Tuesday, July 14, 2009

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger

Wow, shame on me. I haven't updated in a month. But hey, it's really because I haven't had much to talk about. Been playing mostly some FF 10 and 12 in the gap; already wrote about X, and I don't really feel like writing about 12..

Anyway, onwards to the post. A great game, if I do say so myself. Fortunately, I don't, because this game jumped to near immediate critical acclaim. Not gushing reviews quite up with the likes of Metal Gear Solid 4 or Grand Theft Auto 4, but the game is widely adored, nonetheless. Unfortunately, unlike Street Fighter IV, very little hype was built up for the game, and thus it could almost be classified as a sleeper hit.

I had strong reservations about buying this, especially at full price, especially because, I'm simply no good at fighting games. This is my first "hardcore" fighting game since Soul Calibur 3, and I was pretty horrible at that game (never could understand the meaning behind the button symbols). I ended up buying it, however, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is the spiritual successor to Guilty Gear, a series known for its beginner friendly battle mechanics. Furthermore, I found myself drawn in by the game's quirky trends (once again akin to Guilty Gear) and terms, beginning with the name itself; "BlazBlue"..? What the heck is that? And then there's such eccentric names as "Astral Heat" and "Guard Libra". It was all very fascinating.

The final reason I finally gave in was because of the Limited Edition offer. That is, the first few runs of the game are all automatically upgraded LE, which includes not only the game, but also a two disc soundtrack and an instructional Blu-Ray disc with various tips and strategies (all wrapped in a nice box with special artwork) . I figured, if I was going to buy the game, I might as well get the disc and see if that helps.

I ended up not needing the disc. BlazBlue is so easy to pick up, I was surprised and very satisfied when I got actually managed to beat a couple people online.

Like any fighter, there's a fair amount to pay attention to during a battle.

At the top of the screen, you can see the character icon and name of your fighter, as well as their health bar (yellow/gold) and barrier bar (red, blue or yellow). In the center is the timer, and directly under it is the Guard Libra (not shown in the pic..for some reason.). The Guard Libra helps keep the battles moving at a brisk pace by punishing those who like to sit around blocking attacks. Each time you block an attack, the GL bar moves closer in your direction (the more powerful the attack, the further it moves). If it fully hits your end of the bar, your guard will crack, leaving you stunned for quite a while (not unlike the guard break system in Super Smash Bros). However, you do have an alternative block that will not budge the Guard Libra. This is your barrier, which is also simply a more effective way to block. Using your barrier consumes energy from your barrier gauge, however, and should you fully deplete your barrier gauge, you will enter "Danger" status for the rest of the round. While in this state, your defense is significantly lowered, and you are unable to use barrier. You also have a last resort defensive move called Barrier Burst, which fully depletes your barrier gauge in one go, and knocks your opponent back. While it's not a move you want to use often, it'll force off your opponent if you think [s]he's getting a bit too close for comfort.

At the bottom of the screen is each character's Heat Gauge. Once you have certain amounts of energy in this bar, you can perform special Distortion Drive attacks, which are often quite flashy, and do an impressive bit of damage. Each character has their own unique set of Distortion Drives, as well as a secret Astral Heat. By running your character through Arcade mode (not necessary with Ragna, v-13, or Rachel), you can unlock his/her's Astral Heat, an spectacular show of brutality and awesomeness. During the final round of a match, if you have 100% heat and your foe has less than 20% of his health left, you are able to attempt an Astral Heat. Should it connect, your victory will be assured.

BlazBlue's controls are also simple to pick up. In clockwise order starting with Square (or X on the 360), each button is labeled A, B, C, and D. A attacks are weak but very quick pokes and jabs essential for breaking combos, catching people off guard, and overall just being one annoying mofo. C attacks are more powerful and have better range, but are of course a little slower. B attacks are the middle ground. D is related to all your character's Drive abilities. Various moves (and usually the Astral Heat and certain Distortion Drives) are also mapped to the right stick. This feature, known as "Easy Specials" allows you to pull off many of a character's specials quickly and easily, without having to memorize long button combos. However, use of the right stick is banned in the majority of online matches, so there's an incentive for more skilled players to learn the actual button string behind each right stick move.

