Inside Pulse 12

Review: Melty Blood: Actress Again Current Code (PC)

Melty Blood: Actress Again Current Code
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Ecole/French Bread
Publisher: Arc System Works
Release Date: 04/19/16

Seven years ago, Melty Blood: Actress Again came out on the Playstation 2, and on a whim, I decided to import it, because I was on a huge fighting game kick at the time. Knowing that the odds were fairly low of the game ever making its way to the US, I wrote a review of the game regardless, and I ended that review with the following sentiment:

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.

Seven years have passed since that point, and aside from the odd aside recommending someone release the game to the US market, I mostly assumed that this thing was simply never going to happen… until this year, when Arc System Works opted to take a chance on the game by bringing it stateside on the PC. You’d think, at first, that this might be a bad idea, given that the game I reviewed was released on the PS2 and considering how PC ports have been hit-or-miss in the past couple of years, but surprisingly, that’s not as much of an issue as you’d think, as the franchise has been a PC native long before its PS2 port was released. With fighting games becoming more and more viable on the PC, that’s a great thing, considering how poorly ports like Mortal Kombat X fared, and in a year where more than a few of the fighting game releases have been divisive at best, it’s fantastic to see Melty Blood finally get a US release to, hopefully, offset that.

This would be the part where I say something like, “But how does it hold up?” or whatever, but spoilers, it’s fantastic. Let’s look at why.

On Japanese VNs and fighting games, no, really

So it’s… kind of difficult to explain the storyline of Melty Blood without getting into its origins, so buckle up: the franchise was Type Moon’s very first foray into fighting games, and takes its characters and plot from three of their core franchises (at the time): 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. Casual fans of VNs are likely more familiar with their more famous work, Fate/Stay Night, as well as its many, many sequels and spin-offs, but Tsukihime, which is what most of Melty Blood is derived from, was also pretty damn popular in Japan in its own right, and the game derives a decent amount of its plot beginnings from that series. Explaining what it’s about is a bit harder, though; 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 Church 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, as apparently Sion believes Arcueid has some knowledge of how to cure said vampirism. This particular game picks up a year after the events of the original Melty Blood, as Arcueid, Sion, and Shiki Tohno (the protagonist of Tsukihime) defeated the Night of Wallachia (which, surprisingly, is a dude, not an event), but now, one year later, the events of one year prior are replaying, and everyone seems to have forgotten Sion along the way.

From a plot perspective, it’s… challenging to really understand what’s going on in Melty Blood this far into the plotline, but it’s not impossible, and to its credit, the translated storyline dialogue actually helps out a lot toward explaining what’s going on. Playing as Shiki and Sion in particular fills in a lot of the core gaps in the plot, and everyone has their own unique storyline that explains a lot of the basic concepts and elements, though some (Shiki, Sion) are easier to understand than others (Arcueid, Aoko). Put simply, you can infer or figure out about half of what’s going on just by playing through the storyline, which is mostly pretty solid (Type Moon are VN creators, after all), but for the rest, you’ll probably want to start with the Type Moon wiki page on the game and go down the clickhole from there. On the other side of things, when discussing the game modes, you’re offered the standard Arcade, Versus and Training Modes you’d expect, though, surprisingly, the Survival and Boss Rush modes seem to have been removed (or it’s not spelled out how to unlock them very well if they’re here). However, the game adds in Network Mode, which allows you to play online against others in Ranked or Player battles as you wish, meaning you can practice against actual players if you wish. It’s kind of sad that the game lost modes along the way, as well as the gallery options, but the volume of modes here are balanced out enough that for the price that what’s here isn’t wholly unreasonable. Hopefully some more single player modes will find their way into the game for more casual players, but what’s here isn’t bad, all in all.

Visually, Melty Blood is artistically impressive, and while time hasn’t been kind to the visuals all in all, the animations and artistry more than hold up. The various characters feature tons of animations, all of which are generally quite pleasant and flow into one another well. The different stages are also colorful and lively, and the special effects are all mostly quite flashy without being tacky and give the game a real flair. That said, at the time of release the sprites themselves were pixelated and technically inferior, and time has done little to change this. The game does offer a solid character filter, fortunately, and Full filtering cleans up most of this well, but it’s best to note that the game isn’t a technical marvel aesthetically; if you prefer fluid animation and effects the game still works wonders, but those wanting top-shelf sprites might find this lacking. Aurally, however, the game was fantastic when it released, and time has done nothing to change that. 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.

