Coming in three years after the arcade release of "Samurai Showdown III: Blades of Blood" at November of 1998, the series known as "The Last Blade" returned to the gaming scene with a sequel that was very much like it's preceding SamSho (Samurai Showdown) inspired entry point. This Dreamcast follow-up release, and fan favorite known as "The Last Blade 2" continued onward with the tale of ongoing spiritual warfare waged between a group of select characters which were each explained away in the first installation. Some might say the game was a Samurai Showdown derivative like me while others may argue that it was it's own unique experience altogether. Whatever you choose to believe the admiring fans have spoken out, and in a recently held PSN poll they have voted for "The Last Blade 2" to receive the full re-release treatment. A treatment which has since come to pass. While the core game stays pretty much intact in it's newer version there have been noticeable adjustments, newer options made available, and new additions added in to make this gem of a fighting game more than what it was initially. Not only will you find the game you boasted about through the years along with all of it's secrets in HD clarity, but you will also be able to experience it online through the Playstation network with players across the globe. Whether or not it stacks up to your expectations though is up for speculation ...
In a story tied to it's own ancient Japanese mythology the characters in "The Last Blade 2" still find themselves torn in battle between the realms of life, and death through an afterlife portal known as the Hell's Gate. The story picks up in 1864 A.D. in an alternative historical timeline in which a group of samurai warriors, investigators, messengers, and other characters of interest are pitted against each other in mortal combat as the Hell's Gate continues to link their world to the world where death and his cohorts reside. Thus the battle of good versus evil wages on in a final fight where a last ditch effort geared towards sealing the manifestation of death away via a required ritual is playing out. Scattered through out the mildly applied tale there are a total of 18 different characters (some secret) to play as, as you fight your way through the story, and those who dare to stand in your way. The roster, as it were is what you'd come to expect from the creators of 'Samurai Showdown', and "The King of the Fighters' series. In fact this roster includes a sort of mixture of both character archetypes in a kind of blend. Some of which you can tell inspired generations of fighting game characters years after the game's initial release. Even the mechanics therein echo throughout the various fighting game franchises we have come to know in the more present day, and age.
Starting things off on a proper note SNK Playmore, and the team behind this game's revival have kept the HD re-release true to it's source material, for the most part. While it has it's recognizable features in the way of gameplay you'll find everything from the menu system to the available modes of play, and the options between to be newly arranged. Nothing is overly complicated to discover though, and everything is kept simple in a 'to-the-point' manner. You'll find intact the "Normal Mode" which houses the original 'Story Mode' playthrough, a survival-like 'Time Attack' mode, and a local 'Versus' mode which might actually be this game's shining accomplishment. Outside of the "Normal Mode" you'll find the newly introduced "Multiplayer" which contains a basic "create", and "join" matchmaking setup where ping in "ms" measures your potential opponents' connection worthiness. Multiplayer itself is currently rather rocky though as most of the players you'll run into are from Japan. This makes the ping for a US player skyrocket, and the match to become truly unbearable. I can't say for certain that US to US online play would be better, but I did get into a match against a player with a shared 130+ ms ping, and it was mostly smooth with the occasional slight frame rate stutter.
It should be noted that the online multiplayer does have a slightly complex nature about it in regards to matchmaking if you consider the selection of 'Blood', 'Flash', and 'Mask' settings to be proper match variables. These player chosen settings are marked beside the their lobby usernames which can be seen in the "Find a Match" menu listing. It should also be noted that SNK has made it possible for you to create or search a match lobby for match types that take place in the "Training", and "Story" modes. This, again adds a little more variation to matchmaking. At heart though every online match is considered "ranked" play except for the 'Training' option which is more or less an online practice mode.
To get the most out of the online modes, should you have an urge to do so you really have to understand how ping ratings work, and have to wait patiently for the ping rating to be assessed (it can take a while) before accepting or joining a match. I have noticed that there is a mixture of Japanese, and non-Japanese players playing the game online, but that they are few in number at this point in time. Just know that due to the global difference in the time of day Japanese players will begin playing in the late evening (American time) or in the early morning (American time). Most of the time you can tell a true Japanese fighting game player from the fake Japanese American PSN account holders, because they usually do not name themselves after popular anime characters, and tend to blend more traditional Japanese names with numbers, or letters. This knowledge will help you better understand who it is you are encountering online for the sake of smoother online matchmaking.
For those of you looking to hone your skills outside of the online offerings there is a separate "Training" mode offline for you. While it doesn't house a tutorial of any kind it allows you to access the characters' command list, and set the CPU settings in a basic sense. The type of CPU actions including that of guarding, attacking, and movement can be set to your liking. You can also set the 'Sword Gauge' to a desired level so you can practice your special attacks. It's not particularly as detailed as modern-day training modes, but it allows you to get in the practice you need without life limitations preventing you from doing so.