Each character has their own unique Distortion Drive ability that also often complements their personality. For example, Jin is a very cold and unemotional fellow, so it's only natural he'd be able freeze opponents and manipulate ice with his Drive ability. Taokaka's Drive ability lets her literally bounce and and tear all over the screen, reminiscent of her spontaneous personality.

Given the Guard Libra, Barrier Bar, and how lithe many of the characters are, battles move at a very fast pace. Generally, blocking would only be done to defend against rushdowns (an enemy's attempt to pressure you into messing by being extremely aggressive) and specials. In this game, a good offense is also a good defense. The better you are at countering and keeping your opponent off his/her feet, the better you will do in BlazBlue. The way I see it, the key to a great battle is combos. Some characters are better attuned to them than others, but combos are a vital aspect of gameplay in BlazBlue.

BlazBlue is also packed with content. Besides the typical Arcade mode (where you pick a fighter and then go through several rounds with other characters, which often reveals a bit of plot info towards the end), there's also Score Attack, where you compete against other players to get the best score, Versus, (Just a quick match with you vs another player, or you versus the computer), and Training, where you can hone your skills under a variety of parameters (or even with a friend).

BlazBlue also features a full featured online mode. Here you can view the leaderboards for each character, and overall. You can play a quick ranked match, or join a room with up to 5 other people, and chat with each other, fight, and watch others in the room fight. You can also host your own room, finely tuned to your own rules. For example, you can choose whether to ban or allow such things as Easy Specials and Astral Heats, and also choose whether or not to enable voice chat. You can also send invites to people on your friend list (or anyone, if you know their PSN ID or XBL tag) to join your room. If you're the type of guy who likes to study both your own and others' techniques, BlazBlue provides for that as well via the Replay Theatre. With this nifty feature you can record your own battles, as well as watch others'. By bringing up a person's D-card (an ID card that shows their favorite two characters, and their win/loss ratio, among other things), you can download a replay of their last battle. I like to skip all the way to the top of the leaderboards for my favorite characters and watch replays of those players' recent battles.

But that's not all. BlazBlue also has a story, and a surprisingly in-depth one at that. So deep, in fact, that even after completing some of each characters' story paths AND seeing the True Ending, I still didn't fully understand what was going on. The Prologue is quite enigmatic, showing a conversation between two scientists at a facility right before they are seemingly sent to oblivion by a huge satellite beam attack from above. It takes place in a world recovering from the onslaught of a powerful being known only as the Black Beast. The Black Beast appeared seemingly out of nowhere, it's only intent being to destroy anything in its path. None of mankind's weapons seemed to do anything against it, and it seemed humans would end up on the brink of destruction. All hope appeared lost, until six powerful warriors gathered together, and, with their combined power, defeated and sealed away the Black Beast. Those six are known as the Six Heroes. One of the Heroes, a powerful mage, taught mankind how to use magic. Thus the war against the Black Beast became known as the First War of Magic.

Fast forward a few years. Three siblings; Ragna, Saya, and Jin leave a peaceful life in the countryside, until their home is burned down. Saya is killed, and, with Jin's help, a strange man kills Ragna too, after slicing off his arm.

It wasn't long until disagreements over how this new power should be used, and who should have control over it arose, leading a Second War of Magic. The two sides? The Novis Orbus Librarium, a budding corporation that functioned somewhat as an international police force, and held control over much of the magic, versus the Ikaruga Corporation, a group of rebels who instead saw the NOL as a future dicatorship. It was during this war that an older Jin, now known for his lack of emotion and enthusiasm, rose as a hero and very talented combat officer.

Fast forward once again to the 13th Hierarchical City of Kagatsuchi, where about 95% of the story takes place. This is a city of many colors, layers, and people. All of the characters converge here because they've heard that the infamous Ragna the Bloodedge was spotted there.

BlazBlue's story plays out not unlike a visual novel. If you already know what a visual novel is, you can skip this paragraph. For the uninitiated, it is quite literally a novel supported by a near-static image in the background. Characters are fully voiced and have a variety of facial expressions, but you might find yourself spending a lot of time just reading the text box (especially in the case of Arakune, who is near-impossible to understand vocally). Occasionally you might be given a choice of how to proceed. Each character has multiple story paths to take (often with multiple endings), and these choices dictate which path you will end up on. Whether or not you lose a battle or win with a Distortion Drive also makes a difference.