On play and its many variations

If you’re at all familiar with other Ecole/French Bread fighting games (Under Night In Birth Exe/Dengeki Bunko), you’ll likely be familiar with how Melty Blood operates, but if not, the simplest way to describe the mechanics are that they feel like an Arc System Works fighting game crossbred itself with 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 work off of the standard Street Fighter template, meaning that you’ll use common motions to execute moves and moving up the button power chain increases the damage/hits of the move. 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 shield (more on that in a bit) 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. While you can block attacks normally, the game has a special guard button, called the Shield button here, and 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. Said Magic Circuit Gauge works as your Super Meter, meaning 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 allows you to unleash regular Arc Drives, while Heat and Blood Heat allows for powered up Arc Drives that deal added damage. The game also utilizes some of the guard punishment tools games like Guilty Gear has added to its repertoire, through the Guard Meter; this depletes as you block attacks (either normally or with Shield), 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, a lot of the above should sound pretty familiar to genre fans, as games like, again, Guilty Gear and other ASW adjacent franchises have adopted similar mechanics over the years, to variable degrees of success. With that in mind, you might ask yourself, “Well, if Guilty Gear does all of this, why wouldn’t I just buy REVELATOR instead of this?” Now, in an ideal world, you’d probably just get both, but if that’s not an option, the core reason that Melty Blood stands out over more current games comes down not to its core mechanics, but rather to a system that has been emulated by other games, but never to the same interesting extent: Moon Signs. When you pick a character, the game presents you with three play options, dubbed Moon Signs, which dictate how your character plays in battle. Crescent Moon style is the type most fighting game fans will be familiar with, as it’s balanced on combos and offers more defensive options than the others, and is likely going to be the style most experienced players default to. Half Moon, on the other hand, is a simplified play style, but not in the Stylish style of Guilty Gear; instead, combos are easier to use and create and the Block meter is more forgiving, but characters deal less damage and have less advanced options, making it great for less experienced (or more combo-focused aggressive) players. Finally, Full Moon style is a purely high damage focused play style, which not only frequently changes your character’s moveset altogether, and allows for manual Magic Circuit charging, at the cost of many of your technical defensive moves; in other words, it’s a high risk, high reward style that’s great for experienced players.

Now, this isn’t on its own unique; King of Fighters has offered an alternating charge/standard scheme for years, and Guilty Gear has had the Stylish mode in place for a while as well, so you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t a big deal. However, Melty Blood does a little more to make the Moon styles stand out mechanically, which is a big part of what helps it feel unique when compared to its competitors. As mentioned above, each of the Moon styles changes up the mechanics for a character, which means a lot; put simply, the changes are on par with the Shadow versions of characters from Persona 4 Arena Ultimate, and are more technically robust than games like Arcana Heart, which can make a big difference during play. As mentioned above, there are considerable technical changes from mode to mode, more than I can even begin to scratch the surface of here, such as how Magic Circuit operates between modes, how varied your play considerations will be based on the tools available to you, and even how many familiar tools you’ll have available (Roman Cancels anyone?).

Honestly, though, the most interesting point is in how much characters change from one iteration to the next. For example, Akiha Tohno mostly retains the same basic movesets across all modes, so casual players could pick her up and master her across all styles easily, but find themselves more readily countered by experienced players. Aoko Aozaki, on the other hand, drastically changes between modes, which makes her a more complicated character to learn, but often means opponents will need to adjust their plans based on your mode choice, which can make all the difference in competitive play. Hell, let’s stick with Aoko for a second, since she’s still my main and I can use her as a good example in this case. 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; put simply, her moveset is primarily offensive, but she has some challenging defensive abilities to work with. Her Half Moon style trades up the trap ball for a ground projectile, but is otherwise mostly similar; this removes her confusing defensive play in exchange for a low projectile that can be helpful in combo building. 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 low sweep that propels her forward, her forward kick is replaced with a flash kick style anti-air attack, and her trap ball attack has some significant modifications, making her a surprisingly versatile fighter all around. Now, obviously, this isn’t the rule (see Akiha above), 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, and very few games offer this sort of versatility.

