There’s something about strapping on armour and a sword, fixing your heroic stare into the middle distance, and setting out to right some wrongs that strikes a chord in all of us. Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a hybrid RPG fighting game that sets you on the noble path, tasked with clobbering things into submission (whilst maintaining that steely gaze and noble posture).
I’m a huge fan of scrolling beat ‘em ups. They verge on being my favourite genre, and whether it’s the likes of Dragon’s Crown or old skool duffing-up in Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator, there’s no shortage of quality to choose from. How does Granblue stack up against such stiff competition?
Well, as the game’s published by Arc System Works – the masterminds behind the enduring Guilty Gear series – it’s predictably gorgeous. A ‘2.5D’ effort using the ubiquitous Unreal Engine 4, Granblue Fantasy: Versus seamlessly switches between side-on action and cinematic cutscenes. The fact that you can be suprised at any time by a switch to cartoon-quality anime is a constant delight, and adds much-needed momentum to the action.
The action itself is a tamped-down, RPG-lite experience that sits midway between Guardian Heroes and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara. Like those classics, GF:V showcases a mix of combos and special moves – Street Fighter style – but also a magic system that can be used for attacks, buffs and the like. Strings can be activated with a single button, specials triggered with a single press of R1, and magic skills with a hotkey combination.
Other than that, you mix it up with lots of RPG archetypes like goblins, knights and monsters. You’re restricted to a 2D plane, but there are dodges and dashes to help you avoid the dastardly horde. Combat’s doled out in bite-size chunks, each ‘mission’ lasting just a couple of minutes for the most part, and the player can choose their weapon set beforehand. Each weapon is split into the regular archetypes: earth, air, fire, water, light and dark, and each can be upgraded with gems you earn during combat: the more variety in your fighting style, the higher the reward.
If that last paragraph reads a bit boring then, well… that’s because the game is a bit boring. GF:V’s biggest weakness is how all this is so uninspired. There’s barely a flicker of originality; even the beautifully animated characters are insipid variations on countless Euro-Japan medieval crossover mangas and OVAs, from time immemorial.
I could forgive some design inconsistency and design pratfalls if Arc SW had been shooting for ‘unique’ or ‘ground breaking’. Unfortunately, the best descriptor for the game is ‘safe’ with a competent engine and consistent mechanics. Also, robust as the fighting is, the story is dreary. There are reams and reams of text between each fight, all delivered in static 2D fashion, chock full of lore and lacking any emotion or characterisation. There’s no actual, proper story and you can easily skip just about every scene and still twig on every twist. It’s hardly Proust.
Erasing the problems the greatest games in the sub-genre themselves faced – cluttered arenas, specials too hard to pull off or too easy to whiff, parallax levels that make fixing your position difficult, a magic system that’s a bum-ache to access under pressure – simultaneously erased individuality. Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a competent game, a pleasure to look at and reliable; the King Arthur of fantasy fighting games. That’s ok, but I’d rather have the Lancelot: passionate, unpredictable, flawed, brilliant.