The Guilty Gear series has, for me at least, been a vital part of the 2D fighting scene, combining the more traditional aspects laid down by the likes of Street Fighter while adding its own unique twists to grant us the kind of fluid 1 on 1 fighting action fans have always wanted. Therefore the idea of another entry landing on the DS is almost too good to be true. The awesomeness of Guilty Gear on the move? Unfortunately, this is not the 2D fighting series we know, as Dust Strikers bears little resemblance to the series roots, instead opting for a style more akin to the Super Smash Brothers series. The result? A mildly enjoyable experience that suffers several key faults that prevents it from hitting the high scores.
Traditional 1 on 1 is ditched in favour of fights consisting of up to 4 characters at once in a free-for-all brawl until last man/woman/thing standing (or until time runs out, which is the more probable result under default settings). One of the key differences done in order to properly accommodate four fighters is the change to the arenas. The background settings will be familiar to fans as you duke it out across a variety of locations from the series, but instead of all of them being essentially the same single platform with invisible walls at either end we now get a whole bunch of platforms thrown into the mix. Through this the action takes places across both DS screens as players can ascend the platforms or crash down to the main one. Each stage has a slightly different layout to platforms but ultimately the differences are minor. On the plus side, the design choice does allow for more than enough room to dance about with crazy combat styles. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of aerial tactics. Remember the first time you short hopped over an opponent to unleash some epic combo on their backside? Or perhaps the time you outwitted an opponent that could counter your ground skills by leaping skyward and striking with powerful attacks mid-flight? Yeah, don't expect that here. Technically characters still possess aerial attacks and double jumping and air dashes as still here largely untouched. It's just that the platforms actually get in the way and instead of gracefully leaping over an opponent to land behind them you instead end up landing on the platform above. It kills the flow of aerial games.
GG's fighting mechanics do suffer some other setbacks as well. Default settings cause items to appear on the stage which can be picked up and activated by tapping the icon on the touch screen but these tend to be somewhat overpowered. Meat that restores most of a single health bar or a potion to boosts your tension gauge to the max instantly are simply broken and throw out a lot of the balance normally in play. Fortunately items can be switched off but their inclusion was rather pointless and may have been simply an effort to involve the touchscreen in the main gameplay. Another issue is that since there can be up to four fighters at any given time then you find that your character doesn't automatically turn around to face whoever you're battling, and the game also seems to require that extra tap of the D Pad to actually turn. Several times this has led to a perfectly timed combo being unleashed on thin air because Dizzy hadn't quite turned around. Given the way everyone tends to bounce around, with fights often moving around the entire battlefield, having even this small degree of unresponsiveness hurts.
Time to simplify the situation.
Then perhaps the simplicity of the game can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. In order to put itself forward as more of a party game than a true fighting experience, the controls in Dust Strikers have been cut back. Your main method of attacking with basic strikes is limited to two buttons for light and heavy attacks respectively, and repeated presses will pull out your combos. The subtitled dust strike generally hits opponents to other floors, but it's not the kind of move you can include in combos all that well and then results in chasing after them. Specials have been cut back too and are now, just like SSB, assigned to a single button and are executed simply by pressing said button and optionally pressing a direction. The "killer" specials of each character require a bit more but it's very rarely more than something like right, right, special. No cleverly executing dragon punch style commands in the midst of a combo here and it reduces it all down to something of a button mashing affair.
My, someone look angry.
Which, to be fair, is still a fairly engaging button mashing affair. Once you've got past the simplicity and loss of aerial games then you will find that the game provides some hectic battles. Generally there's always something going on and the action keeps the player's attention. The control interface does make it simple to just jump in and have some fun without trying to remember a ton of command specific techniques that 2D fighters would normally have you memorise while still offering some important techniques the series brought with it. Dashing and double jumping are still in the game to allow that freedom of movement I love, while the more technical players can still attempt concepts like the Roman Cancel to gain that all important edge.
The cast of characters is also a very impressive one. All 21 fighters that have been brought to the series are available right from the start and bring about their own distinct styles that range from the stylish to the downright weird. Giant yo-yos, scythes, living wings, anchors and pool cues are just some of the weapons brought in that brings this cast into their own and offers such a fairly diverse experience both fighting as and against them. Backstories are pretty light in substance, but then this genre has never really had much of a track record in that department so I don't mind so much about that, or about there being almost no actual backstory to the game itself. Players can also use Robo Ky, who acts as something of a "create a fighter" without the ability to alter his appearance. You can alter his moveset based on moves possessed by other characters to theoretically create the perfect fighter. In theory, because actually unlocking his moves to use requires high scores in the minigames, which is a fairly tedious affair and not something most people will be keen on. Even then, his moves are quite limited in selection, making me question why bother at all?