Those of you interested in that replay value may or may not find the added "Gallery" an inviting feature. It houses 29 still art images from the game, and nothing else. Unlocking these artistic items is done by playing the various modes of the game, and winning under certain conditions. The requirements for unlocking said items are listed under each image icon. There's also a leaderboard that comes in the form four different menus including that of "Story", "Time Attack", "Number of Wins (Unclassified)", "Number of Wins (Character Classified). Each listing coincides with your global standings in the respective mode or with the character usage, and win or loss counts. It's a way to gauge how well you are doing both offline, and online, but may not be as accurately portrayed as you might think considering the conflicting lag between players.By that I mean someone could easily be dominating, because of lag afflicted wins
Story Mode ...
In "The Last Blade 2" story mode you'll find a collection of 12 visually present characters, and a handful of hidden characters that can be unlocked through the pause menu's "Hidden Character & Extreme Mode" instructional listing. The base characters in the roster include Kaede, Moriya, Yuki, Genbu, Akari, Juzo, Keiichiro, Mukuro, Hyo Amano, Recca Lee, Zantetsu, Shigen Naoe, Shinnosuke Kagami, Kojiro Sanada, Hibiki Takane, and Setsuna. Most characters follow that signature samurai look in both the female, and male variety. Others are more original though like the demon summoning shrine maiden Akari, or the old man Genbu Okina. Even the zombie-like "Mukuro" stands out as being unique in his own demonic sort of way. As far as secret characters go you'll find that you can play as death incarnate "Koryu", the pre-awakened Kaede, and a copycat paper-doll style character known as "Hagure" as well as Kotetsu's support character Shingu. The "Hidden Characters & Extreme Mode" pause menu listing will guide you step by step on how to unlock each secret including the "Extreme Mode" itself. Just remember that these secret characters will not be permanently unlocked, and that you'll have to re-apply them each time you want to utilize said secret character or mode. When it comes to the available character selection it is weapon type, accompanying ability type, reach, and special attacks that really set each playable character apart. I'm sure it won't be hard to find a favorite among the lot for most fighting game enthusiasts.
Within the 'Story Mode' playthrough, or whatever mode of fighting you choose to play you will find that your chosen character has a handful of things going on for him, or her. After selecting a character via the roster screen you will be prompted to choose either the "SPEED", or "POWER" ability by pressing Up or Down on the DPad. The 'SPEED' ability is as it sounds. It speeds up the chosen character's movement, and attacks while making said attacks somewhat weaker. The "POWER" ability on the other hand keeps your character moving at a slower pace, but with attacks that deal significantly more damage. Another side to these abilities is that the 'Command List' for some characters will have specific attacks available for only certain ability types. This is where you'll have to figure out which fighting style, or ability best suits your way of playing. Think of it as Samurai Showdown III's "SLASH", and "BURST" fighting styles in that regard. With each ability type also comes a color palette swap much like the previously mentioned "Samurai Showdown III" offerings.
When it comes to the actual fighting the basic controls are kept simple while the special attack options (Super Secret Slash, Hidden Secret Slash ...) are a little less so. You basically have three different types of basic attacks within the game including that of 'Kick (SQUARE)', 'Weak Slash (X)', and 'Strong Slash (CIRCLE)'. The game's parry mechanic which is also included comes in the form of a grounded, or aerial 'Repel (TRIANGLE)' which can be used to turn an opponent's attacks against them. Think of it like DOA's parry in that sense. The only difference being that you simply have to press the (TRIANGLE) button to activate the parry, and then follow up with standard attacks for combo damage once the parry connects. When it comes to the 'Super Secret Slash', and the 'Hidden Secret Slash' think of them as the Supers, and Ultras of "Ultra Street Fighter IV", because that's exactly what they are. They mostly require a more complex string of inputted DPad or Thumbstick motions with either a followed up pressing of weak slash, or strong clash added in. Each "SSS", and "HSS/WSS" special will burn up a certain amount of sword gauge depending on attack type, and deliver a somewhat cinematic special effect which will in turn do more damage than your standard attacks, or applied special moves. Using either type of attack is an iffy ordeal though, especially if your opponent tries to crowd you or back you into a corner. You definitely have to plan things strategically, and know exactly when to do what. Whiffing any type of attack, or special attack will leave you open for brutal punishment.
I should also mention that fighting in the various modes of play can be tweaked in the "Options" menu. You can turn on or off "Blood" effects. You can even turn on or off "Flash" effects as well as a "Mask" setting which basically hides the timer, and both players' health bars. It allows for a visually different way to experience the game. For those of you who want to stay true to the arcade experience you can also tweak the percentage of the scan lines to mirror the arcade cabinet's resolution. You can even go so far as to change the size of the screen display. This includes a stretching of the screen to a full widescreen display, or a larger version of the normal screen that contains a frame art border of your choosing. There's also a "Screen Filtering" option that can be turned 'On' or 'Off' to smooth out the normally pixel heavy graphics. I did try it out, and found the visuals to be both muddy, and dull from the alteration. Just know that you do have choices in what the graphical presentation of 'The Last Blade 2' is.
