Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: June 24, 2014
ESRB: M for Mature
For as commonplace as Visual Novels are in Japan it is quite rare that we see them in any official form overseas. Regardless, it seems like the publisher Aksys has gone out of their way to help break this trend and has seemingly struck its niche from cult-classics like Virtue's Last Reward and 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors to bringing over games with a more specific "Otome" demographic like Hakuoki or Sweet Fuse. Continuing this trend of visual novel releases is the arrival of Xblaze: Code Embryo, a visual novel prequel to the critically-acclaimed fighting game series Blazblue. Is this visual novel just fanservice or does it manage to oust its source material in terms of storytelling?
The story focuses on the young man, Touya Kagari, who lives Shin Yokozaki City during the year 2050 (150 years before Blazblue: Calamity Trigger). Despite coming off as a normal high-school student, he is one of the very few survivors of the horrific Wadatsumi Incident: a mysterious disaster that claimed the lives of thousands and literally left no trace of their remains. On his way home from part-time work one day Touya hears a bell-like chime near an empty construction site like area and curiously follows the noise. Unfortunately for him, he then comes face to face with a "Union", a person with mysterious powers and far-removed sanity. Before being nearly incinerated by the "Union", Touya is both saved and almost nearly killed by a mysterious blonde girl, Es, who claims it is her mission to hunt down "Unions".
Shrugging off the strange happenings as a dream, after unwittingly being knocked-out by Es, Touya quickly learns upon returning home that the bizarre events that transpired were in fact reality. Es, as well as a strange/eccentric man, Unomaru, vaguely briefs Touya about Unions. Unomaru then offers Es as a personal bodyguard and eventually guilt-trips Touya into using his unique ability to detect "Unions", the "Discover Call", to help Es capture them as a means to protect innocent citizens as well as himself from their powers.
At first glance it may seem like this game is only for Blazblue fans, but Xblaze: Code Embryo's main narrative and entirely new cast of characters are detached enough to not alienate people who aren't already existing fans. The title does lay quite a bit of narrative groundwork for a bunch of things that transpire in Blazblue (and actually clears some plot holes), which is of no surprise since it is a prequel. That said, the storytelling is easier to follow than Blazblue, and frankly, better delivered with a way more consistent narrative pace than recent iterations, so it can be played by newcomers without feeling too left out beyond having to look up a specific terminology in the in-game database.
For the actual storytelling, Xblaze strikes a good balance between both serious and light-hearted storytelling. It also has its storytelling told entirely without narration and just through character actions and dialogue, which attributes to a faster pace than most visual novels. While the cast of characters aren't wholly original, like a suicidal do-gooder main protagonist who proclaims to be normal, to an extremely stoic, but strong blonde swordswoman who is out of touch with cultural norms (Fate/Stay Night, anyone?), and plenty more. Still, even if it wears its character cliches on it sleeves, it somehow made even me warm up to the cast after enough time through the different narrative paths.
Having said that, when the storytelling does get serious it is more bleak than you'd expect. Xblaze definitely expects players to see its various narrative branches to gather to full story because most endings are definitely not satisfying on their own, though, they contribute to the grander story. Even if the storytelling is solid, despite a lack of originality at times, it does expect a completionist mentality to see all of it. But, if the main narrative is too depressing, there is the very entertaining, and non-canon, "Gag reel" which really plays on the expectations of the main story. I'm being totally serious when I say it is probably worth seeing every ending in the game to unlock it, since it is seriously that hilarious.
Unlike other visual novels that tend have their narrative alter based dialogue choices, Xblaze uses the "Toi" system to dictate the story progression. It is explained weird, but ideally, Touya will react to events in the story based on prior knowledge obtained from in-game articles that you choose to read, and thus, triggering new story scenes as well as different narrative branches and endings. It is far more interesting on paper than in execution, unfortunately.
Even if the Toi system has a neat direct tie to the overarching storytelling, it allows next to no flexibility because of the strict narrative paths and abrupt bad endings (with the exception of the hilarious non-canon "gag reel" story, where the bad ends are more in-depth). Far worse is how it is actually very easy to lock yourself into a bad ending and have no idea what you did wrong, like I myself did. So, due to bad design, Xblaze: Code Embryo's enjoyment relies rather heavily on having a guide at hand to steer the player through the different narrative paths.
In regards to presentation, Xblaze is quite honestly the best looking visual novel I've ever seen overall. I may not inherently love the art direction (kind of derivative to me), and some of its pretty unnecessary "fanservice" moments, but the way presented as a whole does a really great job at encapsulating an anime feel. Everything from casual character conversation to fights have smooth and varied transitions, and is just a different class from visual novels or RPGs I've seen that utilize such an aesthetic. Characters even have their Japanese voice acting sync with the their mouth movement, which is a nice touch. It just has a high amount of attention to detail for a genre that relies on minimalistic presentation and low production values and I'd really like to see other visual novels going forward take some cues from Xblaze.
Not all of Xblaze is pleasant to look at, however, and it is at its ugliest when it comes to bugs, for the Vita version at least. While I went through about 95% of the game, including multiple endings, without any problems-- when the glitches of my playthrough hit they were pretty much game-breaking. I got to a point where I was unable to save, manually or auto, without the game consistently freezing, and even when I tried to blitz to the end without saving... the game crashed on me twice at the very end of the game. The only saving grace to my series of problems is that I learned that the PS3 release didn't have these problems at all and how the Vita release has received a patch that apparently fixes these issues shortly after release (though, it wasn't present during my playthrough of the game.).
Xblaze: Code Embryo is a solid visual novel that is brought down by a couple of serious caveats to fully enjoy it. The first caveat is how it basically requires a guide to progress through the story properly, and the second caveat is that the Vita port should only be played after downloading a recent patch to eliminate what would otherwise have really serious game-breaking glitches. For as significant as its problems are, Xblaze is a pleasant surprise that manages to be better than the sum of its parts due to its solid narrative pace and a presentation in particular that other visual novels could benefit from learning from. It certainly is not the most wholly original or narratively rich visual novel ever, but Xblaze: Code Embryo deserves a chance to surpass your expectations for what it is.
+Solid narrative pace with multiple endings/narrative branches
+ High production values for a visual novel with very smooth and varied anime-like transitions
+ Helpful database, recap, and system options
+ Non-canon "Gag Reel" story mode is hilarious
- Neither the characters or the overall storytelling are wholly original
- Abrupt bad ends and pretty specific ending/branch requirements prevent any narrative flexibility with the "Toi" system
- Game-breaking save/freezing glitches specific to the Vita version (apparently fixed in a recent patch)
Overall Score: 7 (out of 10)
Xblaze: Code Embryo is a worthwhile visual novel title that features well-paced storytelling and great anime-like production values, though, it basically requires having an ending guide at hand, and for the Vita version a very important download patch, to fully enjoy it.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using PS3 downloadable code provided by the publisher.