In a market that's seen Street Fighter
pretty much dominate the popular opinion when it comes to 2D fighting games, the arrival of Arc System Works' Guilty Gear
series was something I always appreciated. As a longtime fan of the genre and a supporter of games like King of Fighters
, Samurai Shodown
, I was glad to welcome one last sprite-based brawler before 3D completely took over. But what made Guilty Gear
even easier to accept, however, was the fact that its gameplay mechanics were incredibly good. It managed to take a few vaguely familiar notions like the fireball and hurricane kick and expanded upon them considerably. In Guilty Gear
we now had the ability to dash towards our foes in mid-air, launch them vertically with the dust button for spectacular air juggles, and finish them off with an imaginative one-hit "Destroyed" maneuver. There was really nothing like it and to this day it's still a blast to play.
Unfortunately for fans looking for extreme upgrades over the years, the evolution of the Guilty Gear franchise has been somewhat slow. The PSOne, Dreamcast, and PS2 have all been privileged enough to get their own versions, but the differences between them have been akin to those that separate the forty-six million upgrades to Street Fighter II. Songs are remixed, characters are balanced, and a couple of other gameplay tweaks are added, but on the whole they're essentially the same game with minor enhancements. Albeit fantastic ones.
Guilty Gear Isuka, on the other hand, is another story. This time, Arc System Works has decided to go in another direction entirely with customization and multi-person functionality. At first this new approach sounds like a terrific idea too, and one that the series could definitely benefit from. But once you sit down to explore these changes in practice, it quickly becomes apparent that this newly realized fighting system has made some rather negative changes -- turning what used to be one of the best fighting games on the PlayStation 2 into one that's simply "good." Not that being a good fighter is a bad thing, mind you, not in the least. But when compared to the previous two Guilty Gear releases on PS2 (which were ass-kicking phenomena), Guilty Gear Isuka definitely falls short.
It's quite a surprising development really, as the number of upgrades available in Isuka appears to be a fighting fan's wet dream. Taking a cue from other slugfests like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Power Stone, Isuka is the first in the series to support four different people at once. But in order to keep all four players completely aware of whom they're attacking and to help supply some strategy, the development team has also implemented two key changes to the mechanics.
The first change is a rather subtle one: resurrecting Fatal Fury's old school idea of using a foreground and background for two different planes of existence. In theory, this will allow two different sets of fighters to go at it without interference from another pair -- while also equipping them with an alternative way to avoid projectiles and attacks other than blocking. But the second change to the fighting system, and by far the most dramatic, is the inclusion of a turn button. Assigned by default to R1, this new addition helps users switch back and forth between opponents on the fly. As you might have guessed, it was quite an adjustment to make after spending years playing 2D fighters that were always auto-target; but in the context of playing with three other people, its inclusion certainly makes sense. And when playing the fun tag team matches in groups of two on two, it really works quite well. But then things begin to break down.
Guilty Gear's downward spiral can be attributed to one key factor: the turn button has been implemented in Isuka's single-player game too. The decision to do this is truly baffling, as players would have been better served to face the computer's faster reaction times using the same auto-turn ability that we've enjoyed in dozens of games before this.
But because the setup is the way it is, Guilty Gear Isuka feels far too clunky when playing anything besides team versus matches. Players that turn their difficulty setting all the way down to the beginner mode probably won't mind this system as much, but for anyone that plays it on Normal or higher, the excellent AI will constantly exploit this new configuration. Don't be too shocked then, when you discover that your opponents will hop back and forth between the two planes while switching directions rather frequently. Meaning that in the end, the majority of your contests degrade into a steady game of cat and mouse where simply catching up your opponent feels like a victory itself.
The single-player frustration continues with the new GG Boost mode -- A novel idea that borrows its side-scrolling inspiration from games like Final Fight and Knights of the Round. Boost could have been a terrific action tack-on to help fill the void when not playing the regular game too, if not for its need to use the Turn button just like a one-on-one match. Why should there be a need to manually flip yourself in the other direction in a side-scrolling hack and slash just because you need it for four-player? It just doesn't make any sense.
As a two-player game Guilty Gear Isuka fares much better, though. When taking on an opponent of equal or superior skill level, the game can be quite addicting and fun; it'll really grow on you. Unlike the last two PS2 titles, however, Isuka is more about positioning and defense than juggles and offense (especially since you now have the ability to stock multiple health bars and use back attacks). Because of this, you can expect a slightly slower-paced match than what you may be used to. There has also been a significant balancing shift in terms of the characters abilities as well; Millia-Rage, for example, is a lot less dominant than she was in previous games while the giant Potempkin has become quite the powerhouse.
Gameplay issues aside, I do have to admit that I was won over by Isuka's healthy selection of customization options. Though the interface and menu system may not be the user-friendliest in the world, it does offer some strong flexibility for two specific options: Color Edit and the Robo-Ky Factory. Color Edit is exactly what it sounds like -- an editor for changing the costume colors for any fighter in the game. But rather than just giving you the ability to swap primary hues, you can literally change the color of anything (whether it's their belt buckle or hairdo). You can even create multiple schemes if you like, allowing you all sorts of creative possibilities.
But when it comes to creative possibilities, it's the factory mode that's truly the standout feature. Essentially a create-a-character option that's been hiked up to eleven, it enables players the freedom to customize their version of Robo-Ky in any way they like. This option goes far beyond a color scheme or basic moveset alteration, however, by allowing you to adjust the speed, attack, charge, aerial, and even weight-specific attributes of your alter ego. You can even adjust the Roman Cancel moves of your character if you wish and create individual profiles for individual Robo-Kys. It's a terrific idea to be sure and one that can be tremendously rewarding if you choose to stick with it long enough. The only hitch is that you have to play through Boost mode in order to earn the experience necessary to really pimp your guy out.
Another area in which Guilty Gear Isuka really excels are the visuals. Though most of the sprites have been reused from previous games, they still trump just about any other 2D fighter on the block except for maybe Street Fighter III. But even then, Isuka runs at a much higher resolution and boasts a huge collection of animations that are among the best in the biz. Those animations and the detailed character sprites are made even better by some of my favorite character designs this generation. Fighters like Dizzy, Millia, Venom, and I-No are completely different from anything else in the genre. And even the more generic characters such as Ky, Sol, and Chipp are unique enough to warrant some deep appreciation.
For the first time in what feels like forever, new backgrounds have been added to Guilty Gear Isuka too. Rooftops, haunted libraries, and strange high-contrast graveyards are but a few of the new locations that players can expect to experience (though they may be a bit disappointed with the lack of animation or depth that they contain). It really is nice to see a change of environment after all those years of playing the same areas over and over again, though.
The same can be said about Guilty Gear's soundtrack as well. Boasting a better collection of theme songs than the previous versions, it's definitely the best score in the franchise so far. Voices and audio effects are nearly identical to what the older games had to offer, however, so don't expect much of a change in that department.
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