Developer: Polygon Magic
Release date: October 9, 2007
I'll admit that I'm not an expert on "Bleach," but after swinging and wiggling my arms into near oblivion playing Bleach: Shattered Blade on the Wii, consider my interest piqued. Games based on animated series aren't usually shining beacons of game design. Most of the time, they get written off as nothing more than fan service. You'll see familiar characters loosely tossed into a convoluted gameplay scheme and story, where the game almost solely relies on the player's fandom to carry the experience. That's far from the case with Bleach: Shattered Blade, a surprisingly solid fighter that pulls you in with a mix of intuitive controls and nifty combat elements.
The game is modeled after the popular Tite Kubo manga that appears in the Japanese compilation magazine, Shonen Jump. Most of the story revolves around the exploits of Ichigo Kurasaki, a high schooler forced into a battle of spirits and souls when he meets a girl named Rukia Kuchiki. Rukia's a Soul Reaper, a being who fights evil spirits (hollows) and guides lost souls back to Soul Society (that's the afterlife to you and me).
Rukia ends up losing her powers when she gets wounded by a hollow in battle. In an effort to protect Ichigo, she tries to transfer some of her powers to him. However, Ichigo is unusually tuned in to the spiritual world, so he ends up taking in all of Rukia's power. With that newfound power, Ichigo has no choice but to take over Rukia's job as a Soul Reaper.
The core of the combat in both the manga and the game is breathtakingly fast swordplay that reminds me of the furious hand-to-hand battles I saw in "Fist of the North Star." The swords used in the Bleach universe are modeled after the souls of the users. As a result, they have their own powers, mannerisms — even moods.
The main premise of the game is Ichigo's search for the pieces of the "executioner's blade." He and his friends are trapped in Soul Society, and they need those blade shards to get back into their own world. Since this is a fighting game, you can imagine what Ichigo needs to do in order to gain possession of those pieces.
Whenever I hear "story" and "fighting game" in the same breath, I always think back to Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast and the Street Fighter series — relatively linear, with just enough backstory on the characters to make you care about them beyond their special combos. That's essentially what happens in Bleach, with varying storylines and dialogue tailored to whatever characters you select at the beginning (you can pick Ichigo and two others). It should be noted that this game is a full port of the Japanese version that came out on 2006, so it follows the same story arc that those in Japan have already seen. There are 32 playable fighters in the game overall, including a Wii-exclusive unlockable character. Fans are going to take note of Ichigo and Rukia of course, but they'll also be pleased to find characters like the super-cute Orihime Inoue, the eyepatch-wearing badass Kenpachi and the perpetually busty Rengiku Matsumoto.
Visually, it would be strange to have an anime-based fighting game without trying to maintain the art style of the series, so that's what you'll get here. Bleach: Shattered Blade does a solid job of replicating that stylized, cel-shaded look that helped games like Naruto: Clash of Ninja Revolution or Dragonball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 form their own visual identity. It almost looks a little too similar to those games, but I'm not exactly sure how that can be avoided due to the style of the source material.
Regardless of what you think of the visuals, it's the gameplay that is the title's best chance of winning over players. The Wiimote functions as your sword, where you can slash up, down and across. You also have the ability to stab at your opponent, something that adds a nice wrinkle to the heat of battle. Holding down the A button while swinging unleashes a critical attack, whereas holding down the B button gives you a practically unblockable special attack.
The Nunchuk handles most of your defense. The left analog stick controls character movement around the 3D environment, which encourages you to find the appropriate angles to take on your opponent. The C button makes your characters sprint, which is a nice feature to have if you're one of those players who likes to throw off an overaggressive opponent's timing with movement (as opposed to just blocking, done with the Z button).
You can also shake the Nunchuk to charge up your power meter to unleash your "bankai." It's essentially a timed battle mode that gives you access to a potpourri of wicked special powers, like conjuring a column of ice that deals heavy (not massive) damage or summoning fairies to form a protective, healing force field.
Perhaps the coolest battle feature occurs when a pair of critical attacks clash, forcing a kind of intense stalemate. A pair of Madden-like kicking meters pop up on the screen, and it's up to you to swing the Wiimote when the cursor hits the green zone in the meter. Not only that, but your type of swing has to be stronger than your opponent's, otherwise you get to see your fighter lose the exchange quite painfully.
The most pleasant surprise for me was how responsive and clean the Wii controls felt, correctly reading the right swipes and stabs for the most part. I was also a little surprised at how fast the Wii controls picked up my movements, so I was able to put together some solid combos and capitalize relatively quickly on mistakes. However, there were still plenty of instances when I was able to madly wiggle my way over opponents and blow them away with a flurry of swings. Plus, a good chunk of my fights devolved into a race of "who can access his mega-attack first?" By the end of my playing session, I was employing much of the "shake, power-up and swing" strategy.
Overall, I was solidly entertained by Bleach: Shattered Blade. Even though I had to look up some stuff to get a general idea of who everyone was, I found myself sucked into some of the cool combat features, such as the "clash" mini-game. Though the experience degraded slightly, I also enjoyed feeling like I was in an actual swordfight, parrying and swinging away while my opponent refused to let up. At the very least, I got a ton of exercise out of it. I'd probably recommended this title to fans of the series, while others should at least give it a rental opportunity.
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