I can summarise the game for you in a single image. Here it is.
1. The Basics
Rising Thunder uses an eight button input scheme. There are light, medium and heavy attack buttons (I'll call them L, M and H). There are three special move buttons (I'll call them S1, S2, S3 since the first three greek alphabet characters take more effort to type). There is a button for throw and a button for your Super attack. There is a universal normal in the air that will crossup, input by pressing down and H (j.2H). This will never hit on the starting side. Nor will any other jumping normal crossup.
Movement is pretty much Street Fighter 4's. You can walk forwards and backwards, dash forwards and backwards and jump. There are no double jumps, walljumps, airdashes. The key exceptions are a couple of characters can run like an SNK title (though in my experience the startup before you can stop running feels like Carmine from Under Night In-Birth) as well as Vlad's ability to hover like Morrigan or I-no. Said hovering costs a unique fuel gauge he gains over time. He can also cancel his cl.H into the dash for nasty mixups.
Defense is the same as SF4. You hold back or down-back to block high or low respectively. You cannot perform any other action besides block while in blockstun. You cannot block in the air.
There are a few target combos (specific chains from one normal to another). Most normals are special cancellable, but not all. Combos in general are very Street Fighter 4-ish. You either link from a light normal into one that is special cancellable or you move from a light straight into a special move. Depending on your spacing, you use a cancellable normal from the get go. Supers behave like SF4's supers rather than ultras, so you can cancel special moves into them.
The game is intended to have customisation. To begin with, all the starting cast besides Vlad have a special move that can be swapped out for another. Replacing the grappler's magnets with a delayed grab, giving the Dudley equivalent a Dandy Step and replacing the Ryu equivalent's hard-hitting uppercut with a much faster one that has less combo potential are all examples. You can also select which type of secondary meter to have: Kinetic Advance or Kinetic Reflect. The former grants you two bars to fill that can be spent cancelling just about anything into dashing or jumping. In other words, a Focus Attack Dash Cancel from Street Fighter 4 with the additional option of jumping immediately. Naturally this opens up new combo and pressure options, as well as allowing you to make blocked reversals advantageous on block instead of grossly unsafe. The Kinetic Reflect is a burst. Unlike the immediate activation of modern NRS games or the slight startup into a physical attack of Arc System Works' titles, it makes you flash for brief period. If anything strikes you at that time, the burst comes out. This means that bursting multi-hit moves is guaranteed, while other situations make them very baitable.
Here's a screenshot of the game.
I... uh... what?!? What's this about special move cooldowns? Yes, after performing a special move you need to wait for it to recharge before you can use it again. This time depends on the move. Reversals take the longest, followed by combo tools. Staple tools of a character such as projectiles, rushing attacks and the like tend to have the quickest recoveries to the point of it pretty much being ready by the time you've come out of the move's recovery anyway.
Obviously if we combine this with the intended variety of customisation, S-kill and the Cannon Bros. are intending to draw in people accustomed to common elements of League of Legends and Dota 2.
2. The Game Flow
If it isn't clear enough, the game flow is very much Street Fighter 4's. Walk back and forth, goad someone into whiffing a move then blow them up. If you have a fireball, space it so when the opponent tries to jump over you can uppercut. 26 years after such techniques were being pioneered in World Warrior, this is still bringing in spectacular fits of rage from people with a narrow view of what constitutes a "fight". For what it's worth, I enjoy this part of the game in much the same way I enjoy walking backwards and forwards with Chun-Li and Juri in SF4 then swatting with f.HP or cr.MP respectively. Sadly, the lack of normals and inflexible movement leave very little room for improvised anti-airs. As a Guilty Gear player, some of the best enjoyment I get in a game comes from those weird situations where you have to use your knowledge of your tools to pull something crazy out of the bag. Instead, it's much more cut and dry. Particularly if you have a good reversal.
Like SF4, uppercuts are incredibly strong. The reversal window is very large and the input is super easy. People complained that SF4's input shortcuts allowing an uppercut to emerge from inputting down-forward twice then hitting a button was too strong. In this game you simply push a single button. Then spend some Kinetic gauge to completely reverse the flow in your favour. The existence of cooldowns shows its value here. If you've seen a reversal come out, you know you're completely safe for about five seconds.
However, the problem with the cooldowns is that you cannot see your opponent's. This absolutely baffles me given that you can see your opponent's super gauge and health. The game is clearly intending to accommodate newcomers, so wouldn't encouraging them to observe all that's going on be a good idea? Forcing people to keep the cooldown timers for every move in the game in their mental stack is a really bizarre choice. I would think that you'd want to encourage of the two player aspects of a fighter in something with such a low skill floor instead of rote memorisation of some numbers that could easily be displayed on screen.
