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.