Review: BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend
Once upon a time single player was a primary feature in fighting games. It was the time in which legendary developers like SNK or Capcom tailored complex and interesting storylines as the focal point of games like King of Fighters, Samurai Showdown, Rival Schools or Tech Romancer. Back then, even if being bashed to oblivion by hyper-technical opponents that could pull three different combos in the same time you took to perform one wasn’t your favorite idea of fun, you could still purchase a fighting game and feel happy about it.
The BlazBlue series brings us back to that time, with a storyline as complex and interesting as they come. It lets you play what’s basically a full fledged anime series driven by the duels between the protagonists and bringing back a worthwile single player feature suite in a genre that, for the most part, simply dropped single player on the back seat.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first and foremost. A large part of the content in BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend comes directly from the previous games of the series. Arc System Works took the usual evolutionary approach so popular between fighting game developers and published what’s mostly a further iteration of an already released game, adding characters, events and modes, and topping everything with a through and very welcome round of polish and balancing.
Whether this is worth a whole new game is for you to decide. Personally iterations of the BlazBlue series are far enough and evolve more than what’s needed to warrant a new release, but your mileage may vary.
Now that we beat that dead horse into oblivion, we can move to the review proper: the first thing that you will notice are obviously the visuals. This review is mostly about the PS Vita version, as it’s the one I played more extensively, but it makes little difference, as it looks almost exactly like the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.
That’s pretty much the most flattering thing I can say about a portable game. In a transitional period so near to launch and so full of cheap ports of iOS games and releases that sport graphics that could probably run on a PSP, BlazBlue is one of the entries in the PS Vita line-up that make the console’s graphical power truly shine.
Sprites are extremely clean and well designed, almost completely free of aliasing. Animation is fluid and lightning fast, and environments are lush and dense. Add to that a fantastic anime-style art direction and some absolutely lovely animated cutscenes (the opening is animated by the award winning studio Production I.G, and it shows), and you’ll see why it’s very easy to fall in love with the visuals of BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend.
To put it down simply, it’s a gorgeous game that really showcases what the PS Vita can do, while the console returns the favor with its bright and crisp OLED display, that has the same effect on BlazBlue as a flattering dress that makes an already beautiful lady look even more charming.
Audio is as rich as the visuals. Not only the soundtrack is downright fantastic, sporting great variety and execution, but every line in the story modes is voice acted both in Japanese and in English. This grants a very welcome choice between the masterful original voice overs and a rather competent (but easier to understand) western counterparts.
The true test of a fighting game is, of course, the gameplay, and BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend delivers in spades. Variety and technical complexity are the two pillars that support the game, and they do so without missing a single beat.
Basic gameplay finds its foundations on lightning fast and long series of combos and cancels (ways to waive the recovery period after an attack in order to tie multiple strikes into a longer combo, for those that are less accustomed to fighting games), but on top of those Arc System Works built an extensive web of counters, deadly counters, bursts, multiple ways to defend and recover and Astral Heats that will probably boggle the mind of the average beginner.
The BlazBlue series is built from the ground up for technical players, and gives them plenty of tools to create their own personalized fighting style and strategies among endless possible combinations.
Variety is further enabled by the fact that almost all of the 19 available fighters are quite unique not only in their looks but also in their fighting style and move sets. Mastering one character is enough of a challenge for the average gamer. If you want to master all all of them, I seriously wish you luck with all my heart, because I personally couldn’t get even near to achieve that. There simply isn’t enough space in my brain.
Even more variety comes packed with several single player modes that go from the most extensive (and at times frustrating, considering how demanding it can be, skill-wise) tutorial I ever seen to the story mode, passing by the new UnlimitedMars mode, that pitches the player against a pre-determined series of extremely difficult AI opponents.
When I first heard about the UnlimitedMars mode and its promise to deliver an experience similar to the one provided by a human opponent I shrugged. We heard that promise may times before, and it never happened. After trying the mode (and after being humiliated by it quite a few times) I can tell that while the comparison with human players isn’t fully appropriate, the experience is fast and unpredictable enough to get nearer than ever before.
My personal favorite remains the Abyss mode, first introduced in Continuum Shift II for PSP and 3DS but now made much more accessible by the implementation of the ability to save your progress at the end of every match.
Abyss prompts the player to descend through 999 levels, defeating opponent after opponent and gaining strength through a series of RPG-like enhancements and special abilities. After each fight energy gets restored by a bit, forcing you to strategize and try to save every little bit of your bar you can, balancing risk and rewards.
It’s fun and extremely addictive, inspiring that subtle “just one more match!” temptation that is always hard to resist.
Fans of the story won’t be left disappointed by both the arcade mode and the story mode proper, that is expanded from Continuum Shift II with the addition of a specific story modes for Relius, Valkenhayn, Makoto and Platinum and a condensed version of the story of Calamity Trigger.
All those modes and content together create the most extensive, complex and complete single player experience I’ve seen in the BlazBlue series and among fighting games in general.
Ad-hoc and online multiplayer are both present, but lobbies (that can support between two and six players) are a little underfeatured. You can select a few options like the number of rounds and their duration, allow or disallow infinite characters and label the lobby for beginners or expert players (that, given the difficulty of the game, can be very useful), but for some reason you cannot disallow the Stylish control mode, a detail that will probably ruffle more than some feathers between the veterans of the franchise.
That said, the netcode is quite impressive, and the online matches I experienced were always lag-free and responsive, creating a fast and enjoyable experience short of the occasional opponent disconnection (I never got disconnected myself).
Speaking about controls, a technical fighting game like BlazBlue definitely puts the d-pad of the Vita to the harshest of tests, and I can say I could easily input most combos after a bit of practice. It’s not nearly as snappy as an arcade fighting stick, but it’s definitely way better than the default d-pad of an Xbox 360.
If you’re a novice to the series, you can chose to spend long hours of training in order to master the combos of your favorite character or to enable the Stylish control mode, that basically turns the game into a button masher, allowing you to execute even the most complex moves with very simple inputs.
On one hand the Stylish Mode is a shortcut to make your fights look more visually appealing and to play through an extremely challenging game with more ease. On the other hand it’s also a badly balanced crutch that not only won’t help you learn the ropes (as a well geared easy mode should do), but will also probably give you bad habits that will prove very difficult to remove should you ever decide to try the technical control mode.
I would advise using it only if you plan to never challenge yourself with the default controls, otherwise starting directly with the technical mode will probably prove more rewarding and instructional after the initial frustrating hours in which even the normal difficulty AI will force you to struggle.
Using the stylish mode online is quite hit and miss. While it’ll probably help you lord over other newbies learning the ropes of the technical mode, veterans will still toss you around the screen with ease and laugh in your face. The tutorials and the challenge mode (that will prompt you to execute specific combos) prove a much better learning tool.
Ultimately BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend is a little jewel between fighting games. It’s polished and balanced and provides more single player content than basically every other game in the genre, with a multiplayer that’s just a little underfeatured but still proves very enjoyable.
The lovely art style and the beauty of the visuals act as a crown jewel to the extremely technical but very rewarding gameplay. If you already have BlazBlue: Continuum Shift II you’ll have to decide if you feel like upgrading from a ruby to a diamond, but if you’re looking for an unique and absolutely charming fighting game that will make that precious screen of your brand new PS Vita shine, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend might easily be the perfect choice.