Review: Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign- (PS4/PS3)

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Title: Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign-
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (PS4 6.1 GB) (PS3 4.0 GB)
Release Date: December 23, 2014
Publisher: Aksys
Developer: Arc System Works Team Red
Original MSRP: PS4 $59.99, $79.99 (Limited Edition) / PS3 $49.99, $69.99 (Limited Edition)
ESRB Rating: T
Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign- is exclusive to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3. The game is Cross-Play and Cross-Save.
The PlayStation 4 disc and PlayStation 3 download versions were used for this review.
A copy of the PlayStation 3 version was provided by the publisher for review purposes. A copy of the PlayStation 4 was purchased by the reviewer.
PS Nation Review Policy

Thanks to some legal battling between companies over the title, it’s been a while since we had a proper Guilty Gear title. The last PS2 title in the series, Guilty Gear Accent Core+, came out in 2008. That version was eventually ported to PS3 in 2012 and the only other release until today was a slight update, Guilty Gear Accent Core+ R, that came to Vita last year and was rolled into the PS3 game earlier this year. However, Arc System Works, having learned a lot from their recent games in the BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena series, has finally pulled the Guilty Gear series back into the spotlight in a major way.

Gameplay:
Guilty Gear, for those not familiar with the series, is a one-on-one 2D fighting game known for its deep yet rewarding mechanics. The series is famous for its extremely fast paced and combo-centric combat, its crazy over-the-top characters, and its amazing soundtrack. Guilty Gear Xrd has all of that of course but also makes an attempt to appeal to newer fans with some friendly tutorials and some changes to the mechanics.

The base of the game is very familiar, two characters wail on each other in an attempt to reduce the other’s health to zero. Players have access to a Tension bar (the game’s Super meter) which can allow them to use devastating special attacks or perform combo-extending Roman Cancels. Xrd also brings back the series’ Instant Kill mechanic that allows a player to instantly kill the opponent, though with considerable risk. Returning Guilty Gear fans will find some new mechanics to whet their appetite, although Arc has clearly drawn some inspiration from their other fighting game series for the new mechanics.

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One of the new mechanics, the Hellfire state, is similar to the Awakened state in the Persona 4 Arena games. The Guilty Gear version isn’t as powerful but the idea is the same: a player who is damaged enough to be near death gets a boost in stats and Supers performed while in this mode do extra damage or last longer, making it (slightly) easier for a player to come back in a disadvantageous situation. Another new mechanic is the Blitz Shield, a defensive option similar to Hakumen’s drive attacks in the BlazBlue games. For a small amount of Tension the player can essentially parry an enemy attack and leave the enemy vulnerable to counterattack.

Despite all the draws from other series, Guilty Gear Xrd’s mechanics all mesh together to form a very cohesive package. The complexity of the sheer number of things to remember might at first seem daunting (the tutorial mode includes a full fifty tutorials, though a dozen or so are fairly simple explanations of things like how to move or how to attack), the base gameplay is easy enough to grasp that the more complex mechanics can be slowly added to one’s repertoire over time. In addition to the tutorial, Xrd also has a ton of challenges and missions to complete that can help players learn the game. Challenges revolve around performing a specific combo with a specific character. Missions are almost like an extension of the tutorial, giving the player an objective that usually helps to deepen knowledge of the game’s mechanics. Some mission objectives include correctly blocking a semi-random attack string or surviving an onslaught from an enemy with only certain defensive options available.

Once ready to play, Guilty Gear Xrd offers a few different offline play options. Arcade mode is pretty typical; a quick run of eight back-to-back fights with some story in between (more on the story later). Versus mode is where couch co-op players will end up but the mode can also be used to play against CPU opponents. And finally M.O.M. mode: a beast of a single-player mode that adds a light RPG wrinkle to the game. Winning matches in M.O.M. mode earns medals, which can be used to purchase character stat upgrades, equipment, or even usable items. The mode is a bit grindy, but does offer a lot of play time and the addition of items and enemies with extra boosts (i.e. increased Tension gain or faster movement speed) throws the formula for a slight, but interesting, loop. As with most games though, the crux of the game is the multiplayer, which will be discussed in that section below.

