The indie game scene has seen an explosion in recent years. Titles like Shovel Knight, The Binding of Isaac, and Cave Story have become household names in the gaming community. Simultaneously, the indie fighting game scene has exploded right alongside it. From Smash-like titles like Brawlout to passion projects like Fighting EX Layer, there is more variety in fighting games than there has been since its heyday in the ’90s. One of the things fighting games do best is crossovers. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the two came together. Enter Blade Strangers, a crossover fighting game featuring characters from six different independent games: Cave Story, Code of Princess, Umihara Kawase, Azure Striker Gunvolt, The Binding of Isaac, and Shovel Knight.
Blade Strangers uses a simplified four button layout, similar to Blazblue Cross Tag Battle. You have a Light, Heavy, Skill, and Unique button. Lights and Heavys are self-explanatory, but the Skill and Unique buttons are a little more in depth. The Skill button controls your special moves, which are performed by simple directional inputs similar to in Super Smash Bros. You can also perform Strong Skills by pressing the Heavy button in addition to the normal Skill input. These are generally slower but more powerful versions of Skills. You can also perform EX Skills by pressing the Unique button with the normal Skill input. Just like EX moves in other fighters, these tend to be faster, more powerful versions of normal skills, usually with an added effect like ground bounce, wall bounce, etc. EX Skills cost half a bar of super meter. The Unique button performs universal moves that all characters have access to. Pressing the button by itself lets out a universal anti-air attack, Forward and Unique is a universal overhead, and Down and Unique is a universal sweep. Also, when knocked down you can press a directional button to recover, or an attack button to perform a wake-up attack. If this wake-up attack is blocked, it is VERY unsafe.
Auto combos are for the most part absent in Blade Strangers, but you can perform up to three Light moves together to perform the closest thing the game has to an auto combo. These are great for confirms and can be canceled into your character’s safest Skill, as these Light auto combos are usually unsafe on block. Ultra Skills are this game’s version of Supers and are performed by pressing Skill, Heavy, and Unique together, or Down + Skill, Heavy, and Unique. If you press the notation twice, you can perform powered up versions of your Ultra Skills at the cost of two meter instead of one. The super meter in this game can go up to three stocks and carries over between rounds.
Two unique moves in Blade Strangers are the Offensive Skills and Defensive Skills. By pressing Light and Unique together either while in neutral or during a move, your character will use their Offensive Skill, allowing them to interrupt whatever they are doing and perform another move immediately, extremely similar to Roman Canceling in Guilty Gear and 1 More Attacks in Persona 4 Arena. This greatly opens up the combo options for your character by allowing them to combo off of throws, cancel specials into other specials, and more with the touch of a few buttons. Defensive Skills are this game’s Alpha Counters. While blocking you can press Light and Unique to knock your opponent back and interrupt their offensive pressure. Keep in mind that both of these skills cost half a bar of super meter just like EX Skills.
Blade Strangers’s comeback mechanic is called “Heat Up Time,” which can be activated when you are low on health and have at least one bar of meter. You will know when you can go into Heat Up Time by the phrase “Ready for Heat up!” lighting up under your super meter. Press Light, Heavy, and Unique to go into Heat Up Time. During this powered up mode, you enter a temporary hyper armor state where the first hit of an opponent’s attack will not interrupt your moves, and it will be harder for your opponent to interrupt your moves. Heat Up Time will use up the entirety of your bar until it drains to zero.
Blade Strangers utilizes a free-form juggling system. That means that for the most part, if an attack can connect, you can combo into it. While Blade Strangers uses a simplified control scheme, its complexity lies in its combo system. The only thing that can hamper a combo is the “Repetition Penalty” system. If you use the same move more than twice in the same combo, your opponent will fall out of your combo and it will automatically end. The repetition system is fairly strict and makes players get creative with their combo strings. You can still do long, juggle-heavy combos; they just have to be thought out ahead of time, which means you will be spending some time in Training Mode.
Blade Strangers’s Training Mode isn’t nearly as robust as its contemporaries in the fighting game scene. It features a very simple record and playback feature but uses odd phrasing for some of its systems. For example, when setting the training dummy’s blocking pattern, instead of saying “after first hit” to make the dummy block anything that isn’t a true combo (to help with execution), it instead says “midway.” It isn’t anything major, just slightly odd.
Also unlike most of its more recent contemporaries, Blade Strangers has quite a number of game modes out of the box. It has a very simple story mode that sees characters interacting with each other for about four or five fights before fighting the boss, Lina, one of the game’s two original characters. The story doesn’t add much to the proceedings and is largely unchanged between characters, but it is nice if you don’t know any of these characters and helps you learn a little bit more about them. For example, after playing this game I am very interested in trying out Code of Princess. There is also an Arcade Mode, which is just Story Mode without the few short cutscenes, and a Versus mode to play against friends offline.
The online in Blade Strangers performs admirably when you can get an opponent. This being a smaller game, it is harder to find opponents, and sometimes you will see the same person over and over again. It is worth noting that once you find an opponent, either through the Lobby system or through Standby mode when in Training Mode, you can’t see the opponent’s ranking before agreeing to a match. This can be very frustrating to players just starting out, as you can’t tell if you are playing against a much higher-ranked opponent or not. Once you do connect with somebody though, the netcode is very good, and after several hours of playing I didn’t experience any lag or slowdown outside of the character intros at the start of a match. Visually the game performs quite well, though on larger TVs the sprites may get a little fuzzy. Surprisingly, visually distinct characters like Shovel Knight and Isaac mesh well with the larger overall anime aesthetic.
Overall, Blade Strangers is a very fun and fast-paced fighter, with a robust cast of characters that all feel incredibly unique. While I don’t see Blade Strangers burning up the tournament scene any time soon, it is a very well-put-together and competent indie fighter that makes up for a lack of bells and whistles with fun characters, fast action, and a satisfying online mode. Plus, it is great fun to see characters like Shovel Knight and Isaac in fighting game form. Also, props to Shovel Knight’s Japanese voice actor — he’s amazing.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.
Kevin has been a fan of fighting games since he first walked up to a Marvel vs. Capcom cabinet at the tender age of 8 at the local arcade. (Kids ask your parents what an “arcade” is) He may not be very good, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying them.