Monday, July 6, 2015

BlazBlue Chronophantasma EXTEND (PS4)

BlazBlue is a fighting game experience that is closely akin to it's Guilty Gear predecessors. In it you'll find an assorted variety of different character archetypes some of which are very close to what Guilty Gear has offered in the past. You'll also find one of the richest, if not the richest of fighting game mythologies surrounding said characters within the game's structural story mode confines. At heart this unique mythology, or lore does have subtle nods to Guilty Gears timeline of events, but seems to pick up after some of it's own world changing tragedies regarding a magic war against a recurring threat. There's various governing orders involved, and characters whose given abilities vary according to their role in the plot. Some characters wield a type of Seithr driven magic known as Ars Magus while others use science to do their bidding. There's even a council of seven heroes whose past feats have come back to haunt them in the form of an apocalypse seeking group of puppeteers. There are constant clashes between the law abiding NOL "Novus Orvis Librarium", the renegade lone wolves like 'Ragna the Bloodedge', the science foundation built/managed by Kokonoe, and the "Phantoms of Time". The conflicts are many, and those involved are continuously getting dragged into the fray whether they like it or not. While Chronophantasma is not by any means the conclusive end of the story at hand it does clear up a lot of details while advancing the ongoing plot significantly. Along with the story, and it's provided mythology/history are also plenty of offline, and online activities to enjoy as usual. Each of which offer the gamer more bang for their buck.

Past the anime inspired intro animation, and the vibrantly detailed title screen you'll find that "BlazBlue Chronophantasma EXTEND" makes it a point to capture the gamers' attention with it's first listed menu of "PRACTICE" options. As with the vanilla game you'll find that this section of the sectioned off main menu system includes a 'Tutorial Mode', a 'Training Mode', and a 'Challenge Mode'. The 'Tutorial Mode', which is the key hub for learning all the necessary in-game mechanics, and features comes complete with a guided character tour, and hands-on tutorial sessions for each set of given mechanics. The tutorials are listed in order from "Stylish" to "Advanced" giving the players an easiest to hardest guide on how to manage character abilities. Tutorial mode is further divided into "Lessons", and beyond that into "Character Specific" lessons by listed character name.

When it comes to mechanic difficulties in the 'Tutorial Mode' the game does good to ease the player in with the simpler mechanics, and later into the more hard to perform moves/combos. The 'Stylish' type of mechanics, or simplest play style is in the game to appease those who don't care to invest the time to learn characters, and mechanics on an 'Intermediate', or 'Advanced' level. It's basically a cop out that turns scrubs into pros with ease. In my personal opinion the inclusion, and pushing of the 'Stylish' play style has done nothing, but hurt the integrity of the intended online experience, and is in itself no way viable in the tournament scene. It was a play style added for the sole fact of gaining a wider audience amongst the casual gaming crowd. Intermediate players who use the 'Technical' play style will no doubt be at a disadvantage if they choose to test their skills online, because of 'Stylish' even being an option. The 'Technical' play style for those of you who are unaware is basically the normal way of playing the game. In 'Technical' every attack, defense, and mechanic related move must be activated, and delivered through full-length button input sequences. Directional inputs, and face/shoulder button inputs are included in said formula. The opposite is the case for "Stylish' as it allows for single button combos that can be pulled off through repetitive single button presses.

Following the sub listings under the main "Practice" menu you'll find that the next mode after 'Tutorial Mode' is 'Training Mode'. Training mode is a practice mode that allows the player to set parameters, and CPU character settings in order to be able to hone their skills as a proper BlazBlue fighter. You'll be able to select from one of the available 28 BB (BlazBlue) fighters, and take that fighter for a trial run that in no way counts against your in-game competitive stats. The mode is there to help 'Technical' players improve upon their mechanics, and move set delivery. Most players who intend on going pro/advanced will usually use this mode for practice purposes. I should also mention that you can setup an online entry via "Network", and practice while you wait to be challenged via this mode of play. I'll explain that in due time though.

