Review: Granblue Fantasy: Versus

2 Mar 2020

It’s no secret that mobile games are a massive industry. It seems like we can’t go a day without some news story talking about how Fate Grand Order or Fire Emblem Heroes has broken some new user count or profit record. Putting aside the money-making-machine aspect of many of them, just the fact that they’re available on mobile phones and often free to play can lead to huge player bases, with communities cropping up around them.

We’ve even begun to see mobile game IPs break out into full retail game spinoffs. In fact, two releases in the past month spawned from hugely-popular mobile games: Azur Lane and, the game we’re looking at today, Granblue Fantasy.

Interestingly, though, while Granblue Fantasy has been running since 2014 in Japan and is one of the most popular mobile games in the country, the game has not received a western release. In fact, aside from an anime adaption, the spinoff we’re here for today is the first time anything in this franchise has been officially released for the western audience.

Developed by Arc System Works and published by XSEED Games, Granblue Fantasy: Versus is set for release on March 3rd, 2020 for PS4 and March 13th, 2020 for PC. The PS4 version was played for this review.

Skybound Storytelling

Versus follows Gran, a young adventurer who is on his way with some friends to pick up another friend, a former soldier named Katalina, for what I presume is some more adventuring. Upon arrival at the island they plan to meet at, though, they find a few things awry.

First, the island has been swarmed by soldiers claiming to be from the “Erste Empire,” a militaristic nation that, according to Gran and his cohorts, had been defeated prior to this game. Worse than that, they find Katalina, who appears to have had her recent memories erased, as she now stands with the Empire demanding Gran hand over another friend and resident mysterious-magical-girl Lyria into their custody.

What develops is pretty much your standard RPG story, with these mysteries and minor problems giving way to a fight against powerful people and gods for the fate of the world. It’s competently told, but nothing I’d usually write home about, but for one fact: Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a fighting game.

Yes, in Versus I have found my white whale, a fighting game whose single player story doesn’t feel like a half-assed throw-away. We’ve gotten so close in the past fighting games I’ve looked at, but never quite all the way, what with UNIST‘s dense jargon-filled exposition and Dead or Alive 6‘s incoherent inanity.

Here with Versus, though, we actually get a solid plotline told front-to-back, something that feels like the writers actually gave a damn about. Yes, it’s generic, but it has fun moments, actual stakes and tension, and some wonderful chemistry between the characters. Enough that I actually found myself wanting to play through the story.

My only issue with the writing, though, is the simple fact that Versus is a spin-off of a mobile game that’s been running for six years now. The story assumes that the player knows the background and relationships for these characters, and doesn’t do much to ease newcomers into the story – a major slipup considering the original game hasn’t even gotten an official western release (although the Japanese version can be played in English, apparently).

Whilst I was able to glean the backgrounds and relationships of the characters between context clues, that didn’t stop the frustrations I felt when a new character would step into the story, only for Gran to off-handedly mention how he knew them through some past event mobile players are probably aware of, but much of the English-speaking audience for this release has likely never seen.

Two-For-One Special

Now, admittedly, fighting games are not my forte. I’ve picked up on the genre a bit over the years with some past reviews, but I am still quite green with what is famously known as a hardcore genre. However, Versus is definitely a game worth looking at for gamer like me and, again, it is due to the single-player mode.

Alongside a traditional “fight a bunch of characters in a row” Arcade Mode, Versus offers up what it calls RPG Mode, where you’ll find the story discussed earlier. This mode actually plays quite differently from the base game, acting more like a beat-em-up than a one-on-one fighter.

RPG Mode offers up a series of quests, typically variations on “kill so many enemies” or “take out as many enemies as you can in a time limit.” Gameplay itself uses the same engine as the standard fighting mode, except you’re fighting off hordes of enemies rather than taking down singular fighters (although there are more standard one-on-one fights spread throughout the story).

What makes this work is the base fighting engine being flexible enough for both modes. Versus is a three-button fighter with combo inputs for specials, ultimate attacks, all that jazz…essentially what you’d expect from an anime fighter. The twist is that each character’s special attacks run on a cooldown system – once you use a special, you have to wait for it to recharge before using it again, rather than the typical “build a meter and spend it on specials” setup. Specials can also be performed two ways: standard quarter-turn inputs, as well as a shoulder button shortcut, with the cooldown being shorter if you input the quarter-turn button combos.

