Review: Melty Blood: Actress Again (PS2 Import)

Melty Blood: Actress Again
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Ecole
Publisher: Ecole
Release Date: 08/20/09


So, readers of the Fate/Unlimited Codes review more than likely noted that Melty Blood was name-dropped more than a few times, and there’s a reason for that: Melty Blood was actually Type Moon’s FIRST fighting game based on their written works, specifically Tsukihime, an eroge visual novel, Kagetsu Tohya, its sequel, and Kara no Kyoukai, a series of novels published by Type Moon before they started making games. Melty Blood started out as a PC fighting game before migrating to the PS2 with Melty Blood: Act Cadenza, which was a surprisingly solid game, considering it mostly featured a cast consisting of teenage girls and sensitive-looking boys. It was a fast-paced and fun fighting game that was well designed and was artistically, if not technologically, interesting. Well, the PS2 may be reaching the end of its life span here in the US, but in Japan, it’s still got some life to it, as Type Moon, by way of developer Ecole, has seen fit to release a sequel to Melty Blood: Act Cadenza, dubbed Melty Blood: Actress Again. Silly subtitle notwithstanding, the game is a substantial upgrade to the 2006 fighter, featuring several new characters, some significant gameplay additions, and just as much personality as ever. If you consider yourself a fan of fighting games and have a PS2 that can play imports, well, hopefully this review will convince you as to why you need to check it out.

If you can’t play import games, well, PS2’s are cheap now. Go buy a Japanese one. I don’t know.

So, there’s a story to Melty Blood: Actress Again, but as it’s mostly in Japanese, understanding it is generally unlikely unless you somehow know how to read kanji. Insofar as I’m able to piece it together, the events of Melty Blood in general take place around a year after the events of Tsukihime, and more or less revolve around Sion Eltnam Atlasia, an estranged member of The Mage’s Association (an organization in the game universe concerned with concealing mages from the rest of the world) who’s been infected with vampirism and is seeking the cure. Apparently she has some business with Arcueid Brunestud, who fans will know to be one of the main characters from Tsukihime. Apparently Sion believes Arcueid has some knowledge of how to cure said vampirism. Arcueid doesn’t, exactly, but after Sion picks a fight with Shiki Tohno, who is basically the main character of Tsukihime, and Shiki decides to help Sion, because that’s how fighting games work. There’s our starting point, more or less. Most of the characters in the game have some form or storyline to their Arcade Mode battles, as well as a storyline boss, depending on the character. Again, since the story itself is virtually unintelligible, this isn’t a big deal or anything, but the story of Tsukihime is actually quite good, and by all indications, so is the story in Melty Blood: Actress Again, if this interests you. Game modes wise, you’re offered the standard Arcade, Versus and Training Modes, as well as a Survival Mode and an unlockable Boss Rush mode. The game also offers you the option to review cinematics from Survival Mode, listen to the game music (remember when that was a normal thing and not a “special” addition?), and review your rankings from Arcade and Survival Mode. Aside from the Boss Rush mode, there’s nothing especially new and different in Melty Blood: Actress Again, mode-wise, that you haven’t seen in other products, but what’s in the game is diverse and respectable enough that the developers have no reason to be ashamed of it.

Visually, Melty Blood: Actress Again is artistically impressive. The various characters feature tons of animations, all of which are generally quite good and flow into one another well. The different stages are colorful and lively, and the special effects are all mostly quite flashy without being tacky and give the game a real flair. However, the character sprites are somewhat pixilated, almost to the level of some older SNK fighting games, which hurts the visuals a little, though not enough to be detrimental. Aurally, the game is fantastic. The voice acting is quite nice, and the characters all feature appropriate voices that work for the characters. The sound effects are generally stellar and make the on-screen action feel appropriately powerful when you’re unleashing a nasty combo on an opponent. The music is really the aural star, however, as it’s an eclectic mix of orchestral tunes, jazzy beats, and electronic dance tracks that all come together into an outstanding mix of music that’s on par with any of your favorite game soundtracks. If you can find a copy, you’ll probably want to own the soundtrack, is what I’m saying here.

Now, if you read the Fate/Unlimited Codes review and you’ve managed to put two and two together here, you probably have a decent idea of how Melty Blood: Actress Again plays. If not, the game feels, at first, like various Arc System Works fighting games mixed up with some Street Fighter. Your characters are given three attack buttons to work with, which are weak, medium and strong, and can be used in combination for multi-hit chains. The special moves should seem fairly familiar to fighting fans, as they’re done in a fashion similar to those of Street Fighter and similar games, IE fireball and dragon punch motions are common. The game is otherwise fairly standard; double-tapping forward or backward dashes, holding back blocks, pressing up jumps and you can double-jump by pressing up again, pressing down ducks, pressing light and medium with forward or backward throws an opponent, and so on. The game has a few additional basic tricks up its sleeve, like the ability to knock opponents into the walls, for example, but fans of the genre should be able to pick up the basics with little to no effort, as the game is quite user friendly in its design, and you’ll be pulling off basic moves and combos with little time invested.

