Granblue Fantasy might seem like your usual JRPG affair: a young and resilient hero meets a timid yet mystical princess as she flees from the totalitarian empire. He protects her; she links their souls to protect him, they join forces to control giant primal beasts. There’s even a cute talking lizard that dreams of being a dragon.
That all may seem borderline unoriginal, yet Granblue Fantasy’s willingness to double down on the esoteric qualities of the genre might be the biggest reason for its success. For every melancholy-soaked monologue, there are epic, twisting story arcs. Characters are overly-sentimental yet innately likable. The series has expanded from a browser-based role-playing game to a manga, anime series and mobile games. Now, Granblue Fantasy: Versus brings the franchise to the PlayStation 4 and, hopefully, to a larger Western audience.
Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a triumphant recreation of the Granblue Fantasy universe. A collaboration between Cygames - creators of the original property - and Arc System Works, it’s a 2.5D fighter that captures much of the flair and charm of the animated series.
A new Granblue Fantasy RPG
As the name suggests, Granblue Fantasy: Versus is predominantly a fighting game - but there’s also an RPG Mode containing an original story. You play as mainstay protagonist Gran as he fights through an alternate version of the Sky Realm where traditional allies have joined the evil Erste Empire.
The opening cutscenes of RPG Mode are a joy. Cygames has featured in all Granblue Fantasy property, establishing its own anime picture house, publishing label, and music production studio. Granblue Fantasy: Versus benefits from that consistency, feeling deeply authentic with the added pop of 2.5D sprites and flourishing animations.
RPG Mode functions as a side-scrolling beat-em-up, where boss battles are standard one-vs-one fights. The opening levels introduce the primary cast, establish the plot and explain Granblue Fantasy: Versus’ core gameplay mechanics. They’re routine for a fighter: combine regular attacks, unique abilities and skill strikes to build a combo meter and release powerful finishing moves.
Granblue Fantasy: Versus’ opening levels felt woefully similar, a series of static backdrops rather than one continuous scene to side-scroll across. My 40 minutes played like a training mode, with enemies waiting patiently for you to hit them rather than posing any real threat. The weapon system showed more initial depth than the combat, which is an adaptation from the original game. There are 800 total weapon slots and identical weapons can be combined to ‘uncap’ their level, creating sky-high ceilings for stats. I only got a glimpse of RPG Mode’s combat, customization, and story. If all three can progress cohesively, RPG Mode should prove a fun addition to Granblue Fantasy: Versus’ main mode.
That main mode is, of course, Versus. Cygames has worked with Arc System Works - known for 2D fighters Guilty Gear and Blazblue and their work on Dragonball FighterZ - to create a flashy combat system that appeals to fighting game newcomers and veterans alike.
That’s a very difficult balance, but I think Granblue Fantasy: Versus may well have pulled it off. You have five attacks of varying strength: light, medium, and heavy, a unique ability and a special skill. Combine that with blocks and dodges and you’ve got the capability to beat anyone. As I found out multiple times, though, it’s not that simple. Each character has a substantial command list filled with ranged, grapple, and multihit attacks that require the correct spacing and precise button combinations. You can also pull off a finishing move if your opponent’s health is under 30%, triggering a beautiful cinematic animation. I never got to give it a go, myself, but I was on the receiving end many times.
I liked being able to learn Granblue Fantasy: Versus’ core mechanics quickly in RPG Mode. But the back-to-back-to-back losses against, you know, actual people assured me that this isn’t solely an entry-level fighting game. There is certainly a skill gap that fans of the fighting genre should appreciate. It’s competitive side will be on full display later this year, as Granblue Fantasy: Versus is one of the nine tournament games at Evo 2020.
Granblue Fantasy: Versus’ combat animations may be silky smooth but the player movement was often the opposite, leaving characters feeling static and choppy. Sword-wielders, who make up the majority of the roster, must be very close to the opponent for hits to register. The roster itself is just 11 characters and while every fighter effortlessly recaptures their original likeness, it feels a touch bare. More fighters will be released in ‘Character Passes’, however - the first of which confirmed Chaos Bringer, Soriz, Narmaya, and Djeeta will join the roster. Cygames also announced that completing RPG Mode unlocks Chaos Bringer for free, but this seems to be the exception to otherwise paying to expand the roster.
A high fidelity fighter
Granblue Fantasy: Versus brings the Granblue Fantasy universe to consoles with fantastic fidelity, making it a sure-fire hit for fans of the franchise and an excellent entry point for newcomers. It’s harder to say whether it will be a long-term success in the competitive multiplayer scene, but its inclusion at Evo 2020 is a positive sign.
I will never, ever play fighting games at the competitive level. So, even knowing I suck, I had a lot of fun with Granblue Fantasy: Versus. If you’re looking to absorb yourself in a new fictional world or a new fighting game, that should be a ringing endorsement.
TechRaptor previewed Granblue Fantasy: Versus at a media preview event. The game is out now on PS4 in Japan and releases in North America on March 3rd. A European release is confirmed for Q1 2020.