Fighting games, or at least beat ’em ups in particular, seem to fall into two categories: hyper-realistic simulations of violence and brutality, or brightly coloured explosions to the senses.
Insane character rosters, both in size and personality, screen-filling special moves, and that’s before we get into the convoluted anime-esque storylines, there’s plenty to pick from. Chances are, if any of the above examples that came to mind were any of the BlazBlue’s, Dragonball FighterZ, Guilty Gear’s or even the Persona beat ’em up, you’ll instantly recognise the craft behind Granblue Fantasy Versus.
Continuing their tradition of picking obscure titles with weird sounding names, Granblue Fantasy Versus is Arc System Work’s latest offering, based on a game that released six years ago on, of all things, mobile platforms.
So will this oddly named, barely-heard-of-in-the-West beat ’em up find a new crowd with its stunning visuals and easy to pick up, hard to master gameplay, or disappear into the ether like most other games do? Let’s prepare for battle and fight our way to a verdict…
Stories?! Them’s Fightin’ Words!
You’ll have to pardon my ignorance at the source material, as I’d honestly never heard of it prior to playing this at EGX with Sean. Fans of the podcast will know that I rarely, if ever, touch mobile gaming. So the fact that the main game this is borne from is a six-year-old title, despite the inclusion of several Final Fantasy veterans, completely slipped me by.
Arc System have catered for this though, with a story recap at the beginning of its RPG mode. We’ll delve into that mode later on, I just wanted to lay some groundwork for the story first. Again, you’ll have to excuse me if this is the abridged version, I haven’t watched the 2017 animated series either.
The story thus far tells of a war between two warring states, the Imperial and Erste Empires, with our heroes on the Imperial side. One day, a day like any other, the Ertse Empire attack a town they’re relaxing in. Main protagonist Gran is mortally wounded, but saved by the powers of a mysterious girl named Lyria. This links the two, as their journey takes them on many an adventure escaping the forces after Lyria, whilst learning more about themselves and their friends along the way.
As I said, this is expanded on more in the RPG mode, but we’re not really here for a grandiose tale of love, life and loss across four discs and some hundred hours. We’re here to beat some beautiful shades of snot out of each other with weapons, super moves and a massive colour palette of uniform swaps and look good whilst doing it. That being said, the RPG mode is an integral part of the lore, so it’s worth checking out in between bouts. But like I said, we’ll delve into the modes a bit later on.
What people want to know in this day and age of beat ’em ups is the variety of fighters we’ll get to practice and pulverise people with. Sadly, this is where Granblue (and gaming as a whole generalisation) lets us down: at base level, there are only eleven fighters to choose from. Sure, that may sound alright, considering the original Tekken had eight at the start. The difference is that you could unlock them in Tekken, you didn’t have to pay for them on top of the full game you’d just bought.
Fortunately (and this isn’t a boast), I was granted a deluxe edition of the game to review, which brought my total player roster up to… sixteen. Which is still fairly admirable, but again paltry to the likes of Street Fighter IV with its eventual forty four fighters to get good with. Granted, that also came at the expense of several iterations of the game, but it’s a damn sight more range than this game.
Yet what Granblue Fantasy: Versus lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Each of the fighters on this list has their own story to tell, as well as a range of different personalities, weapons, fighting styles, motivations, the lot. Whilst some are of the same race, be it Human, Draph, Erune or Harvin, no two play the same. Main hero Gran falls into the most “vanilla” of fighter character, whilst his female DLC counterpart Djeeta (who players could choose instead in the mobile game) plays much the same way. You’ve got your big lads, in the shape of Vaseraga; an Asteroth-esque bulk who fights for good and Ladiva; a transgender woman who fights like a more fabulous version of Zangief.
Then there’s Lancelot and Percival, names familiar to anyone who knows their knight lore, who wield different weapons and styles: the former armed with two short swords, the latter with a flaming greatsword. Katalina, a former officer in the Erste Empire rounds up the knightly trio of characters, acting as the more balanced of the main character types. It’s then that we start broadening the spectrum somewhat.
On the other end of the height scale, there’s Charlotta, the only Harvin (read: small) character who wields a comically large sword and a bigger punch. Vaseraga’s partner Zeta wields a snarky attitude and a giant spear, whilst Lowain is a roguish character who’s in-battle support characters can disorientate and add more damage on the sly.
Of course, I could just sit here and list off all the rest of the characters, their skills and flaws, but then where would be the fun in that? Half the joy of a new fighting game is discovering new fighters for yourself, what you like and what you won’t touch. Of the three hundred hours that I’d dedicated to Street Fighter IV, a good third of those are from random character battles. Hell, I used to hate Vega and M. Bison as characters, both story and moveset, and now I have massive portraits of them on my chest. Tangent aside, my point is getting used to the unknown can be fun if you put the time in.
