It is really hard to be in a conversation about fantastic fighting-games and not mentioning a game by SNK. Really, the studio behind arcade-classics like Metal Slug, Top Hunter and even great sports-games like Baseball Star 2, might be more known for their tons of fighting-games. Samurai Shodown and King of Fighters are among their most known series, but there are two fighting games that always seems forgotten due to the kings at SNK. Last Blade 1 and 2, are an interesting duo that changes its setup from Samurai Shodown into something of their own. Somewhat similar to what King of Fighters did for the Fatal Fury-series.
When you draw your weapon, it should not be without reason
The game is set in the era of Bakumatsu, and more specifically: in 1863. Japan is in chaos with not just disturbances from the outside world affecting their hometown, but also natural disasters that are occurring and believed to be caused by the Hell’s Gate. Despite the horrible events, 12 warriors are caught up in this mess, with each seeking the gate for a different reason.
This is the basic setup, with the power of the four elements implemented and represented by four gods. The game provides a sizeable backstory to the events that will unfold, but just enough to explain the danger, while not hammering it in. What really drives the simple story forward, is the fantastic cast of characters, due to their diversity and personalities. They can be serious about their journey similar to the martial artist Lee who devotes his life to find his place in it, some are just a good human-being like the lighthearted and clumsy giant Juzoh, or they might have a traumatic past, such as Keiichiro.
It all creates a vast cast that provides their own personalities, stories, and even tone, which impressively works well in the same universe. The reason for this, is that none goes over the top to be on a bizarre level, but enough to gain a strong reaction from the player. I also love that every fighter comments after they have won a fight towards the opponent, have animations that compliment their characteristics, and rival-battles that come with dialogues that flesh out their stories subtly. Even if they fight themselves, this leads to humorous commentaries.
What is the icing on this delicious cake, is the influences the game goes by. Being set in Bakumatsu, areas and attires take inspirations from America and France due to their interventions, creating this cultural mix in style. Because of this, we are set in a more modern Edo-Japan, and it provides a style unique for this game, as some are more in touch with their traditions, others wear more modernised clothing, and a couple have a combination of both. It is wonderfully immersive and a great example of a game that does not try to achieve any high standards in story-writing, but goes so deep with its concept, you cannot help but to praise them for this level of devotion alone.
Story score: 10/10
The importance of offensive and defensive
There are many versions of this game that include more modes like time-attack and so on, but I am just going to go with the arcade-port as it has a campaign-mode and of course: VS-mode. It is simple, effective, and I have no interest in more modes than these, though they exist in other versions, such as the homeport for the Neo Geo.
In this one on one-fighter, you have four buttons to deal with, hence the Neo Geo’s setup in the arcade and the home-console. You have A for quick-attack, B is for strong, and C for kicks. This is a good setup, as A and B will be important for combos and timely strong hits, while C is rather for inclusion in combos or to get distance between you and the opponent. How you hold the control-stick/D-pad, determines what form of attack you will utilise, such as forward+C will kick away the opponent, while pushing B close to an opponent while moving left or right, will throw them. It is a nice element to create some variety in moves-set, though what is the strongest, is the characters diversity from one another.
All have different forms of attacks, special moves, and weapons they use. For example, Lee is close-ranged with fists and a fan at disposal, while Yuki uses a spear and focuses on ice-attacks. Despite how different each fighter is from one another in style and gameplay, none are unbalanced or comes off as cheap. This is also because each fighter comes with their own techniques, with even the sword-wielders complementing different duelling-techniques. However, the most important reason for this balance, is what the D-button does: deflect.
By standing or crouching, you can deflect attacks from opponents with a well-timed press of the button and counter-attack. This gives a wonderful strategy and makes it so you have to plan on how you attack and when, making fights more slow-paced and tense. While combos and strong-attacks can be performed by the familiar quarter-screws or holding one direction, by having this small element added as a designated button, you will always have to be ready for when it can be triggered. Moving backwards will block as normal and while you can jump, it is not a recommended tactic as you will easily be taken off guard and can’t deflect in the air.
