SNK put weapons-based 2D fighting on the map with 1993's delightful Samurai Shodown, but the developer went on to refine the idea of sword combat four years later in a somewhat lesser-known Neo Geo title: The Last Blade. Recently released to the Steam platform with several contemporary bells and whistles, The Last Blade ($9.99) boasts excellent swordplay, a dozen exquisitely designed characters, and a gorgeous anime- and manga-style presentation that make its 19th-century Japanese setting one of the most beautiful in fighting-game history. Genre fans shouldn't hesitate to pick up this excellent PC fighting game, but the barren online play means most matches will take place locally.
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Behold the Bold Soldier
The Last Blade tells a half-baked story about guardians who attempt to keep the gates of hell from opening. The story is barely there, but most fighting game fans aren't playing these games for their rich lore (aside from the fabulously bizarro Mortal Kombat and Tekken series). Although The Last Blade stumbles in story, it soars in terms of gameplay.
The Last Blade uses a very simple, but extremely efficient, control scheme: Light Attack, Heavy Attack, Kick, and Deflection. Light Attacks are quick slashes that are relatively safe to use, but inflict little damage. Conversely, Heavy Attacks can slice a sizable chunk from your opponent's life bar, but they carry a large, punishable wind-up or recovery time. Kick is a self-explanatory, non-weapon attack. Deflection is a move used to parry incoming blows and set up meaty follow-up attacks. These are the moves that beginners must master to find any level of success.
Intermediate players, however, should explore the forward and backward dashes that let you quickly move in and out of attack range, as well as the quarter-circle and half-circle special move inputs that let you uncork big, flashy moves. Deftly combining these offensive and defensive options gives The Last Blade far more depth than what appears on its surface.
The game's Power and Speed fighting systems leverage those attacks in a way that lets you play toward your strengths. Power, described as "The Ultimate Attack Mode," ups your damage output and lets you Super Cancel special moves into powerful Desperation moves. Speed, "The Offensive Orgy Mode," lets you Super Cancel normal attacks into Special moves and Desperation moves. The Last Blade's Super Cancel systems, thankfully, aren't nearly as complex as those in The King of Fighters XIII: Steam Edition's, but they give skilled players another gameplay element to master.
In a way, this increases the size of the relatively small 12-person roster (plus two unlockable bosses) by giving you two versions of each character to breathe new excitement into mirror matches. Still, The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match: Final Edition, another SNK fighting game available on the Steam platform, trounces The Last Blade with its massive 64-character roster.
Control the Globe Slowly
You may not find the lack of characters a major issue once you dive into the game's systems. Combat dances between Samurai Shodown II's pokes and parries and more traditional, combo-centric fighting game action—especially if you implement Super Cancels into your repertoire.
Even better, there's superb character variety on display. You'll find a mix of familiar character archetypes, including shoto (Kaede), grappler (Shigen), and brawler (Lee). For the most part, The Last Blade's animation still holds up, but Shigen, a large, wrestling-based character, suffers from a lack of frames. His stiff movements may affect your ability to string combos.
Another gripe: When you enter the commands menu to see the inputs for your character's special attacks, you must first find your fighter's name on a selection grid. The typical fighting game automatically pulls up the move list for the character that you're currently using when you enter the commands menu. This is just an extra, annoying step that grows far more aggravating when two players dig up move sets in Vs. mode.
Thankfully, The Last Blade has a Training mode for tightening your play before entering the Arcade, Time Attack, and Multiplayer modes. Sadly, Multiplayer is a wasteland, at least at the moment. I've yet to encounter another player online, which indicates that there's something severely wrong with the matchmaking, or there's little interest in the game. Regardless, the best way to play The Last Blade at the moment is with a friend in local versus matches.
On the upside, The Last Blade has wonderful presentation. The beautiful stages look as though they could have been ripped from Rurouni Kenshin, and the surprisingly mellow soundtrack fits the 19th-century setting. The bog, marketplace, dock, and other areas also employ a Samurai Shodown-style pan-and-zoom effect when you move away from and toward each other, respectively. It gives The Last Blade a cinematic flair that many other fighters lack.
Proceed to Blow
This Last Blade port contains a wealth of graphics options for gamers in the high-definition era. You can play the game in either the original 4:3 aspect ratio (with vertical letterboxing) or the new 16:9 aspect ratio (which widens the play field and has slightly squashed characters).
The resolution options range from 800 by 600 to 1080p, and you can even apply scan lines to give the game an old CRT look. There's also a filter for those who don't dig the sharp pixel graphics. They soften the pixel look, but add a touch of blurriness that I don't find appealing. The Last Blade is a Steam release, so it naturally has numerous unlock-able achievements. That said, I've yet to encounter any The Last Blade Steam Trading Cards, but that's no big loss.
Swinging Swords Like Shinobi
It's a shame that The Last Blade's online mode is filled with tumbleweeds, as the game's fighting mechanics and sheer fun factor would make it a fine competitive fighter—provided that the netcode held up. So, as of right now, The Last Blade should be considered a fine single-player or local two-player title. That's not necessarily a bad thing!
This is a worthwhile port of one of the more expensive Neo Geo games—home copies typically sell for close to $1,000 on eBay. So for $9.99, you can experience one of the best fighting games in SNK's catalog on the cheap. Grab a friend, an arcade stick or two, and knuckle up for offline bragging rights.