In the interests of full, honest journalistic disclosure, I should reveal that I know next to nothing about the Bleach anime/manga series. I gather it is immensely popular with The Geeky Young.- those small fellows that gather in my local library and play on their PSPs or battle with Yu-Gi-Oh cards or read Death Note books, the teens and tweens I silently curse as my knees crack and back creaks from the strain of bending to pick up a Bitter Old Man comic, probably written by Warren Ellis, off the shelf. As they beam with hope and guffaw with unfettered joy, I skulk back to my shadowy hovel alone.
On one level, therefore, playing Bleach: Dark Souls is a fool’s errand. Like many licensed games from the manga-anime world of geekery, it is an exercise in straightforward niche appeal. Unlike film tie-ins and other cash-grabs, Dark Souls is utter fan service. To make matters worse, it is the second game taken from the series for the DS, coming after the critically-lauded Bleach: The Blade Of Fate. I should highlight at this point that these Bleach titles have been developed by Treasure, the team behind some of the tightest, perfectly-formed games in the history of the medium (see: Ikaruga, Gunstar Heroes, Sin And Punishment, Bangai-O), a fact that gives these franchise adaptations much more notability than the pile of lazy junk out there. With both of these games, Treasure have sought to create a deep, innovative, handheld twist on the fighting genre — taking the speed and action of Street Fighter et al, and blending them with extra gameplay opportunities afforded by the DS system.
The story, housed in its own mode, is utter poppycock. This isn’t a veiled swipe against the manga series, but the narrative cooked up here is murky and hard to follow, especially for those who aren’t familiar with Hollows, the Soul Society or Soul Reapers. It is split up into short bouts and minigames, which are spread over a layout that looks like a flowchart; the player is allowed to navigate these encounters with a (shallow) semblance of freedom, but it is highly contrived stuff. For the most part, the dialogues and developments are thinly-veiled excuses to introduce as many of the 44 character strong roster as possible (it’s a back-of-the-box quote!) — a quirk which results in utter confusion as new protagonists pop up at random, with little explanation or introduction, merely to say ‘I challenge you!’. Fans will be on top of this, of course, but even with the handy glossary that guides the novice through the mass of pseudo-fantasy, half-Japanese jargon, this framework is simply not compelling or inviting.
The core gameplay, however, is wholly impressive and intriguing. Treasure have worked very well to render the distinctive, beautiful character designs by manga artist Tite Kubo as sprites on the small screen, with fluid animations as well. Characters come in all shapes and sizes, with special disciplines and distinct fighting styles between them, meaning there is a great deal of variety. The battles themselves occur on two plains, between which the player can hop with the press of a button, and can accommodate up to four fully-formed characters (more when monsters and goons are involved, which is where it gets frustratingly hectic), giving Dark Souls a very different feel to many 2D Street Fighter clones.
The basic fighting is easy to pick up, with quarter-circles and other staples of the special move skill-set cropping up, but there is an almost awe-inspiring amount of depth. While the top screen deals with the blow-by-blow action, the touch screen works as a hub for various power ups and special moves, which are represented by buttons and Spirit Cards. These cards can be used during battle, and can effect play with increased attack or defence, or restrict the enemies’ stats or movements. They may bring danger of severe hand cramp or DS-fingerprints, but these additions add a lot of strategy to the frantic fighting. Furthermore, the Deck Construction mode allows players to create their own distinct set-up, with shedloads of cards unlocked through play, or bought at an in-game shop (which also contains fanboy saliva bait like alternate costumes, artwork and voice tracks). This customisation is also bolstered by the opportunity to make your own ‘Reiju’ deck, which gives permanent boosts to the character’s abilities.
With Bleach: Dark Souls, Treasure have produced a great, new spin on the fighting genre. The game has its own ideas, and is polished enough to overcome the intimidatingly exclusive baggage of its licence. What’s more, it has a mixture of multiplayer options, including online battles over WI-FI, and wireless single-cart and multi-cart play. With the depth of creativity and possibility to be found in its Deck Construction mode, as well as the large choice of characters on offer, it can be easy to see the game living far beyond its initial grace period.