In case you haven’t noticed by now, Bleach is the next big anime franchise to hit the States, following other major titles likes Gundam, Dragon Ball Z, and Naruto. And what goes along with popular anime franchises? You guessed it - a plethora of incredibly bland and generic video games. Every now and then you can find a true gem amongst these fanboy trophies, but for the most part, anime-inspired games appeal to a niche market only. Sega and developer Treasure (the group responsible for Gunstar Heroes, Sin and Punishment, and Ikaruga) take their first stab at cashing in on the popularity of the Bleach anime with Bleach: The Blade of Fate for the DS.
Intuitive Soul Reaping
If you’ve ever played a 2D fighting game, you’ll pick up Bleach’s control scheme very quickly. In addition to the standard light, medium, and strong attacks, Bleach adds a “flash steps” button. Using flash steps effectively allows you to execute a teleport dash to either close the gap between your enemy and yourself or sneak in behind him. Of course, your usage of flash steps and other special moves is regulated by a meter at the bottom of the screen, which regenerates over time. If timed properly, you can cancel out your opponents’ attacks as your whiz right behind them for a free hit.
The basic combo system in Bleach is simple, yet intuitive. Combos are not necessarily preset, and most of your attacks will stream together with little interruption. Not only does this free you from studying combo videos and spending hours in practice mode, but it creates a seamless, flowing battle, with little very little break in the action.
Defensively, you have plenty of options for deflecting attacks and avoiding getting caught in those nasty air combos. Contrary to the traditional 2D fighter, Bleach has its own block button, R. This initially turned me off, but after getting more comfortable with the combat in Bleach, the inclusion of a block button made more sense. Your enemy can virtually attack you from any angle, so the traditional ‘hold back to block system’ might not feel as natural in Bleach as it does in other games.
Not Your Father’s Hadoken
And what would a 2D fighter be without explosive special attacks and over-the-top multi-hit super moves? Specials and supers in Bleach are done in traditional 2D fighter fashion: directional input and an attack button. Special moves range from projectiles, powerful blows, and the occasional paralyzing move. The super moves generally consist of slightly more complicated directional input requirements and require your character to spend some of his “spiritual pressure” meter, of which he can store up to three bars.
As expected, super moves consist of devastating combos and screen-filling energy releases. Some characters have insane sword transformations (known as Bankai) which either transform the character into a more powerful version of himself or transform the character’s sword into a giant beast which rolls out for massive damage. In one notable case, the character Tosen, a blind swordsman, turns the area into complete darkness, which temporarily renders your foe’s screen black. All of the special attacks fit the characters well and easily intertwine with the flow of combat.
I was also pleasantly surprised when I realized Bleach featured buffering for the directional inputs. This means that you can input directional commands for your next move during the animation of other moves. While this has been present in most 2D fighters since Street Fighter II, I didn’t expect it in an anime-based fighter.
Directional inputs could have been problem overall, due to the smaller d-pad of the DS. Luckily, Treasure had the foresight to waive the requirement of pressing the diagonals during these inputs. For example, if you’re having trouble keying a quarter circle, just tap down, forward for the same effect.
Hit It From The…?
Perhaps Bleach’s best aspect is its ability to flawlessly transition from a character’s movement, to attack combos, and to special attacks. Due to the fluidity of these transitions and your ability to link air dashes, double jumps, and flash steps, you will constantly find yourself switching positions with your opponent. For example, you might air dash toward your opponent from the left, throw a strong overhead swipe on his head, land on his right, throw in a few more slashes, flash step back to his left through his body to avoid his counterattack, and launch him into the air for another eight or nine hits. With up to four characters battling at the same time, the action is incredibility frantic, but easy to manage.
If 2D fighters aren’t your thing, or if you happened to miss out on the Super Nintendo generation due to the misfortune of your birth, or you’re just plain lazy, Bleach gives you the option of auto controls. Auto controls basically perform simple combos for you as you mash single buttons. In addition, you can tap a corresponding button on the touch screen to activate your special moves. This may be a welcome option for some, but overall it downgrades the overall feel of the game to a mere beat ‘em up.
Pick Your Poison-Baby
Bleach boasts that it has 28 total characters. While this is true to a certain extent, Bleach does count Komamura without his mask and Ichigo’s inner hollow as separate characters, when in fact the only differences are cosmetic. The teddy bear with an attitude, Kon, and Ganju’s boar, Bonnie, are also counted as playable characters. While they are both indeed playable, they appear to be nothing more than jokes and don’t offer any real gameplay depth. (I will retract this statement if anyone can beat me using Kon.)
The remaining 24 characters all feel very unique and each brings something different to the table. With the Bleach TV series being a supernatural sword fighting spectacle, don’t expect a huge variation in fighting styles. While they all have their own individual sword-types and movesets, a large of percentage of the characters in Bleach are in fact sword wielders known as Soul Reapers (or Shinigami, for purists). Hand-to-hand fighters like Chad as well as the spiritual bow brandishing Ishida are present to mix things up.
In fact, most of the major characters from the anime are present. Unfortunately, the game seems to be missing a few favorites, most notably Matsumoto Rangiku and Ikkaku. The game doesn’t go past the “Rescue Rukia” storyline, so don’t expect to see the likes of characters like Grimmjow or any other of the Arancaar.
Overall, the characters feel relatively balanced. You’ll quickly notice however that characters with a Bankai attack have a slight edge over characters that do not, especially Ichigo. This fact doesn’t offset the game’s balance so much that it detracts from the overall experience; be forewarned though, if you unleash your golden-poison-Buddha-baby-caterpillar-sword Bankai attack on your buddy one too many times he might elbow you in the throat.
Take No (Shinigami) Substitute
Bleach captures the style of anime with sleek 2D graphics. The character sprites are some of the best 2D sprites I’ve seen on the DS and they represent their anime counterparts perfectly. The backgrounds are well polished and are instantly recognizable from the TV series. Even the background music is reminiscent of the anime. As hard as I looked, I couldn’t find one single inconsistency between the game and anime – Bleach fans, rejoice.
You’re going to have plenty to do as you romp through Blade of Fate. The game features just about every mode standard to today’s fighters including time attack, survival, and arcade modes. The story mode is quite in-depth as well. You’ll play through 23 different character specific episodes, which either follow the events of the anime or pose weird “what-if” scenarios. Of course, multiplayer is present, and the online capabilities are welcome.
As if you already didn’t have enough to do, Bleach features an interesting card battle system. You can unlock various cards which temporarily increase or decrease the abilities of you or your opponent by tapping the corresponding card on the touch screen during battle. There’s a great deal of cards to unlock and endless combinations of decks you can create. If this feature isn’t your cup of tea, you can completely ignore it – it’s not necessary to enjoy the game.