Black★Rock Shooter ReviewKyle Stepp
Black★Rock Shooter is a tragedy.
That's not to say it's a tragedy in the traditional sense, though it does have its share of hopeless moments. Even the game's introduction paints a bleak picture: Earth has been attacked by vicious aliens, killing nearly all of the seven billion people inhabiting it. All that's left is a handful of soldiers fighting to survive against their incoming doom, and as a biological superweapon named Black★Rock Shooter, it's your job to take the fight back to the aliens by completing various missions and participating in fast-paced RPG battles that use a strange blend of action-oriented and turn-based gameplay.
During battle, you'll have to attack in real-time, while also anticipating the movements and attacks of enemies, guarding and dodging to either reduce the damage you take or eliminate it entirely. You can only dodge back and forth between two preset locations on the battlefield, but careful use and timing of your dodge is an invaluable tactic for survivng many of the game's later foes. Each enemy type has a general pattern that it follows, and while this means that you'll be facing off against palette swaps as early as the first mission, it also means you can quickly identify the strategy needed to take each foe down quickly. Attacking and dodging in battle will build up your heat gauge, which will make Black★Rock Shooter overheat should it reach its maximum. While overheated, you're completely incapacitated and at the mercy of your foes until you completely cool off. This creates an interesting dynamic, as you'll constantly need to juggle your attacking and dodging with the enemy patterns to maximize your damage while still avoiding damage and preventing an overheat. The result is a fast and frantic battle system that manages to still feel a bit turn-based in spots.
As you blast your way through the awesome battles, you'll find yourself completing a plethora of achievements, known here as challenges, each of which comes with a tangible upgrade for B★RS. Some may simply increase one of your stats by a little bit, but other challenges will offer new abilities for her to learn and upgrade. Most of the achievements are rather mundane, such as "Kill X of enemy Y," but other ones are more difficult and more enjoyable to accomplish. In one challenge, you must complete several awesome minigame segments where you ride on the back of a motorcycle while slashing and shooting everything in your path (Cloud Strife, eat your heart out). In another, you have to beat the clock to reach a certain character in a time that seems nearly impossible to reach without avoiding every foe that crosses your path. Additional challenges become unlocked in previous stages once you get deep enough in the game, so there's enough replayability to keep coming back for more.
While there's only 6 stages total in the game, there's several missions spread through each one, and each stage offers something new to the table. While the ruins of San Francisco offer a great stomping ground for a tutorial level, the next stage takes you to New York, where you cross between boroughs on the aforementioned motorcycle. As you explore Moscow, you'll find the ruins of a once-great city frozen beneath the ice. Eventually, your travels will even take you to the moon for an intense final confrontation.
And yet, none of that really explains why Black★Rock Shooter is a tragedy. It's not the setting, or its storyline. It's not the soundtrack by Manabu Namiki which reverberates with pangs of Phantasy Star Online. Black★Rock Shooter turns the "shooter" genre on its head; the manly Marines are completely ineffective against the alien threat, and must be recused by a cute anime girl with skimpy clothes and big moe eyes. The desolated world still reverberates with color, unlike the multitude of games that feel like "bleak" must equal "brown and gray." And yet, it's a digital-only title on a system that's no longer relevant in the American market. The people who need to play this fantastic game the most--the Call of Duty-obsessed dudebro--is never going to.
And that's the real tragedy here.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.