Bleach: Dark Souls
Bleach. You’ve heard of it, right? Not the stuff you use for the laundry, though. I’m talking about the show that’s taken the American anime scene by storm. The exploits of Ichigo Kurosaki and his pals have become common knowledge of all those manga fans and Adult Swim viewers. But for the rest of you DS owners that don’t care about anime (you’re missing out, by the way) here’s a simple explanation of series that this game is based upon: combat in the afterlife. It follows the saga of the Soul Reapers (which are essentially Grim Reapers except with skin, weapons and cool magical abilities) and their struggles against evil and corruption in heaven. That’s open to interpretation, of course; heaven is represented as an alternate dimension that resembles a giant city from Japan’s feudal era. But in case you don’t feel like learning about all the cool characters and the awesome battles in which they participate, the series boils down to three things: blood, souls, and swordfighting.
It’s not like you really need to know the story, anyway. Even if you can read Japanese, the language barrier is so flimsy that you’d have to be completely inept not to understand the basics of what’s going on. It’s worth noting that this game takes place just after the end of the Soul Society Arc, which means that there are no Bounts or Espada around to pulverize. Diehard fanatics might be a little disturbed with how the game twists the canon timeline (Ikkaku having a Bankai so early on chronologically, for example) even if the results are pretty awesome. Bleach: Dark Souls takes the roster of the previous game and expands it to include some of the more popular characters from the series. While you’ll still get to tear things up with Kenpachi or roast everything with Captain Yamamoto, you might want to spend some time with the newcomers. Fans will finally get a chance to dish out punishment with Urahara, with his trademark badass sword-plant and kick combo included. Or if you prefer the supporting characters, Kira, Rangiku, Hanataro and a handful of others round out the assortment of Soul Reapers. Fans might appreciate how Ukitake randomly freezes up and coughs to display his chronic tuberculosis, or how Kenpachi taunts with his psychotic laugh. It’s little touches like these that make the somewhat pixilated sprites and wooden movements more forgivable.
More interestingly, however, is the inclusion of Hollows. There’s a rather lengthy explanation about what these misshapen monstrosities are supposed to be (fans will be able to pick out beings like Menos Grande or Grand Fisher), but all you really need to understand is that they’re the bad guys. They figure largely into the game’s Story Mode. Rather than having to progress through a repeating gauntlet of fights with difficult-to-understand criteria (something that importers of Bleach: The Blade of Fate ought to know all too well), you’ll have to contend with a linear set of challenges. While most of these involve a normal fight, some of the missions serve as mini-games as well. You could be competing against another Soul Reaper over the mount of Hollows killed in a set amount of time, the amount of dropped items you collect, protecting your AI-controlled partner from stronger foes, and a handful of other objectives. Since none of these are particularly difficult to understand, you shouldn’t have much trouble clearing the missions and unlocking everything else the game has to offer.
You’ll probably pass it up, though. Rather than trying to figure out the missions, you’ll probably go straight for the Arcade or Versus Modes. Veterans of the previous game will feel right at home; the basic combat mechanics have been virtually unchanged. Each character comes with his or her own set of attacks of varying strengths and speeds, allowing you to string some moves into longer and more damaging combos. The real trick lies with the timing; while the faster fighters can chain together several hits with no effort whatsoever, many of the slower ones require a bit more finesse. Fans of the previous game will undoubtedly bemoan how badly Kenpachi, Byakuya, and other returning characters have been nerfed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. It just means you’ve got to work around new limitations. Besides, you’ve got plenty of special attacks, magical projectiles, air dashing, and a few other staples of the modern fighting game genre to supplement your offensive and defensive game. The ability to jump into background and back (a nice influence from the Fatal Fury series) can be a wonderful – and exploitable – feature when you’re faced with attacks that literally fill the screen. Despite the slightly clunky mechanics and the over-reliance a character’s special abilities, the game works well enough as a conventional fighter.
What isn’t so conventional is the use of the touch screen. Rather than forcing you to learn all the controller commands for your characters’ special attacks, the game lets you pull them off with nothing more than a push of a button. Each special is neatly sorted into a couple of columns, leaving you to figure what corresponds to the other. Though such an interface makes spamming attacks a cakewalk, all of them take power from your fighter’s energy gauge. It’s not totally balanced, but at least it keeps things relatively in check. Besides, you can use your collection of character cards (which are really nothing more than icons portraying other people from the series) to boost your fighter’s strength, stamina, and other stats temporarily. While such an unusual feature stands out from the rest of the fighting game mechanics, you’ll probably never have to use it anyway.
That probably won’t stop obsessive completionists from trying to get every last card, of course. That’s one of the strengths of Bleach: Dark Souls: the sheer amount of unlockable content. Sure, there may be plenty of characters available at the start, but you won’t realize just how big the roster is until you’ve endured all of the Story Mode. That’s on top of all the alternate palette swaps, the backgrounds, the character bios, and everything else you’ll be able to acquire. Nearly all of it comes with a price, though; you’ll have to spend your hard-earned bonus point money on all the stuff Urahara will try to sell you. The sheer amount of items means you’ll be playing the game over and over again just to be able to afford everything. But given the nice variety of extra gameplay modes, you shouldn’t have much of a problem saving up cash. Between the survival, time attack, and arcade challenges, you’ll always have something to keep you coming back.
The real key to this game’s longevity has little to do with unlockables, however. Bleach: Dark Souls thrives on its selection of multiplayer options. The game can support up to four characters fighting at once, which can prove awfully hectic depending on how you play. Between the constant barrages of energy arrows, fireballs, ice dragons, magical petals, giant shogun summons, and all the other insane signature attacks, you’re going to have quite a time trying to survive. Fans can try recreating their favorite scenes from the series, like pitting Aizen against the combined might of Ichigo and Renji or having the captains duke out their differences. More importantly, the game supports online battles over Wi-Fi, allowing you to slash, stab, and roast other gamers around the world. It’s shame that the game’s arguably greatest feature is also its most flawed; the lag can wreak havoc on your gaming session and make competitive battling a pain. While it’s not always totally game-breaking, it’ll definitely try your patience.
But hey, don’t let that stop you from picking this up once it goes stateside. It’s still one of the best fighting games on the DS. While that might not be saying much in that context, it’s still got plenty going for it. The story mode offers a nice look back for the fans and introduces newcomers to the wide variety of cast members. The updated roster is definitely a welcome sight, especially with characters like Urahara and Ikkaku leading the newcomers. Many of the returning characters might have gotten restyled, but the basic combat mechanics remain essentially unchanged from those of the original game. With tons of gameplay modes, unlockables, and multiplayer options, you’ll be kept occupied for quite a while. So the graphics are kind of fuzzy and the online gameplay lags. Could be worse. As far as handheld anime-based fighting games go, Bleach: Dark Souls is the among the best out there.