Friday, September 18, 2009

How DO You Pronounce That Anyway?: BlazBlue

Despite the unkind things I said about Marvel vs. Capcom 2, I'm a great fan of fighting games. I'm not especially good at them - I can't perform the most convoluted attacks, nor can I parry multi-hit attacks by counting individual frames of animation. And yet there's something about the genre that never gets old for me. It's not just the games' difficulty; I don't feel the same attachment to "bullet hell" shooters that I do for fighters. A lot of it, I think, has to do with my perverse affection for the aesthetics of fighting games: the implausible outfits, bizarre characters, awkward humor, overdone plots, and general campiness. Fights between Soul Calibur's Ivy and Taki look like an unmade Russ Meyer film, while Rival Schools United by Fate (love the title) has a lunatic plot about Japanese high schoolers fighting each other and their teachers – with swords, baseball bats, knives, hand-thrown fireballs, and electrical attacks. Fighting games don't make much sense, but how I love their incoherent campiness.

I've played altogether too many fighters – just ask my friends – but there were a few franchises I always kept coming back to. One of these was Guilty Gear. Back in the early 2000s, Guilty Gear had quite the reputation. Not only did the game have extraordinarily well-animated fighters, unique and plentiful characters, and a good rock soundtrack, but it was also from a previously-unknown developer. Guilty Gear X, the second game in the series, got very good reviews, but when the third game, Guilty Gear X2, appeared, it received raves. Guilty Gear seemed on the way to becoming the 2D fighter of choice for this decade.

Shame, then, that everything fell apart. Instead of making a new game, Arc System Works revised GGX2 multiple times - there was a "new" game that added one character, a further revision that added another but removed two hidden characters, etc. I gather the most recent edition of GGX2, Accent Core Plus (don't ask about the series' naming conventions) is quite good: It has all the GGX2 characters and features the return of story mode, which had been dropped in an earlier iteration. That's great, and I may eventually play Accent Core Plus, as even the basic version of Guilty Gear X2 is a wonderful game. But it does seem a bit ridiculous to me that the "final" version of the game came out seven years after the game's original release.

According to most reviewers, Arc System Works' new game BlazBlue is both a) the "spiritual sequel" to the Guilty Gear Games and b) a totally unique 2D fighting experience. If you think these two statements are mutually exclusive, you'd be right. Guilty Gear and BlazBlue have more in common than mysterious and alliterative titles; many of the fighters in BlazBlue are highly reminiscent of older Gear characters. This is especially true of the two "leads," Ragna and Jin, who look and play just like Guilty Gear's Sol and Ky. Many of the mechanics of BlazBlue echo those of Guilty Gear – the "Faultless Defense" blocks and "Roman Cancel" techniques from the older series appear under different names in BlazBlue.

Despite what first impressions might suggest, BlazBlue is not a palette swap of Guilty Gear. Many of Guilty Gear's excesses have vanished. To take one example, let's consider Guilty Gear's Instant Kills with their BlazBlue counterparts, Astral Heat attacks. In Guilty Gear, every character has a one-hit that can be performed at any point in the round (watch them here). They can only be used once, they're easy to dodge, and you suffer a lot if you miss, but the attacks are still very cheap, especially when used against those new to the game. BlazBlue's Astral Heats are as flashy and fun as the old Instant Kills, but they can only be used in the last round of a fight, when the opponent has 20% health or less, and you have a full special attack gauge.

BlazBlue also elaborates on Guilty Gear's efforts to be an "accessible" fighting game. In Guilty Gear, every character but one had the same button combination to perform an Instant Kill. The idea was that players wouldn't have to waste time memorizing two dozen different commands – if you knew how to do one character's IK, you knew how to do another's. Guilty Gear also allowed for button shortcuts – it's easy to press four buttons at once while standing at an arcade pad, but it's quite hard to do while holding a controller. Guilty Gear let you set shortcuts, so a tap on the R1 button was (say) equivalent to pressing Square, Circle, X, and Triangle at the same time. It was a much-appreciated gesture. BlazBlue is actually even more player-friendly than Guilty Gear – not only have shoulder button shortcuts returned, but there are now even shortcuts for special attacks. Furthermore, each character has a "Drive" attack that can be used by merely pressing the X button. Jin can freeze opponents, Rachel can control the wind, Litchi can place or recall her magic staff, etc. No matter how bad you are at fighting games, it's not hard to look cool while playing BlazBlue.

As I mentioned above, many of the characters in BlazBlue will seem slightly familiar to players of Guilty Gear. At times, this is perhaps tedious: Ragna's play style seems almost identical to his predecessor Sol's. Yet most of the fighters in BlazBlue expand upon their templates. BlazBlue's Carl Clover has quirky play mechanics reminiscent of Eddie from Guilty Gear, but Carl is a far more memorable and unique character than Eddie, one of the less-interesting GG fighters. Similarly, Litchi looks like a slightly sluttier version of Jam, but the variety of tricks she can perform with her magic flying staff set her apart from her precursor. And I shouldn't overemphasize BlazBlue's similarities to Guilty Gear; there are a few characters who, as far as I can tell, aren't near-doppelgangers to fighters from the older games.

BlazBlue, unlike many modern fighting games, has only a dozen playable characters. Normally this would be a great cause for complaint, but each character is so unique and enjoyable that it seems wrong to complain. And while there are not many characters, BlazBlue has quite a lot to do. There is, of course, a classic "arcade" mode, but BlazBlue also has a branching story mode guaranteed to take up a lot of your time. Furthermore, there are plenty of unlockables, including dozens of pieces of concept and story artwork. And while 2D fighters have a reputation for being archaic, BlazBlue has a number of current-generation features. In addition to online play, BlazBlue supports both Trophies and Downloadable Content.

Few games display such attention to detail as BlazBlue. The game displays in 720p and looks great; the animation is great, the backgrounds interesting, and the character sprites ornate. The voice acting isn't top-notch, but many fighters have unique voice clips for certain battles. If Jin fights the "Red Devil" soldier Tager, for example, he might yell, "Red Devil dies today!" in the middle of the fight. Several matchups, such Litchi vs. Arakune or Jin vs. Ragna, have unique battle music. Would that all games paid such attention to the little things.

I won't go so far as to say that BlazBlue is a fighting game for people who don't like fighting games. It isn't. If you do, however, like fighting games, BlazBlue is the game for you. Those with less-than-ideal skills will enjoy themselves, while "serious" fans will find that BlazBlue is extremely deep. Don't let the new name or the paucity of characters put you off: BlazBlue is the best fighting game I've played in a very long time.

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