Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax has made the leap West. Released for the Vita and PlayStation 3 eleven months ago in Japan, the assist-based 2D fighter brings together characters from the Dengeki Bunko portfolio in a Sega-themed world to battle against a mysterious, evil force.
Featuring 14 playable characters and 23 more cameo appearances as assists, this clashing of worlds is clearly set up to be a Dengeki Bunko follower's dream: Mikoto Misaka can face off against Shizuo Helwajima, Tomoka Minato, Kirino Kosaka, and so on, while 8 additional scrappers make up the publishing house's contingent. Two from Sega's own stable serve as semi-hidden characters: one unlocked by completing the game, the other under slightly stricter conditions.
Indeed, fanservice makes up a significant portion of the game's content – the title hosts a good amount of unlockable content: light novel covers, artwork, and alternate colour schemes for characters are available, as well as recordings by the voice actors. These are typically small utterances used throughout the game, but there are longer entries where some of the actors discuss their character, and personal experiences relating to their work in more depth.
Arcade Mode is familiar fighting fare featuring a woeful story involving dreams, hope, and despair, and just about serves as a device to bring characters from various worlds together. It's insipid and particularly tiresome - every word of dialogue uttered by the game's protagonist and antagonist to further the story is identical regardless of the player's chosen character. To unlock much of the game's content, players will be hearing this a lot. Or skipping it.
It all just feels weak, as it's fair to expect far more involved writing given the available material. Increasingly baffling is the fact that the stages are all Sega-themed, despite having the 11 Dengeki worlds of the main cast to draw from. Fans of Sword Art Online may well look forward to picking Asuna and battling a buddy playing Kirito, but we doubt that they'd ever wish to do so in Green Hill Zone, of all places.
Dream Duel offers a more appealing premise for Dengeki Bunko fans. Here we're shown what would happen if two heroes from various franchises met, and, of course, how they'd end up fighting. Kirino and Miyuki chat about brotherly love, then fight. Shizuo and Rentaro become increasingly irate over confusion regarding prostheses, then fight. Featuring endearingly direct dialogue - for we know with certainty where these exchanges are leading - fans will draw some amusement from these interactions.
Rounding off single player modes, Time Attack, Survival, and Score Attack modes are present. These modes present precisely what is expected – a series of fights to gain a record time, high score, or defeating a large number of enemies before the player falls – and come with online leader-boards, which worryingly appear to very sparsely populated, perhaps indicative of a very low player base or even a bug. The game also features a standard training mode, housing various options that fighting game players have come to expect.
The fighting system in Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax is very accessible; special moves are performed in exactly the same way by the entire crew. Powerful triggers to activate buffs, cancels, and defensive options are all achieved by hitting two or three buttons at the same time. Attacks can be chained together simply – light to medium to strong – and mashing light attack results in a pre-set combo that isn't terribly powerful, but feels good to land and looks suitably impressive.
For a game that may be aimed at the Dengeki Bunko hardcore as much as fighting game players, this accessibility is clearly a considered move, but one heavy with consequence. The roster is small, and this problem is exacerbated by the done-to-death chain combo system and standardised special move commands across the board – it makes the few available characters feel less distinct to play. Needless to say, we soon became a little bored with the game.
Thankfully, things get more in-depth when it comes to meter management: everybody has 5 levels of super meter, starts off with two single-use 'Trump Cards', and a Blast ability, which, similar to calling assists, is rationed through a cooldown timer. Super meter allows the use of the ultra-damaging Critical Arts, calling assists during combos, and EX special moves. Trump cards power up your fighter's Climax Arts, deliver incredibly strong attacks, or provide timed buffs. Blasts come in three varieties depending on the situation that you're in when you activate them, and can be used to cancel attacks, escape dangerous situations, power up your character, and gain super meter.
These resource management aspects of the game are quite involved in contrast to the stripped-down command set, yet you won't find this information presented in-game – there's no tutorial at all. Luckily, there is a software manual available on the XMB (while the game is running), and excellent resources available online. Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is undoubtedly more interesting after exploring the intricacies of these mechanics, and as such, it's maddening that none of it's explained in the training mode.
You'll need all the above tools when you venture online, too, as competition can be tough. Online modes are as expected - ranked matches for glory, player matches for more casual fun. Ranked mode has some neat filters: players can specify regional preferences, minimum network performance, and there is a system in place to punish frequent rage-quitters. The online experience is varied, though – a poor connection will simply freeze the game until each client is in sync, meaning that you feel lag very badly when it hits, but when there's a good connection between opponents, all is fine.
When it comes down to more practical considerations, the game runs well; a steady framerate is delivered at all times. The game sits at 720p, however, and this can lead to some of the character sprites having rather jagged edges - but the presentation is faithful to the source material, and well animated. What's more, the characters themselves look distinctive, and have personality aplenty. Similarly, the backgrounds are interesting and colourful, and while they're nothing to write home about, they serve to provide variety and a splash of colour. Plus, load-times are exceptionally fast.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, is largely anonymous yet vaguely catchy in places, and of course, the voice acting is exactly as it should be – all 37 characters and assists are professionally voiced by the original voice actors with the one exception of Kino, apparently voiced by Aya Hisakawa for this outing.
Being laser-focussed on its demographic, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is a difficult game to assess, and a difficult game to recommend to everybody. Fighting game players who are fans of Dengeki Bunko's work will surely enjoy the title and its bonus content – especially with like-minded friends on hand. However, once these extras have been exhausted and it comes down to the gameplay, a single fact remains: there are many better fighters on the PS3.