Image courtesy of Arc System Works

How Guilty Gear -Strive- hits an ultra combo with groundbreaking visuals and gameplay

Jimmy Thang
Arc System Works is a Japanese-based gaming company that develops and specializes in the fighting game genre. The company is best known for the Guilty Gear series and, more recently, BlazBlue, and has garnered international critical acclaim for their innovative fighting systems and spectacular 2D and 3D artwork. Arc System Works’ most recent project, Guilty Gear -Strive-, released in June 2021.
The Guilty Gear franchise has had an illustrious history since the first entry broke ground with the fighting game community back in 1998. Along the way, developer Arc System Works became one of the most respected fighting game studios in the genre, having crafted several sequels and other esteemed titles such as Dragon Ball FighterZ and Granblue Fantasy: Versus. Guilty Gear -Strive- marks the series’ first foray using Unreal Engine 4, and with it, the Japanese studio delivers its most beautiful 2D/3D cel-shaded graphics yet, which looks especially sharp on next-generation console PlayStation 5, where it is optimized to run at 60 frames per second at 4K. 

Not only does -Strive- push the envelope in terms of visuals, but it delivers the series’ most accessible and deepest fighting system yet. It does this while implementing new mechanics such as wall-breaks and integrating some of the best netcode seen in a fighting game to date.

With the latest installment striving to be a “reconstruction” of the series, we interviewed several members from Arc System Works to discuss how the developers created and balanced their vastly diverse character roster, how they aimed to carve out the series’ new visual identity, and more. 

Considering Guilty Gear -Strive- has been touted as a reconstruction of the franchise, how do you approach mixing up the formula while making the experience feel familiar to returning players?

Director Akira Katano: Our goal was to provide a fresh experience that still feels like Guilty Gear to all players, rather than a familiar one. In order to make it clear what it means to "feel like Guilty Gear," we first had [series creator] Ishiwatari share his image of the ideal Guilty Gear with team members while also analyzing our staff’s initial impressions when they had first played the series.

The studio said one of its goals coming into Guilty Gear -Strive- was to make it more accessible for fighting game novices while keeping the depth that hardcore fans crave. Can you share your approach to accomplishing this?

Katano: Our main premise is creating an environment where new players will not be matched with experienced ones. As long as this succeeds, there is no need to create game mechanics that attempt to overturn a difference in skill levels.
With that established, we took the approach of creating a design where you can deal large amounts of damage without memorizing long combos but adjusted it so that your results will be determined by your choice of starter moves, your situational decision making, and the required strict inputs.
Image courtesy of Arc System Works
With 15 playable characters at launch — two of which are new —  the characters in Guilty Gear -Strive- look and play vastly different from each other. Can you talk about your approach to creating and balancing them?

Katano: First, we decide what situation every character will be the strongest, the most fun, and the most brilliant in. Once we determine that a character is fun enough, we generally move on to creating their weaknesses and opportunities for opponents to get in their way.

After their general abilities have been set to a certain extent, we have our team members, who did well in major tournaments before entering the company, play with them so we can make adjustments. We then repeat this process.

How might character balance change over time?

Katano: As with recent trends, we will, in all likelihood, perform balance adjustments via updates after launch. However, we would not like to create an atmosphere where players feel it isn't worth putting effort in now because an update might change things later. We will be carefully considering the pace and contents of future updates.
Image courtesy of Arc System Works
Guilty Gear -Strive- introduces a new wall-breaking mechanic that rewards aggressive play and leads to robust stage transitions. Why was this a good fit for the game?

Katano: It would be a really long story if I were to explain the entire process that led to the inclusion of the wall-break mechanic, but one of the reasons was that we wanted to change the impression the series has created previously that the same situation can be repeated multiple times in a row.
However, since we can't afford to lose the sense of reward and fun players feel when they attack an opponent after getting them in the corner, we made adjustments so that the player will celebrate breaking the wall rather than feel disappointed.
In particular, the increase to the Tension Gauge is very rewarding, as actions that consume the Tension Gauge in Guilty Gear -Strive- are extremely strong and open up a lot of options.

With Guilty Gear -Strive-, the studio has increased the damage of hits and lessened the need to perform overly complicated combos. Why was this change right for the game?

Katano: One of the ideals we wanted to realize in this game was to create something that gives new players the impression that they do not need to learn complicated combos while also providing room for freedom and depth of combos at a deeper level. In order to pull off such a major revolution, we felt we needed a completely new title and that -Strive- would need to be our attempt at this within the Guilty Gear series.
Image courtesy of Arc System Works
With Guilty Gear -Strive-, the studio set out to achieve a new art direction with improved character animations. Can you delve into some of the goals there?