The thing with the character stories in BlazBlue, is that they're not entirely canon. It's best to think of them more as an excellent way to introduce you to the characters (and their histories), background, and setting of the actual overall plot, before the game actually lets you see what really happened. The problem with the character stories is that, while it's impossible for them all to be fully canon (that is to say, relevant to the core plot), it's important that you keep them in mind anyway, because like I said before, they still offer up vital clues and help you piece together much of the story even without seeing the true ending. This means you'll find yourself picking and choosing what to believe and what not to believe. The multiple endings and branching story paths don't help either.

Even after seeing the True Ending, you'll still likely find yourself scrambling for more, only to be disappointed when you find that there is none.

As expected of a game supposed to succeed the Guilty Gear series, BlazBlue has a very distinguished and interesting cast of characters. While they are few in number (I think there's only 10 playable characters), they all play differently, act differently, and are simply all very unique.

Ragna is arguably the main character of the plot, and he is directly referenced and mentioned in nearly every other character's story path. Why he is alive once again is a bit of a spoiler, but he's been traveling to each Hierarchical City and completely wiping out the NOL branch stationed there. His power and combat ability is legendary, and in an attempt to stop him, the NOL has placed the largest bounty in human history on his head. He is a SS-Class criminal, and also known as "Death" or "Grim Reaper". Rumor has it that Ragna also carries a powerful artifact known as the Azure Grimoire around with him. Ragna is a very angry person, and extremely easy to piss off, but he's not a bad person at heart. Furthermore, he seems almost oblivious to the fact that he is the most wanted criminal in the world. Ragna's Drive ability is Soul Eater, which allows him to steal health from his opponent.

Jin Kisaragi is Ragna's brother. He rose to fame as the "Hero of Ikaruga" for his display of combat skill. When he heard Ragna had been spotted in Kagatsuchi, he immediately left to go find him. In doing so he disobeyed direct orders, and the NOL is now focused on retrieving him. Jin is at least partially insane (I think so anyway), which could be due to his sword (a katana, by the way), Yukianesa, which allows the wielder to manipulate ice, but is rumored to drive them off the deep end. He displays little emotion or enthusiasm (besides ice cold killing intent) unless he is talking to Ragna. I'm honestly still not sure whether Jin wants to save or kill Ragna. For all I know, he could be bipolar. Jin's Drive ability is Frost Bite, which allows him to use ice to freeze his opponents, opening them up to further combos.

Noel Vermillion is a Lieutenant in the NOL. She rose in rank quickly for her surprising amount of talent for combat. Noel is somewhat shy, and is also having a bit of an identity crisis. She knows her parents are foster parents (and loves them dearly all the same), but doesn't remember any part of her life before they took her in. Other characters have a striking tendency to look down on her for her clumsiness, cute appearance and soft personality, but she is a capable combatant, and was consequently placed under Jin's direct command. Jin hates her, however, for her resemblance to V-13. Likely to her disdain, however, she is the one sent to retrieve Jin when he goes AWOL. And thus she arrives in Kagatsuchi. Noel also has a slight inferiority complex, especially for her breasts, which are so near nonexistent that she has been mistaken for a boy on occasion. Noel wields Bolverk, a pair of twin pistols. Her Drive ability, Chain revolver, is a great gateway to setting up long strings of combos.

Rachel Alucard is a powerful vampire, and head of the noble Alucard family. Though in actual gameplay battle, she of course plays on an equal footing as other characters, she is arguably the most powerful playable character in the game, if the story is any evidence. Rachel is also the only one who seems to know the entire story. She looks down on EVERYONE but her butler and Kokonoe (Tager's creator), seeing them as little more than pieces to a puzzle she claims she cannot interact with. Though she left her castle claiming to be bored, she is a little more connected to the story than she lets on. She travels with a large shapeshifting cat named Nago, and a squishy red bat named Gii. Despite how badly she treats them, they remain loyal to her.
Rachel herself doesn't do much physical fighting. Instead, Gii and Nago do most of her bidding. Rachel's Drive ability Silpheed, allows her limited control over the wind, allowing her get around quicker and also initiate good rushdown attacks.

