Shoryuken review: Granblue Fantasy Versus is a perfect entry point for both the franchise and the fighting game genre

By on March 12, 2020 at 10:00 am
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You’ll come for the gorgeous anime aesthetic, but you will stay for the exceptional gameplay…and the anime aesthetic.

Before being announced at Granblue Fest 2018, I didn’t know a whole lot about Granblue Fantasy aside from its massively popular mobile RPG with incredible art. While there is a web version available, there isn’t an app available internationally, so it always seemed like a franchise I’d have to appreciate from afar. Thankfully Cygames and Arc System Works (and XSEED Games who published the title in NA) teamed up to create a stellar introduction to both the Granblue Fantasy franchise and the fighting game genre and will make anyone a fan of both.

There is a lot to say about Granblue Fantasy Versus and it deserves all of the praise it gets. The entire experience is tailored to be as accessible as possible with mechanics and modes built to truly teach new players the fundamentals needed to excel in not just GBVS, but in games throughout the genre.

There seems to be a negative stigma among some in the FGC around the word “Accessibility”, feeling like its an attack on their way of play. While groans can typically be found among that vocal group whenever a game implements mechanics like auto combos or simplified inputs, Granblue Fantasy Versus goes above and beyond the previous efforts of even Arc System Works themselves by giving players thoughtful tutorials and glossaries that help bridge the gap between the mashing newcomer and a player with intent.

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Presentation:

Arc System Works has been refining their anime-perfect 3D models since Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- and this shows in Grablue Fantasy Versus. The devs take the art style from the mobile game and breathe three-dimensional life into the characters and their world. Everything about this game is absolutely stunning. Even the Mode selection art is full of life and makes things much more exciting than simply being another bland list of things to do.

While the cast is rather small, 11 characters in the base game, each fighter is varied in terms of design and animation. There’s a character for everyone, ranging from the plucky fantasy shonen protagonist, Gran, to the stoic duty-driven lady knight, Katalina, to the pint-sized captain, Charlotta, and the wrestling power-house, Ladiva. The tropes are just about covered once you go through the main roster with five additional characters to be added over time.

Skybound Arts, this game’s Super Moves, are extravagant and larger than life, lasting just long enough to feel impressive every time they are used, but never too long to overstay their welcome. If you played Dragon Ball FighterZ and thought those Super Moves were cool, just wait until you play Granblue Fantasy Versus. Also, changing your character’s color changes the aesthetic of their attacks as well which is an insanely cool feature.

Oddly enough, textures can look a little rough up close but this is usually only during a few of the character intros whenever the camera is super zoomed in on a cape or something like that. Voice flaps are a tough match for the English dub, but that’s usually the case with 3D models, so you can’t knock GBVS too hard in that regard. It is a little weird how few frames there feels to be during character intros compared to how fluid the gameplay is, but you eventually get used to it.

The soundtrack to this game is awesome. Every character’s theme is unique and dynamic and some of the music in the game even has lyrics which is a pretty neat and unexpected touch. There are times throughout the game’s RPG mode where the dialogue can be a little hard to hear over this awesome music, even with the levels adjusted, so just be aware. Sound effects are also phenomenal, everything has the right punch to it making every hit that connects or elemental attack sound as good as it looks.

Voice acting is pretty great across the board, even if the script can prove to be downright ludicrous at times. I cannot thank the developers and publishers enough for including an English dub. Not only does this make the game more accessible to a new audience, but it also provides opportunities for more voice actors to bring these characters to life. So many anime games nowadays, unless they are Dragon Ball or Naruto, only offer Japanese dubs. My Hero Academia, which is the new hotness, doesn’t even have a dub for its video games, which should be a crime for how solid it is. This shows how much Cygames wants their series to succeed in the west. Their investment will not go unnoticed.

One interesting thing that happens when you play online is that your character speaks in the language you have set for your game. Which kind of makes it a bit of a surprise and gives you a little more insight into what kind of player it is that you are going up against on top of their character and color choices.

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Gameplay:

By some miracle, Arc System Works is able to develop a new fighting game every year and make it completely unique to what came before while pushing the envelope in terms of presentation and accessibility.

Actions are split between five main inputs: Light (L), Medium (M), Heavy (H), Unique Attack (U), and Guard (G). Other actions like Skills and Overhead Attacks and Grabs can also be pressed by either a combination of the previous five inputs or on their own.

L, M, and H can each be pressed up to 3 times in succession to perform an auto combo. This is something that has become a bit of a staple in the genre and is certainly welcome for newer players. Auto combos will help you get into the action but to become truly capable, creating your own combos will be necessary.

