I’ve been an ardent fan of Guilty Gear since I was a teenager, having been exposed to the very first game on the original Playstation. In my late teens, many afternoons were spent at the arcade playing Guilty Gear X and its subsequent follow-ups. I also recall picking up a Dreamcast just for the console port of Guilty Gear X back in the day; that was when my love affair with fighting games truly began.
When Arc Systems Works lost the Guilty Gear license after their publishing deal with SEGA came to an end, my younger self was horrified: Would this mean an end to my favourite fighting game franchise? Would Guilty Gear be buried and forgotten in the annals of gaming history forever?
It was a temporary relief, then, that ASW decided to create a spiritual successor to Guilty Gear in the form of BlazBlue. Any fan of Guilty Gear would immediately recognize elements of Guilty Gear in BlazBlue; the character designs, game mechanics, and overall feel of the game were all reminiscent of its predecessor, yet it was brilliantly executed in such a way that the game still felt fresh and new.
Even so, BlazBlue never truly clicked with me. It was a great game to be sure, and successful in its own right, spawning a whole new franchise of its own (with increasingly ludicrous nomenclature per sequel). But it always felt… “off” to me somehow. Not necessarily inferior, but different.
Imagine my joy when I heard ASW had regained the rights to the series from SEGA after several years, and were working on a new Guilty Gear title. But even so, I had to wonder: After such an extended hiatus, would this new game live up to the lofty expectations of a longtime Guilty Gear fan?
Heaven or Hell?
The answer is definitely a resounding YES. Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- absolutely delivers. In spades.
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is an incredible product through and through. While fighting games of yore tend to be rather slim on features, home releases of competitive brawlers these days are jam-packed with extras, and Xrd is no exception.
The game offers comprehensive tutorials and challenges that cover everything from basic mechanics to advanced, character-specific techniques that put the vast majority of other fighting game tutorials to shame. For a series that is known for its complexity and steep learning curve, this is a very welcome addition that will allow even fighting game newbies to jump in with ease. Considering that I myself have not played Guilty Gear in years, the opportunity to go through a “refresher course” of sorts was very much appreciated.
Even as a series veteran, the multitude of new gameplay features was a lot to take in. Old systems like the Roman Cancel and Dust Attack have been revamped and expanded upon, and the addition of original mechanics such as Danger Time and Blitz Shield have changed the metagame significantly. I must say that ASW have struck a good balance with the fighting system in Xrd – it is familiar enough for returning players, yet packed with just enough new features to feel fresh all over again.
Xrd also contains a Story Mode that plays out like a visual novel. 3D-animated cutscenes are interposed with static CG artwork and fully-voiced dialogue that help to flesh out the (admittedly somewhat convoluted) plot of the game. Unlike the Story Mode found in the BlazBlue games, however, Xrd’s Story Mode contains no gameplay sequences whatsoever, not even selections for branching story paths.
I found this to be a rather puzzling omission, as ASW have previously demonstrated that they were capable of folding gameplay into the narrative seamlessly as seen in the BlazBlue games. Still, the production values of the Story Mode are top notch, and make for an enjoyable break whenever your fingers get tired from pulling off awesome combos.
The franchise has always had a colorful cast of characters, and seeing series stalwarts like Sol Badguy, Ky Kiske, and Millia Rage return to the fold after so long felt as if I was meeting up with old friends again – old friends who have had an incredible makeover, who are now rendered in gorgeous, cel-shaded, high-resolution 1080p graphics.
The cast, however, has shrunk. Fan favourites like Johnny, Zappa, and Dizzy are missing from the roster, and while their absence can be explained via the game’s lore, it is still somewhat disconcerting. To make up for it, ASW have introduced a handful of new characters, and we can hope that ASW may add in old characters via DLC in future.
ASW has completely shattered any preconceived notions that I had about the capabilities of the Unreal Engine. We’ve seen the engine at work in many games in recent years, most of which are shooters: Gears of War, Mass Effect, and Bioshock, just to name a few.
Yet Xrd looks nothing at all like any of the aforementioned titles – ASW have somehow managed to translate the crisp 2D anime visuals from past Guilty Gear games into 3D flawlessly, and it looks better than ever. If not for the fancy camera angles that kick in during certain special moves, I would never have thought that Xrd was actually being rendered in 3D.
Shrewd usage of this new graphics tech has enabled ASW to truly bring the Guilty Gear cast to life. Each individual fighter has always maintained a very distinct look and visual style, which also serves to highlight the differences in their fighting capabilities.
Zipping around the arena as Chipp Zanuff and conjuring shadows as Zato-1 never looked or felt better, and some of the 3D backgrounds are jaw-dropping in terms of the level of detail and activity on display.
In terms of gameplay, Xrd is a throwback to the over-the-top ridiculousness of the older games in the series, and (new mechanics aside) plays very similarly to Guilty Gear XX: The Midnight Carnival. The entire roster is capable of stringing together long chains of spectacular attacks that deal massive damage – touch-of-death combos are not uncommon in this game, and are not too difficult to pull off with some practice.
While this may be seen as a negative point with regards to game balance, the sheer spectacle and creative freedom that this allows more than makes up for it. In a way, Xrd has returned to the franchise’s roots by embracing its bombastic origins. This is a welcome change from the later games in the series that have tried to tone down the fighting system and have, in my opinion, suffered from a diminished fun factor as a result.
For this Guilty Gear fan, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- was a gift many years in the making. It retains almost everything that a Guilty Gear fan could possibly want from the old games, and introduces enough new elements to feel like a true step forward for the series. Any fan of fighting games would be doing themselves a disservice by ignoring this game, and newcomers to the genre would do well to start their journey with Xrd. You won’t be disappointed.