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CONSOLE: PSP DEVELOPER: Eighting PUBLISHER: Sony
RELEASE DATE (JP): March 24, 2005 GENRE: Fighter
// review by EscapeRouteBritish

Life's a Bleach.

So you're a studio with an insanely popular animated series on the television. You've done the key-rings and pencil cases (as cool as they are), but all that you really need now is "that game". Well, the PSP just came out, and it's the most powerful handheld ever, so here is the inevitable match made in heaven.

At the height of Bleach's successful first season, Heat the Soul was released for PSP. No surprise there, as Sony (via its PlayStation brand) was sponsoring the show from the very beginning. Does thus game accurately translate the show into video game form? Damn right it does. Does it stay true to the source material? Not entirely, but later on I will explain why I consider a little deviation is good.

It's called Bleach. Yes, haha, detergent. Jokes about the name just grind my gears. It is no longer 2005, so please stop. I've heard the series described as "Dragon Ball Z with swords", but in the first season, there were ideas and concepts that really stood it apart from the other "shonen" anime. This game doesn't assume you are following the series, as the cutscenes are lengthy and chock full of dialogue. It is also almost entirely in Japanese language, as should be expected, really.

Heat the Soul is a 1-on-1 fighting game developed by Eighting (creators of the timeless furry-'em-up series Bloody Roar). I have yet to play a terrible game that they're responsible for, which makes them immensely qualified in my eyes. Eighting probably have made a bad game at some point in their history as a developer, but even their 2D spin on Tekken (released for the Game Boy Advance) is a good'un.

Heat the Soul is a traditional fighting game for the most part: whittle down the enemy's health using cheap tactics, and then you win! With only five playable characters (six including the one and only hidden character), the roster is smaller than even the very first Tekken or Virtua Fighter. However, the game makes up for this with its presentation. The menus are presented as slick, graffiti artworks sprawled across brick walls. The character selection screen shows the characters walking, side-profile, like the show's opening sequence. Everything is presented in that punky style one associates with rebellious youth, a style used so liberally in the first season. This game pops out of the screen, thanks in no small part to the use of cel-shading on the character models. The result looks like it could have been plucked straight from the TV show. The colours are very vibrant, and the game runs smoothly and at what appears to a speedy, consistent framerate.

Despite the goal being to reduce the opponent's vitality, each fight is ultimately dictated by the soul gauge. It's like a tug of war between the souls of both combatants. Bleach uses the idea of the "soul" as a key part of its universe, so it is great to see that turned into a game mechanism. The strength of your resolve directly affects damage, length, and reach of special moves, speed in which one can release soul energy to stun an opponent, and in general how quickly you can attack. The soul gauge can be tipped in your favour by performing a successful reiatsu (soul power) burst or by avoiding/blocking an opponent's special attack. Having a high soul gauge is the key to winning battles against high-level computer opponents.


Well, look who it is: the New Kids on the Bleach!

Parts of the soundtrack are youth-culture inspired beats laden with samples that I swear could have been taken from a fast food commercial that aired in the '90s. Basically any of the in-game fighting music, or menu music, I would consider excellent. The battle music can be quite eclectic, with odd samples thrown in for good measure. I have no problems with the soundtrack, and I think it does the job quite well.

Each of the six playable characters have fighting moves that are not entirely accurate to the show, but I think the trade-off between what is correct and what is enjoyable to play has been neatly compromised. It appears that Eighting have a lot of knowledge of the show and its characters, features, and rules; the soul gauge mechanic is entirely rooted into the series rules and lore. At this point in the show, a lot of what the characters were capable of hadn't been revealed, so the invention of attacks just to fill up their command list is absolutely fine and expected.

I only have two major issues with this game. Firstly, as with most fighting games, Auto Save is disabled by default. Because this is a wide-area problem, it doesn't run too far against Heat the Soul directly. I lost a few hours' progress simply by forgetting to save (or enable this function). If I hadn't been capturing potential screenshots for this review, it would have been a complete waste of time and effort. I understand that the lack of auto-save by default could be because of the PSP's ability to hot swap memory sticks, however I've never done such a thing for fighting games. I've only ever swapped memory cards in order to clone cows in Harvest Moon.

My second problem with the game stems entirely from the unlock system — winning battles earns points, which are spent on collectible playing cards. Every ten cards you get, you earn something new. At 100 points for a card, it takes ages to get anywhere, especially when you consider you could pick up a card you already have and waste those hard-earned points. Maybe I'm just impatient, but... well, it feels like they're trying to make the game last longer but in a lazy way. There are only 139 cards in the game, but near the end you're much more likely to pick up cards you already have. What a swizz.

Outside of a Story mode, there's the usual arcade-style mode, this time labelled Vs.CPU. Also included is the traditional Survival mode, but unlike many other fighting games there is no health recovery between fights, and Time Attack, which is Vs.CPU but with a local time leaderboard. For multiple players, who each own a copy of the game, there is Vs.Soul mode, which is the generic pick-a-character, pick-a-stage versus mode. There is also a hidden mini-game called Block-On, which is a combination of Atari Breakout and the Bleach franchise, but unlocking that (or anything for that matter) involves buying those stupid cards! Think I can be bothered?

Fine.

Block-On is a relatively enjoyable stint of arcade-styled ball-busting action, made all the more gimmicky played by holding the PSP in vertical orientation. There are twenty-one levels, made up of three different board layouts. Each level has a character portrait in the background, and some levels feature characters who make their debut in season two.

You are required to launch and bounce balls to destroy the blocks on screen. Power-ups, based on the special moves of characters they represent, make a nice change to the flow of the game. However, like with most Atari Breakout clones, the game mostly consists of getting to the last three blocks in a far corner and not being able to touch them. In such occasions, the game will sometimes give you a power up which splits your ball into twenty separate balls and clears the board almost immediately.

Also hidden is a two-player version of Block-On, played by two people on the same PSP, held either side and played with the corresponding buttons. It is quick fire gimmicky nonsense, and I like that.

Heat the Soul is a generic offering, but it is exactly what Bleach followers needed at the time. For the fans of the series, it's better naturally because you play as characters you recognize. It does stand up on its own without following the series, but not as strongly as it does if you're into Bleach. With seven games in this series, I'd be more likely to recommend Heat the Soul 3, and the others that followed it, which contain many more characters, features, and modes. On merely the game content, presentation and enjoyment factor, I believe this game deserves a look-in, much more so if you're re-watching (or just started) Bleach and want a gameplay companion to the first season.


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