Release Date: October 7, 2008
A guilty pleasure of mine is the manga "Bleach," which is basically your typical Shonen-style manga that consists of a series of fights between ultra-powerful characters in the vein of Dragon Ball Z, which a lot of Shonen manga has been copying for quite a while. There's really nothing in particular that sets "Bleach" apart from the other stuff on the market today, other than the slick illustration work of the artist, and just the overall appeal of the first few big story arcs. The anime is a slightly different beast, which has been plagued by lackluster filler episodes, so I'm not as familiar with it as I am the manga.
With that out of the way, Bleach video games have been coming out in a steady stream in Japan for a while, and they're slowly starting to trickle into in the U.S., much like the Naruto titles. Bleach: Dark Souls for the DS, which is the second Bleach fighter for the DS to show up in the U.S. It's easy for a lot of people to take a look at this and figure it's just more licensed anime junk, but even if I weren't a fan of the manga, I'd say that you would be completely wrong in this case. The prior title, Bleach: The Blade of Fate was one of the best fighting games on the DS system, with some solid sprite work and a great online mode that had people importing the game prior to its release. Additionally, the developer is Treasure — responsible for hits such as Ikaruga Bangai-O — so you know that you're in store for some really solid gameplay.
The gameplay in Bleach: Dark Souls hasn't changed very much from the previous title. It controls like a fighter, except that the story mode has you playing as various characters from the series, often fighting against one or two opponents as the story plays out. The action takes place on the top screen of the DS, and you can control the entire game with just the d-pad and the face and shoulder buttons. If you're the type of player who has a hard time pulling off combos (down, down-right, right), then you can tap special attack buttons on the bottom touch-screen to pull off some of the fancier moves.
Along with that, the touch-screen also contains various cards that you'll collect as you progress in the story mode. These cards all have certain effects, such as restricting your opponent's ability to jump, increasing or decreasing attack and defense, and so on. There's a pretty good variety, and part of the strategy comes from constructing a deck to your liking. Each card is assigned a point value, and you're only allowed to have so many points in your deck, so you'll need to swap out cards as you gain newer and better abilities. The card system isn't exactly necessary in the main story mode, but you'll get more use out of it in multiplayer than anywhere else.
The actual fighting gameplay is still really solid, and it holds up as well as the original did. Dark Souls is an easy game for new players to jump into and get a handle on, and it has a surprising amount of depth for more veteran fighting gamers. It's not quite up to the level of top-tier games like Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter, but it's still one of the best fighting experiences you'll get on the DS, and it's just plain fun to check out. The online mode is still present in the sequel, and it's definitely the area where you'll have the most fun in the long run.
For fans of the story line, this title is set after the Rukia rescue but before (or during) the Hueco Mundo story arc. As a result, you're not going to see all of the characters that are currently present in the series, but you will get all of the lieutenants, captains and other series mainstays, like Chad, Orihime and so on. There are quite a few unlockables along the way, including cards and characters, and outside of the story mode, you can play as any of these guys with single one-on-one matchups or online.
It all sounds good, but I do have a complaint with the story mode. In the previous title, there would be matches where you'd have to meet certain requirements, like emptying your spirit meter (used for special attacks) before a match ends, and so on. Dark Souls takes these match variations to the extreme, with a lot of matches toward the end game not even being about fighting. There are a couple of fights where you're asked quiz questions, and you have to either stand on the left side of the screen for yes, or the right side for no. You're paired off against an opponent, and you can fight them, but the idea is that you want to be on the side of the screen corresponding to your answer after the question has been asked. There are also matches that just consist of your character jumping around and collecting butterflies or other objects within a time limit, or racing around to collect candy or something else against another opponent. These matches are all pretty disappointing, and they don't hold a candle to the actual fighting matches, so I found them to be pretty annoying. The worst part being is that they become more prevalent as you advance through the game, and quite a few are required to advance, which really detracts from the gameplay.
However, outside of that, I can't find much to fault with Bleach: Dark Souls. It's a pretty solid follow-up to the original, and it still stands as one of the best, if not the best, fighter on the DS system. I'd suggest picking it up for the online mode alone, but you should definitely go through the story mode at least once so you can unlock all of the different characters and cards that the title has to offer. I recommend this to DS owners, and if you passed on the first Bleach DS title, don't make the same mistake with Bleach: Dark Souls.