An indie love letter crossover of the strangest kind.
Blade Strangers somehow managed to stay pretty low under the radar for the majority of its development, until a few surprise announcements made it the indie talk of the town. By combining characters from Studio Saizensen and Nicalis titles like Code of Princess and Cave Story alongside other indie superstars like Shovel Knight and Azure Striker Gunvolt, all eyes were on Blade Strangers to see how the ambitious game would make these very different franchises fit into a cohesive fighting game. Long story short: Studio Saizensen and Nicalis pulled it off.
Blade Strangers has a very distinct art style that makes every character feel like a natural member of its combined universe (except maybe Isaac, but cut the kid some slack, he’s been through a lot). There is a certain softness to everything in the game that is undeniably unique. The animation is fluid and reminiscent of old-school fighting games, with 3D model work combined with 2D sprites. Each fighter has multiple colors to sift through that are unlockable through completing specific modes, some of which are references to other characters from their respective franchises — my favorite being Gunvolt’s Color 2 implementing his rival Copen’s aesthetic. The palettes chosen for these color sets are varied and overall very aesthetically pleasing.
Characters have their own “home” stages that are larger-than-life recreations of iconic locations from their home franchises. There’s always something neat going on in the background, like the Code of Princess stage for Solange with the turnip creatures that run around looking adorable or the surreal Umihara Kawase stage with its brightly colored platforms and crazy giant fish.
The sound design offers as much variety as the character choices, with variety from rock anthems to electronic smooth jams. The opening theme reflects the ’90s days of yore with dubbed anime opening themes, and establishes the combination of edgy and cute that defines the title. Character voices are expressive and distinct, and its possible to play with a portrait setting that has character’s faces and speech bubbles appear after counter attacks and the like. I prefer to play with these on, since it adds an additional layer of depth and originality to Blade Strangers as a whole. Also, Blade Strangers‘ rendition of the Shovel Knight theme is top-notch!
If there is one thing to nitpick, and this is definitely a nitpick, it’s that the font choices for a lot of the menus and displays don’t seem to fit the overall vibe. They appear very basic, like a default font found in a word engine and not a stylish crossover fighting game type. Also, the lack of English subtitles for character introductions is a real shame, there is a lot of dialogue between characters and I really want to know what the intimidatingly-large Shovel Knight has to say about his environment and the people he meets. All this being said, the overall presentation is fantastic, and delightfully colorful and fun. These little things are only noticeable in comparison to the overall experience being so stellar.
On the surface, Blade Strangers is very simple. There are only four main attack buttons: Light, Heavy, Skill, and Unique Attack: all of which work as you’d expect, except for maybe Unique Attack — that term is a little vague, but it makes sense in practice! Unique Attack buttons aren’t necessarily made for combos but are for specific reactions, like heavy knockdowns or evasion. There no intricate inputs necessary for skill moves either, one only needs to press forward, backward, up, or down to utilize a character’s special attacks in conjunction with the skill button.
There are two enhanced versions of skill moves, known as Heavy Skill and EX Skills. Heavy Skills are activated by pressing the skill button and the heavy attack button at the same time, these require no meter and add some extra pizzazz to your moves, like a larger fireball or an additional strike. EX Skills require 1/2 a meter and add even more variety to your toolkit. They are activated by hitting the Skill button and the Unique Attack button simultaneously. Having Heavy Skills alone would have been enough to keep things fresh with combos, but the added layer of depth brought by the EX Skills makes Blade Strangers all the more interesting.
You can also auto-chain three light attacks into one another, and can charge a forward-heavy attack to unleash a stronger strike. Super Moves or Ultra Skills are extraordinarily easy to pull off, all you need to do is press Heavy, Skill, and Unique Attack buttons at the same time, or R1 on PlayStation 4. Typically there are two variations of two different Ultra Skills. The default is activated by pressing the three previously-mentioned buttons at the same time, and the other is activated by the three buttons combined with a down input. Each move can be supercharged with an additional press of the three buttons, or R1, by burning an additional meter. Gunvolt breaks this mold, however, and has three separate Ultra Skills he can utilize that are staples from his home franchise.
No anime fighter would be complete without a super mode to activate when in a pinch. Blade Strangers‘ iteration of the X-Factor is called Heat Up, and can be activated when health is in the red and requires at least one meter. While in Heat Up mode, players are able to take one hit without flinching per combo and can burn meter with lower requirements to turn the tide of battle. It creates a very strong risk/reward scenario because once the meter runs out, you are now not only in low health but completely out of resources. You’ve got to make every second count before devoting to heating up!
