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Good lord, is Guilty Gear Xrd pretty and impenetrable

In the past couple years, fighting games have reached a bit of an impasse as far as their relevance outside of the capitol-F Fighting Game Community. Street Fighter IV’s 2009 release mined 90s kids’ hearts and reignited the general public’s interest in the genre that never quite sustained its pop culture status beyond Street Fighter II’s many iterations and Mortal Kombat’s once-risqué penchant for splattering blood and worrying parents. Subsequently, Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear series has been shredding to the beat of its own drum this whole time. After an extended hiatus, making way for the decidedly less-rocking spiritual successor, BlazBlue, the heavy metal-inspired anime fighter has now returned with the characteristically unpronounceable Guilty Gear Xrd –SIGN-—a visual and technological stunner that is unabashedly esoteric to its very core.

If you’re in the know on Guilty Gear, anime, and how videogame graphics work, the confidence with which Arc has executed on these fronts is intoxicating. The look of this game! I can’t tear my eyes away. If you’ve heard anything about Xrd, it’s no doubt been in regard to the game’s visuals, which look just like a cartoon, but have been rendered with 3D polygons instead of 2D, hand-drawn sprites. If that sentence made sense to you, you’re already one step closer to sneaking into the club.

Most of the time Guilty Gear Xrd operates along a two-dimensional plane in the vein of its forbearers—one fighter on the left, the other on the right, and ne’er the twain shall enter the background. But with the delivery of select special attacks the camera will shift to a low ¾ angle, showing the characters from perspectives that would normally be impossible or require a staff of artists to exponentially increase the number of drawings they create per fighter. To top it off, each round’s deathblow is accompanied by a Matrix-like freeze frame camera pan, rotating around the point of impact to hammer home the retinal trickery that Arc was able to pull off.

The illusion goes deeper still, in that character animations are given deliberately limited frame rates that simulate the choppiness of televised anime. While most TV and film animation today is drawn at 24 frames per second, Japanese anime, for a long time, was produced at 12 or even 8 frames per second as a cost-cutting measure. Much of anime’s distinctive style comes from animators figuring out creative ways to make the most of so few images. Guilty Gear Xrd’s mimicry of anime at the reduced frame rate level is what subconsciously sells the game’s visual style and makes those camera pan reveals all the more surprising.

While, in theory, one can still play and enjoy Guilty Gear Xrd without the knowledge of the finer points of its visual production, that assumes you can wrap your mind and thumbs around the game’s intricate, lighting-quick fighting system. And to its credit, Xrd provides a robust and humorously presented tutorial mode for first-time players, but it also doesn’t hesitate to bombard you with terms like Purple Roman Cancel (that’s a move you can do) as if you weren’t just hearing them for the first time. Beyond the tutorial is a training mode where you can practice specific attack combos, many of which are quite difficult to perform with the speed and precision the game requires, even when given infinite time and a constant on-screen reminder of which buttons to press in what order. My apparently decrepit 31-year-old fingers gave up about a third of the way in.

XRD doesn’t hesitate to bombard you with terms like Purple Roman Cancel. 

Still, it’s not hard to see the magnitude of potential in Xrd’s various chargeable meters, blocking hierarchies, and air maneuvers, no doubt assisted by my experience with previous Guilty Gear games. I was driven to improve, even as I got royally stomped in online bouts. One network lobby was labeled as “casual,” but, and I want to be clear here, IT WAS NOT. And that in-group mentality is everywhere in Xrd, from the lack of background information offered during the game’s 5-hour Story mode movie to the deep cut metal references in character names and attacks. Xrd puts up walls, but as you’re climbing up over them, you catch glimpses through the cracks of what it looks like on the other side, and it’s invigorating to know that the game rewards high-level play and understanding with such visual richness and depth of experience.

Part of the reason Street Fighter IV and 2011’s Mortal Kombat reboot found mainstream success was that their developers recognized the public’s latent nostalgia for each respective series and hewed close to many of those original design elements while updating the graphics for modern hardware. In contrast, Guilty Gear has always been (and still is) a pretty-looking, niche series. Xrd expounds upon that tendency, eschewing nostalgia in favor of profound iteration that will likely only register to the niche-loyal. And as someone who successfully made it inside the club, even if it feels at times that I did so with a fake ID, the band in here is playing some mind-blowing stuff.