But the game has a metric ton of gameplay depth beyond the surface, and mastering that will probably be what you’ll spend the most time doing. Like Fate/Unlimited Codes, the game has a special guard button, called the Shield button here. As you might expect, pressing it brings up a protective field either as a brief counter attempt (Normal) or as a full protective barrier to negate chip damage (EX Shield), at the cost of some of your Magic Circuit Gauge. Speaking of the Magic Circuit Gauge, as in Fate/Unlimited Codes, it works as your Super Meter. You can build multiple levels up by attacking and blocking, and you can use the energy to unleash EX Moves, which are essentially powered up special attacks ALA Darkstalkers. You can also go into Heat and Blood Heat modes when the bar has a certain amount of energy in it (one hundred percent for Heat, three hundred percent for Blood Heat), which restore health, and from Heat, Blood Heat or MAX (full bar) modes, you can unleash Arc Drive Moves, which are your supers. MAX and Heat modes allow you to unleash regular Arc Drives, while Blood Heat allows for powered up Arc Drives that deal added damage. A new addition to Melty Blood: Actress Again is the Guard Meter, which depletes as you block attacks, and breaks if you spend too much time blocking, putting you into Guard Crush and leaving you open to attack. There are also all sorts of advanced techniques to master, such as Circuit Spark, which knocks back an attacking opponent at the cost of all of your Magic Circuit gauge, EX Guard, where you guard a move as it’s coming at you to block the move and restore some of your Guard meter, and Last Arc Moves, which are essentially uber-flashy Super Moves that you can kick in by EX Shielding against an attack while in Blood Heat, and skilled players will find a whole lot of depth to the mechanics to study and master.

Now, I imagine that the above two paragraphs kind of sounded familiar to those of you who are fans of the genre, as a lot of the above mechanics and such are implemented, to various extents, in other fighting games. You might ask yourself, “Well, if the game is like Guilty Gear or whatever, why should I import it when I can buy Guilty Gear?” Well, you would buy it because the game has one more trick up its sleeve, one more mechanic that really MAKES the game worth the investment, one final mechanic that makes Melty Blood: Actress Again a game that fighting game fans should not be without.

This mechanic would be the Moons.

See, when you pick your character, you can also pick what Moon style they use in battle. You’re given a choice of three: Crescent Moon, which is balanced and will feel familiar to fans of Melty Blood: Act Cadenza, Half Moon, which is focused on combo ability at the cost of power, and Full Moon, which focuses on damage output at the cost of technical ability. Each has its strengths and weaknesses that make each style worth using, depending on the character chosen and the style of the player. Now, this sounds simple enough, I’m sure: plenty of fighting games offer multiple play styles to choose from, and we’ve been seeing these sorts of mechanics for years. Hell, Street Fighter Alpha 3 and King of Fighters “Ëœ98 both did this sort of thing, and these games are over a decade old at this point, so this sort of a system is hardly a new thing, right?

Well, Melty Blood: Actress Again does a little more to make the Moon styles their own unique snowflakes, and actually succeeds at it quite well. Each Moon features different mechanical changes that make their play style different from one another in notable and significant ways, both for serious and casual players. Crescent Moon style will be most familiar to Melty Blood fans, as it’s based off of the standard mechanics of the series. The Magic Circuit Gauge can be charged to three hundred percent, players can use Heat and Blood Heat as normal, characters can dodge, use EX Guards and use normal and EX Shields, among other things. Half Moon style is designed for pure combo and counter play. The Magic Circuit Gauge can only be charged to two hundred percent, players cannot directly employ Heat mode and are robbed of Blood Heat entirely, and characters cannot EX Guard or Shield, though dodging and normal shields are available. On the other hand, new combo chains are available, the character immediately kicks into Heat mode when their Magic Circuit Gauge is full and will automatically Circuit Spark when in Heat to knock opposition off, thus allowing you to really pour the offensive on. Full Moon style focuses on pure damage over everything else. The Magic Circuit Gauge can be charged to three hundred percent, players can use Blood Heat as normal but not Heat, and you can use EX Guards and use normal shields, though dodging and EX Shields are disabled. You can also cancel into Heat mode from regular or special attacks, kind of like Roman Canceling in Guilty Gear, if that helps.

The most impressive part of the various Moon styles is that the characters generally feature different special moves from one style to the next, with some characters featuring minute changes (Akiha Tohno mostly keeps the same basic movies with only one or two changes through her styles) and others seeing complete overhauls (Aoko Aozaki almost becomes a different character entirely). This means that you aren’t simply changing a character’s style superficially, you’re often seeing them change dramatically from one form to the next. Let’s use Aoko Aozaki as an example, since she’s pretty much my primary character anyway. In Crescent Moon style, she has a beam projectile, a damaging shield she can throw up, a ball of energy she can place in the environment as a booby trap, a screen-crossing forward kick, and an upward beam strike. Her moveset is primarily offensive, but she has some significant defensive abilities to work with. Her Half Moon style trades up the trap ball for a ground projectile, but is otherwise mostly similar. Her Full Moon style, however, completely changes up her moveset. Her beam projectile is replaced with a regular fireball, her shield is replaced with a ground spin kick, her forward kick is replaced with a flash kick style anti-air attack, and her trap ball attack works in a significantly different manner. This isn’t the rule, of course, and some characters will showcase only minute changes, but the fact that you can potentially throw off someone’s game by picking a character that not only features a different style but ALSO a different move list from what they were expecting is pretty cool.

