. A move will be written as a number on a nine-key number pad used to describe the joystick position, and buttons will be abbreviated as follows
P- Punch Button 7 8 9
K- Kick Button 4 5 6
S- Slash Button 1 2 3
H- Heavy Slash Button
D- Dust Attack Button
For example, crouching Slash would be abbreviated as 2S. c and f refer to close and far proximity from the opponent, so c.S would stand for close slash, not crouching slash. Special moves note motions by sequences of numbers, for example 236P for a fireball or 6P for a charge fireball.
With the beta for Arc System Works’ newest fighting game, Guilty Gear -STRIVE-, concluding last weekend, players had three days to work with the game and understand what’s new and what’s changed in the next radically different installment to the Guilty Gear franchise. The beta included six mainstay characters from past Guilty Gear titles and featured online and offline vs CPU battles. With the huge amount of changes made to the fighting system and contentious opinions being held and discussed since the first public showing of the game, there was much to explore with -STRIVE-, so let’s take a look at the new system, looks, and how things have changed.
Let’s start with what I liked about the beta. The music and overall presentation of the game were strong, and aside from a few UX features which ended up being let downs, the game is easily the nicest looking modern fighting game. Characters and stages are beautifully animated and although there are a few lighting issues with certain stages and characters, it’s certainly eye-catching. I don’t think anyone is surprised to hear or see that the super animations look great, and in terms of cosmetic appeal, the game has a lot going for it. Additionally, while the character select screen looks a bit too much like it’s aimed at the game being a tech demo, most menus in the game retain an easy to read minimalist style which is a nice change of pace for the series.
Aside from these cosmetic changes however, the battle system in -STRIVE- has also seen some positive changes. First off, the idea of RISC and Dust playing a more important factor in the game has seemed interesting to me since the first livestream where ArcSys showed that they would be important features. Your RISC meter acts as an extension of a guard or stun meter, when you block, the gauge fills and when you get hit with a move while the RISC meter is filled (fully or partially), hits of the combo will drain your RISC meter in exchange for unscaled damage on those hits. With RISC filled beyond 50%, all hits are forced counter hits as well including throws, allowing for combos which would not normally be possible. In -STRIVE- the RISC gauge fills much faster than in past titles and can be stopped by using Faultless Defense, the Guilty Gear equivalent of pushblocking (which costs meter). Since air blocking is now possible without the use of FD, air blocked attacks will crank the RISC gauge up even more in order to mitigate meterless air blocking. In addition to this, Dust has been changed to have a much faster startup but will not launch the opponent unless it lands Counter Hit. The interaction between RISC and Dust in this case means that since having a 50% or higher RISC gauge results in all hits in a combo being Counter Hits until RISC is depleted, 5D can now turn into a potent, less reactable overhead launcher than its counterpart in past games if applying proper pressure (we’ll discuss that later). The implementation of this idea has resulted in some good and some bad changes to -STRIVE-, but in total, RISC and Dust in past Guilty Gear titles have felt very much like low interaction mechanics, so seeing them brought into the spotlight feels much more interesting than if the game simply removed RISC for being so “on or off”.
