Blade Strangers and Stranger Places

What was the biggest surprise of E3? Metroid Prime 4 and a Metroid II remake? A PlayStation 4 revamp of Shadow of the Colossus? Microsoft actually calling a system the Xbox One X? All were unexpected, but nothing caught me off guard like Blade Strangers. A PS4/PC/Switch fighting game that nabs its roster from Code of Princess, Umihara Kawase, and Cave Story? I’d sooner have bet on Sony announcing another Hermie Hopperhead.

Blade Strangers isn’t so farfetched a crossover when you look behind the scenes. It’s the work of Studio Saizensen, a developer with a hand in both in the brawler Code of Princess and the puzzle platformer Umihara Kawase, while Cave Story, an indie marvel ever since 2004, has a link through publisher Nicalis. Apparently in an early state, the game could use more animation frames and background detail. Even so, the characters have a vibrant look thanks to a 3-D engine that imitates hand-drawn animation.

As with any fighting game, it’s the cast that intrigues me. Umihara Kawase’s eponymous heroine and Cave Story’s android Curly Brace are unorthodox picks for a fighting game, though they’re both suited to the genre; Kawase has a grappling line and giant fish at her command, while Curly has a machine gun and, presumably, other Cave Story power-ups. However, Blade Strangers leans heavily on Code of Princess. Early footage of the game includes protagonist Solange, thief Alie, and the powerhouse Master T (the mace-packing nun Helga and masked swordsman Liongate are apparently in there as well). That accounts for half of the game’s ten character-selection icons.

There are two reasons for such favoritism. Code of Princess has a wide selection of playable characters, including a magic pharaoh cat and a zombie sorceress, from which a fighting game might choose. Code of Princess also has Solange, who wears more armor on her elbows than she does on her entire torso. Not kidding.

Little Things: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance often rates low among those who canonize the original Final Fantasy Tactics. The Game Boy Advance outing skews much younger, discarding possible stories of doomed nobles and dark secrets in favor of a lighter tale about misfit kids warped to a magical realm full of colorful creatures and too-perfect wish fulfillment. That’s not an unpardonable drawback, but Final Fantasy Tactics Advance doesn’t fill enough of its plotline. For a game that lasts over 30 hours, there’s scant attention to the story. The battles, meanwhile, burden a good combat system with laws that randomly bar the player from using certain commands. It’s a passively fun strategy-RPG that just makes a few bad choices and doesn’t try hard enough.

I really like the look of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, though. The sprite-work is remarkably detailed, giving the creatures of the world of Ivalice charming style. I’m even more impressed by the game’s prologue, which shows hero Marche and his friends Ritz and Mewt having a bad day at school and wandering home through their mundane, semi-modern town.

We see fantasy realms so often in sprite-based RPGs, but rarely do we find realistic worlds rendered in the same fashion. I appreciate all the small and unnecessary touches that Tactics Advance’s developers put into this conventional scene. Instead of a vacant street, we get a snowy boulevard with trash cans, cafĂ© signs, and a car that might be a classic model or merely a current design in this city of appealingly vague time and place.

Best of all is the room Marche shares with his brother, Doned. It’s worth going over inch by inch, just to pick out everything: the skateboard leaning on the wall, the pop-singer calendar, the pennant and shelved soccer ball by the closet, the steaming kettle on the tiny stove, and what appears to be a trophy above one of the beds. Most of all, I like that television. It sits there like a three-eyed tomato bunny robot.

Of course, there’s a silly personal reason for my praise. These details bring back memories of my family’s late-1980s stay in Germany. I never found myself transported to a mystical realm of lizard mages and Moogle knights, but I’d see all sorts of old and unconventionally shaped European electronics paired with more modern things. Hook up a boxy NES to that TV, and you’d have a good piece of my childhood.