Guilty Gear Xrd is great. I'd like to talk about the design behind it, but we really have to start with the art.
Gameplay is what should matter. Starting by telling you about the art may seem superficial, and maybe it is, but the art in this game is so notable—such a breakthrough—that I think it deserves special attention.
Guilty Gear Xrd is far and away the #1 best use of 3D that looks like 2D I have ever seen in a video game. Certain in the realm of fighting games it blows away every other attempt. Arc System Works Team Red (the makers of the game) have created many specialized 3D models that help with this illusion. In a game with 2D art, the artists can draw anything they can imagine for every frame, and so 2D fighting game characters often have limbs that change size, swords that whoosh into a blur, and entirely new shapes that appear only on certain frames such as Millia's hair attacks in previous Guilty Gear games. But 3D games are usually stuck with a certain 3D model for a character and deforming the mesh is a pain to do. Modeling entirely new character shapes just for small parts of certain moves is usually infeasible, yet that's exactly what the new Guilty Gear has done.
Check out this comparison of 2D Sol and 3D Sol:
Here's a set of different 3D models for Millia's hair
Faust is a masterpiece of this model swapping technology. I love his new walk-backward animation that makes his feet rapidly shuffle around like a cartoon character. He actually has 5 or 6 feet modeled to make that effect possible.
The lighting and shading is also incredible. We've had toon shaders for years that can make 3D look like 2D, but Team Red has perfected it to such a degree that I sometimes can't even tell I'm looking at 3D. During various anime cut-scene closeups of the characters, I have exclaimed multiple times to onlookers, "Remember, this is 3D."
The Potemkin model on the left is a development shot of what he looks like without any shaders. The right image shows him with the shading used in the game:
The shadows on the characters are partially just a consequence of what it looks like when you shine a light on a 3D model and see what happens. But the shadows were all meticulously touched up an altered to give them a 2D drawn feel. For example, Ky's skirt (left version before shadows edited; right version with edited shadow):
Or Axl's face (top versions before the custom shadow map is applied; bottom versions after):
On to the gameplay now.
The biggest new feature of the fighting system is the YRC, or yellow roman cancel. I think this is a really bold move on the developer's part and also the most surprising feature that I've seen in a fighting game in years. Before getting into what it actually is, let's look at what came before it.
Roman Cancels (Red)
Long ago, the Guilty Gear series introduced an innovative mechanic called roman cancel that lets you spend 50% of your meter (the same cost as a super move) to cancel any attack instantly on hit or block. Why is it called that? I don't know. The announcer says "romantic" when you do it, though, and you get a red special effect on the screen. Anyway, roman cancels allowed for many kinds of freeform combos. They also created the potential for lots of tricks and rushdown sequences. For example, do a string of moves that ends with something you can't normally do much after, but roman cancel that last move to instantly cancel it, then continue your pressure.
Roman cancel is a really great feature because it's so simple to do and opens up so many possibilities. You just press 3 buttons any time you want to cancel your move. You might notice that the Street Fighter 4 series copied this in a clunky, bad way by adding more inputs. There, you press 2 buttons to cancel your move into another move you don't want to do, then you dash cancel that so that you can eventualy do the move you really want to do. Roman cancel is the original though, and the better implementation of that concept by far.
False Roman Cancel (Blue)
In the game Guilty Gear XX, the series added a new mechanic: the FRC, or false roman cancel. While the normal roman cancel uses a red special effect when you do it, the newer FRC used a blue effect. FRCs cost only 25% meter rather than 50%, but you can't do them whenever you want. Specific moves have specific timing windows on them where if you press the 3 buttons to RC, you instead get a reduced cost FRC.
This added a really great dynamic to the game. I mentioned before that one use of the regular red RC was to extend your pressure sequence against an opponent. You could also do tricks where you cancel a move they didn't expect and try to hit them after that. The problem is that while those two uses are fun, they were usually not worth 50% of your meter to do. That same meter could be used to turn an ok combo into a very damaging combo, so it was usually better to do that. But FRCs created a fair way to charge only 25% meter in many cases, and that let players use them for pressure strings and tricks. It took something that existed in the game and was fun but not used much, then put way more emphasis on it.
It's easy to see why FRCs were added. While they've added a lot to the game, they've also been a black spot on the design. They've been such a problem that I think FRCs specifically have kept a lot of people from playing the game. "Guilty Gear is really great. You should play it," I say. "Yeah but I'd have to deal with FRC timings," they say. And I frown, "yeah, that's true unfortunately."