The last listing in 'Practice' is a 'Challenge Mode' that acts sort of like the base 'Tutorial Mode'. The only real difference being that this mode option is geared to perfecting your knowledge of each characters' move sets, and combo setups. As with the 'Tutorial Mode' you'll find that characters are listed, and selectable by name. Once chosen you'll be put through 20 increasingly difficult character specific missions. As with the first to 'Practice' modes 'Challenge Mode' is there to help you perfect the 'Technical' mechanics that are utilized at the intermediate, and advanced player skill levels.

STORY

Like the vanilla version, and unlike the vanilla version Aksy Games goes out of their way to give the player a deeply involved plot filled with various types of character situations, and interactive one-on-one fights. The core story, which is contained in "Story Mode" expands upon what happened in the previous games, and follow-up expansions (EXTEND versions). In it the 'Phantoms of Time' are revealed while character foundations are built upon in accordance to the main role players' actions. Ragna still maintains his rebellious focal point as do Jin, and Noel. Of course other characters like the remaining seven heroes members (Hakumen, Valkenhyn, Rachel & Platinum) also contribute to the ongoing tale. There are plenty of plot twists, an turns as animated scenes unfold amidst the dialogue heavy art panels. The story branches off into multiple sub-sections/chapters, and offers up some multiple choice questions which can change the plot's path. With each chapter also comes a completion percentage that will let you know if you've fully completed everything within the 'Story Mode'. For those worried about having to sit through hours of text reading you'll be relieved to know there are save points in which you can take a break if needed. Once you complete a chapter you'll be prompted to save your progress, and will be taken directly back to the sectional chapter screen.

For those of you who are familiar with the previous vanilla version of Chronophantasma, or 'Continuum Shift' you'll likely remember the inclusion of this next story feature. In 'Teach Me, Miss Litchi!', Litchi (aka, the Boobie Lady xD) teaches Taokaka, and friends the history behind the BlazBlue world. Everything is explained thoroughly in an episodic manner as it would be between a teacher, and her designated pupils. Taokaka offers up her signature comic relief while Miss Litchi keeps the comedy between them going. Other female character like Noel, and Makoto also chime in from time to time with their hilarious nonsense. While the mode does have it's comedic value it is still a good way to learn about what has gone on in the past BlazBlue installments.

New to the 'Story' section is a dual chapter tale titled, "Remix Heart Gaiden" that once again offers up some laughable, and lighthearted engagements between some of the series' female, and not so female characters. In it newcomer Mai Natsume, a female (... not so female) military cadet shares an awkward relationship, and room with some of the series' more well known female fighters. Amongst her friends are Noel, Tsubaki, Makoto, and Kunji (who has also yet to be a selectable roster member). While sandwiched with affection from all of her cadet bosom buddies Mai tries her best to keep her secret magic slip up from the group, but her natural instincts end up raising a few questions amongst the ladies along the way. Due to her unique predicament, and Ars Magus related transformation Mai also suffers from a taste bud related problem. This inherent problem has in turn caused the affectionate girls to come together as a self-proclaimed group of sleuths known as, "Detective Girls: Remix Heart Gaiden" in order to try, and get Mai's tastes back in proper working order. If you've seen, or liked the unrelated anime 'Ranma 1/2" you are in a treat with this wayward side story.

Lastly you'll find a compendium of virtual text based knowledge tucked away in a vastly informative sub-menu known as the 'Library'. Any term, feature, character, or place of importance that was ever mentioned in the BlazBlue series is kept here in a detailed section by section description that comes close to overshadowing the timelines given in games like that of the 'Dynasty Warriors'. Along with the previous story elements, and menu features you'll definitely have a lot of learning available at your fingertips should you find you want to become the next series expert.

