Over the past decade, 2D fighters have grown in popularity and diversity, with numerous new franchises giving Street Fighter a run for its money. Veteran game studio Arc System Works have been a major part of this revolution, first with Guilty Gear series and most recently their work in Persona 4 Arena. In between these two successful franchises they created BlazBlue, an anime-infuzed 2D fighter with enough weird characters to satiate the most rabid otaku.
Last year’s release of BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma was the third major installment in the series, bringing with it further refinements and new additions to the roster. BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma EXTEND is the current-gen port, adding two more characters than the previous release and touched-up visuals. For fans of the series, let’s face it, you already bought it. But for newcomers who are looking at this game with a puzzled look, it is a hefty yet manageable undertaking.
Drowning in Content
Out the gate, players are accosted with a lot of content, ranging from story-centric to the traditional combat trappings. BlazBlue features a [relatively] simple combo system consisting of light, medium, heavy, and drive attacks. The latter, drive, are special attacks unique to each character. For example, the character Ragna can drain health from his opponent whenever he uses drive attacks; alternatively, the character Hellsing can transform from a humanoid to a wolf. When combined with the visual and physical differences, drive attacks further diversify BlazBlue’s broad cast of characters.
Blocking in BlazBlue is more complex than your average fighter. While pressing away from your enemy (left, right, down-left, down-right) while enable a basic block, a barrier block provides exceptional protection. Whereas a normal, run of the mill block can be broken with a guard crush attach, barrier blocks have their own energy bar that is drained over prolonged use or broken with barrier breaker ability. Once a barrier breaks, players will take a lot more damage until the barrier is restored. This adds another layer of strategy for players to consider, beyond filling a special meter or finding that one attack your opponent has trouble reading.
With the complexities and difference from other franchises, BlazBlue utilizes a few gameplay functions to bring newcomers up to speed (as well as keeping veterans refreshed). Players can select Stylish mode when choosing a character which removes the focus on learning combos altogether. Instead, the game become a pure button masher, enabling different strings of combos simply by pressing Light, Medium, Heavy, or Drive buttons repeatedly. This can be helpful for those that simply want to burn through the game at light speed or if friends want to play a fighting game without that much effort. I found Stylish mode to be rather boring, at best, and frustrating, at worst. Casual players can easily destroy a novice, and aside from being able to visually perform a lot of fancy moves, you can’t really learn much from it (aside from how much your friends suck for abusing it). Button masher modes have been more enjoyable and balanced in the past, even from Persona 4 Arena, but I can’t back the value of it in BlazBlue.
Assuming you’re coming to a fighting game for the gameplay, there is also a fairly comprehensive training mode that teaches players the basics for each character. For those brave enough to dive in deeper, there are numerous combo challenges that require understanding of each character, timing, and a lot of dedication. Thankfully, the combo challenges also feature a demonstration with audio cues, with light, medium, heavy, and drive featuring their own tone when pressed. This is a great way to help learn more complex moves, even for a few minutes.
A Storied History
With an inexplicably nonsensical title like BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma EXTEND, one would expect the game to be deeply-rooted in its own universe. Frankly, you’d be dead-on about that base assumption. Apart from unnecessary jargon changes (i.e. “Round 1” is now “Rebel 1”), the story in the BlazBlue series is now three games deep. This translates to three games worth of convoluted Japanese storytelling. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of absorbing a new universe, loose threads and all, but it is also a difficult pill to swallow.
To ease the transition for new players to the series, there is a long story recap section. Chibi characters explain all the ins and outs of the franchise with a fair bit of slapstick humor for good taste. Be warned, you’ll have a LOT of catching up to do. The interchange between the super-deformed characters helps lighten things up (poking fun at the series at times) but be prepared for some long tales.
Once you feel brave enough to tackle the story mode, be aware that there is a lot of downtime between combat. With numerous story branches to explore, BlazBlue gives plenty of time to each character in the game. With all of the main stories from the entire series, side stories, and off-shoot tales stuffed into BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma EXTEND, it might hard to remember that it is a fighting game. For as many cutscenes and backstories you’ll find, there is an equal amount of gameplay. Story mode might lack action, but the rest of the game makes up for it.
Arcade mode gives you exactly what you’d expect; a no-frills single player experience that fighting game fans have come to expect. V.S. Mode, another genre staple, also appears, giving you and your friends a chance to battle locally. If, by chance, you have no friends, then you can play against the computer in a series of one-off matches. Abyss Mode lets players fight consecutive waves of NPCs, all the while collecting new stat boosts and perks along the way. It is surprisingly deep and can be a great way to learn a character without the harsh curve of playing them outright online. Score Attack is also available for the traditional high-score chasers which will be filled with impossible scores to beat by the end of this sentence.
Rounding out the last of the single-player offering is Unlimited Mars Mode. The mode boasts an extremely intelligent AI to fight against, acting as the ultra hardcore Score Attack mode. Having suffered through a few attempts, I can tell you that any newcomer should avoid this at all costs, lest ye suffer the urge to smash your controller. Even with Stylish mode in play, the AI will likely juggle you into brutal combos with little hope of turning the match around. There is no better trial by fire than this.
As for the truly competitive types, Network Mode is your one-stop-shop for online play. Along with Ranked and Unranked match play, there is an online lobby system to muck about in for hours on end. There you can walk around as your own chibi avatar in customizable rooms of all shapes and sizes, finding new opponents to play against or new friends to chat with. Online play has been very smooth so far, although I played the game pre-release so your mileage may vary.
BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma EXTEND is, unabashedly, a fighting game for committed gamers. Compared to the modern Street Fighter game, BlazBlue will feel slow to move and features characters with limited reach. With time, even a beginner can begin to learn the nuances of a single character, whereas mainstream fighters are more intuitive and user friendly. Patience is rewards through countless unlockables (old stages, avatars, etc.) and dedication will net players a better understanding of an absurdly-deep fighting game. Without a doubt, this game is for serious fighting game fans or people with enough resolve to uncover the nuances of the series. While the music and VO will never blow you away, nor will the story turn heads, the core gameplay runs superbly on PlayStation 4.
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