Art Director Hidehiko Sakamura: In previous titles, we aimed to recreate the Japanese style of hand-drawn animation using 3D. However, with this title, we are seeking to create a distinct Guilty Gear style rather than an imitation of hand-drawn anime.
Basically, our goal was to inspire a reaction of "This is the animation of Guilty Gear!" rather than "This looks just like a hand-drawn anime."

With vibrant, colorful cel-shaded 3D graphics that look 2D, Guilty Gear -Strive- is one of the best-looking fighting games made yet. Can you elaborate on how the team was able to pull off the game's graphics?

Lead Modeler Takashi Yamanaka: For the characters, as a base, we used the toon shading from our previous titles, while including various elements that raise it to a higher level of quality. For example, we implemented gradations using calculations that are unlikely to be impacted visually even when the characters are doing outlandish poses. This gets rid of the monotonous quality and also brings depth to colors. We also have a system that allows us to forcibly control the shading and light of individual parts, such as hands, legs, and weapons, for when we want to create a specific visual effect even if it isn't accurate to how lighting works in reality. With these combined elements, we carefully control colors so that they match each battle stage. All of these methods are realized by working closely together across each section of the team that includes 2D, models, animations, effects, backgrounds, programming, and more.
Image courtesy of Arc System Works
Guilty Gear -Strive- leans on limited animation to bolster the game's anime-style look, which is especially evident in the game's cut-scenes and flashy overdrive attacks. Can you share how you delivered this? 

Sakamura: This look was achieved carefully and handcrafted by experts, which is a distinct feature of the Guilty Gear team.

In Guilty Gear -Strive-, especially, we created visuals such as facial animations that express emotion and personality for each moment, rather than a simplified anime-style look. These visuals are achieved through the sheer passion our creators put into their work. 

Guilty Gear -Strive- has been praised as having arguably the best netcode out of any fighting game to date. Can you share how the team was able to pull off the game's smooth and consistent online play?

Technical Programmer Yuuki Kawakami: It was comparatively easy for us to implement the netcode because we had been gathering information on rollback netcode within the company from before we even decided to use it in Guilty Gear -Strive-.

Issues came up with processing dropout and memory capacity; in particular, the standard PS4 console has a relatively modest CPU compared to PS5 and PS4 Pro, so when running rollback code, it would cause processing dropout.

When it came to optimizing the CPU, the restoration process for particles and skeletal mesh were especially taxing, so we eliminated the processing dropout by making tweaks on the engine side.

For the memory capacity issues, we were able to reduce the memory needed by manually separating the objects that require or do not require being rolled back, rather than having all objects affected as they were initially.

These optimizations originally created serious issues with synchronization, but we were able to build the current netcode by fixing each issue carefully.
Image courtesy of Arc System Works
Has the team's experience using Unreal Engine 4 to work on Granblue Fantasy: Versus and Dragon Ball FighterZ helped Guilty Gear -Strive-’s development in any way?

Nozawa: Naturally, we have benefited from these experiences greatly. We were able to get the project started and have new members smoothly join development because much of the staff for Guilty Gear -Strive- also worked on Granblue Fantasy: Versus and Dragon Ball FighterZ.

Does the team have any favorite Unreal Engine tools or features?

Nozawa: Speaking for myself rather than the rest of the team, I would say the Material Editor. This helps us improve the quality of the graphics, as we can smoothly go through trial and error processes thanks to the ability to preview the result quickly while implementing requested artist changes.
Image courtesy of Arc System Works
With the game optimized for PlayStation 5, what enhancements can PS5 users expect?

Katano: The biggest enhancement would have to be the quick loading times. Naturally, the graphics are quite improved as well. I especially hope players can experience the story mode on PS5 with a 4K monitor. Also, we are looking into implementing a PS5-exclusive mode via an update. Please stay tuned for more information.

What are your thoughts on developing games for next-gen hardware?

Kawakami: Although the PS5 is a next-gen console, its development environment isn’t too different from the PS4. I don't think there will be too many difficulties for developers who have experience developing for PS4 to develop for PS5. You can implement new PS5 features quite easily.

However, the network features have been moved to a new library, so there were some changes to how the game works due to the changes in API from the PS4 generation. 

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Guilty Gear -Strive-?

Yamanaka: You can catch the latest information on the Guilty Gear Official Twitter (@GUILTYGEAR_PR). We share important announcements in English as well, so be sure to follow us there!

    Get Unreal Engine today!

    Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool. 
    With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.