Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Week 1 Game Review: Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax

French Bread were pretty darn lucky guys. In the early 2000s when they decided to make a fighting game using characters from Tsukihime to show their fondness for the VN, its makers gave them a big thumbs up, hooked them up with some mighty fine voice actors (including George Nakata of Hellsing fame no less!) and started their merry journey of steady income via frequent updates that doubled as advertising. They even put Shiki Ryougi in the Playstation 2 port of Actress Again to advertise the then upcoming Kara no Kyoukai movies!

Of course, the well dried up. Fate is where Type-Moon makes the big bux now and Melty Blood's got some art assets that are a decade old. This wasn't going to deter ol' French Bread though. They had funky new ideas for an original IP and even got permission to use their original creation turned canon character Sion as a cameo character! This even got them to ask Subtle Style if they could put Akatsuki in because why not?

Videogames are expensive to make. They're also time consuming. Thus, if you've got a team that can whip up art and do code, sometimes you want a more guaranteed way to pay the bills. Sometimes you let a big company outsource to you to pay the bills or fund the project you care about. Do you remember The Rumble Fish? That nifty fighter with no console release that was once hand-in-hand with Guilty Gear XX in leading Sammy's perceived charge to early-2000s fighting game dominance? Would you believe me if I told you that its developer, Dimps, did most of the gruntwork for Street Fighter IV? It's not like any who understood fighting games was still at Capcom by 2007 anyhow. Go mug some people who were in Los Angeles for that first testing party before Seth Killian was put on the project to hear some wonderful horror stories about what the game could have been.

What am I getting? Sega hired French Bread to do the gruntwork on a cheap cash-in fighting game tossing together characters from trashy serialised novels aimed at teenagers. It's directed by the guy who led Valkyria Chronicles' development, which is a pretty odd choice of project leader instead of, you know, the guys who've been making fighting games for over a decade.Or, you know, Sega's own fighting game developers. What a weird world this is sometimes.

Actual Review Content Part 1: The Visuals
This game is a visual mess.

French Bread's spritework is the usual minimalism, but their small team of animators clearly didn't have the time to do anything as fluid as Melty Blood's finest work. If you thought some of UNIEL's animations are cheap, wait until you see Shizuo Heijima's running depicted as a single frame slide along the ground. There's a real lack to the... impact of attacks. Far more so than in UNIEL where Waldstein's throws look, sound and feel as nasty as you'd want a giant guy with claws to. In this game I can toss out Railgun all day and it feels like a water pistol.

The character portraits are derived from their source materials' illustrations. This means that unlike Aquapazza, Injustice or Marvel vs Capcom, there are multiple artists' work presented in their own styles. This creates a lack of uniformity to the artwork that really hammers home how cheaply made this game was. Compare this to French Bread's distinctly... French Bread-ish spritework and you get even more dissonance.

Then there's the stages. Since Sega remembered that they put a big SEGA X DENGEKI BUNKO in the announcement, they decided that their company's presence would be a pile of stages representing games highly similar to the worlds of the trashy writing the cast represent. You know, games like Phantasy Star Online 2, Border Break and Sonic the Hedgehog. The colouring on these things is atrocious. UNIEL and Vanilla Persona 4 Arena are excellent examples of how fairly plain stages can still be interesting to look at by adding to the atmosphere. There's a reason the grassy field in a thunderstorm from Street Fighter Alpha 2 is one of the most beloved Capcom stages. Instead we get a bunch of garish backgrounds that can sometimes cause assists to blend in. Bad call, guys.

The end result is something that looks like this.

Part 2: The Sound
The sound effects sound like prototype UNIEL sounds. They're nothing special, but get the job done much better than most of the animations.

This game's music makes me terribly sad. Something fighting games excel at as a genre is presenting personality. The way you animate a character can tell you a whole bunch about both their character traits and how to play them. You see Manaka shuffling about shyly and tripping over herself, dropping books everywhere and conclude "this girl is intended to be played with a focus on keepaway and throwing projectiles." You see Wolverine slashing about yelling UNACCEPTABLE at the top of his lungs and conclude he's all about aggression. Music can present a great deal about a character's personality as well. Ken Masters has an upbeat, exciting song that reflects his uppercut-heavy playstyle and action-seeking personality. XX Potemkin has a song as huge and lumbering as any player who hasn't learned to Hammerbreak yet. Listen to this and you can definitely picture 90s Wolverine slashing up scores of incompetent sentinels.

