Review: Guilty Gear X2

By James "El Presidente" Wiles

This has gone on long enough. As of late, The once proud genre of 2D fighting has had its good name dragged through the mud about as much as I care to see. The perennial masters of the genre are either dead and buried (SNK) or producing nothing but eye-candy combo-fest crossover games (Capcom), leaving the market dominated by, of all things, Tekken and its 3D ilk. It's time I put out the call for revolution. My champion: Arc System Works' Guilty Gear X2. Perhaps the most finely-tuned and balanced 2D fighter ever (as well as being a BLAST to play), this is the game to finally put the genre back on the map. Bar none.

Here's the story thus far, in a nutshell: In the 22nd century, mankind tapped into a vast source of natural energy, popularly known as "magic." Thus the world's energy problems were solved, and everything appeared to be hunky-dory. At least, that is, until the rise of the quasi-artificial life forms known as Gears. Developed by an unknown group, the mindless Gears were initially used as slaves, until a renegade, sentient Gear named Justice rose up, mustered a Gear army, and declared war on humanity. After a long, bloody hundred years of battle (commonly known as "The Crusades"), Justice was defeated and sealed away in an alternate dimension. Without their leader, the rest of the rebel Gears quickly fell into disarray and were destroyed. But as with any video game plot, things didn't remain peaceful for long. About a year after an attempt by the humanoid Gear Testament to revive Justice (a tale told in the events of the original Guilty Gear on PSone), a new sentient Gear appeared who not only seemed to posses unheard-of combat ability, but was also acting totally independently of Justice. A nice, healthy bounty was quickly put on the Gear's head, and the race was on to see who would be the one to slay the dreaded creature.

Enter one of the oddest and most original menageries of characters ever to grace a fighting game; a twisted mix of heavy-metal vibes and futuristic Anime fantasies, GGX2's character designs alone should be enough to separate it from the pack. Where else can a ten-foot doctor wielding a giant scalpel be pitted against a 12-year-old boy in a nun's outfit armed with an exploding yo-yo and giant bladed teddy bears?

I'm guessing nowhere.

Every character is hand drawn, rendered in glorious high resolution (a concept that Capcom has yet to have added to its vocabulary), and ultra-fluidly animated. Even the biggest characters like the enormous Potemkin are of such high quality, the game could almost be mistaken for an Anime clip. Backgrounds are also a cut above the rest, foregoing the polygonal madness of more recent titles for slick, hand-drawn goodness with plenty of animated elements. And naturally there are tons of pyrotechnics involved with every move: almost enough to rival Capcom's Versus games.

Not only do the characters look as original as can be, but they also all play very uniquely as well. GGX2 has its share of Fireball sweeps and Dragon Punch motions, but the moves themselves all have a very different feel than other 2D fighters. Forget about the old Fireball-suppression and Dragon Punch strikes that are the mainstays of most strategies. With a few key alterations, Arc has handily opened up the gameplay system to a much greater variety of techniques and strategies.
At the core of the innovation is the Tension meter. At first glance appearing to be little more than the typical super-bar, Tension ties into gameplay in far more ways than to power the game's super, or "Overdrive," Attacks. A character's Tension is also used to fuel many of the game's special techniques, like Faultless Defense (negates blocking damage); Dead-Angle Attacks (a SF III-esque parry); Roman Cancels (allows a move to be cancelled into any other move to create new combos); and the GG series' infamous Instant Kills, that can destroy an opponent in a single strike.

Another core innovation is the newly-introduced Burst gauge; when charged, Burst attacks can be used defensively to knock the opponent away or end an opponent's combo, or offensively to fully charge a player's tension gauge with a well-timed strike. This adds yet another level of playability and balance to the game, and can change the entire complexion of a match in an instant.

Adding yet another layer to GGX2 is the sheer amount of mobility at the player's command. Unlike the rather limited range of movement seen in other fighting games, Guilty Gear arms the player with the normal jumps, dashes, and high jumps that are now standard to the genre, in addition to aerial dashes, double jumps, and in the case of some characters, triple jumps. This serves to make it that much harder for old techniques like corner traps and hitting opponents out of the air to pull off, and adds many more options to the player's offensive and defensive repertoire.

While this may sound like a lot to digest, in practice it really isn't. GGX2 is one of the deepest fighting games to come down the pike in quite some time, but it is still as easy to pick up and play as anyone could ask. The more advanced techniques take some practice, but not being able to do them is no real hindrance to the game's playability. A player barely has to know Street Fighter from The Sims to jump in and have a good time. This isn't to say that the game is easy; its bosses aren't some of the most devilishly difficult ever conceived, and can reduce fighting game vets into grease spots in moments. But hardcore fighting fans will certainly welcome the challenge they pose.

One of the biggest problems with the last GG game was its lack of story development and extra modes. Fortunately, Arc has made up for this in spades with this entry. In addition to the requisite arcade, versus, survival, and training modes, GGX2 features an interesting story mode which fleshes out the tales of each of the game's 20-plus characters, as well as the new Medal of Millionaires mode (endurance with a twist… the player competes for medals, which provide points and power-ups). Every mode rewards the player with special artwork and cinema clips, which can be enjoyed later in the game's gallery.

If there is any one point of contention GGX2 seems to run into, it's its music. Virtually steeped in heavy metal of the hardest variety (performed by a live band this time around), whether a player loves the game or not often seems to come down to whether they can stomach metal or not. If they can, they are in for a real treat for the ears, as well as some wacky fun with the myriad of references to metal music's top names, songs, and albums found in the game's moves and character names. If not, they will promptly retch into the nearest receptacle and toss the game away in the same manner in which one rids themselves of a dead rat.

For the record, I'm in the metal-lovers' camp.

Music aside, Guilty Gear X2 is without a doubt the heir to the fighting crown that Capcom continues to urinate on with each successive rev of Marvel vs. Capcom. While they are churning out games featuring sprites cut-and-pasted from five year old games and based on the same creaky old mechanics, GG manages to freshen up nearly every aspect of 2D fighting, and package it in perhaps the slickest, shiniest package on the PS2. The only question is, has the genre's reputation been damaged to the point that no one will notice the finest fighter on the market?
Fighters, this is your call to battle.
Let the revolution begin.

James' score: 41/2 (out of 5)