Speaking of single player games, I feel that that's how the game will inevitably lean. We're nearly a week in and I'm already seeing mathematically precise safejump setups. With reversals so powerful, constructing schemes to make them whiff as you proactively open people up becomes a high priority to the players who like to devise tech. There's no delayed wakeup option at this point, only a quick rise on various kncokdowns. So I feel that offense is going to be built around setups that have been ground out for hours to be completely airtight in order to combat a defense that's very simplistic and twitchy. In other words, how Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition wound up. Albeit with less ambiguous crossup situations.
Currently the only options in the alpha are a Training mode with some odd quirks and Ranked Matches. There's no way to match up with friends or test specific locations. This second part is odd for what is clearly as much a test of server architecture as it is game design. Giving people a chance to really test the GGPO netcode to its limits would be very much appreciated. As would playing the game offline with people I can talk to like any other fighter. I like spending time with people in person. Guess we'll just have to grind out more Elysium instead.
On the other hand, there is one part of the Ranked matches that is incredibly smart: best of 3. Not just best of 3 rounds, but best of 3 games. You are essentially playing a tournament standard set in every match instead of a single game. This gives ample time to observe and adapt to habits. Something handy in a game where damage is comparable to Vanilla SF4 more than Ultra. Big mistakes hurt big time, and you have more than enough opportunity to admit when someone's outplaying you.
There are numerous bugs at the moment online. One outright crashes the game mid-match. Another ends the match after the first game and takes you back to the main menu. Upon selecting Ranked Match again, you go back to the same player. Another version of this bug does the same thing, but ignores the player entirely. A third similar bug causes the game to simply hang until timeout after a match. These are inevitable in an alpha build, but it's still frustrating to beat someone five times in a row with none of the matches counting.
The weirdest part of the Ranking system is how you gain and lose ranks. You simply need to win three games in a row to go up a rank. For each game you lose you move one step backwards. So if you were on two wins in Silver 2, losing a game makes you go back to one win in Silver 2. Lose another and you're at 3/3 wins for Silver 1. This system is simple to grasp, but leads to really bizarre parity. Losing to a Master 5 player is the same as losing to a Carbon 1. Likewise, beating a higher ranked player has no bearing on your rank. I hope that this is a simple placeholder until they make some more complicated algorithms, because it greatly hurts the satisfaction of beating someone well above your own rank. Likewise it hurts the shame of losing to a lower rank since you simply assume it's someone with strong fighting game fundamentals who's just gotten into the alpha.
4. Sounds like you have issues with the game. Why are you playing?
Why yes mysterious headline voice, you are right. I have issues with the game that will probably keep me from playing it much more. As for why I keep going back, listen to this story from SF2 and 3 legend Nuki about the launch of 4. Basically, Daigo Umehara thought Vanilla 4 was rubbish but had never experienced a robust ranking system before. He'd initially planned to just hit buttons and be silly with Boxer or Dhalsim, but the constant reminders of how close until his next rankup kept him dumping coins into the cab. Before he knew it, Nuki was calling him up to find out why on earth he was the #1 Ryu in a game he'd declared didn't deserve it from him.
I play a lot of fighting games with small player bases. I'm used to terrible netcode from my beloved Guilty Gear. I'm now in an open alpha where the only multiplayer option is to play Ranked matches. I'm seeing that if I just win three games in a row, I'll get the next rank. Just a few more games and I'll be nearly done with Bronze. A few more until I'm out of Silver. A few more for diamond. I know that besides the current bugs, I can have actual matches that feel way closer to offline than most games provide.
I could go pull the PS3 out of the bag from the last offline meet it was at, wait for the OS to boot up, wait for the internet to connect, wait for Xrd to tell me about autosaves, hunt for a lobby, send invites, play in 5 Delay then have the lobby crash on me. Or I could click on this quickly booting executable and get some matches of a game going in between checking e-mails and other tasks. The game's convenient. Convenience is a vital part of a successful product.
All in all, I'd still say to give the game a whirl for yourself. Just go to the game's website and sign up. They're handing out entries faster than Allen's are deleting spearmint leaves from shops. The barrier to entry is very low, so you can spend plenty of time dealing with facets of neutral and defense that are consistent with most Street Fighter-ish 2D fighters. If you like what you see, check out some more games like Breakers Revenge or KOF98. If you want more mobility but a similarly low skill floor, check out Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax. If you don't like anything at all in this game, hit me up on BoardGameArena and we can play some Tash Kalar or Jaipur or other cool games.