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Above: You get one guess to figure out what country popularized sexy nuns with guns

Radical characters and inventive gameplay result in a serious contender for the hardcore fighting crownEdit

BlazBlue: Continuum Shift (CS) is nothing if not honest, even in the basic tutorial the game’s 12 year old Gothic Lolita berates you for your lack of skill and “The vast rotting expanse you call your head”. Essentially, it’s a perfect microcosm of BlazBlue: If you’re not willing to suffer a little in order to have fun, you might want to look elsewhere. CS is unapologetically Japanese both in its style and approach, offering up a carnival’s worth of fascinatingly bizarre characters while demanding some skill from the player to get the most out of them.

That’s not to say the game is impenetrable for newcomers, CS features a simplified “beginner mode” control scheme that rewards newbies with push button special moves and automatically timed combos. It works better with some characters than others, but for the absolute beginner it makes the game less overwhelming; tap some buttons, have some fun. The new Tutorial mode is also a welcome addition, covering the basics and explaining the game's myriad systems and gauges. Continuum Shift's Challenge mode actually manages to one-up SFIV's Trial mode, giving the player detailed descriptions and video playback on how to do each challenge while actually helping you learn how to use each character.

BlazBlue’s strongest suit, much like its Arc System Works sibling Guilty Gear, is its radically inventive character design, both visually and technically. Characters in this game instantly stand out, and the radical color selections make them even more stunning. If there’s a case for what can be done with modern hardware and pixel art, this is it. From the “No-Face” like Arakune to the neo-robo samurai Hakumen, every character is gorgeous and stunningly animated, but it’s not just the character’s visual differences that make them individual. Even Street Fighter’s strongest supporters will admit that the game’s diverse roster contains some almost-duplicates, characters that are different, but share the bulk of their playstyle with other characters. BlazBlue can’t be accused of the same; each character in the game feels totally unique and most offer radical, bizarre tactical options.

The game itself sticks to the kind of combo-centric play that Arc System games are famous for, which means that unless you’re playing as the bruiser Iron Tager, individual hits won’t do very much damage; combos, even the most basic ones, are essential to winning. Unlike other fighters, CS doesn’t place a lot of value in projectiles; most do little damage and are designed to get you into a combo or counter an opponent. Matches are far more aerial in CS, and the characters much too speedy to be pressured with fireballs.

CS holds onto the same control scheme as Calamity Trigger: Light, Medium, Strong, Special/Drive attack buttons. The drive button is similar to Super Smash Bros’ in that it unleashes a character specific move, usually depending on what direction you push. In the case of Carl Clover, the Drive button allows him to independently control his huge robotic puppet in the background, giving him the ability to attack opponents from two sides at once. If that sounds deadly, it’s because it is, but learning how to position yourself and your robot to take advantage of the tactic is harder than it sounds. Other character’s special button attacks are more conventional, like special sword strikes or unique counter moves. Figuring out each character’s Drive attack gives you a good insight into how they’re supposed to be played and where their strengths lie.CS features a lot of single player modes, including Arcade, Story, Challenge, Legion and Score Attack to keep solo players busy. The new Legion single player mode, taken from the PSP version of BlazBlue, plays like a mini military strategy game; you battle squads of characters on a map, bolstering your ranks with defeated foes. Legion mode forces you to choose between sacrificing characters you’re bad with versus putting your preferred characters at risk; damage is cumulative in this mode, so there’s constant pressure. The Story mode is actually well conceived, especially for a fighting game, and features tons of spoken dialogue and plot explaining the game’s lore and the characters’ allegiances/motivations. Whether or not you’ll enjoy the plot depends on how many anime tropes and clichés you can stomach, but for those that enjoy the genre and want to get into the universe, it’s well presented.

While CS has its fundamentals locked down, it's hampered by some quirks: the game features much stricter special move inputs than SSFIV, especially when trying to perform Distortion Drive (Super) attacks; it almost seems like the faster you perform the input the less likely it is to work. It’s a minor quibble, but one that takes some getting used to; slowly and precisely inputting a command for a Super attack in the heat of battle does not come naturally. The game also features an excessive amount of voice effects during matches. Every time a character performs one of the game’s techniques, like a counter, the narrator will yell “Counter!” combine this with the characters themselves spouting some gibberish every time they get hit or use a special attack, and every match quickly becomes a blathering cacophony of noise. CS also suffers from the industry standard "smash a controller, throw your TV out the window" final bosses that read your moves and automatically counter anything you do.

Any modern fighting game needs solid online support, and like its predecessor Calamity Trigger, CS has it in spades. The matches we played online seemed choppy during the loading screen, but as soon as the fight actually started they were smooth as butter. Of course your online experience will vary depending on your connection, but don’t blame the netcode, it’s solid. CS also offers excellent options for finding games online, an area in which Capcom should definitely be taking notes.

Continuum Shift improves on Calamity Trigger in every way, and it's undoubtedly one of the best fighting games available; it oozes style, incorporates some truly radical ideas into its gameplay and sports a level of polish not always seen in fighting games. For players who feel they have a handle on 2D Fighters, CS offers an advanced course, bending the genre's core concepts to their breaking points and forcing you to think, and play, in new ways. BlazBlue: Continuum Shift isn't just a worthy alternative to SSFIV, it's a genuine competitor.

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