Review: BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger Portable (Sony PSP)

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger Portable
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: 03/10/10

So about eight months ago, give or take, we took a look at the console release of BlazBlue, Ark System Works’ hot new 2D fighter, and found it to be a solid, if weird, release. The game obviously resonated with the staff, if not with me personally, as it went on to take the 2009 Fighting Game of the Year Award, and the game has a sequel coming out in a few months, dubbed BlazBlue: Continuum Shift, so all in all, the series seems to be doing well for itself, and might well become the new Guilty Gear its parent developer has been hoping for. ASW has decided that console fans shouldn’t be the only ones to experience the joy of BlazBlue, however, and have decided to bring the game to the PSP for on the go fighting action. The game, dubbed BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger Portable (henceforth referred to as BlazBlue Portable), is an attempt to faithfully recreate the experience of the console games while adding in new content for fans of the original release. The good news is that BlazBlue Portable is about as faithful a recreation as one could possibly hope for on the PSP, and the added content may well be enough to sell fans on the game. The bad news, however, is that the translation is not without its share of flaws.

As with the console release, BlazBlue Portable features a mighty involved story, for a fighting game, that is well developed and expansive all around. It seems that scientists from an organization called The Library have discovered gateways to another dimension, and apparently all of them release bad things into the world. The characters in the game have, to varying degrees, experienced these bad things and are fighting one another because of them, either directly or indirectly. As stories go, the story in BlazBlue is surprisingly in-depth for the genre, and each character has their own storyline path with multiple branches, giving you a good amount of storyline to discover and experience. There are also a whole mess of game modes to play around with, including the standard Arcade, Versus CPU and Training modes, a Story mode that allows you to go through everyone’s story, a Score Attack mode that allows you to try for a high score, Network play so you can play local friends with the game via Ad-Hoc mode, and a Gallery to view cinematic stills you’ve unlocked through Story mode. New to this release are the Legion mode, which asks you to fight through groups of foes under various conditions, and the Shop, which allows you to spend points you earn on various unlockables. BlazBlue Portable is, like its console counterpart, packed with things to do, and for folks looking for something to keep them coming back to the game after the novelty of beating on the computer wears out, there’s still lots of stuff to keep you occupied.

Visually, BlazBlue Portable looks pretty good, though not as good as its console bretheren. The sprites are still high-resolution, but are somewhat more pixilated and unclear, which is probably due to them being downscaled for the less powerful portable console. On the plus side, the special moves are still vibrant and the lighting effects dynamic, and the environments are still lively and full of personality. The animations have not noticeably suffered from the translation, and the characters are still very well animated and fluid, and as such, the game still looks pretty good all in all. The backgrounds are still rendered in 3D with the odd 2D sprite running around in them, and while the 3D isn’t as impressive as it is on the consoles, it still looks pretty good and still brings the game to life. Aurally, the music is predominantly composed of some swelling orchestral tracks and guitar-heavy metal tunes, which fits the theme and sounds incredibly awesome, as always. The voice acting is offered in both English and Japanese, again, both of which are well done, and it’s nice to see the choice available for those who want both. The sound effects consist of, as you’d expect, the sounds of someone smacking someone else in the face with any one of a number of different devices and objects, and as such, they’re very fitting and sound great. The audio is also full of little touches, like characters who hate each other saying different things as they attack in battle, that make the game feel significantly more impressive than it seems at first glance, making it feel like more than the sum of its parts. That said, it hasn’t translated as well as one would like to the PSP, and at times sounds a little washed out here and there, but not noticeably enough to hurt the experience in any significant way.

If you’ve ever played an Arc System Works fighting game before, congratulations! You know how BlazBlue works. If you’ve read my prior review of the 360 version, again, congratulations! You’re already informed on the product. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the Guilty Gear franchise entirely and didn’t read any of the reviews I’ve ever written about an ASW fighting game, well, it works like this: this time around you’re given four attack buttons, in weak, medium, strong and “Drive” flavors, which you can use in tandem with other buttons or directions to chain together combos and special moves and such. You’re given twelve characters to choose from here, each of whom has various normal and special moves at their disposal. Once again, in Arc System Works fashion, not all special moves are always universal across the buttons, meaning that a fireball motion with your weak attack might throw a projectile, while with the strong attack it might do a dashing move or something else, or it might not even do anything at all. Special attacks and their effects are dependant upon the character in question, meaning some characters have odd bars and such they have to monitor in addition to the normal bars on-screen, and other characters afflict odd status effects on opponents, among other things. You’re also given the normal “super moves”, here called Distortion Drives, which are executed once you fill your Heat (Super) Meter at the bottom the screen half way or more. Everything is fairly intuitive in any case, so you should be able to figure it out with little effort if you’ve played a fighting game, or even better, an Arc System Works game before.

