Release Date: March 3, 2020
Rating: T (Teen)
Platform: PlayStation 4 (also available on PC via Steam)
What’s It About?
As a franchise, Granblue Fantasy is something of a phenomenon in its native country of Japan. It’s primarily known for the 2014 free-to-play mobile and web browser RPG developed by Cygames, but its popularity has allowed it to branch out to animation, and now the console video game market with Granblue Fantasy: Versus. Characters in the mobile game can be obtained either by playing the story or by putting currency either virtual or very real into the game’s virtual “gacha” (capsule toy machine) roulette to win rare, highly sought-after waifus – uh, I mean characters. Given the popularity of these characters, it’s only natural for Cygames to publish a fighting game as its first spin-off. Arc System Works (Guilty Gear, BlazBlue) was tasked with development, and that alone should get the attention of any fan of fighting games.
Granblue Fantasy: Versus wants you to immediately know that it has more to offer than the standard one-on-one mode the genre is known for. In an effort to shepherd in newcomers, Versus puts its “RPG mode” front and center and encourages new players to try it out before anything else. The early portions of RPG mode function as a tutorial for both the one-on-one mechanics as well as the systems and mechanics unique to RPG mode. This mode pays homage to the franchise’s roots by utilizing gacha randomization to reward players with new weapons, but the frequency of obtaining rare weapons feels fair and there is no way to use real money to gain an advantage here.
RPG mode is a mixture of visual novel-style storytelling, weapon/character customization, and a “beat ‘em up” approach to the standard fighting mechanics. There are occasional traditional one-on-one fights in this mode, but the majority of the quests pit your chosen character against waves of grunt enemies such as slimes, goblins, and soldiers. Your character maintains all of their special moves and the only real difference in terms of control is that you immediately turn around when pressing the d-pad/analog stick in the opposite direction that you’re facing. There is a heavy emphasis placed on exploiting enemies’ elemental weaknesses, so it’s important to equip the correct weapon before starting a mission.
Multiplayer is not a focus of RPG mode, but you are given the option of playing most quests with a player-controlled ally either locally or online. My experience with trying this out online was somewhat laughable, as my low-level Gran was assisted by a level 80+ Japanese player who promptly wiped the floor with our opponent. Most quests are easy enough to tackle solo, but “Raid” quests, which pit you against a very powerful boss, are where multiplayer shines. Raid bosses tend to be unique to RPG mode (you’ll often fight a summoned “primal beast” rather than one of the playable characters), and it’s fun to divide and conquer with the assistance of another human being.
While the surprisingly lengthy RPG mode will appeal to more casual gamers, the one-on-one versus modes are what I was looking forward to this game for, and I have been having an absolute blast with them. Aside from a free training mode and a long list of “missions” that teach you some more advanced mechanics and combos, there is a traditional Arcade mode that pits you against a series of opponents and allows you to select the difficulty level prior to each match. Local versus is available, of course, along with several online options. You can wait for one-on-one matchmaking while in the menu or playing select modes, create/join a private room to play with friends, or join a public lobby that can host over 60 players. These lobbies feature Arc System Works’ standard interface, where your cute (or unsettling in the case of “buff” Vyrn) chibi avatar runs around emoting adorably before sitting down at a virtual arcade cabinet to play against another person in the lobby.
I experienced very little noticeable lag during my online matches, but as is the case with any competitive online game, your mileage may vary. The fighting game community seems to be mostly disappointed in the decision to go with “delay-based” netcode rather than the generally preferred “rollback” option, but this likely won’t ruin the experience for those who aren’t highly competitive within the community. I tried a handful of ranked matches and spent some time in a public lobby, but most of my online time was spent with friends in private rooms, and I very rarely felt that a match was compromised due to the netcode. At the very least, I’m happy to say that it was never a problem finding other people to play against.
Each of the eleven starting characters (thirteen, if you include two unlockable/purchasable characters available at launch) has their own unique set of special attacks as well as a character-specific ability that can be activated using the X button. Special attacks can be performed using Street Fighter-inspired button combinations or by simply pressing down, left or right while holding R1. Being able to so easily perform special attacks makes Granblue Fantasy Versus one of the more accessible fighting games out there, allowing just about anyone the opportunity to jump right in and be competitive. Each special attack has its own cooldown timer, and more skilled players are slightly rewarded with reduced cooldown for performing moves using the full input method.
Versus’ art direction is where the game really stands out. The vibrant, cel-shaded 3D graphics are reminiscent of Arc System Works’ own Dragon Ball FighterZ and Guilty Gear Xrd, but Versus has even more impressive visuals. I’ll even go one step further and say that it just might be the prettiest fighting game I’ve ever seen! Animations are fluid while still retaining a very minor, intentional choppiness to make it look more like an anime show than a video game.
Each character’s personality shines through thanks to the superb art direction. Take for example, the idle animations. Zeta’s cocky sway sharply contrasts with Katalina’s disciplined, rigid stance. You instantly get a feel for each character’s personality, and by extension, fighting style, through these subtle animations. The game’s music and sound are every bit as impressive as its graphics, with a lush, orchestral score that perfectly fits the breathtaking, cloud-strewn vistas. Several character themes even contain rousing vocals that do a perfect job of adding excitement to the battle.
RPG mode is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise traditional fighting game, but it’s not without its faults. I appreciate being able to tackle one or two short quests when I have some time to kill, but many of the quests are simply too short. It’s not unusual to spend more time upgrading and equipping an appropriate weapon for a quest than on the quest itself. Just as you feel warmed up after taking down a dozen or so relatively harmless goblins, the quest just… ends. Inventory management can also become tedious, as you often have to deal with many duplicate items, which are needed in order to upgrade weapons.
While the starting roster is varied and well-balanced, it is disappointing that two characters were not immediately available at launch. Both can be unlocked by purchasing a $20 season pass that will offer an additional three characters over the coming months (as of the time of this review, there are a total of 15 characters), but this is far from ideal for those who just plunked down $60 for the standard edition of the game. This season pass approach has sadly become the norm for fighting game publishers these days, though games like Samurai Shodown (2019) kindly offered their season pass for free to those who purchased the game during the launch window.
As discussed already, those expecting a flawless online experience might be disappointed by what Versus has to offer. If you’re the type who only tolerates playing against other players with wired connections, or don’t have the patience to handle the occasional combo dropped due to input delay, this might not be the game for you. It can also be difficult to find someone of a comparable skill level when in one of the larger lobbies. Stars are helpfully displayed over other players of similar skill, but if you’re waiting for a challenger at a virtual arcade, there’s no knowing who will show up for a match.
Granblue Fantasy Versus does an excellent job of taking the captivating world and characters of the mobile game and incorporating them into a fun and addictive fighting game. It offers a little something for everyone, but the main appeal still lies in its fast-paced, one-on-one gameplay. The game looks and sounds amazing and has enough content to help acclimate newcomers to the various systems while also having enough depth with its mechanics to entrance hardcore fighting game fans. It’s the most intriguing new fighting game series I have seen in years, and while its overall longevity has yet to be proven, I can’t wait to see how it is iterated upon over the next year or two.