Guilty Gear Strive Closed Beta Test: Postmortem

A breakdown of the weekend’s events and everything new about the game

As previously announced, the Guilty Gear -Strive- Closed Beta Test ran this past weekend from Thursday, April 16th to Sunday, April 19th. Codes for the PS4-exclusive beta were distributed from Monday, April 13th on- I got my code on Tuesday after some hiccups on ArcSys’s end, which prompted them to email the codes again. The test was downloadable as soon as codes went out for some which let a few lucky people fight CPU opponents and explore the lobby system early, but beyond that everyone else had to wait until Wednesday to download, and then the game became playable Thursday evening.

The following article will go into the details of everything that I experienced during the Strive beta weekend. This will be a mix of both summary and opinion as informed by what I got to play and how I felt about it. I don’t want to have to go over my qualifications again, but basically, I’ve been playing and writing about fighting games for a long-ass time, and there’s evidence that I’m fairly good at it. My experience with Guilty Gear titles prior to Strive is mostly informed by having played Accent Core +R and Xrd Rev2 for about two years now. My first glimpse of Strive was at ArcRevo 2019 where I got to play the original beta build and take the survey, which qualified me for the online beta code.

A creepier, vore-prone, rotting, rickety-bone Faust made his playable debut in this version of Strive.

Day One of the beta was mainly spent playing against CPU opponents to get a feel for what was new and what had been changed. The main new additions to the gameplay in this build were the variable airdash as seen in the Evo Japan 2020 beta build, the newly reworked UI, and a playable Faust featuring a new kit. I experimented with all of the characters, but eventually settled on Sol for several reasons. As the quintessential Guilty Gear character, Sol felt like he would be a good barometer for how the rest of the game would feel. Beyond that, his rushdown playstyle felt right to me, and I figured he would tide me over until a playable build with Jam would be given to the public. Having said that, the new Faust was really goony and cool, and his new design overall made him stand out among the cast with a creepier, wild flavor. It’s kind of wild to think that there will be ‘afro-only’ combos in Strive. (Faust can apply an afro to any character via a command grab or a randomly tossed item. This afro has a hurtbox, which means any afroed character will be easier to hit.)

The real goal of this beta was to give everyone a pocket Sol.

Playing the game only against COMs basically meant all I could do was figure out day minus four combos and get a sense for the new systems. I felt that the new airdash was actually more powerful than people initially thought. With the halted momentum frontloaded to the beginning of the airdash, it would seem at first glance that airdashing is easier to punish in Strive. On the contrary, however, since you can act instantly after inputting an airdash, your descent is variable and always very dangerous, meaning any antiair has potential to clash or get punished. Of course, landing an antiair successfully is still dangerous to the airdasher, and blocking an antiair in the air cranks up your RISC meter significantly.

With regards to the RISC meter (and Burst meter,) the new UI makes them much easier to see, but as with everything there’s still room for improvement. RISC is now its own labeled meter rather than a blue/pink dropshadow under the character portrait, and Burst is once again its own gauge as well. Still, the meters themselves are still small, and they’re both attached to the character portrait, which is itself attached to the current health gauge. This means that as your health drops, your portrait and these meters will move closer to the timer in the middle of the screen. This could make these meters hard to follow during the pace of the match, an issue potentially compounded by the big COUNTER! and combo counter text flashing across the screen during every exchange. While I never really had a problem with the latter, as the text was always either transparent or white and clearly distinct against the background and other elements, being able to see important meters should take priority over style. That said, the new UI did look stylish and more ‘Guilty Gear,’ featuring splashes of gritty elements along the timer and Tension Gauge. This part of the game was definitely an improvement, and even made the ‘hearts-as-rounds’ thing more palatable.

The current UI as of this past weekend.

RISC being visible and prominent is important because this version of Guilty Gear largely focuses on building RISC to deal tons of damage, and it also makes the Dust button more appetizing to press when you land it and take your opponent to the skies. However, the damage increments in this build seem pretty high, even when RISC is low. We’ve all seen Wild Throw and Potemkin Buster do 50% of someone’s health in one go, but the real reason damage tuning is such a big deal is because it stands in stark contrast to the new wallbreak mechanics. (In Strive, after four consecutive wallsplats, the fifth will send your opponent through the wall, triggering a stage transition. The player who earned the wallbreak will get a Positive Bonus, which consists of a damage buff and an increased Tension Pulse.) Right now, it’s difficult to justify going for a wallbreak when a single combo at 50% RISC or less will leave your opponent almost dead. Do you want the Positive Bonus at the expense of resetting to neutral, or do you wanna just let your opponent drop from the wall so you can play okizeme and finish them off now, especially considering they only have a sliver of health left?

