"Good things come to those who wait," said some wise old man an awfully long time ago. And countless years later these sagely words still ring true; Bleach: Blade of Fate is finally available in Europe a whole 24 months after its initial publication in Japan. The reasons behind this annoyingly protracted release are unknown to us, but what we can tell you is it's definitely a game worth waiting for.
To the uninitiated the title may cause visions of washing down bathrooms or kitchen worktops, but the 'Bleach' in question here is actually an astonishingly successful Japanese anime series which features magical swords, nefarious demons, shady secret societies and wide-eyed female leads.
Given the predilection for weapons-based combat in the TV show, it should come as no surprise to learn that Bleach: Blade of Fate is a fighting game. In fact, a cursory glance may lead you to assume that this is merely some run-of-the-mill Street Fighter clone barely worthy of inspection – even the special move commands are lifted wholesale from Capcom's seminal brawler.
However, such an supposition is doing the game a massive disservice and would also suggest that the assumption was made without being aware to one vital fact: the development team behind Bleach: Blade of Fate is none other than Treasure, the legendary studio behind such classic console games as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, Sin & Punishment and Gradius V. Trust us, it's an aptly named developer.
And as any fan of these notable titles will tell you, Treasure simply doesn't do 'run-of-the-mill'.
Take Bleach's fighting engine for example; on the surface it appears basic, with simple button combinations accessing numerous special moves and energy-sapping Super Attacks. Now-standard fighting game features such as dashing and guard cancelling are also present, as well as something that has appeared in past fighting games (SNK's Neo-Geo title Fatal Fury being one) but has recently been unfairly ignored: 'line switching'.
On certain stages you can make your character jump 'in' and 'out' of the screen at the touch of a button. This lends a tactical element to the game, with the ability to avoid oncoming attacks proving to be particular useful in some of the more challenging conflicts. However, the real reason such a feature is present is the blissfully chaotic four-player mode.
You see, Bleach: Blade of Fate isn't merely limited to one-on-one battles; some bouts will summon additional combatants and it's in these situations that line switching changes from being a neat extra to an essential life-saving procedure. The game really shines when there are four players onscreen (and for those that are familiar with it, calls to mind the glorious excesses of Treasure's superlative Saturn title Guardian Heroes).
The action is given another layer of complexity when you factor in the Spirit Card system, which enables you to execute all manner of status effects during battle. For example, if your opponent is exasperating you by jumping constantly, you can use a Spirit Card that will keep their feet planted firmly on terra firma – albeit for a short period of time.
These cards are accessed by tapping the touchscreen and have a limited number of uses in each fight. As you progress through the game, more cards are unlocked which can be added to your customizable deck of 15. To be honest, the cards are often more of a distraction than anything else (requiring you to take your eyes off the action, which leaves you exposed) but every now and then they can conclusively tip the balance in your favour.
So many different play choices are available that the menu screen is quite daunting, but you can take it from us that the Story section is likely to soak up most of your playtime. It's in this area of the game that the plotline unfolds. Each battle is accompanied by static cut-scenes and dialogue, and rather than take the typical linear route, your performance in each bout decides ultimately which course you will take through the game thanks to a series of pre-determined objectives. These aims are mercifully outlined before the scrap takes place.
This creates a convincing impression of freedom and although you sometimes find yourself going round in circles and facing the same opponents several times over, the system works well enough to keep you enthralled for hours.
With a whopping 28 different characters to use in both Story and Arcade modes, there's plenty to keep you busy here – although it should be noted that only the main character, Ichigo, has a branching storyline; the others all follow linear paths through the game.
Once the single-player aspect of Bleach: Blade of Fate begins to lose its appeal, you still have the option to take your game online and face off against other players. Up to four people can becoming involved in an unsightly fracas using Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection and, expectedly, the amount of action taking place onscreen often borders on the insane and sadly the wireless link sometimes isn't up to the task of handling such a large amount of chaos. If the lag annoys too much then you can always drop back down to three- or even two-character fights, though.
Licensed games are usually a shoddy breed but Treasure has successfully broken the mould with this. Everything about the game screams quality, from the wonderful 2D visuals to the tight and responsive control system.
DS fans have long had to endure the taunts of their PSP-owning brethren when it comes to the pitiful number of decent beat-'em-ups available for the system but now the tables have been turned. Bleach: Blade of Fate is arguably one of the finest handheld scrappers available to date.