I gotta say, we really toed the line with this one.
XBLAZE: Code Embryno (PSV, PS3)
Developer: ArcSystem Works
As Localized By: Aksys
Originally Released: June 24, 2014 (US)
Starting right off the bat, let's talk about how the game works. Mechanically, the way this "plays" as a visual novel is unique and pretty interesting, though I'll be getting to that in more depth further down. Suffice to say, it's not quite what you would expect, which is both good and bad.
Visually, it's also actually different than what most normally expect from visual novels. Effort was put into this. You can tell that much. Rather than the expected mugshots staring at you, characters have multiple pieces of art from different angles and positions to show up in, allowing for much more dynamic looking scenes.
This helps, because the game's fight scenes, despite attempting to be dramatic and clearly emulate the style of other visual novels with fight scenes, often end up just being boring. Some are decent, but even if I hadn't read the visual novels I know they're very clearly aping, the fight scenes did not receive the same level of care that the normal scenes did, and even then, the "dynamic" way of going about scenes starts to feel forced once you get used to the style.
That CG I used up there? It's from very early on in the game, and I do not believe it's a coincidence that it's also from the only fight you'll find in the demo.
Speaking of boring things, let's talk XBLAZE's music. Because truth be told, I really, really expected more from a BlazBlue spinoff. Even if the writing was garbage, even if I hated the character designs, I was sure that no matter what, I'd come out of this game loving at the very least three of the tracks. I knew it to be so.
And then I didn't. I did end up liking some of the tracks, but of the ones that I can say were memorable, I don't think there were much more than two of them, and neither of them are particularly relevant or even that grand. One of them you only hear once at the end of the game's gag route.
Still! Even then, bland, "passable" music can be saved in a visual novel by its other aspects, even if music and sound is one of the most important parts of the experience. And as I just mentioned, the visuals are pretty good. The character designs? Well... The art looks nice, as expected of a BlazBlue spinoff, but they're strangely reminiscent of... other things... But hey, the writing, how about that?
To put it nicely, good god do the visuals and the mechanics not save the writing.
Umineko no Naku Koro ni, with its muppet people and no choices to make compared to this game's many, tops this easily. Writing, music, everything. Then again, why in the world am I even comparing the two visual novels? They're not even in the same league, and I'd be willing to bet most of you reading this have, comparatively, probably had a better chance of at least hearing of XBLAZE.
And to the untrained eye, XBLAZE would be the better game. It "should" be, right?
It's prettier, it's newer, it's actually available in English without having to go to lengths importing and installing patches for a Japanese PC title that's years old and didn't have a huge release, and so on and so forth... but this just felt like the BlazBlue writers were trying to see how much they could rip off from Fate/Stay Night while cramming it into BlazBlue's universe without getting sued, while also trying to see if they could give it as little comparative depth as possible.
Some Neptunia titles feel as though they have more depth as visual novels than this does, for crying out loud.
If I sound like I'm being too mean here, let me break this down for you.
Teenage hero (Touya Kagari / Shirou Emiya) is just a normal Japanese teenager. Save the mysterious incident that happened ten years ago, of which he is seemingly the only survivor and that destroyed a chunk of the game's setting, he is totally normal, save that survivor's guilt he seems to carry with him and the fact that he can't stand seeing people fight because of (reasons / actually kind of decent fleshing out of a character).
Because of the incident, he found himself orphaned, but it's okay, because now his every day life is filled with tits. The tits of his adoptive same-age sister figure (Hinata "The One With Boobs" Himezuru / Sakura "Best Girl" Matou), who in some endings he totally bangs, and his adoptive older sister figure, who is OFF LIMITS because she is fun and wacky and silly and needs to drop hints and tease her younger brother figure, who is thickheaded and going through puberty and such.
But all of this changes when one night, the protagonist of this tale is attacked by an man with otherworldly (powers / sexy blue hair) out for his life! And it's up to (Es / Saber), the (doll / knight)-like warrior clad in blue dress and armor, with her trusty special sword with special sword powers of swordness, to save him!
Little does (Touya Kagari / Emiya Shirou) know that that incident ten years ago left him with far more than he thought it did...
What I'm trying to say here is that, along with as many of your standard light novel and harem ideas it can, the game is ripping off Fate/Stay Night. Openly. Brazenly, even! And while I don't think "ripping off" is necessarily a bad thing, if the end result isn't really noteworthy, we have issues.
XBLAZE has some issues.
It is a pale imitation of what it's trying to emulate in the visual novel genre, and as far as a story goes, I feel like a straight BlazBlue visual novel might've provided something more entertaining and memorable in the long run.
