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Two fighters face off in Guilty Gear Strive Image: Arc System Works/Bandai Namco via Polygon

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Fighting game story modes like Guilty Gear Strive’s are a huge missed opportunity

Players deserve a more compelling fusion of story and gameplay

For the past couple weeks, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Guilty Gear Strive. It’s a bit of a risky sequel, tweaking fundamental parts of the Guilty Gear series’ fighting system in ways that are already controversial among fans, but it doesn’t sacrifice what makes the series stand out among fighting games.

It looks incredible in action; it’s immensely satisfying to uppercut someone with Potemkin’s impossibly huge fists to chuck them into the air as the word “COUNTER” appears in bold font across the screen, catching them mid-air with the palm of his enormous hand, then exploding them with the gizmo embedded in that hand.

Watching a Chipp player combo me sideways, up a freaking wall, is mesmerizing. The Roman Cancel makes combos incredibly flexible, allowing you to improvise brand-new combos in the heat of combat. It ticks all the boxes of things I like in a fighting game, and I’m having a blast.

But when I hop into its story mode, all of that goes out the window. Instead of digging further into what makes Strive great, I’m essentially watching a CGI anime short series —one that’s surprisingly digestible at times, but also throws you into the deep end of its story from the jump. It either assumes you’re familiar with the various plot lines of the previous game, Guilty Gear Xrd, or are willing to pore over Strive’s robust in-game “character relationship chart,” timeline, and glossary. The latter isn’t worth it; while the plot uses a deluge of proper nouns and references to events like “The Crusades” (but not like, those Crusades), the story doesn’t really do much with all of its disparate ideas, instead providing half-baked platitudes about discovering who you really are.

The story mode in Strive is confusing and mostly a letdown, but that’s not the biggest reason it disappoints me. It’s that, like most cinematic fighting game story modes before it, it feels like a huge missed opportunity. Not just because this story mode and others like it squander what makes fighting games great, but because Strive has the pieces of a great single-player experience already — they’re just not put together quite right.

Two characters in Guilty Gear Strive Image: Arc System Works/Bandai Namco via Polygon

Like many other multiplayer-focused genres, fighting games often struggle to find meaningful reasons for people who love their characters but don’t like playing with others to stick around. The fighting genre blossomed in arcades, after all, and one of the most satisfying parts of playing a fighting game is getting into your opponent’s head, outsmarting them, or finally pulling off that intricate combo you’ve been practicing. Fighting computer-controlled opponents in arcade mode can be fun for a while, but it gets old quickly. If you don’t have a group of friends to play with, or you aren’t interested in practicing in training mode and taking your lumps online to get better, fighting games end up being pretty easy to put down.

When the Mortal Kombat series adopted a more cinematic approach to its story modes — starting with Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, where a feature-length CGI movie is essentially crammed with a few fights against AI opponents — it was a breath of fresh air. These kinds of story modes are the best way to expose new players to a fighting game’s outlandish characters, since they don’t require players to excel at the actual fighting underpinning the games themselves. Since then, other major fighting series have taken notice: Street Fighter 5, Tekken 7, Dead or Alive 6, and Soulcalibur 6 have all included story modes in which you watch cutscenes until the story requires you to fight someone.

In a way, Strive’s story mode feels like the natural evolution of this approach. Players can often mash their way through the fights in most other fighting game story modes without deep understanding of the game’s systems. So, why not get rid of the fights entirely? If anything, taking that approach is more honest about the goal of these story modes: getting you more invested in the game’s characters. Cutting out all the fighting means Strive’s story doesn’t have to worry about structuring itself around a set number of fights placed at particular points in the story to get players to pick up the controller every now and then. The choreographed, non-interactive fights in the cutscenes end up looking cooler, too.

But while a cutscene-focused approach is commendable in some ways, it’s hard to point to a truly great fighting game story mode structured like this that wasn’t made by Mortal Kombat studio NetherRealm. More importantly, all-cinematic story modes feel like a missed opportunity to encourage more casual fans to enjoy the actual fighting part of a fighting game.

Two characters face off in Guilty Gear Strive Image: Arc System Works/Bandai Namco via Polygon

For some players, watching the story mode, getting in a few rounds against AI opponents, then moving on will be good enough. Not everyone who likes Mortal Kombat has the time to spend hours learning combos in training mode, watching replays, and improving online. But fighting games are some of the most satisfying games to get your hands on, even without the allure of beating up someone else. I’ve spent dozens of hours grinding out combos in Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 without ever really playing it against other people, and it was a blast. Figuring out how a game’s combo system works, using that knowledge to put a few combos together, and looking up combos online and trying to pull them off is satisfying in and of itself. So it’s a shame that most fighting games have given up on getting a portion of their audience to appreciate that.