Unique Attacks add extra layers to the gameplay with each character having their own additional actions that set themselves apart on top of their standard move list. This is similar to the Drive button in the BlazBlue series, another ArcSys franchise. Granblue Fantasy Versus doesn’t take that aspect quite as far though, BlazBlue characters tend to have their own meters and counters, so it isn’t as overwhelming.

For example, Gran’s (U) is a chargeable strike that gets more powerful the longer its held, and it can be canceled in case there is pressure from your opponent so you can charge up where you left off. Charlotta’s (U) is a parry, Lancelot’s (U) is an ice dash, and Percival’s is a ghostly attack that neutralizes your opponent. There is plenty of variety between the characters already with their regular move lists, but the (U)s make battles even more interesting.

A nice addition to the game is a dedicated Overhead Attack that can be initiated by a single button press. This helps players of all kinds with establishing mix-ups. (A combination of attacks to put pressure on a blocking opponent). You’ve got to be careful when using an Overhead Attack though because they are easily punishable if your opponent gets their timing just right. Still, this is a welcome addition for newcomers who are having a hard time hitting someone who is blocking down.

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Anytime you use a Skill there is a cooldown period that is shown next to your character on their health bar. You have to wait until that cooldown is complete until you can use that skill again. Skills can also be activated through more traditional inputs like quarter circles and Z-motions on top of pressing the standalone Skill button and a simple direction like Up, Down, Left, or Right. Doing so will give you a technical bonus that will actually make the cooldown a bit faster.

Light and Medium Skills refill quite quickly but if you use a Heavy Skill, be prepared to not have access to that move for quite a bit longer. This includes all versions of that Skill, so be sure to think critically whenever you decide to go in for the Heavy Skill!

This is a really interesting take on EX moves because instead of managing your meter, you are managing your time. You can’t repeat the same Heavy Skills right after each other, making your execution even more essential, because if you miss, you won’t be able to use that Skill at all until the cooldown completes.

Guarding has a dedicated button in GBVS, but it can also be performed by pressing back or down-back. That being said, you can activate two additional defensive functions whenever G is held. By pressing G+Forward your character performs a short dash that dodges attacks. Pressing G+Back activates a dodge in place, quite similar to the one you would see in the Super Smash Bros. series.

You won’t find universal airdashes here though, making it a fairly slow-paced game for an anime fighter. This is a welcome change for sure since many anime fighters can be viewed as overly complex due to their array mobility options. That being said, Granblue Fantasy Versus does have a super jump similar to the Marvel vs Capcom series. I haven’t used it all too much in my time with the game, but I am sure pros out there have been utilizing it to extend combos or escape enemy attacks.

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Offline:

Granblue Fantasy Versus is home to a variety of content for those looking to experience more than the traditional Versus Mode. The highlight of the game’s single-player offerings is the title’s RPG Mode which stands among the more familiar fighting game staples like Arcade Mode and Challenge Mode. There is also an incredibly detailed Glossary that will make anyone a scholar of the series’ lore and FGC terminology.

RPG Mode takes players across the sky world through a series of missions that transforms this traditional 2D fighter into a beat ’em up with RPG elements. For most of the battles, which are against waves of enemies like knights, goblins, and slimes, you can move right and left like your typical beat ’em up. While there isn’t the depth of moving up or down, there is jumping and ducking of course. You can also utilize your full move set which makes this a very cool application for fighting game engines.

Inputs can be a little wonky in RPG Mode though. There were plenty of times where I was trying to do a backward quarter-circle input and instead of attacking the intended enemy who was ahead of me, my character turned around and either locked onto something else or wasted my Skybound Art on nobody. This might be due to the fact that turning around isn’t really an option in most 2D fighting games. By implementing it, the expectation of performing a backward input needs to be altered because if you hold back for just a smidge too long you could change your direction entirely. Once you get used to that timing, the errors will become less frequent.

The overall plot of RPG Mode is kind of the standard fare you’d expect from a game where all of these characters who are supposedly friends in the main continuity, end up having to fight one another. Mind control/memory manipulation are key players here. A ton of names and terms are thrown at you throughout the story that you might not be familiar with if you are new to Granblue, so there is a button that brings up the Glossary whenever a highlighted word is used. I got a lot of BlazBlue vibes from the dialogue in RPG Mode, where I was able to keep up with what was going on for the most part, but I definitely felt lost in the details. The art direction, music, and gameplay are so great that I didn’t mind not being able to follow the entirety of the plot.