There isn't really much depth to be found in this game or its cast, save some quirky characters are, while enjoyable, kind of already done similarly or better already in BlazBlue. It attempts to grasp depth more often than it actual achieves the real deal. Characters will throw out lines that make it out like there's something bigger at work, imply things that aren't going to come, like there might be something down the line, but there often isn't.
It's like a by the numbers theme park ride or attraction. Fun while it lasts, but you're going to forget most of the details once it's over.
The main plot is pretty standard. Your hero and his hot off the shelf superpowered waifu is unwittingly dragged into a supernatural mess, wherein he learns things about himself are not what he seems as the story goes on. You experience the daily lives of your hero and his friends and increasing party of waifus, who still go to school because this is totally normal life and must be kept secret and stuff, as things in his double life begin to escalate, with people targeting him because of things more and more and so on and so forth. He also goes out looking for people one night, totally not like that time that happened in Fate/Stay Night.
Sorry, I'll try to stop doing that.
I will give XBLAZE a... surprisingly high amount of praise for its "daily life" segments compared to the rest of the game, this being because the hero was actually pretty honest with the people around him - not that there were many of them in the game, mind, but even so. Save his coworkers and presumably never-had-a-portrait-or-line teachers, he was actually pretty upfront with the craziness going on as far as his close friends were concerned.
Considering in many similar stories, the heroes will keep unrelated parties out of the loop FOR-FREAKING-EVER, this was a surprising breath of fresh air - it's just a shame it was one of the only ones XBLAZE had to offer.
While we're on the subject of his friends... Can I just say I really wanted an ending where "the girl" was his best friend (then again I can't think of a game like this where I didn't want a bromance route - Conception II in particular was begging for it, seriously)? Even if they were just bros in it... Come on. If you've played XBLAZE even a little, you know the score. You know how it is.
Akira is best girl.
Anyway, as the story continues, things get real towards the end, there are multiple endings where how real things get is different depending on how the game played out, but overall, you can tell there's the "true" end and then everything else is mostly reused assets and dialogue. It came off as pretty lazy, to be honest.
All the while, they drop a ton of BlazBlue stuff all over, but I won't spoil that. Partly because that much was kind of fun, in a "this wouldn't be so bad if it was just an alternate universe" kind of way, partly because I found myself feeling masochistically "I kind of wish I didn't know about this but want to see more" about it. It does feel natural, at least.
If you're even more interested in seeing how things tie together, you can check the TIPS menu and read in depth explanations for pretty much every term the game mentions so much as once. This ends up being a pain when some of these only pop up right before the credits roll, but if you don't care about being dumb and not informed about everything, then hey, it's not a big deal, riiiiiiight...?
... or maybe the system is kinda flawed and they could've had these things listed in the Extras menu since they even include most of the game there once you play through the scenes. Still, the TIPS are a nice feature, even if they're not unique to XBLAZE.
Now let's check out our main character, Touya Kagari. He butts into fights, like the time he did so between someone assaulting him and the person who came to save him, even when he's got no way to really stop them... because... because? And he does this again later on. There's not really an explained reason for it, it's just kind of because.
I really don't want to keep drawing too many comparisons to Fate/Stuff here (this review was originally much longer and had many more before I stripped them out and rewrote a lot of this from a new angle - so believe me, I'm trying), even if XBLAZE is on the ground begging for it, but I really have to with this one, so forgive me if you're reading this and unfamiliar with what I'm talking about.
Still, I think most people in the visual novel and anime scene know or have maybe at least heard of Shirou Emiya's whole schtick with trying to stop Saber, the character Es from this game is emulating, from fighting. Despite the fact that he is a mere weak mortal and she is (Fate/Stay Night spoilers everyone reading this part knows goddamn well what they are). And love him or hate him, I feel like it's at least undeniable that why he felt that way was at least thoroughly explored and explained - to the point it's even shown to be a non-issue in other routes when events play out differently.
I never felt that way with Touya. Multiple times, he jumps into fights where he does not belong and doesn't really... have a reason for doing so. This is an issue throughout the game, but it's not really explored. Even from what I remember of Naruto makes me feel like it was able to, within just the first chapter even, lay out and explain the titular character's reasons for being the reckless way they were, even in hopeless situations.
That did not happen here.
They try to touch on it by pushing how he survived the incident ten years ago, but this is quickly overshadowed by how else the game uses this event, and it makes use of that event in many, many ways.
