Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Arc System Works
Genre: 2D Fighter
Review Date: 7/4/09
Making sequels to fighting games is tricky business. How can you make something that's both original and familiar, that satisfies both newcomers and existing fans, and is balanced enough for beginners and experienced players? Most fighting game sequels offer very little in terms of gameplay evolution, and are basically just the same game with new characters and stages. "Improvements" usually come in the form of harder difficulty in order to keep hardcore fans satiated, which unfortunately raises the entry barrier for new players and causes the series to inhabit an increasingly smaller niche space. Arc System Works decided to take a different approach. Having done all they could with "Guilty Gear," they created a whole new game within the Guilty Gear universe (or is it?) and called it "BlazBlue." (which I recently found out is pronounced "blaze blue," disregarding standard English conventions) But don't let the name fool you. For all intents and purposes, it's "Guilty Gear 3." Capcom took this approach as well with "Street Fighter III," but it backfired on them because people were expecting an updated "Street Fighter II," not an entirely different game.
Like GG, "BlazBlue" is aimed at the hardcore fighting audience and its controls are complicated and deep. However, unlike GG, the entry barrier has been lowered so that even beginners can play the game. This is much appreciated, as slow and steady progress can be made through the game while you're learning the intricacies and nuances of the system. They've even put the special moves on the right analog stick, which you can use if you don't have the dexterity to pull off a half circle multi-button combo. (or if you're using the much maligned Xbox D-pad) The characters are colorful and beautifully hand drawn, with the same wacky Japanese sensibilities as GG. Unfortunately, the roster is limited to twelve characters, and only four female combatants. The women fall into the standard stereotypes: the large breasted nurse/teacher type (Litchi), the small breasted adolescent airhead (Noel), the ogenki cat girl (Kaotaka), and the melancholy loligoth vampire chick (Rachel). Sadly, they're all treated like dingbats and the constant boob jokes quickly become tiresome. While all of the characters are a bit crazy, they're not nearly as charming and endearing as the Guilty Gear cast. While I was initially drawn to Litchi and her sentient Panda bear hair ornament (which Noel desperately wants to pet), Noel matches my fighting style more closely. Even so, none of the characters feel quite right to me and I've yet to become comfortable with any of them. The stages are gorgeous, the GG inspired heavy metal music score is awesome, and the voice acting is superb. That the characters have unique interactions with each other is a very nice touch. Surprisingly, the English localization isn't terrible, but I still prefer the Japanese voices. The only complaint I have about the production values would be that the animated cut-scenes and story elements are pretty weak.
BB really shows off its Japanese roots in its story mode, which features a five minute long anime intro (although it's really more of a slideshow), and an obscene amount of talking head text boxes to scroll through. There is certainly depth in the BB universe if you want it, and there are some fascinating story elements to explore, but navigating the dialogue can become incredibly tedious. Some characters even have limited branching options in their stories which unlock "alternate truths." While most everything is presented in a silly light-hearted manner, many of the stories take a dark, serious, and dramatic turn at the end, making you reconsider all that's happened before. Clearly a lot of effort was put into the creation of the BB universe, which most people are just going to blow off. Another uniquely Japanese feature (and possibly the greatest motivating factor for mastering the game) is a series of super deformed vignettes that put the characters in anime comedy situations and educate you about the history, culture, and socio-political makeup of the BB universe. It's also full of boob jokes at the expense of Litchi (aka "Boobie Lady") and Noel.
"BlazBlue" makes no apologies for itself and aims to create the same kind of niche that "Guilty Gear" did. It caters to the hardcore crowd, but isn't exclusive to them. While it didn't hit my sweet spots, I can certainly admire and appreciate the presentation and craftsmanship. And if nothing else, the cosplay community will definitely benefit from a new cast of characters.