Can you believe that it’s been nearly six months since BlazBlue first hit stores in the United States? And in that time we’ve had a string of high profile, hardcore fighting game releases. On the list is a failed attempt to recapture the pure hand-drawn 2D market; a haggard old 3D fighter trying to carve out a new path in a ever increasing landscape of FPS’s and Western RPG’s; and lastly, a 2D fighter with authentic gameplay, wrapped up in lavish polygon graphics in a 3D visualised return to greatness.
I imagine any connoisseurs familiar with the genre will be able to name all three, but only one of which was worthy of your unrivalled attention. The rest you could leave bleeding out on the side of the street, or better still, decline the challenge altogether, as they represented a failure to not only capture, but also understand their audience. A shame if you ask me, since the genre needs more one-two-punch strikes of greatness to really bring it back solidly into the limelight. BlazBlue is one of those titles, and despite the fact that it lacks any recognised characters or fighting styles, does well to prop up the rising one-on-one beat’em up once again.
BlazBlue (BB) for the uninitiated is the latest glossy, hand-drawn 2D fighting extravaganza by ARC System Works, the creators of the Guilty Gear franchise and its long line of sequels (I’m looking at you X2). It feels very much like a spiritual successor to that franchise, with over-the-top combos, fast-paced aerial strikes, and a range of impressive counter moves, supers, and no less than three ways of guarding against attack. In short, BlazBlue has pretty much everything that Guilty Gear had, topped off with an increased simplicity whilst actually being deeper at the same time. There’s no doubt in my mind that giving Guilty Gear a rest, and instead starting a whole new saga with BlazBlue was the right thing to do.
The basic fighting engine is pretty straightforward, easy to learn but with loads to master and sink your teeth into. Essentially there are only four basic attacks to learn, A B C and D, which are light medium and heavy respectively, with D standing for a ‘Drive’ attack, which is specific to whoever character you are playing as. Most of the light and medium attacks correspond to either a punch or kick for most characters, whilst heavy is usually reserved for weapons, and drive, for a combination of all three – depending on the character - in a form of special move.
Basic moves can all be used to chain into combination attacks, or combos if you will. Done by pushing a series of light, medium and heavy attacks, along with the drive attack to build up a long and impressive offensive of moves. However, the larger the combo, the lesser the damage it will do, giving the opponent a fair chance at retaliation. Holds can be integrated into combos by pressing the B and C buttons together, then followed up, or finished off with either normal attacks, specials or even Distortion Drives, BlazBlue’s equivalent of Supers.
Using a combination of these moves, along with the obligatory SFII-esque quarter-circle special moves will only get you so far though. You would be missing a whole part of the game without at least stumbling into some of the advanced techniques that ARC have based the game around. The various Cancels, Drives and Finishers all use something called the Heat Gauge, which is basically the BB version of SF’s Super bar. Each of the different techniques use different amounts of the bar, labelled in percentages to make things easier, but also to allow a greater range of option.
Hitting A, B and C together during a move unleashes a Rapid Cancel, which stops the animation of your current attack returning your character to his or her neutral stance, and allows them to immediately execute another move to integrate into an existing combo. Useful if you know that the move you were doing would effectively end a combo. Alternatively, whilst the heat Gauge is filled to certain levels it is also possible to perform Distortion Drives (character specific Super moves) or something called an Astral Finisher, which is move that results in a single one hit kill if it connects.
Pushing back on the d-pad whilst holding A + B together performs a Barrier, a stronger version of your regular guard. A Barrier cannot be broken, but can only be held for a limited amount of time indicated by the Barrier gauge. If it empties whilst blocking the player will receive 150% damage until the gauge becomes at least half full during regeneration. You might also consider performing a Barrier burst if you’re being hammered constantly by your opponent in a corner of the screen. It’s a move which repels the opposing player across the screen, giving you some room to compose yourself and then retaliate. However the penalty for such a bail out is pretty severe, requiring you to not only forego the use of your Barrier Block, but also making you take 150% damage for the rest of the round. So you’d better know what you are doing when you use it.
Lastly, it is also possible to counter your opponent’s attacks by striking them at the same time as they attack, cancelling them out and opening them up for a combo.
Of course, you don’t actually have to use any of these techniques, instead sticking to basic attacks and specials. However the game is more difficult as a result, especially online, in which the rather niche nature of such a title quickly breeds experienced players. Thankfully the inclusion of the character specific Drive attacks negates this to some extent. Drive attacks are basically one button special moves which can be factored into any basic combo, or used on their own, giving inexperienced players or button mashers a chance to have fun with the game.
There are a total of 12 unique characters in BlazBlue, each with their own strange design and set of moves. Everyone of the fighters in BB is pretty different to most of the fighting games I’ve played before, being more off the wall, or bizarre than even the ones in Guilty Gear. Some of the characters even have specific attacks or functions, which are completely absent for others, and fit outside the standard range of moves. For example, Rachel has a separate gauge which controls how many times she can control the blowing wind in each stage, which is pretty cool, but also provides a greater level of depth than most fighters. Many of these individual nuances are tied into character specific Drive attacks, but not all, giving players much to learn.