Now on paper (again we’ll discuss why later), RISC feels like a mechanic that you should always have to think about so that you can try to avoid being put into a state where you are susceptible to worrying about a 5D coming at you and potentially ending the round. The reason this is so much more interesting is that in past games, RISC and Dust Attacks felt like mechanics whose usages were heavily dictated by the tools of your character or the skill difference between you and an opponent. For example, in the Guilty Gear Xrd series, as I played Leo, my character’s pressure tended to be so strong, that if I were playing him properly, I could count on coming across situations about once per match where I could capitalize on the opponent with specific combos that were only possible with high RISC gauge, however, some players of other characters in an even match would almost never have to concern themselves with high RISC combos because a situation in which the opponent would have that high of a RISC gauge would simply be so uncommon that players would not be preparing for those sorts of scenarios. Additionally, if I were playing someone of much lower skill level than me, I could count on them not understanding when my offensive pressure ends and continuously blocking, this would then mean that because there is a large skill difference between players, suddenly the RISC gauge is now coming into effect constantly whereas in a typical game it would not. The same goes for Dust Attacks, where some characters like Slayer were able to utilize 5D frequently in combo scenarios, or characters like Millia had tricky animations attached to their 5Ds which made them harder for opponents to discern as an overhead in complex wakeup scenarios. The skill gap vs. usage issue comes into play much more aggressively here, where usage of 5D completely hinged on whether or not your opponent could react to the move or not. If your opponent couldn’t react fast enough, you now have a hugely damaging overhead combo starter you can throw out nearly at will, whereas if your opponent could react to the startup animation of 5D, the move suddenly becomes unusable and equivalent to purposefully whiffing a DP due to the huge recovery time. By making RISC a more universally applicable mechanic, and making 5D less of a “feast or famine” type of move, ArcSys has theoretically made both mechanics options that a Guilty Gear player really has to consider in -STRIVE- , but we’ll get into why this isn’t exactly the case later.
Additionally, the Roman Cancel system has been given a similar treatment, and ArcSys has doubled down on RC being the “creativity mechanic” in the new Guilty Gear. As in past games, Roman Cancel acts similarly to a Rapid Cancel in Blazblue or One More Cancel in Persona, where you may spend meter to cancel whatever animation you are in instantly, with the added benefit of a time slow effect happening on screen depending on how the RC was used. Roman Cancel now has many different effects depending on how the Roman Cancel was used, similarly to Xrd’s color-coded Roman Cancel system, but moreso. ArcSys has been tight-lipped about these new uses of RC, so it has so far been up to players to find out the details and we were able to find out some of the nitty-gritty. Roman Cancelling can now be used in pretty much any situation including while blocking, it has also been standardized to always cost 50% meter. RC now applies a very powerful time stop effect specifically to what it hits now, and the intensity of the time stop varies according to whether or not you were cancelling in an attack or not, so cancelling while you are in the middle of hitting someone will apply more of a time stop than if you were simply RCing as you were standing next to them. Notably, due to the fact that Roman Cancel only affects things which the bubble of the Roman Cancel touches, the usage of what was previously a Yellow Roman Cancel in Xrd has been severely reduced. The existence of YRC in Xrd resulted in the possibility of many powerful strategies by basically allowing you to do anything you wanted after throwing a projectile. The issue present in the system which caused some contention was that this resulted in character power level and ease of use being closely related to how well one could utilize YRC, similarly to the issue of Street Fighter IV characters being limited by how well they could utilize Focus Attack Dash Cancelling. While whether or not YRC “should be in” Guilty Gear has been debated even before -STRIVE-, ArcSys has made a decent compromise by severely nerfing it but allowing for the possibilities it provides to exist, albeit without slowing everything on the screen down. In total, the Roman Cancel changes allow for some very interesting situations. As mentioned before, since you can RC while blocking now, you can effectively make any move into a Guard Cancel Reversal, additionally, it seems that Red Roman Cancelling while your opponent becomes wallstuck will allow for an additional hit on the wall before it breaks. On top of those combat-focused RC uses, Roman Cancel can also be used as a unique movement option as people have noted, similarly to the Max Mode Auto-Run of KOF XIV, allowing for you to input 66RC or 44RC and dashing and Roman Cancelling at the same time. Once again, on paper this looks like a great change allowing for more freedom and creativity in matches, theoretically allowing you to “break the rules” of some other changes present in the game, but unfortunately this isn’t the case.
