Version tested: Xbox 360
Why does it always take ages for the UK to get the latest 2D fighters? The Japanese have been enjoying Street Fighter IV in their arcades for nearly half a year, America got a console port of Arcana Heart with Europe once again overlooked, and as far as I'm aware there's only one BlazBlue arcade cabinet in the country at the Casino in London - not very helpful if you live in Cornwall. But after many months of waiting the UK is at least getting a console port of Battle Fantasia for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
Like the sublime Street Fighter IV, Battle Fantasia opts for a 2.5D fighter styling - 2D fighter mechanics on a 2D plane with full 3D graphics - and comes across as a fantasy-themed anime set in a steampunk universe. Everything exudes Japanese manga quirkiness, with bouts between "jetski-chainsaw" wielding warriors and giant dwarves with steam-powered backpacks a common occurrence in amongst the rabbit wizards and cat-girl waitresses.
Although Battle Fantasia has light/heavy punches and kicks, doing away with mediums in the same way as King of Fighters, it plays more like Street Fighter than you'd expect from the developer of Guilty Gear. Indeed, without the added complication of Burst Gauges, Roman Cancelling and Instant Kills, Battle Fantasia is noticeably more accessible than Arc System Works' flagship fighter. If you played Street Fighter Alpha back in the day then you'll already be able to pick up and play Battle Fantasia to a competent level - Alpha 3 players won't even have to worry about picking an Ism.
Still, that's not to say Battle Fantasia lacks depth. If you've bought an arcade stick for every console since the first SNES port of Street Fighter II, Battle Fantasia's Gachi and Heat Up systems will be incentive enough to spend hours in the Practice Mode.
Each player has a three-tiered MP gauge, which fills as you do and take damage. As well as providing access to each character's does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin Super move, a stock of MP can also be used to enter Heat Up mode for a short time by tapping both punches or kicks, setting your character on fire Super Saiyan style. Whilst Heated, half the roster will have their normal and special moves supped up, significantly increasing their combo opportunities. The other half receives more specific benefits, including Marco summoning his pet dragon and Face loading his pistols with proper bullets - outside of Heat they have the stopping power of a Frisbee.
In a similar style to the classic Third Strike, Battle Fantasia fields a parrying system courtesy of its fifth Gachi button. If the player hits the Gachi button precisely in time with the enemy's high attack, or down and Gachi for a low attack, they will perform a Gachi Match - interrupting the enemy's offensive long enough for a swift counter. Alternatively, timing forward and Gachi or diagonally-forward and Gachi will execute either a high or low Gachi Drive. A low Gachi Drive sends your opponent hurtling towards the far wall, where they will spin-dizzied for a short time - the perfect opportunity to hit them with a guaranteed Super - while a high Gachi Drive launches them onto the arena wall, where they'll bounce back towards you. In this helpless state they'll be more susceptible to a lengthy juggle combo.
Advanced play in Battle Fantasia is all about predicting an opponent's attack pattern, landing a Gachi Drive, instantly Heating Up and then bashing out the longest combo your character can deliver. We landed the occasional 50+ combo with Coyori as she can link her two Supers once Heated, but with consecutive hits doing less damage this wasn't broken or overpowered. It's worth reiterating here that, despite its extra tech systems, Battle Fantasia is still accessible to the fighter dabbler. You won't even need the Gachi button to finish the Arcade Mode on its hardest setting and the basic benefits of Heating Up are normally quite apparent.
Of the 12-strong roster, Urs and Marco have the closet DNA match to Ryu - both with fireballs and dragon punches performed in the classic manner. Cedric, one of only two charge characters in the game, plays in a similar style to Guile with his own versions of the Sonic Boom and Flash Kick. Some of the more original offerings include Coyori and Face, whose move-sets include various attacks that chain into each other, and Watson, the aforementioned "wizard rabbit" who, despite having the lowest HP in the game, has some of the most damaging and easily combo-able Supers. My pick though has to be Ashley. With precise stick timing he becomes an aerial monster once Heated, with the ability to trap his opponent in a lengthy air barrage. Let him connect that first hit at your peril.
As well as the usual Arcade, Survival and Time Attack Modes, Battle Fantasia also has a stab at a Story Mode. This involves nothing more than going from fight to fight with character dialogues in-between. The dialogues are Japanese with English subtitles and are portrayed with high-quality 2D drawings. Although the conversations often have a zany charm reminiscent of Nippon Ichi, they aren't as inherently funny as Disgaea, with the plot itself revolving around the Black Knight Deathbringer causing havoc across the land and something called the "Scion of III Presage". When one of the characters is a nine-year-old boy wandering around with a giant claymore, changing into his Power Ranger "Dyna Kid" alter ego, any perception of seriousness is swiftly quashed beneath an avalanche of absurdity.
Five-button fighters generally tend to work more intuitively on the 360 pad than their six-button brethren, with all four attacks mapped to the face buttons, but the 360 pad is still no substitute for a solid arcade stick - or even those new SEGA Saturn-style Mad Catz pads. Online is a bit of a mixed bag too because, although the net code is more or less playable with a good connection, available competition is often absent despite the game's US and Japanese releases last year.
The main criticism though is the by-the-numbers gameplay, which adds little we haven't seen before, and while the styling is a nice departure, many will find the overly twee presentation a bit too sugary for their fighter tastes. Some would also argue that the small character roster is a bit stingy, although for my money it represents a level and tight playing field far removed from Arc System Works' shenanigans with the Hokuto no Ken licence. Unsurprisingly then, Battle Fantasia certainly isn't going to have anyone cancelling their pre-order for Street Fighter IV; it's not even in the same league as Capcom's superlative re-envisioning. But if you've room in your life for more than one 2D fighter, then Battle Fantasia is a polished if slightly standard gem worthy of any would-be fighter's time.
7 / 10