Video games are at a point in which certain social and political issues are playing an important role in the development of characters and environments. The Grand Theft Auto series delves into the issue of violence, the Sims recreates everyday life, and the Guilty Gear series raises questions, questions such as: “ Is it right to kick a transvestite child in the face?” Or, “How ethical is it for a paper bag headed physician to hit someone with a scalpel?” For the uninitiated, this is Guilty Gear.
For the past couple of years, Sammy has created a cult following with Guilty Gear. Originally released with little or no fanfare, the Guilty Gear series has raised the bar in the world of 2d fighters, and any fighter for that matter. With its intensely fast gameplay, anime inspired characters, and incredibly responsive controls, it is no wonder why the franchise has such a rabid following. With Guilty Gear Isuka it's more of the same. For some, this is a godsend, for others, this is nothing more than a disappointment.
The sequel reaches deeper into the Guilty Gear universe, where a mysterious form of energy dubbed “magic” is used to create biological weapons known as “gears”. Isuka revives the fight tournament created to contain the gears while finding humans skilled enough to fight them. Most of the dialog is portrayed between matches and is often as wild as the characters themselves. The story behind the game is only slightly interesting, but considering most fighting games lack a story of any sort, this is a welcome departure.
Visually, the series once again proves that it is the leader in the 2d fighting genre. As aforementioned, the characters, although far fetched, look amazingly detailed and retain the great design characteristics that we have come to expect from Daisuke Ishiwatari. The extremely vibrant color scheme painted onto the neck-braking paced gameplay is more than likely to cause epileptic-prone children an infinite amount of seizures. Even with the aging PS2 hardware, Guilty Gear Isuka's frame rates are never a problematic issue, and often times are surprisingly faster than one might expect. Additionally, Sammy has added a number of highly detailed backgrounds that are sometimes just as fun to watch as the battles themselves. Game developers take note: 2d can still look better than 3d.
Not only visually quick, Guilty Gear's battles cruise across in a blink of an eye. Although each character has his or her own special moves, often times battles end up in a blitzkrieg of button mashing, and before you know it, you've either won or have been defeated. Juxtaposed with the original Street Fighter II game, Guilty Gear would have your head chopped off and back again by the time Ryu could utter “Hado-ken”. It can become immensely difficult to follow what is going on and since you will often face more than one opponent on the screen at a time, things can get a bit too cluttered. Thankfully, the controls are responsive enough to accommodate the onslaught of attacks that will be flying your way, and the wide variety of weapons (yes folks, even a huge key or a shadow can be considered a weapon) help balance the otherwise one sided battles.
The AI in the game is variably good. In it's easiest mode, Guilty Gear Isuka is a rather breezy adventure, but in it's normal and hard modes, one can't help but feel exploited by the game's one miserable feature: having to push a button to turn around. One second spent realizing that you are not facing the right direction, and the computer has already depleted half of your life bar. Even with time and refined skill, this feature still becomes more of a frustration than an innovation. Especially noticeable is the steep curve of moving yourself up in the ranks. The first few battles seem a bit too easy, while the latter feel nearly impossible to complete. This has been a downfall for the series for a number of years, and should be taken notice of before another sequel is released.
Guilty Gear's audio is something to behold. The basics, such as combat and menu sounds are all appropriate, but the soundtrack is on the rather interesting side. When I think of horrible fighting game soundtracks, two games come to mind: Marvel vs. Capcom (“gonna take you for a ride!”), and Guilty Gear. This is merely a subjective matter, as my taste for late 80's hair metal and “rock-and-roll heavy metal” is rather bitter. I suppose things wouldn't be so bad if the songs involved were the product of actual artists, rather than Tamagachi wielding Japanese composers who believe that White Snake and Rush are the hottest thing to hit the land of the rising sun. Sammy seems to take pride in their cacophony though, and aren't afraid to express it right on the box.
To separate itself from the rest of the series, Isuka incorporates a number of new modes and features. Most notably, the newly included “Boost” mode. The boost mode is similar to that of “Tekken force” included with Tekken 4 for the PS2. What is interesting about this mode is its ties with another mode of play in the game. The “Robo-Ky II factory” is a character customization mode in which you can create and modify your playable character in the boost mode. For fighting fan buffs interested in customization, this can be a fun and interesting retreat, but for those wanting pure action, this is all a huge waste of time. The interface is overly complicated, and the rewards are too far and few between to be considered as a replayability factor for anyone other than the enthusiast. Luckily, these modes are optional, and the core of the gameplay comes in the single player arcade mode.
Arguably the best feature included with the game is the inclusion of 4-player simultaneous play. Much like Super Smash Brothers, or Power Stone, battles are an all out free-for-all brawl. You also have the option to play as teams, making for some interesting matches. If you have a multi-tap, and 3 friends (possibly “rock-and-roll heavy metal” fans) into fighting games, Isuka is a game not to miss. If you don't have friends, you can always fill in the empty spots with CPU players to get in on the action. The only feature missing, is the inclusion of online play. Judging by the connectivity of gamers these days, there is no excuse for a fighting game to not include such a feature, and it's a shame that only Xbox users will have the possibility to take things down that route with the recently released Guilty Gear #Reload.
As a whole, Guilty Gear Isuka feels a bit more like an expansion rather than a sequel in the series. It would have been nice if Sammy had added more features, characters, and online play to compensate for the fifty-dollar price tag. With the recent release of Guilty Gear #Reload on the Xbox, and Xbox live at half the asking price of Isuka, you can't help but feel a bit cheated. But, for fans of the series, or those lacking an Xbox, Isuka is still an overall great fighting game.