There isn't a lot of room for newcomers in the fighting game genre. Veteran franchises like Street Fighter, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Guilty Gear have dominated the space for years, so the new challengers that do choose to step into the ring usually have the backing of a popular license. Granblue Fantasy Versus is just that kind of rookie fighter; it's based on a property that's incredibly popular in Japan thanks to a successful mobile gacha (virtual capsule-toy vending machine) game with RPG hooks, but relatively unknown everywhere else. Versus is, for all intents and purposes, Granblue Fantasy's debut on the world stage.
Developed by Arc System Works--known for excellent fighting game adaptations of Dragon Ball Z and Persona 4--Granblue Fantasy Versus has a strong core thanks to unorthodox gameplay mechanics that delicately balance depth with approachability, while introducing interesting new ideas of its own. The extra flourishes that serve as a nod to fans or aim to adhere to RPG roots whiff on occasion, but the experience as a whole holds its own thanks to the strength of its fundamentals.
ArcSys has made strides in improving the approachability of its anime fighters more with simpler inputs and easier-to-understand systems, but for Granblue Fantasy Versus, it has moved away from the breakneck pace, air-dashing-oriented, aggressive playstyle of anime fighters to something more traditional. As a ground-based fighting game, Versus has a much slower pace of play and places heavier focus on normals and special moves instead of partner assists and lengthy touch-of-death combos. In that respect, it can be likened more closely to Capcom fighting games such as Street Fighter. The emphasis is on timing and spacing your attacks properly to create opportunities for follow-ups or set up situations where you have an advantage, but not necessarily an almost guaranteed victory. At a higher level, it's about footsies, precisely executed mixups, smart use of the universal overhead, and the occasional frame trap. For newcomers--of which there's likely to be many, given the popularity of Granblue Fantasy--it's much more stable ground to find footing. Fighting game veterans will naturally have an advantage, but for everyone else, the mountain doesn't seem as steep to climb, so the idea of walking the path to mastery is much more inviting.
Auto-combos, a common mechanic in ArcSys games, have been included, which means that a complete newcomer can pick up a controller and press an attack button repeatedly to execute basic combos. These strings of attacks are effective, but limited in damage and applicability without the addition of special moves to a string.
And it's here that Granblue Fantasy Versus starts to throw in unique ideas that make for interesting moment-to-moment fighting, but also embody the spirit of how an RPG is played. Special moves are executed in one of two ways, the first being a traditional combination of directional movements and button presses--a quarter-circle forward and attack will, in most cases, execute a projectile if a character has one, for example. However, there are also shortcuts mapped to buttons--you can pull off that same projectile attack with just the press of the R1 button. For every character, special moves are mapped to R1 or R1 plus a directional button. The added layer is, like in an RPG, each of these special moves goes on cooldown after being used, with the length of that cooldown being longer if you use the shortcut to execute it. This is ArcSys' way of balancing out the system so that those who struggle with fighting game inputs can still do cool moves, but players that put in the work are also rewarded for their effort.
This system also creates a rather interesting meta-game that lends a degree of unpredictability to fights, especially at higher levels. In most traditional fighting games there are certain tells that provide a keen player with some indication of what is about to happen. Take a charge character like Street Fighter's M. Bison, for example; if you see him shifting one way or another for too long, you know he might unleash a certain special move, and you can try to prepare your next move accordingly. That's not the case in Granblue Fantasy Versus, however, since the shortcut commands can instantly execute special moves.
This means that diminutive knight Charlotta can go from walking towards you dragging an a-bit-too-big-for-her sword to launching herself in the air to deliver a crushing overhead blow without needing to charge down back first and give away what she's about to do. And you're left to react in an instant. Similarly, the terrifying behemoth Vaseraga might be a little less scary when he's across the screen, but at any second he could come barreling at you to deliver a devastating shoulder check because of an instant input. The same can be said of every other special move in the game.
It sounds like a nightmare to deal with and, admittedly, it can be. But it also creates a really fascinating dynamic that hasn't been explored much in the past. Games like Smash Bros. and Capcom Vs. SNK 2 EO also have these kinds of easy input options, but rarely has it factored into the way a game is played as meaningfully as it is in Granblue Fantasy Versus. The cooldown system layered on top of the shortcuts present strategic decision-making moments where you weigh up the pros and cons of using shortcuts versus having an ability temporarily taken out of play and how long it's unavailable for. As with many aspects of fighting games, this early in the game's life it's difficult to pass a definitive judgment on the scope of the systems and mechanics, as the fighting game community often finds new and innovative ways to use techniques, but as it stands, the pieces fit together in a satisfying way even if the bigger picture isn't fully visible.
