The new title may be different, but the core still rocks
I feel like when this stuff comes up- when you’re defending something or arguing for something in the fighting game community- you always have to provide your resumé in such a way that Twitter eggs or /r/kappa people won’t (immediately) tear you apart. Incidentally, the /r/kappa folks seem really proud of the fact that they don’t play fighting games despite talking shit on other people who apparently don’t “actually” play fighting games. I watched one of AzeDev’s videos recently where he ultimately decides that he’s looking forward to Strive and has a positive opinion on it, and I echoed his sentiments at the beginning of his explanation- I shouldn’t have to be “afraid” of speaking my mind about a video game of all things.
So, as I’ve said before a few times, I’m Nathan, AKA Lite the Iron Man. I grew up competing in Super Smash Bros. titles, and I was raised by my family around Capcom fighters like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Ultra Street Fighter IV. In college, I started branching out and learning other fighters in order to get a better sense of how fighting games worked, thinking I could apply that knowledge to my ‘main game’ at the time, Smash 4. However, as I got better at Pokkén Tournament DX, I got really good at that game and had much more fun with it. I’m good enough and have enough tournament results at Pokkén to consider myself a ‘top player.’ Eventually, however, due to a dearth of Pokkén events that was exacerbated by my move outside of Orange County, I started learning Under Night In-Birth EXE:Late [st] and Guilty Gear Xrd Rev2. After getting familiar with both (about a hundred hours each,) I ended up heavily sticking to Xrd. My tournament results are sparse and not as good as they were in Pokkén, but that’s because Xrd is simply a harder game and I’m a relative newbie.
But I love the game, and I loved it enough to get hyped for the Guilty Gear 2020 trailer (as it was then known.) I even got to try out Strive at the Arcrevo 2019 finals at UC Irvine- I went with my partner and they and I played it together a few times. I was still trying to figure out the controls and how to play Sol (who I had never even touched in Xrd) and I actually got beat up a bit by my partner, who had never played Guilty Gear before. I was pretty proud of them.
Older Guilty Gear players would probably wince at that story, especially considering some of Daisuke Ishiwatari’s remarks in interviews about Strive, where he states that he wishes to close the gap between newer and older players. He makes the comparison between shogi and mahjong to describe the type of game he wishes to make: in shogi, the skill gap is much more apparent than in mahjong, where the newer player can capitalize on mistakes that the older player makes. Readers of his interviews have interpreted this as Ishiwatari trying to introduce “randomness” or “simplification” to the series, criticizing Strive as a game where newer players can “get lucky” and win against better players. Beyond that, the changes made to the Strive engine are seen as harmful to okizeme (“wake-up game”) characters that rely on setplay and limiting the opponent’s options, and changes to the Gatling combo system make it sound as if combo potential has been reduced. The wallbreak mechanic was also seen as decentralizing the power of continued combos and blockstrings in an attempt to return both players to the neutral state more frequently. Opinions about the current state of the game ranged from darkly negative and pessimistic, to excited and hopeful, to cautiously optimistic.
This was never something I experienced for myself in the short time I had with the demo, or when I watched others play. Apart from Potemkin, whose main gimmick even in Xrd was being a big guy with dumbass huge normals and massive command grab damage, most of the cast was able to improvise combos still. It was still a matter of precision but combos with ten hits or more were common and impressive, particularly with Sol, Ky, and Chipp. Oki and setplay was still there, although not all of May’s kit made it into the current build. Characters would fish for meaty 2P or 5P, and Sol would start blockstrings on wakeup with Gunflames.
On Friday, February 7th, 2020, at JAEPO2020, ArcSys streamed a Strive exhibition tournament and developer interview. Players Roy (Sol,) FAB (Potemkin,) Ainman (Ky) and Summit (Chipp) were in attendance, participating in a four-man single elimination bracket, after which they would interview Ishiwatari and game director Akira Katano about the direction of the game.
To say the least, the gameplay was sick. I was even more torqued to play the game than I had been before watching the livestream, as randy Bandit Bringers got caught out by Pot Busters, Chipp improvised wallrun combos, and Ky pulled insane comebacks by cashing in his Tension gauge and making excellent use of the new Roman Cancel.
In my opinion, the high-level play demonstrated by the invited players went a long way towards assuaging the concerns that fans may have had with the game. The game still ‘looked like Guilty Gear’ to me. Roy’s Sol would run in on FAB’s Potemkin with randy freight train approaches, tossing out jump-in Bandit Bringers, getting the knockdown, carrying Potemkin into the corner, where he would then fish for meaty 2Ps or Gunflames and then get a combo into a wallbreak, only for Potemkin to even it up with a single whiff-punish Pot Buster. Summit’s Chipp was looking fresh as hell, getting an insane combo with the character’s new wall-run mechanic off of a throw into Roman Cancel. The ‘simplified’ changes to Roman Cancel (integration with dead-angle attack and Blitz parry) seemed to balance out with the changes to the slowdown mechanic (if you whiffed the slowdown area of effect you’d get blown-up big time,) suggesting that you would still have to use your Tension precisely and carefully. Even the new airdash didn’t seem to affect gameplay negatively at all, since all of the lag of the technique was frontloaded to the startup animation. Chipp especially got a lot of mileage out of the dropdown effect of the new airdash by using it for crossups that cancelled into low combo starters.
