Review: Granblue Fantasy Versus: Rising

13 Dec 2023

Granblue Fantasy is a mobile browser-based gacha JRPG that has probably already provoked some reactions in you just by placing those words adjacent to one another. What is slightly more surprising, however, is that this is a game that has been running since 2014 with a dedicated fanbase and a design ethos that has even gotten the game an official crossover with Final Fantasy XI last year. It is also a game that has never been officially released in English, but is fully localized to English (even with new patches) and thus just requires you to be the sort of weird nerd who is willing to side-load a Japanese browser onto your phone in order to get some extra freebies every day.

I am one of those weird nerds.

I’ve been playing Granblue Fantasy for several years now, and despite all of the obvious aforementioned caveats it’s actually a game with a surprisingly good story, good representation, and a lot of fun stuff packed into the game from top to bottom. So while it might seem weird for the game to get a fighting game spinoff, it actually made some sense… and it makes sense that after that game released back in 2020, the designers would come back to do it again with Granblue Fantasy Versus: Rising, a sort of upgrade-and-sequel to the original game.

So how does GBFVR stack up to its predecessor? Is it worth picking up when it’s out on PlayStation 5 (the version played for this review) and Steam on December 14th? Do you need to play the original game to understand what’s going on? And perhaps most importantly, will you believe in victory?

Always a Girl in Blue

The thing to understand about GBF is that it starts off with a pretty standard plot wherein the protagonist (default name: Gran) meets a random girl in blue who drops off at his village, and immediately is ready to fight to the death for her. After this grants him super-special summoning power he goes off an adventure to keep the girl, Lyria, safe, with the help of her knightly protector Katalina, his lifelong companion and infant red dragon Vyrn, and the helmsman Rackam who they meet on the next island over. It’s kind of all paint-by-numbers from the start.

Of course, that’s just the start; the game’s story has subsequently delved deep into the idea that Gran or his female counterpart Djeeta (you can choose to play as either) are what is known as the Singularity, a point of confluence that has a powerful destabilizing effect on the world as a whole. Gran’s presence means that Lyria and Vyrn, who aren’t supposed to come into friendly contact, have wound up as fast friends and companions, and the ninth-anniversary story this year dealt with the idea of what it means to be in close contact with the existence outside the Sky Realm. It goes places, in other words.

Not that most of this matters for GBFVR, because the story here has to introduce all of the characters to an audience who may not know any of them while telling its own comprehensive story. Quite literally, too; the entirety of the story from the original fighting game is contained here, along with additional story exploring the new characters added to this version (Grimnir, Nier, Siegfried, and Anila) and uncovering even more plot.

Fortunately, one of the things that the game is good at – just like its source material – is giving all of these characters a distinct personality and feel without ever just turning them into one-joke characters. (Mostly. I mean, Lowain and Charlotta are in the roster.) Unfortunately, if you’re not familiar with the cast outside of this, you are going to continually be unclear what is happening… and even then some of it is not going to make a whole lot of sense. The game does its best to get you up to speed reliably, but you have to accept that you are walking in on what amounts to the fifth season of a continuity-rich series that’s still ongoing.

It’s the latter point that really kind of hits the storytelling hard. For most of these characters, you know not much can really happen in the story because however much Nier is a crazy woman, she still needs to be there in the future when you go to the dedicated game mode where she summons Death, and she has to remain a playable character. The result is that while the story does feature fun character interactions and is, at least, doing its best to tell a story… it has a hard limit. You know Belial can’t end up dying here; he’s got a role back in the main game. That means the stakes have trouble landing sometimes, and combined with the fact that much of this is going to be opaque to folks who aren’t regulars of the game… yeah.

It is good that the story remains not a throwaway side mode, though. But… there’s a different issue, and let’s get to that.

Balanced Combat

Let’s start with the basics. GBFVR is, at its most basic level, a fairly straightforward 2D fighting game. You have an array of different characters who each have an array of attacks and moves controlled by a combination of directional inputs, face buttons, and shoulder buttons. During the main mode of the game, you and your opponent face off one-on-one, trying to chain together attacks to bring the other person’s life down to zero. Two wins out of three marks a victory.

What’s a bit different from many other fighting games is how GBFVR goes even further than its predecessor in democratizing the inputs. The prior game was built to let you either press a shoulder button and a direction to use a special move on a short cooldown or do manual inputs. Here, however, the cooldown is removed. There is no difference between pressing R1 over and over or doing QCF motions and hitting an attack button.