Back to the modes break down ...
Being a first timer with "The Last Blade 2" I did not know what to expect with the "Time Attack" mode. I expected something similar to DOA5LR's Time Attack, but as it turns out this version is a survivalists' fight against the timer to score as many wins as possible against lesser enemy types before the countdown reaches zero. Of course if you run out of life before then you'll also enter the dreaded "Game Over' screen. Speaking of the "Game Over" screen I could not figure out how to continue my 'Story Mode' playthrough after a loss. This was made frustrating in that at round three the CPU's AI spikes intensely, and leaves you losing more often than not unless you are a veteran player. I tried pressing every button possible, and it just continued to count the timer down. Perhaps I'm missing something, or perhaps it's a bug. I just do not know. Regardless of which offline or online mode you choose to play (Story & Training are available online via matchmaking) you will find your leaderboard standings in place when you reach that 'Game Over' screen. It's a good tool to reference your fighting game prowess, or lack thereof.
Sound & Display ...
The Last Blade 2 on the PS4 is a very polished game in it's HD form. The menu wallpapers, for example are animated with bright colors, and are further decorated with complimentary Japanese Maple leaves that blow across the screen in a sort of 3D accent. Even the mode selection screen has it's own visual perks in the form of stacked samurai swords that turn as you highlight each mode's listing. These details alone accentuate the game's menus quite nicely. When it comes to gameplay you'll find that it too has a sort of visual upgrade. You'll find that the bigger the display setting gets the more pixel heavy the character, and background/stage designs will look. In total there are three different display settings with their own unique layout including that of "Normal" which is bordered by chosen frame art as well as the "Large" setting which mirrors said imagery, but to a slightly greater or rather larger effect. The last option which is the true full screen display, otherwise known as "Stretch", enhances the pixel nature of the game while filling even an HDTV from corner to corner with out frame art included.
As far as character design goes it does look very much like the original game, but in saying that I'm thankful SNK kept the designs true to the original. The only real visual change, if there is one comes in the form of the HD upscaling for the PS4, and PS Vita consoles. Aside from those changes I personally liked the optional special setting for 'Blood' effects that was added in, especially since the game has it's own SamSho style fatalities with blood spurting out of the fatally wounded characters' pierced, and cut in half bodies. Blood is something the early SamSho games lacked here in the states due to censorship, and to see it intact in this version pleases me greatly. The added fact that you can tweak scan lines, or tweak the flash effects among other things really makes the game a more personalized experience.
As far as the sound quality goes it definitely seems to be a mirroring of the original game's soundtrack. Not only can you set the menu music to your favorite track from the original game, but you'll also be able to enjoy all the other tracks separately on their respective stages, and intermissions. The only problem I found with the soundtrack was during the lag afflicted online multiplayer sessions in which it stuttered as bad as the gameplay itself. It's a truly unfortunate thing to witness, and is yet another thing that might turn fighting game faithfuls away.
The Verdict ...
For an HD translation/upgrade of a game that was released in 1998 I'd have personally expected a better experience, especially when it comes to the heavily promoted online portion of the game. Having never played "The Last Blade 2" though I didn't know what to expect at base level or beyond. While the offline modes were enjoyable to an extent (past the CPU abuse at fight 3 & beyond), and the new additions welcome I found that the game's biggest selling point (the online Multiplayer) was a bit of a mess. Having mostly Japanese players with conflicting ping to play against hurt my opinion of the online experience. It frustrated me greatly having to struggle through the lag. In fact the lag issues were the most notable I've witnessed in any fighting game to date. Sure, the American to Japanese connections have never been good to begin with in any fighter, but for there to be mostly Japanese gamers playing online it did not make for a fun time on my end or theirs. I will give SNK credit in that the 130+ ms ping match I ended up playing, and winning later on in my online playthrough was actually smooth for such a high ping though. It is possible that the connection might be actually much better in a US vs US situation, or even a Japan vs Japan scenario. For now though I'm not sure.
As an offline package I think the game does decently regardless of it's online issues. It does have that local 'Versus' mode going for it which would be good for the local competitive scene. The two other main modes of play that are also included are actually alright as well despite their overly challenging nature. The only real negative things about the experience are the annoying pop-up notification which appears mid-match when you unlock a gallery item, and the lag affliction which happens in a distant online pairing. Weighing everything that I know about the game right now I feel that 'The Last Blade 2" is a potentially alright buy for fighting game enthusiasts, and "The Last Blade" faithfuls who don't rely so heavily on the online multiplayer. Those of you looking for a quality online experience will likely find that the lack of detailed (region, lobby) matchmaking options make it difficult to find that perfect match though. If you don't mind passing up on the multiplayer for a bit of retro nostalgia though then you might like it. The Last Blade 2 HD is a cross-buy, cross-play, and cross-save compatible game with the PS4 and PS Vita making it an even better buy if you have both consoles to play it on. Just a little FYI.