BlazBlue wouldn’t be much of a new game if it just cribbed liberally from other Arc System Works games, though, so it comes equipped with some new systems for you to learn and master. For one, characters have Barriers they can deploy in addition to their normal guard, which negate blocking damage and increase enemy pushback at the cost of some of your Barrier meter, just under your life bar. The Barrier, by itself, allows you to defend against chipping damage against multi-hit attacks, but you can also use a Barrier Burst if you’re desperate, which essentially pushes back the opponent, costs them significant momentum on the Guard Libra meter (more on that in a bit), and can put them into Barrier Crush state, which essentially stuns them. Running out of Barrier meter, or using a Barrier Burst, you go into Danger status, where you take additional damage from attacks. When your Barrier is simply depleted, this is temporary, but after a Barrier Burst, it’s permanent until the end of the round, making the tactic extremely dangerous. The Guard Libra system is also fairly new, and its purpose is simple: as you block attacks, the Guard Libra meter decreases against you, and as your opponent blocks, it rises in your favor. When the meter fills for one player or the other, the opposing player enters Barrier Crush status, as noted above, which essentially means that BlazBlue is specifically tuned to punish turtlers, and THANK GOD for that. There’s also Instant Block, which is like the Parry move from Street Fighter 3 where you can block the move, reduce the damage received, and counter attack the attacker, Counter Assault, which allows you to knock back an attacker as you block their attack, and Rapid Cancel, which cancels an attack and allows you to launch another attack for big combo damage, at the cost of some of your Heat Meter. Finally, BlazBlue has Astral Heats, which are essentially instant death moves that can be used in the very last round of a match if the opponent has twenty percent or less health; they’re flashy, but often useless in regular battle unless you like showing off.

There are twelve characters for you to play as, each with their own unique style of play and mechanics to master. You can blow through Arcade Mode, which just tasks you to defeat ten enemies in succession, Story Mode, which reveals the story of the game world through branching paths and still cutscenes, and Score Attack Mode, which asks you to earn high scores by blowing through opponents. You can also view the Galleries for characters you’ve completed Story Mode with, as well as use the Training Mode to practice combos and timing for moves. There isn’t an online mode to the game, as noted, though judicious use of Xlink will allow you to emulate this thing if you wish for versus play, and you can play against local players through Ad-Hoc mode without an issue. New to the PSP release is Legion Mode, which works in a manner similar to that of the Chaos Tower in Darkstalkers Chronicle for PSP. Basically, you’re given a character and various nodes to clear, and each time you clear a node, you recover some health and can recruit a character from that node into your party. This mode is interesting and helps to keep the single player experience interesting long after the Arcade and Story modes wear out their welcome, which is certainly of benefit. Also new in the PSP release is the lack of unlockables by way of playing through the game itself. This time around, doing various things earns you points you can spend in the Store, which unlocks artwork, Unlimited versions of characters, which are basically souped-up versions of regular characters, Astral Heat moves for characters who don’t come equipped with them, and other useful things. As with the console game, BlazBlue will give you plenty of depth and substance, thanks to its numerous modes and strong online component.

