Friday, July 24, 2009

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger

I almost consider fighting games a separate hobby altogether from the rest of my gaming, which must be why I seem to end up collecting all of them despite the fact that I can't play most worth a damn.

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger is the latest 2-D fighting game from Arc System Works, developer of the Guilty Gear series. Indeed, it is very much the successor to Guilty Gear, now that that series is mired in rights uncertainties.

As one should expect from this team, it's an extremely technical fighter full of weird hand-drawn characters. The twelve-character roster is on the small side, but this is the first installment in a new series, and, as in Guilty Gear, every fighter is distinct. And while it's a bit early (and I'm a bit underqualified) to be discussing game balance, BlazBlue probably includes more viable characters than the average Capcom or SNK title, as it attempts to equip each with some unique and powerful option to exploit, so that even weaker fighters can stand at least a puncher's chance. That's assuming you can figure out how to wield it, because this is still a good deal more complicated than your typical Street Fighter.

Distilled to its essential theory, Street Fighter is a game of "knock the other guy down, and keep knocking them down." I mean that literally. Experts will have more effective means of scoring the knockdown, but even novices will quickly realize that low roundhouse is a near-universal sweep, and they can consequently enter a match with a target around which to focus their game plan. Thus, even at low levels, rarely does Street Fighter ever truly devolve into button mashing. King of Fighters, like most Street Fighter clones, can be approached the same way, so a complete newcomer to KoF can play that game off Street Fighter experience. They may not play it well, but they'll at least grasp the theory. Marvel vs. Capcom 2, perhaps the only other fighting game I can play, comes down to "keep calling anti-air assist so that the other guy can't fight back."

Guilty Gear differs in that there is no obvious overarching tactic that applies at all levels and with all characters. It's closer to the 3-D fighting games in that, once you're in there, it's pretty much "have your combos down, or get mashing." The result is a technical showcase at high levels, and a pretty shallow experience at low levels, with a tremendous barrier between the two.

Arc clearly tried to make BlazBlue a little more accessible by including the "Drive" button, essentially a dedicated special button that provides instant access to each character's signature technique. In addition to showing off just how distinct the different fighters' styles are, it can give beginners a single button to center their game around, similar to the low roundhouse or the MvC2 assist. Within a few seconds of play, you can start to appreciate Noel's Kyo Kusanagi-esque branching offense, v-13's omnidirectional projectiles, or Taokaka's tremendous pouncing attacks. Other characters, however, such as Carl Clover and Hakumen are much harder to manipulate, and, overall, I'd say that BlazBlue is more Guilty Gear than Street Fighter. The Drive attacks give you some idea of each character's individual potential, but it still takes many matches to even begin to understand how to operate and execute within the frenzied dynamic of this game. At low levels, the action is visually exciting and offers enough feedback to input to be fun, but that kind of fun can't last. Then again, most games don't.

Aside from the competitive game, the console release also includes the requisite arcade, challenge (more like survival), and practice modes, as well as a fairly hefty story mode that almost feels like a visual novel, what with its branching paths and reliance on still images. Alas, the story itself is typical fighting game nonsense with a heavy dose of that convoluted Japanese claptrap. It feels like there's a lot of backstory that isn't covered within the game, nor anywhere else that I know of. Instead, dudes just walk around with no clear objectives, then run into other characters and decide to slug it out because that's what they do.

Every time I play one of these crap excuses for a story mode in a fighting game, I can only sigh and point to the PS1 version of Capcom's JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. You might glibly reply that fighting games are designed for versus play, and the single-player experience is purely incidental. But I wonder why that has to be the case. Why are fighting game developers content only to cater to the niche competitive audience? Why do we defend them when they decline to do more? I think also of GoldenEye 007, which is remembered equally for its single-player and versus modes. These days, FPS players pretty much demand, not only that top-tier titles like Halo and Call of Duty include both modes, but that they be superlative in both. It's not even as if it would be difficult to put together a compelling single-player mode in a fighting game. Granted, JoJo had a successful comic for source material, but it was the structure, rather than the plot, that made that story mode great. It was lengthy, varied, and traced a sensible arc that actually explained who the characters were and why they were fighting.

Perhaps even better than implementing a story into a fighter would be integrating the always solid mechanics of fighting games into more conventionally single-player genres. The closest things may be the Tales and Star Ocean JRPG series, with their clearly fighting game-inspired battle systems. But, exciting though those games may be, they are still RPGs first and foremost, with battles determined more by character stats and setups than by player skill.

I would propose a game that would be as story-focused as a JRPG, but which would cut to battles that would take the form of a good fighting game. Not only would I personally find this more satisfying than traditional RPG combat, but I think the dramatic structure of a story-based game would in turn provide a better way for players to learn the technical elements of fighting games. I can imagine the usually annoying beginning tutorial segments here serving to familiarize the player with all the arcane systems that are never adequately explained within fighting games.

The usual quibbles aside, BlazBlue is a deep and attractive fighter designed by and for fans of fighting games and Japanese anime. It's pure and elegant, featuring a sleek interface and with all characters unlocked right off the bat, saving players from wasting time needlessly. It's functional yet full of nice touches and extras, including both Japanese and English audio tracks, a gallery of unlockable artwork, and some bizarre, barely animated bonus stories where super deformed characters explain the world of BlazBlue. They even thoughtfully included the option to switch the confirm and cancel buttons, for those accustomed to the old SNES config. You can't save multiple button configurations like you could in Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus, but it's only a four-button game anyway.

On that note, digging into the key config menu revealed the existence of a handy shortcut mode that allows pad players to perform special moves just with the right analog stick. We've seen this in past games, usually in unsuccessful attempts to compensate for inadequate Wii or GameCube control options. In BlazBlue, it's still not to be considered by serious players, but it is a nice option to let casual players in on some quick fun. What especially impresses me is that Aksys doesn't even list it as a selling point on the back of the box. It just sneaks it in there as though it were a standard feature, which it really ought to be.

The value of the package is further increased by what may be the best limited edition treatment I've yet seen. Atlus often includes a sampler music CD with its releases, but, for BlazBlue, publisher Aksys Games gave us the complete two-disc soundtrack. Keep in mind, the music in this game was done by Daisuke Ishiwatari, whose rocking Guilty Gear compositions were one of the best things about that series.

Not stopping with the soundtrack, Aksys also included an instructional video disc. It's an idea that makes a lot of sense, and while I didn't think it was as informative as it could have been--it would have been better to demonstrate tactics by recreating actual match situations--the gesture is greatly appreciated in lieu of any in-game tutorial, which BlazBlue, like just about every other fighting game, still lacks.

Without a doubt, this is the year of the fighting game, and some have positioned BlazBlue as a potential rival for Street Fighter IV, but I have to believe that, on the contrary, it actually gained a significant boost thanks to Capcom reviving mainstream enthusiasm for the genre. At least, I hope that will be the case, both for this and the soon-to-be-released King of Fighters XII. As excited as I was for the return of Street Fighter, I was also well aware that it was only so big a deal because its absence had been so long, and I've since worried that, once people grew tired of the same experience, it would be just as long before another fighting game mattered again, and then only for the nostalgia factor. I'm starting to believe now that maybe these fighting game developers and publishers will be able to keep future releases regular enough, but also dispersed enough and, of course, good enough and distinct enough, to establish the genre as a staple without burning it out before the next major mainstream fighter (Street Fighter IV: Championship Edition for 2010?).

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