For those of you who grew up in the 1990’s, you might have heard of a little anime serial that ran in the decade prior called Robotech. The history of the characters and events in this series has been told with so many variations it borders on lunacy to try to make sense of it all, but it was the first animated show that genuinely had an impact on me. I grew up a Looney Tune man, and as such I was used to characters falling from great heights (usually accompanied by an anvil) and getting right back up. Imagine my surprise then when I’m watching Robotech while my family is getting ready to go out to eat, and my favorite character (Ben Dixon) flies his Veritech fighter plane out of an explosion, only to have his plane explode a moment later. I sat there and waited, and waited, and waited some more for the parachute. By the end of the episode I was in tears. As such, Robotech was really my introduction to the world of anime, as it was a lot of my generation.

But there was another character that really stood out in that series, although for the wrong reason. The voice… It was the sound of a screeching harpy times one hundred, and it would reach through my TV set, slink into my ears and beat the living hell out of my ear drums. The voice of Lynn-Minmei has haunted me for years, but it didn’t occur to me until recently that I couldn’t hear the voice any more. I was actually past it, and had moved on with my life.

Then I turned on Guilty Gear X2: #Reload, selected a random avatar, and went into a fight against the character Jam. Dearest God, how I wish I hadn’t. The screeching of her voice brought back a flood of memories, and whenever Jam, a waitress with really big hair, would attack she would emit a high-pitch squeal. I swear I could hear dogs barking in my neighborhood. I defeated her as quickly as I could, then looked at what the rest of the game had to offer.

This is your usual fighting game with all the basic mechanics of combos, super combos, ultra combos, and one-hit kill maneuvers, but it’s designed in an anime shell. All the characters and animations are based on anime stylings, including character designs, the outrageous weaponry at everyone’s disposal, and the vocal track.

I must have been living under a rock for a while, because while I had heard of the series I had never actually played it until Guilt Gear X2: #Reload. As such, I quickly got the sense there was more going on in the game world than I was aware of. For instance, humanoid weapons called Gears apparently fought a war against human society. When their leader Justice was vanquished the majority of Gears just stopped functioning, but not all of them. It has since fallen to a group of pirates to protect one of the Gears by the name of Dizzy, and she is hunted by several bounty hunters. At least, that’s what I got out of watching the movies, and enduring a lot of the stories of the 23 playable characters. Oh yes, variety is the dominant ingredient in this brew, but does it all make for compelling gameplay?

I wasn’t blown away by the graphics in Guilty Gear X2: #Reload. It’s a bunch of anime characters beating the snot out of one another, but hey it looks a lot better than Dragonball Z so at least its got that going for it. I wouldn’t place the graphics on a pedestal or anything, but they are very serviceable and manage to take a lot of the anime clichés and run with them.

For example, characters that are prone to fighting in anime tend to use very large weapons. That’s not say that they just wield big guns, though that does tend to happen. Nope, by “big weapons” I’m talking about a kid (who is also a mechanic from her appearance) wielding a frickin’ battleship’s ANCHOR as a weapon. The fact that she can also call a dolphin in as a counterpart in one of her special moves at least helps the suspension of disbelief that she just smacked me around with a frickin’ battleship’s ANCHOR.

Each fight is set in front of a backdrop that has plenty of motion on its own. Some are drawn better than others, such as the temple with ghosts in the background compared to the junkyard stage where a single machine sorts through the refuse. The animations naturally change with combos, overdrive attacks and instant kill moves. Lights change and special effects explode over the screen, thereby adding lots of pretty colors to a fight for a short period of time.

As I mentioned before, Jam’s voice will drive you up the wall. The best news is that she’s not the only one! There are several character voices that will remind you of nails scratching a chalkboard only without the catchy beat. I will say that any game with 23 characters that also manages to make each one unique in moves, sounds, and appearance has a pretty stout accomplishment on their record, and Guilty Gear X2: #Reload does just that. Every character has his or her own voice, in Japanese no less, and accompanying sound effects. For example, the character Venom, who I dubbed Angry Pool Shark, uses an electric pool cue to smack around his opponents. Venom also uses a lot of pool balls in his special moves, and you really get a good sense of them beating the stuffing out of you when they connect.

