Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Blade Strangers (PS4)

I have decided to approach this review differently than past reviews. I'm gonna ditch the artistic word play, and get to the point section by section. Those sections will include a story, characters, mechanics, modes, and visual/audio breakdown. By doing this I hope it will make digesting the information easier, and help you to find what you want to know about the game easier. Without further adieu here is my review of "Blade Strangers" for the PlayStation 4 ...

STORY

When it comes to the "Blade Strangers' story I think Studio Saizensen did a good job coming up with their take on the age old tournament setup. Before the story mode kicks into action they drop a real world quote that basically states parallel worlds exist, and that they are all simulated. This quote leads into an odd conversation between governing computer units called Motes that are situated in the void of space trying to figure out how to stop their created worlds from being erased. The backup copy is gone, and they are fairly much SOL. The threat they face is never really exposed, but it could be linked to the final boss. To regain what they've lost the "Motes" choose to summon all the 'Blade Strangers', or potential saviors of the multiverse from their respective worlds, wipe their memory clean, and make them think they are fighting in a tournament for some grand prize. Along the way the botched mind job becomes slightly unraveled, and the protagonist (whichever of the 14 available characters you choose) faces the real threat after a series of tournament fights when it makes itself known. It's not the deepest of stories, but unlike a lot of fighting games in the genre it does good to connect the characters even if they remain unrelated.

CHARACTERS

Characters in 'Blade Strangers' are an odd lot. There are 14 in total including some original designs as well as some inspired by popular indie game creations. You have Solange, Ali, Liongate, and Master T who are all "Code of Princess EX" characters (I think?). They are a fantasy bunch with a pseudo-medieval flair, and anime aesthetics. Three of which wield weapons while one of them (Master T) is more of a brawler/grappler type. Aside from them you'll find a couple Azure Gunvolt characters, the Shovel Knight, Isaac from 'The Binding of Isaac", and the main antagonist among others. The assortment isn't so off putting that they do not fit together, and in gameplay they actually are quite balanced. Some are zoners, and others less so, but nothing so over-the-top it frustrates you. Visually the characters are kind of rough in appearance though. The pixel style the developer went with allowed for more physically animated movement, but at the same was sketchy looking around the outlines of everything. Making the characters look like a pencil sketch instead of a final character design. Honestly, it was a bit distracting. It should be noted that as with any fighting game characters do have color palette swaps. Two are initially available while others can be unlocked by playing through various modes, and achieving certain goals in-game.

The stages that go along with the characters come in decently constructed 3D scenes with some moving or layered parts. It's done well enough, and is complimentary to the characters in the given roster. Mostly thematic. They seem to be anime/RPG inspired as well as inspired by the various indie games certain characters hail from. The soundtrack that goes along with each stage is impressive. It has that signature anime soundtrack that you often associate with anime fighters. It's complimentary to both the characters as well as the backgrounds that act as stages to the hosted fights. You can select stages prior to getting into the match including a random option which allows the game to randomly pick a stage.

MECHANICS

You guys and gals know by now I do not like casual fighting games. It defeats the purpose of the competition at hand, and undermines competitive values in general. Blade Strangers happens to take the testing of the waters that have occurred in such games like that of BBTAG, MVCI, and Dragon Ball FighterZ and pushes it to the ultimate apex of casuality. I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it with my own two eyes, but they managed to create a full-on casual fighter in such a competent way that everyone could be a pro if they simply played through the tutorial, and character missions. As far as gameplay goes it didn't take me long to pick up on the fact that 'Blade Strangers' borrows a lot of mechanics from other fighters. You'll find hints of BlazBlue, Skullgirls, TEKKEN, SFV, and MvC thrown together in a surprisingly well crafted manner. The tutorial, which explains away said mechanics, is arranged a lot like BlazBlue's tutorial, for example, albeit in a more understandable way. It is explained in layman's terms that fighters from the roster can dash, crouch, and do all the basic movements except air dash. I found that last bit to be odd. Everything from the basics to the fundamentals are explained in an easy to understand manner. Textually, and visually so. Along with the BlazBlue tutorial nod Blade Strangers also goes so far as to penalize players in the fight who are using the same combo over and over again. As with Skullgirls. Not only does duplicating the combo lead to damage reduction, but it will also double up on that damage reduction if you continue to spam the same combo. There is actually a thin gauge underneath the health bar that depletes as you spam. Once you hit the threshold there will be a screen notification for the world to see, and the resulting shame to bare. 

