After quietly building critical mass in Japanese arcades, the enigmatic BlazBlue appears as a curiosity to American fighting game fans. Here's a game, appearing in the wake of several high-profile fighting sequels, brazenly throwing its name in the hat. It challenges the supremacy of 3D art with bold 2D visuals, and shakes up the tried-and-true with brisk new ideas. It's certainly a game that embraces the unconventional, but beneath its strange title and candy-colored veneer lies a legitimate threat to Street Fighter's crown.
From a design standpoint, BlazBlue is a beast of many heads. The standards of the fighting game regimen are well represented: arcade, training, and score attack mode. Beyond the essentials, however, BlazBlue also taps into a small vein of features aimed specifically at fighting game and anime enthusiasts.
Story mode attempts to give BlazBlue's convoluted world some shape with a series of visual-novel-style campaigns centered on each character. Mostly delivered through static art and voiceovers from the in-game cast, the experience isn't for everyone. But if you're a sucker for games like Phoenix Wright, then you might just get into it.
Storylines splinter into branching paths depending on what responses you choose and the outcome of each battle. And the rewards are plentiful: acing campaigns opens up unlockable finishing moves, boss versions of certain characters, and a bevy of artwork and movies you can view in gallery mode. Even if you're not particularly thrilled about the comprehensive history of the 13th Hierarchal City of Kagutsuchi, you can at least take comfort in knowing that you're working toward something tangible.
Network mode, on the other hand, aims for universal appeal with features meant to cater to an online community. If you just want to get a quick ranked match going, a matchmaking service allows you to set up fights based on parameters like skill level, location, and latency for optimal play. You can create rooms of up to six participants to simulate arcade quarter matches, with custom settings enabling varying rotation rules between players and spectators. Along with online scorecards documenting your overall track record, leaderboards, and downloadable replays of top matches, the online support for BlazBlue is downright enormous.
BlazBlue guarantees plenty to do wherever you choose. Its story mode isn't for everyone, but it's so exhaustive in scope that it'll definitely satisfy those who take to it. Online play, on the other hand, is a genuine treat for all. If you have a true competitive spirit, then BlazBlue is a marvelous channel for it.
Thought it's heavily rooted in 2D conventions, BlazBlue is no Street Fighter. Its look and feel is influenced by forebear Guilty Gear, as well as other Japanese fighters like Melty Blood and Arcana Heart. Simply put, BlazBlue isn't as concerned with enforcing two-frame links as it is with delivering flash. And with its focus on outlandish special moves, combos, and characters, it definitely has a lot to give.
Those familiar with Guilty Gear's inner workings will find a very familiar framework powering BlazBlue. You can deploy barriers to deter chip damage, pull off roman-cancel-type interrupts mid-combo, and decisively drop opponents with fatality-like astral finishes. But what distinguish BlazBlue from its spiritual predecessor are its 12 imaginatively conceived fighters, all with their own unique skillsets revolving around the game's central mechanic: the drive system.
In a nutshell, all characters have their own set of special moves. Jin, for example, can toss out projectiles, thrust upwards with an anti-air swipe, or zip across the screen. But on top of that, he's got the ability to freeze unsuspecting opponents at the drop of a hat. That ability is frost bite: his character-specific drive.
It's a versatile system with an almost non-existent barrier to entry: all drive commands are executed with a single button press. But it's also a mechanic that invites lateral thinking, handsomely rewarding players that take advantage of each drive's distinct properties. Smart Rachel users can utilize her wind manipulation ability to pressure opponents, while learned Nu players can play a mean full-screen mix-up game with her array of phantom blades. Learning every one of the game's diversely designed characters is like putting together a puzzle, and no two have the same solution.
As a whole, BlazBlue is an intensely detailed fighter that is enjoyable at all levels of play. Up and comers will take to its generous timing on chains and cancels, while pros will thrive on its nuanced and fast-paced flow. The game adds something fresh to the fighting genre with its creatively realized drive system, all while using the best elements of its predecessors to fashion its familiar-yet-functional foundation. BlazBlue's highly stylized look will definitely draw many people in, but it's the raw gameplay in all of its complexity and accessibility that'll keep them hooked.
Stylistically speaking, BlazBlue is unapologetic about its extreme aesthetic. Its lush 3D backdrops and outrageous character designs bleed with the look and spirit of anime. And with some of the largest and most detailed sprites in recent memory, it definitely looks the part. 2D art isn't so common in games these days, but BlazBlue serves as a keen reminder of how good it can look in motion.
On the audio side, BlazBlue's pedal-heavy metal tracks provide fitting battle anthems for each frantic fight. Composed by Arc System auteur Daisuke Ishiwatari, the overall sound comes close to a futuristic rock opera-appropriate to the game's larger-than-life style. Character voiceovers are available in both English and Japanese, which can be freely toggled in the in-game options. And though its redub is, for the most part, on par with what you'd expect from a typical anime production, there are a few gems of corny dialogue bound to crack a few smirks.
In spite of its uncompromising take on anime or the liberties it takes with the English language, BlazBlue is a true champion for the masses. Its over the top, vibrant style is a true spectacle in HD, and its strokes of fighting innovation trickle down into every one of its bells and whistles. If you're looking for an extremely smooth fighter with pomp and panache, BlazBlue is a sure bet.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3.