These timing windows are incredibly strict. Some were 1 frame (1 60ths of a second), though I think later versions of the game upped those to 2 frames. But 2 or 3 frame windows are common for FRCs. That means you have to do them with very precise timing, reliably, and often. Keep in mind that this barrier involves 0 strategy or thinking. In cases where you want to do the FRC, you already made the strategic decision, and it's purely an execution test—and an artificial one at that. These moves really do not need to be this hard. Even if they needed to activate within those tiny timing windows, they could have had a buffer or something where you can do them 10 frames early and have them come out at the appropriate point.
There are other possible solutions to making FRCs easier, but the real problem is in developer mindset, not in finding a solution. Guilty Gear is a complicated game and it got more and more complicated over time. Making the game more accessible and easier to get to the strategy part did not appear to be anywhere on the list of priorities. But amazingly, now it is in Xrd. In a big way.
I'm impressed that they had the courage to do something about this, knowing full-well that the players would complain about any change. I think the truth is that requiring a bunch of 2 frame windows all over the place to even play the game properly is off the table as a thing we can even POSSIBLY consider to be in a well-designed game though. No matter what dynamics such a thing brings, it should be rejected out-of-hand as a non-starter. Surely there is some new system that is good enough, or better even, that doesn't have this kind of artificial execution difficulty.
New Roman Cancel System
Guilty Gear Xrd changed roman cancel system entirely. Now, there are 3 kinds: red, yellow, and purple. They all have the same command of inputting 3 buttons, you just get a different one depending on what's going on. If the opponent is in hitstun or blockstun, doing the command will cancel your current move with a red roman cancel. That costs 50% meter and works similarly to how it did before.
If the opponent isn't in hitstun or blockstun, you'll get the new YRC, or yellow roman cancel, and it only costs 25% meter. This means you can cancel at ANY frame during the entire startup of any move, not just during a 2-frame window. This is a night and day difference.
To put this into perspective, consider the character Ky. Ky has a fireball, and it had an FRC point before. This FRC is absolutely critical for Ky to use. He desperately needs it to keep up the pressure and for him to even work as a character. I don't know what is up with that particular FRC, but I just could not do it. Even after lots of practice in training mode, I can barely ever hit it. I have a friend who likes Ky and always wanted to play him, but he couldn't do that move either. Sometimes we'd play Ky vs Ky and during the match we'd attempt to FRC the fireballs always, 100% of the time, but get it less than 5%.
I am a very experienced Guilty Gear player. I placed 9th at the singles tournament at Evolution one year. In a team tournament at Evolution, I beat an entire Japanese team of 3 myself once. I know what I'm doing, but even I can't pick Ky because of this stupid FRC. Meanwhile, in the new Guilty Gear Xrd, it's dead simple to yellow roman cancel his fireball. Anyone can do it. I can do it over and over without missing. It just works. It's how it always should have been. Whatever issues YRC might introduce, this is exactly the solid foundation we need and the developer can iron out any issues it creates.
If you're wondering what the purple roman cancel is, I think it's basically the first bug fix to YRC. Using a YRC too late in a move to cancel its recovery would often be kind of too good, so if you input the cancel command late in a move, you get a purple cancel instead of a yellow one. The purple cancel has more startup before you're able to do your next move and it costs 50% meter. It's basically a deterrent so you don't use the cancel in that way, which is fine.
It's also important to note the new slow time feature that happens whenever you roman cancel. This also goes to show how much the developer cared about accessibility. Let's say you hit the opponent with a combo, then you (red) roman cancel the last big hit so you can keep going with more hits. At the moment you RC, you character is back to neutral state and you can do any move you want. This works great and I never complained about it.
But...you do have to be really fast to use this feature properly. Hit, hit, hit, roman cancel, hit, hit. You're doing the "hit, roman cancel, hit" part of that incredibly fast for it to work correctly. I personally can do that just fine, but I have to admit that it would be difficult for new players. In Guilty Gear Xrd, the roman cancel actually slows down time briefly after you do it. This lets you see and visually process what is even going on and it also gives you more time to input your next move. Experts were going to input their next move correctly anyway, but this makes the feature easier to use. I was surprised and impressed that the developers cared enough to put this feature in.
Does it change which combos are possible? Yes. But really, who cares. Some new slightly different set of combos is possible, and that can be balanced around, but when it comes to having basic competence at using the feature and understanding what's going on, it's a big improvement.
A Quick History of Guilty Gear
Let me tell you briefly about several versions that came before this one.
