Chasing the Azure

Another Evo has passed us by. The world’s largest fighting game tournament, Evolution, is always an amazing event, and this year is no exception. It is a slight disappointment, however, that this is the first year that Evo hasn’t felt even better than the year before. The big games like Marvel vs. Capcom and Street Fighter certainly had good finals, but they didn’t approach the excitement, surprise, and sheer hype of years past. Tekken always bores the hell outta me, and Killer Instinct was not the fount of energy I had been expecting despite my fondness for the game. It’s excessive to say that this year was a misstep, but it does dispel the illusion that Evo will be better and better every year. Some years just won’t be quite as incredible.

One game that didn’t disappoint, however, is BlazBlue: Chronophantasma. Year after year, BlazBlue is a barely official Evo game- the final 8 competitors get their time on the stream, but the other hundreds of players are relegated to an unofficial side stream plagued by technical issues. Despite the lack of respect it gets from the Evo organizers, it’s consistently the home of close, exciting matches with crazy comebacks and jaw-dropping mind games. This year, it was positioned to open up the main stream with its finals- it was the first top 8 scheduled on Sunday.

It’s almost a shame it opened finals day, because BlazBlue’s finals were so incredible that it made every game thereafter look bad. The astonishing story of Garireo’s climb from the edge of defeat to winning the whole damn thing was riveting enough to make a lot of viewers wonder why they’d never watched the game before. The attention can mean nothing but good things for the BlazBlue community, and it’s about time. They’ve been keeping that game alive in the midst of obscurity for years despite it secretly being the best fighting game series of our generation.

I realize that’s a bold claim, but I’m fully prepared to back it up. Born from the ashes of Guilty Gear (which was recently resurrected when creator Arc System Works (ArcSys for short) regained the rights to the series), BlazBlue features a lot of the gameplay elements that made GG so popular. The game has extremely high mobility, with air dashing, running on the round, ukemis (rolling when knocked down to recover more quickly, and also create space), and the ever popular Burst system. Bursts are similar in concept to Killer Instinct’s Combo Breakers- it’s a resource you can use to break out of an enemy’s combo. It has had a few different incarnations as the series has gone on, but its latest instance is its most simple- it’s a meter that slowly refills over time, and can be used to Burst an enemy combo when full, or to switch into a powered up mode called Overdrive to make your attacks more devastating for a limited amount of time.

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Overdrive functions differently for each character, and the two options make for a strategic decision- go all in with an Overdrive to turn an opening into a devastating, high damage combo, or save your meter to Burst and save yourself from a combo that might otherwise kill you. An enemy Overdriving locks you out of your Burst for the duration, but if you wait to trigger your Overdrive your opponent might Burst to freedom before you get a chance. There doesn’t appear to be a right answer- I’ve seen incredible players who go all in with the Overdrive any chance they get, defensive masters who always want that Get Out of Jail Free card in their back pocket, and everything inbetween. As one of only a scant handful of games that offers a solution to the problem of sitting back and watching a combo happen with no interaction from the victim, BlazBlue has a big leg up on games like Marvel vs. Capcom and Street Fighter.

It also has the best combo feel in any fighting game I’ve ever played. That sentence may not make sense at first blush, so let me explain. In, say, Street Fighter, there are some preset interactions between moves. If you knock an enemy out of the air in Street Fighter, you can do a “juggle”- hitting the enemy as they fall with an attack to keep them in the air. Some moves just won’t juggle, though, for no obvious reason. An uppercut will juggle, but a roundhouse kick won’t… except for a character like Sagat, whose roundhouse will for some reason. There’s no rhyme or reason to what moves will combo in what situation

BlazBlue’s combos just make sense. If, by watching the animation and how long the enemy is staggered for, it looks like you should be able to link one move into another, you just can. Many games create the animations for attacks first, and then try to balance them afterwards, resulting in weird looking, unintuitive combos, and moves that don’t have range as good as the animation suggests. ArcSys considers the processes inseparable, and because of this what you see is what you get. All you need in order to figure out how a move works on a fundamental level is a pair of eyes. When you start creating optimized, 30% health combos and block strings, it is still necessary to do some research, but the basics are perfectly understandable at a glance.

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Every character has unique mechanics, ensuring that they have an individual style and appeal. The pace of the game is fast without being chaotic- in Marvel vs. Capcom or Skullgirls, the action gets so fast at times that you can’t tell what’s happening until you see that you’re being comboed. BlazBlue keeps moving at a steady, eager clip, but it’s never so breakneck that you can’t watch things happen and comprehend what is being done to you. It simply plays better than any other modern fighting game.

Even for people who aren’t fighting game aficionados like me, there’s a lot to love about BlazBlue. For one thing, it doesn’t treat its story as an afterthought. The ongoing tale of BlazBlue is undoubtedly bizarre, but also coherent within its own rules, with engaging twists and turns as well as genuine character development. The story mode plays out like a visual novel, with dialogue and narration moving the plot along as characters come into conflict, fight, and then move on. Each character has their own story, and it all culminates in the True End- a long, playable sequence where all the stories come together to reveal the ending of the game.

BlazBlue’s very nature means that choices are possible, as well. The story of BlazBlue is a Groundhog’s Day loop- time is repeating, over and over, until the correct progression of events occurs (as decided by a council of powerful beings watching over the key characters) in the True End of each game. Each story has multiple paths, and none of them are actually noncanon- thanks to the time loops, all of them happened at one point or another, and were simply erased by the time rollback. In fact, time has looped so many times that every fight possible in BlazBlue has happened. Every match that every player plays is, in its own way, canon. They don’t affect the main storyline because of the loop, but they all happened, and none of them is just a “dream.”

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The character designs are attractively stylized and diverse, with characters for every player’s taste- unless one simply has a crippling aversion to anything that looks too “anime,” in which case they should seek counseling. The presentation is slick, the animation is killer, and there’s a character who has two different ways to curbstomp you (literally). If BlazBlue has any major flaw, it’s in the spectating- if you haven’t played the game, some of the unique character abilites are pretty hard to comprehend. It’s difficult to know why one character just flew into the other’s waiting hand, unless you know that Tager has the power to magnetize enemies, and then pull them in with an electromagnet. While Street Fighter is immediately comprehensible, some of the flashier parts of BB simply require an explanation, or hands on time. It’s the one knock on an otherwise incredible game.

I sincerely hope that BlazBlue gets the respect it so richly deserves after all this time. Not counting minor revisions, this is the third game in the series, and it’s high time the fighting game community appreciated what a marvel it is- fast, flashy, fair, and fun to play. And hell, if nothing else? You gotta love it for this soundtrack. It’s simply killer.