The fighting game genre may be slowly making a comeback. Last year, the outstanding Virtua Fighter 4 met with critical acclaim, and later in the year, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance surprised everyone in what was a surprisingly good return to form for the classic series. And while the future of the genre will probably involve 3D graphics and online play, for now, it's great to see a game like Guilty Gear X2 show up on the horizon hot on the heels of these other great games. Similar to 2001's Guilty Gear X, this colorful and decidedly Japanese game features a large cast of more than 20 characters, dozens of cool moves and an equal number of weird ones, and traditional mechanics that anyone who's ever played a fighting game from Capcom or SNK should be able to quickly pick up. Guilty Gear X2 also features several new gameplay modes, improved character balance, and enough depth that fans of previous Guilty Gear games--or fans of 2D fighting games in general--should certainly enjoy it.
At its core, Guilty Gear X2 is a lot like its predecessor, which in turn was clearly inspired by countless other 2D fighting games from Capcom and SNK. It's the standard drill: You can engage in one-on-one, best-of-three-round bouts against the computer in numerous single-player modes or against a friend. Yet while the structure and basic design of Guilty Gear X2 may be conventional, its cast of characters is pretty exceptional, featuring everything from a pirate girl wielding an enormous anchor to a hunched-over white-clad doctor who seems to be wearing a brown grocery bag on his head. A good number of new characters join the fracas this time around, including a debonair vampire smoking a pipe, a scantily clad witch wielding an electric guitar, and an androgynous British lad who looks and sounds like a lass and fights with a yo-yo. You know we couldn't make this stuff up if we tried, and it's good to see that the designers decided to keep moving in the direction of "weird" rather than introduce more-conventional sorts of characters.
Like its predecessor, the game is brought to life with vibrant hand-drawn 2D character sprites and backgrounds, making Guilty Gear X2 look as much like an anime episode as a video game. In fact, the legions of fans of anime series like Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh! really ought to take notice of Guilty Gear X2, which has a similar sort of style and sensibility to it. Meanwhile, the presence of a hard-rocking electronic guitar soundtrack further helps set this game apart, and while the tracks may not sound drastically different from one to the next, it's great that the designers have given Guilty Gear X2 such a cohesive musical style.
In addition to the usual modes you'd expect from a fighting game, including arcade, versus, training, and survival, Guilty Gear X2 features a mission mode, a story mode, and a variation on the survival mode in which big combos earn you medals, some of which restore a little bit of your health. The story mode is unique to each character and consists of a scripted series of battles interspersed with verbal exchanges between your character and his or her next opponent. The speech is all in Japanese, a point that many of the game's fans will probably appreciate, and the story mode helps provide a better sense of all the game's various personalities. The stories for the characters can even branch off at particular points, depending on certain conditions of your performance during the battles. The story mode isn't terribly complex, but fans of the game's character design will definitely want to spend some time in it.
The mission mode is another good diversion, offering dozens of scripted stand-alone battles that can be extremely challenging. The game's computer opponents can put up a very tough fight at higher levels of difficulty, and most of the missions not only pit you against some of the toughest levels of AI, but also handicap you in certain ways, forcing you to defeat your foe in a much shorter amount of time than usual or preventing you from jumping during the fight, among other things. You can choose to play the missions in any order, and they're a fun bonus for advanced players. Accomplishing missions, finishing the story mode with various characters, and playing through the arcade mode allows you to unlock lots of artwork for your viewing pleasure in the game's gallery, and some hidden characters are waiting to be discovered too.
Of course, the actual gameplay needs to be very good for any of this to matter. Guilty Gear X2 controls smoothly and precisely, and is suitably rewarding either as a casual pick-up-and-play kind of game, or as a strategic and competitive game--or somewhere in between. Newcomers to the series may initially be put off by the fact that characters tend to walk very slowly, but they can jump very high and very quickly, and most of them can also dash forward and backward (even in midair) at remarkable speeds, giving Guilty Gear X2 a distinctly fast-paced feel. Four main attack buttons are used for the game, letting characters punch, kick, and execute regular and heavy slashes. The "dust attack" move from Guilty Gear X has also been mapped to its own button now, allowing characters to quickly trip their opponents up with a foot sweep or launch them into the air to set them up for an air combo.
Beyond that, the game borrows just about every successful gameplay tweak seen in Capcom's and SNK's fighting games from over the years. Characters have numerous defensive moves for countering overzealous attackers, yet the game effectively penalizes overly defensive play as well. The fact that every character has an impressive "instant kill" move that can be unleashed in every round also ensures that dramatic comebacks are possible, though these devastating moves have been properly balanced, so they're not overpowering. You get the impression from Guilty Gear X2 that years of 2D fighting know-how went into its design, and the resulting game plays great. Hard-core Guilty Gear X players will notice improvements in the overall gameplay balance, especially in the way the relative sizes of the characters are not just a graphical thing, but are also integral to their ability to sustain and cause damage.
It's worth noting that, like most fighting game sequels, Guilty Gear X2 isn't a complete overhaul. One problem its predecessor had that the sequel also suffers from is many of the moves in the game are animated so strangely that it can be difficult to see exactly what's going on. For another thing, despite the new modes of play, Guilty Gear X2 is still at its most engaging as a two-player game, and at this point it's easy to wish for support for online play. One could also nitpick about the fact that not all the animation is as smooth as it probably could be, though the characters themselves are crisp and rendered at a high resolution. The game even supports progressive scan displays, and a standard television doesn't do full justice to the look of the game. Loading times are nearly nonexistent, thankfully.
In the end, Guilty Gear X2 is a commendable sequel and a great 2D fighting game on its own strengths. It's easy to recommend to just about any fan of the genre, except maybe for those who expressly dislike the game's anime-inspired character design. Guilty Gear X2 is one of the most highly evolved 2D fighting games yet, and it's another clear sign that fighting games definitely have some life left in them.