Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising Game Review

Granblue Fable As opposed to Emerging Sport Overview

Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising is a release I’ve been looking forward to for some time now, despite having next to zero knowledge of Granblue Fantasy. The original Granblue Fantasy Versus was sandwiched between unfortunate timing for real-world events and morphing player expectations for what constitutes a complete game. Three years on with several revisions in tow, Rising is undoubtedly better than its predecessor, but has it kept up with the changes in fighting games as a whole?

Let’s get something out of the way early on: I have no real knowledge of Granblue Fantasy. I know the property exists, and I see some very lovely character designs for it pop up in my social media feed whenever mutuals post help messages requesting backup because they’re fighting a dragon. I don’t know how to help them, but that Belial guy sure looks like a handsome fellah, and I’m confident he can find a way out of that situation. Godspeed, sir.

If you’re a Granblue diehard who will buy this game purely based on its fidelity to the established series, I’m afraid I can’t help you. All I can say is it seems to respect the source material and present it appealingly, but beyond that, I can’t comment on its canonicity or characterization.

I’m an avowed fighting game lover. I’m certainly not a professional – my dreams of ever taking the main stage at EVO are probably just that, dreams—I’m a huge enthusiast for these games. I’ve been enamored with them since Street Fighter 2 cabinets arrived in my local arcades in the early 1990s, and I have played most of the digital fisticuffs on offering ever since.

However, the first iteration of Granblue Fantasy Versus that came out in 2020 was one that I missed. At the time, I was in something of a lull with fighting games, having dropped off somewhere in Street Fighter 4’s lifespan due to starting my career. I had tried in fits and starts to get back in across various titles over the years – Dragonball FighterZ being the biggest attempt in 2018—but I could never find the time to learn the games as deeply as I wanted to. By 2020 the frustration of lacking any real fighting game enjoyment in my life was getting to me, but I was in graduate school at the time and had even less time available.

Thankfully, 2021 was a big return to form for me in jumping back into fighting games and rekindling my passion for the genre. I started playing with friends again and even got plugged in with a terrific online fighting game group. Suddenly, I began picking up many of the titles I had missed in the interim. I was getting in all-nighters with titles I had only dreamed of playing with another human being even a few years prior. I eyed picking up the first Granblue Fantasy Versus, but I noticed it had a lower player count and little support from anyone I knew. “What gives?” I thought. It was developed by none other than ArcSys, looked gorgeous, and seemed to have a good niche for itself alongside Samurai Shodown as a more methodical 2D weapon fighter.

Things had changed tremendously in the expectations and quality of the fighting game genre. The biggest change came in the form of a rollback netcode. Even by 2021, there was an increasing expectation of moving away from traditional delay-based netcode (the stuttering laggy starts and stops you’re likely familiar with) to rollback netcode. Without getting too into the weeds, rollback netcode essentially has the game predicting your next moves and “rolling back” when it guesses incorrectly, which allows for a smoother online experience.

This might seem minor, but rollback is a huge deal for fighting games. Online play is nothing new for fighting games – I spent many a late night playing Street Fighter 3: Third Strike in the mid-2000s when I should have been studying or sleeping—but the netcode was deeply frustrating. Fighting games require a great deal of precise input timing and reactions to play effectively, and even 1-2 frames of lag can completely alter a matchup. Fighting games are rooted in the arcades and in local couch versus, where not only is there no latency, but banter can fly freely, and friendships or rivalries can form. Online play was often a last resort when offline was not an option—and even then, it was usually a miserable one. Although fighting games have continued to iterate and evolve with ever-increasing fidelity and attention over the years, the interconnectivity of the online era has remained one hurdle that the scene has struggled to harness.

Online play is a factor that fighting games should hope to leverage. I love my niche fighters as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, the premiere event is facing off against another live human opponent in a battle of reflexes, planning, and risk. If you don’t have a local scene, it can be next to impossible to build one, and online play can help players in disparate regions or with niche interests connect and play. It can also help already popular games reach even greater heights of popularity as players can hone their skills at all hours with players from around the world. Adoption of rollback has been somewhat intermittent across the genre, though calls for it to become the norm have grown with each passing year.

Enter Granblue Fantasy Versus in early 2020. At face value, it has all the marks of quality you would want from a fighting game. Gorgeous visuals, great soundtracks, varied roster, respected and proven developer rich with mechanical systems, and wrapped in an established IP. It had all the markings of a slam dunk success, surely.
The thing is… the original did not have the rollback netcode.

Well, okay, but offline play can sti—oh. Oh, it came out in March of 2020.

Oh.

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The pandemic was (and is!) disastrous and heart-wrenching for its human cost, and there’s not much need to delve into how it has increased suffering in our world. Way down the list of knock-on effects from the pandemic was how it upended face-to-face competitive events such as sports, tabletop gaming, and in-person video game competitions. In the latter’s case, many of these events could be moved online. In the case of fighting games, the growing rift between titles that had and those that did not have rollback netcode suddenly became a massive chasm. Not all titles that lacked rollback were completely wiped out—legacy titles that built their communities in the years prior and those with very strong IPs like Dragonball FighterZ weathered the storm – but it was a massive barrier for a title like Granblue Fantasy Versus which had just emerged for its chance to shine. Certainly, the game got some traction, but the wind was pulled from its sails before it had left port.

