Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: Bleach - Heat the Soul

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bleach - Heat the Soul

Bleach is PSP's first 3D fighting title.
Is it to dye for? Or just a whitewash?

Fighting games and handhelds traditionally don't mix. That's not to say they haven't been done, they just haven't been very successful in the past. Handhelds simply haven't had the power or screens to do the fighter genre justice, and the fact that handheld gaming hasn't been readily conducive to multi-player gaming hasn't helped either.

Of course, things are changing rapidly in the handheld scene, and genres once bound to the loungeroom, like racing, fighting and first-person shooters are starting to go walkabout. Sure, the GameBoy Advance tackled all of these, but let's not kid ourselves, none of the GBA renditions could hold a candle to their home console counterparts. Handheld gaming is only now emerging from the shadow of the home console, becoming a truly comparable portable experience, rather than a poor imitation. (Well, until the next-gen hits at least...)

Capcom's PSP launch title, Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower (aka Vampire Chronicle in Japan) was PSP's first fighting game. While it was a well executed distillation of Street Fighter's little-sister franchise, it failed to really excite the public. As a port of a decade-old 2D arcade fighter, it just didn't have mainstream appeal.

While the PSP community eagerly awaits the announcement of Tekken PSP (or something along those lines), SCE have jumped on a hotly contested game licence to bring the first 3D fighter to the PSP's screen. Bleach - Heat the Soul is the first game based on Tite Kubo's popular Bleach manga series. The Bleach manga is now being serialized in English in Shonen Jump magazine. (If you're interested you can read some online here.) To be more accurate, the Bleach game is actually based on the anime, which is based on the manga. More on that distinction later. Currently only available in Japan, the chances of a wider release for Bleach on PSP probably hinge on the anime's success in western markets.

Bleach is the story of Ichigo Kurasaki, a 15 year old japanese schoolboy with orange hair (presumably explaining the title) who can see ghosts. Thanks to an encounter with a mysterious girl named Rukia, Ichigo gains Shinigami (Death God) powers, and protects the innocent by fighting off corrupted souls called Hollows. Supernatural, comedic and romantic hijinks ensue.
Disclaimer: I freely confess I am not a Bleach fan. That's not to say I dislike it, I just haven't been exposed to enough of it to have any extensive knowledge or appreciation of it.

Considering this is the first attempt at a 3D fighter on PSP, Bleach certainly looks very impressive. The detailed screen-filling characters are all cel-shaded, making them visually consistent with the anime. The look is reminiscent of the Naruto games on Gamecube (or the recent DBZ games on PS2), though the outlining is perhaps not as solid. The environments are non-interactive rectangular 3D arenas that feature invisible, or otherwise improbable walls (you can't fight beyond those witch's hats!) and they sport a decent amount of background detail as well as some occasional fog and lighting effects. The dynamic camera and variety of physical, supernatural and weapon-based attacks ensure that the game stays eye-catching. On the whole, it's bright, good-looking and faithful to the look of the anime. This Bleach is colour-friendly.

The framerate isn't perfect, but it doesn't hamper play either. The intro sequence looks great, and apparently features some new animation not in the anime's intro. Story mode is fleshed out by mostly static anime cutscenes between stages, voiced by the original anime cast (all in japanese, with japanese subtitles). The music is surprisingly good, both in-game and during cutscenes.

No-one will confuse Bleach with a hardcore fighting game. It's unashamedly lightweight, featuring about 30 simple combos per character. Nothing tricky whatsoever. The button layout features two attack buttons, one jump button and a special button, plus the left trigger allows side-running dodges. Filling up the power gauge allows execution of a special move. Most characters have only one special move, and all but one have some kind of ranged attack. The mechanics are very accessible. Beginners will be chaining combos in no time, but fighting game veterans will be left wanting more depth. Match progression is based on a slight variation on the usual best-of-three rounds system. Combatants begin a match with two power bars. Losing one results in a "crush". The battle then continues, with the winner of the first bout still on their first power bar, retaining any remaining health left. Knock off both your opponent's power bars to "break-out" to the next stage.

Modes include Story mode, VS CPU, Survival, Time Attack and Soul Versus (the wireless Ad Hoc 2 player mode). Unfortunately, I haven't been able to try out multiplayer. Being able to fight human opponents wirelessly would certainly add a great deal to this game's appeal. Bleach also has an Appendix featuring unlockable extras, such as artwork galleries, music, sound and voice archives, and a theatre mode featuring TV commercials and the intro and end-credit movies. The unlockables are driven by the Appendix's card shop. Playing in the main modes earns points toward the purchase of cards (identical to the japanese Bleach collectible game cards) from the shop. Collecting more cards unlocks more extras, including one extra character, his story mode, and eventually a bonus Arkanoid-style mini-game that supports two players on one PSP.

Unfortunately Bleach suffers from a number of issues that prevent it from reaching its potential. First and foremost is the character roster. You start with five characters selectable. There's only one more to unlock. Six characters is not nearly enough. Given that the game is based on the anime (which is far behind the manga in terms of story progression), it could be argued that there simply weren't enough other developed characters in the anime to justify inclusion in the game. That's not really a believable excuse though, as there are glaring omissions, like characters in the intro sequence that aren't playable in the game. The characters included are all certainly distinctive, but the game mechanics don't offer enough depth to make the small roster feel sufficient. Each character has only the mandatory two outfits (1P&2P) and there's only half a dozen arenas in the game. Characters don't have ending movies, they only have a final cutscene and some voice-over on the credits. It smacks of being rushed onto the market. The basics are there, but more development time was needed to fill out the content.

Load times are also disappointing, with a 20 second load between stages. On a home console, a 20 second load feels long. On a handheld, it feels even longer. The game is import-friendly, with all the menus in English, but story mode's (skippable) japanese cutscenes will be lost on many. If you have no familiarity with the Bleach manga/anime, you'll have no idea what's going on.

If on the other hand you are a Bleach fan, you'll get a lot more out of this game than I did. Much like the first Naruto game which only featured a handful of characters, I'd say there's a strong likelihood that this game is paving the way for further Bleach games that will address the shortcomings of this one. PSP's first 3D fighter shows enormous promise for the future of the genre on handhelds, but lets the potential slip through its fingers.

Bleach may appear stainless on the surface, but it isn't long before it's dark roots start showing.


Watch the Bleach - Heat The Soul promo video here.


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