This is going to be a weird one. Fasten your seat belts.
I'm a big fan of fighting games from way back, and moreso than most, they attract weirdness with remarkable facility. This is a genre rich with undead ninjas, boxing kangaroos, attack chickens, green Brazilian mutants, and deadly Mexican cacti. Even Virtua Fighter, which is perhaps the most mundane of them all, has Duraal the shiny fighting robot (and as of VF4 Evolution, Gou, who is a judo zombie).
The Guilty Gear series takes this tendency towards oddity to an entirely new level. Before I can recommend the games to anyone, and I do, I usually have to mention that it will test your threshold for the likably bizarre.
If you can get past that, you'll find that Guilty Gear XX#Reload is one of the most balanced and entertaining fighting games out there. It's got a great soundtrack, plenty of bonus content, extra gameplay modes, Xbox Live compatibility for online brawls, and a price tag of only twenty bucks.
That is, however, a rather large "if." Guilty Gear, as a series, is set in the kind of world that heavy-metal concept albums are made of. In the aftermath of a war between humans and biomechanical soldiers called "Gears," the series involves the participants in and the events which surround the semi-annual Sacred Knights tournament.
After the second tournament took place in Guilty Gear X, Sol wound up winning, but Jam got the prize. Now, only a few weeks later, the fighters are all coming under attack. Some are being manipulated by a third party, while others are settling old scores or pursuing their own agendas. Whatever an individual fighter's motivation, the end result is the same: somebody's gonna get hurt.
These individual fighters range from the relatively simple (a wandering swordsman, a Catholic paladin, a one-armed samurai, the last ninja) to the awesomely deranged (a cross-dressing bounty hunter nun with a yo-yo and an arsenal of killer toys, a professional assassin whose weapon of choice is a billiards set, a demented robotic version of the aforementioned paladin).
#Reload is a tweaked version of 2002's Guilty Gear XX, with many of the same options. Survival Mode has become considerably easier, and the infamous Robo Ky has been given his own unique moveslist. (Imagine Inspector Gadget gone totally mad and you're about halfway there.) They also took the opportunity to fix a number of broken things about GGXX; for example, Sol can no longer really do his dead-simple "Dust Loop" air combos.
If you've never played GGXX before, then you should be sure to check out #Reload. Once you get used to it, this is probably the best 2D fighter to be released this decade. Granted, its only real competition is probably King of Fighters 2003 and Duo Lon breaks that, but it's still no mean feat.
The first and most obvious reason to pick up #Reload is that it looks and sounds great. Since GGX on the Dreamcast, Guilty Gear has been most notable for its amazing animation and its high-quality, unapologetically metal soundtrack.
Every character has a full set of colorful sprites. No corners have been cut and remarkably few frames have been recycled. If you've been playing a lot of Capcom Fighting Evolution or Marvel vs. Capcom and you switch to #Reload, it's the difference between night and day. This is how 2D games are supposed to look.
It's also, arguably, how they're supposed to play. #Reload's screen is half-buried under a riot of gauges, meters, indicators, and timers, but that's because you have an enormous number of tools at your disposal.
Here's how #Reload works. Like any fighting game, it's set up so each character has normal moves (punch, kick, slash, hard slash), special moves (your basic fireballs, uppercuts, weird kicks, etc.), and super moves.
On top of their unique moves, characters in #Reload have access to a comparatively vast number of advanced techniques. Some of them can only be used once a round and others cost you meter, but they're all available to everyone. The most obvious of the lot is the Instant Kill, which is a one-shot, all-or-nothing attempt to knock out your opponent.
You can also use the Dust move to launch an enemy up for an air combo, Burst to stop an enemy dead in his tracks (even if he's in the middle of an attack of his own), or spend meter on a Roman Cancel, instantly ending whatever move you were using at the time and letting you attack again immediately. That's not even touching upon Faultless Defenses, False Roman Cancels, Staggers, or the new negative penalty.
If you're not familiar with fighting games, I realize that the previous paragraph could very well have been in Greek. The point is that Sammy's spent a lot of time on #Reload to try and make each match as balanced as possible. Unlike a lot of recent fighting games, especially 2D fighting games, there's no one character in #Reload who runs away with every match. There are a few who have more advantages than others, such as Slayer and Millia, but nobody rules the roost.
That makes #Reload a lot of fun on Live, since it's hard for random scrubs to screw up the game. Even if you don't have Live, it's easy to kill a lot of time with Survival Mode to unlock bonus characters, or to check out each character's endings in the Story Mode.
Guilty Gear XX#Reload may turn out to be the last truly great 2D fighting game. SNK's still out there and Sammy itself's still in the game, but #Reload, plain and simple, has it all. About the only thing I can say against it is that it's a bit laggy on Live. If you've ever enjoyed a fighting game, you should try to pick this up.