THE WHEEL OF FATE HAS NOT STOPPED YET
BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma, the third major entry in the BlazBlue series, has finally arrived on the PlayStation Vita. This latest release brings with it new characters, new mechanics, and of course a new chapter in the notoriously complicated story of Ragna the Bloodedge. But do these new additions live up to the well-respected BlazBlue name?
If you’re familiar with the BlazBlue plot up to this point (an achievement in itself!), or are interested only in the fighting and not the lore (which is understandable; the story is convoluted even by the standards of Japanese fighting games), feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs. For the rest of you: The BlazBlue games are set hundreds of years in the future, in a world that has been rebuilt after the devastating rampage of a monster known as the Black Beast. The monster has long since been defeated by the Six Heroes, who invented and wielded a fusion of magic and technology called “ars magus” to destroy it. In its death throes, however, the Beast’s body broke apart and exploded, covering the earth in a mysterious ethereal substance known as “seithr”. This was a bit of a lucky break for humanity: the ars magus were fueled by seithr, so all of a sudden a widely abundant source of energy had appeared. The ars magus, regulated by an organization called the Novus Orbis Librarium, would thus become the technology upon which society would rebuild itself. As you might expect from a large-scale organization with a monopoly on the very foundation of civilization, the NOL’s rule began to cross into the tyrannical side. Further, the introduction of ars magus only served to widen the socioeconomic gap, leading to societal unrest. This caused a rebel group called Sector Seven to rise up in an attempt to bring down the NOL, and the two groups have been in constant conflict since their inception. In the middle of this all is a wandering criminal known as Ragna the Bloodedge, who has had a world-record bounty on his head because he single-handedly brought down an entire branch of the NOL.
The plot of Chrono Phantasma follows directly from the previous game, Continuum Shift. At the beginning of the story, the characters find themselves in a calm before the storm. Ragna has been hit with the realization that the maniacal imperator of the NOL is his sister, whom he thought was dead. (Also, he’s lost the ability to use one of his arms, which isn’t helping his short temper.) Along with the wannabe-vigilante catgirl Taokaka, he’s wandering in search of answers to a mysterious conspiracy between his sister and his arch-enemy, Terumi. The NOL is sitting pretty, having poached scientist Litchi Faye-Ling from Sector Seven. The NOL higher-ups have begun to put their master plan in motion, while the ground forces continue the manhunt for Ragna. Sector Seven is cooking up a new, grander scheme, leveraging their stockpile of weapons and attempting to make inroads into the hierarchy of the NOL. A number of powerful warriors have begun to make their way to the city of Ikaruga, including Jin and Noel, who are attempting to save their dear friend Tsubaki Yayoi from a mind-control curse set upon her by the evil mastermind Terumi. Hovering over the lull is the threat caused by the god-like Master Unit and the omniscient Takamagahara System council; the continuing conflict between them is causing extensive damage to the space-time continuum, collapsing realities on top of each other. Naturally, all these developments don’t stay isolated for long; it’s not long before influential people begin meeting in Ikaruga, and they aren’t exactly on friendly terms.
The story is told through a series of visual novel segments, accompanied by complete English voice acting. In a departure from the previous games (and indeed, the standards of the fighting genre itself), you don’t pick an individual character and experience the story through their eyes; rather, there’s one coherent storyline and, when a fight breaks out, you play as whoever happens to be the subject of the story at that moment. Thus, instead of 24 different timelines, you only have three: the main story and two backstories that follow Sector Seven and the Six Heroes. This results in a story that’s comparatively easier to digest because you don’t have to sync up each character’s timeline in your head as you play through them. The downside is that it’s a bit tougher to get used to the game via the storyline, as you keep switching characters and you’ll often be thrown into a battle as a character you have no idea how to use.
As for the plot, I found it to be hit-or-miss. Full disclosure: this game was my first BlazBlue title. That said, I didn’t have much trouble establishing what was going on, thanks to some charmingly-written comedy segments that go over the setting and backstory of the game. More often than not, I was engaged and interested in what was going on; in particular, the intrigue surrounding Sector Seven was well thought-out and satisfyingly layered. The biggest problem with the story is that there’s very little payoff at the end. Obviously, I can’t spoil what happens here, but near the end, all of the more interesting plot threads are hurriedly tied up in order to give the blander, more routine side of the conflict all of the screentime. This is especially noticeable given that you spend a lot more time reading than fighting. Given the amount of time you have to spend to get through the story mode, I was left really disappointed at the almost complete lack of a climax.
Whether or not the story is compelling, the game looks and sounds amazing the entire time. All returning characters are sporting freshly redrawn sprites and rearranged music themes; the new characters’ art and music fit right in with the established cast. I think I can say that this game features some of the best sprite work I’ve ever seen in a game; the characters look completely fluid in motion, and they pop nicely from the 3D backgrounds. The orchestral-rock soundtrack is suitably high-energy, and a number of character themes got stuck in my head well after putting down the Vita. There isn’t a single boring track to be heard. The voice acting is well done overall; while I found a couple of characters a little annoying (Taokaka comes to mind immediately), it’s completely bearable, especially because those characters don’t get much screen time.
Of course, the best-looking fighting game in the world is meaningless if it doesn’t have the mechanics to back it up. Thankfully, Chrono Phantasma brings quality gameplay in spades. It seems pretty simple at first; there are three normal attack buttons and a Drive button for special techniques. You can block attacks with a standard block or a stronger-but-limited Barrier Block. Each side has a Heat meter that builds up when damage is dealt or received, which can be expended to use special techniques. Beat down the enemy’s life bar first, and you win. Easy, right? Well, it would be, if that was really all there is to it.
