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Granblue Fantasy Versus beta impressions: A free-to-play game picks a fight

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A mobile game that deserves a fighting game

Arc System Works/Cygames

I didn’t expect too many other people to wake up at five in the morning to play the closed beta of Granblue Fantasy Versus, and certainly not on the American servers. This is a game based on a free-to-play mobile game that’s mostly popular in Japan, and the awkward hours of the beta were chosen largely for people on the other side of the world.

But the servers were filled nearly to capacity when I logged in. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Developer Arc System Works has only shown this game off in vague trailers that highlighted the stunning animation. Everybody following the game expected Arc to deliver high-quality animation, but hardly anybody knew how the game actually played, and hundreds of us were willing to wake up way too early on a Friday to find out.

Granblue Fantasy Versus is based on a wildly popular Japanese mobile RPG that tells its story through text, beautiful still illustrations, and the kind of cute, squat JRPG sprites you might remember from the era of the original PlayStation. The game has literally made its fortune on the back of appealing character designs through its character lootbox/gacha mechanics. You might have heard of the guy who streamed himself spending over $6,000 trying to unlock a single character.

But the mobile game leaves a lot to the imagination. Those fancy illustrations can’t move, after all. Bringing those elaborate character designs to life — and getting it right by Granblue Fantasy’s ravenous, big-spender fanbase — must have been an intimidating job, and publisher Cygames wisely chose a veteran developer in Arc System Works to handle it.

Getting 2D characters right is kind of Arc’s thing. After pioneering painstaking techniques to make 3D models mimic hand-drawn 2D animation in Guilty Gear Xrd, Arc was picked up to bring Goku and friends to life in Dragon Ball FighterZ. The company’s animators are experts at breathing life into 3D models using techniques borrowed from 2D animation.

And indeed, Granblue Fantasy Versus looks beautiful. The stage set on a grassy cliff stuns with its level of detail, and the huge airship from the game passes by. Arc’s detailed animation gives subtle life to even the blank slate of Gran, the silent player avatar from the mobile game. He hops and shuffles nervously with flailing, sloppy attacks, every bit the determined but unprepared hero.

The four other playable characters in the beta display just as much polish: the poised fencer Katalina, tiny berserker Charlotta, dual-wielding speedster Lancelot, and ghost summoner Ferry all move with fluid detail. Seeing these characters in motion on the big screen gives them personality that was previously only hinted at through text.

Existing Granblue fans will be especially pleased by this effort, and the game is already taking their requests by survey of which of the hundreds of existing Granblue characters they want to see appear in Versus next. No matter how many characters make it into the game upon release, there is going to be plenty of room for DLC after launch.

The love and care on display in the animation extends to the gameplay as well. Contrary to Arc’s usual work, which tends to include speedy, combo-heavy, technical games targeted at existing genre fans, Granblue Fantasy Versus takes things back to the 90s, with slower, simpler play that resembles vintage Street Fighter titles. Even though an expert is still going to beat a newbie, they won’t be able to instantly pounce and slice them to ribbons.

Characters move a little bit more slowly than in other games and, without the high-speed air dashes of Dragon Ball FighterZ or Guilty Gear, players have to shuffle and feel each other out as they try to move into their generally short attack range and keep the opponent out of their zone. Combos are as simple as mashing a single button, and the game offers a multitude of assists for common fighting game moves.

The strong emphasis on basics without an excess of moves or extra mechanics makes this game as newbie-friendly as a modern fighting game is likely going to get, short of something that focuses specifically on beginners like Koihime Enbu. That’s important, given that the game will likely have a lot of players coming in from a mobile RPG that’s more about grinding than pure reflexes.

In case that isn’t friendly enough, Granblue Fantasy Versus bridges the gap between RPG and fighting game with some unique accessibility features. Though the “hadoken” and “shoryuken” commands common to 2D fighters still exist in this game, you’re allowed to bypass them with the use of the “Skill” button. All players have to do is press a button plus a direction to unleash a special move, a system similar to what exists in the Super Smash Bros. franchise.

Think of these details more like training wheels than a serious design shift: moves performed with the Skill button are weaker, and they trigger a longer cooldown than attacks made with traditional commands. The extremely flashy and powerful Skybound Arts, the super moves, can’t be done with shortcuts. Arc doesn’t want to eliminate old-style commands, it wants to ease new players towards them.

Players can learn the motions if they want to invest the time in getting better, while those who just want to mash buttons and have fun can do so, and they probably won’t notice the change in the cooldown timer.

The core gameplay is familiar, even if you’ve only played the most popular fighting games out there. Arc uses moves and mechanics to directly pay homage to classic genre characters like Dhalsim from Street Fighter, Charlotte from Samurai Shodown, and even the ninja politician Chipp from Arc’s own Guilty Gear. Veterans will get comfy fast, but will likely still find enough twists on the existing archetypes to make the characters unique and engaging on their own merits.

The three five-hour sessions (online multiplayer only, no single-player or practice) in Granblue Fantasy Versus’ closed beta hardly felt like enough. Because the game is so easy to get a handle on, I was just starting to peel back the layers, get confident in my play, and really uncover the advanced game by the time the beta finished up.

By contrast, tourney champion Sonicfox was doing this about two hours after the beta opened.

Granblue Fantasy Versus launches some time in 2019.