Assuming, as before, you can get past the fairly steep learning curve and small roster, of course. Now, if you’ve played Guilty Gear or any of its sequels, you understand that BlazBlue is going to have a steep learning curve; special moves are not assigned to a series of buttons, but rather PER BUTTON, meaning that a fireball motion may have an effect with one button but not with any others, or that it may have two completely different effects depending on the button, and this is quite routine with Arc System Works games. What this means to the player, however, is that learning a character can be exceptionally complex, and some characters may simply be beyond your learning curve. That’s not a condemnation in a game with thirty or forty characters, but with twelve characters, if the player is only comfortable playing with six or eight, that’s limiting. The game frankly seems needlessly complex, as the various combo systems and mechanics are certainly interesting enough to carry the game on their own, but making characters who can control robots or blow people around with wind to turn the experience into a bizarre fighting/strategy game seems fairly unintuitive and unnecessarily complex. Further, as we’ve noted before, twelve characters is a low amount of characters for a fighting game released in 2010, and while it allows for a decent amount of per-character balance (not that this is true of BlazBlue in the slightest), it doesn’t really justify the asking price of a thirty dollar portable fighting game.

The game is also a bit over-the-top with its flashiness, and comes off looking like its trying to hard to be impressive when it only seems ostentatious. Also, while there are interesting new additions here like the Guard Libra system, most of the mechanics in BlazBlue are either lifted entirely from Guilty Gear or other fighting games, and while the end result is pretty in-depth, it’s not terribly original. Beyond the above, the fact is that the PSP release of BlazBlue doesn’t justify being acquired as well as the console version. The PSP isn’t a great system for fighting games, and BlazBlue Portable is no exception, as the game doesn’t feel as solid and precise during play as the console versions, and the special moves are occasionally harder to pull off. Without an easy, built-in way to play online, the game also suffers from a lack of an easy way to play online competitively, as the single player modes simply don’t hold enough weight to keep the game interesting, especially if you own a console that can play last year’s console release. What little has changed, while good, isn’t especially exciting; while a store that allows you to buy unlockables is a nice addition, Legion mode is, as noted, very similar to the Chaos Tower mode in Darkstalkers Chronicle, which is problematic, as fighting game fans have seen it before, and frankly, Darkstalkers Chronicle is a superior game in all respects.

If you were a big fan of the console release or you don’t have a 360 or PS3 and want to play the game, BlazBlue Portable is worth the thirty dollar asking price, but it doesn’t hold up well enough as a handheld fighting game or a port to make it worth owning for casual fans, even with the additions. The presentation is solid, even if it’s a little over-the-top and doesn’t compare well to the console release, there’s a lot of content in the game between the different game modes and the large, multi-path stories, and the game mechanics are mostly excellent. There’s some significant depth to the game mechanics, some worthwhile additions to the PSP release, and both alone or against others, there’s a lot of fun and challenge to be found in the game. Unfortunately, the game can potentially be impenetrable to neophytes, between the weird gameplay mechanics Arc System Works is known for and the strange characters, and the low character roster makes the game feel shallow. Further, the overall game feels needlessly complex and unoriginal, like a cobbling together of fighting mechanics from other games into an impressive experience rather than its own thing. It doesn’t help that the PSP release removes the online component, leaving the player to make their own online play if they want the option, nor does it help that the PSP controls don’t work as well as the console controls. Make no mistake, BlazBlue Portable is still a fun time, but it’s not as interesting as its console counterpart, and frankly, a year later, it’s not as interesting as it was in the first place.

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

Short Attention Span Summary:
BlazBlue Portable is still somewhat impressive and still enjoyable enough that fans of the console release and fighting game fans with no access to said release will enjoy it, but casual players and those with access to the console versions can safely pass this by for several reasons. The game is both visually and aurally enjoyable, if a bit too “loud” at times and not as impressive as its console counterpart, and there’s a sizable amount of non-character related content in the game. A good amount of modes, added content for the PSP version, an adequate multiplayer component, and a decent amount of storyline paths and extras to unlock will keep you coming back for more if the game is something you’re interested in. Unfortunately, the game feels almost aggressively counter-intuitive at times, between Arc System Works’ need to make the default controls completely different from every other fighting game in existence and the fact that several characters feature what can politely be described as bizarre play styles. Further, the game feels shallow and unoriginal, thanks to the low character roster, the fact that many of the mechanics in BlazBlue have been seen in other fighting games, the less than ideal PSP control mechanics, and the additions to the game that have been seen several times before in other fighting games. While the upcoming console sequel might be the game that makes the series notable this year, BlazBlue Portable is an acceptable portable release of a game that’s a good bit better on the consoles, and unless you’re desperate for a handheld version of the game, there’s no reason to pick this up.