To its credit, many of those are wholly unique to XBLAZE, or at least not ripped from Fate/Stay Night. I actually quite enjoyed seeing some of them play out, in fact - mostly because they involved the flamboyant and absolutely wonderful Unomaru, who was my favorite character after Ripper, the flamboyant serial killer that needs to be put in BlazBlue as a regular last year, but that's another story.
What I'm saying here is that if the intention was for that to be the reason for why he was the way he was, then it feels like it could've been done better. Perhaps I'm being too critical, since I do acknowledge that maybe they tried to imply it with what they set up here, but... Another scene, just one, even a completely missable one, that is just about this aspect of the character's personality. Touya, to me, needed that to justify his actions when they were so much a driving part of the story.
I can like generic characters. Some would say many of the characters I like are as generic as can be, even if I could talk at length about them. So long as there is depth provided, quirks and curiosities and so on and so forth, even the most generic seeming character can be someone that members of the audience will be able to really like.
That did not happen here (with Touya).
Setting aside the main plot and such, there were also some random moments where you could find out that the characters liked anime and stuff like that. It's fine, I guess, but between them and the setting, it feels like it's trying really hard to fit in. I don't know if it was to get "the otaku audience" or "the eighth grade syndrome audience" into BlazBlue through this game, but while it can be made perfectly natural to go from darker subjects to how it's so wacky that that one character is secretly an otaku - I've seen it done! - I don't think XBLAZE really did it well. It didn't do it as badly as it did other things, at least, but as some of these scenes were optional, so they just felt like a way to show off the mechanic they barely took advantage of.
Really, in many ways, XBLAZE is a textbook self insert story. The helpless hero with some kind of special thing inside of them is suddenly surrounded by superpowered women, doesn't want to fight (or can't), still inexplicably goes to school, has amazing adventures towards the end, but in many of the ends, returns to life as it was when all is said and done.
Basically, any student can pretend they're living this game in their spare time, even when it's over.
As shallow and ridiculous as it is, even light novel series Highschool DxD provided its main character development, growth, and motivation to the point that he, rather than the poster girls one would think would be the draw of such a series, is by far the go-to reason someone should be interested in that series, at least in my humble opinion.
On a technical level, the way the game functions as a visual novel would be something I would consider unique, novel, and even pretty damn commendable, if not for the fact that the narrative does not at all take advantage of the game's unique mechanics and what it brings to the visual novel genre in general.
And, while it could be this too is something that's been done before and I've simply never seen it, the consensus seems to be as far as I've seen around that this game does bring something to the table in that respect.
Rather than being presented with your standard visual novel type choices, XBLAZE has you, at all times, equipped with a smart device of sorts. I never really felt clear about whether it was a small tablet or a phone or a fancy anime watch, but you've got one, whatever it is. On it, you're able to read news and blog articles whenever you want, or just ignore it, but opening it up and reading things which may not be there later will effect things in the story.
On paper, this sounds like it could make for some pretty cool stories, right? Having to make players actively seek out the choices in a visual novel, making them pay attention to articles tied to those choices-- This could have meant the evolution of the visual novel genre as we know it!
Until we look at how it was all actually executed.
On your first play through the game, you don't know who has read what article until after you've read it - a little annoying since there's still a bar that says THIS ARTICLE WAS READ BY THESE PEOPLE... under each article that is pointless until a second play through the game.That, or maybe my game glitched? Dunno.
In any case, naturally (and as you can see above), certain articles are tied to certain characters, and reading or not reading certain ones will get you to character endings or bad endings. This can make the first play through either exciting or frustrating depending on how you look at things.
On one hand: You have to consider what to read based on the title of each article, or what you've learned about characters from past articles that you've read that the character whose route you think you want to pursue. On the other: You have to do that, because the game doesn't tell you until after you beat it once.
Mind, this is presuming you understand enough about visual novels to know that much about how they work... or you looked at the ending list in extras at any point before beating the game.
For me, I think the system works well enough given what the game offers. There are two "core" routes that then diverge a little based on which of the two routes within those core routes you aim for (for a total of four altogether), with some bad ends and an unlockable gag route thrown in.
I say "diverge a little," but what I really mean is in one case, they're near-identical until the very end, and in the other, it's the abridged version of the other one because you chose the "wrong" girl, and so you get the shorter, kind of darker version instead as punishment.
I got that ending first, because of course I did, but I think that ending probably works best as the first one you get.
So about the whole reading-articles-thing? How does that turn out? Sadly, the basic gist of it isn't too great. Skip to the picture after the next picture if you don't want to read about the endings, though I'm going to be vague..
