Reviewer’s Note: This review is based on the Singapore version of Granblue Fantasy: Versus, which was released on February 6, 2020. It contains full English language support along with access to North American servers. The North American release date of Granblue Fantasy: Versus is set for March 3, 2020.
It might not be a household name on this side of the Pacific yet, but Granblue Fantasy is a big deal. The mobile gacha-style JRPG from Cygames has an active player base of more than 24 million players, there’s a popular anime adaptation, and now with Granblue Fantasy: Versus, there’s an excellent Arc System Works fighting game that turns out to be a match made in heaven… Or at least a match made in the Phantagrande Skydom. Granblue Fantasy: Versus might be a little light on the quantity of characters included, and its story mode is a small sour spot, but it’s nonetheless a fantastic new start for what will no doubt be another major staple in the ArcSys fighting game family, providing a much more grounded and neutral-heavy alternative to Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, or DragonBall FighterZ while still packing all of the depth and personality one would expect from those games.
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Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a four-button fighting game made up of light, medium, and heavy attacks, along with a character-specific unique attack, akin to Injustice’s trait abilities or Street Fighter 5’s V-Skills. On the defensive side of that, you can also use quick spot dodges or invulnerable dashes called “cross-overs” that can smoothly dodge past projectiles or close the distance through an opponent’s heavy attack.
What’s particularly notable about Granblue’s fighting system is that there’s none of the traditional combo logic of lights leading into mediums or mediums into heavies. Instead, each character essentially has three auto combos, performed by mashing either the light, medium or heavy buttons. You can cancel a special move at any time during these auto combos, but that’s about all you can do. With few exceptions, there are no launchers, no fancy air combos, and no combo extenders – at least outside of the corner. That may sound awful to hardcore fighting game purists who crave those flashy technical combos, but it’s a sacrifice worth making to carve out a unique identity for Granblue as a grounded, fundamentals-driven anime fighter, and Granblue is better for it.
Also, the lack of big combos in the mid-screen makes it even more important to push your opponent into the corner, which is where those big, scary, and highly technical combos are still very much alive.
Most importantly though, is how it is one of the easiest entry points into fighting games thanks to two factors: its limited focus on complex combos, and its approach to special move inputs, the latter of which borrows a little bit from Super Smash Bros., of all places. Each character has four special moves that can be performed by pressing a direction (except for up) and the special button, or just the button by itself. These moves can be enhanced by pressing circle as well, but instead of being tied to a meter, they just are put on cooldown after you use them.
However, the interesting point of balance here is that these moves can also all be performed with traditional fighting game inputs, and if you don’t rely on the “Smash Brothers” inputs, you won’t have to deal with cooldowns unless you use the enhanced version. It’s wonderfully simple, non-intrusive on high-level play, and gives people a chance to try out archetypes that might usually be outside of their wheelhouse due to unusual command inputs. For example, a grappler like Ladiva who uses 360-degree rotation inputs, or a charge character like Charlotta both become much easier to get the hang of.
Meter is only used for supers, and it builds really quick, which is nice because it means you’ll almost always have that ace in the hole when you need it in order to mount a comeback. My one issue with the whole thing essentially boils down to one character: Lowain.
I love Lowain as a character, but fighting him becomes extremely frustrating when – every round – he’s able to summon a gigantic boss fight in Yggdrasil that can absolutely melt your life with nearly zero risk to himself. There are ways to deal with Yggdrasil, for sure, but it essentially boils down to a reflex test, forcing you to dodge each move differently to optimally defend yourself without suffering an immense chip of unblockable damage. When you also have to factor in delay-based netcode when playing online, it sometimes becomes more of a guessing game than anything else. This is all stuff that will likely be tweaked as Versus goes on via patches, but expect to have to deal with this a lot during the first few weeks of online play.
