If you were to dismiss a game like Bleach: Dark Souls based solely on its license and choice of platform, it'd be hard to blame you. After all, there have been no shortage of terrible Bleach fighters out there, and the DS is hardly a hotbed of top-tier competitive brawlers. But if looks were never deceiving, the world wouldn't need critics, and rest assured, this one is most certainly worth a second look.
Dark Souls is the second of Treasure's DS fighters to bear the license. In many of its concepts, it's a spiritual successor to their ancient Yuu Yuu Hakusho game on Mega Drive, most famous for birthing the Guardian Heroes fighting engine. Like that game, Bleach supports up to four combatants on screen, with two planes of 2D fighting action that can be travelled between. But in the decade plus that has passed, the formula has been wisely updated into something more modern.
It's a more than solid solo fighter, a crazy multiplayer brawl, a lengthy, varied solo quest, and an online game.
Despite the four-player modes, Bleach: Dark Souls has a very solid fighting engine that functions perfectly for one-on-one fights as well. This is not a Smash Bros wannabe or a wacky anime button masher. There is a well developed combo system that treads the line somewhere between Guilty Gear dial-a-combos and Samurai Showdown juggles, and generally takes some real skill to master. As a one-on-one game, Bleach can stay pretty competitive with timed guard cancels and other high level systems that reward individual skill instead of furious mashing of buttons.
Most of this was true of Treasure's first Bleach game as well, but they've done quite a lot of building to make sure this is a game worth buying again. While the basic engine is essentially untouched, the roster has gotten a massive overhaul, boasting a completely ridiculous 44 characters. Granted, not all of these are really viable for competitive play (many aren't meant to be), but then no roster that size is ever totally balanced. The competitive top-tier has gotten some major adjustments as well – Ichigo's Bankai is no longer an unfair match-ender, for example. This means that the top-tier of competitive characters is much better balanced.
The biggest new addition is the story mode. While the first Bleach did indeed have a story mode of its own, with matches linked by cut scenes, this is a whole new experience. Players progress through a giant flow-chart of events with branching paths, and some with multiple outcomes. These events are incredibly diverse, and go beyond the simple one-on-one and team fights of the last game. Some of these challenge fighters to fight over standing space to answer quiz questions, while others have them rushing to gather up more candy than their opponents. The best moments are the massive group battles that pit you against 20 or so monsters, including large bosses. These stages show the game's Guardian Heroes legacy and leave me desperately wanting to see what a true beat 'em up would be like with the Bleach engine.
There are plenty of other modes to explore as well. The combo training from the first game has been axed, but various arcade, survival, and tournament modes return, and you can play one-on-one or go for the four-player brawls. The four-player matches are obviously a bit more frantic and unpredictable, and sometimes lack the depth of one-on-play, but there's a time and a place for everything. The single-cart download play is very robust, and doesn't feel crippled at all, beyond the admittedly lengthy load times. Online play can be a little spotty against very distant opponents, but for the most part it works beautifully.
Bleach: Dark Souls really is the whole package. It's a more than solid solo fighter, a crazy multiplayer brawl, a lengthy, varied solo quest, and an online game. In a rare twist for anime fighters, even for those with absolutely no interest in the Bleach series owe it to themselves to take a good hard look at what will surely be remembered as the best original fighting game on the DS.