On long-term play and considerations

You can generally plow through each character’s Arcade Mode playthrough in around ten to twenty minutes, depending on skill level, difficulty, and rounds of play, but with thirty one characters, that’ll definitely take you a while. While the game lacks a bit in local play modes, you can play Versus against the CPU if you’re so inclined, or even against local players if you have friends and controllers handy. Network Mode is going to be where you’ll spend most of your time as a competitive player, though, as it offers the ability to create simple play rooms for casual competition as well as your standard Ranked play for improving your player level against others. The game also offers your standard compliment of Steam Achievements and Trading Cards to unlock at your leisure, so those who enjoy those sorts of features will find plenty to unlock here. Sadly, the game lacks a lot of the cool features included in the PS2 release, such as Survival modes and the neat gallery unlockables, and while it does offer more characters and the full color options of the original (thirty six!), it doesn’t have the local replay value of prior versions. What’s here is fine, all in all, but it’s a noticeable step backwards from what the series has done in the past; given the price point it’s not the worst thing, but hopefully these features will find their way into the game sooner or later.

When I played the PS2 version, the biggest complaint one could’ve really put against it is that the game is extensively complex; while it’s very easy to pick up and play, it’s the sort of game that makes it easy for there to be a massive skill gap between experienced and veteran players, which can make online play hard to deal with. As the game is older, it also has a bit of SNK Boss Syndrome; while playing on the easiest difficulty likely won’t send you into fits of rage, the final boss for most players, Dust of Osiris, is the sort of boss you’d expect from something like Marvel vs. Capcom, and sucks out loud to fight against on higher difficulties (and don’t even get me started on Archtype Earth). With Survival mode removed, this means that practicing offline can be a chore in Arcade Mode, which isn’t great. Seven years later, however, many of the balance issues from prior releases have been ironed out (for the most part), but the genre has also moved forward quite a bit, and the cast feels… bland in comparison to more modern fighters. They play exceptionally, even now, but the cast features a lot of teenagers in casual clothes or school uniforms, and if you’re not really aware of Tsukihime or Melty Blood it can be hard to care about the game aesthetically. Finally, while the game’s Netplay has been fixed extensively from its initial launch, and I didn’t personally experience any issues, it’s worth noting that there could still be some hiccups in this thing, so those who would buy the game exclusively for it might want to experiment with it a bit during their first two hours to see how well it holds up for them.

That said, despite the game’s age, Melty Blood: Actress Again Current Code is still, mechanically, the best fighting game released to the US this year, bar none, and if you’re a genre fan it’s a must-own if you can look past the limited single player modes and the visuals showing their age. The story is quite good as you piece it together, the visual aesthetics are fluid and offer options for cleaning up the more dated aspects, and the aural presentation is outstanding, period. The basic gameplay is simple to pick up and understand for newbies and veterans alike, there are 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 they’re used to. The game is still extensively complex to really master, and between the stripped down single player modes, the overpowered bosses (on anything above the easier difficulties), the less-than-amazing character designs and the patched but still possibly spotty Netplay, the release isn’t quite the stellar product it was seven years ago on the PS2. That said, Melty Blood is still, to my mind, debatably the most mechanically sound fighting game ever made, and if you can forgive its dated presentation and limited single player modes, and the Netplay holds up as well as it did during my testing, it’s easily the best investment you can make as a genre fan.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Melty Blood: Actress Again Current Code, seven years later, is still one of the most technically slick fighting games ever created, and is easy enough to pick up no matter what your skill level, making it a highly recommended experience… if you can deal with its dated presentation and some mechanical odds and ends. The storyline is complex but worth the investment, the game’s technical aesthetics are outstanding, and the aural experience is top shelf across the board. The core gameplay is easy enough to jump into, 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 complexities of the game do make it challenging to really learn effectively, there aren’t as many single player modes as one might expect, the bosses can be a bit absurd on medium difficulties and above, the aesthetics can feel a bit dated and normal at times and while I saw no issues with Netplay, some hiccups may remain, sadly. Assuming the Netplay has truly been ironed out, though, Melty Blood is one of the very best in its class, and any fighting game fans should be eagerly seeking it out no matter their skill level; if you can accept the limited single player modes and aesthetic issues, it’s one of the best fighting games, mechanically, ever, and it’s far and away worth the asking price.