In action, if you’re balancing your cooldowns and using the full quarter-turn inputs, Versus becomes very fast-paced and much more focused on pushing out specials than just standard attack combos. At least, that’s how it feels from my perspective – I’m sure building combos from basic attacks into the specials will be key in the hands of a more experience fighter player. It also makes the single-player fights feel much more action-packed.

Of particular note in RPG Mode are the boss fights. At the end of each “segment” of the game you’re put up against an unique boss fight, battles that feel more out of an action game than a fighter. These fights often boast unique mechanics, from attacking certain targets to build up your ultimate meter to having to hide in certain save zones to avoid huge AOE attacks. These fights really show just how flexible the fighting engine Arc System Works created here can be.

Unfortunately, due to just how different a playstyle the RPG Mode is, playing through it didn’t help much in learning the details needed for the one-on-one fighting mode. While I didn’t have much trouble completing the single-player story, I remained unable to beat CPU opponents in Arcade Mode above normal difficulty. If you want to play Versus competitively, you’re still going to have to practice the typical way – working through tutorials and practicing moves against CPU dummies.

As Versus originates from a gacha-based mobile game, the RPG Mode also integrates a mobile game-like character and equipment system. You can equip “weapon grids” to power up your character’s attack and HP, as well as bestow various skills and powerups. These weapon grids are populated with weapons you earn either through gameplay or a gacha system (which, luckily, does not use real money). There’s the typical management of items you find in mobile games: spending a currency to level up weapons, combining two of the same to let you level them up further, using another currency to level up skills…basically everything I hate about mobile games.

Luckily (to me, I guess) the system here in Versus is mostly forgettable. Before each major boss I’d jump into my weapon grids and unload all my currencies to upgrade everything in them to max, and I never had a deficit of currency to do so. I hardly felt any real effect from using different grids in battle, even when using a weapon of a different element than the one the game suggests for each fight.

Patience is a Virtue

Graphically, Versus is a mixed bag. On the plus side, I absolutely love the character designs and the variety of stage environments to fight on. The game is quite eye-catching and attractive, and the fights themselves are beautifully fluid.

On the other hand, the framerate straight up tanks during cutscenes, in RPG Mode in particular. And when I say that, I mean that I could count the frames in some of the story cutscenes. Dialogue scenes also feel off, especially since the game does a quick fade-to-black just to have a character sprite change the direction they’re facing.

Finally, the absolute worst thing this game has going for it are the load times. Holy hell, it’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that’s had to do so much loading. For a simple one-on-one fight, the sequence goes like this:

  • Select Arcade Mode
  • Wait for loading
  • Select your characters
  • Wait for loading
  • Watch a quick scene with an announcer saying who is fighting who
  • More loading and wonder why did the game have to load the announcer saying who is fighting who
  • Finally start fighting

RPG Mode is even worse off, with loading occurring at the start of every mission, between dialogue and gameplay, and between every screen you fight on. This isn’t running off disc either, I was playing the digital release saved to the PS4’s hard drive.

Narrowly Skyworthy

Overall, Granblue Fantasy: Versus feels like two games in one: a one-on-one fighter and a beat-em-up that use the same base engine. The game has, impressively, one of the best stories I’ve ever seen in a fighting game (as cliche as the story may be), and the single-player mode is surprisingly fun to play, especially when going up against bosses.

The issues I had, while small in number, are significant. The story makes no effort to really introduce the characters and their relationships, a problem considering the game Versus is based on has never been officially released outside of Japan. The framerate outside of battle can be atrocious at times, and the sheer amount of loading between doing anything in the game borders on unforgivable.

These presentation issues definitely temper my excitement for what is easily one of the more accessible fighting games I’ve had the opportunity to play. Then again, that feeling of accessibility likely comes from the fact that I’ve mostly focused on the single-player mode here – a mode that everyone, not just fighting gamers, can enjoy. Would I recommend picking the game up just for the RPG Mode alone? No, definitely not, but it does make Versus more tempting for gamers looking to start their journey into fighting games.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by XSEED Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.