Reviews

BlazBlue: Chronophantasma Extend

December 24, 2015, Author: Andy Corrigan

BlazBlue is one of those fighting game series that I really admire, but have never been able to truly master. The last time I delved into the series was for review, in fact, back when BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend launched alongside Vita. Though I declared it one of the finest fighting games ever made, due to its complexity I’ve still yet to hit the same rhythm that I’ve always found so natural with the likes of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and, after many attempts, Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

With their latest entry, BlazBlue: Chronophantasma Extend, it seems that Arc Systems Works have taken great strides to ensure that this BlazBlue not only flows a lot more naturally, but is a lot more welcoming to all…

When it comes to my previous experience with the series, while I’ve always managed to hit some level of competency, I have never got to that point where I just feel at one with it. I’ve never been able to determine why, exactly, though I am certain that I was the problem.

Within a minute of entering my first fight in Chronophantasma, however, it was clear that I’d not have those issues here, and this BlazBlue felt fluid and smooth to me right from the off. Whether that’s simply because the animations have been tightened massively since I last tangled with Ragna and the gang and thus my brain is connecting the essential dots a lot better, or something else entirely, but I simply feel in control a lot more now, stringing moves and combos together better than ever before.

A large stumbling block for many, though, has been the series’ trademark complexity, and in this sense BlazBlue remains an extraordinarily deep fighter. With so many layers and subtleties to learn – such as three different types of jump (standard, double, and high) and multiple options apiece in terms of wake-ups and cancels, each with their own benefits and unique situational uses – Chronophantasma can be hugely overwhelming at times. Thankfully, Arc System Works have continued their commendable trend of providing unbelievably comprehensive tools through which to learn the intricacies.

The training modes here are simply sublime, with the standard tutorials taking you from the simplest of genre basics, such as positioning and movement, through special moves and devastating finishers, then beyond, to the most advanced and lengthiest combos. For most developers, this would be enough, yet the extra mile has been taken with character-specific tutorials for each fighter on the huge roster, running you through not only their lengthy list of unique moves, but also their most effective strategies.

Ragna is BlazBlue's Ryu. Good all rounder.

Ragna is BlazBlue’s Ryu. Good all rounder.

Taking cues from their short time as temporary custodians of the Persona franchise, Arc have also provided an alternative control method called ‘Stylish Mode’, which simplifies many of the inputs to aid newcomers or those that aren’t skilled enough to hold their own with the standard schemes. This control scheme makes combos a breeze, picking your next attack semi-automatically based on your positioning or momentum, but here it takes into account the strength of each attack you select. It’s like a more grown up version of P4: Arena’s auto-combo, and it works pretty well.

Let’s be clear: this set-up does not absolve you from the hard work of actually practising to improve, and a good player will still be able to pick holes in your game, but they’ll definitely have a tougher time doing it.

What will really determine your success is how well you understand the importance of each system, and the effects they have on you and your opponent during a fight. For example, while defending, you can activate your ‘Barrier’, which is a nifty way of avoiding chip damage for short spells as you wait for a sufficient opening. Abuse your barrier to the point of depletion, however, and you’ll find yourself in Danger State, taking increased damage instead.

A surprising extension of this is ‘Negative Warning’. Play too defensively or evasively for too long and you’ll find yourself on the end of a punishment - an even quicker depletion of your Barrier Gauge and, once again, increased damage taken. This is a clever way to ensure tense, action-packed fights, as regardless of play-styles, both fighters will have to have a go or be hit with the penalty.

Also located just underneath your health bar is the tiny, easy-to-miss Burst meter, which builds up with every hit you take. When it glows, you can activate ‘Overdrive’ by hitting all four attack buttons, and this increases your attacking and defensive prowess for a period that’s directly proportionate to how much health you have remaining – the less you have, the more boosts you get. This provides some decent risk/reward dilemmas: Do you opt to use it early and risk the precious time to gain an early advantage, or do you wait until your fate is nearly sealed, and use it to bring your opponent down to your level? The burst meter can also be used for another purpose; when activated at the precise moment you take a hit, you’ll perform a ‘Break Burst’, which halts any attack and knocks your foe for six across the screen, giving you time to recover.