If you find one character you enjoy, you can also experiment with them through two different modes that must be select before each start of a match: speed and strength. With speed, characters can perform more combos, while strength adds significantly powerful attacks. This is great for enhancing a character’s strength or strengthen their lesser qualities, creating a lot of playstyles. With the game offering 12 characters to choose from, a lot of experimentation can be had. Sure, there are a couple of secret ones as well, but I neglect to comment on them as they are clearly hidden behind a code for a reason.
By doing well and landing attacks, you will fill up the character’s gauge-meter, which can be used when full for different effects depending on if you chose speed or strength. These vary depending on the characters, but the strongest one cannot be performed unless your health is low and flashing, providing a great sense of being a “last survival attack” and not just one to humiliate your opponent with.
Thanks to a wonderful and short tutorial, plenty of playstyles, and a deflect-button to make fights more intense for veterans and inviting for newcomers, The Last Blade provides a unique and fantastic fighting-experience. It brims with a diverse cast, an interesting method for tweaking them, and nothing feels unbalanced. Even the moves where you hold one direction, is not a problem thanks to the game’s slow pace and that attacks are made specifically for the type of fighter you have chosen.
Gameplay score: 10/10
Like a cherry-blossom on a mirror-clear river
The authenticity of the setting is gorgeously recreated in the visuals. I have already mentioned the attires, but it makes every character stand out both by their design and colors, making them visually intriguing. All have different facial-designs, their stances are varied, but the highlight is their animations. Swinging their weapon of choice, their taunts of victory, and even how they run are based on their personality, with my personal favourite being the drunk Hyo’s. The fluent animations of any action are superb with their swings showcasing the weight and speed of their attacks in an amazing manner.
Just as impressive are the backgrounds. There is a huge variety of sceneries with tons of animations and details. Some examples can be Yuki’s stage with falling snow, Amano’s with a huge crowd watching the fight taking place on a bridge, Kaede’s where leaves fall down from the trees and jumps out as you run through it or Shigen’s dark cave where the only thing moving, are the flickering lights. All are atmospheric, different, and immersive, making each area a sight to behold. I also love the minor details, like the character’s breath being shown in cold environments. The game also presents a small intro for the game and the stages, which have small animations and neat layouts, representing Japanese quilt-patterns, and the victory-screen for the player are is highly detailed.
Before talking about the music, I want to go over the sound-effects, as they are amazing. The sounds are different depending on what weapons you use, such as clubs giving a great punch, or the swords cutting flesh or hitting metal, being uncomfortably realistic. Hearing the weapons swinging through the air or the sound when someone jumps, adds to the tense atmosphere, and the announcer gives a strong performance by the start and end of all fights.
Because of this, the stages with no music adds to the tension and makes them effective, with ambient sounds from the background adding to the setting. Though the sound-effects are always strong and the voice-actors give a great performance, so whenever music is added, the mood is in no sense worse, just slightly different. They can be calm and intense-inducing with violins and flutes, or make fights seem even grander when more orchestrated instruments are added in. Again, it goes with both thematics of western instruments, while also having a huge focus on the eastern setting, providing a grand soundtrack, but is never against letting the sound effects speak for the tension of the battles either.
Presentation Score: 10/10
It is wonderful to see that a one-on-one fighting-game can neglect the standardised setup where you must know plenty of combos to be victorious, and focuses instead on balancing defensive and aggressive approaches. Combining this with the setting of Bakumatsu being recreated fantastically both in its visuals and the character’s designs, not to mention offering fantastic audio from the weapons clashing to the soundtrack, it is hard to fault this game on anything. It goes to set a specific concept and nails it in just about every way, while also include an engaging story that gives the characters a lot of subtle personalities and reasons for their journeys. It is really a game that no fighting-game enthusiasts, those intrigued by its setting alone, or even newcomers should be without.