The Arcade Mode is fairly standard. You fight through eight regular battles and then face off against your chosen character’s boss, and some conversation pops up during certain fights as the story dictates. The Versus Mode allows you to play against the CPU or another player in standard one-on-one fights, and allows you to select stages and handicaps as you’d expect. Survival Mode sets you against an endless wave of opponents, with each fighting harder than the last, and Boss Rush Mode allows you to run through the various final bosses if you want to prove you’re skilled enough to take on a route of NOTHING BUT bosses. Training Mode is fairly in-depth, and allows you to practice against a training dummy, the CPU or another player with a large number of settings to play around with if you want to practice or just test things out. The game comes with twenty-five characters unlocked to start, and allows you to unlock five additional characters (bosses, actually), meaning the character roster is fairly robust, even if some characters are really “evil” versions of other characters. The game also has lots of little things crammed in, like the ability to revisit storyline scenes you’ve seen before, the sound test, and thirty-six costumes per character, that many players will appreciate simply because not every game does these things.

The biggest complaint one can lay at the feet of Melty Blood: Actress Again is that the game is incredibly complex; while the basics of combo chaining and special moves are simple to pick up, mastering the various high-level techniques the game employs (and I didn’t even mention all of the techniques, like reverse chains, Shield Bunkers, and Shield Counters) really mean that you’ll be spending a whole lot of time mastering the basics of the game. Now, complex gameplay isn’t so bad, but the game feels TOO complex for its own good at times, and the series seems like it’s openly trying to become MORE complex with things like the Moon styles, and while the game doesn’t need to be dumbed down, streamlining the experience a bit might help make it seem less daunting to new players. The game also suffers from SNK Boss syndrome, depending on the boss you face; bosses like Neco-Arc and Mech-Hisui (as in two characters at once) are generally tolerable to face, but bosses like Dust of Osiris (think Onslaught from Marvel vs. Capcom) and ArcheType-Earth (Arcueid Brunestud FROM HELL) are outright offensive to face down in combat if one isn’t prepared for the unholy ass-kicking they lay out. The game also has the occasional odd balance issues, and while with around thirty characters to unlock, each with multiple different special move sets, this might be understandable… the aforementioned boss from Hell, ArcheType-Earth, is an unlockable character. She’s, uh, still pretty broken when you play as her, if you’re curious. Of course, you could simply not ever play as her, but even so, you would think the developers would have simply come up with a way for the character to NOT be broken in regular play before they made her a playable character.

If you can look past the somewhat complex mechanics and odd balance issues here and there, Melty Blood: Actress Again is one of the best fighting games on the PS2, one of the best fighting games released this year, and a game that’s well worth importing if you have the means to do so. The story is solid if you have the means to understand it or the time to hunt it down online, there’s plenty to do with the game, the visuals are mostly quite nice, and the audio is stellar. The basic gameplay is simple to pick up and understand for newbies and veterans alike, and there’s a whole lot of interesting and useful tactics to master for those who are inclined to do so, and the Moon styles make the game a good bit more interesting and exciting for players who’re looking for a game that isn’t just the same old mechanics stuffed into one disc. The character models are a little pixelated, the game is complex to a level that may intimidate new players at first, and there are some notable balance issues at times between the SNK Boss fights and the odd unbalanced playable characters, but by and large, these are mostly forgivable issues. Melty Blood: Actress Again is a fast-paced and fun fighting game with a lot of style and substance, and anyone who counts themselves as a fan of the genre in any way will get their money’s worth from the game.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: UNPARALLELED
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED
FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Melty Blood: Actress Again, despite its silly name, is a no-nonsense fantastic fighting game that’s sure to please casual players and hardcore fighting game fans alike, despite some small issues in presentation and balance. The storyline is solid if one has the interest in searching it out or can read Japanese, there’s a good variety to the game modes, the visuals are mostly solid thanks to the artistic design and the fluid animations, and the audio of the game is top notch in all respects. The gameplay basics are simple to pick up and will feel familiar to most fighting game fans, but the advanced play mechanics are exceptionally diverse and complex, and the Moon style system is a surprisingly interesting addition that adds to the depth of the game by offering numerous fighting styles per character and changing up some special moves depending on the character and style. The characters are a little pixelated and don’t compare to more modern 2D fighting games, the gameplay mechanics can seem daunting at first thanks to the immense amount of things one can do in battle to turn the tide or press the advantage, and the game suffers from SNK Boss syndrome and features a few unbalanced playable characters, which may put off some players. Overall, however, Melty Blood: Actress Again is a fighting game fans of the genre shouldn’t be without if they have access to an import-ready PS2, as it’s one of the best fighting games to come out in a long time in every way that matters.

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