"...opening the doors to new players is only going to be a good thing in the long run. "
It feels like a long time since we got any proper Granblue Fantasy: Relink news, right? While the gacha game, simply titled Granblue Fantasy, is booming worldwide, many of us are waiting for a brand-new action RPG to sink our teeth into that looks smooth to play and visually stunning. Then, as a way of easing the wait and becoming familiar with the Granblue universe, Arc System Works and Cygames have teamed up to create Granblue Fantasy: Versus (GBVS), a fighting game that brings the RPG franchise to consoles for the first time.
As expected for an Arc System Works fighter, GBVS is stunning to look at. I remember when Guilty Gear Xrd hit and I didn't think anime fighters would ever look better, yet with every new release, the studio stuns me once again. GBVS is no exception. Seeing character art from Hideo Minaba (who was the Art Director for Final Fantasy IX, among other things) come to life is truly stunning. Super moves and dashes look perfect, things as simple as hair swaying in the breeze or water flowing are mesmerising, and the watercolour backgrounds are serene and gorgeous.
On booting up GBVS, it's really tempting to dive straight into the single-player modes, but I highly recommend going into Training mode, or the Training Missions more specifically, first. Here, you go through a series of missions which teach you step-by-step how to play a fighting game. These range from tutorials on blocking, activating super moves (known as a Skybound Arts), to even more complicated manoeuvres. Even better, there are character-specific tutorials which teach you how to get the most out of your fighter of choice. Getting through these might be a bit tricky at first because there are bound to be moves and inputs you're unfamiliar with, but I urge you to put the effort into these missions. There's even a section covering all of the terminology that can completely baffle newcomers! I love this approach to training, and I hope more fighting game developers implement something similar in the future.
It also helps that GBVS is a slower, more ground-based fighter than its cousins. Guilty Gear and BlazBlue rely on air-dashes and complicated button inputs to create some real magic, but here, the developers have acknowledged that many people picking up the game will be new to the genre. Character specific skills are mapped to a single button, and powerful abilities and combos only take two button inputs as opposed to four or five. The longer inputs are also there for veterans, but giving the player the choice is a simple idea that I very rarely see implemented in fighting games. Even blocking gets its own dedicated button, which for most fighting games relies on you pressing the opposite directional button to the way that you're facing. This doesn't make the game easier by any means, — it still takes a lot of practice to really get good — but this simplified approach is exactly what the genre needs to win new fans.
I was initially wary of the small roster of characters (11, not including DLC characters), but I quickly realised each of them plays a very specific fighting game role. You have Gran and Katalina, your two all-rounders, one who has a bit more range than the other. Then there's Metera, a zoner, who focuses on keeping their distance from the enemy and primarily relies on projectile attacks. I'm pretty fond of the rekka archetype, so dual-wielder Lancelot, who specialises in chaining attacks and high speed fit my playstyle perfectly. Each character feels extremely unique, so even with this smaller cast of characters, there's enough variety that I had a lot of fun trying everyone out for a couple of fights.
Getting into the meat of the single-player content, you might be a little more ambivalent. Versus mode and Arcade mode will be familiar to most, but what makes GBVS' single-player content distinctive is its RPG mode. Unfortunately, given its origins as an RPG, I found this to be very disappointing. The story is your typical anime fighting game nonsense, and as the introduction to Granblue, a game in a category that focuses on story and worldbuilding, I really wanted more out of the world. At least the characters are goofy and fun to keep things amusing.
My main gripes with this mode, however, are with the gameplay. Most of the fights are against mobs of generic enemies which you either have to survive against for a certain amount of time or kill everything. Your characters do level up as you move on, but it barely made a difference, and you never need to grind. There are raid battles against story characters or larger enemies, and these are a lot of fun. The larger bosses in-particular are great because they feel like proper boss fights, requiring you to dodge lasers or memorise patterns. I wish there were more of these to help break up the repetitiveness. At least you unlock a harder difficulty after beating the story, but it's simply the same content you've already beaten, jacked up.
One big blemish on the game throughout was the load times. In every mode, between fights, with local multiplayer and online, I was hit with long load times, sometimes upwards of 10 seconds. If I'm playing a fighting game, I like things to be quick. The loading should be short in order to keep me engaged, but regardless of mode or online capacity, I was often waiting upwards of 10 seconds between fights. This is also a consistent issue when you boot up the game or go online, as you wait for the game to connect to the server each time.
Then there's actual online play, probably the most important part of modern-day fighting games. Most of my time online was pretty solid. I managed to consistently find players to fight against, but there were more than a few matches where I experienced dipped framerates and delayed button inputs. This is part of a wider, ongoing issue in the fighting game community, and Arc System Works fighting games in particular: the game uses a delay-based netcode, which essentially means that in situations where one player's inputs are delayed, the other players inputs are forcibly delayed to match, so both inputs "happen" at the same time. This, at best, can cause fights to be a little slower, but at worst, cause them to be near-unplayable, and makes the game look like it's running through molasses. It's simply not good enough for a genre that lives and dies by its online play. Rollback is the way forward. I recommend reading this excellent article on Fightin' Words
to see just what the bigger issues with delay-based systems are, and what makes rollback the preferred netcode of choice. Fortunately, it looks like Arc System Works have finally listened
as they will be implementing rollback netcode into their next game, Guilty Gear Strive.
Fortunately for Granblue Fantasy: Versus, I think its accessible tutorials and easy-to-pick-up gameplay are going to appeal to a lot of existing Granblue fans, as well as people who have been anxious to get into the genre for a while. Fighting in this game is extremely fun and opening the doors to new players is only going to be a good thing in the long run. I appreciate the attempt at making a more varied single-player campaign too, and while I understand these games survive on their online play and longevity, I still think the game could have done better with its RPG mode. But as my first proper fighting game in around five years, it felt good to slip back into the fray, and this was the perfect game to help me do just that.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.