With BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma Extend, Arc System Works' much admired 2D fighting series has arrived on the PlayStation 4, bringing its 28 characters to duke it out on Sony's newest console. Is this a good thing?
In short, yes, it is. BlazBlue games are crafted with care and attention, and this pays rich dividends for both a fighting game and, for those interested in such, a platform through which to tell its intriguing story. For those not in the know, BlazBlue's saga is more convoluted and twisted than many RPGs, involving a world trapped, causality, power, aspirations of Godhood, revenge, loyalty, friendship, family, battling organisations, magic, religion, science, and more.
It's truly a daunting amount to take in and piece together, and some may not feel obliged to do the groundwork required to fully appreciate. We found ourselves rather taken with the universe, both enjoying the mystery of piecing things together, and wanting to know how this saga will end. Series producer and writer Toshimichi Mori finds the prospect of writing a fighting game with a definite end an appealing prospect – indeed, this is his intention here.
For those worried that this may be a difficult entry-point, a detailed 'library' of the game's lore, characters, weaponry, and such is provided. Further, a couple of semi-animated episodes serve as a somewhat cute, sometimes humorous and enlightening overview of previous entries. The game also boasts a very thorough tutorial for its fighting systems, which are broad in scope.
This scope is mirrored through the sheer amount of content, too. Fan service is scattered throughout the game; classic stages, returning background music, and hundreds of character colours to unlock serve as just the beginning, for there are also plenty of additional extras and game modes to discover.
Of these modes, the draw for many of the BlazBlue faithful will likely be the game's aforementioned lengthy story. Spanning dozens of hours and a unified tale featuring the whole ensemble, this incredibly in-depth series of cut-scenes guide you through the game's chaos, interspersed with a handful of player decisions, the occasional battle, and quite the cliff-hanger.
This story mode is a sprite-sliding, pan-and-zoom style of animation for the vast majority, but entirely voiced – respectively understandable and impressive given its duration. The bundled expansion 'Extend' brings its own story mode, and also included are a series of smaller, stranger entries, all of varying quality.
Series aficionados may well find value with these encounters, while newcomers will be less likely to experience the same, though charging through the catch-up episodes and time spent digging into the history of this expansive universe can help. Again, some may deem this too much work, and simply choose not to engage. Indeed, these stories will be divisive – a section of players will adore them, and the rest will find progress hard-going. The setting and plot is interesting, but the slow drip-feed of information can severely hamper your enjoyment.
For those more into the action, however, there's plenty here. Arcade mode is a more focussed, traditional fare: pick a brawler, and face off against a series of enemies while experiencing a far shorter, stripped-down story that leads to a showdown with your chosen character's nemesis. Equally familiar is score attack mode and VS mode, as well as online play - the latter of which worked very smoothly during our tests.
Ranked matches, lobbies, and player matches are supported, and should you create your own lobby, it's good to see a number of options presented, including password protection, rotation style, and even text chat. The game supports cross-platform play between the PS4 and PS3 editions, too, which is always a welcome addition.
A particular highlight is Abyss Mode, where you pick a fighter and explore a 'dungeon' of sorts that's really nothing more than a series of fights. Defeating successively stronger enemies in this mode unlocks the ability to buy a variety of buffs – some character specific – in turn allowing you to take on deeper, tougher dungeons as they become unlocked.
Abyss Mode is a neat addition, progression and loot being a reliable driving force in gaming. This is, admittedly, nothing more than a vehicle for further fighting but, crucially, the fighting presented is very well executed indeed. A familiar 'anime fighter' setup is present – chain-combos, jump cancels, air combos, and such – but Chrono Phantasma's intricacies are more involved and enjoyable than most.
This is down to the large cast being well developed, and greatly boosted by the Drive System, a character-specific system of attacks, boosts, and bonuses that profoundly influence the tactics and playstyle each combatant possesses. Jin Kisaragi – series swordsman mainstay – has a drive which allows him to freeze his opponents in place upon landing certain attacks, thus granting him increased combo-ability, but with caveats and limiters to prevent infinite attack patterns, while the likes of Bullet the mercenary has an effective drive which allows her to quickly teleport to the opponent to attack when they enter range. Mastering each character and their distinct applications of the drive system is an engaging and appealing prospect, providing depth and variety that is often lacking in similar titles, and it comes together very well indeed.
A good place to see the breadth of this system is the challenge mode, which quickly highlights how each character handles and what makes them tick in combat. Each fighter has 20 challenges set, from predetermined combos to more vaguely defined challenges such as performing a combo lasting 20 seconds.
Furthermore, each character has an alternate, unlockable 'Unlimited' version. These are typically very powerful versions of their base character, with added damage, new properties attached to their attacks, and other bonuses. Meanwhile, fighting newbies will appreciate 'Stylish' mode – which permits powerful combos from rapid-fire button bashing, and will randomly block incoming attacks. Throw in powerful super moves, finishers, guard crushes, and more, and the final package is bursting with mechanics and tactics to uncover and exploit.
Binding all this together is a consistently colourful and striking presentation. Unafraid to be flashy, BlazBlue's over-the-top style lives up to its expectations: saturation, shine, and contrast are used with effective enthusiasm to reflect the game's magical, high-tech world perfectly. Characters are fantastically animated and detailed – though appear to have been scaled up and smoothed somewhat for this version, resulting in a slightly smeared blockiness.
Elsewhere, the dozens of stages are a particular highlight. From the subdued gloom of the Requiem arena to the flowing lava of Grave Marker Of Bases, battlegrounds are varied, numerous, and impressive. Similarly varied, the music is catchy and suitably evocative of the action on screen. In turn melodramatic, light-hearted, fast, and heavy, it all fits the game's stylings to a tee.
While there's little to recommend upgrading from the PlayStation 3 version of the game, BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma Extend is a confident execution of a title that knows its strengths. It may not match the subtle finesse or wider fame of heavy-hitting giants such as Tekken and Street Fighter, but instead delivers an ambitious take on storytelling in fighting games. Though this approach and delivery will not appeal to everybody, what remains is nonetheless a superb fighter with variety and much to enjoy, boasting qualities more than worthwhile in their own right.