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.