Back in November 2008, a freaky little game called BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger came along and injected a fresh dose of neon-colored blood into the venerable but often stodgy 2-D fighting genre. It was fast, flashy, fun, and had a character who wielded an umbrella made out of her cat, so naturally it was a critical and commercial success. Now, two years later, we get an updated version carrying an equally befuddling title: BlazBlue: Continuum Shift (Arc System Works).
Pretty much everything enjoyable about the original BlazBlue has been carried over and enhanced in Continuum Shift. The tight controls, the balanced gameplay, the colorful hand-drawn graphics and the over-the-top voice work all make welcome re-appearances, as does the delightfully chaotic feel of the fighting itself, which has always been what's separated BlazBlue from the pack.
Whereas most fighting games seem strangely bent on retaining at least some vestige of sanity, every round in Calamity Trigger is an almost psychotropic affair, with colorful flashes, swarms of projectiles and weird glowing symbols piling kaleidoscopically on top of each other as fighters chain together massive combinations and the announcer calls out "counter!" and "fatal!"
The overwhelming sense of madness is only enhanced by the bizarre menagerie of characters, which includes a dim-witted cat-girl, a shape-shifting blob of ectoplasm and an armored warrior with a sword as long as the screen. All 12 returning fighters from Calamity Trigger have new special moves and balance tweaks, and they're joined by a trio of equally unusual newcomers: Mu-12, who lays down laser-spewing traps; Hazama, who whips around the battlefield on a gigantic chain; and Tsubaki, who charges up special versions of her attacks and then unleashes them in devastating combos.
Once you've picked a favorite from this eclectic bunch, Continuum Shift offers plenty of ways to get in on the action, though some are more enjoyable than others. Story mode is probably the worst choice, as it necessitates hacking your way through a plot so convoluted and impenetrable that it makes the tangled narrative of Metal Gear Solid seem like Goodnight, Moon. The all-important multiplayer modes, on the other hand, are just about perfect, completely untroubled by lag or frame-rate issues. The game's tutorial modes are also surprisingly helpful, offering useful in-context instruction on everything from moving your character to performing advanced techniques like cancels and break bursts.
Overall, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift improves upon its predecessor in a number of meaningful ways, and the result is a chaotic and well-executed fighting game with only a few minor flaws to slow it down. If you're a fan of 2-D fighters, and you can find the strength of will to embrace its bizarre aesthetic, you'll find it well worth the $40 price tag.