Guilty Gear -Strive- Mashes the Practice Button in My Brain

A welcoming, stylistic 2D fighter that makes every moment a bizarre spectacle

From its opening moments, Guilty Gear -Strive- sweeps you up with complex battle systems, vibrantly smooth animations, and a cast of absurd, memorable combatants that make every match an unpredictable pageant of extraordinary abilities. Even when my first online opponents sauced on me with fancy combo-extending Roman Cancels and no remorse, I was still just as excited to queue up for the next match to prove my skills. 

The best fighting games are like the best educators, as they ignite a passion for learning and an everlasting fire to understand, grow and overcome. -Strive- evokes those remarkable emotions with such composed confidence that you’d think it was an easy task to ace. Guilty Gear -Strive- is a gleaming whirlwind that makes my friends and I collectively endeavour for improvement, which is honestly all that I want from a fighter.

Daisuke Ishiwatari created, composed, and designed the first Guilty Gear back in 1998. It was offbeat, edgy, and flashy. That veneer has been kept intact over the years, now boasting a ludology of almost 40 games that I have never played. Save for a few confused matches of Guilty Gear Xrd -Revelator-, -Strive- is my introduction to this long running duel fest, and it’s been a surprisingly welcoming one thanks to a tight cast and shrunken moveset that make characters way more enticing to pick up and figure out than previous iterations. 

When I play a fighter, my first course of action is identifying my main character through a scientific process of measuring how “cool” they are. The formula is a mix of their look and how often their moves make me go “Yooooooooo” within the first five minutes of play. In Smash Bros. Ultimate, that’s Duckhunt Dog with their cacophony of canned beans, in Street Fighter 5 it’s R. Mika and her ridiculous shit-talk into tag-team grapples, and in PlayStation Allstars it’s Parappa the Rapper because he’s a funny rapping dog. It’s so hard choosing a main in -Strive- because everyone in the game is designed so creatively, harbouring a striking array of buttery smooth animations that bring every move to life. 

My eyes first landed on the “Noble Vampire Samurai” Nagoriyuki, a Yasuke-reminiscent hulking swordsman that exudes intense pressure due to the absurd latitude of his blade. Combat was very stiff at first, and I wasn’t having fun because I felt like I was missing something. But after spending an hour in training mode, checking out the abilities and practicing crude combos, the gears in my fighting game brain began turning. I started to understand that a slow pace and medium range were ideal for this samurai, and once I stopped fighting against that playstyle, I fell into the -Strive- spell. My combos started getting more advanced, chaining special moves and baiting out my opponent with cheeky teleports and unexpected command grabs.

After cutting it up with Nago for a while I switched to Sol Badguy, the sword-gun wielding protagonist that sports an abundance of belts. I clicked with Sol almost immediately. While his rushdown playstyle is completely different from Nagoriyuki’s patient precision, the fundamentals still carry over. Drilling out his moves in training mode painted a distinct picture of how he should be played. 

I still don’t think there’s one right way to play a character, but their strengths and weaknesses do a good job at informing you what situations they’ll excel or flop in. Testing out and seeing what kind of fighting tropes you and your friends like to play is always rewarding and surprising. In my friend group, I’m known for giving a constant bear hug as a grappler or finding someone with a cheesy gimmick that I can mold into a safe, yet maddening strategy. After trying out the charcuterie board of characters I finally settled on maining Axl Low, the time-travelling gang leader twink with a kusarigama. His range is ridiculously long, and he has a full screen unblockable command grab that hits opponents right in their ankles. I smile subtly when I hit that move; I have found my cheese and now it’s time to master it. 

The feel of a fighter should constantly change as you become a better (or worse) player, and Guilty Gear -Strive- completely understands that. When you start online matchmaking, it gives you a fighting test to sort you into one of the ten floors of its battle tower. Before the game dropped, I landed on the ninth floor, but ever since the game went live and the dedicated players flooded the lobbies, I have sadly plummeted down to sixth.

Guilty Gear -Strive-‘s online mode has really good ideas — especially inside its lobbies. It has a cool measure to make sure that matches are fair by preventing anyone from fighting on a floor that’s under their skill level, while still allowing you to fight on floors above you if you’re really itching for a challenge. When you enter a room you take control of a custom avatar that can run around, slide on the floor, and hit prospective challengers with brooms. It’s very charming and goofy.

Traditionally, half of my time in a fighter is, unsurprisingly, spent fighting. The other half is spent waiting to fight in the lobby. There have been a few connection issues, probably due to how extremely populated the game is, but that’s understandable and hasn’t affected my ability to play with my pals that much. Many fighting game developers implement boring, archaic lobby systems that repel players from regularly accessing online, so I really appreciate Arc System Works putting time and care into crafting a fun digital space that surrounds fights.  

Fighting games have a reputation for being too intimidating or hard to get into, which is a shame because they’re part of such a fascinating genre that excels at bringing people together and creating collaborative spectacles that crystalize into heartwarming memories. Guilty Gear -Strive-‘s eclectic aesthetic and welcoming accessibility have the potential to pull in people of all skill levels into its wacky world, and I hope it manages to do that. It’s nice to see a creation with such a clear, all-round vibe. During a match it’s so hard fighting back the urge to pull out an imaginary air guitar and play along to the ultra-passionate hard rock that soundtracks your fight. Or to continue fighting and not get lost in a blazing bombardment of animations, each of which looks like a finishing move from a high-budget anime. -Strive- absolutely rips and I cannot wait to see where this training arc takes my fighting rivals and I. LET’S ROCK!