Kaede is fighting Yuki and weapons slash quickly as the two leap about the screen. Quick strikes from both, the action is fast as each looks to string together a series of moves to end the battle. Another day, another fight between Kaede and Yuki, but this time things are playing out differently. This time the combatants have found themselves standing their ground, trading powerful blows, each gambling that their energy bar will last longer than their opponent’s, while also keeping an eye out for the opportunity to try something different. There are many ways battles can play out in The Last Blade - even in fights featuring the same matchups - and it makes for plenty of varied and enjoyable action.
The Neo Geo has a lot of one-on-one fighting games in its back catalogue. Most were entertaining, many were very good, but The Last Blade is a step above, sitting comfortably alongside The King of Fighters '98 and Garou: Mark Of The Wolves. Set in a Japan of centuries ago and using weapons in its fights, it has obvious similarities to the Samurai Shodown games, but here fights are quicker, more free-flowing and even when looking for an opening you’ll usually find yourself doing something to at least counter your opponent’s attack.
As is the norm, you partake in a series of best-of-three fights as you make your way to a couple of boss characters and ultimately your character’s ending. If you prefer you can dive into the options menu to change to best of five or single round fights. You can also enable a 'Short Mode' that as the name suggests gives you fewer battles to fight in the arcade mode if you’d like a quicker playthrough – you do not get an ending with this mode, however.
Whichever way you chose to play through, there are 12 characters for you to pick from with differing speeds, strengths and attacks. The character lineup is well-balanced, meaning these differences are just that and no-one is clearly more powerful than anyone else. The weapons also lead to variances in the fighting styles, with a number of differently sized bladed items and tools - Juzoh for instance, is swinging a baseball bat and Okina attacks with a fishing rod.
The combat system initially seems quite basic, with two strengths of weapon slashes and a button for kicking, but the moves flow together well. Soon, you’ll find you have plenty of options for attack as you mix in regular strikes with special moves, whether going for the odd hit here and there or stringing together a combo. The repel button also adds to your options as if timed correctly you can deflect your opponent’s attack, with your hit leaving them vulnerable to a counter attack.
After picking your fighter the game gives you the choice of either a power or speed fighting mode. Each offers benefits such as power being the best option when dealing with a serial blocker, whilst speed works better for combos. As was common with fighting games by this point in time (1997) there’s a power meter that builds up as you fight and once full you can unleash a devastating attack. You have to make sure to time it right, because while it can turn the tide of battle or lead to an unexpected victory, you’ll just look foolish if you opponent manages to avoid it.
As impressive as Neo Geo fighters are, there often comes a point in the reviews of these ACA releases where talk turns to the bigger, better sequel that’s either already available or expected to turn up on the eShop. While The Last Blade 2 will no doubt get the ACA treatment at some point, which is the better of the two games is not as clear cut as with other series. Playing largely the same, the sequel makes some changes including featuring more fighters (but fewer backdrops) than the first game and it adds a third fighting mode that sits somewhere between the two existing ones. This EX mode suits some characters better than others and the game is generally less balanced than this first instalment. That uneven playing field will be off-putting to some players, despite the extra characters and the slight edge it has in terms of audio-visual presentation.
Brief scene-setting animations appear before fights and the stages you fight on are varied and detailed. There’s lots to look at on some stages such as background spectators or the way birds will fly down and then hop along the ground. In other instance there are simple, but effective touches such as a mist, falling leaves or the way one stage has the fight in shallow water; ripples moving out from the feet of the combatants. The audio is also impressive with yells and impact noises from the fighters immersing you in the action. There’s a mix of mystery and sombre music between fights and on some stages, but other times the music makes way for background effects such as wind or a chattering crowd. At times it feels like something is missing, but generally it works well and adds to the atmosphere.
HAMSTER’s usual Hi Score (one credit) and Caravan (five minutes) modes are present, giving you a different way to play as you try to improve your point-scoring to move up the online leaderboards. The modes don’t suit a fighting game as well they do other genres however, so the main replay value comes from simply fighting through the arcade mode again or with two-player battles.
There’s replay value in playing through to get each character ending, but the way fights can vary also helps due to the unpredictable nature. Will you be combo-ing your way to victory or leaping about striking when you can? Your approach can even change during a fight should a missed attack from one player lead to a new opportunity. There’s a lot of depth to the game, but it’s fairly welcoming to newcomers should you bump the difficulty down (the usual eight settings available) whilst you get used to it. Likewise bumping the difficulty up will provide a tough challenge, requiring quick thinking and mastery of your various fighting abilities.
Special attacks do not require overly complicated inputs and the game gives you some leeway with the input timings. Even the powerful desperation moves are fairly straightforward; one input that crops up a lot being a quarter circle back, start to go the other way, hit forward and both attack buttons. Straightforward controls mean that in a push, the game works okay with detached Joy-Con should you be out and about and feel like an impromptu two-player game. Mistakes can happen however, so ideally you’ll play on the big screen with your special moves, combos and deflections all happening as intended.
Easy to pick up and play, The Last Blade may at first seem a simple fighting game but you'll soon discover a good range of fighting options as you employ a mix of defensive and offensive tactics to see you through. Fights among the well-balanced cast of characters are hugely entertaining whether putting together a series of moves, interrupting an attack with a well timed deflection or simply stopping your opponent's assault with a kick to the face. Its excellent sequel will make an appearance on Switch in the future and should you only wish to have one Last Blade game, you'll need to decide if you prefer some extra characters and the EX mode to the balanced fighter lineup in this first game. Ideally, they'd be bundled together, but even on its own The Last Blade is one of the best picks for Switch-owning fighting fans.