Sunday, 9 February 2014

Review: BlazBlue: Chronophantasma

BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma
Platform: PS3
Price: ¥6,800 (£40.50 at time of writing)
Release Date:   Japan: Out Now
                        USA: March 25 2014
                        Europe: TBD


It’s an odd situation I find myself in, reviewing Blazblue: Chronophantasma, as when reviewing any product reviewers will either offer a recommendation or discouragement of course. Here, with BlazBlue: Chronophantasma (hereafter referred to just as Chronophantasma), there are two potential audiences who might read this review: people who have never played any entry in the BlazBlue franchise or are otherwise not invested for perfectly valid reasons, and those who are veterans of the series who are already playing this latest iteration and therefore will find this review to be defunct, so in either case this review is probably sort of pointless. You could probably apply this to any number of games currently available only in Japan, but at the suggestion of Andrew as I myself have a digital copy of Chronophantasma, groups and redundancy be damned, let’s have a look at the game itself and see how it fares.

BlazBlue, for those who are unfamiliar, is a 2D fighting game franchise created by Arc System Works as a spiritual successor of sorts to their long running and well regarded Guilty Gear series. It’s plot, in so far as fighting games have plot, is set in the not too distant future (but sadly not way down in Deep 13) and centres around the SS class criminal Ragna the Bloodedge and his quest to destroy an evil organisation known as the Novus Orbus Librarium, or at least select figures within that cabal such as the god of trolls Yuuki Terumi, this series’ Joker to Ragna’s Batman.

If you’re a newcomer to the series then, even disregarding the inherent language issues surrounding importing Chronophantasma either digitally or physically as it will be almost completely in Japanese, you won’t find this instalment welcoming to new players in so far as understanding the context. The story at this point, set in Ikaruga (the fictional country, not the game), assumes you have played at least BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend. Unlike that entry in the series, which had a recap of the events of BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, this one makes no provisions for people freshly arriving to the franchise. In some ways this is to be expected, but a catch up might have been nice for newcomers.
Then again, this is a fighting game, not an RPG, so onto the meat of things: the fights. Chronophantasma is, like all of Arc System Works previous games, a fast paced fluid 2D fighter with plenty of style and eye candy, as well as a fairly technical and in depth fighting system. Players coming from other fighters such as Super Street Fighter IV may find the system mechanics and pace of the game take some time getting used to but it is a rewarding fighter to play once you’ve invested some time into it. The game does feature a comprehensive tutorial mode as well as individual character challenges to teach you basic and intermediate combos, but apart from a time investment becoming truly skilled at Chronophantasma will require online research into frame data, videos of high level Japanese play, character specific matchups and the like. The game will give you the basic tools to get started but will not carry you through to the upper echelons. Much like with the plot, this is somewhat to be expected, but it would have been nice to have it contained within the game proper.

The mechanics of the game have not changed drastically although some significant changes have been made to shake things up a bit. Guard Primers, a defensive system from Continuum Shift onwards, have been ditched in favour of Crush Triggers, a move that each character possesses which costs 25% meter and when not Barrier Blocked will cause Guard Crush, opening the victim up for a combo. Crush Triggers also have their use in combos as damage boosters and compliment some characters’ play styles really well, such as Arakune. Bursts now also regenerate much like in Guilty Gear, but the old Gold Burst mechanic has been replaced with Overdrive, a system install for each character that enhances their supers and drive moves as well as making the opponent unable to burst mid-combo while active. Some character’s supers such as Ragna’s Blood Kain have been merged into the Overdrive mechanic as a result, and Overdrive combos are especially flashy and brutal if executed properly. Lastly, hitstop has been reduced across the board, which in layman’s terms makes fights feel much more fluid and fast paced, alleviating a complaint heard a few times about previous iterations of Blazblue, particularly from long time Guilty Gear players used to a more fast paced style of play.
The roster for Chronophantasma has now been expanded to twenty six characters, with seven newcomers in total, a decent amount for a new iteration in a fighting game franchise. These new challengers include Amane Nishiki, a fabulous disciple of Lord Tenjo who seeks to add Carl Clover to his troupe, Bullet, a mercenary who specialises in hitting people and weapon grade fanservice, Azrael, a man who punches people so hard they see the curvature of the earth, Izayoi, who is Tsubaki Yayoi having unlocked the potential of her namesake weapon and at the time of writing is hilariously weaker competitively than her regular counterpart, Yuuki Terumi, who is Hazama but without the sweet hat, Kagura Mutsuki, pimp mac daddy and Monty Python alumni as the Black Knight, and lastly long-time fan favourite and game balance destroying science queen Kokonoe. Terumi, Kagura and Kokonoe have various locks on them before they can be played, but otherwise the rest of the new characters are ready to play from the get-go.
All of the new characters feel fresh and unique. Amane specialises in chip damage, Azrael hits like a run-away eighteen wheeler, Bullet has a neat kind of command grab play style, Terumi specialises in building special meter ridiculously quickly, Izayoi is sort of like Hakumen mixed with a bit of Rachel, Kagura is the first charge character in BB thusfar and Kokonoe can control spacing effectively with her gravity move. They’re all welcome additions to the roster and I can personally vouch for how fun Azrael is to play. However, beyond Kagura (discounting Terumi, Izayoi and Kokonoe as they have appeared in previous instalments in varying capacities) the impact of the new characters is minimal, with Bullet’s story arc of trying to find her former commander going nowhere, Amane appearing as a cameo at best and Azrael only serving as a bump in the road who is beaten in a rather silly fashion.