Guilty Gear X
Some interesting ideas, including (red) roman cancel. Pre-historic times in the series though. Catastrophically, it has a 2-button sweep, something no game should ever have. (Looking at you, Persona 4 Arena).
Guilty Gear XX
This is the breakthrough. A 5th button added so there's a rightful 1-button sweep. FRCs added. The new Burst feature to escape combos is probably the most important fighting game feature in a decade or something. It's hard to play other fighting games without Burst. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would later go on to win the award for "game that most needed to copy Guilty Gear's Burst, but didn't." Anyway, GGXX was the first time the series really came together in the form we know now. The guard meter system, progressive gravity and hitstun decay to prevent infinites, I think "alpha counters" were added in this version. GGXX was a milestone for Guilty Gear, and for fighting games in general.
Guilty Gear XX #Reload
A refinement of the previous version. Characters slightly more fleshed out and tuned.
Guilty Gear XX Slash
A refinement of the previous version. Characters slightly more fleshed out and tuned. For example, Chipp gets his new "behind and above" teleport that he desperately needed and Potemkin gets fun new punch with unlimited super armor. I think this version is a highpoint of the series, with just the unfortunate note that Ky and Anji are slightly too powerful.
Guilty Gear XX Accent Core
A disaster. What even happened? Dozens and dozens of changes that make no sense at all to me. At one point, I tried to find even one change I thought was good, then gave up.
New mechanic: Slashback, aka parry. It's difficult yet seems to result in worse dynamics overall. It should just be removed.
Potemkin has a new special throw in the air and semi-important combos with it, but there's something about the input detection of the move that seems actually broken or buggy, given my hours and hours of training mode spent specifically on that move.
Potemkin is ruined in other more important ways, too. His "fall on face move" that knocks the opponent down now puts them in a very special state, one of the only things in the game like this, where they are knocked down yet any hit will fully launch them instead of doing the usual weak off-the-ground (OTG) hits. This combined with changes to his heat knuckle air grab mean that he has a new loop: (OTG kick, slash, heat knuckle to grab them out of the air, RC, let them fall, wall super (doesn't hit), fall-on-face, repeat) that he can threaten to do forever, even from mid-screen. It's possible to get out of, but very very difficult. Some good players I faced just couldn't get out at all, for example. This whole thing is annoying to do, requires different timing on Potemkin's part against every character, and has nothing to do with his core gameplay of being a grappler. I hated every moment of doing this powerful thing, and wished this whole technique would go away.
Here's another bad thing. Before this version, in the corner Potemkin could combo after his Potemkin Buster throw. Midscreen, he couldn't. Ok that's fine. But in this version, he has a new FRC on his Potemkin buster and he must do that to combo in the corner, and also to combo midscreen. So now there's a new, difficult timing window of a just a few frames that he has to do all the time. Potemkin didn't used to be that hard to control at a basic level, but now you need to do a difficult FRC all the time, an air combo with a very difficult (buggy?) new aerial special throw, and a finicky loop that's requires different timing against every character. He is thoroughly gunked up and ruined across the board here, and that's all just about one character.
The reason I'm telling you this whole history of Guilty Gear is actually mostly because of the Force Break feature that was added in this version. Every character now has new moves that cost 25% meter to do; they'd be called "EX moves" in other fighting games. At the time, I didn't really think they needed to add these moves. The game was already so complicated, does it need even more? Will it make the game better, and if so, is it worth the cost of complexity?
Chipp: gets some useless EX move that he might as well not have. Uh, great.
Potemkin: He got that great punch, Judgement Gauntlet, back in Slash that had infinite super armor. Now it...costs meter? This is a Procrustean Bed kind of thing where they really needed EX moves for everyone whether they made sense or not, so might as well make this one use meter now. Uh, ok. Not like it needed to before. Also that annoying-to-do aerial special throw I mentioned is an EX move. So 0 for 2 here.
Slayer: Now he's some totally different character, basically. Why? I don't know. He worked fine before. What is going on in this game?
I think some other team made this game.
Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R
This is a refinement of Accent Core. Many changes in this game make sense, given the starting point of Accent Core. While it's an improvement, it's an improvement on a lot of stuff that was weird to begin with. It's built on top of a base that has EX moves we don't really need and FRCs that are just as fiddly as ever. While it's a good game, it's thick with weeds and desperately needs pruning.
Guilty Gear Xrd Is Simpler
I told you that whole history of Guilty Gear to give some context as to why it's a good idea that Xrd has returned to simpler times. It's like they scraped the gunk off of the design, started over, then polished up that simpler moveset. They also added a few new moves here and there where they made sense, rather than across the board as an EX system.
