Guilty Gear X2 flew in completely under the radar in early 2003 and proved that someone other than Capcom or SNK could make a good 2D fighting game. Now, nearly two years later, Sammy and Arc System Works have released a sequel. Guilty Gear Isuka features all of the same great characters and lighting quick action of X2, but a lot of changes have been made and not all of them are good. Isuka is still a decent 2D fighter, but it definitely isn't what Guilty Gear fans were hoping for.
The big hook in Isuka is that there can be up to four characters onscreen fighting at once. Team and handicap matches as well as free-for-alls are all possible now. The way this all works is that the action takes place on both a foreground and background plane. You can only attack a character on the same level as you, but you can jump back and forth freely between them. In 2 on 1 and 3 on 1 matches, the lone player character gets more health than the characters on the team in order to make it more fair. There are also standard one-on-one fights available, but the 3 and 4 player combat is the main attraction in Guilty Gear Isuka.
It all sounds like a good idea, but in practice the gameplay suffers. Guilty Gear is such a fast game, and the special moves are so big and over the top, that it can be difficult to figure out just what the heck is going on. It is also hard to tell which plane characters are on when there is so much going on onscreen. The bottom line is that multi-character combat is just insanely random and confusing and not really all that fun. When you are getting pounded from all sides, the game is no longer about skill and more about button mashing. You can't rely on combos or the more powerful special moves simply because you don't have time to pull them off. The only option for attack left to you is to mash buttons and repeatedly execute easy special moves, and that gets boring as hell after a while.
You would think that the one-on-one fights would be the saving grace of Guilty Gear Isuka, but that sadly isn't the case. The tweaks that had to be applied to make the multi-character combat work (sort of) have carried over to the one-on-one matches and they create problems of their own. A big issue is that your character doesn't automatically turn around. It makes sense in the multi-character matches that you would have to manually turn your character around so you can actually attack who you want to attack, but in a one-on-one match it is unacceptable. I suppose they left the singles matches this way in order to spice up the genre - faster characters can now jump behind their opponent and deal out extra damage, for example - but it doesn't make the game any better. It just makes it different. Guilty Gear just moves way too fast for something like this to work all that well. You get used to it after a while, but it never, ever feels natural.
Another issue I have with Guilty Gear Isuka is that the instant kill moves have been removed. I can see why you can't use them in the multi-character matches, but their absence from the one-on-one fights makes a huge difference. In GGX2, the instant kill move was your lifeline. It was the difference between a loss and a brilliant comeback win. The threat of an instant kill move kept you on your toes and forced you to play differently than you do in other fighting games. It's not as if they were unstoppable. It was pretty obvious when one was coming up and they were easy to block, but it kept you on your toes and it made the game more satisfying and fun when you could pull off a victory with just one move. Without the instant kill moves, Guilty Gear Isuka feels sort of average. It is still the fastest fighter out there and it is fun, but it doesn't have the edge it used to.
Guilty Gear Isuka has a number of modes, but none of them are all that spectacular. They consist of fighting game standards such as arcade mode, training mode, versus mode, and a color edit mode. There are also two more modes that are more interesting, but aren't as great as they sound. First up is boost mode. This is basically a side scrolling beat-em-up where you fight hundreds of increasingly difficult enemies and you earn experience points. You then use the experience points in another mode where you are allowed to customize a character called Robo-Ky II. You can assign Robo-Ky II pretty much any special move in the game as long as you have enough experience. His versions of the various moves are different than how the normal characters do them, so it can be pretty entertaining. The drawback is that boost mode is pretty repetitive and boring, but you have to spend a lot of time in it to create a really cool version of Robo-Ky II, so it ultimately proves to be more trouble than it is worth. Overall, the modes in Isuka are pretty disappointing compared to the huge number of single player modes available in GGX2.
The mode that most Guilty Gear fans were probably most hoping for in Isuka is also absent. Online play just seems so obvious, but it is nowhere to be seen. The wild 4 character fighting would be freaking awesome if you could play online against three other people, but you can't do it.
Graphically, Guilty Gear Isuka looks great. The character sprites and animations have been recycled from GGX2, but there are a lot of little touches that keep it looking fresh. There are also a bunch of really great looking new backgrounds. What is most impressive about Isuka is just how fast the game moves and how gorgeous the screen filling special moves and wild combat looks in motion. This is a great looking game.
The sound is also very good, but a lot of it has also been reused from Guilty Gear X2. All of the voices and sound effects have been reused, but they sounded so good the first time why change? The heavy metal soundtrack features some new songs, which is nice. Overall, the sound is great and suits the game very well.
You have to give developer Arc System Works credit for aiming high and trying to do something different, but Guilty Gear Isuka is a disappointing game. Guilty Gear X2 (specifically the #Reload version on Xbox) is one of the best fighting games of this generation, so Isuka had a lot to live up to. The four character simultaneous combat relies on button mashing instead of skill, which is a turn off. The one-on-one fighting which was once so fun and edgy now seems decidedly average. The lack of online play is just the final blow to an already battered game. Give Guilty Gear Isuka a rent if you are interested, but GGX2 or #Reload are a much better purchase.