BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Review

BlazBlue (pronounced “Blaze Blue”……yeah I know, just roll with it) is a franchise born of tragedy. When legendary fighting game developer Arc System Works lost the development rights of their much loved Guilty Gear series to Sega, they took the best option left to them. They set out to make a new franchise, one that would take all the elements that made Guilty Gear so popular but push it up to the next level. Thus BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger was born, and despite a growing public disinterest in the dying genre of 2D fighters, turned out to be a hit. Now that the hard part was out of the way, all Arc had to do was show they could continue improving the BlazBlue formula to meet ever rising expectations. Something they certainly achieved with the second main entry in the series, Continuum Shift.

Pictured: A catgirl with giant claws preparing to slice through a cyborg suspended in the air while a samurai cat flies across the screen with a giant katana in his mouth. Yes, this game rocks

I suppose if you take it down to the basics it works like any other fighting game: there’s one fighter on each side of the screen that wants to pummel the other until they stop getting up, you play as one of them. Press attack buttons to make stuff happen, press direction buttons in the right order followed by an attack button to make cool stuff happen, press direction buttons in the right order followed by an attack button while you super gauge is partially filled to make REALLY cool stuff happen. There’s a bunch of crazy mechanics on top of that like instant blocking, rapid cancels, counter assaults, guard crushes, break bursts etc, but to be honest a lot of that only matters if you plan on getting seriously competitive. In the end you can pretty much play through most of the game without having even the slightest clue how any of those things work.

All you really need to know to begin with is that you have 4 attack buttons, weak, medium, strong and drive, and it’s that drive button that really makes the game exiting. Each character has their own unique mechanics tied to it like summoning insects, freezing opponents in ice, magnetic fields, throwing grappling hooks and all that. What this all means is that no two characters play alike, something that helps offset the relatively small size of the roster. Not that I’d say the roster size is a flaw or anything,  it’s just a byproduct of the franchise not having over a decade to build up mountains of dudes like Street Fighter or Tekken have. Although it has expanded slightly over Calamity Trigger by adding 2 new story mode characters, the franchise’s first unlockable character and some DLC packs that let you play as popular supporting characters in some modes.

The characters all fall into rather rigid anime stereotypes, but well developed backstories stop them from feeling too generic

It seems that rather than just throwing loads of new characters in for the sake of it, the interim year since Calamity Trigger’s release was spent giving the original cast lots of new moves as well tweaking their playstyle. But as with any fighting game, character balance is….still a bit of an issue. There’ve been a lot of good balance corrections since Calamity Trigger for sure, but most of them will go totally over the heads of casual players who are unlikely to notice much difference. Don’t get me wrong though, Continuum Shift is probably one of the most casual friendly fighting games out there. Almost all the moves are pretty simple to pull off by fighting game standards and drive attacks are often as simple as pressing the drive button, so if you don’t have much experience you can still make cool looking things happen without too much practice. Even then the game offers a new “beginner mode” control scheme that massively simplifies all the attacks and combos.

In terms of actual gameplay modes you have a nice range of options: You got your standard Arcade mode where you just fight guys until no ones left. A Training mode where you can practice on an AI dummy. Score attack mode which is more or less an arcade mode but with ultra hard bosses towards the end and an online leaderboard. It’s defiantly a pain to finish it completely but it lets you unlock powered up “unlimited” versions of whichever character you were playing as when you do. Then there’s Challenge mode and Tutorial mode, very nice additions indeed. They aim to teach you all the mechanics and combos in the game for each individual character, starting off with the basics and gradually working up to advanced techniques used in competitive level play. Legion mode on the other hand is a hand-me-down from Calamity Trigger portable for the PSP. Essentially you have to conqueror every node on a grid by challenging each node’s team of characters. If you win the challenge you get to add someone from the defeated team to your own, but if you lose you lose anyone defeated on your team permanently.  Even on the low difficulty Legion mode can get pretty hard, so its more or less just for those who want to really test themselves. Of course there’s also the obligatory online multiplayer mode too. But bare in mind most of the people still playing a fighting game online after the first week or so are usually in it to win, don’t expect any mercy.

This move is called “Musou Senshouzan” aka the “ice car”. At casual level play it’s cheap as hell and very easy to pull off. Prepare to see it a lot.

