FEATURE: "Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax" Review

Fanboys and fangirls prepare yourself! Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is here at last!!

Mash-up or mascot fighting games are always strange, perplexing beasts. Done well, they can make for watershed moments in the genre (Super Smash Bros., Marvel vs. Capcom) and that of course means that when done poorly they should be set aflame and kicked to the roadside. So it is into this volatile world that Sega and semi-storied developers Ecole Software and French Bread (Melty Blood, Under Night In-Birth) step, bringing with them Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax (often abbreviated DFC), a traditional 2D fighter populated by the most popular characters of vast library of light novels in the Dengeki Bunko imprint.

The roster alone will be a major selling point for any fan of Dengeki Bunko light novels or the anime series they inspire. Durarara!!, Strike the Blood, The Irregular at Magic High School, Black Bullet, Oreimo, Toradora!, and of course Sword Art Online...they’re all in there and more, with multiple characters from each series appearing as either full-fledged playable characters or always-welcome assist types. There are a lot of characters making appearances, so there’s not enough time to really delve into the exact who’s and how’s, but I’d think any fan of Dengeki Bunko titles would be more than pleased. Sega also gets in on the action with the inclusion of Virtua Fighter’s Akira Yuki and Pai Chan as a playable fighter and assist, respectively. Stages and musical tracks are also all directly inspired by various Sega game properties, so there’s plenty of mash-up fun for fans of either company’s products.

Of course, the opposite is also true. If you’ve never read or watched any of the books and shows featuring these characters, you probably won’t feel too inclined to get your Fighting Climax on. Thankfully, the fighting engine humming beneath all this gorgeous licensed material is strong enough to provide even those most apathetic about Dengeki Bunko with a reason to give it a try.

Seeing as DFC is a French Bread game, its closest relative in both presentation and core gameplay is Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late, albeit with some of that title’s more intricate mechanics removed or at the very least pared back. Fights are one-on-one with each fighter choosing a single assist, and combat is simple and accessible at the frightening risk of becoming too bare-bones. There are only four attack buttons: light (A), medium (B), heavy (C ), and assist (D), and all special move commands are confined to simple quarter-circle fireball motions. Characters can run, backdash, and double-jump, but only some (one?) are able to dash in mid-air.

With those mechanics in place, combat feels very traditional and even a little bit stiff. If you’re used to faster paced anime fighters like Guilty Gear or Melty Blood, the restrictions on movement can feel a bit jarring at first, but it’s really not a terrible adjustment to make. Combos and blockstrings feel similarly limited, with your only attack chains being A>B>C, with a few jump cancels and special move cancels thrown in for good measure. I guess what I’m getting at is that at its most basic, DFC can feel pretty underwhelming, perhaps even boring.

Things get a lot more interesting and a hell of a lot more fun, however, when you start paying attention to and utilizing all the other special meters and resources at your disposal. To say that DFC is a game that’s all about resource management may be a bit of a stretch, but at the same time it’s a truth of the title that the more resources you have at your disposal the better, and between the Climax Gauge (!), Blast System (!!), and character-specific Trump Cards (!!!), there’s quite a bit to take in and digest.

The Climax Gauge is DFC’s take on the classic notion of “super meter”, and you’ll need stocks of it to perform powered up versions of special moves (1 stock), Climax Artes (Super Moves, 2 stocks), and ever-so-useful assist cancels (officially called Cancel Support, 1 stock.) You build Gauge in the usual 2D fighting way by doing typical 2D fighting things like hitting and getting hit, but also through not-so-strategic use of the Blast system.

Blast, at its most basic level, should be a concept familiar to fans of Guilty Gear or Blazblue, as it is essentially an explosive burst that you can use to repel an opponent who has pinned you down or is in the middle of stabbing you in the face. Where Blast differs from those games Bursts is in its rather silly offensive applications. See, you gain Climax stocks for using Blast offensively or in the neutral game, and do so at such an alarming rate that there’s almost no reason to ever try saving your Blast for defensive purposes. When you use a “Power Blast” in neutral, you automatically gain one stock of Climax Gauge no matter what, and your meter will continue to rapidly increase for the next several moments. If the opponent is actually hit by the Blast, you’ll gain ANOTHER stock of meter, putting you in a very healthy position to unleash a devastatingly powerful combo the next chance you get. It’s a very powerful tool, and one that should be liberally abused. It’s also a bit silly to gain so much meter for so little effort, but I’m not really sure that’s a bad thing.

