(PlayStation Vita Review) Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax

Developer: Ecole Software / French Bread
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Fighting
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: John Rien

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is a crossover fighter from developers Ecole Software and French Bread. Those names might not sound familiar, but both are experienced developers that have worked on such long-running, fan-favorite series as Melty Blood and The Queen of Heart. The duo’s latest collaboration, published by Sega, makes good use of their skill by combining a deceptively engaging fighting system with mounds of lighthearted fan service. Both the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions have been reviewed, and as always, system-specific comments can be found at the end.

Fighting games have a tendency to intimidate newcomers. All it takes is seeing a few minutes of a good Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter match to get someone so excited that they have try it for themselves, and about half that of actual play to send them packing. Lowering the barrier to entry has proven to be a persistent challenge for the genre, and even some of the oldest and best-selling franchises have trouble retaining newer players. The span of a few whiffed special moves is about all the patience many players can muster in a market overloaded with quality titles. But with an eye towards accessibility, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax manages to avoid such pitfalls.

The importance of a fighter’s cast is hard to overestimate. The characters are the players’ portal into that world, and a bland roster is as good as hanging a “Do Not Enter” sign. Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax doesn’t have that problem. The cast is comprised of characters from over a dozen properties under the Dengeki Bunko imprint, which includes the popular Sword Art Online. Despite being unfamiliar with many of the represented franchises, several eye-catching fighters quickly caught my attention with their colorful costumes tastefully accentuated with giant spears and swords. Of course, with so many characters from so many series, such as Accel World, The Irregular at Magic High School, Black Bullet, and Strike the Blood, there are plenty of ready-made favorites. An array of assist characters further broadens the game’s appeal, as many are from even more series; even Sega got in on the act, with primary and assist characters from Virtua Fighter and Valkyria Chronicles. Attacks are suitably flashy for such an eccentric cast, and also very rewarding, with even simple moves appearing and feeling substantive. Many also make for a good laugh, as when Tomoka Minato turns her opponent into a basketball and bounces them around before taking a shot.

In something of a rarity, I enjoyed playing as all of the characters. They cover a wide range of play styles, from those that focus on zoning with ranged attacks to those that favor close-quarters combat. There is not guess work involved, either; it takes one round to determine how best to a fighter’s optimal range. Clicking with a character is only the beginning: the real excitement comes from exploring the fighting engine. Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax takes a unique approach in this regard, as it utilizes a deceptively simple control scheme. Only four buttons are used—three attack strengths and one to call for an assist—and move sets and input commands, which are identical for everyone, are intentionally limited. This apparent simplicity serves to mask an expansive system that instead relies heavily on resource management.

Initially, the engine seems possibly too barebones. Characters only have a few attacks, and these rely on the familiar quarter- and half-quarter-circle motions made popular in Street Fighter. Looking at the in-game move list, it would appear that there isn’t much going on under the hood. However, where the game shines is how these moves work in conjunction with a variety of limited and meter-dependent mechanics, including the Climax Gauge, Blasts, and Trump Cards. The game gets a lot of mileage out of four buttons, and by pressing them in combination with one another or a directional input, characters will increase their strength, repel enemies while blocking, extend combos, and unleash powerful cinematic attacks.

For instance, engaging a Trump Card will briefly increase damage while chaining additional normal attacks and allowing for free assists. An even better example of how the game makes the most out of its limited inputs is the Blast mechanic. Characters react differently depending on if they are neutral (attack and defense stats increase, Climax Gauge charges faster), attacking (acts as a launcher and allows for unorthodox combos), and defending (engages an escape move that launches the opponent back). And all it takes to engage Blast is to press three buttons simultaneously. Ever accessible, players also have access to a lengthy, moderately powerful combo simply by using weak attack and one stock of the Gauge meter. As serviceable and flashy as it is, the auto-combo only hints at the real damage that can be done, which comes from learning when to dash, double jump, burn the meter to link moves, go for a super attack, call in assistance, and so on. But by providing such inroads, newer players are more inclined to feel encouraged and want to practice to improve their performance.

Despite playing through the game’s several modes, I kept feeling as if I wasn’t fully cracking the system. I completed the very bland Story Mode with several characters, and then ran through a number of the five-match Dream Duels with a few of my favorites.  The custom dialog in the duels didn’t add much to the various interactions, so I then tackled the array of Challenge modes: Score Attack, Time Attack, and Survival. After doing what I considered to be quite well, I took a victory lap in the Specials section to spend all of my acquired credits on custom voices, art, tags, character colors, and banner-customization items. Now that my banner was spruced up with a fancy icon, title, and other accoutrements, I decided to tackle multiplayer. After patting myself on the back so much, I thought that perhaps I was mistaken and that I did in fact have a firm grip on the mechanics. I was doing so well that surely I was prepared to tackle other players. It took all of five seconds for me to realize that something was very wrong. After a flurry of whiffed and dodged attacks, the first round ended with a near-perfect round for my opponent. The massacre that followed was humbling, but I did take away several lessons.

The first lesson is that there were more ways to link moves and combos together than I had thought possible. Seeing other players dash, recover, and jump around made it clear that my skill level, despite dominating the computer, was akin to a crawl compared to their parkouring. Uniquely for a 2D fighter, opponents can be attacked on the ground as well, which means the pummeling never stopped. The second is that there are a few issues with balance. A handful of primary characters were prominent, but one character in particular dominated as an assist: Accelerator from A Certain Magical Index. After choosing him, I can see why. While others offer ways to attack from the rear, bounce to extend combos, charm, or distract, he would unleash an attack if any landed on another character, Last Order, who stands near the player. While it sounds pretty basic, both of his attacks are so powerful and far-reaching that choosing anyone else felt like an intentional handicap. The third lesson is that the game would have definitely benefited from a Tutorial mode. It’s possible to spar against the computer, but none of the game’s mechanics are covered in any way. Reading the manual certainly helps, but it’s a far cry from hands-on training that walks players through how and when to use the various skills, and especially just how powerful they are when utilized together. As newcomer-friendly as the game is in a general sense, learning anything beyond the basics requires playing against others and taking some heavy, heavy lumps.

In terms of platform, the game plays well on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. Online performance was solid, the controls are responsive, and the game looks and sounds great. Of particular note is that this is one of the few fighters that I could actually play for prolonged periods on the PlayStation Vita. Typically, the system’s low directional pad makes motions uncomfortable after a while, but the game’s limited use of such and reliance on buttons, which the system has just enough of, made it a perfect match for the handheld. If choosing between the two, it’s tough to beat a full controller or the option to use a fightstick with the PlayStation 3.

Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is a fan-service-heavy crossover fighter that hits the mark for its intended audience. The game won’t replace a hardcore fighting fan’s preferred entry of Street Fighter or Guilty Gear—as involving as it is, the game does have its limits—but it does make for an accessible, kinetic title that should especially appeal to anime and manga fans. The shallow and repetitive story and lack of a proper tutorial disappoint, but the action is fast and the combat fantastic.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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