Hakumen is a mysterious and somewhat enigmatic individual who was also one of the Six Heroes. Canonically speaking, him and Rachel are likely the most powerful playable characters in the game. However, unlike Rachel, who fights only when she feels like it, Hakumen is quick to slaughter almost anyone who stumbles onto his path. Like (and yet unlike) Bang, he is a devout follower of his own brand of justice, which involves slicing up evildoers with a blade long enough to make Sephiroth proud. I'm still not sure what in the world Hakumen has to do with anything. His Drive ability, Zanshiin, allows him to counter attacks (like Ike or Marth from Super Smash Bros). He is also the only character in the game who doesn't actually have a heat gauge. Instead, he uses a different kind of energy, though it works in a similar way.

Next up is Taokaka, a member of the Kaka clan, a group of cat-people genetically engineered from Jubei, one of the Six Heroes. Taokaka is extremely upbeat, spontaneous, informal, forgetful, and, simply stupid. Though she is a capable fighter, Tao is lazy and only likes to eat meat buns and sleep. She wears a large coat and hood that shrouds her real face, revealing only red eyes and a mischievous grin. Her unpredictability carries into her combat style and Drive ability, which allows her to literally jump all around the screen at lightning speed, giving her a good mixup/rushdown game. She is good friends with Litchi (who she calls Boobie Lady), and overall friendly to everyone she meets (except Arakune, who she despises for attacking the Kaka Village).

Next is Iron Tager, known simply as Tager. A hulking cyborg who is very uncomfortable for me to play as, Tager, despite being a complete beast in combat, is actually a very mellow and reasonable person who hates wanton violence. At least half of the battles he gets into are either caused by unfortunate coincidences, or he tries to reason with his opponent instead. Tager participated in the Ikaruga War (aka the Second War of Magic), but was killed. He was rebuilt with mechanical parts by the scientist Kokonoe, and now works for Sector 7, a group rebelling against the NOL. Overall a simple person, Tager just does his job. No more, no less. He is acquainted with Litchi and Arakune, and makes passive attempts to persuade Litchi to return to Sector 7, but to little effect. His primary mission throughout the story is simply to retrieve Hakumen, who Kokonoe pulled from the supernatural Edge dimension.

Another character is Litchi Faye Ling, who I've found I am absolutely horrible with. Litchi is a well-endowed woman who is liked for her kindness and maturity. She is fairly level headed, and has a motherly personality, especially towards Taokaka. Despite this, she can be flirty at times, especially during battle. Litchi used to be an assistant for Kokonoe at Sector 7, but left to find and aid Arakune. Like Tager, she doesn't like resorting to fighting, but is a capable fighter nonetheless. When she's not hunting down Arakune, she runs a clinic in Orient Town. Litchi uses a staff in battle, and her Drive ability involves the various things she can do with it (and make it do independently). She plays a little like Karl in that use of her staff in combination with her own moves is a crucial part of her battle strategy

Arakune, the thing Litchi has been looking for, is exactly little more than an abomination. I'm not sure how personal his connection with Litchi was when he was human, but he used to work at Sector 7. But his insatiable thirst for knowledge led him beyond the boundary, and he ended warped into the disgusting specimen he is now. Arakune essentially looks like a sentient blob of black tar with a white mask glued on. He is unable to speak properly (parts of his audio dialog are muted, making it near impossible to fully understand what he is talking about), and is insane. His only motive, besides attaining more power and knowledge, is simply to stay alive, by constantly absorbing others. This is what led him to attack the Kaka village. He eventually decides to attack Ragna as well, hoping to take the Azure Grimoire from him. Arakune plays a little like V-13, and tends to stay away from his opponent, and use his insect Drive ability to do damage from afar instead.

