I was first introduced to the “Guilty Gear” series through my good friend, Alex Lee. He once noted that “There are a lot of people that are 'Guilty Gear' players, but not a lot of people that play 'Guilty Gear.'” What he meant by that is that a lot of people liked to say they played “Guilty Gear” for clout without actually taking the time to grind matchups specific setups or lab burst safe combo routing. Well, “Guilty Gear Strive” was the game that turned me from a "Guilty Gear" player into someone that plays "Guilty Gear."
My first introduction to the series was the previous iteration, “Xrd,” which was the first “real” fighting game I ever tried, considering until that point I had only really touched platform fighters. My friend Alex had been badgering people to play his favorite game with him, so I eventually relented to trying to learn the game myself. I opted to play Jack-O because she had my name and no other reason, though I quickly came to appreciate how she had relatively low execution. Even so, I could never really wrap my head around “Xrd,” even with the low execution barrier of Jack-O the universal mechanics alone take quite a bit of work to familiarize oneself with. I enjoyed the game casually on and off, although mostly off, but never really got into it. At least not enough to compete with his Baiken.
It wouldn’t be until another game in the series, “+R,” was updated to include rollback netcode that I would touch “Guilty Gear” again. Now that there was a “Guilty Gear” game that could be reliably played online with minimal delay, Alex wasted no time in trying to get people hooked again. And with no Jack-O, I instead, in my infinite hubris, decided to try Johnny. This time around I had a bit more confidence, as I had finally managed to really get into a fighting game for the first time: “Killer Instinct.” Not knowing traditional 2D fighters that well was really my main barrier to entry back in “Xrd,” and having overcome that I assumed “+R” would be the game to suck me in. Except it didn’t. I found the mechanics too obtuse for beginners, the learning curve too steep for me to get a sense of intentionality in my play, and as such playing that game just wasn’t all that fun.
After two failed attempts, I just kinda wrote off the series as not really for me. Anime fighters in general didn’t really seem to click with me, after some of my friends tried to get me into “Underknight” as well. So when “Strive” dropped this summer and my friends were all freaking out about it, I didn’t bother with it for a while. But with all my friends playing almost exclusively “Strive,” it wasn’t long until I hopped on the bandwagon. Now three mains and 200 hours later, I’m making some tentative pokes at celestial floor.
So what did “Strive” do to suck me in where the other, cooler games failed? We’ll I wouldn’t be the first to say that “Strive” took a number of steps to make the game far more approachable to players and spectators alike. A lot of the gameplay has been streamlined, with the biggest changes being to the universal mechanics. And while that certainly helped, I think where “Strive” manages to stand out most is in its technical achievements
I've never really been one to praise technical achievement that much, usually being the first to excuse technical issues in games that I love (See “Fallout: New Vegas”). Gameplay, story, characters, atmosphere, world layout; these are the things I hold up as the paragons of game design. But I think I can confidently say that “Strive” is the first game where the technical achievements make the experience. First off, rollback netcode. “Strive” has some of the best netcode on the market right now, in the genre where good netcode is most important to making the online experience. Delay based netcode giving even just 3-5 more frames of input delay killed a lot of online scenes during COVID. Having netcode good enough to justify an entirely online EVO for the game really does solidify all the other strengths of the game.
While the games’ overwhelming success wouldn’t have been possible without its netcode, I don’t think it's the primary reason the game was so successful. What really makes the “Strive” experience is its matchmaking. I can tell you from experience that the biggest hurdle to getting into not only “Guilty Gear,” but fighting games as a genre is finding people of even skill levels to play against. Most of the people that have tried to get me into fighting games are far better than the game than a new player. And getting schmixed into oblivion isn’t exactly terribly conducive to the learning process. Not only is it slower, but it's also a lot more frustrating and a lot less fun for both parties. And coming from games like “Smash,” “Killer Instinct,” or even non-fighting games like “Team Fortress 2,” I can tell you that bad matchmaking can absolutely kill the online experience. Having matches of relatively even skill level become the norm rather than the exception absolutely makes all the difference in the world.
Finally, the lobby. Yes, I know, shut up. The lobby was definitely busted on release. But since then, I’ve had pretty minimal issues with it, few enough that I can appreciate how fundamentally well they function in practice. Most games that aren’t “Them’s Fightin’ Herds” just do drop in lobbies, often leaving little for the player to do beyond wait to join a random lobby. In “Strive,’ there are 10 different public lobbies for each region that players can drop into to match with people. And while having public games go for 3 matches regardless of circumstance is a little odd, the rest of the system provides a very nice background to find people to actually play. Still, the lobbies are definitely where you are going to run into the most connection issues. That paired with the absurd loading time to connect to the server are my only two real complaints about the game.
Even with as impressive as the lobbies, matchmaking, and netcode are; “Strive” would not have been as incredible as it is if it didn’t look, feel, and play just as wonderfully. The art style is straight up gorgeous, and is perhaps second only to “Killer Instinct” in terms of fighting game soundtrack. Most of the animations are smooth as butter, and the most egregious examples to the contrary are only really noticeable if someone pointed them out to you. As noted previously, all the core systems feel really good, as do pretty much all of the characters. And while there are still a few kinks to work out, the game is incredibly well balanced. My only complaint in this regard is that it is a tad disappointing that some characters (Faust) lost some of the depth they had in previous games.
The game certainly isn’t perfect, and a lot of the old school fans are sad to see a lot of the cool stuff from the previous games get axed, but it's the game that pulled me into a franchise I had essentially given up on learning. Above all, it taught me just how much I enjoy putting people in prison. There is no greater joy than frame trapping an Axl into oblivion with Foudre Arc, and now that she’s in the game I’m like six months away from becoming warden of the Jack-O digital penitentiary.
I could talk longer about frame data, matchups, Faust low profile crouch, how guard break needs more answers; but much of that would really just be reiterating the larger point that I now care about all that stuff. “Strive” is the game that made me into someone who plays “Guilty Gear.” And for a lot of people, myself included, gave reason to take a second look at the older games.
Final score: 9/10, and seriously close to a 10/10. It’s the game that taught me to love 2D fighters, “Guilty Gear,” and prison.