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The story mode is an oddity. I mentioned in my Persona 4 Arena Ultimax review how that game’s story mode was much, much more story than fighting. Well Guilty Gear Xrd has upped that. The story mode in Xrd has no fighting at all. That’s right, it’s pretty much just a four to five hour movie. Guilty Gear as a series has always had a pretty interesting story hidden behind the fighting game but now it’s been spun off into its own thing.

The story actually starts with the arcade mode though. It picks up a few years after the Xbox 360 spinoff game, Guilty Gear X2 Overture, with a new character named Ramlethal Valentine declaring war on the entire world. Arcade mode follows each individual character as they react to her declaration of war and the story mode ‘movie’ picks up after that, pulling each of those stories together. It’s pretty fun although it can be very “anime” at times. Large portions are just two characters chatting and although the mode defaults to playing lines back to back without player input, I eventually turned the text to ‘instant’ and started advancing through the story by mashing Cross as fast as I could read to save myself some times during the dry parts.

Fortunately for newcomers, Xrd’s story is pretty self-contained. Some character dynamics are largely left implied but so much of the story focuses on newcomers Ramlethal and Elphelt that it doesn’t matter much. The biggest issue with the story, is that there’s a lot that’s been left for a sequel. One character in particular mostly runs around looking for answers to a question that never gets resolved and the final act is as clear of a sequel set up as you can get. There’s also a severe lack of some characters in the story, Potemkin and Chipp for example get almost no screen time, while some characters that aren’t even playable in this game get a ton. Still, I’d say the story mode is worth playing/watching if just for the 100,000 W$ you get for doing so, half of which is needed to unlock the game’s sole unlockable character.

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Speaking of characters, the cast is definitely my largest complaint with Guilty Gear Xrd. On disc there are fifteen characters (one of them unlockable, as previously mentioned). There are another two available as DLC but that’s it. Considering that Accent Core Plus had twenty-five characters and five of Xrd’s seventeen characters are new, more than half of the previous game’s cast is missing. Fans of characters like the crossdresser Bridget, one-armed samurai Baiken or zombie-like-dude Zappa will have to find a new character to play.

That’s not to say the new characters are bad. Elphelt’s weapon is a wedding bouquet which hides a gun and grenades. Ramlethal attacks with two giant swords that she can position in specific places on the screen for some crazy zone control. Bedman can set up tokens on the screen that give him stronger attacks if he uses a specific attack near them. Sin attacks with a giant pole and has huge range, but at the cost of needing to occasionally stop to eat meat. And Leo is a good rush-down character with some great mix-up options. Although they’re fun, the new characters can’t fully make up for the array of missing characters.

Visuals:
The previous games in the Guilty Gear series were fully 2D, in both gameplay and graphics. Xrd departs from that by using full 3D visuals. Although players still move and attack in two dimensions, the characters and the stages are rendered with 3D models. However, unlike Street Fighter IV, which took a similar evolution a few years ago, Guilty Gear Xrd has gone to great lengths to make the game still look like it is 2D. The characters have a heavily cel-shaded look and at a glance the game could be mistaken for incredibly smooth 2D sprites.

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Being in 3D offers the game some advantages over its predecessors though. Characters get full intro sequences as do Instant Kill moves. Some Super moves are afforded a quick cut-away or a dynamic camera angle and matches end with a slow-motion spin-around of the last hit of the match. Simply put, Guilty Gear Xrd looks amazing, especially on the PS4.

The PS3 is definitely a downgrade. The characters look slightly more “plastic” and the stages don’t pop with as much depth. Textures seem to take the biggest hit, especially during the intro or Instant Kill scenes. The game also outputs at a lower resolution on the PS3. Interestingly, the PS3 version actually has an option in the menus to change between “graphics mode” and “performance mode.” The game says that the latter prioritizes a smooth performance over graphics but Arc System Works claims that the game runs at a full sixty frames per second no matter which option is used. I personally couldn’t notice much of a difference in either graphics or performance in either version.

