Thursday, April 10, 2014

BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma and Killer Instinct Season One Finale

Hey, remember those fighting games? The other half of the title? I forgot I play those sometimes too; Dark Souls 2 has been devouring my video gaming time, and Warmachine continues to permeate my thoughts. But I do still fire up the fight stick now and again, and I'm hoping to up the frequency a little more as I near the end of Dark Souls 2 (its going to be very difficult to not dive right in to NG+.)

March saw the release of BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma - a very good iteration of the BlazBlue "anime" fighting game series. The little bit of time I've spent with it has been fun, but I haven't really tossed myself into it yet (Dark Souls 2, again.) I'm looking forward to working my way through Story Mode; the BlazBlue series has always had an excellent Story Mode, but the mechanics have been a This iteration seems to have resolved a lot of the little things that made previous versions feel off, so I think this may be the version of BlazBlue I can really grind at and find a character or two that I like. It also helps a lot that the newest crop of characters have some fantastic designs (more gameplay wise than visually, but those designs aren't bad either) so I'm finally excited to play a few of these characters.

April, or more specifically yesterday, brought us the last update from Season One of Killer Instinct (2013,) and it was a doozy. This update included the last character, Fulgore, as well as the greatly desired Arcade mode (single player semi-story mode) and lobbies for online play. With these final additions, Killer Instinct ends Season One in a very good spot.

The roster feels pretty complete and varied, even though it only numbers 8 characters. The single player content is a little lean, but Arcade mode puts it right about on par with your average fighting game single player experience, and the Microsoft team has said that they'll continue to expand the story content of the game (hopefully starting in Season 2.) Lobbies are a wonderful addition to online play, and it should be a huge boon to anyone that plays this game a lot. Lobbies tend to be a faster, better way to get a set of games in than random matchmaking once you get a few people in there, so that should be great for future play (not to mention streams/play vids.)

Now that Season One is done, it's time to look at what we have, and look forward to Season Two. Season One has been, as far as I'm concerned, a smashing success. There have been some rough spots - Spinal glitches, slightly delayed content, so-so quality on the classic skins, jail system bugs - but overall it's hard for me to not be impressed when I consider what Double Helix was able to pull off with this reboot. The original two entries for Killer Instinct were, to put it extremely kindly, gimmicky games that had a lot of style. I loved them t back in the day, but looking back on it those games are very, very shallow.

Double Helix was able to preserve the parts of the franchise that worked - intricate combo system, interesting character archetypes, speed - and reinterpret them in a new way that makes for a fantastic fighting game. Killer Instinct (2013) is a game with a remarkable amount of depth (considering how easily it could have turned out otherwise,) surprisingly cool character designs (especially when you look at the original designs that inspired them,) and a remarkable amount of accessibility. It's still a fighting game so it has barriers (in this case, how quickly one is able to react to visual cues,) but the core of Killer Instinct is remarkably accessible.

For all they did right, Double Helix didn't quite do a flawless job. The cast is very well balanced, all things considered, but there are still some standout characters that feel like they have stronger tool sets than others (Sabrewulf, Sadira) that could maybe use some tuning (a general polish pass at some point isn't a bad idea.) Also, having stepped away from Killer Instinct for awhile then come back to it, this may be the fighting game with the highest required dedication level I've ever played. Most fighting games require a lot of up front work, but once you commit certain things to muscle memory, you can probably put the game down then pick it up later. Killer Instinct relies a lot on visual cues (attack animations) and timing in order to be successful, and those are some of the first things that can leak out of your brain if you stop playing for awhile.

In a game like Street Fighter, you can accomplish a lot just by using footsies, spacing, and your special moves, so even if you forget some of the higher level techniques you can probably hop back in and do alright (that's not a knock against Street Fighter either; I think that relative accessibility is a franchise strong point.) In Killer Instinct, if you step away from the game for awhile and come back only remembering the basics, things are going to be a lot harder for you. The moment to moment game play of Killer Instinct is all a vehicle to get you into the attack/counter/counter-counter set of mind games that make up the game's combo system, and unfortunately that last part is probably the first thing to atrophy. It requires very specific knowledge of what to look out for, and you have to have your muscles trained to do the right commands at the right instant.

That said, those two issues are relatively minor, especially for a new fighting game franchise entry. Balance can always be adjusted, the existing balance is not at all bad (possibly a little skewed, but all 8 characters are perfectly viable,) and I much prefer that to the frustration and upheaval frequent balance attempts can create (a lesson Netherrealm Studios learned last generation.) And I'll happily trade being able to effortlessly drop the game then pick it up again for having a pretty damn deep set of systems. It just makes me want to play the game more, and that's a fantastic "down side."

So the good news is that Double Helix did a fantastic job with Season One. The bad news is that, as we all learned a month or two ago, Double Helix was purchased by Amazon to make games for their (now named) Amazon Fire TV system. That left many fans of Killer Instinct reeling with questions. Who would replace Double Helix? What about the game's core engine? How will this affect Season One? Will there even be a Season 2?!?

The good ("goodest"?) news is that there are answers to those questions, and they're very positive ones. Double Helix (who should be lauded for their success) will be replaced by Iron Galaxy Studios, and that was fantastic news. Iron Galaxy Studios has handled all of Capcom's recent "old arcade game to (then) current gen" ports, such as Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Darkstalkers: Resurrection, Marvel vs. Capcom: Origins, so they know what a good fighting game looks like, and they know how good fighting game netcode runs (all of the games I listed have fantastic netcode, with 3rd Strike being recently updated to improve user experiences.) Moreover, Iron Galaxy Studios was apparently originally in the running to develop Killer Instinct from the beginning (but they had to back out due to other obligations,) so it's not like Microsoft is replacing Double Helix with a random choice. We have no guarantees about how Iron Galaxy Studios will do with Killer Instinct moving forward, but everything I know about them and everything I've heard them say since being announced as the new developer gives me faith that they'll continue the good work that Double Helix began.

Along with that announcement came the confirmation that, yes, there will be a Season Two of Killer Instinct. Apparently the game has performed very well according to Microsoft's expectations, so at least for now we can expect the content to keep on coming. Supposedly there will be Killer Instinct related announcements at E3 this year, so I'll be waiting excitedly to hear whatever details come out then.

Until then, I'm rusty as hell at Killer Instinct, so I need to take my lazy ass back to the lab to re-level up my game.

Semi-related aside: yesterday also saw the release of a firmware update for the CronusMax (rebranded as ControllerMax) gaming device adapter. This firmware update (1.55 I think?) added two awesome features: PS4 support, and the ability for the "auto detect" setting to automatically detect connections to Xbox One and PS4 consoles (previously it had to be manually set to Xbox One version, then changed back if you wanted to use it on other systems.) Both of these features are awesome added value to the adapter.

The inclusion of PS4 to the list of working consoles means that I can now use my fight stick on any major console, and the updated functionality of the "auto detect" feature makes it that much less of a hassle to use; now I can just plug the device in and go (give or take needing to authenticate an Xbox One controller in the middle, but that's a quick step.) I was already very pleased with my CronusMax device before, but now it's a fantastic purchase. If you're looking for a way to keep using a "last gen" (PS3/360) fight stick into the current generation, if you want to use a PS3/360 stick on the other system, or both, it's a great buy.

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