Speaking of online play, I was able to have about 100 ranked matches over the course of my playtime, and while Granblue still uses delay-based netcode as opposed to the preferred rollback netcode of games like Killer Instinct and Mortal Kombat 11, only one of the matches that I played had any significant issues with lag. Of course, it’s hard to make a judgment call one way or the other until it’s out worldwide, but for now, online play seems solid, with the usual cute ArcSys lobby system and its chibi avatars.
Teach Me How to Play!
Special mention also needs to be made to Granblue’s exemplary suite of tutorial options. Its command list, in particular, is a near-gold standard in the genre by cleanly displaying all the usual information, while also having a short description of what the move is, what it’s used for, and whatever small intricacies it has. This is where you’ll find details like the fact that Percival’s Macht special move leaves you at advantage even when blocked, or that Ferry’s enhanced anti-air special has invulnerability. It’d be perfect if it had the frame data listed as well, but near perfection isn’t bad.
The actual tutorial itself is great too, in that it doesn’t waste your time teaching you how to move left and right, keeps its lessons brief and doesn’t overload them with jargon, and has multiple objectives that encourage deeper exploration of what is being taught. My favorite aspect, though, is how it gives you match-up advice, telling you how to deal with certain strong aspects of each character. My only wish is that it went a little bit deeper. There are only two match-up missions per character, and certain extremely strong techniques, like Zeta’s pogo bouncing aerial, and Lowain’s aforementioned Yggdrasil super, aren’t given a pre-made space for you to practice against them.
Granblue Final Fantasy
Disappointingly, despite Granblue Fantasy’s origin as a mobile RPG, the actual RPG mode inside Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a bust. I admittedly wasn’t familiar with Granblue’s story at the start, so character relationships and references to prior events went totally over my head, but even after watching several episodes of the anime to get a grasp on the world and who some of the characters are, the cookie-cutter plot failed to deliver anything beyond a predictable island-hopping adventure where the main characters systematically go through the roster and free them each from the villain’s control/corruption.
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The actual gameplay doesn’t do RPG mode any favors either. It attempts to blend a 2D fighter with a 2D beat-em-up, and it just doesn’t work without any dramatic changes made to the core mechanics of Granblue. Enemies offer up barely any resistance, most mini-boss fights end up being an unfair 2-on-1 pummeling with you and your human or AI-controlled partner, and the big boss fights sometimes have these annoying DPS races at the end where if you fail to deal enough damage before the boss uses their final attack, you have to start the whole thing over.
There’s also a convoluted loot system that basically just serves to give you a way to get your stats up in order to meet the artificial difficulty of increasingly statistically stronger but mechanically identical enemies. I tried to ignore it at times to see if it would alleviate the lack of challenge, but it didn’t, and made me regret the decision when I couldn’t kill a boss before his final attack.
Quality Over Quantity… But More Quantity Would be Nice
Granblue’s roster, while slim at only 11 characters, is made up of some of the most endearing and entertaining fighting game characters in some time. A lot of this is due to the fact that the characters and animations are just jaw-droppingly beautiful, with Arc System Works’ patented style of using 3D models to mimic the look of highly detailed 2D sprites, but much of it can also be attributed to the amount of personality that they exude in battle. Whether it’s Charlotta’s adorable quirk of standing on boxes to make herself appear taller, Lowain and his group of bros strategizing before a fight, or Ladiva’s hilarious pro wrestling super move that ends with a 3 count if it finishes the opponent. Every unique pre-fight or post-fight interaction put a smile on my face, and they’re also wonderfully personalized to illustrate the relationships between the two fighting characters.
And even though the roster is small, there’s a ton of variety here in how each character is played. Gran and Katalina serve as the entry level fundamentals driven characters, Metera is a pure zoner, Lancelot is all about rushdown and coming at you from tricky and unpredictable angles, and my personal favorite, Percival, is a mid-range powerhouse who excels at throw mix ups.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that 11 is a paltry number of characters for a modern fighting game launch, and with five announced DLC characters that are planned for release by the end of April, it’s hard not to feel like content has been held back for the sake of DLC, which sucks.