If you elect not to use your Blast on gaining free meter, you can also use it mid-combo for a variety of reasons, or as the aforementioned means of escape should your foe’s attacks prove a bit too dangerous. Blast may not be the most intricate of systems, but it does add some much-needed depth to what could otherwise be a very dull fighting system.

Then there are Trump Cards, unique attacks or powerups possessed by every playable character, represented by two Dengeki icons sitting atop your Climax Gauge. Attack Trump Cards are symbolized by red Dengeki icons, while pure support/powerup Trump Cards are blue. Attacks tend to be powerful, invincible overheads that deal gobs of damage, while supports act more like UNIEL’s Chain Shift mechanic and merely pause the action before giving your fighter newfound/enhanced abilities. For specific examples, Durarara!!’s Shizuo Heiwajima has an attack Trump where he swings a huge guard rail into the air. It can’t be blocked midair, and it’s more-or-less invincible, so it makes for a great, if seldom-used, way to smack someone out of the sky for a LOT of damage. Kirito-kun, meanwhile, has a support Trump where he “merely” draws his second sword and unlocks his true offensive potential by dealing more damage per hit and gaining the ability to cancel his special moves into each other for extended combos.

Using your Trump Card also activates a universal powered-up state where all ground attacks become jump cancellable, normal moves can be Reverse Beat (C>B>A, etc.) and calling an assist becomes much easier and inexpensive.  When a character goes into a Trump Card State, the game begins to feel much faster and becomes a lot more fun as players can unleash fancier combos or more elaborate blockstrings, and assists fly around the screen wreaking havoc with much greater frequency and effect. For my money, I wish the game played this way right from the start. The quicker, more hectic pace afforded by Trump state is something I love, though I can see why the developers wanted to make this a more momentary burst of activity.

I’ve mentioned assists briefly, but let’s really talk about them now, since your choice of assist is one of the most important factors in how you’ll be playing the game. There are 23 available assists, each of which is capable of two distinct attacks, and all of which have wildly varying effects. Some are simple projectiles or physical attacks, while others can be set out as traps to counterattack an opponent’s moves, and yet others have applications that are almost solely for the purpose of extending damaging combos. I wanted to keep things simple while playing, so I went with Dokuro of Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan, who uses her iron club get the jump on foes whether she’s crashing down from the heavens or hurling it across the stage, and I found she was a perfectly acceptable partner to my pink-coated Kirito-kun. Like everything else here, the assist system isn’t overly complex, but it adds depth and flavor to a game that needs as much of it as possible. Play around with all the different assists and find what works for you!

The main thing to take away from the core gameplay is that it’s designed to be excessively welcoming to fighting game neophytes. The simple commands for special moves run the risk of giving every character an overly homogenous feel, but assists and Trump Cards allow for at least a modicum of variety to rear its head. Bolstering this design philosophy, typical reversal attacks performed with “complex” motions are tossed out in favor of two button Impact Skills: high-risk armored moves that give new players an easy way to blow past enemy attacks while more advanced players can use it as another tool in their respectable arsenal. For my tastes, I really dislike the nature of these moves. They’re not overpowered, but beginners inclined to spamming them will most likely never manage to improve, even while they’re severely punished for the sloppy practice. It’s not necessarily a BAD mechanic, just one that I’m not fond of. Also, and this is a problem with Trump Card attacks as well, a lot of Impact Skills feel relatively bland and forgettable.

While some characters possess a bevy of classic, memorable techniques, a lot of the moves present feel like they were included because they took the least amount of effort or research possible...something that should never be the case in a mascot fighter with literal volumes of source material to pull from.

