When it comes to the world of virtual fisticuffs, few genres offers as much nuance and space for creativity and flair as the 2D fighter. It was here that fighting games were born after all, and as the years have passed this two-dimensional melting pot has refused to cease bubbling. Instead, it’s evolved into something far purer; a genre that prides itself on the complexity of its commands and the intricacies of its systems - but that’s long made it a seemingly impossible experience to penetrate for new players without those years of perfected muscle memory.
Thankfully, we’re starting to see more titles that are slowly opening up corners of this long-partitioned scene to the masses, with the likes of BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle and the upcoming SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy. Blade Strangers is the latest addition to this group, a new crossover experience with a charmingly bizarre collection of fighters and an input system that’s going to have you stringing combos and pulling off special moves in minutes rather than months.
At first glance, its streamlined input system - which mostly uses a single direction press with either a single face button/combination - might sound like you’re getting something closer to the fast commands of the Super Smash Bros. series, but in reality you’re getting a combat model more akin to a traditional 2D fighter. Think BlazBlue, but for beginners. In fact, every facet of the game is about providing agency in battle. For instance, you’re invulnerable for a few seconds after being knocked down (so you can’t be griefed on the ground), you can perform Recovery attacks when rising back to your feet and almost every move (including Specials) can be countered.
Thankfully, there are some systems in place to curb newcomers simply spamming easy combos for even easier wins. First, there’s the Combo Gauge, which gradually drains as you string together a flurry of attacks. Once this runs out, your combo damage is significantly reduced. In fact, hammering the same attack over and over again will also greatly affect the potency of each strike, so variety is both expected and rewarded. This being a Japanese 2D fighter, there are plenty of EX Special-style moves to pull off, with a three-level meter (similar to the Super Combo Gauge from the Street Fighter Alpha series) that offers different signature moves depending on how high you build the gauge.
There’s also a neat ‘Heat Up’ feature that activates when your health drops past a certain point. It enables you to perform faster moves that can’t be interrupted for a brief period per fight, adding another layer of support to a game all about empowering the player. For relative newcomers, it’s a revelatory experience that not only feels less punishing but provides a combo system that’s far simpler to master. However, it also feels rather shallow, especially for those expecting a deeper combat model. There’s plenty of creativity to be had even for intermediate skill levels, but there’s a noticeable glass ceiling for those who count frames.
When it comes to selling its crossover crew, Blade Strangers is definitely deeply entrenched in the niche. You’ll get to take a handful of the Code of Princess crew, including Master T, Liongate and the challenging wardrobe of Solange. There are even some unlikely inclusions such as Kawase (the travelling chef from Umihara Kawase, complete with a special that sees her plunging her kitchen knives into her opponent like a freshly-snapped psycho) although most western players will probably pick this up for the chance to see the more famous Shovel Knight, Isaac (from The Binding of Isaac) and Curly Brace from Cave Story duke it out.
Isaac feels way too overpowered at launch, and Shovel Knight is starting to feel painfully ubiquitous by this stage, but there’s a real thrill to seeing Curly and Quote fleshed out into proper anime-style characters and they make a fine addition to what is a relatively small roster at only 14 fighters. With plenty of arenas based on familiar locations from all the licences included - including a spooky arena for Shovel Knight - and an art style that turns 3D models in 2D sprites, Blade Strangers manages to find a pleasing middle ground between pixelated sprites and clean anime art. However, the purposeful pixelation of its characters around the edges really stands out in docked mode (especially when compared to the crisp character models of other anime-style fighters).
You’ll have access to a Story mode, which enables you to enjoy a brief set of cutscenes for each, but it’s rather barebones with only seven fights per run and the same boring overarching storyline each time. It’s cute seeing Noko the time cop bristling at Ali's aloofness - or seeing young Emiko questioning Solange’s chilly choice of attire - but we were hoping for a little more from this offline mode. There’s also a spartan Training mode, and a set of Missions, but these won’t take long to complete as they mostly just require you to pull off combos.
Post-release, Blade Strangers boasts a mostly robust and reliable netcode. Most matchups we play experience minimal lag with just a brief pause before the beginning of each fight in order to load both player profiles. The Casual and Stealth matchmaking channels are quite quiet at the moment, but we never fail to find an opponent in Ranked. While the Online menus are a little dry, and lack the creative lobbies of BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, there’s still plenty of room to rank up your main of choice.
There’s no denying it - this is the most accessible 2D fighter we’ve played in years. If you’re new to the often impenetrable world of twitch-style brawlers, this serves as an ideal way to learn the craft and feel powerful without too much work. Not every one of its crossover fighters gels as well as the others, but it’s still an empowering experience for beginners and intermediate fight fans. However, if you’re looking for a purposefully nuanced combat system with a bit more bite, you’re probably best sticking with BlazBlue’s mechanical purity.