I’ve been having a great time with Guilty Gear Strive, out this week on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Steam, but I feel like developer Arc System Works might have gone a little overboard in the aesthetics department this time around.
I know how that probably sounds to longtime fans of the fighting game series. Since its debut in 1998, Guilty Gear has set itself apart from the rest of the genre with its adherence to providing uniquely amazing visuals to go along with its high-octane, anime-inspired gameplay. And while this overall ethos is alive and well in Guilty Gear Strive — which, like direct predecessor Guilty Gear Xrd, boasts impressive 2D designs despite shifting from old-school pixel art to more modern 3D models — I think Arc System Works has committed the ultimate sin of getting high on its own supply.
The most obvious example is the game’s combo counter, which has been a point of contention among serious players since Guilty Gear Strive was first revealed two years ago. Where most fighters are content to provide a small pop-up to let you know how long your current attack string has lasted, Guilty Gear Strive puts that info front and centre with an eye-grabbing graphic.
As your combo gets bigger, so does the counter, eventually gobbling up so much real estate as to distract from the more important on-screen action between the characters.
While I thought it looked pretty cool before release, actually playing Guilty Gear Strive with all that going on is frustrating. The constant presence of animated numbers looming in the corner of my eye makes me think that I’m missing vital information when in reality it’s just telling me I landed eight or nine hits in a row. It’s an aesthetically pleasing eyesore, but an eyesore all the same.
I’m also not jazzed about the changes to Dust attacks, specifically the version that launches an opponent into the air. In previous games, this functioned like any other launcher in any other fighting game: you hit the opponent, they fly skyward, and you hold up to follow them for an air combo. But in Guilty Gear Strive, this exchange has become its own separate vignette that breaks up normal gameplay.
Instead of a seamless ground-to-air combo, the game cuts to a tracking shot that still completely disorients me after hours of play. My guess is that Arc System Works wanted to impart a better sense of momentum as the combatants rush through the air, but it just feels weird coming from other fighting games and even previous Guilty Gear installments.
Wall breaks are similarly discombobulating. One of the biggest gameplay additions to Guilty Gear Strive comes in breakable walls similar to those in Tekken. Slam the opponent against a barrier enough and they’ll bust through, careening head over heels for what feels like forever before crashing into another part of the stage. While they don’t break a combo into multiple segments like the Dust launcher, and do provide some post-combo positioning benefits for the offensive player, wall breaks are still an unwelcome interruption. Again, this feels like a case of Arc System Works wanting to take Guilty Gear’s visuals to the next level without any consideration for how it would affect the rhythm and flow of gameplay.
Make no mistake, Guilty Gear Strive is a beautiful game. Very few of its contemporaries come close to matching it in sheer aesthetic prowess. And in terms of gameplay, it’s a solid continuation of the Guilty Gear style, matching fluid combos with hard-hitting attacks to create a game that not only looks like the summer’s best anime, but feels like one too. I look forward to spending more time with Strive and figuring out its intricacies alongside the competitive community.
But goddamn, Arc System Works, you didn’t have to go so hard. Fighting games are first and foremost about not burdening a player with an overabundance of information, and respecting their time. Where I would love to see Guilty Gear Strive’s little flourishes in any other genre, they end up being untrimmed fat in a fighting game. I’m used to being confused by Guilty Gear mechanically, but it’s a different thing entirely when I’m struggling to land combos just because my eyes are being drawn to an obnoxious graphic or background element.
I never thought I’d say this about Guilty Gear, but Strive’s visuals are just too much to handle sometimes.