This was, as you can imagine, a pretty huge controversy ahead of release. On the one hand, people were more than a little annoyed at the idea that some characters could, for example, spam projectiles with just one button press. On the other hand, the designers were adamant that the idea here was to emphasize knowing when to use moves rather than how. If you couldn’t consistently do a movement, much less under pressure, that move was fundamentally not in your toolbox; this places the emphasis on knowing what to use and when.

I will definitely agree with that assessment, as it happens. While the characters do not have the same kind of in-depth weird mechanics that Arc System Works puts in other titles like its Guilty Gear franchise, it’s definitely a game that emphasizes knowing your character’s unique properties. Several characters do have similar tools, but even with several who do have the basic rising attack/charging attack/projectile setup have some unique tricks that rely on careful usage. It is, in this department, very solid.

Unfortunately, it’s in the game’s story mode where I feel like things have gotten a bit worse.

The mechanics of story mode are, broadly, the same as they were before – you take on a series of battles in an ongoing tale, unlocking new characters as you progress. However, what is different is that in the original game, your story mode had a whole system. There were items you equipped in a grid similar to the main game, you had to level up, and so forth. It was very much a fusion of RPG and fighting game.

Here, however… most of that has been removed. There are three skills you equip, two active and one passive. That’s the extent of the RPG parts. The rest of the time, it plays more like a standard beat-em-up brawler with some one-on-one fights thrown into the mix.

Is this a bad thing? Not exactly, but also yes. While you retain the story mode, the part that made it more appealing to non-fighting-game fans has kind of been removed, which definitely feels a bit less charming to me. If you really are mostly a fan of fighting games, though, it’s probably a net benefit. Split the difference, I suppose.

However, the game also does not lack for other modes. There’s an arcade mode for anyone who just wants to beat up CPU opponents in sequence, complete with some new unlockables along the way. There are rewards to be earned by consistently playing specific characters, as well as challenges to pursue on a daily basis to earn you rupees (the game’s universal currency). There’s a fully-featured diorama mode for posing your characters. There’s a Fall Guys-esque spinoff mode in which you run around as chibi versions of the playable characters, equip cut-outs of the game’s various weapons, and run around. I was sadly not able to participate in most of the online modes because of when I was playing to review, but even if they’re garbage they’re just a pile of extra gumballs on top of the main game, which is pretty great.

Oh, and you also get some gumballs if you also play the main game… assuming you’re on PlayStation. The serial codes are not available for the Steam version. This is deeply silly, but c’est la vie.

The Visual Draw

It’s not exactly a shock to say that a game with an anime aesthetic developed by Arc System Works is gorgeous. They’ve been doing this for years now and are absolute champs at it, and this game will not change that approach. Everything is animated smoothly, the character models are expressive and dynamic, information is easy to read, and so forth. Much of the music is also familiar to veterans of the browser game and still sounds great.

Characters are all voiced by their usual actors in Japanese, but the game is fully voiced otherwise, complete with custom dialogue for basically any two characters facing one another in a head-to-head match. It’s one of the game’s many charming bits of attention to detail. One thing I would note is that by default, the character voices seem to be mixed a bit low; you’ll want to turn the stage music down a bit or voices up a bit for everything to sound quite right.

In another welcome attention to detail, you can import your save data from the original game into the sequel. That’s good. But for some reason it doesn’t seem to import your story mode progress, which is the obvious thing to import? I don’t get that. You can just skip past the original game’s story if you want, though, so that’s a nice touch.

More Than a Singularity Sensation

On a whole, I feel like Granblue Fantasy Versus: Rising is more sure of what it wants to be than its predecessor. It’s not trying to split the difference by being an RPG in one mode and a fighting game in others. On the other hand, the original’s RPG bona fides were a big part of what attracted me to the original, so it raises the interesting question wherein I both prefer the original for what it was trying to do while recognizing that the sequel is probably the better fighting game, which is what it’s trying to actually be.

Taking into account the long tail of support for the original, the promise of more characters, and the surfeit of extra modes, this is almost a definite buy for fighting game fans, especially if you are a longtime fan of the original game. But it’s also a good buy if you’ve always loved fighting games but dislike threadbare stories or struggle with the controls. And with the sheer breadth of extra modes available, odds are good you’ll find stuff to love in here.

And if you try it out and wish that there was a mode where you could learn about these characters in a less button-mash-y setting… well, good news! Have fun getting the Skyleap browser loaded on your phone. (It’ll run through Chrome too.)

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Cygames for PS5. All screenshots courtesy of Cygames.