And then finally, the real shining star of Continuum Shift, Story mode. Okay, for most fighting games “story” just means short kinda crappy animations at the beginning and end of arcade mode along with a paragraph in the instruction manual that reads “Once upon a time, a bad person set up a fighting tournament”. However Calamity Trigger did a good job of breaking the mould by adding a lot of well written banter, multiple story paths and character development between fights and without having to rely on the worn out “tournament” setting. Continuum Shift takes that and throws it into overdrive, the resulting amount of narrative is truly astounding by any standard. The actual battles in Story mode often only last a few seconds so a lot of the time it’s really easy to forget there’s any fights at at all. Seriously, the ratio of story to actual gameplay is astronomically one sided, even the (hilarious) gag endings probably have more dialog than most other fighting games put together.

The “help me professor Kokonoe” gag sketches make deliberate game overs more than worthwhile. The level of self-awareness in some of the jokes really caught me off guard the first time round.

And it’s not all mindless drivel or anything like that either. For the most part both the dialog and narration flows smoothly from one thing to the next, slowly building up the history and motivations for each character. The BlazBlue world itself is also pretty compelling thanks to vast amounts of lore, most of which bears little relevance to the plot but instead helps expand the universe into one more comparable to an RPG than a straight up fighting game. And a visually striking universe it is at that, Arc System Works certainly didn’t use 2D as an excuse to half ass the graphics; instead they pushed the visual ascetics to the absolute extreme. The special effects really are glorious and the backgrounds are a master class on how good blending 2D and 3D can actually look when done properly. But most importantly Continuum Shift sports some very classy voice acting across the board, especially from the main villain Hazama whose psychotic mannerisms really are a first-rate performance.

I’ll be the first to admit though, it’s all a bit of a mess. A lot of BlazBlue’s story elements revolve around divergent alternate realities, time travel, supernatural plot McGuffins and a few other headache inducing sci-fi tropes all accompanied by copious amounts of incomprehensible jargon. But at least with Continuum Shift you get some nice bits of exposition to help to unravel some of the more obscure aspects, something that was more or less left up to your imagination in Calamity Trigger. However characters will sometimes fall back into their old habits by spouting a bunch of important sounding mumbo-jumbo that everyone but the player seems to understand. I don’t know if it’s bad writing or we’re just not meant to know what it all means until the next game, either way it’s a bit of a let-down if you’re just starting to get immersed in the whole thing.

Arc System Works once again worked their guitar shredding rock ’n’ roll magic with Continuum Shift’s background music

There’s also one pretty fundamental problem with the story that stands out more than anything. You see, characters seem to like using the words “Azure Grimoire” and “BlazBlue” interchangeably, to the extent that in some scenes the dialog box will say one thing and the voice over will say the other. Now, I’ve played both BlazBlue games a lot, and I still have no freaking idea if they’re meant to mean the same thing or not! They really need to add some sort of BlazBlue dictionary in the next game to help keep track of all this stuff, or at the very least help people who didn’t play through Calamity Trigger get up to speed (FYI: if you’re one of those people, you’re gonna have a really rough time catching up).

I’m sure there’ll be those who complain having such a large story mode in the first place is a problem in itself and that it only serves to undermine the core “fighting game” concept. While I suppose there’s an element of truth in that, Continuum Shift isn’t just a Guilty Gear clone nor is it a swan song for the 2D fighter. If anything it represents the next evolutionary step in the genre. It’s fighter that’s intuitive and helpful enough for beginners to enjoy but still deep enough for competitive play and place where narrative is treated as a feature rather than an excuse for endless combat. Sure, it’s still got quite a few kinks to work out, but it’s going where few fighters have ever gone before and for that I’d happily recommend everyone to at least give it a try, especially if they’ve found fighting games to be a bit daunting in the past.

The Good

  • Solid fighting system.
  • Narrative large enough to be its own stand alone novel.
  • Drive system makes every character have a unique playstyle.
  • Extremely accessible (for a fighting game) to newcomers .

The Bad

  • Either the writers or translators still can’t decide what the titular “BlazBlue” actually is.
  • Purists might be annoyed at the plot overshadowing the “game” bit.
  • Story very jargon heavy, needs an in-game dictionary of some kind.
  • Character balance needs some work.

Recommended similar games
Any fighting game by Arc System Works
Melty Blood
Marvel vs Capcom 2
Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure

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