Aside from those minor gameplay gripes, any attempt at something resembling a dynamic or compelling single-player experience falls on its face. Now, in truth, this doesn’t matter, because a fighting game should always be primarily about the player vs. player action, not a solid story or campaign. I bring up the single-player for two reasons: A- Crossovers are always a fun playground for stories, as we can see how characters from different worlds will interact, and 2- Sega seems to be pushing the game's "Dream Mode" as a worthwhile reason to buy it.

The generic Arcade mode is forgettable at best. A Dreamcast girl/goddess/whatever summons the heroes from Dengeki Bunko properties to fight off a shapeshifting evil entity whose name I’ve already forgotten. The heroes do so, there’s some talk about dreams, and that’s it. There’s nothing particularly unique to different characters’ stories other than some slight tweaks to dialogue to reflect differing personalities, and there’s not really any reason to play through more than once.

Dream Mode, billed as a selling point, is equally bland. With no real framing device whatsoever, you select your character and choose from amongst six prescribed opponents to fight. The characters, usually linked in some meta-way, will share a bit of pre-fight banter and then you beat them up. That’s literally it, and I was hugely disappointed when I learned that’s all Dream Mode was. The dialogues are short and uninspired, and there was a huge missed opportunity here for lots of fan service in extended visual novel style if nothing else.

Other than that, you’ve got your standard Survival, Time Attack, Score Attack, Gallery, and Training modes. They’re all decently fun (I was somehow near the top of the leaderboards on these before the game’s official launch), but not the sort of thing that will keep you coming back time after time. Thank Dreamcast girl Denshin, then, that DFC’s netplay is surprisingly very strong.

Though the interface and options available are more or less industry standard, Fighting Climax provided some of the smoothest, most lag-free online play I’ve had in quite some time...provided both players have a stable connection. 2-3 bar connections are perfectly playable if not exactly like offline, yet 1 or (GASP!) 0 bars are misery incarnate and should be avoided at all cost. That’s also sort of industry standard at this point in time, but it’s worth saying and putting into practice if you want a pleasant experience. What’s more, a LOT of people seem to be playing online at launch, so finding a Ranked match is pretty easy, and Player Match lobbies will fill up very quickly. Time will tell if this thriving player base remains or not, sadly.

Tragically, the biggest issue plaguing Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax as an English language release is nothing contained within the game itself, but rather its bizarre and tragic delayed release. DFC is a game that’s been out in Japanese arcades since early in 2014, and consumers have been able to import the Japanese console version since last November. Delayed releases for the west are common practice, of course, but this version of DFC has arrived so late to the market that a new version of the game, subtitled Ignition is already out in Japanese arcades and will be hitting home consoles there before Christmas.

Again, this doesn’t reflect that this version of Fighting Climax is bad, only that it’s already just about obsolete, and offers almost no incentive for its purchase over its Japanese counterparts. If you wanted vanilla DFC, you could have had it a year ago, and if you need the current version you can have it in two months. I’m not in a place to say what may have gone on behind the scenes in the localization process, but this is very poor timing for an English release both in a world where importing games is easy to do, and in a genre where the need to read text in English is far from required for enjoyment. It’s not the game’s fault, but it’s a big shame nonetheless.

Ultimately, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is what it is...a traditional 2D fighter brimming with Dengeki Bunko (and Sega!) inspired content, with an accessible and enjoyable, if not exceptional, battle system designed to appeal to the wallets of fans who have made Dengeki Bunko light novels and anime as successful as they have been. At equal lengths bare-bones and surprisingly deep, I can’t say Fighting Climax is a great game. Hell, I’m not even sure I can say it’s a good game, but what I do know is that it can be very, very fun and that I’ve had and continue to have a great time playing it with other humans.

So isn’t that all it really needs to be?


+ Your favorite Dengeki Bunko characters, rendered in beautiful 2D sprites, ready to duke it out!

+ Netplay is really solid, and finding a new rival to play against is a breeze

+ In-game systems are designed in such a way that players of all skill level will find something to enjoy

- Some of the systems are a bit clunky or poorly executed, giving the game a bare-bones and stiff feel at times

- Dream Mode could have been so much more interesting

- With a new version coming to Japanese consoles in mere months, this edition feels like a pointless purchase

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