Blade Strangers review (Switch): Strange Encounters

Blade Strangers is a suitable name: bringing together characters from Code of Princess, Umihara Kawase, Shovel Knight, Cave Story, Azure Striker Gunvolt,  and The Binding of Isaac, it’s one of the strangest crossover fighting games we’ve seen in a while. Don’t think that’s just some gimmick, though—Blade Strangers is also one of the better games we’ve seen in what’s been a busy year for the fighting genre.

How does such an oddball band of fighters come together? Blade Strangers is refreshingly self-aware in its take on the tired old crossover game trope about universe being smashed together and people made to fight in a tournament for… reasons. In this case, the various universes are all simulations being run by a network of conscious CPUs who, when threatened by a strange alien robot thing who likes to literally eat whole worlds, decide to bring heroes from their simulations to life. In order to awaken the true power of these Strangers and find the one true Blade Stranger, the CPUs decide to modify the heroes’ memories so they think they’re fighting in a tournament.

Related: Code of Princess EX is a beat-’em-up from the same developer, and its approach to classic fantasy tropes is similarly entertaining. Read our review.

It’s silly nonsense, and deliberately so—crossover games are pure fan-service and the realisation of what-if scenarios, and the lengths that most games go to to awkwardly wrap a narrative around that is bizarre. Blade Strangers instead just pokes fun at that, while opening the door to a lot of its own quirky brand of humour. Story mode largely consists of characters being confused about what they’re fighting for and who they’re up against; when those characters include the likes of Gunvolt, Princess Solange, Shovel Knight, and a crying baby, there are plenty of laughs to be had.

 

One of developer Studio Saizansen’s goals with Blade Strangers was to create a game with a lower entry barrier than typical fighting games, but without compromising the tactical depth and competitive nature that makes such games exciting. In that, they’ve been largely successful.

With a simplified control scheme, execution is mostly a non-issue. There are no complex command inputs, nor any fiddly timings to worry about (unless you want there to be—more on that later). With a few simple button presses, you can pull out flashy-looking and perfectly viable combos.

With a few simple button presses, you can pull out flashy-looking and perfectly viable combos.

As much as I love Guilty Gear and the like, it’s kind of nonsense how much time you have to put into training mode in those games before you can even think of playing at any sort of competitive level. Even the most basic bread-and-butter combos require at least a couple of hours to drill them into muscle memory, and more situational or optimal stuff demands a lot more. Even the auto-combos that are becoming common in such games—where you can pull out a simple combo by mashing a single button—are far too inefficient to be of much use for anyone wanting to do more than just mess around.

By contrast, Blade Strangers‘ version of an auto-combo is absolutely viable, so you never need to waste time in training mode unless you actually want to. Instead, you can focus on actually playing the game, fighting other players, and figuring out strategies and mind-games that’ll lead you to victory. That’s where the meat of a fighting game is, after all, so Blade Strangers makes it as easy to get to that point as possible.

The strategy itself sticks close to fighting game fundamentals, and that’s no bad thing. Mixups, frame traps, and blockstrings are the main tools for cutting through an opponent’s defence, while strong projectiles allow more range-focused characters to effectively play keepaway. There’s little by way of additional systems layered over that core to complicate things, other than your stock-standard super gauge and a special powered-up state that you can activate when on low health.

Within that setup, each character’s unique strengths get to shine through. Helen, one of two brand new characters created for Blade Strangers, is a monster at the mid-range footsie game, and has natural mixups built into a lot of her special moves. Princess Solange (from Code of Princess) is a Ryu-like all-rounder, Curly (from Cave Story) is the queen of zoning, and Emiko (from Umihara Kawase) is a beastly grappler thanks to her giant cat Shakemaru. Shovel Knight has powerful okizeme (pressuring an opponent as they get up from being knocked down) that he can turn into insane damage, and Isaac’s diminutive size and odd movements are sure to cause trouble for anyone he fights.

At 14 fighters, Blade Strangers’ roster is tiny by modern standards, but that’s its strength. Instead of just flooding the game with 600 different versions of Goku, each fighter here stands out and feels like they bring something fresh to the game. It’s not just how they play that is unique, either; aesthetically and stylistically, each character feels distinct, and the way they’ve been adapted from their disparate source games into a coherent, consistent art stye is impressive. I often struggle picking a main in fighting games because it’s so rare to find a character I vibe with on every level, but despite its small roster, in Blade Strangers I’m spoiled for choice. To me, that’s one of the marks of a very good fighting game.

I said earlier that technical simplicity is one of Blade Strangers‘ strengths, and that’s true, but there’s also plenty of scope for people who want to dig deeper and perfect more challenging combos to do so. The combo system is, oddly, both very open-ended and very limited: just about any attack can combo into any other, but there’s a hard limit on how long you can keep a chain going for. A combo meter under each fighter’s health bar depletes with each hit, and when it’s empty, the combo ends. How much the bar depletes depends on the attack used, but one key factor is that repeated attacks within the same combo eat up a lot more, while also doing less damage.

The key to building a powerful combo, then, is to use as many different attacks as you can, and to find the most efficient way to string them together. Optimizing combos in fighting games is always a puzzle of sorts, but it’s one that always seems to be too overwhelming due to the range of possibilities. Blade Strangers pulls that back a bit while still leaving enough room to be creative, and building combos is intrinsically rewarding as a result.

That said, I do wonder how things will look six months or a year from now, when people have really had a chance to pick the system to pieces. Even just a couple of weeks out from launch, most characters can carve upwards of 50 percent off a health bar without too much effort. When two good reads are all you need to win a round, there’s less of the back-and-forth and the mind-games that keep fighting games competitively interesting.

Blade Strangers also suffers from a weak netcode. Your mileage will vary, of course, but I’ve yet to play even a single online match that wasn’t laggy to the point of being borderline unplayable. There’s no input lag or GGPO-style rollback; instead, everything just slows to a crawl as the network plays catch-up, throwing out your timing and making anything but the most spam-happy tactics difficult to set-up. Sadly, Blade Strangers was always destined to be a niche game, so outside Japan, it’s going to live or die by its online community.

Still, this is a game I could see myself playing for a long time. It’s got all the depth that makes fighting games as exciting as they are, but without the execution demands that are always such a hurdle. The selection of characters is excellent, especially when most fighting game developers seem more interested in quantity than quality, and the way the narrative brazenly pokes fun at crossover fighting games in general is a nice touch.

Blade Strangers is a strange game indeed, but for all its oddities, it’s a rock-solid fighting game that deserves some attention.

Score: 4 stars
Blade Strangers
Score: 4 stars
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Studio Saizansen
Publisher: Nicalis
Platforms: Switch (reviewed), PS4, PC
Release Date: 28 August 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.