Version tested: PlayStation 2
If I ever find myself in charge of naming a fighting game, I probably won't go with "Melty Blood". I'll probably opt for something sensible instead, like "Cul-de-sac Fisticuffs", or "Binge Drinking Brawler". And even if I'm brainstorming during a David Lynch marathon, I probably won't piece together "Hologram Summer Again, Tri Hermes Black Land" as a subtitle. As a fighter which has never seen a Western release, Actress Again's nonsensical full name is an indication of its very hardcore heritage.
The story of Melty Blood begins in 2000, when fledgling developer Type-Moon released its first graphic novel, Tsukihime (Lunar Princess). Although a tad risqué by Western standards, Tsukihime's narrative focused on a secondary school student named Tohno Shiki who, like a 21st century Grim Reaper, gets mixed up with vampires after discovering he has the power to sever lifelines. Then in 2002 Type-Moon teamed up with French-Bread and released Melty Blood for the PC, an experimental 2D fighting game featuring characters from Tsukihime, but without the hentai undertones.
After it proved a hit with fighter fans, Type-Moon followed it up with the arcade release of Act Cadenza in 2005. This drew more broadly from Type-Moon's books and was ported to PlayStation 2 the following year. By this stage the Melty Blood series had established itself as a serious fighter, to the point where Act Cadenza featured for three years straight in Japan's heavily contested Arcadia Cup Tournament. With such prestigious credentials, a second sequel was inevitable and arcade fans were treated to Actress Again in 2008. The version I'm playing is the recent PlayStation 2 port.
Visually Actress Again has a lot in common with the pixel-proud King of Fighters XII, as each immaculately placed block is clearly distinguishable. Its character sprites are also modestly sized and are largely unchanged from Act Cadenza. However, where Actress Again really shines is in the character animations. Featuring a cast of knife-wielding teenagers, robotic French maids and vampiric temptresses, every frame of character movement is free-flowing and meticulously detailed. The graphical porting has been handled so flawlessly that Type-Moon puts many of SNK's past "experiments" to shame. It would be rude to mention Samurai Shodown V.
This port also features all 25 characters from the arcade game, which is three up from Act Cadenza, along with five unlockable exclusives. The three new characters are Michael Roa Valdamjong, a pasty-looking vampire who can set up lightning-based traps; Riesbyfe Stridberg, a double-bass wielding demon hunter; and Ryougi Shiki, the female lead from Kara no Kyokai, who possesses the same life-severing powers as Tohno.
Other returning characters include Sion Eltnam Atlasia, the series' gun-toting protagonist, and Nrvnqsr Chaos, a Dead Apostle who can morph his body into 666 different bestial forms. So if you haven't already guessed, Actress Again's roster is reminiscent of a quirky and colourful anime, but although this could put off many perspective players it's in the solid fighting system where the game's true worth is found.
The gameplay, at least on paper, isn't a massive departure from other 2D fighting games, as Actress Again includes all the typical play mechanics like quarter-circle specials, super jumps, throws, dashing, and overheads. It's all built around a four-button layout which, in a similar style to Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, comprises light, medium and heavy attacks, as well as a fourth shield button. The onscreen display also lets you know how you're doing with the classic mix of health, guard and "magic circuit" super gauges - the latter of which climbs from zero to 300 per cent. But on top of these basics Actress Again includes many more advanced play mechanics.
When on the defence players can either guard, or hold the shield button to create a barrier which will absorb damage at the expense of super. Actress Again also takes cues from both Mark of the Wolves and Street Fighter III with its EX defence systems. By guarding just before an attack connects you'll perform an EX-Guard, which builds super and keeps the guard meter intact. However, if you predict an attack by tapping the shield button you'll instead perform an EX-Shield, which works exactly like a parry and gives you a counterattack frame advantage.
But to suggest Actress Again is centred around defence game would be misleading, as the offensive mechanics are just as numerous. Indeed, the combat system is definitely more BlazBlue than Street Fighter IV, with simple combos rapidly sending the hit counter well past 20. Even a basic standing medium, crouching medium, standing fierce, crouching fierce to super can do around a third of full damage, although damage scaling does prevent anything too broken. Each character also has around four or five special attacks which, in addition to their light and medium flavours, can be fired off in EX-Edge variations at the cost of 100 per cent super. These sound like the EX specials from Street Fighter but in effect work more like supers.
And that's before we get to the "Arc-Drive" supers which are performed during the game's super-saiyan styled "Heat" modes. These aren't easy to explain but suffice to say that with 100 per cent super the player can press all three attack buttons to enter Heat mode. Whilst heated, the super gauge will gradually deplete and you'll have access to the Arc-Drive and health regeneration. But if you instead wait for the super gauge to reach 300 per cent, you'll automatically enter Max mode. From Max mode you can enter Blood Heat where you'll briefly have unlimited EX-Edges and a more powerful Arc-Drive. But the true purpose of Blood Heat is to land an EX-Shield. Do this to witness your character's ultimate Last-Arc super.
So far then Actress Again comes off as a deep fighter that's overflowing with different play mechanics. For every EX-Edge, Arc-Drive or Blood Heat combo, there's a defensive EX-Guard or EX-Shield counter. But the most significant change from Act Cadenza is the new style-selection system. Players get a celestial choice of Crescent Moon, Half Moon or Full Moon after picking their character. Crescent Moon is the standard speed style and works much the same as Act Cadenza. Comparatively, Half Moon is the simplest option with the super meter only rising to 200 per cent and no Blood Heat, EX-Shielding or EX-Guarding. Finally, Full Moon focuses on power and limits combo potential, but allows for some Guilty Get styled cancelling when in Max mode. Personally, I get most of my kicks in Crescent Moon.
With so much work having gone into the new Moon styles, we can forgive Type-Moon for being a tad slack with the available options, especially considering the last-gen platform. But what players get is a fairly robust selection of arcade, versus, training and survival. Each character in arcade mode has a fully-voiced story which develops as they edge closer to the final round. Sadly there isn't an English sub or dub option, but most of the menus, including those in the excellent practice mode, are in English, so turning on counter hits or finding the auto-save feature isn't a problem.
In summary, Actress Again is an astounding fighter which is easily on par with the likes of BlazBlue in terms of rigidity and depth. Its continued dedication to big pixels and classic mechanics, in addition to its manga-heavy presentation, partly reflects why Melty Blood has never seen a commercial Western release, but any fighter fan who knows their stuff will appreciate the seamless animation and mechanical beauty.
It won't be to everyone's tastes - especially those hooked solely to Tekken and Street Fighter - but if you're keen on Guilty Gear then Actress Again is worth an import. The PS3 isn't region-free for PS2 games (and that's if you even have a backwards-compatible PS3), so you may have to jump through some hoops, but for dedicated fighting fans it's worth the hassle.
8 / 10