Each of the character designs are typical ARC System Works creations. From silver haired, gothic-inspired ‘Ragna The Blood Edge’, to the giant red Hellboy look-alike ‘Iron Tager’. The style can be described as post-apocalyptic neo-punk, meets Victorian-gothic, steam-punk influences. It’s pretty weird to say the least, but will be familiar to anyone whose played Guilty Gear before. The mixture of darkly, eclectic character designs, cute and psychotic personalities are incredibly well designed, and bring an altogether different feel to most recently released 2D beat’em ups. Though Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom is the exception to that rule.
Visually, BlazBlue is a lavishly designed mixture of hand drawn 2D sprite work and 3D backgrounds, with painted textures. All the game’s sprites are drawn in 720p, unlike in KOFXII, and have been intricately detailed. Shadows are cast on characters when moves are performed; clothing sways to and fro during battle; and lots of subtle details are visible on all aspects of the characters, from facial animation, to the small pins located on a character’s belt buckle. The backgrounds are proper 3D creations, complete with dynamic lighting effects and painted textures, which match the art style used for the characters and interlude artwork.
There’s no doubt that BB is the best looking 2D sprite-based fighting game available. It’s a truly beautiful game to behold. Sure it doesn’t feature the Disney quality animation of KOFXII, or the precision mapped, pixel perfect shadowing and shading on its characters. But then again, it doesn’t really need them, showcasing a lovely mixture of both 2D and 3D graphics; all polished in high definition with a finished and succinct art style. If anything, SNK could learn a thing or two from theses guys.
In terms of modes, BlazBlue provides you with the usual, Arcade, Versus, Training, Replay, Gallery and Online. There is also a ‘Story Mode’, which fleshes out each of the characters, and contains quite a well thought out, albeit confusing narrative. Playing through this mode with all the characters unlocks more of each character’s story, and slowly fills in all the gaps, explaining what the hell is going on. Short animated cut-scenes, and hand-drawn stills, break up the battles, complete with voice acting and text dialogue.
The Online Mode, touted on the back of the box as being ‘lag free’, comes dangerously close to doing just that. Even on my 1 Meg broadband connection (I still haven’t been upgraded yet) there was virtually no lag in most of the matches I played. Quite often I would encounter some slight lag at the beginning of a match, for only the game to seem to catch up with itself providing a responsive environment in which to fight. Occasionally I did encounter some laggy matches, but nothing to the extent of what I’m getting in SFIV at the moment, in which there is hardly any players with a good connection available. BlazBlue seems different in this regard, and is a welcome proposition considering the disappointments with other profile fighters in this area (yes, I’m talking about you Tekken 6).
One thing that is disappointing about the game though, is that after waiting for the best part of half a year for it to arrive on UK shores, we haven’t received any of the extra characters than we were promised. Instead ARC SW is including them in a sequel of sorts with the release of BlazBlue: Continuum Shift, which I guess is the updated game we were expecting to get in the first place. Continuum Shift will be available on import this summer in Japan and the United States. Expect us Brits to be waiting a lot longer for it to arrive over here.
As you can tell, I rather liked BlazBlue. The mixture of gothic, neo-punk art styles, the in-depth combo-based gameplay, steeped in simplicity, and beautifully created 2D/3D combination of visuals. Really, it is one of the most refreshing beat’em ups I have played in a while, adding TvC to that list from back in February, and one which any self respecting hardcore fighting fan should at least check out.
Granted the game isn’t quite as accessible as the likes of Guilty Gear, featuring more bizarre fighting styles, and unusual characters. However there is plenty to play through and master, and once you get acquainted with a character you like, then your enjoyment of the title will really pick up. Getting to that point however, will take a few hours of well-versed gameplay. Learning some of the advanced techniques - which aren’t that hard to pick up at all - whilst coming to terms with the fact that with BB ARC have purposely created designs and play styles which are meant to be different from those of regular weapon-based 2D fighters.
BlazBlue is a great addition to the 2D fighting game roster, and despite its initially unfamiliarity and somewhat bizarre nature, is well worth picking up for any hardcore fighting fan. Not everyone will like the off-the-wall fighting styles, and I for one, found it much harder to get into than Guilty Gear, Last Blade or TvC. However that shouldn’t deter the die-hards out there, who like to get lost in learning the ins and outs of whichever character they choose. Certainly, as a hardcore player myself, I did enjoy what the game had to offer, especially online against a range of players, both ones mediocre in their delivery, and some which are arguably so much higher in their game than me.
A Limited Edition of BlazBlue is available in small quantities at launch for the same price as the standard edition. It contains a two-hour long combo training DVD, with character specific strategies, showcasing many high level moves and specials; a 96 page full colour booklet, with art and illustrations from the designers at ARC System Works; and the regular version of the game. This is the version we picked up at IQGamer, however our review and score is based solely on the standard game, and not the extra content contained within the Limited Edition.