Guilty Gear is BACK, baby! And now it’s gone again! Christ, that was fast.

Yes, dear reader, the closed beta test for the latest instalment in the storied  franchise that first made an appearance on the PSone has come and gone, leaving players with their first taste of revamped visuals and an overhauled combat engine, and at this point they’re both looking absolutely fantastic.

First, It’s probably no surprise that Guilty Gear -Strive- looks absolutely beautiful in motion. The older games in the Xrd series were visually stunning and -Strive- looks to kick it up a notch with excellent background designs that subtly affect the shaders on player models, coupled with stylish mid-battle direction such as breakaway camera angles, stage transitions and various graphical effects that convey a sense of impact and speed whenever something cool happens… which is pretty much all the time.

The music and overall sound design remains excellent, and songs even have their lyrics playing as fights rage on. It adds an extra bit of aural flair to each matchup, and while it’s technically a subtle addition, having someone screaming about their heart blazing mid-battle seems like the perfect accompaniment to onscreen action.

Since the main point of this closed beta was to provide network feedback for ArcSys to work from, most of the time I spent was online. After selecting a character name that would be be displayed in-game (separate from my usual gamer tag) it was time to head on in and check out the in-game lobby, which was both awesome and very, very weird.

The lobby system, as per usual when Arc Systems Works gets involved, is odd. It’s cool… but odd. It presents a retro-style gathering where a bunch of players and low-polygon models hoof it around a 2D environment challenging each other to battles, or simply chilling out between bouts. It can get a little messy when loads of these funky avatars are running about and challenging each other to a battle, but it looks cool and offers a lot of customization options for personalizing one’s avatar.

Slightly less welcome, though, is the noticeable delay between challenging someone to a battle and the system actually acknowledging that two players want to fight each other. After spotting a nearby player spoiling for a brawl and instigating a challenge, I’d often be left waiting for up to a minute to sync up with my chosen opponent. I’m seriously, seriously hoping that this massive delay is something that’ll be ironed out in time for the full release because it’s easy to get bored waiting for matches to start.

That said, the boredom evaporates once they finally start duelling in earnest — nearly all the matches I had during my all-too-brief hands on were an absolute blast. While there were some occasional quibbles with network latency affecting my timing and even the probability of specific moves coming out correctly, the combat systems on display here are an absolute delight.

The matches fly by at a ferocious rate as staple combos can lead to big damage, especially now that players can be crushed up against the edges of the arena and ‘stuck’ to a wall for an additional blow that triggers a stylish stage transition. In some cases the damage may seem a little too crazy for how simple some of these combos are, but it means that matches are generally swift and exciting, with even simple mistakes leading to some truly earth-shaking punishment in retaliation. In a series that’s always rewarded aggression and discouraged passive approaches, -Strive- may be the most obvious example yet.

The combo system is mechanically different too, and tunes down the series’ notorious complexity just a notch to make things more welcoming to fighting fans who aren’t professional-level players. The old gattling system, where weak attacks would almost universally chain into stronger ones has been revised so that only certain pre-established button combinations now work in that manner. While hard-hitting and stylish combos are still possible, their reduced length is less likely to leave players on twiddling their thumbs waiting to regain control as they get battered into a bloody pulp.

Sadly, the beta had no training mode other than occasional windows where players could take on the CPU, so it wasn’t easy to come to grips with everything that was new, or even to unearth long combo chains. I generally stuck with my usual Ky Kiske as a result, who’s probably the most-well rounded and vanilla character in the entire series, though I did at least give the rest of the gang a brief once over.

Sol’s a beast at rushdowns, possibly moreso than before given some of the stuff I saw other players pull off, and Potemkin can murder anyone who has the temerity to try jumping in at him. In fact, Potemkin’s probably just a little too good at dishing out damage — while he needs some form of compensation given that he lacks the maneuverability of other characters, the fact that he can take off half a bar of damage as easy as blinking seems extreme.

Sadly, the players online were sticking to the same few characters, so I only got a smattering of games against the others — May’s still a cute, dolphin chucking little nutball, Axl Low is still a zoning master, and Chipp Zanuff might be a little light on defense, but he’ll chop someone in half in a hertbeat. The other main takeaway is that Faust’s changed from the loveable, quirky oddball of old to something that looks like he just crawled out of Silent Hill.

If there’s one concern I have right now, it’s that the roster has almost entirely reverted back to the state it was in during the original 1998 Playstation release. While it’s natural that a ‘hard’ sequel often shakes up the playable roster like this, i’m worried that too many old favorites could (potentially) be missing from the initial launch. In a series with consistently great character design, it’s a shame to see some of them going AWOL.

Based on this small taste of what the final game’s shaping up to be, I can officially state that I’m more excited about this  entry than I have been for any fighting game in a very long time. Hopefully the final release lives up to my expectations, because as of right now they’re absolutely sky high.

Guilty Gear – Strive – is coming to PS4 in late 2020 from Arc System Works

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