The X Button
Strategic Blunders

by Todd Ciolek, Jul 23rd 2008

This week highlights one of the Japanese gaming industry's modern staples: the strategy-RPG. Ten short years ago, the genre was just emerging, and all America saw of it was a mass of Shining Force, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Guardian War, and someone's imported copy of Front Mission. They've since grown into a dominant gaming fixture in Japan, which now makes strategy-RPGs full of spiky-haired swordsmen and big-eyed princesses just as often as America makes first-person shooters full of grimacing, beefy mercenaries armed with plasma shotguns and axe rifles and bandsaw grenades.

Now the Japanese strategy-RPG is taking over American gaming ecosystems bit by bit, driving out older species like the traditional RPG and the endangered graphic adventure game. Strategy-RPGs are on our Xbox 360s, in our iPods, and even invade our popular anime series. We're powerless to stop them, and I don't think we'd want to, not when they bring Final Fantasy Tactics ports and the middle-school-play acting of Chaos Wars. Welcome aboard, Japanese strategy-RPGs.

NEWS

BLEACH GETS STRATEGIC
Bleach, like any other Shonen Jump series driven by bloody battles and screaming, lends itself best to fighting games, and it's done that quite frequently. It makes Bleach: The 3rd Phantom (right) a bit of an oddity, as the newly released DS game is a strategy-RPG, full of grids and tactical positioning and multi-character battles. The story, supposedly by Bleach creator Tite Kubo himself, sees a brother and sister (and a bunch of other one-off characters) making their way through Soul Society and the conspiracies therein. A basic battle interface is enlivened by Bleach's massive cast and a system that lets you tilt the two leads' growth to emphasize speed, attack power, or defense.

The 3rd Phantom may well make it out here in due time, though the Bleach game for this year is yet another fighter, October's Dark Souls. As Treasure's sequel to The Blade of Fate, Dark Souls bumps up the cast of characters and refines the game's four-player battles, though the story once again covers the prolonged rescue attempt that ate up almost a dozen volumes of the manga. Not than we play fighting games for storylines.

WINDY X WINDAM X IZUNA
For those DS owners in search of a fighting game that has nothing to do with Bleach or any other anime license, Ninja Studio has Windy X Windam, a traditional, hand-drawn fighter featuring large characters and a playing field two screens high. Ninja Studio threw in Izuna and Shino from their Izuna dungeon-hack series, and the rest of the cast is a typical mish-mash of anime stereotypes, including Guy With a Sword, Freakish Masked Thing and Creepily Underdressed Girl-Boy That Makes Guilty Gear's Bridget Look Harmless. As much as I like the idea of a new 2-D fighter, I must note that Windy lacks the four-player battles and card-based effects of the Bleach DS games. It's also unlikely to come out here. There, that's Atlus' cue to license this thing next week and make me look stupid.

PRINCESS MAKER GOES PORTABLE, MODERN
Gainax's Princess Maker series seems much like any other Japanese line of games where you “raise” a young female character for some dubious purpose, but that entire genre was jump-started by Princess Maker back in the '90s, when the franchise was created by Takami Akai. Some of you may remember him as the Gainax producer who got in trouble for bickering online with fans over Gurren Lagann's animation style.

In the years since Princess Maker hit it big (with its sequel almost seeing a U.S. release), the field's gotten much more crowded and considerably more creepy, but Princess Maker soldiers on with a unique take on guiding a royal girl through childhood to her eventual life as a worthy monarch, a wayward delinquent, or a Machiavellian schemer who deposes even the ruler of hell. Princess Maker 5 keeps up series traditions, though it switches things around a little with a modern setting and a PSP port. Don't look for it in over here, but the PSP, like the DS, has no regional lock-out.

GRADIUS ON WII, OTOMEDIUS ON XBOX 360
Following the trend set by CAPCOM's Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando Re-Armed, Konami announced Gradius Rebirth as a WiiWare title. There's only one screen available so far, though it promises a return of the bullet-spitting Moai heads seen in Gradius and Lifeforce.

Meanwhile, Konami's Otomedius will hit the Xbox 360 in September as Otomedius Gorgeous, complete with a three-player mode, an online versus battle feature, and a special-edition joystick decorated with the game's characters. Previously an arcade release, Otomedius is a halfway-comical shooter in the vein of Konami's long-running Parodius games, only Otomedius has blushing, frilly maid-things instead of Parodius' penguins, flying pigs or anything tasteful.

REVIEW: SONG SUMMONER

There's very little reason not to recommend Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes. It's $4.99, it's right there in the iTunes Store, and you'll get your money's worth just from seeing what sort of soldiers you can create from your vast collection of Deep Blue Something songs.

That's the real point of Song Summoner. Sure, there's a story to play out and a variety of strategy-RPG battles to take on, but the first and greatest joy comes from generating an army out of your iPod's music collection. Be they summoned from The Arcade Fire or Beethoven or David Bowie or Rancid, all of the warriors brought forth belong to Ziggy, a white-haired young summoner out to rescue his little brother from an empire of robots. Having been schooled in the ways of song-summoning by the painfully over-funky Soul Master (who's half Rick James, half Final Fantasy VII's Barret) and his “Hip-O-Drome,” Ziggy assembles a ragtag bunch of rebels and heads right into a mess of horrible puns and the same plot twists you've seen in countless RPGs and anime-fantasy concoctions.

Ziggy's battles follow the same grid-based rules that Japanese strategy-RPGs have upheld since the time of Tactics Ogre. Ziggy fights alongside his summoned array of sword-wielders, mages, monks, and other now-standard classes, and they're all able to team up with other characters in combat. Pearls found in battle power up soldiers, and, in an amusing touch, so does listening to their root songs outside of the game.

