Guilty Gear -Strive-

The long-running Guilty Gear fighting franchise punches its way onto PS5 and PS4 with a game that wants to give fans of the genre battling online a challenging time.

Ah, fighting games. The trusty standby of every video game arcade for decades, they’ve been an endlessly popular choice for home video game consoles as well, right from the moment it became possible to point two vaguely person-like objects at each other onscreen and let them unleash digital biffo at each other via a button-mashing alphabet soup of moves, combos and specials. Even the ancient Atari VCS managed a boxing game, though the blob-on-blob action of that one was never going to set the world on fire.

The modern fighting game arguably has its origins in the likes of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and it’s that lineage that led to the Guilty Gear series from Japanese studio Arc System Works, who specialise in the genre (they’ve also got the Blazblue series to their name, and even a Persona fighting game – basically, they’re the go-to for high-calibre digital brawling, especially for those who like it served up with a solid dose of story.

The Guilty Gear series made its debut on the first PlayStation more than 20 years ago, and for most of the time since has been a deliberately arcade-focused concern. As the series’ games have progressed through the console generations, the arcade releases have kept coming, with this newest title no exception. It makes sense, too – aside from the huge following that the games and their lore have gathered over the years, they’re games very much designed to be played against another human rather than against a CPU opponent.

“…hardcore fighting game fans are going to have a blast with this one…”

With that in mind, Guilty Gear -Strive- wastes no time getting you set up for online play the first time you load up the game. Network play is prominently featured in the main menu, which also offers an offline mode and “story” (more on that in a moment). The stylised (and very stylish) menus look terrific, but do feature some very tiny text in places – don’t worry, though, as it’s all for flavour.

A fighting game’s online mode is only as good as its “netcode” – the way it talks to the server and, of course, how fast it gets button inputs to and from your opponent. Arc has implemented something called “rollback netcode” for –Strive-, which aims to eliminate lag using behind-the-scenes cleverness. Those who can measure such things have been praising it, so if online play is your thing, you’re likely to have a good time (the game also uses skill-based matchmaking so you don’t get beaten to a pulp in your first match).

With the network servers sparsely populated and often down during pre-release, offline play is what we spent more time with – and the good news is that hardcore fighting game fans are going to have a blast with this one. The developers have gone with an “easy to learn, hard to master” combat system that rewards smart play rather than random button-mashing. As a result, we had our digital behinds handed to us on multiple occasions by opponents that, even on easy mode, required some amount of attention to defence and a lot of attention to timing.

Guilty Gear -Strive-

The tutorial is apparently designed to ease you into the full game, but it doesn’t help as much as it should – jumping straight into full-on combat and learning via the “sink or swim” method proved to be a lot more rewarding. Again, veterans of the series or the genre in general will have little trouble just jumping right in.

The graphics are gorgeous – this one’s available in both PS4 and PS5 versions and is the first game in the series to run on Unreal Engine 4. We played on PS4 Pro, and while the game and its interface seem to be running at 4K or close to it, it seemed to be pushing the limits of what’s possible on that console – undoubtedly there’s a crisp 60fps experience waiting on the PS5.

The Guilty Gear series is one rich in lore, and –Strive- offers a separate “Story” menu option – which actually sets in motion an anime movie rendered in real time on the console (in Japanese with subtitles). It’s something rarely seen – we’re used to the likes of the Final Fantasy series gobbling up the gigabytes of disk space with massive video files for a similar purpose. But it’s cleverly done here, with the in-engine format allowing you to save your place in the story at any line of dialogue and come back to it later. And that’s not all – there’s the ability to pause the movie and jump into a massive glossary, timeline and even an interactive flowchart showing you the relationships between the many characters, with all these linked together to provide a massive trove of lore.

Fans of the series will rush to pick this up – but is it something for the casual fighting game fan? Well, it depends. The game is incredibly well crafted and takes its button-based bashing very seriously indeed, and that’s going to make the learning curve a lot steeper for those who are more used to simpler games in the genre. But for those keen to put the effort into learning the ropes, Guilty Gear -Strive- promises deep and engaging online play, the chance to couch-co-op with a button-mashing buddy, and a metric truckload of interactive story to back it all up.

Guilty Gear -Strive- releases on PS4 and PS5 on June 11. Pre-order now at JB