For example, Slayer has always had a move called Dandy Step where he quickly steps backward, then rushes forward into one of several possible moves, including an awesome one called Pilebunker. He's had that in every version, and still does. In Accent Core +R, my brain could not even keep straight all the variations of it though. He could Dandy Step into Pilebunker, or into EX Pilebunker. But he could also Reverse Dandy Step (an EX move) into Pilebunker. Or EX Dandy Step into EX Pilebunker. Yeah it's powerful to have all that, but I do not miss it at all. Instead, they reverted it all to how it used to be and added one new possible move you can do out of it. Cool.
If you want to complain about Xrd Slayer, you could make a good case. His Pilebunker doesn't reach as far, and nerfing one of the most fun moves in the game wasn't a good idea imo. They should have left it how it was and balanced around it. His Dead-on-Time super is much slower. It was absurdly fast before, which maybe caused problems, but it seems like he needed it. His Undertoe move used to be unblockable (and useless), then it got 1 hit of super armor in Slash (and was great), but I think is now reverted to the unblockable version, unfortunately. I can't make any balance claims, but if it turns out he's too weak, the fixes are all in the balance tuning. They don't have to do with the concept of giving us a simpler moveset. His current moveset can easily be tuned to be way overpowered, if desired. My point is I'm all for having a Slayer I can understand again.
Other characters follow that same trend of being simpler, yet having a little something new and useful. Venom can hold down the button on his ball summon to automatically teleport. Meawhile Chipp's 5 teleports were simplified down to 4 versions without losing much of anything, and he gets a new air super. Sol gets a new divekick. Ky actually works like he should finally, because he can easily YRC his fireballs. He's also the most boring character, so it makes sense he has a new mechanic of placing floating energy things that cause his fireballs to do exciting things when they pass through them. Potemkin doesn't have to worry about ANY of the stuff I mentioned in the Accent Core section, but he has a new air move where he fires himself like a missile (helpful to get close to a keep-away opponent), a new pillar-of-fire move, and a new dashing normal attack. Despite these 3 new moves, he's simpler to control and understand on a basic level than before.
Things I Don't Know About
Sometimes when you clash your attack with the opponent's, the screen flashes red, a countdown is shown, and Danger Time activates. During this time, any hits you land are extra powerful counterhits. I guess it's exciting? It doesn't really need to exist though. If it were deleted, no one would even notice. Maybe it pulls its weight as a feature if it ever generates any hype moments. I would lean toward getting rid of it, but I'm not actively against it.
It's called "Blitz Shield," but it's a parry so I will call it that. This is a surprising feature to exist. I mentioned the other parry called Slashback that was a new feature in Accent Core that I said should be removed. Instead, it's revamped here. I'm actually not sure what I think of it at this point.
The surprising thing is that someone finally copied the right kind of parry. The parry in Soul Calibur 1 is, in my opinion, the best parry in fighting games. It puts the victim in a vulnerable state during which they cannot block, but they can still do their OWN parry during that time. In SC1, it's a very great feature. If you parry someone, you then have the great advantage of threatening a mixup that's basically "attack right away OR wait a moment then attack OR wait 'two moments' and hope the victim tries to counter-parry." If you can make the opponent whiff their counter-parry attempt, you can then hit back with something guaranteed. This mixup is in your favor, and you deserve that for landing the parry in the first place, but there's a potential for a good mind-game here. There's also the potential for a really hype back-and-forth where you parry each other several times in rapid succession.
For some reason, no other fighting game has copied this, not even more recent Soul Caliburs! Soul Calibur 5, an overall great game, really flubbed this one. Instead of the great SC1 parry system, it implemented two parry systems: one that's super difficult and one that's super easy. The really difficult one requires very, very precise timing and the specifics of it are fiddly and wonky. I was not even able to make any use of this feature. The other parry is way easy but requires a huge chunk of your super meter. So much of it that there is no chance for the back-and-forth thing to happen here.
Anyway, the new Guilty Gear Xrd copied that original SC1 thing, the good thing. Is it good in Xrd though? It's hard to say because it's such a radically different game. You don't really stand there and strike each other the way you do in Soul Calibur, so the back-and-forth thing probably won't actually happen in practice, even though it theoretically could.
Another aspect of this type of parry is that Its existence in Soul Calibur helps slow characters like Astaroth be more viable because no matter how much they are overwhelmed by fast attacks, they can still attempt to parry. Meanwhile, Guilty Gear has a history of doing a great job with universal defensive maneuvers which then allow the developers to get away with crazily varied types of offense for each character. So in that tradition, this Soul Calibur 1 feature makes sense. Maybe it's one more universal defensive feature that helps the crazier types of offense possible to put in the game.