Sadly, all of the new and interesting mechanics we have just discussed all tend to fall apart when it comes down to the drawbacks of the new system. It becomes clear that all of the interesting applications of Dust with the new RISC changes, and all the theoretically interesting uses of pressure all simply didn’t matter in this beta when damage was so incredibly high. In past builds people had commented on the damage, saying it looks like everything lands Counter Hit when in reality it doesn’t, but this wasn’t completely made clear until this beta when everyone was able to play the game. Even in matches against equally skilled players who I typically have drawn out, close matches with, I felt like it simply wasn’t worth worrying about doing anything fancy because very basic combos with little optimization managed to do nearly 50% of my opponents health, which would then leave them in the corner, meaning that if I hit them with any special cancellable move the round was effectively over. The flow of a match very quickly proved to me that it simply wasn’t worth trying to do anything fancy in neutral and that all I had to do was take my damage from a few core hits, and the round was won. Trying to set up a mix up using a fireball RC simply wasn’t worth doing if I knew I could simply block a slightly unsafe move and punish with huge damage, or fish for Counter Hits and end the game in two touches. While damage in the beta was certainly a concern that impacted my gameplay the most, it is not what I am most concerned about in the future, since it is a trivial fix for ArcSys to retune the damage of moves compared to changing other core gameplay mechanics.
On the other hand, the Gatling Combo system in -STRIVE- is pretty questionable as it is right now, and it impacts everything from the feel of the game superficially, to the behavior of combos very awkwardly, all the while making it uncertain if it achieved the goals that ArcSys has been highlighting as core philosophies of Guilty Gear -STRIVE-. Gatling Combos are a core of anime fighters and have many names across other games, but all act similarly to chains or the magic series in Marvel games, where you can rapid-fire your inputs and your normals will cancel into each other in a certain order. Compared to past Guilty Gear titles, the Gatling Combo system has been severely reduced, and the universal PKSH “magic series” Gatling Combo has been removed across all characters so far. Instead, characters have largely universal rules which their Galtings follow, namely close slash will Gatling into most moves, including command normals, and P and K moves will only Gatling into command normals. This is a huge change to the overall flow of Guilty Gear combos, as the Gatling chain is effectively divided now into PK/SH, with no connection between the two “halves” of the chain. As a result, Gatling Combos are now largely two hits, with the “big” three-piece Gatling Combos almost only coming from landing a c.S. In addition, with the P and K buttons, not exactly every P or K can Gatling, for example, with Sol, 5P>5K simply isn’t possible, but Gatlings are possible from 2K into certain moves. After considering how these changes affect the game at large, it’s unclear if this Gatling change has impacted -STRIVE- in the way ArcSys was actually trying to. Accessibility and clarity have been core ideas that ArcSys has mentioned when creating the new Guilty Gear, and while it’s likely that these changes were made for other reasons to allow for higher RISC build, it’s unclear why they would make this change. Instead of characters following the general rule of PKSH, with certain exceptions and a few character-specific unique Gatlings, the new Gatling system makes it harder for a newcomer to memorize more odd Gatlings of seemingly arbitrary moves and making it nearly impossible for casual players (read: potential longtime players) to appreciate the game without looking up the Gatlings of their character, in turn making them not casual players. In the context of newcomers, these new Gatling Combos effectively have the game tell you “memorize this chart of confusing and unsatisfying small chain combos or don’t succeed”, which isn’t appealing to newcomers or veteran fans.
My final concern I noticed with -STRIVE- and perhaps the one that affects the general win conditions of characters the most is the change to how the corner behaves. Unlike most 2-D fighters, -STRIVE- features a unique wall break mechanic on all stages when a character is hit a certain amount of times on the wall in the corner. This might look a little similar to what you see in TEKKEN or Injustice, however in Guilty Gear -STRIVE- the wall breaks are always the same on all stages (as far as we have seen and been told), meaning there is no variance or “advantaged stages” for certain characters. The difference (and issue) between -STRIVE-‘s implementation and TEKKEN’s is the reward. In the TEKKEN series, typically a wall or floor break results in massive damage, and importantly, usually an extension of your corner pressure and advantage (as you will typically bring your opponent to the next wall with your extension), however, in -STRIVE-, when you break a wall after ending a corner combo on your opponent, the wall simply breaks and you and your opponent are returned to neutral, with the aggressor gaining a meter gain bonus called Positive Bonus. The glaring issue here is that while corner combos are extremely powerful, there is not nearly enough incentive tied to breaking the wall for finishing a corner combo to feel good to players. Positive Bonus as it stands now almost may as well be useless except for in some edge cases, this is due to the fact that if you landed a corner combo to wall break your opponent, you have already landed one combo to carry your opponent to the corner, and the corner combo itself, leaving your opponent at such low health, that unless your opponent is Potemkin, you will likely not need to use meter on your final combo to kill. Since the game is what I would refer to as a “two and a half touch” game right now, and you get Positive Bonus only on that final “half touch”, it is largely useless to have extra meter when you know you can kill your opponent with any solid combo starter. Wall breaking and Positive Bonus only become more questionable when you consider that the game will likely become a reliable “two touch” game as people optimize their combos more and know how to play within the game since a Counter Hit combo can do enough damage to have your opponent waking up in the corner with 50% health just with the knowledge players have right now.