The most traditional of these systems, the Heat Gauge, is situated as you’d expect at the bottom of the screen, and this provides the most devastating attacks of the three. Distortion Drive is the most used, costing only 50% of your Heat Gauge, it offers the sort of big, flashy super move that you’ll have seen in countless other fighting games. More difficult, but ever so satisfying to land, is the Astral Flash. This requires 100% of your Heat Gauge and that you’re on match point, and if you can manage the timing of the lengthy wind-up animation, you’ll be provided with a spectacular instant win.

When all these systems click mentally, BlazBlue: Chronophantasma becomes one hell of an exciting, tactical and brilliantly balanced fighter.

The balance is even more impressive in light of the roster size and its variety. With many notable characters like the hulking, monstrous scientist Iron Tager, who bears more than a passing resemblance to X-Men’s Beast; the Ghibli-styled goo-monster Arakune; bad-ass Ninja Haku-Men; and young Warlock Carl Clover, the 28-strong cast is amazingly diverse both in terms of design and move sets.

While I won’t claim to have played extensively with every character and have mostly used the default Ragna offline during this review as I was learning the ropes again (that’s who the basic tutorials focus on and therefore I was already comfortable using him), working through the characters and finding the ones that suited me best was huge fun. After some dabbling, I eventually settled on gun-toting Noel as my main, whose shock and awe offensive just felt like a better fit for me, and gave me better results when heading online.

Noel quickly became a favourite of mine...

Noel quickly became a favourite of mine.

Just like its predecessors, BlazBlue: Chronophantasma Extend provides a vast amount of modes through which to keep yourself entertained and most of it is stellar, with multiple story modes, various takes on wave and score attack modes and, of course, the classic Arcade and Versus modes.

The Story mode proved a bit of a tough one for me, as the plot, told through a combo of gorgeously animated cut-scenes and charming visual novel sections, is incredibly hard to keep up with if you’re not already fully invested in the lore. With only two notable experiences with the series previously, I really struggled to care despite my best efforts and, by the halfway point, had bailed to focus on the Arcade and Online modes.

Much like with the care taken with the training modes, Arc have tried to give people the tools to learn the story with a mode called ‘Teach me more, Miss Litchi’. This attempts to boil the setting and previous plots down into key points taught to you by the fighters, again in the form of a visual novel, but this time in a cutesy, hand-drawn art style. The problem is that despite good intentions, these lessons never get straight to the point, instead focusing on in-the-moment character banter that a newcomer would have no prior reference to, so again I lost interest pretty damn quickly.

What I did love with this mode, however, was the music. While the rest of the soundtrack switches well between dramatic orchestras, metal, and the downright bizarre, the music for ‘Teach me more, Miss Litchi!’ wouldn’t sound out of place in a Zelda game, with beautifully serene and catchy melodies. For a story mode that relies so heavily on plot and lore, it’s telling that my main takeaway from this was only the music. It’s also much easier to glean the important info from Wikipedia, which explains how self-defeating this aspect is.

Lastly, I should mention that the online component is endlessly enjoyable thanks to the superbly stable netcode. It does, however, come with a weird quirk that I’ve seen in other Arc System Works games: In some match-ups, the pre-match build-up lags and slows to a crawl, as if to indicate that you’re in for a difficult time, yet the second the match starts, the fight itself is always flawless. I’m not sure of the technical reasons behind this, but if the end result is zero lag during a fight, it’s a minor issue worth suffering.

Blaz of Glory?

Thanks to fantastic fight mechanics that are smoother than ever, countless new ways to make newcomers feel welcome, and one of the most stable online components in the genre, BlazBlue: Chronophantasma Extend is a joy to play and very easy to recommend. The multilayered combat means that you’re always finding something new, and for those previously put off by the series’ complexity, there has never been a better set of tools provided in-game with which to learn. It’s all wrapped up in the usual, gorgeous anime aesthetic and is also bolstered by some excellent music.

My only question mark remains the story which, personally, I’ve just never been able to get into and I don’t see that ever changing. It’s easily ignored if you’re just here for the combat, yet if you are here for the story, even partially, then it’s likely is that you’re already well-versed enough to get what you’re looking for. That can hardly be a negative.

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