Big fighter, small console
Back in the days of the original PlayStation, the one-on-one fighting genre was in steep decline. In 1997 Street Fighter III arguably marked the peak of the genre and from then on there was a visible shift to 3D graphics which led to the release of dross like Battle Arena Toshinden and Star Wars: Masters of Teras-Kasi. Even Street Fighter’s return in the form of the 3D EX series was poor at best and only the Tekken series seemed to make any kind of meaningful step forward.
Not that it seemed to bother Arc System Works who decided it would be a bloody good idea to release Guilty Gear which saw a release on the PlayStation and was an ultra-technical, completely-bonkers fighting game that bit its thumb at the 3D revolution and stayed resolutely 2D - wonderfully, beautifully 2D, with gorgeous anime-style graphics and a large heavy-metal influence. Of course, it sold bugger all, but at least sold enough to warrant a sequel on the Dreamcast, another on the PS2 and spin-offs on multiple platforms.
Since then of course, Capcom has given the genre an almighty adrenaline shot to the heart with multiple versions of Street Fighter IV and now the scene looks almost as healthy as it did back in the days of Street Fighter II and its many, many clones. So the time seemed right for another Guilty Gear game… Only Arc System Works went and lost the licence to Sega, so instead it birthed BlazBlue which might as well be Guilty Gear in all but name.
The sequel Continuum Shift II continues the tradition set by Guilty Gear of a futuristic fantasy anime-style setting, with a heavy-metal sound track and a fighting system that seems wholly impenetrable at first glance and it’s all the better for it. Originally released on the PS3 and Xbox 360, some detail is lost in the transition to the lower resolution 3DS screen, but the intense colour and the insane level of animation remains seemingly intact. Sadly the 3D screen adds very little, with the characters and the different parts of the backgrounds seemingly layered on top of one another like they were cut out of paper. It’s better to just turn the 3D off and take advantage of the slightly higher frame rate.
Another tradition that BlazBlue follows is the one that says fighting games must have a plot that makes little to no sense. Set around 200 years in the future, humanity is on the verge of extinction due to a creature known as the “Black Beast” until six heroes appear and teach the world to create “Ars Magus” – weapons which fuse magic and science. Together they defeat the beast, the heroes disappear and an organisation called the Library is founded to lead the world using these Ars Magus. The story now revolves around a rebel with the ridiculous name “Ragna The Bloodedge”. Mr. The Bloodedge has destroyed several branches of the Library with an Ars Magus called “Azure Grimoire” and now is being hunted by members of the Library and bounty hunters after the price put on his head for his actions. Of course they all have silly names as well as Noel Vermillion, Bang Shishigami and Iron Tager.
Alongside the normal arcade mode there’s a story mode to piece all of this together. It consists of a section for each user than can branch to storylines that the game openly admits are non-canon depending on conversation paths chosen. So it’s a shame really that it’s so blandly presented, with static images of the characters talking at each other, and when I say talking what I mean is that they go on and on and on in a very sincere manner that I’ve come to associate with the anime style. It’s all tell and very little show. Throughout the course of the story it’s common to be sat skipping through the dialogue for five to ten minutes with only around thirty seconds of action to break up the blithering of voice actors who quite honestly sound like they don’t want to be there most likely because they don't understand a word they’ve been asked to say.
Thankfully there’s plenty of modes to get stuck in to outside of story. There’s your standard arcade mode where you fight ten matches with a big boss at the end and there’s a tutorial and practise modes which are helpful but nothing out of the ordinary. Of a greater interest to me are Abyss and Legion 1.5, Abyss is survival mode under another name, a battle to see how many enemies you can beat within one health bar but incorporates very basic RPG elements due to the chance to level up your stats every few fights. Legion 1.5 is probably the most interesting mode in the entire game from the view point of it doing something different. You’re presented with a series of connected nodes, you start from one of these nodes with the aim of defeating the army at the finish over at the other end of the network. You choose one character to start, then each node contains a number of enemies to defeat. Once beaten you can choose one of them to join your team, but health is not regained between matches and if a member of your team is beaten they’re out for good so it becomes a choice of taking the most direct route from start to finish with a smaller but healthier team or hitting more nodes at the expense of losing precious health or even a team-member in the pursuit of a larger team or bonus item. It’s a nice layer of strategy on top of the base game and out of all the modes it has probably has taken the most of my play time.
Of course this would be all for nothing if the actual game play is duff, but thankfully it's far from it. BlazBlue is not a game for beginners to the fighting genre as it’s possibly the most technical fighting game series out there at the moment, bursting with all sorts of different types of cancels, super moves (called “drives” in this game’s parlance), dashes and boosts. You know when a game has two display bars dedicated to guarding it’s not messing around and I can imagine for newbies even a look at the tutorial list could be pretty daunting. To their credit though Arc System Works have created a simplified control system which makes combos and special moves easy to pull off and will nicely guide you in if you happen to need that extra bit of help at first.
Unfortunately once the training wheels are off, the main problem for Continuum Shift II becomes clear - the 3DS console itself just isn’t suitable for the high level of play the game demands. Sure it’s still a lot of fun but I can’t see how you could pull off the bigger moves and combos. I certainly had difficulty pulling off the moves that require a 360 rotation of the d-pad, even after I turned on the option that helps with diagonal inputs like Street Fighter IV. Also there’s no option to use the circle pad, there’s obviously been the conscious decision to only allow use of the d-pad which I can understand but the choice would have been appreciated regardless.
Another problem I have is also of a technical nature – the game does not suspend when you close the 3DS. When I first got the game I played for an hour before putting the 3DS on to charge for the night, had a quick 15 minute blast on it again in the morning before closing the lid and putting it away until lunchtime. By the time I got the 3DS out though I noticed the light had turned red to show low battery and sure enough my game was over, sat back at the main menu. As such it seems I have to quit the game to stop it eating my battery life, which is not the ideal way to play a portable game as it completely eliminates the possibility of playing it in those bite-sized bursts while you’re on the bus.
Viewed in isolation of those problems though, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift II is a strong entry into a genre which is getting strong representation on the 3DS. Street Fighter IV and Dead or Alive are both arguably better, but if you’re in the market for something a bit more demanding, a little more hardcore, then BlazBlue has you covered.