BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend
April 18, 2012, Author: Andy Corrigan
I’ve started with a similar line a lot in recent reviews, but to carry on the trend I can safely say that I’ve never had much experience with the BlazBlue series before. Well, other than picking it up and looking at it, tempted to buy, before feeling intimidated at the thought of stepping outside my Street Fighter comfort zone and running away like a frightened child.
Still, I believed I’d try it someday, and when the chance came up to review it on Vita, I knew I’d never have a better opportunity. Funnily enough, this is the third and final fighting game from the Vita’s launch that I’ve had to review; but for me, I’ve definitely saved the best for last.
The Wheel of Fate is turning…
Unlike most fighting games, BlazBlue has a heavily convoluted back story, and if I’m entirely honest, I’m still not sure that I fully understand it all. A lot of the plot in Continuum Shift is also assumed knowledge from the previous game, Calamity Trigger, but here is what I’ve been able to determine from a combination of in-game dialogue and Wikipedia…
BlazBlue takes place in a future where science and magic are now one entity known as ‘Ars Magus’, which has proved the most successful weapon during a handful of famous wars. Because of the power of Ars Magus users, The Novus Orbis Librarium (often referred to as ‘the Library’) was formed to help govern its usage amongst the population; however, rebellion by sectors of the public leads to all-out civil war.
One powerful rebel known as Ragna finds himself the target of a huge bounty, having successfully taken down an arm of the Library. The Library are out for blood, and the price on his head draws out all kinds of characters who want to take him in or claim his raw power to their own end. Ragna is laying low, though, waiting for the right time to complete his goal.
While I’ve tried to put that as simply as possible, I can’t really explain all the additional plots and subplots you’ll come across in your time with the game. Not just because of spoilers, but because I’ll be here for weeks.
The downside to such a deep plot is that if you aren’t too keen on story in your fighting games, BlazBlue can prove to be a bit of a slow burner in some modes, thanks to hefty amounts of dialogue and conversation before each fight. It also assumes that you already know everything you need to, so you might find yourself baffled by some of the intricacies of what’s taking place.
At first glance, it might look like every other 1v1 brawler on the market but with an anime-flavoured lick of paint. I can assure you, however, that BlazBlue is one of the most complex fighting games I’ve ever played and… it’s… glorious.
Like in UMvC3, BlazBlue operates primarily using a 3-tier attack system, with buttons for light, medium and heavy attacks. Unlike UMvC3, the subsequent attacks are more robust, you know what attack is going to be produced, and it just feels a lot better for it. As well as the standard trio of attacks, there is also the Drive attack which, if successfully landed, will drain a portion of your opponent’s health and add it to your health bar. You can also use different tricks to navigate the fight area, such as double jumps and dashes to get in and out of conflict pretty quickly.
As in any fighting game, mixing up your attacks (both standard and special) and landing combos is a must, and doing so here with all four basic attacks is paramount. There is one very important element to remember, however, and that is as follows: the longer the combo, the less damage you’ll do. Obviously, this goes some way in giving opponents the chance to regain some ground during the fight. It’s simple balancing, but it’s also subtle and effective.
As you fight naturally and successfully, you’ll fill your ‘Heat Gauge’, which is depleted again when using the more advanced attacks and techniques. These include things like attack cancels, counters and the “Break burst”, which can only be used twice in a match, but will help put some distance between you and your foe.
The most dramatic usages of the Heat system comes in the form of the Distortion Drive and Astral Heat attacks. The former is essentially BlazBlue’s Ultra Combo, and requires half a Heat gauge to deal massive damage. Even more impressive is the Astral Heat, which requires you to be in the match-winning round with 100% Heat and your opponent on less than 35% health, before you can unleash a brutal one-hit kill.
Of course, it’s not all just about the offensive game; defensively you have two blocks at your disposal. The standard block is almost exactly as you’d expect, pulling back at the right angle to deflect an attack; however, its use can be limited depending on what your opponent does. Certain types of special moves have the ability to break your block, but you get a character-defined number of resistances (indicated by the gems just below the health bar) before you’ll be paralysed temporarily and open to attack. These gems do replenish over time, though.
The second block is the ‘Barrier Block’, which requires you to hold down two attack buttons while you perform the blocking motion. This block is impenetrable, but the timeframe for usage is limited as per the Barrier Gauge; again, situated underneath the health bars.
All that might make it seem that BlazBlue could be a daunting ask for even the most seasoned fighter, let alone a newcomer, but fear not. It comes packed with one of the most comprehensive tutorials I’ve seen in any game, let alone a fighting game. It makes sure to take you through the finest, miniscule detail, even going to the lengths of guiding you through the most basic motions of walking forwards, backwards and jumping, long before it lets you loose on the more complicated elements. It’s so in-depth that it’ll almost feel like a slog to get through it, but when you play the game properly, you’ll be glad you set the time aside.