Song Summoner wouldn't stand out quite so much if it were a DS title or an XBox Live download, but it's remarkably fun for an iPod game. The visuals show surprising detail, and the iPod wheel is highly effective when it comes to moving units and cycling through menus. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is far too repetitive, and I couldn't find any option for piping in my own music and slaying mechanical soldiers to Freezepop and Curve songs. The game's also a battery-sucker; don't count on one charge lasting your subway rides to and from work.

If you have an iPod capable of running it (fifth-generation iPods, third-gen Nanos, and Classics), Song Summoner is a great diversion, both for what it is and what it represents. Like The World Ends With You, this little iPod time-killer is a return to the Square of the PlayStation era, when the company took risks and tried new things in between Final Fantasies. That's a welcome sight anywhere.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 7-27

SOUL CALIBUR IV
(Namco Bandai, Xbox 360/PS3, $59.99)
The official street date for the latest Soul Calibur is technically next week, but that hasn't stopped a bunch of stores from selling it early. I'm still going to pretend that it's not out yet, so it'd be pure conjecture for me to say that, for example, Hilde is the best character in the entire series or that the bonus warriors designed by manga artists (including the last-minute addition, a ninja girl named Kamikirimushi) have moves identical to those of Soul Calibur regulars. Even if that's a bit cheap, Namco clearly put a lot more effort into Soul Calibur IV than they did into III (or Legends), what with the new cast members and expanded fighter-creating mode. With Virtua Fighter driving off casual players and Tekken 6 still absent, Soul Calibur IV is this year's biggest traditional fighting game by default.
Get Excited If: You like fighting games in any way, even if you only play them during parties after everyone's too drunk to get Guitar Hero going right.

SPECTRAL FORCE 3
(Atlus, Xbox 360, $59.99)
Hey, remember the Spectral Force anime series? Remember how it was terrible even by the pitiably low standards of game-based anime? Well, it's still the only piece of the Spectral Force franchise that we've seen in our glorious hemisphere. That'll change next week when Atlus brings out Spectral Force 3. The storyline's generic, but there's some solid combat with the usual strategy-RPG features: team-up attacks, 40 different characters, and a gauge that tracks the actions each character can take per turn. It's no Final Fantasy Tactics, but it'll get the job done if you're desperate for a Japanese strategy-RPG on the domestic Xbox 360 and have already finished Atlus' Operation Darkness.
Get Excited If: You own the Spectral Force anime on DVD and aren't one of its voice actors or an ironic bad-cartoon fan.

EXTRA LIVES: LUPIN III: PANDORA'S LEGACY

Few anime could be popular in the '80s without getting at least one Famicom game. Only a handful of them came to the U.S., but everything from Dragon Ball and Captain Tsubasa to The Venus Wars inspired titles for Nintendo's 8-Bit system, and it's surprising that Lupin III has only one Famicom title to its name. Also surprising: it's not half-bad.

In all of its movies and TV specials, the Lupin III franchise has rarely gone to the same well twice, but Pandora's Legacy clearly knew where Lupin's best moments lay: Hayao Miyazaki's 1979 film The Castle of Cagliostro. Pandora brings back Clarisse, the movie's heroine and inadvertent moe trendsetter, so she can be kidnapped and ultimately rescued by Lupin once again. Each of the Lupin III regulars put in an appearance, some more than others. Inspector Zenigata and Fujiko have only cursory parts, while Jigen and Goemon are right beside Lupin as playable characters. Each has his own specialty: Jigen can fire his handgun rapidly, Goemon's sword is powerful but short-ranged, and Lupin, despite not being able to shoot while jumping, can equip a bullet-proof vest to absorb a hit before dying.

The game leads Lupin across the globe, from the rooftops and interior of what looks like Cagliostro Castle to the vistas of Egypt, and each locale is full of enemies that take down Lupin and his allies with one hit. Unless you've grabbed a bullet-proof vest, a single brush with any foe, whether it's a stray cat or a bazooka shell, puts you out of the game. And once Lupin, Jigen, and Goemon are each finished, that's it. No continues. No spare lives.

Lupin, however, is nothing if not resourceful. His power-ups include the above-mentioned vest, a balloon to prevent open-pit death, bombs, a remote control, a jet pack, and laser-spotting infrared goggles. What's more, Lupin, Jigen and Goemon can even bribe some characters and rescue each other when captured. All of them control fairly well, owing to typically decent Namcot (Namco's home-console label) production values. The levels play out much like Namco's Rolling Thunder series, breaking their flow only when you have to hold up to jump higher. It's an annoying concept that most action-platformers discarded by the end of the '80s.

If it's solid in play mechanics, Pandora's Legacy still looks primitive as NES/Famicom games go. The backgrounds are bland and repetitive, and the enemies are sometimes hard to make out. Then again, it was 1987, and NES jaw-droppers like Battletoads, Ninja Gaiden II, and Moon Crystal were years away. That's still no excuse for the soundtrack being an irritating warble, with an opening theme that almost passes for an 8-Bit Lupin III anthem.

Dozens of similar NES action-platformers outclass Pandora's Legacy, but Namco(t)'s treatment of Lupin IIIis unexpectedly competent, and it's the rare case of a beloved Lupin character returning for an encore. Owning the game isn't cheap, yet those who prefer ROMs will find a hacked English version readily available. As just another NES run-and-jump game, it's merely adequate. As a Lupin III game, though, it's well worth a look.


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