It's a usual habit for gamers to dismiss any title that's tied in to either movies or anime properties due to their reputation for being nothing more than cash-ins to take advantage of fans and their hard-earned money. Games like Bleach: Dark Souls and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, however, are huge exceptions to the rule. Based on what we briefly saw and played, the PSP game adaptation of the cult hit anime Black Rock Shooter may be leaning toward the aforementioned mandate.
You control the title protagonist Black Rock Shooter, or BRS for short, who is awakened from a capsule in the year 2051. Her dress sense consists entirely of a black leather jacket, hot pants, and the top part of a two-piece that is overshadowed by her huge cannon and crooked katana she brandishes for combat. Her left eye also emanates a bright blue flame for some reason.
The world is in ruin, thanks to a war between humankind and aliens. Naturally, BRS is siding with humankind as she helps the remaining human resistance combat the otherworldly menace while finding out more about her origins in role-playing game combat glory.
Black Rock Shooter's main appeal is its combat system. Whenever you engage an enemy on the map--major kudos to developers Imageepoch for ditching the random battles concept--you'll enter a battle screen where you defeat enemies in real time. The D pad and left analog stick is used for moving and aiming your reticle, while the square button is used for shooting. The X button is used to guard, while the circle button is used to evade to the left or right side of the battlefield. Shooting at enemies and evading builds up heat on the heat gauge; if you max it out, you'll overheat and can't perform any action while stunned for a short duration. Additionally, having the gauge at 50 percent and above limits the effectiveness of your cannon.
Because of this, you cannot just mindlessly shoot and dodge to your heart's content. You have to study enemy movements to efficiently dodge their moves and pelt down their health while keeping your heat gauge at a manageable level. While low-level robot grunts are easily dispatched, the bigger enemies, like black scythe-bearing robots, take some finesse; they blink three times before slashing at you for huge damage while shooting projectiles on the fly.
Luckily, Black Rock Shooter has special actions that do not use up heat. Holding the R trigger brings up the menu where you can activate any ability mapped to any of the face buttons. Examples of such tricks to work around the heat gauge include temporary defense or offense buffs, a damaging one-shot blast, and a Vulcan cannon mode that temporarily puts your gun in rapid-fire mode without overheating it.
Another notable skill is the Sniper mode, where Black Rock Shooter zooms in automatically and shoots an enemy at its weak spot. This stuns any enemy, including bosses, for a brief moment. We misused this skill at a frequent rate by following it up with buffs and the Vulcan mode. While these skills have a cooldown meter, they are immediately refreshed upon encountering a new foe.
The majority of the game consists of you controlling Black Rock Shooter as you go from point A to point B killing enemies. Each stage is usually broken down into six segments, with the last segment usually being an optional stage called a "hunt" to earn rank. Speaking of which, you gain in-game achievements for each action you perform in a stage, whether it is killing a number of enemies or using an ability a specific number of times.
While the first stage set in a run-down San Francisco felt more like a tutorial level for players to get used to the combat mechanics, things picked up when we fought the first boss, Mefe. She's a warrior just like Black Rock Shooter, but she's dressed up like a witch and fights with a pair of giant claws. Her main repertoire includes charging up close to BRS and slashing her, boosting up her attack ratings, and throwing three projectiles in a row.
When she's upset, she can either summon four orbs that launch at BRS one at a time or slash left and right consecutively four times. We initially bit the dust because we were guarding too much and couldn't figure out her pattern. By the second time, we got into the groove of her attacks, as well as timed our dodges and attacks without maxing out the heat gauge. It also helped that BRS's special actions turned the tide of battle.
The second boss fight was also challenging and tense; the red-haired Mzma could summon body doubles to confuse and get the hit on us, as well as do a supercharged multi-slash attack that damaged us pretty badly even if we blocked it. After any fight, BRS will clash swords with her opponent to deliver the coup de grace; we had to repeatedly hammer the circle button until the bottom meter filled up to win the entire fight.
Our play session wasn't just relegated to running and shooting. On the second stage, we had to travel from location to location across a ruined New York City on a bike. This segment is a nod to Super Hang-On, where you move your bike left and right to avoid oncoming enemies. Shifting left or right at just the right time enables BRS to deliver a slash attack to an obstructing enemy in front of her. BRS also has a smart bomb of sorts on her bike; pressing the square button unleashes a torrent of plasma bolts to kill anything in front of her with extreme prejudice. Each bike segment in the game gets harder than the next, with narrow pathways and enemies with different obstruction patterns mixing up the challenge level.
Our sole sore point with our play-through was the environments; they felt too sparse and empty, even for a postapocalyptic setting. In one area set in a vast snow field labeled "Snow Storm," there was anything but. We are well aware that the PSP is capable of more than this in terms of graphics, and it's a shame that Imageepoch isn't trying hard in this regard.
Still, as far as gameplay is concerned, the few stages we checked out seemed solid. The battle mechanics were fun, thanks to the enemies thrown at our direction. The save points littered in each map were also generous, and achieving medals for extra stat boosts for BRS was a fun minigame in itself. While the Japanese version of the game is out, expect an English version to come out courtesy of Nippon Ichi in the near future for Sony's portable.