Treasure delivers a great 2D fighter that's Wi-Fi compatible – then nearly destroys it by adding a card system.
Bleach DS is part of a series of Bleach fighting games released by Sega. I was a little disappointed with the GameCube game, but since I had heard the DS game was being developed by Treasure and would be on Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection with four players, I decided to give it a shot.
At its core, Bleach DS is a strong 2D fighter that feels familiar in the basic areas. The Y, X, and A buttons are for quick, medium, and strong attacks, respectively. You block with R, and the B button is used to perform a "quick step" which for many characters is a short-range teleport that can get you behind your opponent. One interesting characteristic of Bleach DS is that there are two planes to fight on, one in back and one in front. This allows you to split up the chaos in four-player mode or to side-step attacks by pressing the L button to switch between planes. Bleach DS also eschews the standard two round win requirement in favor of longer single matches.
Special and super attacks are done mostly Street Fighter-style with quick cross pad movements. However, Bleach DS takes advantage of the touch screen to give you an assortment of hot keys for each of your character's moves. It's a handy option for anyone lacking the dexterity to perform all the keystrokes or the patience to memorize them, but it does take a bit of time to adjust to moving your thumb over to the touch screen's extra buttons. Two separate meters regulate how much you can use specials and supers. The frequency with which you can use special attacks, make quick dashes, and change planes is controlled by a meter on the bottom of the screen which recharges whenever you stop momentarily. Super moves are only available when you fill the green meter near your life bar. It can fill three times as you attack or take damage, and each full bar allows you to use one of your lesser super moves. Most characters also have more powerful super attacks, or bankai attacks, which require three full meters to execute.
Performing combos in Bleach DS is completely old-school. While there is a challenge mode to teach you combos for specific characters, these are a far cry from the preset combos in the GC version that can be executed by simply tapping the A button over and over. No, combos in Bleach DS require impeccable timing and careful attention to positions, and they often require you to perform some tricky juggles. Also, if you're on the receiving end, there are some handy techniques in place that allow you to Damage Cancel and get out of a combo.
There are 28 fighters to choose from once you've unlocked everybody, including the twelve captains and Ichigo and his posse. The bottom six characters seem to have been thrown in mostly for fans since they have fewer attacks than the others. Still, it is quite hilarious to see Kon, the tiny stuffed lion, battling it out against Bonnie, the giant boar that Ganju rides.
In case that isn't a clear enough example, the characters have a pretty wide variety of fighting styles, and fans will be pleased to know that bankai attacks have a much greater effect on gameplay than the FMV slideshows in the GC game. The bankai attacks are extremely different for the few characters that can use them. Byakuya's bankai is a simple large-range, multi-hit attack. Ichigo transforms for a set amount of time, giving him a speed boost and completely replacing his normal attacks with extremely powerful projectiles. Kurotsuchi summons his crazy baby-faced caterpillar bankai to run over opponents like a freight train. But my favorite is Komamura, who summons a towering giant with arms spanning the length of the screen. You can actually control the giant, smashing the right arm on the ground and then the left arm, effectively slapping your opponent back and forth across the screen.
There are several different modes to mix up the game a bit. Arcade mode puts you through the standard paces with about six battles or so. The Story mode is the longest stretch of the game. Starting off as Ichigo, you'll have to meet specific requirements in each match to clear the mode. Then you'll have 22 more "episodes" to fight through, with multiple matches in each. The final episode is pretty much a full retelling of 40 or 50 episodes from the show, so if you're concerned about spoilers, you'd better catch up to episode 60 or so before playing. After you're done with the first leg of the story, you'll also unlock Time Attack, Survival, and Challenge modes.
Bleach DS has a robust suite of multiplayer options. When no one's around, you can set up a match against three other CPU players with eight degrees of AI settings. Friends can join two or four player matches even if they don't own the game, since Bleach DS supports download play. On top of that, Bleach DS is the first fighter on the system to sport online play through Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. You can play against friends, in ranked matches, or in unranked matches. In unranked matches, you also have options to play four player games, to choose between death match and point match games, and to play without using cards. Since the game is only officially available in Japan, that's where the majority of players are as well, so it's not uncommon for the game to move extremely slowly to make up for the lag. Fortunately, the lag varies from match to match depending on who you connect to, and I have been able to play a lot of matches online.
I haven't won many fights, though. Despite Nintendo's goal of matching players according to skill level, I consistently get beaten over and over again. It's simple. You think you're a good fighter? None of your buddies can come close to your skills? Bleach DS will probably teach you how much you suck at fighting games if you play online. But wait, there's more to it than raw talent, isn't there? Sure, there are some legitimately tough guys out there and others are spamming the same move over and over (that's supposed to be fun?), but this sucker just used two bankai attacks in a row – what just happened? Enter the card system.
In addition to all of that awesome stuff above, Bleach DS features a card system that pretty much breaks the game in multiplayer. In single player it's harmless and even seems "cool" at times. You basically create decks of cards, which can be earned through completing various tasks in single player or by buying extras in the shop. Then during a fight, random pairs from your deck pop up on the touch screen, and you can touch a card to activate it for a few seconds. There's a huge variety of cards, and importers are already at a disadvantage for not being able to read them. The effects consist of defense or attack changes, healing, invincibility, forcing your opponent to jump or crouch, prohibiting your opponent's special attacks, temporarily giving you unlimited super meter, etc. There are four power levels for each type of card. The effects of level one cards are hard to notice, but level four cards increase the power or duration of these effects significantly. However, level four cards are hard to earn, and this where the system completely unbalances multiplayer games. It's no longer a game of raw fighting skill, but a game of who has the best cards and can stack them in his favor. If your opponent has three or four healing cards in his deck, you're going to need a deck powerful enough to offset that unless you're far more skilled than him. The unlimited super meter card is the worst offender since part of the fighting strategy is to forego lesser moves in order to build up strength and attempt a stronger move. With one of these cards, that strategy goes out the window, and there are characters like Soi Fong who can easily defeat an opponent just by using her level three super twice. Thankfully, you are able to play without cards in unranked battles, but ranked battles have no such option, and fighters with lots of high level cards can be found even in the beginning tier.
Despite the detrimental card system, Treasure has put together a pretty solid title that can appeal to fighting game fans as well as Bleach fans. Aside from reading the cards (there are guides available online), importers shouldn't have too much trouble. The main menu is mostly spoken in English, so navigation is just a matter of listening closely, and the submenus aren't too difficult either. Bleach DS: Souten ni Kakeru Unmei can be ordered from our partners at Lik-Sang.