Outside of these more cinematic story modes, fighting games have actually had a decent track record of single-player modes that play to the genre’s strengths: their combat systems. NetherRealm in particular has built up a consistently fun suite of single-player challenges, like Mortal Kombat 11’s Towers of Time, which doles out regular fights that add layers like slow-motion fights, rockets that fly in out of nowhere, or conditions like being unable to throw. The Soulcalibur series has done similar things throughout the years as well, with varying results. Killer Instinct’s “Shadow Lords” is essentially a roguelike that uses fighting game mechanics, which is pretty neat.

But they lack the grandiosity a story mode can provide, the larger-than-life stories that get us to fall even more in love with characters like Scorpion or Ryu. And if the various movies, anime, comics, and other story-based spinoffs based on fighting games are anything to go by, people want to dig deeper into the stories, worlds, and characters that the fighting parts of the game only hint at. Maybe the only fighting game mode to really pull it all off is Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Subspace Emissary mode, which cleverly used Smash Bros.’ emphasis on platforming to create platformer-style levels and cool set-piece fights, then wrapped them around a trite but enjoyable crossover story. But that’s not something every series can pull off.

I don’t think most fighting games would have to restructure themselves completely to produce a more compelling fusion of story and gameplay. In fact, I think Strive already has a good starting point. Mission mode, where you take on a series of challenges built around its fighting system, is an extended tutorial on the nuances of its combat, how to apply those mechanics in different situations, and even how to counter some of the more annoying aspects of every character’s toolkit. It’s a smart mode, but it’s hampered by some unclear explanations and it can feel like homework at times. Imparting all this stuff at once is likely going to overwhelm most players; I have tons of experience with fighting games, and even I had to look up the difference between Strive’s various Roman Cancels after learning about them in Mission mode.

A character fires off an explosive attack in Guilty Gear Strive Image: Arc System Works/Bandai Namco via Polygon

Yet I can see the seeds of a great campaign mode here, one that actually uses the genre’s strengths. Some of the trials in Mission mode are actually fun to do, like the basic blocking tutorial that teaches you how to block high or low, or one where you slowly gain ground on an opponent spamming fireballs. They feel like an early test of whether you understand a new concept, in the same way that a Legend of Zelda game might use a simple puzzle to show you how to use the boomerang, then test you on that knowledge with a more complex puzzle later on.

Playing through these trials, I couldn’t help but think about how infusing a mode like this with more structured challenges, along with a compelling enough story contextualizing them, could work as a single-player campaign. Imagine a boss fight in which the challenge isn’t that the boss has a ton of HP or seems to predict your every move (like most AI enemies in fighting games do), but that they’re bent on pulling off a string of attacks that’s hard to block, and if you can figure out how to thread the needle and break through it, you’ll win. Or, using Strive’s surprisingly robust aerial movement, dodging incoming projectiles by jumping and air-dashing to destroy the machine firing them off. Strive developer Arc System Works has experience tweaking the rules of fighting games to provide new challenges, too; the tutorial for Xrd had you dodging mines to teach players how to air-dash, and many of the bosses of its story and arcade modes in its other fighting games, like the BlazBlue series, layer on additional mechanics.

Fusing Strive’s Mission and Story modes into something like that is probably a huge ask, especially when any time spent fleshing out a more robust story mode could be spent on further refining the fighting system itself, or putting together a few cutscenes for less committed players to dig into. But I think that sells the genre and its fans short. It creates a split between gameplay and story that puts players in distinct camps and squanders the potential for players to enjoy fighting games on their terms.

A mode like this wouldn’t necessarily have to be the kind of mode that prepares people to play against others. Fighting games can be a ton of fun on their own, even if you have no interest in being the best at them. Guilty Gear Strive looks so good, and feels so good to just tinker around with, that there’s a good chance I’ll spend more time in its training mode than playing most single-player games this year. A single-player campaign that teaches people to appreciate that, that lets people enjoy Strive not just for its over-the-top characters and fantastical lore, but also for the incredibly-tuned and nuanced fighting system that’s let those characters endure for so long, could be something truly special.