When I first heard about Blade Strangers just a few months ago, it sounded like a wonderful, horrible fever dream that had been concocted by a Nicalis intern after three days of no sleep and too many coffee runs. There was pushback and criticism from the very beginning, namely at the strange way that Isaac was portrayed, the overt sexualization of Solange (which, if anyone had bothered playing Code of Princess, you’d know it’s par for the course) and so on. Basically, people can’t be happy with a single crossover fighting game unless Nintendo themselves make it, and then they also can’t be happy because Waluigi is too busy being the most annoying meme ever to show up on the roster. But here we are, on the day of reckoning, and I’ve got several hours under my belt. Blade Strangers is a ton of fun, and I will fight you, both figuratively and literally, if you say otherwise.
Firstly, it’s a fighting game with some kind of insane, convoluted storyline, which is already a great start. Somewhere in the multiverse are a series of potentially aware server computers, called Motes, that have been keeping an eye on the slow destruction of the Blade Strangers, which are multiverse champions. The Blade Stranger is supposed to fight off evil and chaos across all the many realities, but someone – or something – has been killing them off. We later learn that this thing is literally eating the Blade Strangers, but that’s not the point. Anyways, the Motes get the bright idea to gather all potential Strangers left from different dimensions and pit them against each other, with memories wiped and false memories implanted, to see who measures up and proves to be the strongest, most capable champion they can find. Technically speaking, the answer is Solange, but the other characters make pretty compelling cases in their own storylines, and some even get some truly hilarious paths to follow (which we’ll cover in a moment). The point is, sentient Dells are making Joe Liongate and Shovel Knight punch each other, and it’s a fantastic experience.
Blade Strangers sets up the fighting style with some very basic but well tuned combat and combos. You’ve got your weak and strong hit, and a specialty move button that changes from each character. Pushing different directions triggers different types of attacks, and certain hits can be chained together to some short but decent combos. There’s also a Heat Up gauge, which increases with each hit you make and land, and the gauge can be used to execute some bad-ass final attacks OR some smaller but potentially life-saving combo breaker hits. This isn’t going to usurp Killer Instinct as a top-tier combo game, or Marvel Vs. Capcom in sheer insanity developing on the screen. In terms of technical execution and curved difficulty, Blade Strangers sits somewhere between older Street Fighters and older Tekkens. If you learn how to get the basics down and down pat, you’ll be able to hold your own in most fights, and can even go toe-to-toe with other experienced players. However, if you take the time to really burn in the details of the combos each character has and understand the timing of when to counter, when you might throw a reversal, and when you’ll have enough time to launch a stage 2 Heat Up attack, you might even make it much further in terms of success.
Character balance, truthfully, is mostly good for Blade Strangers. With one massive, GLARING exception, the fights tend to be incredibly tight, with a lot of short to medium ranged damage mixed in. A good majority of the characters in the game come from Code of Princess (which makes sense, given that Studio Saizensen is at work here), which means a lot of swordplay presented as brawling. Each character from the Code universe is mostly fluid and balanced, with Ali being faster, Master T being a lumbering mess, and Liongate and Solange being right in the center. The Umihara Kawase brand lends their talents here as well, with Kawase being the stronger fighter, Noko being a bit more ranged but still brutal in close-ups, and Emiko and her giant cat being surprisingly nimble and fast. Shovel Knight and Gunvolt both feel the most like fighting participants who could easily be in other games, especially with Shovel Knight’s iconic shovel bounce down attack being unbelievably effective for fleeing opponents. Isaac is a fan favorite but can be difficult to use since he is physically smaller than the others and the hitbox is a bit wonky. I didn’t have any issues with fighting AS him, and the CPU seemed to have no problem finding my giant head, so maybe it’s just mental? The unlockable, original Lina is a sight to behold but nothing particularly special in the arena. Helen, another original character, feels like she should and could be in a game in the future, and plays like a slightly more clothed version of Solange with a better and stronger Heat Up attack. Quote from Cave Story also delivers well, mixing some medium ranged attacks with a decent amount of sword and gunplay. Curly Brace is straight up broken, as her gun attack is the only attack I saw that can cover the entire screen and be used over and over again. I did her entire story mode on Normal without getting hit once, just cowering in the corner and laying down gunfire till it was done. Not my favorite, gotta say.
