Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- review: Technical knockout

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​Not everything that glitters is gold, but sometimes that glitter can go a long way. Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-, the latest fighting game from Arc System Works, handily demonstrates this tweaked adage. Despite carrying over many characters and gameplay elements from the niche-hit Guilty Gear series, this entry adds a wholly new graphics engine that trades 2D sprites for cel-shaded 3D models. The result is a hyper-kinectic 3D fighter that looks like a very attractive 2D fighter while retaining a few neat gimmicks only possible in the third dimension.

But beneath that glossy exterior lies an anemic framework. What's there is great, both aesthetically and mechanically, but what's there is also relatively scant. It's hard to dislike Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- because it does so many things well, but the level of quality present in the game only makes you wonder how much better it might have been had the developers added a few more fighters and gameplay modes.Let's stress one key point right from the start: Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is a gorgeous game. Through a combination of fluid character animation, a new graphics engine and seamless cel-shading techniques, Arc System Works has built a 3D game that looks like an amazingly detailed 2D, sprite-based fighter. The only giveaway that the game exists in three dimensions is the newly mobile camera that tracks fighters, swoops in on particularly dramatic moments and generally adds an air of heightened excitement to the already spectacular attacks. Even here though, in moments where the camera is drawing extremely close to rapidly-moving character models and dozens of graphical effects, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- offers the illusion of playing a vibrant anime feature film, only with everything running at a silky-smooth 60 frames per second and full 1080p resolution. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is faultless.

What's more, this technical mastery is complemented by a visual style that is undeniably captivating. The world of Guilty Gear is going to be too weird for some, what with its fusion of futurism, 80s heavy metal bands and Japan's unique spin on Judeo-Christian mythology, but even in its most outre, garish moments, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- always keeps players focused on the screen, wondering what might happen next.

In addition to its captivating looks, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- nails each aspect of the core fighting game experience, at least from a mechanical standpoint. The game's crisp controls translate into immediately responsive attack options, and while the timing needed to reliably launch combo attacks is more strict than in most other 2D fighters, players should be able to master Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-'s particular cadence after a few minutes of practice. Adding to the game's pick-up-and-play appeal, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is built on the genre-standard half-circle and quarter-circle joystick motions made famous by Street Fighter, so neophyte players shouldn't have much trouble picking up the basics of even the most complex characters. This isn't to say a few minutes is all you'll need to become a tournament level Guilty Gear player, but the more traditional, familiar parts of Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- provide a welcoming contrast to its otherwise daunting complexity.

Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-'s greatest strength is that each of its characters offers a unique play style. From Faust, who attacks with teleportation and a spear-sized scalpel, to Venom, who fills the screen with magical pool balls, each fighter has their own distinct gimmick that requires its own distinct style of play. Even Ky Kiske and Sol Badguy – the Ryu and Ken of the Guilty Gear universe – are far more distinct than genre history would suggest. The new fighters in Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- highlight the cast's diversity. Boss character Ramlethal is a wizard who uses giant magical swords to do most of the fighting, giving her huge range and forcing players to track not only the character herself but also her whirling blades during combat. Bedman, the most bizarre character in a series known for bizarre characters, is a waifish boy pinned to a bed with which he shares a Matrix-esque symbiotic link. Instead of fighting the boy (who also happens to be both evil and a genius), players battle the bed, which uses attacks that can be "rewound" to duplicate their effects. It's only slightly less weird during gameplay than it sounds here.

Despite the series' traditional complexity, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is easily the series' most accessible entry thanks to a comprehensive tutorial system. We've come to expect a basic rundown of gameplay concepts in our fighting games, but Arc System Works takes things one step further by offering players not just a primer on how to perform moves, but also lengthy, hands-on explanations of when and where to use those moves during a match. That may seem like a small addition, but it's a very thoughtful touch for players new to Guilty Gear. Even better, the game doesn't require players to master all three colors of its Roman Cancel system just to enjoy the combat. These more complex feint and parry options are layered on top of the core "character punches character" gameplay, making them an almost optional addition that experienced players can appreciate and new players can set aside to learn more about after they've picked up the basics.

Unfortunately, that's where the praise ends. Beyond the new graphics and the core gameplay, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- feels like a relic from 2005. In most modern fighters, the multiplayer modes consist of a few simple options: ranked match, player match, custom match – if you've played any fighting game released since Street Fighter 4 these should all be familiar to you. Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- abandons modern customs, however, and uses an online Lobby system. This requires that players create a virtual room, in the hopes that other online warriors might see the room, join it and sign up for a fight. Assuming everyone's cooperating, this usually results in up to 10 minutes of downtime between each fight. If you leave, searching for a fight, maybe you'll find a new lobby with matches available, or maybe you'll find some dude idling while eating pizza. It's a total crapshoot, and the game's weak, pre-set communication options don't make things any easier. The developers might argue that the Lobby system facilitates player interaction between matches, but I'd much prefer simple "Ranked" and "Player" match options that trade polite electronic small talk for immediate, random battles against online strangers.

Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-'s biggest flaw, however, is that it offers players a vibrant world in which they have relatively little to do. Arc System Works crafted an admirable group of characters for the fighter, but there are only 15 available (17 if you include DLC). Compare that to recent Street Fighter and Tekken entries which boast over 50 characters. Sheer population is not a good benchmark of a game's quality by itself, but a lack of characters does lead to a lack of diversity in matches. Even the game's single-player modes feel anemic. Arcade mode is the same semi-random series of 8 fights you've seen in nearly every fighting game of the last two decades, and the more substantial M.O.M. mode is a clever, boardgame-style diversion, but each quickly grows stale once you've picked up on how the game's AI approaches each fight. Story Mode, by contrast, features no gameplay at all. It would be described as a nearly feature-length cutscene, if it weren't for a few moments where the story briefly takes a break, allowing players to save their progress or visit a different part of the game. It's a very pretty cutscene, but unless you're deeply invested in the series' melodramatic plot, you probably won't watch it more than once. A Story Mode akin to that seen in the developer's Persona 4 Arena games, that punctuates lengthy chunks of exposition with actual combat every few minutes, would have been both more entertaining, and a better way to keep players interested in what's happening on screen.

For all its good looks, Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is ultimately disappointing. What the game does, it does very well, but the sum total feels lacking. Had Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- been released 10 years ago, its shortfalls could have been ignored in the face of tight gameplay mechanics and lovely graphics, but in 2014 the game just seems antiquated. Devoted Guilty Gear fans might be able to look past the dearth of characters, lacking gameplay options and poor online implementation to appreciate the game's best aspects, but everyone else would be better off finding another arena for their virtual fisticuffs.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS4 version of Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign-, provided by Aksys Games. Images: Aksys Games.

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