Capcom, or SNK? Street Fighter, or King of Fighters? In the world of 2D fighting, this is generally as much argument as most people have over which is the better franchise. On the Capcom side, most of their sideline fighters have been so similar in style and execution to whatever their latest SF title was, people generally don't see further than the main franchise.
SNK are a little more complicated, having a variety of styles and game mechanics to their games, and in the mid-90s they released The Last Blade for their NeoGeo. The game played like a blend of the highly cerebral Samurai Spirits series and the more twitchy King of Fighters, and was interesting, different and good-looking enough to win it many fans who were keen to see 2D weapons-based combat with a less technical slant than the frustratingly slow-paced Samurai Spirits. SNK followed this sleeper success up with the imaginatively-titled Last Blade 2, which advanced the series with more characters, and more fighting styles.
The public reacted well to the game, which was essentially more of the same highly-polished beat 'em up action which they had enjoyed first time round, and although it was similarly well-received, it still didn't trouble the Street Fighters and yearly King of Fighters updates in terms of revenue. Now, the struggling SNK have brought the series to Sega's Dreamcast, possibly the last home of the 2D fighter in the console market, in the form of Last Blade 2: Final Edition, and fans of the series finally have the chance to show people that 2D fighting isn't necessarily a choice between the two big hitters above.
The game plays as well as it ever did, which is very well indeed. The mechanics of the game are a hybrid of the up-close-and-personal, minimal projectile-throwing fighting from Samurai Spirits, and the speed, fluidity, easy controls, and pick-up-and-play accessibility of the Street Fighter games. The controls are simple and, given its Neo-Geo heritage, well suited to the Dreamcast controller. Three attack buttons are used, two weapon-slashes and a kick. The other face button is used for the "repel" move, which works like the parries which came later in Street Fighter 3 and Soul Calibur. Working alongside your standard back-to-block, pressing the repel button at the right time will not only save you from a beating, but also temporarily stun your opponent, leaving him (or her) open to a counterattack.
The system allows the game to become much more tactical, although you can play the game quite happily without using it all, and it isn't so much of a spoiler as similar features in other games, as badly-timed use of the move will leave you wide open to attacks. This is a nice change, and works better than the system in, say, Street Fighter 3, where there is no longer any real need for standard back-blocking once the parry move is mastered, resulting in almost every attack being countered.
Each of the characters has three available playing modes: Power, Speed and EX. Power mode allows you to hit harder, but takes away a lot of your combo potential. Speed mode tempers your power slightly but allows you to chain together standard and special attacks for combo hitting. EX mode is, as you might expect, a combination of the two, which also increases the time it takes for your super-bar to fill up. The combo feature is particularly well implemented in the game, giving you more scope for complicated sequences than most Capcom or SNK games, but not getting into the realms of Killer Instinct stupidity. The combos work almost like a 3D fighting game, Tekken or Dead Or Alive 2, and to watch the moves flow into each other in a 2D game as seamlessly as they do in 3D games is an unexpected bonus. This game's greatest asset, though, is its playability; although it's outshone graphically by most new-style 2D fighters, it has a feel all of its own, and it's a joy to play a weapons-based fighter which is as enjoyable as a Street Fighter game.
Aesthetically, you'll either love it or you'll hate it. The game was developed just before Street Fighter 3, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and SNK's own Garou: Mark of the Wolves moved the goalposts for visuals in 2D fighting, and while the animation and backgrounds in this game are impressive to look at, they certainly pale when compared to the likes of Capcom vs. SNK or Guilty Gear X. That said, fans of the genre will be more than happy with what's on offer here - the characters are well designed and well animated, and the backgrounds are evocative and effective. The game uses sound like no other 2D fighter - all the standard shouts and grunts are in place, and the clash of weapons is well represented; what really sets Last Blade 2 apart, though, is its choice of soundtrack. What music there is sounds so different that it really makes you take notice - light orchestral pieces done via MIDI which sound exactly right for the time period of the game (1890 or thereabouts) but sound out of place for the genre of the game. Coupled with the artwork in the game, the music is effective, but it's easy to imagine players switching off the sound as it's definitely an acquired taste. More impressive are the stages with no music at all - these levels are soundtracked by ambient noise; far-off thunder, dogs barking in the distance, birdsong and wind. These stages are truly ground-breaking, and sometimes make you wish that other developers would concentrate more on this aspect of their soundtracks rather than yet-another remix of last years' tune. The introductions to the stages are ported direct from the arcade version, and also go a long way to setting the mood of the game.
Strangely, for a game where the music appears to be MIDI generated (it's certainly not CD-quality), the disc makes a lot of noise in the Dreamcast while you play. It seems strange that the game is noisier than, say, Street Fighter 3, and combining the already-noisy DC disc mechanism with a particularly noisy title, and the quiet nature of much of the game, you find it difficult to settle into the game the same way as you did with the NeoGeo version. There is also at least one glitch where a sample repeats itself, resulting in a broken-CD effect, which is also irritating. The in-game loading times are minimal, although there is a long initial loading time, and a long wait after the game is over to get back to the start. The extras in this game over the original arcade version are few; an unlockable card game, some extra characters and an art gallery, as well as the by now standard training mode. The amount of Japanese text in the game is fairly oppressive; although the menu and options screens are in English, you won't have a clue what the story is, or even what the name of your character is until you start playing.
It's an unexpected bonus that SNK took the time to port this title; fighting fans who have no access to the NeoGeo version of the game, or who have never played it before, owe it to themselves to have a look at this game, which is an interesting break from the norm and one of the Dreamcast's most original fighters.
Score: 7/10A review by Stephen Pringle