Headlining the main menu is Blade Strangers‘ Story mode, which explains the reasoning for the crossover and delves lightly into the characters and their motivations. Not wanting to make a direct comparison — but its difficult not to, since the overall story hits very similarly to BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, but with a different take on interdimensional cyber beings. The robots or “Motes” as they are called in Blade Strangers are trying to save the fabric of reality by bringing the best fighters from across existence to combat each other to grow stronger and become the “Blade Stranger” that will defend reality from the evil, and original Lina — who plays wonderfully, by the way. The dialogue between fights is short and usually consists of “What are you doing here?” “I don’t know but I want to fight you!” and some mischievous giggling from the Motes, but it’s entertaining to see the different character interactions and to unlock new colors.
Tutorial mode gives a brief demonstration of the title’s unique systems, but it only requires players to complete the requested inputs once to complete its lessons and then players are taken straight to the tutorial menu. It would be preferable to have tutorials that go over unique systems, like the unique offensive skills and defensive skills, to ensure players feel more comfortable using them in battle. To make up for the bare-bones tutorial mode, players can create their own combat scenarios in Training mode by recording specific actions to counter against to hone one’s skills.
Mission mode is broken into two separate categories. Challenge mode is a short-and-sweet introduction to the competitive functionalities of the roster. There are only four missions per character but they are a stepping stone to understanding the versatility of the roster and highlighting whether or not their toolkit fits your playstyle. While it certainly would be nice to have more missions available for each character, the real benefit would be having the option to see the combos played out to know when to time the inputs. Another less-than-convenient function is that the inputs are designated by the names of the attack buttons, not the actual buttons themselves. While there are only four buttons to focus on, it would still be helpful to have an extra correlation between the attacks and the buttons they are mapped to.
The other half of Mission mode is Survival, which is then split among three separate difficulties, Easy, Normal, and Hard. Players must maintain their health and super meter while battling against the entire roster. The stakes are high when you’re health bar doesn’t completely regenerate and you’ve got 14 matches to live through, but its worth it for the stylish new colors.
Online has two base modes: League Match and Casual Match. Both modes involve players creating or searching for rooms to compete in on a ranked or level free environment. Matches tend to be scarce from my experience, and there is no option to replay against players found in the search system so after the battle is over players are left to continue the search for another opponent. This is really my main issue with online play and perhaps the entire game overall: the systems built into the title don’t seem to really encourage prolonged online experiences. An update with an online queue available through the Online match menu would be fantastic, such as to be able to decide whether or not to go to Arcade or Training mode while waiting for a match. This would keep players engaged, and not feel like giving up whenever an opponent could not be found after multiple searches through the League and Casual matches.
Another thing that is truly strange about the matchmaking system is how quickly the search for another player ends. It’s as if the network searches for a brief moment to find a match and if one isn’t found in about ten seconds, it gives up. It is possible to queue up a match during arcade mode or training, but you cannot begin the search through the matchmaking menu and then carry out your training until your next fight begins. Ideally, players shouldn’t have to wait long enough to need to go to arcade or training to kill time between matches, but it should be a secondary condition, not the primary method to be put in a long-running queue.
Other issues were discovered through online play. During one match against Curly Brace, I was thrown into a corner by a ceaseless spam of bullets, having my health chipped away with little to no room to evade or get close to my opponent. Without the ability to rematch my opponent to see if there was a way around their tactic it seemed this high-ranked player would continue to be rewarded through their dastardly methods. Players met through online matches in Blade Strangers are also undocumented in the PlayStation 4’s native recently-played feature, so it makes it a little bit harder to become friends with those you would like to make a casual room with and not need to wait to find an online match.
I have never played Studio Saizensen’s other fighting game, Blade Arcus from Shining: Battle Arena, but I certainly need to after experiencing their creativity and attention to detail to the characters and the worlds they come from. Blade Strangers is definitely a title I see myself coming back to for the slick gameplay and colorful characters. This is also my new game of choice for introducing people who are new to fighting games to the genre, thanks to its easy-to-learn and rewarding combat system.
With a little more polish when it comes to balancing and matchmaking, Blade Strangers will continue to excite and entertain. The roster already feels so complete, but I’d be more than welcome to new additions from the franchises already established, or even a new indie star or two. This is a wonderful piece of work from Studio Saizensen and hopefully it finds a devoted fanbase and continued support from Nicalis’ newfound niche.
Nicalis provided Shoryuken with a review copy of Blade Strangers for the PlayStation 4.