“ACTION!” The announcer bellows and my muscles tense, anxious for a read on the opponent standing a few feet away from my own on-screen avatar, Jin. In a swift, smooth motion I press down on my joystick and hammer out a flurry of buttons, causing Jin to unsheathe his massive katana and plunge it into the ground. A column of ice erupts underneath my opponent as I charge towards him. The fight is on.
What began life as a spiritual successor to Arc System Works’ long-running Guilty Gear franchise now stands as one of the last generation’s iconic entries in the fighting game genre: BlazBlue. While BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma doesn’t change the solid foundation built by its successful predecessors, it does manage to inject a massive dose of life into a franchise that has become notorious in recent years for occasionally retreading old ground a little bit too often.
Chrono Phantasma continues the BlazBlue franchise tradition of lightning-fast 2.5D 1-on-1 battles -- combining distinct, wacky characters, over-the-top special moves, lengthy combos, and crazy counters. In addition to typical arcade, score attack, and versus modes present in most modern fighting games, BlazBlue packs a wealth of modes including single-player survival, ranked time attack, a visual novelesque choose-your-own-adventure style story mode, and some of the best online play/netcode in modern fighting games. Each and every one of these features returns in Chrono Phantasma, and they’re accompanied by a whole lot more this time around.
Eager to reinvent a series that has been growing somewhat stale on console platforms, Arc System Works decided to make some drastic changes to their tried-and-true formula. In addition to sprucing up the roster with seven brand new characters, they reworked and rebalanced the existing roster, created a completely new set of gorgeous backgrounds, beefed up online play with massive 64-player lobbies, and introduced several new gameplay mechanics designed to keep BlazBlue’s gameplay fresh.
The headlining feature of BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma is undoubtedly the game’s new cast. Not only does each and every character playable in the series so far return for Chrono Phantasma, but the roster now includes crazy personalities like the effeminate dancer Amane, projectile-absorbing walking tank Azrael, assured mercenary Bullet, stance shifter Kagura, awakened soldier of justice Izayoi, cold and calculating Kokonoe, and scheming villain Terumi. Even more impressive is the fact that, like all of BlazBlue’s legacy roster, all of these new characters have a playstyle and set of moves all their own. You won’t find any clones here (well...from a storyline perspective that’s not quite accurate, but I digress…).
In addition to the new fighters, Arc System Works developed two brand new gameplay mechanics that add a new level of dramatic flair to the offensive and defensive ebb and flow of a typical BlazBlue match: Overdrive and Crush Trigger. Overdrive is a brand new offensive mechanic that allows you to sacrifice your Burst meter in order to gain access to a unique power-up effect. Furthermore, engaging an Overdrive will temporarily halt the game’s timer, giving you a few more precious seconds to take down an opponent who is attempting to run out the clock. Like the X-Factor mechanic introduced in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the length of a character’s Overdrive is inversely proportional to the amount of health the character has; in other words, Overdrive lasts longer when you’re closer to death. Unlike X-Factor, however, utilizing Overdrive can be an extremely complicated gamble. Doing so will drain most of the Burst meter immediately, limiting your capability to escape particularly nasty combos. Combatants will now have to weigh the potential benefits of increased combat capabilities against the ability to interrupt an opponent’s offensive, while also factoring in the potential for an opponent to activate their own Overdrive.
Also changing the flow of matches is the Crush Trigger mechanic, which allows you to sacrifice a small chunk of meter in order to shatter a block-happy opponent’s guard. Activating a Crush Trigger will break a normal guard instantly and deal a massive chunk of damage to a more powerful, meter-guzzling Barrier Guard.
The plot of BlazBlue continues its twisted swirling of thematic elements pulled from science, technology, metaphysics, morality, theology, and traditional Japanese mythology, but series veterans will be pleased to know that it’s quite a bit easier to understand what’s going on in the story this time around. Chrono Phantasma’s full-featured story mode is packed with rewarding payoffs -- with fewer head-scratching moments than ever before.
Unfortunately, those unfamiliar with the lore of the series will undoubtedly be left more than a little lost. With an plot involving multiple timelines and realities, chronology loops, a bunch of warring factions with names like “Novis Orbis Librarium” and “Sector Seven”, and characters whose motivations are never entirely clear to anyone (including themselves), Chrono Phantasma’s lack of a glossary mode is rather disappointing. The amusing “Teach Me, Miss Litchi!” skits designed to introduce the lore to novices are both humorous and adorable, but they won’t be much help for newbies looking to understand the ins and outs of BlazBlue’s complex world.
Those who play the game’s several hour long story mode to completion be warned: players battling to the end will be greeted by a massive, unexpected, AI-only boss fight against a gigantic screen-filling monster. This projectile and beam-based chaotic battle will certainly remind long-time fighting game fans of the memorable confrontations with Apocalypse, Onslaught, and Galactus from Capcom’s fighting franchises, and it’s a great change of pace for the franchise.
Compared to the previous title in the series to receive a domestic release, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last year, Chrono Phantasma’s localization is a notable improvement. The script survived the grueling translation process mostly intact this time around -- with very few typos and inconsistencies -- and the writing was packed with cultural references and self-aware moments (including one with several characters commentating on a colosseum battle using actual fighting game terminology) that managed to bring a smile to my face. Also returning are BlazBlue’s famous Joke Endings, and fans will be pleased to know that both the Spectacles of Eros and Golden Tager X return for even more outrageous shenanigans this time around (and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, be ready for a couple of hilarious surprises). The English voice work in the game’s story mode was a bit less consistent than previous entries, but it certainly serves its purpose and doesn’t detract from the game’s blissful insanity.
While Chrono Phantasma is the best entry in the BlazBlue series since the original Calamity Trigger, it’s far from perfect. One of the biggest problems with the series has always been its unique take on offering tons of a-la-carte DLC, and Chrono Phantasma is far more egregious in this respect than any of its predecessors -- locking even classic stages and music themes behind an arbitrary paywall.
In addition, while the game’s presentation stands up quite well to other entries in the series, Chrono Phantasma also marks the first time in series history where lag has been noted to impact gameplay in specific situations. Certain backgrounds have been known to introduce noticeable slowdown into a match when the screen gets busy (and, this game being part of the BlazBlue series, the screen WILL get busy at points). While not game-breaking by any means, it is disappointing that Arc System Works wasn’t able to contain this issue prior to release. If you only plan on playing the game in a casual sense (i.e. not entering tournaments), then this minor issue probably won’t affect you at all.
While not perfect, BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma is the best entry in the series to come along in a great while. Though a little rough around the edges, this game is a solid pickup for any fighting game fan.
Although not a revolution, BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma is a very worthy successor to a franchise that is often overlooked both inside and outside of the hardcore fighting game community. Arc System Works have crafted a complex fighter and filled it to the brim with uniquely Japanese charm. While the massive amount of DLC is disappointing, and the story may be a little difficult to understand for anyone not familiar with series lore, fighting fans will find a lot to like here.