In the way of attacks you have two attack buttons that include a light attack, and a heavy attack. To some extent they provide a small auto-combo starter when pressed a few times. You also have a 'unique attack' button, and a 'skills' button. While this might sound too simple it is a little more involved than simply pressing a button. With the additional skills options you will be using a gauge called the "Heat Gauge" that builds up as you attack, and defend. This particular gauge is a Swiss Army Knife, a multi-tool. It allows for advanced skill functions such as Attack Skills, Defense Skills, and Unique Skills. These skill types, which are different from the standard skills that require you to simply press the skill button along with a direction, require multiple button presses when the gauge is filled to a certain number. The attack skill is more akin to an EX special attack while the defense skill acts like a parry. The 'unique skill' which is also of use is more of an EX style flashy gap closer that adds damaging mobility options that can be added into combos. The 'unique' standard attack, in general, is simply damaging mobility that closes the gap while adding in hard sweeps, aerial attacks, and overheads.

Aside from those things the game offers an XFactor style mechanic in the form of a "Heat Up", that uses more than one heat gauge to stifle damage intake. It's very much like MvC3's Xfactor, but without the tag team relations. By pressing three specific buttons (LIGHT + UNIQUE + SKILL?) when you have more than one gauge to will trigger an animation letting you know "Heat Up" is active. Underneath the gauge will be the words "Heat up" as well until the effects have expired. Also to note is what equates to an Ultra combo or double Ultra combo. By pressing together 'HEAVY + SKILL + UNIQUE" you can can trigger this high damage dealing cinematic combo. If you double up on it when you have more than one heat gauge it will extend the combo. Those are the mechanics in a nutshell. 

MODES

As with BlazBlue, and other fighting game series 'Blade Strangers' gives you a decent amount of modes to play in. You'll find a 'Story Mode' with actual animations, dialogue, and art panels as well as an 'Arcade Mode' derivative with the usual roster battles ending in a cutscene when completed. The 'Arcade Mode' itself is a little more basic, and straightforward than the story mode, and is totally void of any story elements. Just a short series of fights leading up to a final boss fight, and a final "Game Over" screen with credits when completed. For those interested in local play you will find that awaiting you in 'Versus'. It's the routine 2 Player ordeal with couch co-op in mind. Those of you looking for online matchmaking instead of local and offline play will find a bare bones room search in "Online" with 'League (Ranked)', and 'Casual' options. Nothing too fancy, but you can search by region at least with ping indicators present by the players PSN ID listing. You can, if you want, search for a room, or host one. In the way of game learning 'Blade Strangers' gives the player a few standard options. This includes a simple, and easy to complete tutorial. In inspiration from SFV you'll also find a "Missions" listing with specific character combo breakdowns. It doesn't give you as many combos as are available to do, but it steers you in the right direction with some basic to moderate combos that can be enhanced or built upon. If you fancy the usual dummy training you will find a 'Training' mode with all the usual bells and whistles, metaphorically speaking. It's good for fine tuning your in-game strategy. The final mode, which is actually listed under 'Arcade' (I think?) is 'Survival'. It is a mode that tallies the time you survive with a single bar of health against a continuous wave of fights. It's something extra, and most definitely a welcome addition to the game's overall experience.

THE VERDICT

Offline 'Blade Strangers' is an alright fighter. Despite my complaints about it being casual to the umpteenth degree it's a competently constructed fighting game. Not only that, but the roster features a fun cast of characters to play as, complimentary mechanics that actually go well together, and plenty of modes of play to enjoy. Past the online, the game really shines. I was actually impressed with how clearly Studio Saizensen was able explain the mechanics. The button presses showed as they were on the controller (looking at you Aksys Games/Arc System Works), and nothing was confusing because the textual explanation was to the point while being less than complicated.

That having been said ... the online is bad enough to warrant complaint, but mostly because of the lag. I didn't mind the simplified region based matchmaking as it made getting in easier. The lag however ruins the experience, and from what I've witnessed there seems to be a mix of players lagswitching and netcode issues. The ping indicator is definitely not reflective of the match quality you will be faced with in a majority of cases. It is heartbreaking, and disappointing. Even with the character avatar customization, and tag/plates that can be unlocked alongside the TEKKEN inspired ranking (stars & predetermined ranks) I can't get behind the experience. It is this game's Achille's Heel. For that very reason I can only recommend this game if you aim to play it offline, or locally. Online is a pass in my opinion. I'll leave the decision up to you though.

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