I haven't had time to really wrap my mind around this feature in real matches yet. I will reserve judgment on if it helps or hurts the game overall.
Option Selects Are Bad
An option select is when a certain input has more than one possible outcome, and the computer picks the most favorable one for you. I wouldn't say every option select is bad to exist, but most of them are. There's a fallacious belief amongst some players that it "makes a game deeper" to have option selects, but that just isn't true. Playing rock, paper, scissors by being able to input something that counts as rock and paper—or worse yet that counts as rock AND paper AND scissors—is not deeper. It's degenerate and removes strategy.
I'll tell you two option selects that are bad to exist in Xrd.
First, the throw option select. Throwing with one button is good, rather than bad, because it's simple and it works. The "whiff" you get if you tried to throw but the opponent wasn't throwable is your f+heavy attack, which is generally so big of an attack that you're going to get dragon punched or supered or counter-thrown or whatever else. That's exactly what should happen to you.
But in Xrd, you can input f+K+HS to throw and you get f+HS (a throw) if the opponent is throwable and K (a kick) if the opponent isn't. For Sol, that kick is one of the fastest startup moves in the entire game and recovers very quickly too. So there's really no reason not to use this option select. It's totally stupid to exist and changes the "real" command to throw from f+HS to f+K+HS. That makes the command to throw more complicated than it has any reason to be and creates the awkward situation that the explicit stated command by the developer for throw (f+HS) is WRONG to do. As in, you are playing badly if you do it. How embarrassing from a design standpoint.
If this were simply an oversight, we could forgive it and hope it's fixed. After all, this option select isn't a consequence of some necessary system. It does nothing useful except create this throw exploit. But here's the real problem: IT'S IN THE TUTORIAL. The same makers who boldly reworked the entire roman cancel system to have YRCs and slow time to make the game easier to play have also gunked up the throw command, they know they did, and they put it in a tutorial to tell you all about it. F- grade on that. It's really upsetting and disappointing.
(And of course I know that previous Guilty Gears had this option select, but to not fix it and put it in the tutorial is extra damning.)
Next, there's an option with YRCs and Bursts. When you combo someone, they can use a Burst to break out of the combo. Usually, the Burst will hit you (the attacker) so that the person you were comboing now gets some momentum going and a chance to go on the offensive.
Now imagine if you have more than 25% meter but less than 50% meter. In this case, you should always input the YRC command during each hit of your combo. If you do your combo correctly, the opponent will be in hitstun the entire time and no YRC will ever come out. It will just be a bunch of useless inputs on your part. But if the opponent Bursts, then they will not be in hitstun, your YRC will happen, then you'll be able to block the Burst rather than get hit by it. This technique won't work if you have 50% meter or more because you'll get red roman cancel in that case, which will waste your meter and change your combo.
This option select is very narrow. It only even does anything when you have specific amounts of super meter and in those cases, helps but not a crazy amount. It's just that there's no drawback to doing it in those cases, so you "should." And that's annoying. It would be nice if this were fixed up somehow, I think making Burst startup cause a red RC would do it. I should emphasis that even though I do not approve of it, I think it will come up about 0 times in the next 100 games I play, while the ability to YRC will come up constantly in every one. So overall YRCs are very great even when factoring in this unfortunate problem.
EDIT: A lot of option select-apologists are upset and have aggressively argued that junking up the game's inputs is good, usually because it "gives you an advantage to use." That is, of course, irrelevant to whether it's a good design idea. Here's an in-depth explanation of that.
Guilty Gear Xrd is a fighting game released in 2014 that uses input delay rather than roll-back code of GGPO. In other words, it's incompetent in its implementation of netcode. There is just no other way to say it. This is a solved problem so it's baffling that this is even happening. The developers must simply be unaware that input delay-style netcode is vastly inferior while GGPO is readily available to them, is a fantastic method for handling online play, and is in several shipped games such as Skullgirls and Street Fighter HD Remix.
If anyone out there has any way of contacting the developers, let them know that you demand GGPO's roll-back style netcode rather than input delay.
Ok so the netcode is bad and there's some minor option selects. The core gameplay is the most solid foundation for what is possibly the best fighting game series around though. And with graphics that are a new milestone, untouchable by anything else in the genre so far. Overall a great game, and I would kill for Arc System Works to make a Fantasy Strike fighting game.