Strive was exciting to play when I played it, and it was also incredibly tense to watch. With the powerfully cranked damage and meter gain, players have less opportunities to make mistakes- likely the mahjong analogy in effect. Okizeme and setplay still exist, but the interactions in neutral were a fraction more deliberate- I would watch Roy try to poke with 2P and 5P often, and at one point when Summit was trying to clean up a KO on Ainman, he would approach with 2K (but lost when he got more thirsty with air-descending Alpha Blades, which let Ainman pick up an insane counterhit combo.) In my opinion, the mahjong gap-closing between newer and older players comes not from a simplification of mechanics or a reduction of setplay options, but from the fact that every hit has the potential to be so explosive in this title. ArcSys is a huge pioneer of fighting game visuals, and extra effects like the added hitstop and big COUNTER! text accentuated the spectacle.
One of the things I was actually hype for the most was the new wallbreak mechanic, because it reminded me heavily of the way Phase Shift functions in Pokkén. In Pokkén, gameplay is divided into Field Phase and Duel Phase- Field Phase is a 3D, arena roaming mode where you play out neutral in an environment similar to Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm and Tekken, while Duel Phase is a more traditional Street Fighter-style 2D mode that you enter after one player ‘wins’ the neutral exchange. After dishing out enough damage or a full combo in Duel Phase mode, a Phase Shift occurs once more, and you switch back to Field Phase again, resetting the neutral. Whenever a Phase Shift is triggered, the player who did so begins with an advantage- stage control, knockdown or wallsplat, opportunity to set up okizeme, and meter gain. The wallbreak in Strive functions very similarly- a win in neutral leads to corner pressure and a wallbreak, and the stage transition grants you cranked Tension meter and the opportunity to keep the momentum going.
After the JAEPO2020 exhibition and interview, I felt that the concerns folks had about Strive, albeit valid, had been blown up out of proportion immensely by community heads and Twitter eggs alike. The freedom of expression that players were familiar with in past titles was still there, with precise, improvised, and flashy combos off of stray hits, and the player in the lead would consistently remain oppressive and aggressive after scoring a win in neutral. I still think that we need to see more before the worries of fans can be completely dismissed, since we didn’t see any play from May, Faust, or Axl as they appear in this version of the game. I would like to see Milia make a return to Strive soon, since her rushdown-setplay oriented playstyle is something that would allegedly be reduced or neutered outright in this engine. (Summit and the other players asked some deliberate questions about okizeme chara in the interview, but it hasn’t been completely translated yet.) I would also like to see a character like I-No make an appearance in the new game so that it would be more clear how characters with complicated, unique movement options function with the new mechanics, as the closest character to that at the moment is Chipp with his wallrun.
Feedback is also clearly being taken into account, rather than being dismissed outright. For instance, one of my main points of contention with the build I played was the minimalist temp UI. Not only did it not “feel” like Guilty Gear- no grungy, heavy metal elements or actual gear logos- it was also very difficult to read, with the RISC and Burst gauges overlapping on the character portrait. In this version of the build, the RISC meter being full was indicated with a flashy pink exclamation point (!). The Burst meter being spent was indicated by a greyed out character portrait which would fill up with color as you gained more, and would flash with text saying BURST! when the gauge was full. Furthermore, according to HiFight, Ishiwatari and Katano expressed that a hefty amount of feedback (80%!) about the minimalist UI was negative, and that it would be scrapped and replaced very soon with something that was more legible. Time- and the impending beta test- will tell if they’re listening to our demands for rollback netcode! Although, for what it’s worth, I interpret the interview statements about rollback and GGPO as more positive than others may think. The fact that Strive has been promoted at both ArcSys-centric events and long-time fan-oriented ones, like Frosty Faustings and Evo, is a sign that they care enough about the community to work with them and guarantee that the final product satisfies those most hardcore players.
Guilty Gear Strive is still a game in alpha. There’s only seven revealed characters (excluding the Woolie samurai) and some characters have incomplete kits- I highly doubt Sol will lack Dragon Install in the final launch version, for instance. I think the early builds from Arcrevo and Frosty Faustings were well-received, but then folks were turned off again by the more experimental changes in the Evo Japan 2020 build, like the new airdash. There’s still potential for a lot to change by the end of the year when the game will supposedly launch, and I think it’s also important to remember that ArcSys is definitely taking feedback and the surveys seriously, if the comments about rollback and the UI are to be believed. We need to see more of the game, more top level exhibitions and more characters, but at the moment I believe that the initial and sustained response to Strive has been incredibly kneejerk. The “simplification” of the mechanics so far hasn’t come at the cost of the complexity of the gameplay- situations are still difficult and pressure-intensive, and the new Roman Cancel has to be used carefully, but the game absolutely rewards your execution in these moments with explosive damage.
Ultimately, I’m pumped as hell for Guilty Gear Strive. I want to get my hands on my copy at launch, crack it open, and get a whiff of the smell of the game. I want to get new people into the series, like my partner who played with me at Arcrevo and other friends who have never touched the game before. And then I want to blow them up with long-ass rushdown mixups into the corner as a Naoki Hashimoto vocal track blares in the background. I want to explore the new mechanics, like the dropdown airdash and the Roman Cancel drift, and experience new, sick-ass characters. I have full confidence that everything I’ve grown to love about Xrd and the rest of the series- heavy metal beatdowns where I have full control over a flashy and expressive character- will be retained in the final version of Strive.