Hit ’em With The Old Razzle Dazzle
If any of our faithful readers have played 2018’s excellent Dragonball FighterZ, you’ll be familiar with how Granblue Fantasy: Versus plays, more so in terms of visuals than controls. For those that haven’t, prepare to have your eyeballs melted.
Arc System know how to do “anime-inspired fighter” to a tee, given how much practice they’ve had at it. Even before the likes of BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, the company has developed many a game that fits the Eastern-looking stereotype, going as far back as a Sailor Moon title in 1995. As the adage goes, you’ll only get better at something the more you practice it (which is somewhat synonymous with fighting games, funnily enough) and Arc have really honed their craft with this one.
Now, you may be aware that I’m not technically minded. Whilst I appreciate what Digital Foundry do, I couldn’t tell you the science behind it. My mantra is pretty simple: I sees what I likes, and I likes what I sees. Honestly, when Sean and I were doing rounds of the EGX showfloor, this game caught my attention. To say it’s beautiful would be an understatement, yet nor is it hyperbole. Gorgeous animations in the combat, as well as the Skybound Art attacks, keep up with the sometimes fast and frantic on-screen action. Character models are a thing of beauty, instead of just being bland templates with slightly different anime hairstyles. The introductions at the start of battles are fully voiced and contextual, so you actually feel invested in how the two combatants know or interact with each other.
Of course, you didn’t come here to see me waffle on about how a game looks, so let’s instead look at how it plays. Naturally, the main standing point of a one-on-one fighter is how it handles. What’s the point of having a good looking cake if it’s hollow inside?
As previously mentioned, Arc take on the weird and wonderful fighters, but that doesn’t mean the combat itself has to mimic it. It’s actually quite straightforward, with attacks varying in flavours of light, medium, heavy and special. Much like Dragonball FighterZ, there’s an auto-combo system to get used to; stringing three light attacks, for example, will land a few decent hits if the first one connects.
Yet it’s the newest special move mechanic that takes some getting used to, despite being the simplest looking of them all. You see, the R1 button is the designated “special move” trigger, whilst under each character’s life bar you’ll see four tiles: one looking like a hadouken/projectile, whilst the others have directional prompts. Hitting R1 and the corresponding direction (or on its own for a projectile) activates it, whilst adhering to a cooldown after each use. Hitting the Circle button (on PS4, at least) enhances the move, much like an EX special move in Street Fighter, at the cost of a longer cooldown time.
It means that while it may look initially easy to rely on direction-based, one/two button simpler special moves, the more you play and practice you begin to see that these can be used tactically, and somewhat sparingly. Sure, familiar players will know better about keeping range with fireballs before closing in with uppercuts and power moves, but that’s half the fun of learning a new game and its mechanics. You’re not going to master each or any of the characters right from the off, as all the special moves vary from fighter to fighter, but that’s half the fun in a game like this. No one mastered Rocket League straight away, no one was the best at Quake overnight. The only advice I can give is to get stuck in, whether it be against the AI, your mates or even online, as the old expression goes: practice makes perfect.
That being said, the Skybound Arts are all one universal input, but have a few variations to keep things interesting. A Skybound Art is achieved by filling the gauge under the health bar to 100%, which can then be pulled off by a fireball D-pad roll (down, down-right, right for those unfamiliar) and the R1 button. These are akin to Super moves from Street Fighter, complete with light show and scathing repartee to really salt the wound. That, and they do a considerable chunk of damage if you’re in need of evening things out.
But that’s not all the Skybound Arts have to offer, oh no. There’s the Super Skybound Art too, which is the real treat to the senses. Drawing parallels to Mortal Kombat 11 this time with its newly revamped Xray system, Granblue’s plays out pretty much the same way. Provided you’ve got your meter charged, if your health drops below 30% and you activate it, and it hits, you’re treated to an enhanced version of the move with an accompanying cinematic. It’s a thing of beauty, showcasing the beautiful artwork and particle effects on offer, and well worth saving up meter for if you’re getting a bit smacked about.
But spectacle and presentation alone aren’t enough to carry a game. What else does Granblue Fantasy: Versus have tucked away in its content?
We’ve All Got a Role to Play In This Fantasy
So, this is the point where I finally get into the RPG mode of this beat ’em up. It seems almost contradictory, having a mode like this in a predominantly fighting game, but it’s nothing really new or innovative. Tekken 3 had its Tekken Force mode, Soul Calibur has Weapon Master mode, so why not have something like this in to bolster the title?
