Guilty Gear has been the lone wolf of fighting game franchises since the series debut in 1998. The series doesn’t have the name recognition and cultural and competitive cachet of the Street Fighter series, it’s not related to the iconic family of SNK/NEO-GEO fighters. Guilty Gear doesn’t have the massive recognition or infamy of Mortal Kombat. What it does have is a cult following, one that really started to take off after the release of Guilty Gear X. I still think it was the best fighter released on the Dreamcast and it’s definitely the title in the series that gained the traction for the franchise to continue going forward on consoles and arcades. Guilty Gear Xrd – SIGN- first debuted in 2014 in arcades, showing up on consoles at the end of the year and finally…FINALLY…showed up on Steam on December 10th.
The backstory on Xrd is that it’s a reboot of the Guilty Gear series. Built in the Unreal 3 engine in 3d, Xrd is a huge departure from the traditional 2d, sprite-based animations and characters of the earlier games. Xrd also features a more forgiving environment for players new to the intricacies of the series. There’s a variety of different play modes; Arcade, Story (non-interactive and must be unlocked), M.O.M, which unlocks various items for your characters after defeating computer opponents, Training and Challenge modes which allow sandbox exploration and development of more advanced character skills and combos, respectively. There’s also local and network versus play.
As gamers, we see cultures take certain traditions and approaches to game genres and game elements, and Japan has long taken a different route than the West when it comes to fighting games, from the characters to the backstory to the movesets to the stages. Xrd is what would happen if a brilliant 12 year old otaku was given one wish to be granted and brought their well-worn notebook — full of character sketches, crazy background stories and insane settings and situations — to life as a hybrid anime and videogame. Xrd feels like it was excavated from the fevered brain of a young anime and fighter fan who spends their time day-dreaming about animes, fighter matchups, original creations and the next trip to a specialty shop in Akihabara; Xrd is raw technicolor beauty and super imaginative character designs and brilliant, layered combat with a focus on the fantastic, improbable and playful. And that’s a compliment of the highest order.
Visually, Xrd is stunning, to the point of being over-whelming at times, and the cut scenes and character vignettes flow seamlessly into the battles. I am not exaggerating when I say that Xrd running in 1080p looks as good or better than most modern television animes, OVAs or movies. The non-interactive Story mode sounds like a bad idea until you’ve actually played the game to completion; watching the actual narrative unfold in an anime format feels complementary after spending time in the combat portion of the game. The animation and cel-shading perfectly mimics the cartoonish influences of the series and the transition of this aesthetic to combat literally cost me multiple matches, as my attention would be divided between the visual feast my starving eyes were trying to gobble up and the very frenetic and fast-paced combat.
The combat in Xrd is not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to go beyond the very basics. Counters, throws, combos, Tension attacks (powered by a meter that can instantly be filled by ANOTHER meter), a staggering number of special attacks and the various strengths and weaknesses of each character all combine to form a very complicated stage where you can shine like a crazy diamond or get chucked into a burning oil can like a chunk of slag (make this better). Characters like the vampiric Slayer shine at getting up close and personal, relying on speed and multiple melee attacks and combos to whittle their opponents health bars into nubs. Other characters, like Venom, excel at ranged attacks, and employ them over various distances and with different times and effects to cause serious carnage if you aren’t prepared with a counter strategy.
The combined layers of combat are like a large, almost bottomless pit: very deep, and one misstep spells an ignominious fall…at least for that particular round. Xrd marketed itself as being more accessible to fans, but don’t get the impression that the complexity or difficulty has been diluted. I’ve been playing fighting games since Karate Champ, and after numerous embarrassing losses I had to move the difficulty level to Easy just to make it past the second to last fight in Arcade mode. Granted, I was a few hours into playing the game at that point, but to get the most out of Xrd, you will want take the time to learn the timings, combos and idiosyncrasies of each character. The CPU is a fair opponent when learning the game, local versus play is smooth and captues the excitement and immediacy of an arcade setting and online is likewise good, from the matches I got in, but connection issues are something that you have to keep in mind, because even a few milliseconds lag can be a game-changer. Like Sun Tzu says in the Art of War: If you know the enemy and yourself, you need not fear the outcome of a hundred battles…unless you are playing against a godlike I-No online, and then it doesn’t matter, you lost before the match started.
If the combat in Xrd is deep and nuanced, than the character design is outrageous and extreme. Xrd doesn’t even remotely subscribe to the quasi-realistic art style of Mortal Kombat, or even the colorful but restrained (relatively) attributes of Street Fighter. You’ve got Millia Rage, a femme fatale assassin clad in a 60’s mod style that will literally smack you down with hard-hitting hair-do combos. There’s Faust, lanky, awkward, wearing a paper bag on his head, coming at you low with a gigantic scalpel, along with a number of special attacks that look like they came straight of a peyote-induced Looney Tunes short. Or what about Bedman? He’s like a cross between the literary version of Little Nemo and Freddy Krueger, utilizing insane Overdrive attacks and specials from the depths of his slumbering unconsciousness. Freud would never dare to analyze Bedman’s moveset, for fear of a tremendous ass-kicking.
Guilty Gear’s hallmark has always been the over-the-top character designs, but with the new 3d approach and the impeccable animation and design, the characters quirks, foibles and niches really stand out. I mean, the most boring character design is probably Zero-1/Eddie, a combination of two characters that have to be used in tandem. Zero is a resurrected leader of an assassin guild in Guilty Gear mythology and Eddie is a creature of the shadows. If you squint just right, Zero looks like an NWA wrestler from the 80s, and I every time I see Eddie get used for special attacks, I keep waiting for him to transform into an IROC-Z. Don’t ask me why, I think it’s the hair. Zero and Eddie are the tamest character design in Xrd … and in any other fighter they would be to the far right of the “out there” spectrum.
Now, I wish I were offering some new insight into Xrd, however as a port of an established and well-received console game, I am not. If you own a PS3 or PS4 and love fighters, anime or games that like to break the mold and do their own thing, you were playing this back in 2014…and loving it. The real question is: how does it translate on PC? The controls are polished and very responsive. I’ve played hours with a Steam controller and it felt natural and intuitive. Any timing or sticking issues were the result of individual character designs, not the port. The visual and audio presentation is outstanding, The only recent fighter that really compares is King of Fighters XIII…and it really isn’t close when you stand the two next each other, even though they are both Japanese fighters with an emphasis on an anime visual style. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I lavish praise on the looks of Xrd. It truly is beautiful. Another redeeming factor of the late port is that all the DLC is included with the game. Xrd is a must buy for fighter fans and highly recommended for anyone looking to add an original, beautiful and well-made title to their Steam library.