The Last Blade (aka Gekka No Kenshi, which translates to "Swordsmen of Moonlight") is a latecomer to the overpopulated lineup of Neo-Geo fighting games, but it is definitely one that should not be overlooked as it makes its transition to the PlayStation. With a deep and intricate fighting system, intuitive and responsive controls that are as comfortable and familiar as any you've ever known, and a smattering of innovation - not to mention subtle and attractive aesthetics - it's a nuanced, if late, entry by SNK.
The game's play will be almost immediately familiar to everyone. The main character, Kaede, is quite obviously a thinly veiled Ryu-clone; he comes equipped with a fireball-type move (which runs along the ground as is favored in the SNK universe), a rising uppercut, and a kick that propels him across the screen. Yuki, his partner in martial-arts training, has blonde hair and a similar set of moves. That's not to say this game borrows too heavily from Street Fighter; that's simply not so. The game does, however, use this fertile ground as a basis to build its own style of captivating gameplay. One thing that separates this game from being just another SF clone is the fact that the characters all brandish weapons. Immediately, the obvious comparison switches from SF to Samurai Shodown, but that's not completely accurate either. Let's just call this the happy marriage of Street Fighter Alpha and Samurai Shodown - and let's hope there's a long honeymoon ahead.
The two things that really set this game apart are the reflect button (which, when timed correctly, parries an opponent's attack and turns it against him) and your character's choice between power and speed, which fundamentally changes the way the character plays. This feature is not unlike the slash/bust system of Samurai Shodown 3 or the A/X/V-ism modes in Street Fighter Alpha 3. But bear in mind that The Last Blade's arcade release preceded SFA3's by a year. In power mode, each character is (obviously) more powerful, with moves doing more damage to the opponent. In speed mode, damage is decreased but the characters can chain combos together. Each mode also has unique moves.
As the PlayStation's port stands, it's nearly identical to the arcade; everything is fluid (barring slight slowdown on Yuki's stage) and utterly controllable. The biggest flaw is the sound effects. The game sounds as though the developers sampled the arcade unit with a microcassette recorder while standing in a wind tunnel. You'd be hard pressed to find a fighting game with lower-quality samples. It's really a shame because it makes the game feel the slightest bit cheap and tacky - and those are two words that would never ordinarily be applied to this game. It oozes precision, thoughtfulness, control, and achingly beautiful aesthetics. The transitions between stages are perhaps the most sublime and elegant ever to grace any fighting game for any system; it's this elegance that draws you to the game and the tight and enjoyable play that grabs hold, digs in, and keeps you interested. The PS port is just rough around the corners, with middling load times between every transition. Still, outside of a Neo-Geo cartridge system, an impractical choice for most consumers, there is no way to achieve a load-free version of this game, and the PS port more than suffices at keeping to the letter, if not necessarily the spirit, of the game.
Additions to the PlayStation version not present in the arcade are both multiple and mostly irrelevant. The game now opens with an attractive anime sequence. New modes are also abundant. A training mode is standard in all home versions of arcade fighters these days and is therefore not worth mentioning, except when it's absent; The Last Blade's training mode is just what you'd expect it to be. Story mode is the main arcade mode you're used to if you've played the coin-op; short mode offers a four-stage game for the player in need of a quick fix. Versus mode is added - again, an expectation but not a bonus. Sudden-death mode is a bizarre addition; your life ticks off as you fight, so that it's possible to die without ever suffering the blow of a foe. Finally, we have options (a standard complement) and omake (a "bonus"), which contains art galleries (both fan-drawn and professional, the latter being sepia-toned pencil sketches by the game's designers) and a character background information section - in Japanese, of course. Because most Neo-Geo carts come with a language option, it's a bit disappointing to see only Japanese text in this version.
All in all, this is a great game; if you enjoy a solid two-dimensional fighter, and you understand the nuances of the genre, you will really enjoy it. For casual players, it may seem like just another disc on the pile, but for enthusiasts it's an extremely deep and enjoyable game that really shouldn't be missed.