There are four bad ends outside of the gag ending, and you'd think, given that this game is already doing its damnedest to ape Fate/Stay Night, those would be something special.
In two of them, the game abruptly cut shorts scenes that normally continue for a longer period of time as the final boss character just randomly kills you out of the blue because you're indecisive because ha ha that's so meta and that's never been done before right?
In the other two, in scenes that are normally more entertaining in the main game, things are slightly less so, go slightly more wrong, and because you were indecisive the final boss character shows up and kills you because you're indecisive because ha ha that's so... oh.
They're basically cop out bad endings, which quite frankly, could almost be said for some of the games actual endings given how clear it is that much more went into what is basically the "true" ending. Then again, when one route is 13 chapters long and two of the remaining three cut off at 8, and they only even branch off at the seventh, it probably isn't that hard to tell that much.
THIS IS NOT CLEVER WHEN YOU DO IT HALF A DOZEN TIMES AND THAT IS BASICALLY THE MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF TIMES YOU COULD DO IT. IF YOU LOOK UP SUBTLETY IN A DICTIONARY, IT WILL SAY "DECEASED: MURDERED BY ARC SYSTEM WORKS" BECAUSE YOU GUYS SURE ARE KILLING IT HERE!
BY THE WAY, TOTALLY UNRELATED TO THIS REVIEW, BUT DO YOU GUYS LIKE CAPSLOCK? I LIKE CAPSLOCK.
The teal deer version of that is that every single one of the bad endings essentially does the same thing. "You stupid dingus, you're not playing the game with our Original Gameplay Mechanics Do Not Steal right. Do it again." It takes the "bad ending" idea... a little more literally than I've seen it taken. Only in the gag route do they even bother to try to make it entertaining for you. In the main story, this also means it is very possibly you'll need to go back one or more full chapters to fix things.
Depending on the player, this can mean completely replaying the main game over again if they didn't realize how the game worked and just went in reading it, possibly waiting for a choice to pop up in vain (which is a couple of hours), or even just ten, twenty minutes of skipping through text, desperately hitting buttons so the auto-skip stopped at points it was time to read articles and check profiles, and repeating the process.
Speaking of technical things? The game's interface in that respect kinda blows. For all the fast-forwarding they had to know we'd be doing, a "hold a button down to skip, let go to stop skipping" like a lot of games have is absolutely necessary, and this game not having it baffles me. Instead, you have to deal with the auto-fastforward having random stops in the middle of text you may not have even wanted it to stop at, and that's about it.
Outside of bad ends and the different routes, as far as "changing the story" went, reading articles didn't do that much. Only a couple of times did reading articles unlock scenes that also weren't on the way to one route or another. In the situations where scenes are just building up to different routes, I'm not sure it's fair to say they "alter the story" the same way the alternative does.
Considering not reading an article just means the game skips over that scene and nothing good or bad happens as a result in many, many cases, I'm not sure "alter the story" is even a fair description to begin with anyway. Like, it's nice that they put that in, but "add to the story where there would otherwise be nothing" might be a better, or at least more honest way to go about it, don't you think?
In short, while a novel idea that I really hope the sequel did more with, they might've been better off with a more traditional system given how little they really did with it. Hell, to be honest, even with a more traditional system, they still wouldn't be doing much with that if this was exactly the same otherwise.
Lastly, there's the localization. I know most reviewers of originally-foreign games don't consider this aspect of a game much or just treat whatever localization teams do as gospel because translation isn't direct and it has to be done anyway, but that doesn't make sense to me. And XBLAZE's localization was... an experience. Though I think some of the pictures I picked might've given a hint to that already?
XBLAZE was weird in this respect.
It wasn't so much that it comes off as a terrible localization, or even an unplayable one - very much one that often came across as juvenile, most definitely - no, it's that it feels like a really sloppy one. There is a liberal abuse of capslock where there absolutely shouldn't be, more than a few typos (which, while negligible in a normal game, can really stand out in a title that is only and explicitly nothing but reading), as well as a handful of weird visual glitches as well as errors that require you to replay the game without opening certain menus even once if you want something to happen the way it's supposed to. That seems like something that might need to be fixed, right?
This is taking into account the fact that I was playing the game after it had been patched at some point to fix some even worse bugs, so I'll give credit to them fixing some of whatever problems the game had before I got to it. Still, it could've been better. There is probably, no, there is most definitely BlazBlue fanfiction out there that is written better than this game was, and to be fair, that would probably be true before the localization, but you get my point.