Last in the line of characters at all relevant to the core plot is Nu, otherwise known as V-13. She bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Noel, (albeit in a younger body) and is even more emotionless than Jin when it comes to character interaction. When talking to anyone besides Ragna, she talks in a flat computer cyborg voice, and prefers to obliterate anyone who stands in her way. When around Ragna, however, she gains the cheerful and bubbly personality of a young girl infatuated with an older guy. Despite how nice she sounds, however, she is bent on killing Ragna, so she can fuse with him (and possibly re-summon the Black Beast). Like Ragna, she possesses an Azure Grimoire, but the authenticity of hers is questionable. If you've seen Noctis from FFV13, or Sora's Final Form from Kingdom Hearts 2, you'll have an idea how V-13 fights. She summons multiple swords to attack her opponent from various directions in battle, making her excellent for pushing them into a corner, or keeping them off balance. It also makes her a natural at air combos. Her ability to control and wield multiple swords at once is also her Drive ability.

Yet another character in this already quirky bunch is Bang Shishigami, a self-proclaimed ninja, vigilante, and [self-proclaimed] Hero of Justice and Love. Bang is a very amusing person to watch, as he's somewhat clumsy, and manages to stumble into many misunderstandings. He has an intense crush on Litchi, and is quick to attack anyone who even appears to be threatening her. He has a large tendency to jump the shark on many matters, and is pretty big on exaggerating, as well. His devotion to justice is not so unlike that of a Power Ranger (or Kamen Rider, for that matter), which makes him all the more humorous to play as and watch. However, he can be serious when the situation calls for it, and his intentions are always pure. Bang was a resident of Ikaruga during the Second War, and it was during this time that Jin arrived in his city. Jin and his men slaughtered many of the civilians, and personally killed Bang's sensei, Master Tenjo, in cold blood. Bang attempted to stop him, and recieved the cross-shaped scar he now has from Jin's Yukianesa, before being frozen. He has pledged to get revenge on Jin, and carries a large nail on his back as a memento of his master. Bang utilizes ninjutsu during battle, and is particularly skilled at fire attacks. Landing enough attacks with his drive button fills up his 4 gates bar, which, once filled, allows him to power up, increasing speed and attack strength.

Last, and easily least (in my opinion), is Karl, who is almost entirely irrelevant to the plot, from I can so far tell. Karl is a young boy, who walks around with a large mechanical doll he refers to as his sister. His only relations are to Noel and Jin, who spent some with while the three of them were in school. I'm not sure whether he's insane (as is suggested to Noel), or if the doll really is talking to him, or maybe a reincarnation of his real older sister, who apparently died. Karl is a dedicated vigilante, and arrives with the sole purpose of eliminating Ragna the Bloodedge, and taking his Azure Grimoire. In battle, his Drive ability, Automaton, involves controlling his puppet. Karl's fairly weak by himself, but getting caught between him and his doll (or just trying to take on the doll) is asking for trouble, as it opens up all sorts of mixups, and overall bad pwnage.

The graphics in this game are rather top notch. Who knew hi-res sprites could look so good? The game runs fluidly and simply performs great. There's no mandatory install, but there is a 14mb patch you'll need to download. The soundtrack is also an interesting mix of metal and j-pop. It's surprisingly refreshing. I personally love the opening song, Ao-Iconoclast, and was disappointed to find that it is not included in the two disc soundtrack. The game also features a fairly extensive Gallery feature that let's you view various illustrations encountered in the story, as well as special art that includes a small comment from one of the staff members that worked on the game. You can also view movie clips, such as the opening for both the console and arcade versions. Furthermore, the gallery features the full library of music you'll hear in BlazBlue, as well as the ability to listen to each and every soundbyte (except for the voice tracks from the story mode) from each and every character, in either English or Japanese. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the game is in dual-audio, so you can choose to keep the English language (which was done well, by the way), or listen to the characters in their original Japanese voices. Unfortunately, there's no custom soundtrack feature (meaning you can't listen to your own music), but with audio options as expansive as this, it's a minor complaint.

Overall, I think BlazBlue was done quite well. There's a lot of stuff to do, see, and hear, and the story is out of this world. It's a game that's easy to pick up, and tough to master, and yet very balanced, which are all great assets of a fighting game, I'd say. This game is worth the full $60 price tag, even without the bonus discs. A 9/10.