Where Blade Strangers really shines is the presentation of the whole thing. Firstly, the graphics are solid and gorgeous from start to finish. The animation sequence at the beginning (which has been teased out over YouTube for months) sets the tone properly, and seeing the sprites moving and bouncing around in the arena is pure excitement. There’s a little bit of roughness to the design, but I had the same criticism of Code of Princess, and it’s clear Saizensen has no intention of changing it, and it’s not like it takes away from the game overall. Each character has some beautiful Japanese voicework done, with the major exceptions of Quote (who says nothing except for occasionally announcing “gun” when shooting) and Isaac (who only cries and has his mother’s screaming voice pop up sometime). The levels, per fighter, match their aesthetics beautifully, from Noko’s cyber police station to the burning ruins from wherever Helen hails from. The ending scene of each character, where they fly away to become the new Blade Stranger, is a breathtaking space shot that gives each character a final animation in a more glamorous, high-definition light.
Additionally, the Heat Up moves are worth the price of admission alone when it comes to fanservice in Blade Strangers. The Code of Princess moves are, across the board, true to the characters, strong and unique without being too flashy. The way Ali does a quick stab and casually prepares herself for a massacre is incredibly satisfying. Having said that, the Code of Princess gang also feels like they’re pretty subdued in comparison to some insane havoc that other characters unleash. Shovel Knight summons a massive tsunami that can hit both ways if the Heat Up gauge is full. Isaac actually imploys moves from his own game, including his mother’s grotesque leg smashing the opponent into the floor. Curly Brace has a fantastic move where she blows the opponent straight into Cave Story and they have to feel the wrath of Pixel in a whole new environment. Arguably my favorite is Kawase’s stab-a-thon, which feels so morbid and sinister from a character who is upbeat and only possibly psychotic. Seeing those moves enacted not only guarantees a huge amount of damage, but it’s a huge nod to the people who’ve enjoyed the Nicalis catalog, almost like enjoying the Lord of the Rings movies more because you’ve read the books. Yes, I know that Lina might be the potentially strongest character, and Solange might be the true hero of the game, but I can’t not enjoy turning into an Archangel and blasting someone to Hell.
The tone of the game throughout story mode is what ultimately sells the package. Each story mode should take less than thirty minutes, and some of the Mote’s dialogue (especially before the final battle) is recycled, but it’s well worth sitting and reading through it all initially. Everyone has a good sprinkling of humor throughout, from the clearly mixed reasons for entering the “tournament” to some dry humor from the machines themselves. There’s a lot of jokes and references to the size of some character’s breasts, as well as everyone commenting that Solange must be cold. Isaac’s entire story is a howl, watching people trying to understand his nonstop crying. Right before the final battle, however, we do get a glimpse into the souls and hearts of our characters, which somehow unplugs the jokes and reminds you that, in their own respective worlds (games), they have depth and reasons for their decisions and ideas. It was actually a bit unsettling to have Kawase get psychoanalyzed, but very logical in the same turn. It’s one of the few fighting games that I’d recommend playing for character development, simply because it’s damn interesting.
In terms of performance, Blade Strangers seems solid and fluid throughout. There’s some worrying stuttering when the match is being introed, but I never had any latency issues when it came to the actual fighting. I mostly played with my SN30PRO because the directionals felt a bit wonky using the JoyCons, and you really want to have clear division between moving forward and up. But the game never crashed, there wasn’t any times when I insisted I hit the right buttons, the game delivered in that sense. There’s plenty of opportunity to get better through some seemingly inconsequential missions to practice button combos, as well as actual training and offline play. Story mode is seriously just one avenue: there’s versus, arcade, a survival mode, and online match making, which I sadly canNOT comment on due to lack of finding opponents even once during the long weekend. The one complaint I will levy is that I think there is some mis-mapping between the suggested controls and the actual controls. I was under the impression that B was my special attack and A was my Heat Up style button, and it seems to be the opposite. It did make for some confusion (though finding out the right shoulder button triggered the massive Heat Up attack without needing a bunch of buttons was a godsend).
Blade Strangers feels like a perfect storm for Nicalis. It’s fun, irreverent, serious enough to be a competitive fighter but not rigid enough to scare off non-fighting enthusiasts. They’ve made a surprisingly competent game from the heroes they’ve got on hand, and lent room for expansion in two directions (I seriously want to see Helen in a new game). I have no idea how it’s going to fare on the PS4, but, here on the Switch, this is a dynamite title with room to grow and plenty to base it on. If you’re even remotely interested, then you’ll have plenty of meat and excitement ahead, and players should grab this on day one to help fill up the online lobbies. Me and Kawase will be waiting. And yes, I did pack the fishing pole.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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