2009 has been a great year for fighting game fans. Early in the year, we received CAPCOM’s amazing Street Fighter IV, the market can soon expect Tekken 6 from Namco Bandai, and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom is finally coming Stateside too. Yet the most surprising hit of the bunch is BlazBlue, a crazy-as-hell off-the-wall title from ARC System Works, creators of Guilty Gear. This is a must-play next-generation fighting game.
Unlike most other fighters, BlazBlue actually has a noteworthy plot. In fact, the story features more text and narrative than any other fighting game…well, ever. There’s substantial voice work and cut-scene stills to sift through, making each character feel well-developed and important, rather than random faces to fill a roster. Prior to the game's events, humanity faced a crisis with a monster known as the “Black Beast.” The world was saved by six heroes, who helped mankind defeat the foe with their special techniques and technology. After this war, the Novus Orbis Librarium Armagus (referred to as NOL) was created to govern the use of the powers of Armagus. This caused problems that led to another war, known as the Ikaruga Civil War. The Library was victorious, which put a tighter rein on the rest of the world. After this point, in 2199, a lone man named “Ragna the Bloodedge,” often referred to as the “Grim Reaper,” managed to utterly destroy a branch of the library. NOL tried to put out preventative measures as a result, but people were attracted to Ragna’s powerful Armagus, his “Azure Grimoire.”
Each character is uniquely motivated to be involved in this action. Ragna wants to destroy the library and live his life freely. Jin Kisaragi, a “hero” of NOL and senior officer, is hunting down Ragna, although he apparently has darker intentions. Noel is Jin's subordinate, and she sets out to retrieve her senior officer. Iron Tager, commonly known as the Red Devil, works for Sector 7 and is connected to Litchi Faye-Ling. Litchi is a doctor in Orient Town who's seemingly connected with the odd creature Arakune, who is assumed to be a former human but is now some kind of concoction of insects. Taokaka is a “vigilante” (that term is used loosely) who wants to capture Ragna (who she calls “Rawrgna”) to win something called “money” (whatever that is…). Rachel is the most detached of the bunch. She’s a mysterious little vampire girl that goes out to combat her boredom before tea time.
Bang Shishigami is a ninja of Ikargua that wants to rebuild his glorious homeland…and he’s pretty much the best comic relief ever. Carl Clover, a vigilante with ties to Noel and Jin, pursues Ragna because of his Azure Grimoire. Hakumen is one of the six heroes of legend, but his appearance and intentions are shrouded in secrecy. V-13 is a cyborg girl hidden deep within NOL. Not much is known about her except that she's compelled to find Ragna and is tied to Noel. Relationships in this story are strong, as is the character development throughout, which sets BlazBlue apart from other fighters. It’s refreshing to a game in the genre present itself well in respect to narrative, not relying on the fallback that “fighting games don’t need stories.” That may be true for the most part, but it's nice to see something different.
The overall presentation is great for the North American crowd. The extensive voice work, text, and art help further things along. I would've preferred more fully animated cut-scenes aside from the gorgeous opening though, as that would've set the bar even higher. Still, there are an impressive number of cut-scenes and the art is fantastic. The bonus “chibi” character movies are funny to watch too. The developers even allow players to switch between Japanese and English voices, which is always welcome in niche games like this. Both tracks are well-done, and in some cases the English dub is the go-to. BlazBlue's impressive narrative bucks the trend for fighting games. Each character has a purpose, which makes the idea of an anime adaptation so much more appealing.
The basic premise of the genre is easy-to-understand: defeat your opponent. In this sense, fighters haven’t changed since their inception, but they have evolved to a degree. BlazBlue in of itself is an extension of ARC's own Guilty Gear series. Consider this as comparing Darkstalkers with Street Fighter. The games feel similar, play similarly (even the move sets are pulled off by quarter circles), and have a comparable charm. BB, rather than opting for the six-attack route (low, medium, and high punches and kicks) sides with a three-attack system (weak, medium, and strong), labeled under A, B, and C. This approach makes playing on a console very easy, and even the move lists are small so there's no reason to feel overwhelmed. Practice is obviously necessary to master a character's potential, but the developers implemented user-friendly controls to coincide with the simple skills.