BATTLE

What is a fighting game without the fighting? Well, Aksys Games has a proper answer to that in this latest installment of BlazBlue. In the EXTEND version of Chronophantasma you'll find intact all of the previously included modes of competitive play. There's plenty of offline, and local options for satisfying that need to pummel the ever loving !@#$% out of someone, or something. In the 'Battle' main menu fight options come in 5 separate modes of play. This includes the standard story driven 'Arcade Mode', 'V.S. Mode' for your local & CPU matches, 'Abyss Mode', 'Score Attack Mode', and 'Unlimited Mars Mode'. Looking back I can honestly say that offline is Chronophantasma's more robust competitive outlet, and rightfully so. As I briefly mentioned earlier on in this review the game is being ruined by the inclusion of the 'Stylish' amongst other reasons.

In Chronophantasma's 'Arcade Mode' you'll find a roster of characters larger than what the latest Guilty Gear game had to offer (*enter sad face here*). In fact the once lower count roster has now gained two new character additions that up the total number of available characters to 28!!! That's definitely a number to brag about, and one to be proud of. Not many fighters these day have that many fully fleshed out, and mostly unique characters to choose from ... Returning from vanilla Chronophantasma's original roster, and DLC roster are Ragna, Jin, Noel, Rachel, Taokaka, Tager, Litchi, Arakune, Hazama, Relius, Izayoi, Amane, Bullet, Azrael, Kagura, Kokonoe, Tsubaki, Carl, Mu, Nu, Makoto, Hakumen, Valkenhyn, Bang, Platinum, and Terumi. New to the roster is Celica, and Lambda. With each character also comes some available/unlockable choices in the form of color palettes, and the 'Stylish' or 'Technical' play style options.

As far as characters go most stay unique to themselves. Others however mildly copy other characters' given move sets, and appearances. Ragna, and Jin return as the 'Ryu & Ken' of the BlazBlue" universe, and in turn continue to mimic 'Sol Bad Guy & Ky Kiske' of the Guilty Gear series. Bullet hell monstrosities return in the form of Mu, Nu, and unfortunately Lambda as well. These bio-organic mechanized females are full of trap surprises, lasers, and annoying projectiles meant purely for zoning tactics. Let's also not forget Noel Vermillion. That girl can tear you up in a heartbeat with her assorted gun arsenal. Just hope you don't meet up against her in 'Unlimited Mars Mode"! Carl, Relius, and the newly introduced Celica come complete with their separate assisting Nirvana marionettes. Of course their core move sets are unique, but the tripling up of the Nirvana marionette fighting style adds a certain annoyance to those of us who know what pros using said characters can do. Outside of that the only other roster members that add to the unbalanced nature of the game include Hazama, Terumi, and Platinum which you'll encounter all too often online. These characters are highly abusive in their own ways, and are a thorn in most gamers' sides, especially when someone chooses to use the 'Stylish' play style along with said choice of character. If you can't find someone you'd like to main (learn/master) within this roster I'd be greatly surprised as there's enough of a unique selection to fit every fighting game character archetype.

Without getting way ahead of myself, 'Arcade Mode' is as it sounds. It includes intermittent story progressing animation sequences as well as one-on-one fights with a series of characters ripped straight from the available roster. The last character being the boss. Past 'Arcade Mode' you'll find a local/offline matchmaking option in the form of 'V.S. Mode'. In the versus mode you can choose to game locally with friends via multiple controllers, or you can battle against the computer controlled opponent if you so desire. The versus mode is definitely, and unfortunately the icing on the cake of this fighter as friends can usually be trusted more than the randoms (random online players) that you run into in the online portion of the game. It's also a good mode to practice without the aggravation of online random encounters.