Three years later, the game is back and better than ever. Rollback netcode? Check. Crossplay to ensure a unified player base? Check.

This is more than just a simple patch job, though. Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising contains the entirety of the prior game’s roster, including DLC characters – a respectable 28 characters in total – representing a wide range of fighting styles and approaches. You’ve got all your expected archetypes: shotos, zoners, rush down, some light grappler work, plus some fun iterations on the expected norms. The characters have broad color palettes and weapon customization options, which is a very nice touch to add some player expression beyond just mechanics. The visuals are dynamite, with lots of exciting elemental effects and that dynamic-but-readable character movement ArcSys has become known for.

The core gameplay is strong as well. It is in the mold of a classic 2D fighter, with two players facing off to reduce the opponent’s life total to zero in a best of three rounds competition. It is advertised as a 2.5D fighter, and many refer to it as such, though I’ve always felt this was something of a misnomer as it is a 2D fighting game with 3D models. If we’re splitting hairs, I’d probably use 2.5D to refer to something along the lines of the classic Fatal Fury shtick where characters fought in a standard 2D setup but could jump into another plane in the background, but I suppose this is just me splitting hairs. The TLDR is that it’s more Street Fighter than Tekken.

It is a four-button fighter at its core, with caveats. You have light, medium, and heavy attacks with auto-combos that you can mash out if you are close enough to your opponent. The fourth face button is a variable button that is in some way unique to each fighter, sometimes being a charge-up mechanic, stacking buff, unique set play, or something of that variety. If you’ve played any of the Blazblue titles, you will feel right at home here. But there are a lot of other mechanics to manage here, too, that go beyond the face buttons and typical special command movements. There are Brave Points to manage each round, special Skybound Arts and meter management, an optional block button that must be used for the dodge mechanic (and with unblockable moves in this game, you had better get used to using it), and so forth. This is not, “Oh, it’s a four-button fighter, so it’s easier to manage,” this is, “Thank God there are only four buttons because I have so much to manage.”

In terms of the moment-to-moment feel, I would say it is a weapon fighter rather than a standard hand-to-hand martial arts fighter. Though that distinction seems to be less used these days, growing up, we’d refer to games like Samurai Shodown/Spirits or Soul Calibur as “weapon fighters” to differentiate from games like Street Fighter, Tekken,, etc. which had more hand-to-hand martial arts. It was always a hazy line, and modern games have made it even blurrier, but I don’t think it’s a useless connection to draw. Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising, in many ways, feels like Samurai Shodown or Soul Calibur, where the character’s weaponry is front and center in their playstyles and their attacks tend to – on average – feel more committal and defined by their choice of weapon. For example, even though Baiken from Guilty Gear prominently uses a sword as her primary weapon, I’m not sure I’d classify her as a sword-user as much as a character who uses a sword, whereas Granblue’s Katalina is a fencing-style sword-user through and through.

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These connections carry over to the general feel of the gameplay as well. I would not say this is a slow game by any stretch of the imagination. However, Granblue feels slower-paced than most modern fighting games. The genre has pushed harder and harder on offense, aggression, and longer combo strings over time, with often explosive results possible off a single touch of death or rounds decided in two to three interactions. Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising does not feel so explosive in that regard, as each round requires a bit more back and forth to secure the win. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of aerial shenanigans either, with no airdash to speak of (or air throws that I could find), generally shorter combo strings, and more grounded gameplay. Characters seem to have fewer opportunities to cash out and completely obliterate an opponent in the middle of the screen, and corner carry feels greatly reduced compared to other titles I’ve played recently.

Once you get in the corner, a lot of this goes out the window, of course. When I got put in the corner and started getting juggled, I went, “Ah, there it is.” It’s not quite that stodgy and old-fashioned; they know folks want to see their big combos and high damage with lots of resource use. That said, it feels restrained in comparison, and the general flow of the matches reminds me more of Samurai Shodown than Guilty Gear Strive or even Street Fighter 6, and that helps it stand out from the pack a bit.

There is another addition here that is worth mentioning mechanically, and that is the inputs for special moves. While the first Granblue Fantasy Versus had traditional command inputs for special moves like quarter circles and such, Rising has added simple inputs for these moves. These are akin to Super Smash Brothers’ special moves, where you can press a single button to do one special move or combine that single button with a directional input to get other moves. So maybe just tapping the light bumper is your fireball where before it had to be a quarter circle plus punch, and bumper plus forward is an uppercut where before it was forward->down->diagonal plus punch.