And while there thankfully weren't too many, there's were some really jarring lines like the following one:
... that just pull a player out of the game.
Maybe some people find this kind of thing ha ha ha so funny, but to me, as a writer and reader who wants to get invested in this stuff, who might be at the time immersed in the game (this scene is near the end and it's a more serious one) not so much. It's just unnecessary.
See, that line's completely out of character, even for the English game's version of the guy, and in context, doesn't make sense, because the character he says it to clearly is reacting more to the original line than that the normally soft spoken character I don't think even called the villain so much as a "bastard" just out of nowhere called one of his close friends a bitch. It's jarring, to say the least.
The original line, if memory serves, would've been much more accurately have been conveyed with something like "Geez Mei, that's way too harsh..." or "Isn't that a little much, Mei?" or even "Lay off a little, would you?" if something more "hip" was truly required. It makes sense with the conversation - with this, even if it's a so ha ha ha funny version of what he said, it's completely out of place with the rest of the conversation.
None of these were necessarily direct translations, not at all - believe it or not, as many of the few who do get that there is still something of an issue with localizations don't, I get that we don't want those in localizations.
At least when, say, Nintendo completely rewrites characters and their personalities, they put in the effort to mask things, remove lines, and rewrite whole conversations to fit what they want to tell. Which is, in a way, technically worse than this, but at least they go all out about it so that casual players won't even realize what's going on. Here, you've just got a really jarring line that just doesn't belong.
Unrelated, but funnily enough, this is one of the big things that got me to stop playing Neptunia games - nothing on the actual games themselves, for the most part, but their localizations. Is inserting snark, over the top, out of place hostility, and bad jokes where there weren't any before just this unnecessary thing that transcends individual localization companies? Are standards for visual novel-style in general just really, really low because the English speaking community hasn't had much exposure yet?
Or is it that, as I sort of poked at when I was talking about Monster Monpiece the other day, there's a lack of caring?
I don't get it.
Well, enough of that.
I suppose one of the bigger, underlying questions I'm left with is one that a lot of people probably were.
Why go with a generic harem setting for this BlazBlue prequel? Under normal circumstances I don't take issue with these settings, especially since despite how the concept has been done to death, you still get some enjoyable, even unique ones every so often. As I mentioned earlier, as a spinoff that just uses BlazBlue stuff, this might've actually been a neat thing, but as the thing that is the BlazBlue prequel?
It's not like BlazBlue isn't "anime as hell" or whatever, but the setting is crazy and fun and unique, the cast is quirky, and just... I know it's implied (and maybe outright stated, I can't remember) it's set in a post-apocalyptic world, and I don't begrudge spinoffs by any means, but of all the ways to go about a prequel... Was this the way to go?
Even then, if you were going to go with a generic harem setting, why not... I don't know... not rip off Fate/Stay Night? So obviously, anyway?
It just feels lazy.
Which is true for a lot of XBLAZE: Code Embryo, really.
To the game's credit, it did entertain me to the point where I completed it, all the endings, and even went as far as to get eeeeeverything the game had to offer. It has some neat "LAST TIME, ON..." segments that you'll almost never see unless you go out of your way to see them (... or, I suppose, if you're weird and played this on PS3), which were cute and added a little extra stuff to one or two scenes, but overall it was just a bit of a hassle filling that checklist out.
So... there's that? Then again, I'm deprived of visual novels as of late while I wait for glorious, glorious official MuvLuv (so excited!), so that could be one reason. I also like BlazBlue, and it's basically the only fighting game series I follow even a little, so there's that factor in the mix.
Still, I don't know if I could recommend it.
I feel like there's a middle ground and hardcore audience for this title.
If you can't stand anime cliches and are the sort of person to see a Japanese game of any kind and take issue with the "tropes" in it, well, your existence confuses and saddens me, and in many ways is downright alien to me.
Similarly, if you can stand them... this still may not be for you, because this will just look like it's trying to be a combination of many better things that you will likely have had exposure to already, either through the original works or through anime adaptations that have recently aired, and may make you question more than once why you're not spending your time with those.
That said, if you don't care, like the girls, want some cheap laughs every so often, something to just keep your attention for a while, or want the full scoop on the world of BlazBlue, there might be something for you yet here. If you don't care about BlazBlue but just want a visual novel fix, while there are better ones, maybe you could get something out of this if you can get it for cheap.
It's not great, I'm not even sure if it's good, but it's mildly entertaining and sometimes charming, so here's to that, XBLAZE.
May your sequel suck somewhat less.