When it comes to the more unique modes of battle you'll find that Aksys Games, and their team of developers have gone the extra mile to include a a fully fledged RPG oriented fighting game experience. This mode which is called "Abyss Mode" will have you traveling across a map of the BlazBlue world while trying to defeat areas that house multiple enemies. By multiple enemies I mean each area, which is rated by difficulty (Easy, Normal, Hard) houses a listing of 100 possible fights. Of course you can easily bypass that serious number of one-on-one encounters by defeating the surprise challengers that make themselves known ever so often, but the challenge is definitely there regardless. As far as the RPG features go your chosen character has 4 upgradeable stats (Strength, Defense, Speed ...) that can be upgraded by selecting the corresponding rewards that come after defeating a character. Rewards come in the stat upgrade variety as well as in a mechanics boosting variety. The mechanics boosts (extra jumps, quicker dashing ...) can be obtained after the challenge sub-boss fights. Extra health can also be gained if you survive a challenger match without losing more health than you went in with. You are given one health bar with which to defeat all given enemies in an area, and it will not refill after each match. Upgrading your character's stats, and buying mechanics boost items from the map menu shop is the only way to beat the more difficult areas within 'Abyss Mode'.

Lastly there are two additional leader board oriented modes that will test even the most proficient BB players' skills. These two battle modes include ' Score Attack Mode', and 'Unlimited Mars Mode'. In the 'Score Attack Mode' score counts. That's obvious. What's not obvious is that you'll be choosing from three different routes (A, B, C), or groups of characters which you'll battle against in an arcade mode style playthrough. The catch is that these characters aren't easy going. They are geared towards players who can handle intermediate, or advanced level fights. Going into this mode you definitely have to keep that in mind. Should you get a high score you can upload it to the global leaderboards for the entire BlazBlue community to see.

Like 'Score Attack Mode', 'Unlimited Mars Mode' is a proper challenge. In fact 'Unlimited Mars Mode' lives up to it's title by including pro level CPU opponents who are utilizing the 'Unlimited' character feature. By 'Unlimited' I mean these CPU opponents aren't bound by standard match regulations. Their gauges, and meters are always maxed out, and as such they can unleash some serious damage upon you. If you survive your chosen character route, and beat all the characters that are listed it will be a feat to brag about, a !@#$% miracle!

NETWORK

Network mode. As robust, and option heavy as it is I cannot help but feel disappointed at how bad the online experience in Chronophantasma has become. With the continued offerings of the 'Stylish' play style, and the unbalanced roster of characters this mode really does the game a disservice. Within the Network mode menu you'll find matchmaking options in the form of 'Ranked', 'Player', and 'Lobby' as usual. While the 'Ranked', and 'Player' matchmaking options afford the gamer the extra opportunity to play offline modes while awaiting a match they pale in comparison to what Chronophantasma's 'Lobby' has to offer. For those of you who did not get a chance to play the vanilla version of Chronophantasma you'll find that the available 'Lobby' option is unlike any fighting game lobby to date. It is a living, bustling hub filled with pixelated booths, and kawaii character avatars that represent the players you can challenge. Simply sitting your chosen avatar at a booth along with another player's avatar will give you the chance to fight with the stationed player, should they choose to allow you to. Along with the virtual arcade representation you'll also find that there's the sound of people talking in the background making it seem like you are in an actual Japanese arcade establishment.

What makes it so great beyond that is that you can text chat with other players in the lobby, and use provided emojis to express your current mood. I often times frequent the lobby just to clown around, and attempt to get in some friendly fights. Most players you'll encounter online, and in the 'Lobby' are pleasant enough. They'll use pre-made messages to thank you for the games, and will even politely use the same message system to let you know that they think you are too strong. Unfortunately no matter which way you choose to play online you will encounter the occasional troll, and cheater who will make you think twice about playing the game online.

Accompanying the lobby is a new matchmaking setup option called 'My Room Settings". With "My Room Settings" you can decorate, and build your own individual matchmaking space for private matches. In this menu of sorts you can purchase furniture, wall decorations, and floor decorations that tie-in with various Arc System Works, and Aksys Games characters, and games. While these decorations are superficial it adds a nice lobby-like touch to the more private side of online matchmaking.