These simpler inputs have not replaced the original classic inputs, mind you. You can still do quarter-and-half circles and the like. However, as far as I can tell, there does not appear to be any advantage to using the traditional inputs to do moves (though I admit this may be me missing something). Even if there is a slight punishment for using simpler inputs, the fact is that simpler inputs allow for quicker response times and more consistent execution. This is a non-issue for some players, though it is more controversial for others. I’m personally a bit mixed on there being no negative to using the simpler inputs, but it’s not something I’m egregiously upset about either.

Now we have a good-looking, solid-playing fighter with rollback and crossplay. It should be smooth sailing from here, no?
In other ways, players have continued to ask more of fighting games, and they have tried to rise to meet those demands. Rollback and crossplay are no longer seen as icing on the cake; these are increasingly baseline expectations for fighting games. Even games that used to get away with not having rollback have taken flak for not including them (DBFZ rollback beta just happened; surely it must be coming soon? Right guys? Guys…?). An increasing emphasis is placed on going beyond “just” being arcade and versus titles.

Despite arguments over the minutia of various games, the truth is that most modern fighting games have good fundamental mechanics with lots of character variety and were developed with an eye toward relative balance. That isn’t to say that all these games are equally balanced, but the core gameplay is solid across many titles right now. Even the nature of learning these games has become much easier, as the tutorials and training mode options in most modern titles are unbelievably deep. You can see inputs, frame data, program training dummies, and more. Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising has a solid core, online features, and training tools, too. But these days, that is the expected norm. In addition to the solid core, many people want robust story modes, fun mini-games, and competent online lobby systems.

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Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising is releasing amid many fighting games attempting to add this kind of extra content to the mix. Street Fighter 6 has its Yazuka-lite World Tour mode and the casual mutant Thunderdome that is Battle Hub Avatar Battles. Mortal Kombat 1 has the expected single-player story mode that is film-like with full voice acting and lengthy cutscenes, plus its invasion mode with various modifiers to the gameplay. And that’s just what is fresh out on the shelves right now regarding competition. Looking back, I realize many fighting games included extensive single-player fun like Tekken Bowl and Motor Kombat. BlazBlue charted a whole unique iteration of this with its visual novel main story modes full of branching paths and game types like Abyss mode that harnessed roguelike elements in its gameplay.

These offerings will never replace good, solid gameplay fundamentals, but they offer a way to broaden your fun within the game.

Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising brings a whole suite of other game modes besides just versus and arcade play. The single-player mode is more akin to what Blazblue offers. There are visual novel-like vignettes with text and voice acting on a story following Gran and friends as they run around fighting villains and uncovering mysteries. Light RPG mechanics are thrown in by assigning skills and choosing particular fighters for certain scenarios. I found it a pretty linear affair, but that did not bother me much. The core gameplay had enough variety to keep it enjoyable. It featured some beat-em-up style fights against lots of little mooks, standard 1v1 battles, and team fights against what amount to raid bosses with multiple phases and unique conditions. The writing is solid, and the premise is direct, which, combined with the excellent voice acting and wonderful presentation in between battles, made for an entertaining ride.

There is also the Gran Bruise Legends mode, which is an entirely different game type. It’s a platforming battle royale where you run through a platforming obstacle course and try to complete objectives. If you’ve seen or played Fall Guys, it’s a very similar experience and a fun little diversion (though I may be biased as my wife and I enjoy Fall Guys immensely).

There’s even a little photo setup mode included as well. You have free range to use a lot of the game’s assets to set up little vignettes with the characters and take photos. There’s not a lot of gameplay here; it’s more like building a diorama with digital figurines. It doesn’t necessarily appeal to me, but it is another neat bonus that helps make the package feel like a complete game with more than arcade battles.

Are these additional features enough to compete with some of the bigger dogs in the space? That’s debatable. While perhaps individual elements are outclassed by other titles in isolation, the breadth on offer here is comparable or better in almost every regard. Granblue may not have the best single-player mode in a fighting game ever, but it has one, and it’s pretty good. It may not have the most fun party mode in a fighting game, but it has one, and it’s pretty good. And so on.

In many ways, Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising is Arc System Works, giving this game a second chance in a way that goes beyond just patching it. It has everything the prior game had and then some, whether we’re talking mechanics, presentation, or game modes. There’s a massive roster with varied fighting styles to keep the core 1v1 gameplay engaging, and there’s enough single-player and party content to make it more than the pure, sweaty competition. However, for folks like myself who highly value their sweaty competition, the rollback netcode and crossplay additions make this a huge contender for the next hot game if it happens to catch on with the community.

Whether or not it will catch on this time remains to be seen. There’s no telling whether all of the above changes are enough to push it up to be a main stage event at the big fighting game events or a frequent throwdown at your local scene. Unlike in 2020, the competition has gotten even fiercer, and there are a lot of heavy-hitters vying for players’ time and attention. Granblue Fantasy Versus was a solid vessel that struggled to leave port when the wind shifted, while Granblue Fantasy Versus Rising is leaving the docks with a few upgrades and the wind at its back. I’m not sure if it will reach its destination—that is up to the community—but this time, I think it has a real good chance.

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