There are only a couple of cutscenes within RPG Mode which is a little disappointing, especially considering how great the game looks in action. While the models look great, they might as well have been static images for how rarely their movements provided any additional impact to the presentation. The few of cutscenes that do make an appearance in RPG Mode look great but make you wonder how the game could have looked if it had a more cinematic approach instead of the tired visual novel style. Also, be prepared for some long load times, especially on the standard PlayStation 4.

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RPG Mode is a ton of fun though, especially with a friend! My wife and I played throughout the entirety of RPG Mode together, which was a nice change of pace where we could enjoy a fighting game together without having to be competitive. You can play co-op either locally or online through the Backup Request system. You can also choose to have an AI partner or no partner at all if you want some additional challenge.

The boss fights add fun spins to the gameplay. Even the battles against playable characters feel like more than just a regular versus match. Most battles are challenging enough to keep you entertained but not too hard if you are paying attention to your weapon’s level and element as well as your Support Skills. Even though you get some pretty unique Support Skills throughout RPG Mode, I stuck with the basic health recovery and damage boost the entire time. Others might find more success in the more nuanced abilities though!

The tone of the game completely changes at the final battle with Beelzebub, however, where the difficulty spikes seemingly out of nowhere. He’s not insanely cheap or difficult but his three phases will give you a run for your money. He does have pretty readable patterns that you’d expect from a Beat ‘Em Up boss and not an unbeatable AI like most fighting game bosses tend to have. Once you figure out his routine, the difficulty decreases quite a bit. I wouldn’t say that Beelzebub is too difficult, but the fact that the game is a breeze until this point makes the fight a little jarring. You will most likely get S Ranks on every mission without breaking a sweat, so newer players might have a hard time with him for a few attempts.

Whenever you complete the RPG Mode you can tackle its harder difficulty or you can head to the Tower of Babyl to take on a series of missions back to back while you climb higher and higher, getting greater spoils along the way.

Granblue Fantasy Versus RPG Mode Weapon System

Granblue Fantasy Versus doesn’t forget its gacha (i.e. simulated gambling) roots and it shows in RPG Mode. Summon Tickets can be used to unlock random weapons for RPG mode. These weapons all have a designated element on top of their base stats that are meant to make battles easier since every mission has an element attached to it. Think a super-effective chart kind of like the one found in Pokémon.

There is also a level-up system, an uncapping system, and a skill upgrade system available for each weapon, but to be completely honest you don’t really need to use these a whole lot to beat the story, on its base difficulty at least. Some of the weapons you acquire actually change what your weapon actually looks like in-game which is a very nice touch, but they are very far and few between. You can also get duplicates which is a real bummer.

The major downside to this system is that gacha doesn’t really have a purpose if you can’t pay actual money for it. It becomes a series of walls that block you from obtaining the aesthetic you want unless you grind enough to earn more summon tickets. Aesthetic weapons can be crafted through the Shop, but they require rare materials, making them difficult to obtain. I can’t complain too much though, because at least the weapon skins exist, which is hopefully one step closer to having different skins for characters in ArcSys games.

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Arcade Mode is fairly typical having players go through a set number of battles until they reach their boss at the end. While it might not be breaking the mold, it is always nice to have. Some fighting games have launched without Arcade mode, and that’s always made the experience feel empty.

Challenge Mode is incredibly thoughtful and sets out with the goal of actually teaching you the mechanics of fighting games across the board. It teaches you the basics of movement, attacking, and blocking and slowly adds to these concepts and before you know it you are learning how to block mixups, punish whiffs, and input commands with intent. It builds the mindset necessary to succeed in fighting games, and that’s not something you generally see in even the most popular entries in the genre.

Challenge Mode continues to teach you after going through the basic mechanics, the game teaches you how to use your Skill moves, how to pull off combos, and how to combat certain matchups. Challenge mode is completely essential and even after playing through the entirety of RPG Mode there was still plenty to learn about Granblue Fantasy Versus and its mechanics. If you are having a hard time completing a challenge, just give it your best shot and even if you fail, Vyrn will give you tips on how to pass it.

The final standout of Granblue Fantasy Versus‘ offline modes doesn’t even have any gameplay, instead, it holds a library of information. There are pages upon pages of information in the Glossary about all of the characters, locations, and enemies in Granblue Fantasy Versus. On top of that, players new to fighting games can learn a breadth of terminology that ranges from common phrases like “combos” to more complex techniques like “fuzzy guarding”.

The game even teaches you about Numpad notation, which is something really valuable for those wanting to be a part of FGC conversation online. I only just recently started to feel comfortable reading it but once you do it really makes communicating about fighting games easier online. It would be nice to also have the addition to change the directional inputs in the command menu to feature Numpad notation as well, but explaining what it is at all is more than any other fighter in my memory has done.

