In the world of fighting games, there's a very clear and distinct rift in the community. On one side are the hardcores. These are the guys who count individual frames of animation, know nine different variations of a character's juggle combos, and refuse to play on anything less than a $100 arcade stick. Run up against one of these guys in an online game of Virtua Fighter, Guilty Gear, or Arcana Hearts, and you can essentially kiss your ass goodbye. On the other hand, there are the casual fighting fans. These guys may not be able to air counter or play an effective wake up game, but they know their way around a dragon punch. For players in this category, games like Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, Dead or Alive, or even Super Street Fighter IV offer more fun and playability. Arc Systems, the creators of the BlazBlue series and its predecessor, Guilty Gear, has always catered to the hardcore player, and their latest offering, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift, follows in that tradition with a fighter that's insanely deep and diverse. This time, though, they also kept the casual fighter in mind, resulting in an excellent mix of challenge and accessibility.
Much like its predecessors, BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger and the Guilty Gear series, Continuum Shift is a 2D 1-on-1 fighter featuring hand drawn sprites. Players use combinations of regular and special attacks, as well as high-powered "Distortion Drive" and devastating, visually spectacular "Astral Heat" attacks to whittle down their opponents' life bars. While the structure is pretty standard fare for a 2D fighter, almost everything else about the game is bizarrely unique. Each character uses a standard weak, medium, and strong attack, which can be strung together to make combos. The fourth face button is the "Drive" button, and it works differently for each fighter. For some characters, like Jin Kisaragi, the drive button is simply a powered up attack, but other characters use their Drives very differently. For example, Carl Clover uses his Drive to control his robotic "sister," while Tsubaki Yayoi can fill up a Drive Meter, unlocking more powerful special attacks. The Drive button is what truly makes BlazBlue unique, and makes playing as each fighter a surprisingly different experience. Inspired by anime, manga, and, apparently, a sizable amount of hallucinogenic substances, Continuum Shift's roster of characters is as bizarre as it is diverse, from the aforementioned Carl Clover and his controllable sister, to the ghostly, teleporting glob of weirdness that is Arakune, to the game's three new playable characters, Mu-12, Tsubaki, and Hazama.
Arc System Works and Aksys' fighting games are known for their weird characters, but they're also known for their gorgeous visuals, and Continuum Shift definitely lives up to that tradition. It doesn't look much different than Calamity Trigger, but that's not a bad thing. The brilliantly drawn and spectacularly animated character sprites are among the best ever seen in a 2D fighter, and the lush 3D backgrounds are just as worthy of praise. Small touches like animated mouths during post-match taunts show the high level of polish the game has received, and help to make the whole experience more engaging. From a presentation standpoint, the only real hiccup is with the audio. Fight sound effects are great, and the game's soundtrack is appropriately epic, cheesy, and Japanese, but during battles, an annoying voice over screams "Counter!" every time a player counters another's attack. Counters happen a lot in Continuum Shift, so getting used to that voice is something of a pre-requisite for playing the game. Fighters themselves often talk during the match, as well, and while it's cool to hear characters' unique comments to different opponents, it can often result in a cacophonous mess of noise.
Like every fighting game ever, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift has a Versus Mode, where players can battle locally, and Arcade Mode, where a single player faces a series of computer-controlled challengers before running into an unfairly powerful boss who predicts players' every move. There's also a very useful Tutorial Mode that teaches the basics of the game and specific strategies for each fighter, and an awesome Challenge Mode that tasks players with completing complex combo strings with each character. Legion Mode is a moderately successful attempt to mash up simple strategy gaming with the fighter, but the most in-depth single player mode is Story Mode. Unlike most fighters, Continuum Shift incorporates a vast plot that gives substantial back stories to each fighter and puts the whole wacky reality in context. It's an ambitious effort, and the wildly branching story does maintain cohesion throughout, but the cut-scenes, which feature still drawings with moving lips and voice overs, are torturously long and repetitive, and are simply too weird and Japanese for my tastes. Many fans of the series will probably love the insane story, but non-otaku will likely be turned off by it. Online play is a huge part of any fighter's appeal, and Continuum Shift does a great job connecting players. In both ranked and player play, online battles are silky smooth, with almost no lag or stutter at all. There's even a replay feature which lets players save and view their craziest fights. Make no mistake; the online community for this game is incredibly skilled, and newcomers should expect a steep learning curve. It can't be used online, but casual players have the option to play in Beginner Mode, which simplifies gameplay so that button mashers can successfully pull off flashy combos. It feels a bit like a cheat, but it's a good way for beginners to get used to the pace and feel of the game before attempting to figure out specific moves.
At only $40, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift offers an astonishingly deep fighting experience and a huge amount of content. From its distinctive cast of fighters, to its absurdly over-the-top finishers, to its "creative" use of language (each round of a fight is known as a "Rebel" for some reason), it's unlike anything else on the market. Its weirdness is a virtue, though, and it gives the game a certain charm that can't be denied. Anyone who played Calamity Trigger only sporadically can probably skip this one, since the only new content is Legion Mode, a new story, and three new characters, but for anyone looking for a different kind of fighting experience owes it to themselves to at least try Continuum Shift.