Version tested: Xbox 360
Despite being the most popular 2D fighter in Japanese arcades by a mile, it's fair to say that in the west, Arc System's fledgling BlazBlue series is still living in the shadow of Street Fighter. And although that's partly because last year's BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger was ported to console many months after Capcom had already asserted its dominance with Street Fighter IV, it's probably more down to the World Warrior's entrenched appeal and BlazBlue's more demanding design.
While the four-button layout may have suggested a leaner system, in execution, BlazBlue was hard to learn and harder to master. But for those who know the difference between a Hori EX2 and a Wii Shaft, BlazBlue offered a beautifully fluid combat system which not only felt like an evolution of the Guilty Gear series, but also represented genuine innovation - especially in the ingenious Drive system which afforded each character a unique ability ranging from magnetising the opponent to controlling the wind.
Now, a year on from its US release – and with Capcom already smiling smugly after one of the most accomplished fighter follow-ups ever – the pioneering Calamity Trigger is stepping down as fighter fans re-cut their teeth on the console port of BlazBlue: Continuum Shift. The only question is, has Arc System crafted a sequel to rival Super Street Fighter IV, or has it gone back to its Guilty updates, which only the hardcore could appreciate? Thankfully, it's mostly the former.
As always, the first port of call is either to pick your main character – silently praying they've been buffed rather than nerfed (sorry, Rachel players) – or if you're the less committed type, to try out one of the new faces. This is one area in which Continuum Shift initially disappoints, because while all 12 characters make a return, the only additions are a Nu palette-swap in Lambda, one unlockable boss in Mu, and two new fighters.
The most interesting is undoubtedly Hazama, who having played a background role in Calamity Trigger emerges as Continuum Shift's main antagonist. He looks like a cross between the late Michael Jackson and The Joker with a sarcastic yet calm demeanour that's prone to maniacal outbursts. Hazama's weapon of choice is a pair of short-range butterfly knives, but to compensate, his tricky Ouroboros Drive throws out a chain which can hurl him skyward and drag opponents out of the air.
But if mentally shouting "get over here" isn't your idea of a stimulating game-plan, then the angelic Tsubaki may be more to your tastes. Her more forgiving playstyle centres on her ability to chain most normal attacks twice in quick succession. Furthermore, Tsubaki's Install Drive, which boils down to holding the Drive button to charge a separate gauge, allows her to effortlessly burn meter to power up her generous payload of six easy-to-combo specials.
So in terms of new blood we have a rough criminal who's aimed at advanced players, an all-rounder and a projectile-heavy secret boss, all of which are mechanically well-designed and aesthetically complement the existing Grim Reapers, Red Devils and White Knights. But is that it - just three new fighters? Well, yes and no, because Arc System plan to drip-feed more characters as add-ons, including squirrel-girl Makoto (already available in the US for 560 Microsoft points), Rachel's werewolf-cum-butler Hellsing and the as-yet-unconfirmed schizophrenic Platinum.
This does raise questions as to why such integral content wasn't included in the first place; compared to Capcom's expensive costume packs, these extra characters feel essential rather than superfluous. However, it's hard to feel short-changed once you appreciate the effort which has gone into tweaking and rebalancing Calamity Trigger's quite frankly lopsided roster.
The original game's biggest flaw became apparent as soon as the three best zoning characters began dominating the tournament scene, but with revisions including Arakune's Drive now cursing after multiple hits, Nu being replaced by the less overwhelming Lambda and Rachel's considerable damage reduction meaning she now actually has to work for a win, Continuum Shift's playing field feels noticeably more level. There's also good news for Hakumen and Bang players.
Where once the "overenthusiastic ninja with a nail strapped to his back" Bang had barely one favourable match-up to his name, his revamped rushdown style, improved priority and more damaging combos mean he's substantially more competitive. As for Hakumen, new projectile-nullifying options and a half-screen sword poke mean he has better spacing tools. It's more or the less the same story for the rest of the roster, as each attack's priority and hit-box has been re-evaluated, and as is obligatory, there's also a smattering of new moves.
On top of these character-specific changes, Continuum Shift also redresses a number of BlazBlue's iffier mechanics. The Barrier Burst, for example, is replaced by the Break Burst, which functions similarly except that Bursts can now be stocked between rounds and don't automatically put the player into a Danger state. Furthermore, Calamity Trigger's tug-of-war styled Guard Libra has been switched out for the new Guard Primer system. This effectively gives characters like Iron Tager twice as much blocking resolve as the more flimsy Noel.
But despite these many adjustments Continuum Shift still retains that unique BlazBlue feel, with a flexibly rigid combo system and a pace that's somewhere in between Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 2. As before, the path to victory is to steep yourself in a multitude of offensive and defensive systems which range from Revolver Actions, Rapid Cancels and Counter Assaults to Instant Guards, Instant Barriers and the new Fatal Counters - all of which take time to understand and form the basis of high-level play.
So, on the face of it, Continuum Shift is no less hardcore than its forbearer. However, hoping to allow a more casual audience to enjoy its visual splendour without spending hours in the practice room, Arc System has included new Beginner and Tutorial Modes. The former has a streamlined control system which allows fighter virgins to mash buttons to execute basic combos without the need for directional inputs, whereas the latter is a list of master-classes which teach in-depth character strategies and the principles of each gameplay mechanic.
If you're a fighter vet who thinks this all sounds like pandering twaddle, then you needn't look any further than the new Challenge Mode. This is similar to Street Fighter IV, with the notable exception that each fighter's 10 challenges become ludicrously complex around the halfway point. So much so that by cat-girl Taokaka's fifth challenge – where the full list of commands can't even fit on the screen – I'd pretty much given up.
It's fortunate, then, that Continuum Shift is as full-featured as a fighter gets, with a vast list of modes including Arcade, Score Attack, Training and Legion in addition to those already mentioned. Particular credit also goes to the new Story Mode which somehow manages to top Calamity Trigger with a convincing English voice-cast and solid writing.
Among the resounding triumphs of the first game were the stable netcode and comprehensive online options, and one year on these are still the benchmark for fighters. It's no surprise that Continuum Shift is equally accomplished on Xbox Live, with ranked and player matches against international opponents having minimal lag. There's even an option to choose which System Version to play, with the recently released Ver.1.01 being the most up-to-date.
Indeed, the more you analyse each of Continuum Shift's individual components the more you can appreciate the many things it does right. It may not have the initial wow factor of Calamity Trigger – there have only been minor graphical improvements (not that any were needed) – but as an update that irons out the kinks, Continuum Shift offers a more balanced gameplay experience for both causal and hardcore players, which is exactly what was needed.
Of course, there will be comparisons to Super Street Fighter IV, which does offer over three times as many new characters out of the box. And although I'm slightly biased, I do personally prefer Cammy to Litchi. But as a follow-up to one of the most innovative and accomplished 2D fighters in recent years, Continuum Shift is a worthy successor which refines the BlazBlue formula.
8 / 10
BlazBlue: Continuum Shift is currently available as a North American import. It will be released in Europe on 3rd December.