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Online:

To my surprise, as soon as I started Online Mode, I was greeted by a series of matches against computer-controlled characters that would decide where I would be placed online. I believe this process is meant to judge your skills ahead of time to place you with similarly seasoned opponents, but there wasn’t much explanation beforehand. After completing about six battles I was brought back to the main menu, without anything stating what rank I was placed in or why.

Still, this is an interesting premise I feel could help preemptively spread the talent pool to make your early battles closer to your own league. Nothing is more disheartening than hopping online after feeling like you have done pretty well in offline modes to get completely decimated by someone who technically has the same rank because everyone started at zero. After the placement matches, all of the online functionalities become available.

First up, is the Online lobby. If you’ve played previous ArcSys titles, the overall format of the online lobby will be familiar. Players control 3D avatars and can chat and compete against one another in a space with up to 64 players. The setup is adorable, with players aboard the skyship Grandcypher with dozens of virtual arcade cabinets for players to sit at to compete against a virtual rival. You can also customize your lobby avatar to be your favorite character in your preferred color palette as well.

Ranked Matches work as you would expect with players competing against one another in matches that count towards a global scoring system. You can queue up matches from Training Mode or Challenge Mode if you’d like to keep your skills sharp while you are waiting. While it makes sense that you would want to lock-in with a character beforehand, it really throws you off if you are in practice mode debating using a different character. It would be nice to have the option to keep the character used in practice mode in the future.

If you just want to play with a friend or a small group, Room Match is the way to go. Just create or join a room and you can have uninterrupted playtime with your buddies making it feel like they were there with you the way it was in the good old days.

Throughout my time in Online mode, regardless of connection, matches were a bit laggy. Sometimes a round would go without a hitch but more often than not, when the second round came, everything stuttered. I play with an ethernet connection and even with a solid link with my opponent, matches went from semi-smooth to unplayable. This is a real shame because the offline offerings are so strong. Hopefully, some updates will improve online play with time, but until then, expect some turbulence.

Granblue Fantasy Versus Beelzebub and Narmaya

Launch Day DLC:

Prior to GBVS‘ North American release date, the game had 11 base characters. Two additional characters were added to the game on March 3, who were unlockable by purchasing additional DLC. By the time the game launched in North America, Granblue Fantasy Versus had been out for about a month in Japan. Even with this taken into consideration, adding two DLC characters in under 30 days will likely cause some controversy.

Beelzebub, RPG Mode’s final boss, while included in the Season Pass, is in fact unlockable upon the mode’s completion, which explains his smaller price tag. (Beelzebub costs $2.99 while other Season Pass characters cost $6.99) This definitely makes things look a bit better for GBVS, that is if you don’t take Narmaya into account. Narmaya also released on March 3, alongside Beelzebub, and has no alternative unlock method besides buying her either separately or as a part of the Season Pass.

The game’s first Season Pass costs $29.99, which is fairly steep, given it only comes with four additional characters. You do get more than just the characters, though. Purchasing any additional fighter or acquiring them from the Season Pass will grant you a lobby avatar, a Star Character Icon, a couple of additional quests, and a Serial Code for the Original ‘Granblue Fantasy’.

Through my time with the additional characters, I can confirm that they definitely are worthy additions to your roster, regardless of the timeliness of their inclusion to the game. Beelzebub reminds me of an even crazier, metal-winged Sephiroth, and Narmaya’s complex toolkit grants her a ton of options granted you take the time to learn her.

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Conclusion:

I am blown away by Granblue Fantasy Versus. This is a game that could have been an easy cash grab designed for people who were already fans of the mobile RPG, but instead, it was expertly crafted to be the ultimate starting point for anyone who wants to become a better fighting game player. The tools it uses to teach players the proper competitive mindset have created the new golden standard for what should be expected in modern fighting games.

This will definitely be a game that I will play for the foreseeable future and with three more characters heading to the title before the end of April, and Evo 2020 drawing closer, you won’t want to miss being a part of what has the potential to grow into the next great fighting game franchise.

Granblue Fantasy Versus is currently available on PlayStation 4 and will release on PC on March 13, 2020.


XSEED Games/Marvelous USA, Inc. provided Shoryuken with a review copy of the base version of Granblue Fantasy Versus. Played on a standard PlayStation 4.


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Shoryuken.com Associate Editor. Austyn James Roney began his gaming journey with Super Smash Bros. on the N64 but learned the ways of the fighting game genre with Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Loves all fighters, regardless of dimension or playstyle.