Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PC

Granblue Fantasy Versus might just be the most surprising fighting game release this year. When it was first confirmed for a slot on EVO’s main stage, a good portion of the FGC said “what the heck is this?” Then it came out in Asian territories last month and rose to the second best-selling fighting game of all time, losing out only to Smash. Where is all this hype coming from?

I’ll tell you where. Granblue Fantasy Versus is based on Granblue Fantasy, a mobile/browser based RPG that tells a deep ongoing fantasy story in a world where everyone lives in islands above the clouds. Here in America, that probably doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, but in Japan and other Asian territories, Granblue is big. I mean really big, bigger than Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and that strange mobile game where you clean the teeth of Elsa from Frozen combined.

That makes sense, right? This is based on a gacha game with a huge player base, so that’s why it sold so well.

That’s what I thought going into GBVS, but I was so wrong. GBVS isn’t just another cash-in fighting game selling itself on an IP everyone loves. It’s perhaps one of the most well designed fighting games I have played in the past 10 years, or possibly ever. Not only are the core mechanics fantastic, but developer Arc System Works has paid attention to every single aspect of the game’s design, from single-player to online. This isn’t a game that we have to say “oh it’s fun but only in versus play.” This is a full package, a full package that few other fighting games have ever given us.

The core mechanics

Let’s start with the gameplay itself. GBVS is a simpler fighting game, one that is specifically built to teach new players how to play. It’s a little faster than Street Fighter but far slower and less complex than anime style games like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. It’s slow, grounded, based in footsies and neutral game, and doesn’t overload the player with tons of extra mechanics, and that’s actually quite refreshing.

Each character has three main attack buttons: light, medium, and heavy attack. These operate pretty much as you might expect them to. Light attacks are quick and short ranged, heavy attacks are slow, damaging, and longer ranged. You have standing attacks, crouching attacks, aerial attacks, and each standing attack has a close and far variation. So far, so Street Fighter.

The only major difference in normals is that landing a close normal attack lets you progress into a three hit auto combo by continuing to tap the button. Note, it’s not that these auto-combos are all different like they are in, say, BlazBlue Cross-Tag Battle or Dragon Ball FighterZ. Rather, they are always the same two hit follow-ups from any attack. It’s more like every character has a Street Fighter style target combo tied to each of their close normals.

Each character also has a “unique attack” button, which operates somewhat similar to drives in BlazBlue. This button does something character specific. Sometimes it’s a charged physical attack, sometimes it’s a special throw, sometimes it’s a teleport, or power-up, and one character even gets to eat random food to restore his HP. This button also acts as your air-to-ground aerial attack when used in the air and sweeps when used from a crouch, making it also somewhat similar to the “dust” button in Guilty Gear.

Special moves are uniquely handled. Each special move is tied to a MOBA style cooldown. Each special move also comes in three strengths, and the stronger the move, the longer the cooldown, with heavy versions being “EX style” moves that lockout the move for some time.

You can do every special move at the push of a button, a special button to be precise. This acts like the special button in Smash Bros. Press it and a direction and you can access all of your move set. Press it, a direction, and an attack strength (like light, medium, and heavy) to get the exact strength you want.

However, you can also do special moves the traditional way, by inputting something like a quarter circle and an attack button. This gets you a “technical” version of the move, which has less cooldown and sometimes does more damage or has other beneficial properties.

The entire game is designed this way. There are easy controls for people who are learning and traditional controls that give you a bigger reward when you master them. Super moves, for example, are done either with a single quarter circle and the special move button, or two quarter circles and an attack button. This is so brilliant! Because if you learn how to do your super move, then you’ll know how to do the motions for your normal special moves and will start doing them to get that sweet technical bonus.

The same goes for literally every other mechanic. You can throw with a throw button, or a two button shortcut. The same goes for every characters built-in instant overhead attack. You can block by holding back or by pressing a block button. You get to choose how “difficult” playing Granblue Fantasy Versus is, and as a result we end up with a game that is very welcoming to newbies, but also extremely deep and complex for veteran fighting game players.

In every mode, a lesson

It feels as if every aspect of GBVS is geared toward letting casual fighting game players dip their toes into the pro pool. In fights themselves, the U.I. makes it very clear what happened in each exchange. If you got hit by an invincible move, it will say “invincible.” If you got hit before your move came out or during its end lag, it will say “counter” or “punish.” It will tell you if you got hit low while blocking high or vice-versa. You will never say “I was blocking that” while playing GBVS because the game will tell you “no… no you weren’t.”

There is a very in-depth tutorial that teaches you the basics of control, the intricacies of each character, a high-level fighting game theory from punishes to tick throws. It will even walk you through combos and other character specific strategies. It also has a very powerful and deep training mode which will allow you to practice concepts on your own time.

All of this is great and still pretty rare as far as fighting games go these days, but GBVS steps it up a further notch with its amazing single-player mode: RPG Mode. This is a full RPG with full RPG mechanics. That means weapons and items, equipment forging, shops, side-quests, the whole shebang. It’s not nearly as fully fleshed out as a full RPG release, but it has as many mechanics if not more than the mobile RPG that GBVS was based on.

