The Black Rock Shooter franchise is apparently pretty popular in its native country of Japan, where it has received an anime TV series and direct-to-video movie, as well as several manga adaptations. Now, the series is coming to North America in the form of a handheld Sony game, but not exclusively for the Vita, as one might expect. Though this digital-only English release is fully compatible on Sony’s current handheld, the game is actually a 2011 PSP title that took its time in coming over here. While the game does has some problems, there are other very well done components that make this a worthwhile title for JRPG fans.
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic United States in the 2050s, mankind has been decimated down to about a dozen survivors due to an ongoing war against alien invaders. As the game starts, the titular Black Rock Shooter herself awakens, a teenage girl with questionable fashion sense whose military allies refer to as a valuable secret weapon against the aliens. She’s immediately thrown into action to fight off the invaders, as well as put together her amnesia-tinted past and true purpose.
The story and characters are really routine and nothing special. Black Rock Shooter speaks so little herself that she ends up coming across as a bit of an enigma, and most of the allies and alien villains don’t have much in the way of memorable traits. It’s enough to move things forward, but probably won’t be the main thing players walk away remembering from this game.
Where Black Rock Shooter: The Game stands out is in its gameplay mechanics. Not quite a third-person shooter and not quite a turn-based RPG, the combat is an interesting melding of the two genres. The basic way it works is that players directly control the heroine in a static position, aim her weapon, and shoot at gradually advancing enemies. When they get close enough and are about to attack, players can press one of two buttons to either take a defensive stance and reduce the damage taken, or dodge to the side and potentially avoid the attack altogether. Finally, holding the R button and pressing one of the four face buttons can activate one of several special moves players find and earn over the course of the game, which include super attacks that do massive damage, health regeneration, and temporary stat enhancements, among others.
The catch is that you can’t rely too much on one thing. Each special move requires a recharging period after it’s used, and both shooting and dodging builds up a meter that, when reaching 100%, causes your weapon to overheat and forces you to stand motionless for several seconds, completely open to an attack. This means that players must choose when to go all-out with their attacks and when to stand still and recover, bringing a unique element of strategy to battle.
Gameplay is completely linear, with a mission-based structure that is essentially just another term used to refer to individual levels. It’s possible to find some hidden paths and obtain some goodies, but don’t expect a vast overworld to explore or many sidequests to get wrapped up in. I was personally able to forgive this, though, as the structure the developers went with suits the pick-up-and-play gameplay style of handhelds nicely.
A traditional experience and leveling-up system is in place, but another interesting idea comes in the form of several in-game challenges. Akin to an achievement system, accomplishing each goal, which typically involves things like killing a certain number of a specific enemy type and other battle-based conditions, will unlock new moves, stat upgrades, and bonuses like concept art and movie clips.
This is a clever idea that I’d love to see in more games. The only downside is that most of the goals here are a bit basic, and in some cases involve mandatory things like beating a boss, making them feel less special and more rudimentary. It definitely seems like something that can be expanded upon if a sequel is ever made, along with the clever battle gameplay.
The game is also nice in its saving and losing conditions. Though you can’t save anywhere you want (You’re limited to inbetween missions or specific locations in each level), dying doesn’t force you to reload your last save. Instead, the mission restarts, and you keep all of your earned experience points, beaten challenges, and upgrades from last time, giving you more of a fighting chance. Again, this is something I wish more RPGs would do, as it can greatly reduce the frustration factor.
While I wish Black Rock Shooter: The Game had a more memorable cast and narrative, there’s no denying that the actual gameplay is creative and structurally sound. Considering its low price tag and the fact that it’s compatible with the Vita, I’d recommend it to any JRPG fan looking for something to play on the go, or those curious about it.
This review is based on a PSP copy of the game that was provided to us.
Black Rock Shooter: The Game suffers from a weak plot, but the actual gameplay is surprisingly clever and engaging.