Beyond that, actually doing my combos felt very difficult in the new system. For those unfamiliar with Guilty Gear, past titles featured a Gatling Combo system where moves in increasing order generally link into each other to create easy combos. Punch into Kick into Slash into Heavy Slash is something that almost every character can do in earlier Guilty Gear games. In Strive, however, lights (P and K) don’t always link directly into heavies (S and H,) which means that you can’t always start combos with light pokes anymore. Furthermore, with the traditional version of Dust only triggering on counter hit or cranked RISC, and with fewer jump-cancellable moves, the air combo potential didn’t always feel complete. It took me a while to get used to, and eventually I was landing double digit combos and taking to the air frequently, it didn’t feel like a very ‘beginner-friendly’ system, which Strive has been marketed as utilizing.

Day Two of the beta was when the networking and lobby systems went live. This was also when it got more obvious that the version of the game I was playing was clearly a beta. After about an hour and a half of networking errors and software crashes, ArcSys took the servers down for a half hour and then relaunched them. The main problem here was that the VS. COM mode wasn’t selectable for that first hour and a half, meaning no one could actually play Strive for quite some time during the testing period. Still, these are things that happen and should be expected during a beta- the whole point is to diagnose any issues before the game launches. So let’s focus on the lobby system itself:

I was banned from stomping anybody below floor five for a majority of the beta.

Before getting into the lobby proper, I had to complete a tutorial where I learned about how the lobby system worked, got to create an avatar, and played against a Sol CPU that graded my performance and gave me a preliminary MMR. Each region (West Coast, East Coast, Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, etc. etc.) is assigned a tower with ten floors. Players of different skill levels are assigned to each floor, 1 being the absolute beginner floor and 10 being the strongest players in theory. However, anybody from the lower floors can ascend to the higher floors, but not vice versa. For instance, I was placed in the fourth floor of the West Coast tower and stayed around the fourth and fifth floors for the whole beta. I could go to the tenth floor if I wanted, but I was banned from stomping people in the first floor. Beyond the floor system, there were also individual instances of each floor, so the fifth floor that I was on could have been different than the fifth floor my buddy was on. The separate instances were not viewable or selectable, but this could be circumvented by leaving and rejoining the floor lobby until you’re on the same instance as someone you want to play with. The menu UI stated that the product version would allow you to search for your friends and join on them.

Apart from not being able to select the different versions of each floor server, the tower system was really cool. It let me track my personal MMR without actually worrying about a real ranking system and I was even able to match up against friends during the beta test (as long as we were within the same MMR as each other.) It also means that new players get a bit of breathing room in the lower floors, while more experienced players can jump right away to a floor they feel more comfortable with.

Within the lobbies themselves was where the system got more convoluted. The lobbies consist of retro-style 2D pixel lobbies (that actually use 3D avatars with pixel designs.) Every avatar wields a weapon, and pressing Square puts you on standby for matchmaking, which others can see as you brandishing your weapon. From here, there are two ways to begin a match: a player who is also brandishing their weapon can touch it against yours, or a player not on standby can press Cross and send a matchmaking request. There is an accessible menu that also allows you to view players on standby rather than looking through the crowded lobby- selecting a player from this list teleports you to them and begins the matchmaking process.

The only time it’s really easy to see what’s going on is when someone has a choice username.

There were several problems with this, many of which became more apparent during Day Three of the beta. For the record, gameplay itself was mostly stable- I was even able to play several sets with my friends and there were little to no unpleasant dips or stutters, which meant that the region-based matchmaking was working effectively in spite of the current delay-based system. (Reminder once again that the product version of Strive, and possibly future beta tests, will feature rollback-based netcode.) The main problems with the lobbies were the cluttered user interface and the fact that the weapon-crossing system just didn’t work most of the time.

First of all, there was a big honkin’ News tab that had no toggle or way to hide it that completely obscured one third of my television screen, which obviously meant I couldn’t see the entire lobby. The News tab was ugly, had no real relevant information beyond the duration of the beta test (and even then only dates, not times) and was something that should have been visible from the Main Menu, not the lobby where I’m interacting with other players. Secondly, the main issue that prevented games from progressing smoothly was that the weapons-crossing system had trouble actually connecting two people for matches. If more than two players were on standby and were overlapping, the game would be unable to initialize the match, and you’d get stuck in that loop until you moved away from each other or left standby. Matches would indeed connect quickly when two players stood on their own and readied up, but a majority of the lobby was full of overcrowding avatars that only exacerbated the problem.