It’s with some irony then that, as you might expect, Chronophantasma iterates on the balance of the various characters once again, adding new moves to all of them and changing things up, but where this irony comes in is that the balance remains broadly unchanged from Continuum Shift Extend. Top tier characters from that game still remain firmly in the upper ranks and the only real big movers are characters swapping from A to B rank and vice versa. Of all the new characters, only Azrael and Kokonoe sit in the competitive A and S tiers respectively, with the others being relatively weak as a result. That shouldn’t deter you from picking a character you like to play, but broadly speaking things are much the same as before. Valkenhayn, Taokaka and Litchi to name a few still sit comfortably in the S tier bracket and remain very strong characters.
Aesthetically you won’t find much that is drastically new in Chronophantasma either when compared to Continuum Shift Extend. The graphic quality remains the same for the sprites, which is to say it’s still really good for a 2D fighter. There are numerous new stages including the notorious Snowtown which is the bane of many an online match for causing additional latency, all of them as well done as the previous ones. Perhaps the highlight is the new music tracks however. For my money, Blazblue has always had a great soundtrack, and Chronophantasma features remixes of all of the previous themes from the earlier instalments and new tracks for the various new characters and certain character specific matchups, ranging from hard rock to metal to even classically inspired violin tunes. Some of the new remixes aren’t as good as the originals in my opinion, but overall the music remains one of the stand out features of Blazblue.
Online play is better serviced in Chronophantasma, featuring your usual one on one, team matches, multi match rooms and the like. An online training mode has also now been added, and ranked play now features a Dan system as well as Player Skill Ranking. But perhaps the coolest new feature is the presence of persistent online lobbies, almost like dedicated servers after a fashion, where players can move around between arcade cabinets to join matches with people they might otherwise never meet. In this persistent arcade lobby players take on an almost 8 bit style sprite of a character of their choosing and can customise it with items like hats. If that sounds a lot like Team Fortress II then you’d not be wrong, as ArcSys occasionally host seasonal events to offer free hats and the like for your arcade character, which is a cute touch. Overall the new arcade lobbies are a breath of fresh air and are a good way for you to just jump in and play some matches with people. However, the game’s netcode seems iffy in areas, and I’ve seen unfavourable comparisons to Persona 4: Arena which seemed to be fare better online with less lag, even though ArcSys also developed that title as well. For an optimal online experience you will want to seek players with 3+ bar connections, but even then there can be the occasional lag spikes such as one instance where my game froze for almost a solid second.

Outside of the online arena Chronophantasma offers a solid plethora of single player and offline options. Arcade, Versus, Score Attack, Challenge, Unlimited Mars and the pseudo RPG Abyss mode make returns. Story mode is also featured, and departs from the previous character specific plotlines to focus on specific factions within the Blazblue universe. I haven’t played through all of Story Mode, but I can speak of one specific moment I did see where Kagura hits on Noel, and her friend Makoto decides to intervene… by throwing off her jacket and attacking him while wearing her stripperific underboob sporting uniform. Given Kagura is a bit of a pervert, this is like trying to fight off a starving lion with a whip made of sausages, and you can take this pretty much as a solid example of what the writing quality is like for the story, which also features a heavy slew of technobabble and obscure, confusing plot points. Given Chronophantasma also now features a Mass Effect style codex this is hardly encouraging, but of course your enjoyment of the story mode will vary depending on your personal taste. For my part I continue to find it a bit too juvenile and occasionally moronic for my liking although there are some occasional good moments to be savoured. Completing Story Mode unlocks Kagura for play (who can also be unlocked with a paid for pass if you wish) and a secret single player mode that I wouldn’t dare spoil but I imagine will be very appealing to fans of a certain single player boss from Marvel versus Capcom II. Lastly, there’s also a ton of unlockable artwork in the Gallery mode too.
Chronophantasma is currently only available in Japan and can be imported or downloaded from the Japanese PSN store, although it is also due for release in the US in March 2014. A PS Vita version is also on the cards with, of all things, beach events to be added. You may want to wait for the US release (which hopefully won’t be region locked) if you’re new to Blazblue, but otherwise if you fancy diving into it now with the Japanese digital version you can find detailed instructions on how to import it digitally on Dustloop, which also features guides and frame data for the various characters.

Returning to what I said at the beginning of this review, I wonder if offering a final verdict would be prudent. As I said before, people interested in Blazblue have likely already picked up the Japanese version either digitally or physically and I can’t really recommend it to newcomers due to the Japanese only text and voices. But with an English language version pending in the US and the possibility of a region free release, I suppose I can summarise for people on the outside looking in that almost across the board, Chronophantasma is good, but it is not a product that welcomes new players or those otherwise not versed in the very anime style of storytelling it offers. With that, I suppose I can offer a cautious recommendation and a suggestion that you might want to try one of the earlier iterations if you can pick it up cheaply, as that will stand you in good stead for the plot and many of the gameplay mechanics. Overall, it’s better than Extend, but Chronophantasma still could (and should) aspire for greater things. 

-       - Shadon1010 once did over 9000 damage in a single Overdrive combo. Neighbours complained of him yelling triumphantly in a horrible English dub for ten minutes straight.

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