Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Continuum Shifts; Quality Doesn't

This time last year I gave a rave review to BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, the new fighting game from the developers of the Guilty Gear series. I didn't expect that I would be back this year to review a new installment in the BlazBlue series, yet here I am, once again delivering a thoroughly positive take on Arc System Works' latest production.

I was slightly disappointed when BlazBlue: Continuum Shift was announced. Though I was glad to see a great game get a sequel, it initially appeared that the "new" game would include relatively little new content. There were four new characters, a few new stages, and adjustments to existing characters, but I worried this would be as disappointing an upgrade as the reiterations of Guilty Gear X2. Given Arc System Works's history, I wasn't wrong to worry, but I'm glad to say that Arc has come through this time. BlazBlue: Continuum Shift is so chock-full of new content that it makes its predecessor's abundance seem paltry.

Though there are several very obvious differences between Continuum Shift and Calamity Trigger, Arc System Works have also demonstrated admirable attention to detail with a whole slew of small changes. The first game's slapdash menus have made way for a more elegant setup. If the short load times bother you, you can now shorten them still further by installing the game, which takes about five gigabytes on the hard drive. All the new characters have new portraits, the art gallery has twice as many unlockables, and the in-battle "HUD" has been redesigned.

When the Guilty Gear games first appeared, they were praised for their beautiful sprite graphics and smooth animation, which made most 2D and many 3D fighting games appear dowdy and outdated. The BlazBlue franchise's HD sprites surpass their Guilty Gear precursors, though I admit I rather miss the old games' sprite backgrounds. The 3D backgrounds in Continuum Shift are lively, detailed, and full of spectators and moving parts, but Arc System Works' 3D output never approaches the beauty of their 2D work. The stages, though not unsightly, represent a missed opportunity.

In an interview from 2008, Daisuke Ishiwatari of Arc Systems Works compared his games with games like Street Fighter IV, which claim to be user-friendly but which are impenetrable to those unfamiliar with fighting games, their history, and their terminology. As he put it: "In my own opinion, no matter what the game, it's important to make sure that beginners and non-gamers can pick it up, and have fun just mashing the buttons." Calamity Trigger, with its Drive (i.e. X Button/A button) attacks and right-stick special attacks, achieved this goal quite well, but Continuum Shift manages to be even more user-friendly. Though you no longer have the option to perform special attacks with the right joystick, Arc System Works instituted a new Beginner Mode which remaps buttons, removes certain of the more arcane techniques, and generally accommodates new players and button mashers. If you'd like to learn the game in-depth, there's also a Tutorial mode that explains the game's various rules, systems, and terminology in a reasonably comprehensible manner. If you're really dedicated, there's also Challenge Mode, which teaches you some very difficult combos. Continuum Shift is as accessible as this sort of game can ever be.

Calamity Trigger featured a Story "campaign" for each character, fully-voiced with multiple endings. The plot features various warring factions, mysterious entities, cat people, squirrel people, two psychotic children, time paradoxes and loops, cursed weapons, damned warriors, flashbacks, violent sibling rivalry, vampires, and ninjas. The characters talk a great deal without explaining very much, and the multiple endings and the characters' tendency to make every meeting end in violent conflict help make the developments even more opaque. Even so, Continuum Shift's Story mode is a great improvement over Calamity Trigger's. Aside from the increase in anime sequences and set piece battles, seeing all the story paths requires significantly less tedium.

Though Continuum Shift is advertised as having four new characters, it would be more fair to say that it has three-and-a-half. New fighter Lamba replaces Nu from the first game; the two characters look and play very similar, though Lambda is all in all less dangerous than Nu, who was after all a boss character. Continuum Shift's one hidden character, Mu, somewhat resembles Lambda, but plays quite differently. Hazama, the villain of the piece, seems like a very difficult character to learn. He can summon green energy chains to bind opponents, jet around the arena, etc. His special and super moves are among the most impressive in the game. The final new character, Tsubaki, is a conservatively-dressed (!!!) female with very easy to perform special attacks. Each of her attacks has four variations; her Drive move charges up a gauge that lets Tsubaki perform especially powerful takes on her moves. She's not a very flashy character, but I've found her a lot of fun to play.

The first BlazBlue received much praise for its "net code". Online matches flowed well and rarely suffered from noticeable slowdown. I've only played a few online opponents in Continuum Shift, but I've already noticed and appreciated a few changes to network play. You now have the opportunity to play Training or Arcade while waiting for a fellow human to come online and interrupt. Match observation has also been improved; you can now join as an observer mid-match instead of waiting at the "Connecting..." screen. Online play as a whole is far better than before; I doubt I shall be able to return to Calamity Trigger.

As happy as I am with Continuum Shift, I still have a few complaints. The enemy AI can be fairly cheap, especially with overpowered characters. Unlimited Hazama, the boss of Arcade, is the case in point: He seems to block everything, has three times your health, can poison you, and regenerates. As you might imagine, fighting him is an exercise in frustration. My other complaint concerns DLC – as I write, one new character is available on the Playstation Store. Two more will appear in the coming months. Each character costs $7.99. This seems exorbitant to me, especially since Story mode is plastered with "ads" for the new characters, all of whom have speaking (but not fighting) roles. At least the game itself is cheap; Continuum Shift launched with an MSRP of $39.99.

Continuum Shift is a fine step forward for the BlazBlue franchise, whatever minor quibbles I might have with it. I look forward to spending more time with it – I've played it a lot already, but I know that I've only scratched the surface. Well-worth the money for those already fans of the series, Continuum Shift is also a fine jumping-on point. Don't worry what you've missed – you still wouldn't understand that plot...

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