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Audio:
The rock inspired soundtrack has always been one of the selling points of the series and Xrd once again lives up to its lineage. Expect a lot of guitar and drums and plenty of catchy riffs. The great soundtrack permeates the entire game from menu to gameplay and is an all-around pleasure to listen to. Many of the series old favorites can be unlocked in the gallery to be used in the game as well. Guilty Gear Xrd, for the first time in any of the fighting games, offers an English voice track. The Japanese voice track is fully intact as well, should one prefer that.

Online/Multiplayer:
Like any fighting game, multiplayer is the meatiest part of the Guilty Gear Xrd. Fortunately the online portion of the game is a solid overall experience even if some of the specifics need work. I’ve played almost fifty matches in ranked mode and another thirty to forty in unranked and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality. The game displays how many frames of lag it currently has and even when I was matched with players in Japan, I could still get matches where lag was as few as two frames. Obviously there’s some cherry picking on my end; I’ve been prioritizing picking opponents who have a three or four bar connection to me. Interestingly, you can actually set some frame lag in the game’s training mode if you want to practice how the game feels in a specific lag environment.

Unfortunately, the online mode is a bit of a mess in terms of menus. There are three different online modes: ranked, player and lobby. However, the game forces you to enter a lobby and then, if you choose, you’ll go into a ranked match or a player room. Lobbies are location based, so you can try to find players near you for better connections, but ranked and player modes are not (and you can actually just enter any lobby you want regardless of your actual physical location) so it strikes me as odd that the game forces the player to go sit in a lobby somewhere, taking up some of that lobby’s space, while they’re actually playing in player or ranked modes.

Lobbies and player mode are essentially the same outside of the location system. Both set up a room supporting up to eight people with four ‘stations’ where players actually play matches. So all eight people could be playing simultaneously or players can queue up for a station which allows them to watch the in-progress match as a spectator. Lobbies have a full array of settings, such as number of matches or type of matches (players can use their characters from M.O.M. mode). They can also lock it to a specific platform (the game is Cross-Play) or turn off in-game voice chat. Even things like the Share functionality can be turned off, if you don’t want your opponent recording the match on the PS4 version.

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Rooms made in the player mode can also be made private either by password or restricting slots to friends-only. Oddly though, the PS4 version currently doesn’t allow players to invite their friends to the room. A recent patch added a unique four letter code to each room, which players can give out for others to search. It is strange though that only the PS3 version has the ability to directly invite friends to a room.

One of my favorite aspects of the multiplayer though is that the game automatically saves replays of every match. The ability to save replays isn’t new, but Guilty Gear Xrd even allows offline Versus mode replays to be saved which is something I haven’t seen before. Saved replays can be locked (so they won’t be automatically deleted) and each player can attach three of their replays to their online profile for others to download and watch. (An amusing side ability, for me having both versions of the game, was that I could use my profile to transfer replays from my PS3 to PS4 and then I could record the match playback with the Share button and upload it to YouTube.)

For players with both versions, Xrd also has a function to upload and download progress data (for story, arcade mode, and unlocks) to allow Cross-Save. It’s a little clunky and slow, but it’s there for players who feel the need to go between PS3 and PS4 or vice-versa.

Conclusion:
Guilty Gear Xrd is a great revival of the franchise. The series is more welcoming to newcomers than ever, thanks to the robust training and mission modes, while still providing a lot of the technical depth fans of the series liked in the first place. The online plays great, although the menus take some getting used to. M.O.M. mode provides a lot of game time for those willing to grind but the multiplayer is still the meat of the game.

The biggest issue is definitely the small returning cast. It’s pretty apparent from both that and the ending to the story mode that Arc System Works intends to re-add Guilty Gear to their slightly-longer-than-yearly upgrade cycle and I wouldn’t be too surprised to start hearing the rumblings of arcade tests for Guilty Gear Xrd Hashtag Ampersand or whatever they call it in six months. For some, that’s reason enough to not buy this version of Guilty Gear. But personally, I think this first installment is worth the time and money on its own, and I certainly won’t mind having had an extra year+ of practice with which to stomp all the newcomers.

Score:
9.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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