The difference here is that all the battles use the fighting game’s battle system, making it a sort of hybrid real-time RPG like the Tales series. Still, you get to see your damage in numbers as you beat up everything from goblins, to soldiers, to gigantic imposing bosses. There are TONS of enemies in this mode that you don’t even see on the fighting game’s roster. It feels like Arcsys went out of their way to include a ton of content specifically for the RPG fanbase.

Now here’s the most brilliant thing about RPG mode: its quests teach you how to play the fighting game without you even knowing it. There will be some enemies, for example, that will guard a certain number of hits before you can damage them. This is teaching you how to combo. There are some who are extra vulnerable when they jump and attack with you. This teaches you how to counter jumping opponent’s with anti-airs. There are some that hold long distance weapons, like pikes, and need to be attacked from a safe distance. This is teaching you how to play footsies. Every single fight is a lesson of some sort without feeling like a tutorial. By the time you finish RPG mode you will be a better fighting game player.

What’s even better is that you don’t have to play RPG mode alone. It has two player local and online co-op, and it is so much fun blazing through this mode with a friend.

Even when you defeat the final boss, you can still grind out post-game quests to earn money which will get you new costumes and weapon skins for your characters. Heck, just completing this mode gets you a character unlock that would otherwise be stuck behind DLC. The rewards just keep coming your way, which is great because so many fighting game single-player modes feel like a chore.

There are only two flaws that I can find with RPG Mode. The first, is that some of the mechanics are clearly gacha inspired. Sure, they aren’t tied to microtransactions, so it’s perfectly ethical, but there’s still something dirty feeling about opening lootboxes and drawing for weapons.

Second, the story is only OK. I’m sure it means a lot more to people who have played Granblue Fantasy before but for me it was kind of just your run of the mill sword and sorcery JRPG. That being said, it’s still better than 90 percent of fighting game plots out there. It’s just not better than, say, any of the recent Injustices or Mortal Kombats.

The best looking fighting game yet

One of the things that Arcsys is known for is their presentation and man, did they do a fantastic job with GBVS. This game looks so unbelievably good. Character models are detailed and intricate. Supers are flashy and cinematic. This game looks better than DBFZ, better than Guilty Gear XRD. It’s hard to describe how good it looks, even with online videos. You have to be playing it, seeing it move in 60fps, and watching it respond to your button inputs to really get a sense of what a good job they did.

The attention to detail here is amazing. Every character has specific entrance dialogue for every matchup they have, and they have special story specific entrances for battles in RPG Mode. Taking a fight to the third round causes a cinematic change of scenery as you battle through different locations.

The music is filled with huge bombastic orchestral arrangements mixed with heart pumping techno beats. The voice cast is made up of some huge names in voice acting and they all deliver a spectacular performance. Some voice lines are a little too repetitive, but it’s a very minor flaw in an otherwise fantastically directed game.

In fact, if there’s any one example of all these aspects of presentation coming together, I would say its Ladiva’s Super Skybound Art, where she pins you to the mat in a wrestling ring. The animation is fantastic, right down to the worried face on your opponent. The sounds are great, from the referee shouting and pounding the mat to the audience cheering. Heck, you even get to see the opponent’s life bar slowly drain, and if they don’t die from the attack, they kick out wrestling style before the count comes to three. What an amazing show this is just for one super move.

The perfect gateway game

Quite frankly, even if I tried to nitpick on Granblue Fantasy Versus’ flaws, I can’t find much negative to say about it. The roster is a little small, but it’s already being inflated with a hefty season of DLC characters. Post battle dialogue is limited but it’s always positive which actually does go quite a long way toward keeping people playing. The menu system in RPG mode is a little wonky, using square instead of triangle to open up the weapon menu, but that’s something you can get used to.

The biggest praise I can give GBVS is that it held up to real world testing. I brought it to a get together of players with wildly varying skill levels, from complete newbies to players who have gone to tournaments with me in the past. The pros still one most of the time, but the newbies had fun, and that’s the most important part. They understood what they were doing wrong and how to fix it, and they quickly became invested in picking a character and really diving into them to increase their skill.

In that way, GBVS accomplishes exactly what it set out to; get a more casual audience into fighting games. For that, I can’t commend it enough. There are so few games out there that can bridge the gap between the hardcore and casual fighting game audiences, and GBVS does. At the end of a night of GBVS there will be no salt, no hard feelings, just a group of friends all looking to get better at making pretty anime characters stab each other.

So Granblue Fantasy Versus isn’t just another slap-dash fighting game adaptation looking to capitalize on a popular IP. It’s a fantastic fighting game in its own right, perhaps one of the best examples of modern fighting game design principles, even if you have never heard of Granblue Fantasy before. I can’t wait to sink more hours into this title and really get good, and I’ll be hyped to see it up on the main stage at EVO, with some of the best fighting gamers in the world showing what they can do.