Arc System Works are the gift that just won’t stop giving. If you read my recent review of Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], you’ll know that I think that Arc System Works have delivered some of the most important fighting games of the past decade and are the definitive fighting game developer of this generation. While I have always loved the team’s output with their Guilty Gear and Blazblue series, and even bygone gems such as the Persona 4 Arena series, 2018’s Dragon Ball FighterZ was a pivotal moment in Arc’s history, taking a franchise with as much mass-appeal as Dragon Ball and texturing it in their iconic 3D animation, making a game that was as fun to watch as it was to play and culminating in one of the biggest competitive scenes and best-selling fighting games of this console generation. Being that Arc collaborated with Bandai Namco and Shueisha to make Dragon Ball FighterZ, many have wondered which franchises Arc will dip their toes into next. While 2019 saw them collaborate with developer APLUS for Kill la Kill: IF, a title that felt like a dream come true for many fans of TRIGGER’s anime, and Arc seems to be upping the ante with their next Guilty Gear title, Guilty Gear: Strive, I don’t think anybody expected them to collaborate with Japanese mobile titan Cygames for a hardcore fighting game conversion of their humongous Granblue Fantasy RPG. That said, while Granblue Fantasy doesn’t have the worldwide recognition of Dragon Ball Z, don’t underestimate it as Granblue Fantasy: Versus is every bit of what you have come to expect from Arc System Works, albeit for better or worse.
Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a 2.5D fighter in the style of Arc System Works’ past titles, such as Dragon Ball FighterZ and Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, right down to the gorgeous visual style used to bring the mobile game characters to life. The game sets itself apart mechanically from those titles, however, by using a slower and more deliberate approach to battle more akin to more traditional fighters, like Capcom’s Street Fighter series. With a roster of 11 base characters, each character has unique special moves based off their magic abilities in the source material, alongside their light, regular and heavy attacks. Specials have a shortcut attached to the shoulder button that changes based on the directional-input, something to ease in more casual players akin to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. franchise so as not to confuse them with Z-patterns and quarter-circles right out the gate. This isn’t to say that Granblue lacks depth though, manual inputs can also be used for specials, resulting in more damage combined with a shorter cooldown period, and each character also has two supers in the form of a ‘Skybound Art’ and a ‘Super Skybound Art’, both of which do major damage. The blocking system is reminiscent of SNK’s King of Fighters franchise with the ability to not only resist enemies’ attacks but also to dodge them outright either by being stationary or with added advancement. Overall, this more deliberate approach to anime fighting is a welcome change of pace for an Arc System Works title, and the balance between complex mechanics and newcomer-friendly controls leave the game feeling like a great compromise between pleasing hardcore and casual fighting game fans.
One of the bigger challenges when it comes to pleasing casual fighting game fans are the modes, and thankfully, Granblue Fantasy: Versus delivers; not with flying colours or anything but to a satisfying degree. The game features a story with its RPG mode, alongside the usual arcade mode, online modes and training and mission training modes. While the rest are par for the course and don’t require much explanation, the RPG mode is one of Granblue Fantasy: Versus’s most intriguing features. RPG mode includes an original story set after the anime adaptation’s first season and mixes up the gameplay by using the game’s mechanics in a 2D beat-em’-up style. The controls somewhat differ here, allowing for some more maneuverability, but ultimately feel uncomfortable since running is still on a cooldown, meaning a lot of combat encounters outstay their welcome because characters are stuck in their more fighting-orientated movement speeds. The mode is also broken up into missions, most of which amount to little more than defeating a group of enemies to progress the ultimately underwhelming story ever so slightly. It tries to add complexity by giving enemies elemental weaknesses and allowing the player to customise their weapons by adding elemental effects, leveling them up and uncapping them to level them up further, but when it’s all said and done, it feels like window dressing for what is essentially another confused attempt at a fighting game story mode. I can’t say I hated the mode, it certainly does justify the game’s price-tag in ways that many other fighting games don’t even attempt, and it serves as a fun introduction to the Granblue Fantasy universe, even enticing me to check out the anime adaptation on Netflix. Still, don’t go in expecting anything more than a clunky, cheaply put together story mode. It can, however, be played in online or local co-op, which may improve some peoples’ enjoyment.
What isn’t cheaply put together is Granblue Fantasy: Versus’s gorgeous visual presentation, utilising Arc System Works’ iconic 3D animation and camerawork with a beautifully realised art style that brings the mobile game’s character designs to life. What we’re left with are some truly fun and exciting characters to play as that all look and play distinctly from one another. The game’s UI and menus are also easy to use and feature some gorgeous character art from the designers of the mobile game. The music, based off Nobuo Uematsu’s original mobile game soundtrack, also oozes personality with some beautiful compositions accompanying the menus and exciting pieces for the battles, all topped off by a dual-audio voice language option that reunites both the anime’s Japanese and English voice casts for what feels like a true love letter to Granblue Fantasy fans.
While the game surely has a long lifespan ahead of it, it should be noted that as of right now, Lowain’s Super Skybound Art, which calls upon the goddess Yggdrasil, is pretty unbalanced and requires an incredibly masterful understanding of the game’s dodging and blocking systems to survive. Hopefully, balance patches upon the game’s official English release can fix this, and I have no doubt that this will be among Arc System Works’ first calls to action with the game’s meta. Due to this game being written before its official English release, I unfortunately couldn’t try out the game’s online modes to a comfortable enough extent to critique it; however, due to the game’s premature release in Asia, I did get to play a few matches online with players from Japan and Hong Kong, and I was disappointed (but ultimately not surprised) to learn that the game once again employs delay-based netcode that ArcSys has become synonymous with. Needless to say that my experience was dreadful, and I don’t expect it to improve by much when the final product does release, judging off of Arc’s previous work.
On another note, I’d be mistaken not to mention the game’s DLC roll-out, as Arc System Works and Cygames have been strangely blunt about. In a move I don’t think I have ever seen before, all of Granblue Fantasy: Versus’s first ‘Character Pass’ will be released by the end of April. That’s 5 characters in the span of 2 months, with boss character Beelzebub and newcomer Narmaya launching on the game’s North American release date of March 3rd, 2020. To top this off, the second Character Pass was also announced shortly before the game’s release. Fighting games have never been that shy from practicing shady DLC practices; however, this roll-out in particular raises some flags as it seems like Cygames or Arc System Works may have plucked a few characters from the game’s unusually small roster to be released later as paid DLC. Mobile developer Cygames have never been very shy from employing practices like this either, making use of a gatcha-based system in the original Granblue Fantasy mobile RPG as the game’s main source of income.
While it remains to be seen how the FGC will take to the game’s somewhat suspicious DLC rollout, Granblue Fantasy: Versus is yet another triumphant achievement from Arc System Works, marrying their gorgeous visual style with the charming character designs of the Japanese mobile hit in an incredibly fleshed-out and content-packed fighting game. While the RPG mode isn’t anything spectacular, it offers a story mode that fans and newcomers to the series will find enjoyable enough to acquaint them with the mechanics, and hopefully, the online netcode can improve in the future (but given Arc’s history, I wouldn’t hold my breath). Regardless of these issues though, Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a fighting game that is sure to be around for a long time, and rightfully so; nobody does it quite like Arc System Works.
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Cygames, Xseed Games
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release Date: 3rd March 2020