Granblue Fantasy has been a mobile gaming sensation in Japan for the past six years. Despite that success, however, it’s only just now that the gacha juggernaut is making its grand debut outside the Land of the Rising Sun in the form of an Arc Systems Works fighter. Granblue Fantasy Versus is a bit more of a slower-paced fighter than many of its contemporaries, but the Arc Systems polish shines through even with the game’s relatively limited roster.
Many of Granblue Fantasy Versus’s systems are easy to grasp and let a new player get a foot in the door. At its core, it controls much like many 2D fighters; you have your light, medium, and heavy attack buttons as well as your special action unique to each character. Simple auto-combos will occur by repeatedly pressing the same attack button after the first hit connects.
There’s also a dedicated guard button that’s not only useful for people having trouble wrapping their head around the traditional “hold back to guard,” but also allows for a useful short dash or spot dodge for a few frames of invincibility. Meanwhile, meter is only used for super moves and nothing else, making for fewer things to keep track of in the heat of a fight.
In addition to your usual technical inputs, such as quarter-circle forward and semi-circle back, every character’s special moves can also be executed using simplified commands. Each special is mapped to either down, away, forward, or neutral plus the R1 button, allowing for easy access to any move. These simplified inputs are a godsend for more tricky commands such as the wrestler Ladiva’s full circles or petite Charlotta’s charge inputs that typically stump newer players.
You’re still encouraged to learn technical inputs, however, as using simplified inputs put specials on a cooldown that can be observed by the icons beneath the characters’ health bars. Using traditional technical commands avoids this drawback, with the exception of stronger versions that will put the skill on a hefty cooldown regardless. Putting in the effort to graduate from simplified to technical commands brings with it a palpable sense of accomplishment as well as excitement for the new opportunities it opens up.
The simplicity of these mechanics is meant to get players newer to fighting games in at the ground floor and ensure anyone of all skill levels can hop right in and have a good time. That’s not to say Granblue Fantasy Versus lacks depth, though. Far from it as learning how and when to properly use these techniques still demands a degree of patience and perseverance. There’s less of an emphasis on stringing together extensively long combos and more on outwitting and punishing your opponent, lending battles a more methodical tempo compared to other modern fighting games.
The 2D/3D anime art style ArcSys is becoming known for is on full display here complete with incredibly expressive character faces as well as brilliantly dazzling super move finishing sequences that are just as much of a reward as the victory itself. Those stellar visuals are accompanied by a standout soundtrack ranging from orchestral JRPG fare, to hard rock, to even something akin to a ballad. Every track is a knockout winner and always serves to heighten the tension of these satisfying fights.
Now learning the do’s and dont’s of fighting games is often easier said than done, but Granblue Fantasy Versus does a good job bringing you up to that point both with its fairly extensive tutorial and single-player RPG mode; if only it was fun while doing it.
In addition to a traditional arcade mode, there is also RPG mode that has you take control of a fighter in a beat ‘em up style campaign as you go through an extremely basic story in the Granblue universe. Many aspects of the original phone game are charmingly translated over, such as using unique active skills and developing weapon grids, but it’s all ultimately unnecessary as almost every regular enemy goes down in a few hits and puts up no resistance.
There are some special missions that walk you through each character’s unique strengths and quirks that serve as decent teaching tools, it’s just a shame they’re buried under so much fluff. The monotony is further exacerbated by unforgivable load times with sometimes upwards of fifteen seconds in between screens of a stage and even noticeable delay in navigation between menus.
Boss encounters are the exception, providing somewhat of a challenge and presenting interesting ideas such as shattering barriers with super moves or using nimble footwork to dodge large sweeping attacks. Unfortunately, these fights are simply too few and far between to make up for the rest of the lackluster campaign that also features a bland and forgettable story barely good enough to serve as a primer to the characters’ backstories.
Having a starting roster of only eleven characters at launch seems rather small by modern fighting game standards, but the sheer variety on display in Granblue Fantasy Versus — both visually and technically — majorly offsets this initial flaw. No two characters feel even remotely the same and all of them demand vastly different playstyles from the rest.
These fighters exude personality and are immediately likable on a surface level even if you’re not a fan of their playstyle. All that said, though, with two DLC fighters available at launch and three more on the way in April, it’s difficult to not look at the diminutive starting cast a little cynically. It’s perhaps partly due to this all-killer, no-filler cast, however, that the game feels so well balanced; no single character seems to be dominating over all the others in online matches.
Online matchmaking has been an extremely smooth experience overall. Having played hundreds of matches on a wired connection I’ve experienced lag only on extremely rare occasions even though the game uses the less preferred delay-based netcode. Ranked fights more often than not feel evenly matched and unranked lobbies featuring adorable chibi characters walking in a 3D space help take the edge off of climbing the ranks.
For what is essentially going to be a brand new IP for many people outside of Japan, Granblue Fantasy Versus is a superb entry into the ArcSys library. Its low barrier to entry and high skill ceiling incentivizes players of all skill levels to hone their craft without ever becoming too daunting. That’s a large part of why this is the first fighting game since 2015’s BlazBlue: Central Fiction that I genuinely want to get better at. The single-player offerings may be weak and the starting roster outside of DLC characters a bit slim, but that doesn’t stop this startup fighter from holding its own in the ring. The skies are a bright blue for this promising series and with any luck, Granblue Fantasy Versus just may be the start of a new distinguished line of fighters.