At this point, any article that has mentioned the impending end of the Sony PSP has been wrong. Although it has been overshadowed in recent years by the Nintendo 3DS and Sony's own PS Vita, the widescreen portable has seen a slow trickle of games that help keep it in the public eye. Doing its part to prolong the life of the PSP is NIS America with Black Rock Shooter: The Game, a title that was released in Japan almost two years ago.
Though it is part of a larger franchise, the PSP version of Black Rock Shooter has its own story. In the near future, aliens have come to Earth to attack. After 20 years of fighting and staying om the defensive, the human race is all but extinct. With only 12 humans alive, they call upon the android known only as Black Rock Shooter (BRS) as a last-ditch effort to save themselves. While she is willing to fight, she has no recollection of her life prior to her slumber. As she fights the alien invaders, she makes it her mission to recover those lost memories.
Fans of sci-fi anime will know what to expect while the detractors will be reminded of why they dislike the genre. Your amnesiac main character is almost always lifeless in her reactions and pretty naive about what needs to be done if it doesn't involve protecting herself with a giant gun. Her allies are archetypes, from the big burly soldier who doesn't trust her to the sympathetic companion with a troubled past. There's also the cannon fodder that represents every nationality and have throwaway lines. Even the enemy aliens follow predictable character profiles, from the enraged to the misunderstood and aloof. Their appearances immediately tell you about their personalities, and you'd often be proven correct with the dialogue.
The story starts off a bit dull, and the initial set of missions has you blindly following orders and killing indiscriminately. The cut scenes often have decent-sized swaths of dialogue in an attempt to give characters more personality. However, it gets much better as it progresses, and some interesting twists help you empathize with the heroine, so those who are patient enough to stick with the game will be rewarded.
Despite the name, Black Rock Shooter is more of an action role-playing game with shooting instead of sword-slashing. You travel around the worlds with a third-person viewpoint, opening up chests for power-ups and activating healing beacons that also double as save stations. To help with the game's portable nature, each area is small enough that you can tackle a mission in a few minutes. You'll also run into visible enemies for forced combat or retreat instead of going through random battles, and each fight generates XP as well as items for combat.
When in combat, the fights occur in a fixed area despite being shown in 3-D environments. Instead of going with a menu system to execute attacks, you attack in real time, with your analog stick controlling the crosshairs. Though you can't freely move around the area, you can dodge attacks or block them for minimal damage. Aside from your gun, you also have access to a few other weapons, like sniper rifles, more powerful charged shots or the ability to put up more defensive shields during battle.
For the most part, the mechanics for the RPG and shooter elements are simple but remain fun for fans of both genres. There's no party juggling to worry about, so you only have to monitor BRS. Items don't get more complicated than healing and automatic cooldown, so there isn't much juggling through selections in battle.
Challenges are a really cool element. Most have you complete a task or kill certain enemies X amount of times while others have you trying to complete certain areas unscathed. Each chapter has over 10 challenges, which unlock things from upgrades to new abilities to extra artwork. Generally, these items are unlocked via normal gameplay, but others require you to do some hunting, extending the game a bit for completionists.
The simplicity does hurt the game, though. In terms of exploration, the small sections are a good size when you consider the portable nature of the title, but there isn't much motivation to explore the area, especially with large arrows telling you exactly where to go and large crosses telling you where you can't go. Even when you get the chance to do so in Free Hunt mode, you'll notice that the levels are very linear, and while that means there is minimal chance of getting lost, it also means that shortcuts and secret areas are either small or nonexistent.
In combat, your dodging range is limited enough that you can't flank the enemy. This is problematic when a large group seems to be attacking from all of the move spots, forcing you to attempt a block or just eat the damage. Since your weapon stays with you at all times and there's no way to get something completely different, combat feels a little stagnant since you can't experiment with weaker or more powerful weaponry. It also doesn't help that there isn't much enemy variety, so you'll face the same, albeit upgraded, enemies through most of the fights. Once you learn the tells of each enemy type, combat starts to feel monotonous. Only boss fights mix up the attacks a bit.
Though we are about a year into the PS Vita generation, the original PSP is still quite capable of producing some great-looking games. Black Rock Shooter isn't exactly one of those games. The character designs aren't bad, with the most attention going to the main character and some important allies and enemies. Everyone else looks pretty generic, making them disposable and not very memorable. The generic lip animations and the abrupt animation transitions don't help, either. The environments are made less appealing, as they look typical of most games and fail to convey the sense that the world has been destroyed. The particle effects are fine, but the textures aren't very clean. It's a little disheartening to see that the main character's outfit and scar aren't as defined as they could've been. The whole thing is also covered in jaggies, and while the Vita's screen and upscaled resolution help a bit, it isn't enough to eliminate the effect. For a game this late in the system's life cycle, it should have looked better.
While the graphics tend to fall short, the sound fares better. The voices have been kept in their native Japanese and sound fine, though the dubbed fans won't be too pleased by the lack of audio localization. The music is typical of what you'd hear from a Japanese sci-fi game, with light electronic melodies mixed with hard rock. Aside from the title track, nothing is particularly memorable, but it still sounds good.
Black Rock Shooter: The Game isn't perfect. The graphical presentation could be beefed up some more, the story goes through almost every expected genre trope, and the fights aren't very involving until you reach the bosses. The game comes in at a decent length, and the missions are really suited to a more portable game style. The action is fun thanks to the expected upgrade trickle. There are better RPGs on the system, but for fans and those looking for something a little different, Black Rock Shooter will hit the spot for a while.
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