Just what is Black Rock Shooter at this point? Is it a song? Is it a manga? Is it an anime? Is it an expensive collectible figure line? The illustration that launched an otaku empire has been all of those things, including a PSP game that has surprisingly been localized for North American and European fans. It’s easy to be skeptical about licensed games, but at first glance the stylish action and hybrid RPG gameplay looks promising. Has NISA done us a favor and rescued an obscure gem, or is this simply a cash-in on the franchise’s niche popularity?
Black Rock Shooter: The Game (PSP)
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: April 23, 2013
In the not too distant future, Aliens have invaded Earth and all but wipe out the human population. The last dozen humans rally around a single girl, the mysterious biological weapon known as Black Rock Shooter. It’s a pretty tired post-apocalyptic setting for sure, but it’s kind of charming as you pal around with your Space Marine bros and BRS learns more about being human… that is until the story breaks apart into an impenetrable, intentionally vague mess. I’d say I’m keeping my mouth shut to avoid spoilers, but honestly I’m not sure I understand it well enough to explain it. Basically, the story is not the strong point of BRS: The Game but you’re welcome to try and interpret it for yourself.
Putting the actual story aside, I found it particularly strange how little the game had to do with the known Black Rock Shooter universe. I know it’s a character often left to the author’s imagination, but aside from BRS herself and a few chains and checkerboard patterns, there are no connections. If you’re expecting to face off with the likes of Dead Master, Black Gold Saw or any of the other popular BRS frenemies, you will be disappointed. It almost felt like I was playing a completely unrelated game and unlocked a BRS costume for the main character. This isn’t so much an issue if you’ve never heard of Black Rock Shooter before, but if you have it’s worth bearing in mind.
It’s the combat system where BRS: The Game shines, streamlining the traditional RPG process into a seamless, fast moving experience. Battles begin by encountering an enemy on the map and cutting away to a battle screen, like most other RPGs, but then things get interesting. You cannot move BRS directly but instead control the aiming sights of her Rock Cannon. The fighting is in real-time, but moves slow enough for you to think about your actions.
Fortunately there’s more to fighting than just aim and shoot, as you can also block and dodge incoming enemy attacks. To make things more interesting, all your actions are governed by a heat bar that increases with every action and decreases over time. If the bar fills up you overheat and can’t move at all, so battles become a fun balancing act of shooting, defending, and cooling down.
Adding more spice to your battles are equipable special attacks, which turns your already huge rock cannon into some other monstrous tool of destruction. These animated, flashy attacks dish out major damage or buff up your stats, and what’s even cooler is they run on a cooldown system instead of MP. So feel free to unleash that giant warhammer on those unsuspecting grunts, you’ll be able to use it again in another 40 seconds or so.
Perhaps the best part of the gameplay is how smooth everything runs. Items and special abilities are mapped to the L and R buttons and can be pulled up on the fly. Despite cutting away to a separate battle screen when you encounter an enemy, there are virtually no load times, or at least there wasn’t any playing the downloadable version on Vita. Considering the amount of enemies you encounter in the game, I cannot emphasize how important that seemingly small detail is to the experience.
There are a few issues, most notably the combat can get repetitive in larger levels. Considering the fast pace of the battles however, it’s certainly not as much of a grind as some RPGs. There’s also an entire level featuring surprisingly fun motorcycle segments to break things up. I ran into a few fixed camera sections I found annoying to navigate, but nothing unmanageable. Overall the gameplay is a net win, and easily the strongest aspect of the game.
BRS: The Game looks pretty good despite the low polygon PSP graphics. The aesthetic of the game evolves from post-apocolyptic near-future cities to the aforementioned chains and checkerboards as the story progresses. The new cast of characters all have pretty cool, colorful designs, although they are a bit more futuristic JRPG sci-fi than the dark, mechanical gothic vibe fans might be used to. Overall though, the art style helps pick up the slack for the dated hardware.
The soundtrack is solid as well, mixing the usual electronic beats, synthesizer, and rock guitar you’d expect with the occasional lovely piano piece you might not. I think there was even a pipe organ in there somewhere. I wouldn’t run out and buy the OST, but it was enjoyable enough to enhance the experience. Probably the only bit of music I didn’t like was the laughably Linkin Park-esque insert song over the UFOtable-animated opening movie, but that part looks so cool I can forgive them. It’s worth noting once again, the actual “Black Rock Shooter” song does not appear in the game either, which seems to be a running theme in this review.
As far as localization is concerned, the game is fully voiced in Japanese with subtitles and there is no dub. NISA plays this one pretty straight as far as the translation, keeping the dialogue natural and appropriate for the circumstances. On a weird voice acting otaku note, BRS herself is actually voiced by Maaya Sakamoto instead of Kana Hanazawa, who played her in both anime adaptations. Miyuki Sawashiro, who usually voices Dead Master, plays a new, original character. Both performances are great and I normally wouldn’t mention that kind of thing, but it is one more example of how far the game distances itself from any other BRS related projects.
Let’s be honest: there’s not a lot of games coming out for Sony’s handhelds, let alone ones actually worth playing. Clocking in around 10-15 hours for your first playthrough (there are extra missions and an alternate ending available for your second), Black Rock Shooter: The Game delivers a solid RPG with fast gameplay and a pretty cool sense of style. The story gets messy and the combat can be a little repetitive, but for $20 it might be just what your starving portable console needs.
It’s really the pre-existing Black Rock Shooter fans that need to proceed with caution. There is so little connection to any other BRS related projects that you might as well consider this a brand new, standalone property. Even so, Black Rock Shooter: The Game is pretty enjoyable in its own right, and if you know what to expect you probably won’t be disappointed.