For users in PST, Day Four ran from 3AM to 8AM on Sunday, so there weren’t many players in the West Coast lobbies. However, due to the lack of overcrowding during that time period, that was ironically some of the most pleasant online experience I had during the whole beta. I only stayed to play for about an hour before finally passing out, but that hour was full of fun, constant, and stable matches against the few redeye players. The current 2D pixel lobby system seems to be replacing the 3D arcade cabinet lobbies seen previously in Xrd and more recently in Granblue Fantasy Versus. Those have their own problems- mainly, it’s hard to see some cabinets in the expansive lobbies without a right analog stick to move the camera, so fightstick players navigate them in a clumsy manner. In private Xrd lobbies, cabinets also have a habit of ‘vacuuming’ you towards the setup even if there’s two people already playing, forcing you into the spectate/next player queue. However, these lobby systems don’t have the same amount of disorienting visual clutter of Strive’s current lobbies. The language of an open cabinet in the virtual arcade is unambiguous- if someone is sitting across from an empty seat, you can just plop down before someone else does, or wait at another seat yourself. Arcsys seems pretty married to the 2D pixel lobby, but it’s possible that a future iteration of the build could at least feature 2D cabinets that function similarly.

Here’s a clip of me styling during (part of) a discussion about the current state of damage.

In closing, Guilty Gear Strive is a fun game. Obviously, many of the criticisms here are constructive and informed by a beta build that was designed specifically to gather player feedback and look for errors before a more final version of the product is released. The bogged down UI/UX experience from having to push through the lobbies was frustrating, but once I got to play the game I had an excellent time. The core gameplay felt very satisfying and exciting- I loved running my freight train Sol into somebody and putting them into the corner. Playing against other humans that actually utilized their defensive tools- blocking, Burst, the new defensive Roman Cancel- instead of CPUs that just stood there and took all my hits tempered my concerns about the damage, but only by a little bit. Playing around with the new drifting Roman Cancel also felt really cool, and I was impressed with myself whenever I used it successfully as a mixup or to get in close.

On the other hand, the changes to the combo system- limited Gatlings, ‘true’ Dust being limited to counter hit and full RISC, very few jump-cancels- made the game feel harder and difficult to play at times. Once I understood my links and my options, I was able to land my blockstrings and my combos consistently, but there were always things like Sol 5K that I felt should be able to link into the rest of my bigger hits that couldn’t. I wondered to myself if this was not an attempt at simplification, but an attempt at creating more depth. Since there’s no teching in this game, combos in this game are basically anything you can link together that will hit your opponent or keep juggling them, along with using the new drift RC. However, limiting your combo options by changing Gatling feels unsatisfying, especially when some moves don’t link together when you think they should. Gatlings also ironically make the game more beginner-friendly, which is something that Strive is, well, striving for. Being able to press a bunch of buttons in a basic sequence is satisfying and also allows new players to easily figure out the combo system. Ultimately, whether cranked damage and the changed Gatlings are net positive changes- or whether these new systems themselves will change- remains to be seen, since time in the beta was limited and there was no proper Training Mode for us to experiment with.

It’s important for everyone going forward to remember that Strive is still in beta- it’s an unfinished game that Arcsys is still gathering player feedback on. (Remember to take your surveys! The passcode and survey link are included in the same email where you received your beta key.) While it’s reasonable to expect most of what the beta included to remain in the final version of the game, it’s also very likely that the game will receive more polish and player-friendly changes within the next year of development.

Arcsys and Daisuke’s development team want Guilty Gear Strive to be a game where your character does exactly what you want them to, where your inputs result in a situation that you wanted to happen. During the match loading screen, there is classic anime-fighter splash text that reads: [sic] “The character you’ve chosen are breamed with countless possibility. Your input breathe life into the character and will lead you to victory. If you put on your best performance, the character will definitely answer back accordingly.” Strive is an exciting experiment that has already gone through several important changes- unification of redundant systems, new creative techniques, UI improvements based on player feedback, and the long-awaited inclusion of rollback netcode. Personally, I have faith that as we get closer to the launch window, the game will be a version that allows it to do what it sets out to do- allows us to express ourselves completely through our chosen characters in a high-octane, explosive, heavy metal brawl.

Once again- read the sign! And fill out your surveys!! You have until 8AM PDT on April 23rd (4/23/2020)!!!

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