Each character also has a specific Drive attack, labeled as D. Additionally, "Distortion Drives" are super moves, while "Astral Heat" skills pack incredible power. Astral Heat moves must be unlocked via completing the arcade mode, with a few exceptions. They're rather ridiculous to pull off however, and the conditions are quite difficult; the opponent must be at 20% health, it must be the deciding match, and you must have 100% Heat (power) to execute the attack. It’s a little too far-fetched, but does keep in line with the game’s crazy antics. Astral Heats aren't useful for general combat, but can very well humiliate your opponent.
The beauty is that each character is wholly unique. Without extensive move sets, everyone can have a unique draw, which leads to fun, accessible play and a great sense of mastery. BlazBlue easily appeals to newcomers and the hardcore; both can eat this title up. Each fighter can exact some rather insane combos. I'm also thrilled with the void of clones. Games like Super Smash Brothers, Soulcalibur, and Street Fighter feature very similar characters, or have only subtle variations among the existing roster. BlazBlue, has more variety. For example, Rachel’s Drive attack is Silpheed, which lets her control the wind to push or pull opponents and even accentuate her own movements. This ability comes in handy with her other skills, which rely on keeping the opponent at bay. She can lay down lightning rods to be struck and send out electrified toads and ghostly pumpkins. Noel, on the other hand, uses her Drive to set up great combo attacks. Despite the initial impression that her guns suggest her as a long-range character, she's great at sustaining combos up close. Arakune’s Drive places a “curse” on his opponent, which lets him target the victim with homing insects, in addition to his other very odd abilities.
Yet some have criticized the game for being too similar to Guilty Gear. Truthfully, some characters are very alike in either appearance of move set. Iron Tager compares to Potemkin in the sense they're big, hulking giants; Jin Kisaragi closely resembles Ky Kiske in appearance, Ragna the Bloodedge brings to mind Sol Badguy, and so on. However, Iron Tager can magnetize his opponents and unleash devastating throws. Jin uses ice to freeze opponents in place and can unleash some great aerial and ground combos. Ragna the Bloodedge can drain health from his adversaries. Even though BB resembles that of GG's to some degree, there are great differences to set them apart. In the end, it seems as though Arc System Works purposely did this to pay homage to their previous series, while providing something new as well. The roster is on the light side though, which is likely the biggest complaint that can be drawn from the game.
Besides the Story and Arcade Modes, BB features Score Attack, online support (great match-making, spectating and replay saving), versus, and training modes. Replays can even be sped up, slowed down, and examined frame-by-frame for the truly obsessive. There's also a cool gallery with tons of music and pictures to sift through, and neat extras like the original Japanese Arcade opening. Also, the PS3 version supports Remote Play, allowing PSP owners to play on the go. The Limited Edition release also shipped with a bonus soundtrack CD, art book and disc containing move tutorials. There’s a lot of fan service for those who enjoy fighters, especially in the tradition of Arc System Works. While BB is niche as far as fighters go, it’s a damn good one, striking a great balance of accessibility for newer players while still offering the depth and mastery that appeals to veterans. It’s an incredibly polished experience.
Speaking of which, the visuals are gorgeous. SFIV went a different route; presenting 3D graphics on a 2D plane, BB chose high-resolution sprites against 3D backdrops. The detail is just incredible, with very fluid animation and creative designs. The backgrounds are no less stunning, bringing each stage to life with vibrant activity. Everything about the game is slick and polished, right down to the menus and art. The character portraits during cut-scenes are beautifully drawn, with the only shame being that they're not all fully animated. Perhaps the music, composed by legendary Daisuke Ishiwatari, is the only aspect better than the graphics. The BlazBlue soundtrack rocks through and through. There's a variety of themes for each character; some used for specific battles (like Ragna vs. Jin), and all of the music is simply awesome. Thankfully, the initial run of the game came with the Limited Edition's content, so hunting that down is unnecessary. If it's still possible to snag the package, by all means, try to do so. The soundtrack is totally worth it.
BlazBlue didn't revolutionize the fighter, but it refined it. It’s Guilty Gear for the new generation, toned down to be more accessible to new fans, while still managing to be frantic and crazy. Mastering it also distinguishes the experience from the typical button-masher, making BB a tournament-favorite. The polish is amazing in nearly every regard, from the gorgeous graphics, killer soundtrack, to the loads of extras and in-depth plot. But don’t forget the excellent online service and dual language option. The roster is a small compared to other fighting games, but it's all about quality, not quantity, and BlazBlue is all about the former.