As you guys may know, Aksys Games did something kind of nuts a couple weeks ago: they released a new game to US arcades. As anybody who's been in an arcade in the last ten years can tell you, the scene is dying from any number of factors: the games that have worked themselves too far into their niches, overpowering competition from the home consoles, and-- most importantly on these shores-- a total drought in US-available titles. Even my local spot, Chinatown Fair, has had to import a large number of games in from Japan just to stay relevant: new fighting games tend to stay in Japan. To see somebody actually bother to localize and distribute an arcade game in this day and age is a pleasant surprise, to say the least.
I have described Blazblue as "not Guilty Gear we swear", and on a superficial level the game absolutely looks like developer Arc System Works is ripping off and repackaging its own Guilty Gear series. Most to blame is lead character Ragna, who is an absolutely shameless knockoff of GG's protagonist Sol Badguy. In appearance, personality, play style and even his voice, Ragna is way too close to Sol for comfort. It's said that the rights for Guilty Gear are still tied up to some degree with pachinko/slot giant Sammy (as they also hold the Hokuto no Ken license, it is unlikely that Arc will get to fix their fantastic and deeply broken take on the franchise), and that Arc wanted a flagship property that they would fully own. In this case, it makes a lot of sense that they'd want it to be as much like their cash cow as possible... but that isn't exactly a nice realization.
The game is a big deal because it's one of the first high-definition 2D games we've seen-- I don't count HD Remix because while it was a huge amount of work, the game wasn't drawn from scratch-- and the game sure as hell is pretty. Particularly striking are the 3D backgrounds, which are so effectively stylized that you can't tell they're CG at all until you actually notice objects shifting as the camera pans from left to right. The characters are about on par with every other 2D fighting game Arc has ever done: gorgeous stills, jerkily animated. From what we've seen of King of Fighters XII, that game is already well past Blazblue's level.
But how does it play? On the surface, it feels just like Guilty Gear, with simple chain combos, the same complicated juggling system, and the heavy focus on staying on the offensive. A lot of fine tuning has gone into the systems, and the game is basically attempting the same goal (rewarding the attacker, forcing both players to go at it) via different means. Possibly the single biggest step in this direction is the player's ability to throw whenever they want.
It's like this: say I have an air combo going. In Guilty Gear, once you're caught in a combo and you've used the get-out-of-jail-free card you get once a round, you have to simply take the hits. There's no real involvement on the recipient's end as the attacker paws him back and forth in the air like a cat with a ball of yarn, and they could just as easily look away for five seconds while the combo finishes up. Blazblue has added a more audacious option for the attacker: to cut out of the combo altogether and throw the opponent for bigger damage than the combo alone would. However, this is risky because it actually opens up an option for the defender: as the throw is breakable with a quick reaction, the defender must actually pay close attention to what the attacker is doing, so that they don't let that throw go by.
Do you see the result? Just knowing that changes the game. Even if the throw never happens, the defender must pay attention. It's a more involving system for both players, and because a throw can even be tossed in during a string of blocked attacks, it forces both players onto their toes at all times. As a fighting game player, it's definitely the coolest thing about the game.
The game had a perpetual crowd around it, but they weren't necessarily ready to put their dollars up. Unfortunately for the game, it's about as hard to get into as Guilty Gear, where learning a character to the best of their abilities usually involved hours in training mode getting that character-specific bread-and-butter combo just right. The combo system in these games is needlessly complicated and repels a lot of players, but it's also what brought in a loyal fanbase. Battle Fantasia excepted (we should note here that Battle Fantasia bombed), Arc's fighting games are niche pieces built for people who are already very, very well-acquainted with the genre.
Actually playing Blazblue--especially against people who have clearly already learned it-- is an extremely daunting proposition, as you're almost certainly going to lose your dollar. I picked the Equilibrium girl, Noel, and I had to fight a Ragna player with eight or so straight wins under his belt already. As Ragna is basically Sol, and Sol is an extreme close-range rushdown character, there was neither time nor room to learn the game. No matter what a new player does, learning a new character, it is going to be very hard to cope against a player who can carry an established and cultivated play style right on over to a new game. Still, I did my best and eventually got a win in, prompting the Ragna to storm off. From there, the rest of us got acquainted with the game. Even so, there probably wasn't one of us who didn't prepare to play this game by printing up a crib sheet from Dustloop. This really isn't a game you can learn fresh, which has always been GG's biggest problem as well.
If you're a mere mortal, on the other hand, and you just want to play the damn game already, I recommend coming by on an early weekday afternoon, if you can swing it. That's pretty much the rule for playing any of these new arcade fighting games without being completely destroyed at them: make sure nobody else is around. Note: this does not apply to Street Fighter IV. Somebody is always playing Street Fighter IV.