Another customization option comes in the form of Network's "D-Code". The "D-Code" is effectively your gaming badge that let's online players know who you are, when you can play, and how good you are in the online environment. Settings that can be changed on the D-Code include the icon plate, the lobby avatar, the lobby avatar accessory, your most active time (Military), a title which consists of phrases & words that can be bought from the in-menu store, and a quick message that can be typed up using a pop-up type pad. Along with your D-Code comes your offline, and online statistics. Also included are your recent replays. As far as the replays go you will be briefly prompted after an online match as to whether, or not you wish to save the replay. If you press triangle during the final character quote when prompted it will be saved, and will become available in the 'Replay Theater' menu. Replays do show both players PSN usernames for those of you who are wondering.

EXTRAS

In the way of extras Aksys Games made this EXTEND version of Chronophantasma mostly all-inclusive. By "Mostly All-Inclusive" I mean that every piece of vanilla version DLC (BGMs, Stages, Music Tracks, Unlimited Characters, Color Palettes) is made available in-game through the 'Gallery'. All you have to do is earn the in-game currency through offline, or online gameplay, and spend it on said items. All of the art, movies, and already included BGMs are also available for unlocking. The more you play the more you'll be able to unlock.

Now The Verdict ...

I've come to the conclusion that BlazBlue isn't a bad game. Sure the roster is unbalanced to a certain extent, and the 'Stylish' play style option is a pain in the arse, but it's the players who abuse these options that are the problem. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. In other words if players choose to travel down the dark path that is cheating it's because they chose to do so, and has nothing to do with the game itself. In saying that though I know for a fact that fighting games are headed down a dark road themselves because no one is bothering to maintain the quality of the online experience. Players who cheat/hack/mod aren't being punished for their misdeeds, and in turn online portions of fighting games are becoming unbearable to play. This is is extremely worrisome in that fighting games are half about offline, and half about online. If the online experience isn't as good as promised, or as good as it was intended to be it only serves to turn away those who would care to buy, or play it.

When you disappoint the fans who made you who you are as a developer, and continue to churn out games with features that attract a crowd that the genre was not intended for this also hurts the integrity of said game/s. If I were to fill my house up with fecal matter for example, and were to invite friends over to visit at said house do you think friends would enter the house, or stay? No. The same goes for online games of any sort. The casual crowd of today (The CoD type) is an abusive, and trolling culture who has no regard for quality gaming experiences, or respect for those who want to enjoy said experiences. They are the fecal matter I speak of, and the houses which they reside in are the games which legit gamers are being invited to.

Growing up in the early days of the fighting game genre there was no easy combo BS, or any 'Stylish' play style options available. You had to put in the time to be good at the game, period. Seeing as those early days are the foundations the fighting game genre was built upon turning said genre into something else just to please the casual (aka, lazy) crowd, or to make a profit by doing so is an outright bad decision. In the long run your fighting game franchise will be run through the mud, and no one will want to buy, or play it. You could instead leave the casual crowd out of the equation, and leave a fighting open to additional features while perfecting the game's experience for your true fans along the way. There's no need to release "EXTEND'D", or "ULTRA" versions of fighters outside of the profit making potential. If you please the legit fighting game enthusiasts with an expandable vanilla title you would still do good to make some money. Just so long as you don't abuse the DLC. You could do that, or invest your development teams time, and efforts in creating innovative new fighting game experiences.

In closing my verdict is going to be two-fold. If you have the at home friends, or family to game with the PS4 version of "BlazBlue Chronophantasma EXTEND" is a good game to add to your collection. The netcode is good, and the in-game content worth the asking price, in that situation. If you are like me though, and depend on the online for PvP fighting game action you might be better off passing this one up. Too often you'll meet up with 'Stylish' abusers, and will only encounter a handful of exploitable characters being used online.

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