Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4/PlayStation 3
Release Date: December 16, 2014
ESRB: T for Teen
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game
The Guilty Gear series has always had a weirdly strong place in my heart. Guilty Gear X2 was the very first Playstation 2 game that I had ever played and it always stuck with me because of how cool I thought it was at the time thanks to its crazy character designs, awesome music, and frenetic gameplay. Still, fast-forward twelve years later and, pushing all nostalgia aside, I was not quite sure what to make of Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-, which looks dramatically different from previous 2D iterations.
I think my biggest concern before playing Xrd -SIGN- was whether or not it would feel like Guilty Gear at all. I may have enjoyed recent Arc System Works fighters a lot regardless of their variance (Battle Fantasia not included), but Guilty Gear is a different beast from Blazblue and Persona 4 Arena in particular. While both series pay homage to it in various ways, Blazblue with certain character designs and mechanics, and Persona 4 Arena with its extremely fast and rush-down focused gameplay, at the end of the day they play and feel quite different from their forefather that started it all. I am pleased to say that, despite how many changes it has seen (especially visually), Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- does right by its classic lineage.
What should immediately stand out to anyone is its gorgeous and completely overhauled visual style. A casual glance at it could mislead one into thinking it is still in 2D, but the character models and environments are actually entirely in 3D. Far stranger is that this new visual look somehow comes from Unreal Engine 3, which is an entirely separate set of surprises. Either way, the end result is that Xrd is downright eye-catching. The animations are extremely smooth, attacks are both flashy and oddly nostalgic for fans, and it is rich with personality frame by frame. This is only escalated further by the great soundtrack that blends entirely new songs as well as a few arrangements of classic tracks. Keep in mind that the PS4 version is most certainly the preferred release because of its higher visual resolution and better audio quality.
Still, what gives Guilty Gear its own identity is its fast gameplay, deep fighting mechanics, and crazy characters. You have your shameless rock-band-themed character names like Sol Badguy, Slayer, and Axl Low returning as well as those with even stranger fighting styles: like Venom, who fights using a pool cue; May, who bludgeons people with an anchor; or I-NO, who literally shreds opponents with an electric guitar. Adding some fresh faces to the mix are newcomers Ramelthal, Sin Kiske, DLC characters Elphelt and Leo Whitefang, and lastly, the questionably named Bedman, each with their own refreshingly unique mechanics. Regardless of the insanity that each character presents, both the old and new cast are generally rather fun to play with their nuanced fighting abilities, even if the total number of returning characters is far shorter than I would have liked.
Guilty Gear enthusiasts who have stuck with the series are probably wondering if the nitty gritty of its mechanics are intact. If that is the case, don't be; everything from Jump Installs, Roman Cancels, Dash Brake, and Faultless Defense are all there along with some entirely new mechanics like Blitz Shield and Danger Time. If that sentence made no sense to you at all, don't worry—Guilty Gear Xrd is far less intimidating than it used to be with its simplified inputs/mechanics and generally comprehensive tutorial modes to teach people what those even are and the general basics. I say that, but... Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-, at its heart, is still most certainly not an easy fighter to get into. If you aren't already a fan of the series or fighters in general, chances are it'll be difficult for most to stick with it to learn its very technical and relatively high-level execution gameplay, despite Arc System Works intentions to reach for a broader audience.
To help with the standard fighting game grind towards improvement are the typical tutorial, challenge, mission, arcade, versus, and training modes. If you are hoping for more modes beyond that, however, that's where Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is less consistent. Having said that, the most distinctive features to play through are its online play, story, and, the extremely odd acronym—"M.O.M." mode—which is actually the most pleasant surprise of the bunch.
M.O.M mode is basically what I wanted Golden Arena from Persona 4 Arena Ultimax to be. It is an RPG-like mode with a battle progression of your choosing. You can customize your characters in several ways from raw stats, equipment, and even usable skills, as you pick the foes you want to square against while also trying to get new more money and loot treasure chests. It sort of broke my brain knowing that, while I was playing the character Millia Rage, I could also use Sol Badguy's gunflame skill or Faust's explosive bombs in this mode. Nevertheless, this new mode was a fair bit more addictive than I anticipated it would be.
Much more disappointing is how online play is handled. The cross-platform PS3/PS4 netcode itself runs solid, even telling you how many frames of lag you have mid-match, but the interface is actually rather clunky. Basically, it tries to make the 64-person lobbies the default hub upon starting it up and then you have to navigate several separate menus within it to initiate ranked versus, player/friend matches, or to even change your character, which almost made me not want to use it altogether at times. That, and certain glitches/errors that I also encountered in lobbies. This shift is even stranger to me since Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma had next to no problems with the online interface and was pretty seamless when doing what you wanted to.
The story mode in Xrd is also not very good. Despite being considerably shorter than most recent Arc System Works story modes, it somehow feels way longer than it should due to its awkward internal jargon and corny script. That said, it is more interesting in how it is presented than anything it attempts to convey. Opposed to still-frame character portraits, like a typical visual novel, it actually uses the beautiful in-game engine to present the story. Because of this, it does a decent job at creating an anime-like depiction of story scenes with varied cinematography (despite animations being more stiff than they are in-game). Like I said, though, it is rather poorly told and somehow rubs salt on the wound with not only an anticlimactic "To be Continued" screen but also very clearly showing two characters that old fans would love to see return to being playable in Xrd -SIGN-.
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-'s biggest problem is that it mainly feels like a taste of better things to come. It is a really good taste, and I highly enjoy playing it, but the product that it currently is is hard to recommend on its own beyond hardcore fans of the series or the genre in general. As a fighting game, it is great with its excellent visual style, sweet soundtrack, varied characters, and deep mechanics. Yet, in both its relatively small character roster (even with DLC) and how certain modes are handled, it feels somewhat lacking currently.
I have more than a lingering suspicion that most improvements will appear soon enough in an enhanced release, like Arc System Works is more than prone to do. That aside, it is more than commendable in itself that Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- manages to revitalize a classic fighting-game series quite successfully; it just needs a bit more fine-tuning to truly "Keep on Rockin."
+ Downright gorgeous stylized 3D visuals
+ Deep gameplay mechanics that feel both faithful and fresh compared to previous iterations
+ Great soundtrack
+ Questionable naming aside, "M.O.M." mode is a decent time sink
- Why aren“t [insert list of older Guilty Gear characters] here?
- Clunky online mode interface
- Weak, unsatisfying story mode
Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10)
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- more than faithfully revitalizes a classic fighter, but it just needs to few more additions to its total character roster, and improvements to certain modes, to give the experience that everyone wants this return to form to be
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.