What does DFC give you? Some generic synth soundtrack with the personality of Simon Crean.

Part 3: Let's Actually Talk Gameplay
This game aims to be something people who have never played fighting games before. Its mechanics are a melting pot of things that have been done before in Anime or Airdash Fighters. Particularly Persona 4 Arena. These include:
 - A series of chained inputs that all cancel into each other smoothly (Light into Medium into Heavy into Special Move into EX Special Move into Super)
 - A slowly recharging burst that can give you meter or be used to escape combos
 - Pressing two buttons while blocking to push the opponent away
 - Two jumps
 - Airdashes
 - Blocking in the air
 - Autocombos (mash Light and you get a combo!)
 - A universal overhead attack that can tank its way through the opponent's attacks
 - Running
 - A tertiary resource that can be spent to gain character-specific powerups
 - Universal uppercuts
 - Assist characters

Anime games often have long, complicated combos. It's partially a byproduct of the versatility Guilty Gear's Roman Cancels provide. The simple fact that a lot more stray hits convert into combos thanks to easy chained inputs rather than tight linking of moves based on recovery time and hitstun dealt also leads to longer combos in order to provide a challenge and reward to those who invest more time with a game.

DFC has incredibly short combos. They are basically A B C Special move, Assist, EX Move, Super. If you don't have 4 super stocks and your assist ready, just do ABC, Special, EX, Super. Chop off the super if you can't afford that. Chop off the EX if you can't afford that either. I can teach optimised combos for this game in like ten minutes.

This sort of simplicity applies to neutral and defense as well. Are you blocking? Yes? Hit two buttons to push them away. Do you think someone will throw you? Input the throw as well. Is someone jumping at you and hitting a button? Hit A+B while crouching to smack them away! The most curious tool for neutral is standing A+B. It's always an attack that moves forwards and has superarmour or the ability to tank some hits on the way in. This means that you can teach people to move back and forth, wait for the opponent to get impatient and hit a button and easily blow them up for it. This also gives the game a bit of a Mortal Kombat 9-ish feel at times. Like everyone is Sonja.

The game has an extremely low skill floor, making it a potentially useful game for teaching people who want to play fighting games but don't know how. If they're anime fans, they get to learn while hitting buttons as Taiga or whoever they think is cool. Probably Kirito, the poor misguided fools.

However, the game also has an extremely low skill ceiling. As far as I can tell, I could teach this game to seasoned fighting game players in half an hour. With mastery a day later. While this means high level play occurs sooner, it means that the game becomes stale extremely quickly. The cast are sufficiently homogenous that most of the metagame exploration is through assists. Those can in turn be basically divided up as:
 - Those who get hit by Kino's gun on reaction (and are thus only used in combos that might only do 2% more damage)
 - Those who blow up Kino's gun by causing Accelerator to scream a bunch and throw black stuff at the opponent

When you're getting the maximum damage from all situations, there's no reason to do research in Training Mode. When you know the answers to all situations (hint: they're mostly to push A+B or 2A+B on reaction or run some pressure since the other guy's too scared to), there's nothing to learn from playing with people. The opportunity to express yourself through the game becomes limited, and the mechanics-induced language of two people trying to beat each other up becomes trite and reptitive.

That said, this is Week 1. Perhaps there's some tricks to input detection or whatnot that the japanese who have racked up thousands of games know about that keep things varied and interesting with extensive play.

That said, the sheer simplicity of the game makes it somewhat refreshing from my usual slog through the hellish offense of someone like Milia Rage or Mr. Karate. I'd put this game on a complexity scale somewhere above Lethal League and below Aquapazza. If you know someone with a copy of the game, give it a whirl and you may learn something about what you enjoy in videogames. Or what they enjoy in literature...

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