Granblue Fantasy Versus has a robust and intricate set of fighting game mechanics that are easy to get a grasp of and offer plenty of depth to explore for those who keep digging
Granblue Fantasy Versus has a number of other familiar mechanics cherry-picked from across the genre's history. Spot dodging lets attacks be side-stepped with the press of a button, while there are also multiple options for guarding. If directional inputs are used to manually guard high and low, as well as cross-ups, Just Defense is available with proper timing. However, if the dedicated guard button is used, it becomes possible to dash out--and through, in some cases--or dash back. The dedicated guard button also makes blocking cross-ups more consistent, but Just Defense becomes unavailable. Again, Granblue Fantasy Versus asks you to weigh up whether you want to take the easier approach at the cost of some advantages or put in the work for more of a payout. What I've enjoyed most is trying to get my head around using both at the right moment--engaging with the technical side of play when I feel confident, but then switching to the simpler options when I'm feeling overwhelmed or want to be safer. It's kind of like being able to juggle with two balls, but then having a third thrown into the mix; I know how to do it, I just need to coordinate myself better to account for the new variable and get the timing down and the rhythm right. The process of trying to hone the skills needed to do that has been gratifying.
All this is to say that, fundamentally, Granblue Fantasy Versus has a robust and intricate set of fighting game mechanics that are easy to get a grasp of and offer plenty of depth to explore for those who keep digging. It's a shame, then, that the game doesn't leverage the intricately designed one-on-one gameplay for its RPG Quest mode, and instead relies on shallow button mashing. Functionally, this mode serves multiple purposes: It introduces those unfamiliar with the franchise to the world and its characters, tells its own unique story, and teaches you the basics of how to play. Sadly, it fails to do any of these in a satisfactory way, while also opting to diminish everything that actually makes it fun to play.
Battles in this mode look and feel more like the mobile RPG version of Granblue Fantasy, but it's not turn-based. Instead, you have direct control over characters and must dispatch waves of incoming enemies in something that feels somewhere between a classic side-scrolling beat-em-up and Tekken's Force Mode. However, the enemies present little to no challenge. They also have very little health, so they can usually be offed with a couple of heavy attacks. As a result, there's little reason to use some of Granblue Fantasy Versus' more interesting ideas. Sure, you can use special moves to combat enemies, but why do that when just spamming a single attack button gets the job done? Occasionally, boss characters appear, but they don't force a change in approach--the all-out attack is the smartest and easiest thing to do most of the time.
Other members of the fighting game's cast have been corrupted and led astray as part of the game's story, and you encounter them on your journey. To snap them out of their stupor, you've got to give them a beating and, in these encounters, battles take the form of the typical one-on-one fight in Granblue Fantasy Versus. However, these characters are mostly there to be sandbagged so they can be added to your party. The unsatisfying gameplay makes the cliche, forgettable story about a bunch of sky pirates freeing their friends from evil and battling an evil empire even more tiresome to sit through. I really wanted to care about the characters; de facto protagonist Gran has a shounen anime look and charm that I'm partial to. Lowain is a very odd, free-spirited fella with cat ears that calls his mates into battle to take cheeky little shots, and he also summons Yggdrasil, a Primal Beast that's basically a giant lady that bullies his enemies. Then there are archetypes like cool knight Lancelot and arrogant fire boy Percival. As someone who favors charge characters, I really took a shine to Charlotta, who is surprisingly vicious, given her small cutesy design. They all are visually appealing, but the story mode does absolutely nothing for them. Their characterisation is thin at best, in a story that bounces between obtuse and rote. And when the gameplay punctuating this is unrewarding, it's hard to recommend sitting through it.
The RPG Quest mode is also where the Granblue Fantasy mobile game's gacha elements appear. You unlock unique weapons for completing the main story quests, but you don't get to actually use any of them. Instead, they all get thrown into what is effectively buckets, and their combined power then raises the attack attributes of your character. Enemies have elemental alignments, and using opposing ones will grant bonus damage, but manually crafting loadouts is time-consuming and unnecessary when an option to automate and optimize exists. There's no real reason to overthink loadouts since elemental alignment is the only major factor at play, so allowing the game to simply put an ideal one together is the best course of action. Ultimately, the gacha elements end up being a throwaway novelty, instead of a valuable wrinkle to gameplay.
Granblue Fantasy Versus has a comprehensive suite of training missions that cover everything from basic moves and specials, to advance combos, strategies, and specific mixups. Any and all time spent there is more valuable than in the RPG Quest mode, especially since that's what'll be tested when you head online. Currently, the game's servers aren't as populated as they will be post-launch, but in the time we spent playing online the experience was generally smooth. Occasionally hitches can be attributed to matching up against players outside our local territory, but otherwise there haven't been any disruptive network issues.
Granblue Fantasy Versus presents a set of systems that are distinct and unique without putting up unnecessary hurdles for those that are just here to get a Granblue fix. Arc System Works has cleverly meshed RPG and fighting game mechanics, and the way that manifests in the core one-on-one battles is really exciting. In other respects, namely the campaign story mode and its gacha stylings, it leaves a lot to be desired. In bringing Granblue to the wider world, Arc System Works hasn't put its best foot forward, but Versus is definitely a game where you can come for the fantasy and stay for the fighting.