There is also the vocal work which is all in Japanese and subtitled in English. Not all of the different voices will drive you up the wall, but there doesn’t seem to be enough story to really get good performances out of the actors. The dialogue ranges from “What are you doing here?” to “You’re going to have to fight me!” to “Where is she? Well, I guess we’ll fight and then maybe you’ll tell me!” so if you’re looking for dramatic depth, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.

The basic controls are easy enough to get the hang of, but things get a little dicey when you start going for the upper level combos and overdrive attacks. The basic moves each character starts with are a punch, a kick, a slash, and a heavy slash. Combining these moves along with moving in specific directions leads to combos, then to overdrive attacks once your tension meter is full. This gauge fills up as you take, and deal, damage through your fights, and once filled allows you to unleash some devastating attacks.

Despite the seemingly simple controls, I had trouble surviving each match without resorting to random button mashing. You can get by with button mashing in a surprising number of fighting games, but if you don’t know combos and maneuvers listed in the instruction manual for Guilty Gear X2: #Reload, then you will get brutally spanked. If you learn some of the combos, and fight smart, then you will have a good chance of surviving the final boss of each character’s path. Some of the higher moves, like the instant kills, are really tough to pull off because you not only have to wait until your tension bar is filled, you then have to hit all four attack buttons at the same time then do a movement combination and hit another button. Try doing this all while your opponent isn’t really feeling the love and wants to share their displeasure with you, and you will know what a challenge is.

There are two game play modes in Guilty Gear X2: #Reload that warrant discussion, while the rest are the standard player versus player and arcade modes. The story mode takes each character through five or six different fights and culminates in a really challenging boss fight. The problem I had was that there was little to no progression in the difficulty along the way. I would normally breeze through every opponent, then I’d get to the boss and just get beaten like a drum. Sometimes the boss would even start out with half their life bar already gone, which I took as bold-faced mockery of my fighter skills. I would start the fight thinking, “Alright fine, spot me that much but I’ll be the one…” and then would be flat on my back before I could finish my thought.

The storylines for each of the characters never really captured me either, but it’s an anime fighting game so Shakespeare isn’t what I was expecting. I did like how several of the characters never meet some of the others, yet paths between other characters’ storylines may frequently cross. Some of the characters have more compelling stories than others, and playing through as Dizzy feels different than playing through as Sol-Badguy. I also wish the story missions were longer, because you can burn through an entire character’s path in less than half and hour and that’s facing stiff resistance the entire way.

The Mission mode I actually enjoyed as there are 100 missions to complete and you have to fulfill a certain requirement to complete them. Some of them it is just a matter of outlasting your opponent, others you can only use overdrive combos to inflict damage, while still others you can only cause damage through simple combos. The first one where I had to heal myself freaked me out, because I started with no health and I thought it was a one-hit fall mission. As it turned out, the more damage I inflicted the higher my health went. The more of these you complete, the more things you unlock. Unlockables include character artwork, hidden characters, and the like. But you have to watch each mission that you take, because some of them may look easy but your opponent’s skill will be maxed out.

There is a lot of play time to be had here, as you have multiple endings per each of the 23 fights in Guilty Gear X2: #Reload. Unfortunately, I was just as confused after beating the game repeatedly as I was when I first started it. The sad thing is it’s not like there are dramatic cliff hangers aplenty, quite the opposite. When your chosen fighter completes a path, the story just… stops. Then it’s on to the next character, or play through again as the same character and try to get a different ending. It’s possible I didn’t care for the story as I came into it after a lot of the territory had already been covered in previous installments. It’s also quite possible that I didn’t care for the story because it was: a) lame; b) poorly told; c) used the most consistently annoying and unlikable cast of characters this side of Cabin Boy; d) all of the above. When I really think about it, I’ve just got to circle option D.

The variety of gameplay options does breathe some life into the game, as I really had a lot of fun going through the Missions. Since I’m on a budget, I couldn’t test out the Xbox Live functions so if you’re into renting fighting games for online play then knock yourself out. The other modes are all right, though none really stand out as anything more than a standard feature in any given fighting game.