There are a lot of supplemental systems in play here. Is your opponent blocking everything you throw at them? Spend a quarter of your Heat meter on a Crush Trigger, which will stagger guarding opponents or rapidly deplete their barrier. Caught in an opponent’s combo? Escape with a Break Burst, which will knock the opponent back. This ability takes a while to recharge, so you can’t rely on it. Need more offense? Gold Break Bursts from the previous game have been replaced with a new Overdrive mechanic; this allows you to put your character into a temporary powered-up state. Overdrives share a cooldown timer with the Break Burst, so you’re sacrificing considerable defensive ability to do this; however, the less life you have, the longer this lasts, so you can use it to turn the tables. Each character has access to a unique instant-kill technique called Astral Heat; while these moves will immediately end the round, they cost the entire Heat meter, and can only be used if the opponent’s life is in the red and you’re one round away from winning the match. Successfully pulling one off is supremely satisfying, however, and the flashy animations that accompany them are always fantastic to watch.
This might seem like a lot to keep track of, which makes sense because it is. And on top of that, each character is unique to an almost ridiculous degree; many of them even bring their own systems and gauges to the battle, such as the character Bang, who must keep track of the number of projectiles he has remaining and “collect” seals in order to unleash his strongest attacks. There’s also the newcomer, Bullet, who can only use certain techniques upon entering a super-angry “heated up” state. Given how fast-paced and offense-focused the combat can be, it is a lot of fun to play and watch but is also a lot to wrap your head around. Thankfully, the game does an admirable job of helping you to ease into the combat. Tutorials, strategy discussions, and combo challenges are all present and very helpful when learning the game or a new character. Battles in story mode are generally pretty easy, and serve to acclimate you to the game’s various systems. And of course, if you just want to practice combos, a full-featured Training mode is there, as always. By the time I was done with the story and moving on to the other single-player modes, I felt sufficiently prepared to do well against the tougher CPU players. If you find yourself stuck, this game introduces a new “Stylish Mode” option that greatly simplifies the controls, allowing you to pull off flashy combos by just mashing buttons. This greatly limits your strategic options, so it’s a bad idea to rely on it if you want to get good at the game. However, if you just want to enjoy the story or are having a hard time figuring out the mechanics, Stylish Mode is there for you.
Speaking of the other single-player modes, there are a good number of them. The staple Fighter-modes, Versus and Arcade, are present, the latter of which features a highly-abbreviated version of the story as seen in the Japanese arcade release. Beyond this, a tricky Score Attack mode will challenge you to fight in the most stylish manner possible to rack up bonus points; additionally, a boss-rush Unlimited Mars mode will put you through a gauntlet of toughened-up opponents set to a very high CPU level.
My favorite mode, however, is called Abyss. This mode presents you with several “dungeons” of various sizes and difficulties to fight through. Each dungeon is just an endless stream of enemies to fight, and you advance by landing hits on your opponent. At regular intervals, you’ll be interrupted by a difficult boss fight; and if you defeat all the bosses, you win! What makes the mode special is that, after every boss, you’re given a choice of four rewards to apply to your character. These might increase your score, replenish your health, or, most interestingly, increase your character’s stats. You can also find equippable abilities to further enhance your fighter. These upgrades are all permanent (within Abyss mode, of course), lending an addictive sense of character progression that I’ve never seen before in a fighting game. I can see myself sinking a lot of time into Abyss mode alone. There is another, unlockable mode that I won’t spoil, but it’s an interesting test of both your maneuverability and damage output for each character.
Being a fighting game, multiplayer is very important; the game features local ad-hoc multiplayer and online play with friends and strangers. (Unfortunately, there is no crossplay between the PS3 and Vita versions, which is a little disappointing.) My internet connection at home isn’t fantastic, but online matches still ran quite smoothly with very minimal lag; I think this might be the smoothest online experience I’ve had with a handheld fighting game, which is important given the frantic pace of this title. You can either play ranked matches with random strangers, or play unranked matches using a lobby system. Lobbies can be either rotation (“winner stays” or “loser stays”) or free-for-all, which can have multiple matches going at the same time as long as enough participants are able to fight. You can also create “training rooms” for practice with others or “replay theaters” to show off your recorded matches, which are fun additions, especially if you have friends playing the game as well. If you’re having trouble finding a match, you can submit an “entry” for a ranked match and then go play single-player while you wait. When another player is available to fight, you’ll be notified and given the option to interrupt your single-player game in order to fight the online opponent. This has been done before, of course, but it’s a great feature to have all the same, and reduces the amount of downtime you experience while playing online. My overall experience with online has been highly positive from what I played, which is always a good sign for a fighting game.
The Verdict: 8.6 out of 10
Despite a somewhat disappointing (and lengthy) story, BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma delivers strongly in just about every other area. The fighting game fundamentals are all here and expertly executed, the characters are all wonderfully unique, and the new Stylish Mode makes it simple to ease into this unusually deep fighter. It manages to be highly technical without being difficult to play on a basic level, which is a recipe for success. A fantastic presentation and well-implemented online functionality round out this excellent package. If you’ve ever enjoyed a 2D fighter, this is one you should not miss.
For more information about what the score means, check out MONG’s official review scale.
The reviewer spent 20-25 hours with the Vita version of the game over the course of a week after receiving a review copy of the title.
Aaron Dobbe is an editor at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.