Well, first and foremost, it expands on the lore of the Granblue universe. Like I said, this is a six year old property with an animated series, so there’s going to be some homework to get stuck into (if you want to). Admittedly I’m only a few chapters in, so my summary nearer the beginning of the review is all you’re getting on that front for now. But more importantly, it’s how it plays that players may find intriguing/infuriating.
Each time you enter the mode, you’re given a world map-like presentation of the islands you can visit. In each of these lie the missions available to you, mostly numerically driven, but offering the occasional flashback or challenge tucked in there for good measure as well. Before you start a mission, you’re usually granted some text-based, narrated dialogue to keep the story beats ticking along. For the subs versus dubs crowd, these are available in both English and Japanese, because we all know that argument rages on in the anime world.
But it’s how the missions themselves play out that’s the sticking point here. Still 2D, levels can either be in wave/horde-style format in which you take out a set number of enemies, or hit a certain criteria of an objective, or you take on other named characters in battles. For the most part, it works fine, but RPG mode gives the player the option to move right or left onscreen, as enemies come in from both sides. The inherent flaw then, if you haven’t spotted it, is that in can mess up directional move inputs. By that, you could hit the directional prompt slightly before the special move button and instead get turned around. It’s not an absolute deal-breaker, it’s just a mild inconvenience to get used to. That being said, some characters have been catered to in that regard. Ladiva, for example, has a Spinning Piledriver input in the main game (two full spins of the D-pad/thumbstick) that is impractical here, so it’s been modified to the normal super move input instead.
Granblue’s RPG mode is more than just a namesake with some different level types though, as it does have an actually decent role playing aesthetic going on too. You can level up characters and their weapons as you progress, swapping out and playing around with what you feel is bet, or to exploit enemy weaknesses. It’s not as packed out as your Grandia’s or Breath of Fire’s, but it’s still a nice inclusion. The final caveat being that if you fancy it, but don’t want to rely on it, you can have an AI companion join you too.
It’s a nice little mode that expands on the lore and world-building of Granblue, something usually missing in games that whittle down to “just smack the other person until they’re knocked out”. It’ll appease the fans who want to expand their knowledge, as well as broaden the minds of those unfamiliar with the series in the first place… like me.
Besides a Punch, What Else Is It Packing?
It seems weird in this day and age that we expect more and more from beat ’em ups, considering the core concept is just literally that of Thunderdome: two men enter, one man leaves.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve been shafted several times with this whole “pay more money for fighters” scheme that we expect more now, otherwise paying full whack for a game like this seems hollow. And whilst Arc Systems are guilty of it too, there’s at least a decent amount of content for those willing to seek it out in Granblue Fantasy: Versus. There’s still your standard fleet of Arcade, Versus, Online and Training modes that you’d come to expect. Arcade has a nice little twist to it though: instead of having one default difficulty at the start, after each fight you can choose your next opponent and relevant difficulty spike/drop attached to their name. So you can challenge yourself further, or take it easier if you found that last match a bit of a toughy.
Behind the scenes, there’s a massive glossary to be found of all the characters, the lore, the world of Granblue and everything in between, but there’s one extra tab that had me genuinely impressed. Arc have thought to add a terminology for fighting game moves: not just in Granblue, but across the spectrum of fighters. So for casuals that don’t know what mix-ups, wake ups, block stuns or whiffs are, now is your chance to bone up on them. It might not make you a better play, but it may give you the chance to recognise certain tells when playing others.
Believe in Victory
On the whole, then, I absolutely adore Granblue Fantasy: Versus. It doesn’t punish players who are new to 2D fighters, nor does it make it easy to cheese your way through the higher echelons of the online world. It’s simple enough to pick up, yet it wants you to learn the nuances of its special move system and varied fighters to see what works best for you.
I’d heard about connectivity and net code issues with the online, but I couldn’t say I’d played enough online to form a decisive opinion (read: I played a few games online and got stuffed). There’s a whole range of customisable options to unlock for each fighter, and the RPG mode is a deep enough dive should you want look into it, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.
But my initial reaction wasn’t clickbait hyperbole: it really is a beautiful game. As I’ve said, Arc System Works have only continued to hone their craft and have offered this stunning, smooth and fast-paced fighter as a testament to that. I don’t think it’ll have as big an audience as other genre mainstays, but if you’re a fan of Guilty Gear or Dragonball FighterZ, this is well worth checking out.
Absolutely stunning and well crafted, its only real let down is the smaller-than-most character roster (that isn’t an extra cost).
Granblue Fantasy: Versus is available now on PS4 (reviewed) and PC.
Developer: Arc System Works
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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