Gimme some options.
Game mode selection is somewhat more limiting. The single player has a choice of Arcade and Story, which are not very different at all. Arcade mode starts with 1 on 1 fights and builds up to four way before finishing in the boss duel, while story is all four way battles up to the boss duel. Story also tries to include some actual story elements between fights, but a lot of it is utter nonsense and feels too much like they're not really speaking to one another, leading to fights erupting for the most inane of reasons. Sometimes characters meet up as friends and suddenly start fighting it out or one girl tries to convince guys to join her cafe as waiters by beating them up.
For multiplayer battling there's Challenge and Vs. Challenge can technically be played by a single person against computer bots, but the fights just go on until another player interrupts and challenges player 1 for a 1 on 1. Which seems somewhat pointless when you could just set up a vs match for up to four players. The only reason there seems to be to use Challenge Mode is just to tack on rankings, but I never became interested in that. As for the multiplayer options themselves they're as good as expected. You've still got the broken mechanics around but up to four human players dashing around the multi-tiered arenas launching attacks can be a blast. Something of a shame then that Dust Strikers doesn't support download play, forcing players to each have their own copy of the game.
Minigames have been added into the mix in some kind of effort to provide some variation, although quite why they didn't use this time and effort to put in actual different game modes for the main game is beyond me. You have seven touch screen based games tasking you with various objectives, such as using Jam to balance falling objects on a plate, moving rings for dolphins to dive through or slashing bundles of straw as they fall from the sky. A shame that these little games have such little substance and replay value to them. The difficulty is kinda all over the place, ranging from games being insultingly easy to ridiculously difficult, but then each game will only warrant a few plays each before you grow bored of it and move on. Venom's Pool had potential but the inability to see which balls are which (outside of the cue and target balls) along with over sensitive controls and questionable physics make it a pure loss. I don't mind minigames in general but these were pointless additions at best.
This is where the real crux of the problem is. Dust Strikers lacks replay value. The depth of traditional 2D fighters isn't here but the mechanics aren't fluid enough to allow for SSB style addictiveness either. Having run through the main game as the various fighters (which isn't particularly hard to do - even upping the difficult doesn't seem to drastically affect the way the computer works) there isn't a whole lot left for me. It's just about fun enough to get the odd burst here and there, but nothing like what its predecessors demanded of the fans.
Last chance strike, here I come!
What if only looks counted?
At the least the game looks pretty. The small screens of the DS might result in the character sprites being smaller too but they do manage to cram a lot of recognizable detail into each person to give them their own distinct appearances, so when May drags that anchor onstage there is no question that it is her. Animations are also wonderfully smooth and fully fleshed out, with barrages of attacks and responses from everyone in full force. This can lead to a little confusion when four fighters are launching techniques everyone and characters get lost in the mayhem but it is not a significant issue. Arenas are likewise crafted exceptionally well with some very intriguing if somewhat static backgrounds in place, which makes the presence of the platforms more of a letdown when they obscure more of the detail than is usually the case. Taking note of onscreen indicators is a little trickier. Your own health, tension and souls tracker is plastered on the upper left and easy to see. Your opponents have their gauges essentially following them, which makes it pretty hard to see what they have left when they're dashing all over the place.
Rock music seems to be flavour of the month with the developers - a fact noted by the opener blasting at you shortly after powering the DS on. It sets the mood well and generally this continues on during the battles as high energy tracks pump out of those little speakers constantly to mirror the hectic combat blitzing the dual screens throughout. There is a healthy selection on offer too. Vocals are handled extremely well, with relevant voice actors very clear with their soundbites when needed and the announcer putting in his role for what is required.
But this lovely presentation isn't enough to save it. The developers tried something new to take advantage of the DS's abilities and you have to appreciate the risk. However it's pretty obvious that it didn't pay off and that a faithful recreation of the standard formula would have been better received. As it is, Guilty Gear: Dust Strikers is a somewhat fun button-mashing brawl that just lacks the depth and refinement for a long lasting experience.