No, that isn’t the transcription of the sounds coming from the apartment next to mine at three in the morning – these are the sounds of my friends the first time they played Lethal League Blaze. A game about teeth-clenching anticipation, insane mind games, and, most of all, hitting the ball fast.
Lethal League Blaze is the follow up to 2014’s Lethal League, a game almost nobody played but which was much-loved by its niche community. It flew right under my radar, but I had heard of it by the time Blaze was set to drop. Addressing issues of limited content, sparse connectivity, and generalized rough edges, Blaze is more of the same and then some. With new mechanics, characters, modes, and an all-new story campaign, it’s the perfect follow up to a game desperate for some extra polish.
Back to that ridiculous (and true) exchange from before. What would make grown men exclaim in surprise into the wee hours of the night? The short answer is lots of hit-stop, but the long answer is tooth-and-nail battles of attrition hitting a supersonic baseball at each other within the confines of a padded cell. Lethal League Blaze is a simple, if unique, game. It’s essentially Pong, if Pong was a fighting game ala BlazBlue. A diverse cast of characters smacks a ball about a rectangular room at varying angles and speeds until it hits an opponent. The catch is, when the ball is going fast enough, a hit is liable to take upwards of a second and a half to come off an opponent’s “bat.” This gives you time to re-assess, re-position, and prepare to catch a bullet like one of those old-timey magicians.
When you hit one of these insanely fast, insanely hard-to-predict volleys, you’re liable to shout victoriously. But hitting the ball is only half the battle: there’s other tech at play too, and it gets dirty. Trying to smack a ball out of an opponent’s hands on release (indicated by the meter on the boombox at the bottom of the screen) can be a good idea – unless they parry. But, if they’re parrying – and you think they’re going to parry – you can grab the ball instead, hurling it back at their face. It’s a proverbial game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and it leads to some of the most intense mind-games I’ve experienced in gaming.
This is all to say nothing of the presentation of Lethal League Blaze. With graphics that are a distant cousin to Jet Set Radio and music that bangs, bops, and slaps, it’s a feast for the senses. Even matches where I was getting completely rocked were an intense thrill-ride just because the game is so pleasant to look at and experience. Speaking of Jet Set Radio, composer Hideki Naganuma contributes one of the game’s best tracks, “Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Funky Beat,” featured in the subway level. The entire original soundtrack is as good as any high-energy electro score out there and it alone is almost reason enough to give the game a try.
Character design can go a long way towards a game’s success. Just take a look at Overwatch, which sees a huge influx of returning players just for the next Widowmaker re-skin. Lethal League Blaze has no shortage of memorable and well-designed fighters, with Candyman being by far the most iconic. Their designs all speak on how their special moves will work, and to a degree even the kind of angles they’ll hit the ball at. Candyman’s thin cane, for example, hits the ball in a narrow sine-wave pattern, while Dice’s ping pong racket favors a more obtuse trajectory. Learning everyone’s quirks and special attacks is vital to success, and since they’re all a blast to play, it doesn’t take long before you’re leaping up to volley a Mach-9 Sonata trickshot.
This all might sound like gibberish, and it likely is. There aren’t many online guides on how to “get good” at Lethal League Blaze, so I’ve largely been left to my own devices playing online and locally with friends. These are both equally enjoyable and work well enough, with online play only taking seconds to find a suitable match (during peak hours, at least). Ranked mode is a bit of a mess, with a small community of highly-skilled players constantly knocking each other up and down the leaderboard rankings by thousands of spots at a time, without any skill-based matchmaking. Quickplay is a suitable free-for-all madhouse to cut your teeth: four player is the default here, and while it can be a bit chaotic trying to figure out who hit the ball and to where, it’s all in good fun. My advice: don’t take it all too seriously. There’s dumb luck at times, and finding someone close to your skill level can be a hassle, but once you’ve got a few friends to skirmish with, the game truly shines.
What I’m sure many people are waiting for is the console release next spring, and I hope that builds as much of a community as the PC version. I’d like to extend my gratitude toward the Lethal League community for being patient with new players and teaching me the ropes for this review. The harsh truth is that it’s hard out there for a niche multiplayer game. Many flounder and die within weeks of release, but I’m hopeful that word of mouth and the upcoming console versions will be enough to keep Lethal League Blaze afloat for the foreseeable future. It’s an insane experience – one that I still find trouble putting into words. No matter how much convincing it takes, sitting someone down with this game can be a religious experience. As far as accessible and fun multiplayer games go, Lethal League Blaze knocks it out of the park.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Team Reptile.
Watching any number of people scream at the insanity on screen in a Lethal League Blaze match is one of life's finer pleasures. No words can express the feeling of hitting a ball that's broken the time-space continuum, and I strongly urge anyone looking for a new party or fighting game to give this a try. It's hard to look back.