There's always excitement in the air when a new fighting game hits the streets. These days, especially with the upcoming release of Nintendo's premier brawler, it's easy for lesser-known releases to get swept under the rug. Some fighting franchises are big among niche groups of gamers, but this means that great titles often get overlooked by the masses. BlazBlue, a relatively new series from Arc System Works is one such victim of this phenomenon.

While still somewhat underground when compared to the likes of Street Fighter, many readers may be more familiar with BlazBlue's spiritual predecessor Guilty Gear. The two franchises aren't necessarily connected, but they're both Arc System Works joints that provide frenetic fast-paced 2D fighting coupled with bizarre characters rendered in a distinctive anime style. Both Guilty Gear and BlazBlue have seen proper releases on the DS, Wii, and 3DS, but there have been an equal number of spin-off titles released as well, the most recent being BLAZBLUE -CLONEPHANTASMA- (to give it the full block capital treatment and which, for the remainder of this review, will simply be referred to as “ClonePhantasma”). Yet like the spin-off titles before it, ClonePhantasma avoids the 2D spectacle for a completely different approach to the franchise, much to our dismay.

Anyone who played 2010's DSiWare outing BlayzBloo: Super Melee Action Battle Royal — a game with a title as long as it is annoying — will find familiarity in ClonePhantasma. Major elements may have changed in this sequel to the stage-based 3D brawler, but the core gameplay remains exactly the same. The majority of the action involves guiding your character around a mostly flat arena and furiously tapping the A button to knock enemies off the stage, not unlike a poor-man’s Smash Bros. You can jump to dodge, but there is no way to actually defend yourself, meaning that when you’re not attacking, the best you can really do is run away and hope for a safe opening.

There’s almost no skill that goes into being good at ClonePhantasma, mostly just the ability to observe where it is and is not safe to stand. The controls work well enough in their simplicity, but the fact remains that the gameplay isn’t particularly deep; there’s only so much pressing of the A button that one can do before realizing that you’re no longer having fun. There are other attacks linked to the X and Y buttons that vary from character to character and become available as you take damage as indicated by an on-screen meter, but this feels a lot like a mechanic that was tacked on to make a base game appear more intricate. There are items that you can pick up which have special effects such as speeding your character up or allowing unlimited special attacks for a small amount of time, but there no true combos or advanced moves to master. The only challenge here is remaining aware of your surroundings.

There are 10 playable characters, each of which has his or her own seven-stage campaign to play through and a unique story to accompany it. The majority of the plot unfolds unceremoniously through blocks of texts on screen, but it's all so convoluted and nonsensical that there's no real necessity to follow along. If you do choose to decipher what is happening to your characters, more often than not you'll find that the stories aren't particularly well written and the humour is childish at best. Without revealing too much, one character’s story involves her search for, and we quote, a “Boob Monster” that she believes is out to get her — hen trying to be funny, ClonePhantasma aims for lowbrow laughs and manages to miss its mark by a long shot. That being said, it does maintain a lighthearted sense of itself, making us wonder how seriously the whole experience is meant to be taken.

Beyond the various campaigns you can also choose to play Challenge Mode, an option that places you in a single arena and tasks you with defeating as many enemies as possible on a single life. Much like Story Mode, it is not particularly fun and it’s even more of a shallow experience. Playing through campaigns and completing specific tasks in Challenge Mode such as beating 100 enemies earns you awards, but they don’t actually manifest in the game beyond an icon commemorating your achievements. Mysteriously missing is any semblance of multiplayer, something that Super Melee Action Battle Royal was based almost entirely upon.

Opting for a cute chibi look rather than the stark anime style that the main BlazBlue games hold, ClonePhantasma’s blithe air is reflected not only in its plot, but its design as well. The style, though different from the main series, does well to fit into the tone of this gaiden outing. The graphics aren’t perfect, sometimes displaying jagged edges around the characters, the environments tend to mostly be flat areas with neutral colours, and the 3D effect does almost nothing beyond push your status bar forward, but it’s impossible to ignore that the pieces all come together to create an overall succinct atmosphere, even if it’s not the most desirable aesthetic. If nothing else, it can easily be said that this game is cute, but style is something that should never outweigh substance.

Conclusion

BLAZBLUE -CLONEPHANTASMA- builds off of its DSiWare predecessor, but only manages to expand outward rather than upward. There’s more content here than in the pervious game, and slightly more variety to keep players occupied, but it remains a very shallow experience that does little to satisfy. This new title is also missing the multiplayer functionality that made the previous game somewhat worth having, if only to share in the pain with your local buddies. Overall, this brawler does little to justify the modest investment required.