Additionally, looking past whether or not Positive Bonus is useful enough to justify wall breaking or not, is that in a game like Guilty Gear it feels terrible as a player to kiss the corner goodbye after a big combo. This is the closest I will get to saying that -STRIVE- doesn’t feel like a Guilty Gear game, but it does take away a significant point where momentum shifts and a different style of play begins. Being in the corner in past Guilty Gear games was almost always the win condition of most characters due to the incredibly strong presence of okizeme and the possibility for hugely damaging combos. Because of this, play on both the offensive and defensive side changed significantly while in the corner, and due to powerful movement and defensive options defenders still had a chance when in the corner. Players on offense in the corner would then have to account for these possible defensive escape routes and change their play in order to prepare for the defender Bursting out of a corner combo or using aerial mobility to escape over the attacker. To me, this is what is most exciting about Guilty Gear, I usually enjoyed experimenting with new escape strategies while playing with my friends, and while failed attempts usually resulted in me giving a perfect to my opponent, successes suddenly became unique sequences which I could keep in my back pocket for later. This was hugely important, as offense in Guilty Gear has typically been superficially overpowered, and being able to navigate around it could usually mean a player could make a defensive situation into their own powerful offense and turn the tides. It seems ArcSys decided that all of this intricacy was simply too much to risk new players getting angry at the game for getting blown up in the corner, so instead, you get blown up everywhere and the game pries you and your opponent apart mid-match. The fact that breaking a wall returns both players to neutral shows that the game simply tries to avoid scary situations for new players by inserting a hard breakpoint where you know that offense will eventually end, similarly to how Dragonball FighterZ got rid of Marvel-style incoming situations and instead reset to neutral between characters. While in DBFZ this could be seen as a stylistic approach to solving how a new character comes in, in a 1v1 fighting game like -STRIVE- this is much more obviously something implemented to change behaviors and “solve a problem”. Finally, considering all of this, even if you simply choose to not finish a wall combo and instead go for okizeme in the corner as your opponent slides off the wall, it feels bad to know you are forgoing damage and something positive just to set up a mixup, even if that positive isn’t very strong. Overall, it seems that ArcSys wasn’t sure how strong losing the corner would be in a match of Guilty Gear and the bonus for forgoing the corner is simply not enough, hopefully, Positive Bonus is significantly buffed or changed, or the wall is changed in a later build of Guilty Gear -STRIVE-.
After considering the changes in Guilty Gear -STRIVE- and having plenty of time to experiment in the beta, it’s no surprise people have quite conflicting opinions about the newest installment in the series. Since there tends to be very little overlap between Guilty Gear players and other anime players, either consequentially or purposefully, the community was bracing for negativity to be present, however, it’s important to keep in mind that the game has changed significantly with each demo iteration, and it still has at least another 8 months if the “late 2020” release date we were told is still holding true. With so much time and an extremely useful survey to gather opinions from this beta, it’s likely we will see at least one more significantly different build of -STRIVE- before release. Even with more iteration on the game’s systems though, there is still room for concern that the game simply won’t be changed enough. Only time will tell how the game turns out, and hopefully, with the announcement of more characters before release, we will see how ArcSys decides to flesh out the game system and make it a complete Guilty Gear experience.