2011 is shaping up to be an eventful year in the newly rejuvenated world of fighting games. With upgrades to popular franchises Street Fighter 4 and Blazblue in the pipeline, as well as rebirths of old-school series Marvel vs. Capcom and Mortal Kombat, joystick jockeys have a ton to look forward to in the coming months. In addition to these big-name, big budget titles, however, there are a few small releases on the way in the sub-genre lovingly referred to as “poverty fighting” (named so for the games’ inability to command large pots at tournaments, usually due to lack of players or popularity). These poverty fighters, led by Ecole’s Melty Blood series, often place characters from other independent or doujin media into the 2D fighting arena. The indie nature of the games often makes quality an X factor, and the line between cult classic and obscure oddity is sometimes precariously walked.
With a December 29th, 2010 release date, it’s safe to call 07th Expansion’s Ougon Musou Kyoku (literally Symphony of Golden Dreams) the first fighting game of 2011. Following in the footsteps of Melty Blood, OMK is based on a series of visual novels centered on witchcraft, demons, murder mysteries and alternate dimensions. The source material is well suited for a fighting adaptation, but how does the end product shape up? In short: the potential is there, but not quite yet realized. OMK has a lot going for it, mostly in terms of style and innovation, but suffers from a few strange gameplay choices and balance issues. The game is no slouch, though, and anyone looking for a new series to check out would do well to look at OMK.
Presentation/Graphics: Ougon Musou Kyoku is visually a superb example of what the art team of an independent company can accomplish. The characters are rendered in high resolution sprites, almost on par with those in Blazblue. When compared to the aging sprites of its compatriot Melty Blood, there’s no contest at all: in terms of clarity and resolution, these are the best looking characters in an independent fighting game. Some animations are still a little sketchy (one character’s grapple move in particular is a 4-frame monstrosity that desperately needs some attention), but all in all, the characters look fantastic. The heads-up display, menus, and backgrounds all have an ornate, Victorian style, a look that hasn’t really been seen in this depth before in the genre. Rounds are referred to as “Movements”, and the “counter hit” and “reversal” notifications that pop up on the sides of the screen are accompanied by French translations. Little stylistic details like this create a very compelling world. The music is similarly fantastic, with heavy guitars dueling with harpsichords, and the voice actors do a stellar job of making sure each character’s personality shines through. All in all, one could put this game up against Blazblue and be hard pressed to ascertain which was the big-budget production.
Characters: A roster of about 10 seems to be the starting place for new fighting franchises, and OMK is no exception. The cast is fairly diverse in terms of both visual style and gameplay; examples include the Victorian witch Beatrice, the obligatory “dapper-gentleman-with-a-secret” Ronove, delightfully obnoxious bunny girl Chiester410, and Lucifer (yes, that Lucifer), who is for some reason depicted as an adorable schoolgirl. Stylistically, the characters are different but cohesive, and gameplay-wise, run the gamut from Ryu-esque “shotoclones” to zoning projectile users, from lightning-quick rushers to grapple-summon hybrids. While there’s a character for every player even among the small roster, there are definitely some strength discrepancies between the characters. Purple-clad witch Eva Beatrice seems to have all the tools for success: traps, overheads, mixups, powerful command grabs, an airdash, and a strong Meta-World ability (more on that later). Meanwhile, Chiester410 can usually be defeated by the secret technique of “holding down-back”, and must rely on extremely gimmicky pressure strings to crack the opponent’s defense. 07th Expansion has already shown their willingness to work on the game with a patch two weeks after release; hopefully, they’ll continue to take player suggestions for balance and gameplay tweaks.
System/Gameplay: A compelling art style and cast of characters is important, however, any fighting game will ultimately be judged on its gameplay. It’s here that OMK attempts to distinguish itself from other fighting games: the system is almost incomparable to anything currently on the market. Players select two characters; unlike the Versus series, the health bar is shared between the characters. While on the field, your character doesn’t build the meter required for supers or powered up special moves, instead, your partner’s gauge fills up. However, some techniques, such as dash canceling, use your partner’s meter instead of your active character’s. It’s an awkward system, approaching the borderline of flawed, but can be adapted to after an hour or so of gameplay. There’s a myriad of ways to tag in your partner – in the middle of a combo, while blocking, while being damaged, or simply on the fly; some ways costing meter, some ways for free. Meter management is extremely important and a bit byzantine in OMK, and a player looking for a straightforward Street Fighter style system will likely be turned off by it.
In addition to spending meter on the requisite “EX” moves and supers, players can also perform what’s called a “Meta Declaration”. For some of their meter, your opponent has the option to cancel this declaration; you can then cancel that cancellation for what amounts to a shouting match between the two characters until one wins out. Entering the Meta-World will change the background to a twisted version of its former self, and will activate both of your characters’ unique special abilities. Characters can receive bonus damage, extra stun on their attacks, health regeneration, and other such boosts. The team that activates the Meta-World will also gain access to their Meta-Supers, powerful moves that can be executed for free while the Meta-World is active. While it sounds cool in theory, some characters have Meta-Supers that can be spammed over and over again, resulting in a lot of repetitive blocking and mashing of moves. When properly executed, however, a combination of tagging, meta-cancelling, normal moves, supers, and specials can produce an impressive combo racking up hits in the hundreds. It’s a unique system that ultimately needs some refining (increase Meta-Super damage in exchange for ending the Meta-World timer, perhaps), but it’s still fun to see how many of the game’s myriad of cancels, tags, and supers you can string together into one spectacular combo.
All things considered, Ougon Musou Kyoku is an ambitious project that, like the first installations of its predecessors in the “poverty fighting” arena, is still slightly green. The telltale signs of a new series are readily apparent – character balance issues and system oddities put a mild damper on an otherwise exhilarating experience. However, if one can look past the current system flaws and enjoy some of the best presentation ever encountered in an indie fighting game while holding out for gameplay fixes, the overall experience is an enjoyable one.