It won’t guarantee to make you a master, but Arc System Works have endeavoured to leave you the best prepared you can be, before throwing you to the wolves in the proper modes… and modes it has in abundance.
Aside from the plot-heavy Arcade and Story modes (in Story, the emphasis really is on story), there are numerous other game modes to keep you busy. Score Attack has you fighting through as many enemies as you can beat before losing, with the ultimate goal trying to bag (you guessed it) the highest possible score. Unlimited Mars is a variation of this, only against almost unbeatable opponents, and this really is not for the faint of heart or the easily frustrated (AKA me).
Challenge mode is very similar to the Mission Mode found in UMvC3. Each character has 15 missions to achieve, and while these start off pretty easy in having you perform standard special moves, they swiftly up the difficultly, tackling some of the hardest combos the game has to offer. The beauty of this mode is that without realising it you’re actually practicing, and outside of the tutorial or training modes, this is the best place to get a good feel for each character on the roster.
Last up is Abyss, and this is pretty much the closest thing you’ll get to a ‘Horde mode’ on a fighting game. You take part in single-round fights against a set number of enemies, which of course increase in difficulty and number with each new wave. It also throws some light RPG dynamics into the mix too, allowing you to spend earned points on improving your attacks/defence stats or collecting helpful items from fallen combatants. It’s very nicely put together and very much worth spending some time with.
Studio Ghibli, anyone?
BlazBlue is a spectacularly good-looking game, where its anime inspirations are clear from the moment the action-packed intro fires up. It looks great in gameplay too, with excellent visual design apparent at every single turn. A huge part of what makes it look so good is simply in its original character design which, quite honestly, is unmatched in terms of originality and diversity in this field. The level of detail gone into animating each fighter is really quite a marvel. While they don’t move quite as smoothly as fighting games using 3D models, the combatants look fresh, vibrant, and never flat, despite technically being… well, flat. Ahem…
To top it off, the backgrounds manage to put UMvC3’s static Vita showing to shame. Each stage is part 3D model, part 2D anime design, and at times it feels like they have a million working features. This really does bring the game to life in a way I’ve never seen before in a fighting game, and it never once affects performance.
Singing the blues…
BlazBlue also has an intensely up-tempo soundtrack, mixing dramatic sweeps with the occasional bout of J-pop or metal. I don’t think for a second that Arc System Works could have done a better job at finding fitting themes.
What surprised me most, however, was the sheer amount of dialogue; especially when you tackle the Arcade or Story modes. Each character is individually voiced, making countless references to their own back story throughout, and it’s even more in-depth when you encounter a character from their own storyline. It’s mostly well-acted too, if sometimes schizophrenically switching between shades of overly melodramatic and feeling a bit phoned-in. It’s in the way that’s typical of games run through the Japanese-English translation machine, though, so it’s to be expected.
Continuum Shift comes packed with a limited-but-decently implemented online mode. Unfortunately it’s a little quiet, and a large part of that is probably down to the game’s complexity. From very early on it looks like there’s a very small, dedicated online community, so this also means that most users are seasoned players, making it a challenging prospect as a newcomer.
You have two options: Ranked and Player matches. Ranked matches are basic 1v1 affairs using a simple matchmaking system. Unfortunately, I did struggle to find fights here in the night I was testing it, with the game often leaving me waiting for long periods with no sign of making a connection. A cool feature, though, is that you can play single-player fights or do some training while you wait for the game to find you a suitable opponent.
Player matches see you jump into lobbies as either a player or a spectator, where you play the other people in that room. This seems to be buzzing a little more with players, but I still had the occasional connection issue and lag too, even when just watching.
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect when coming into this game, but I walk away confidently able to say that BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend is one of the best fighting games I have ever played in my lifetime.
Pitch perfect balancing, unrivalled depth and a great flow of combat help to put the game well ahead of most of its immediate competition. Full to the brim with original characters and content, even if you manage the almost-impossible ask of mastering everyone on the roster, there’s still a ton of hours to be sunk into this wonderful little brawler over its many modes.
Its only real weakness is that online it remains something of a niche title thanks to its complexity, but the developers can’t be blamed for that; they’ve made a great game regardless. Thankfully, there’s enough content and challenge to keep you going for weeks offline, and it’s not often I’ve been able to say that about fighting games.
Importantly for this review, BlazBlue feels instantly at home on Sony’s new handheld. Arc System Works deserve nothing but praise for bringing such a complete package to Vita with this degree of confidence and quality.