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Dead Souls

by Todd Ciolek, Dec 10th 2008

Last week saw the arrival of the first Resident Evil 5 demo, an event that would merit much praise here if it hadn't been restricted to Japan's XBox Live network. Yes, you can play it in North America with a bit of jury-rigging that I probably shouldn't explain on a respectable site like this, but I find it strange that we should be forced to use such measures. After all, hasn't Resident Evil, despite being born and bred in Japan, always been more popular in the West? The first game was released in the U.S. a mere week after it hit Japan, and Resident Evil 2 stunned many by showing up in North America a month prior to its Japanese release.

Then again, CAPCOM simply doesn't have to sell Resident Evil 5 to North America. With Resident Evil 4 still a massive success, the next proper game in the series is as good as bought among many of us. A demo would only give nit-pickers cause to point out that, for example, CAPCOM didn't render realistic genitalia on the split-headed Thing-dogs that corner Chris Redfield and his new sidekick, Sheva Alomar. Perhaps it needs to be hyped in Japan. After all, the game's already lost the attention of Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, who refuses to play it now that he and the series aren't seeing each other.

But there's a new Valkyrie Profile out, so I really can't be too upset.

NEWS

WORLD DESTRUCTION COMES WEST, ADDS SAND
The Nintendo DS hardly wants for RPGs in the Japanese market, but Sega's Sands of Destruction (World Destruction in Japan) has a few important things going for it. For one, it features the work of composer Yasunori Mitsuda and character designer Kunihiko Tanaka, both veterans of the Xenogears/Xenosaga pseudo-franchise. The Xenogears comparison goes a little further, too, as Sands of Destruction has a similar visual combination of 2-D sprite characters and rather detailed 3-D environments. Nor does it hurt that Sands of Destruction also has its own recently concluded anime series and ongoing manga to promote the RPG's tale of a world where humans live under the dominion of animal-people. No, it's not Gurren Lagann.

Sega might not be preparing as great a push for the U.S. market, yet they're clearly planning to release the DS game over here. And for those who can never get enough anime-style J-RPGs, Sands of Destruction has a lot to offer. The battles dress up a Xenogears-style interface with an attack-linking system, the game's surroundings look sharp, and Mitsuda's soundtrack, which can be sampled on the website, is some of his strongest stuff since Chrono Cross. Tanaka's character art isn't quite as remarkable, but at least he's not drawing the little robot maids of Ichigeki Sacchu!! HoiHoi-san anymore.

NAMCO'S FRAGILE EXPLORES FLASHLIGHT-BASED HORROR
For those of you who prefer anime-ish games without actual anime tie-ins, Namco is currently prepping the Wii game Fragile: Ruins of the Farewell Moon with the help of tri-Crescendo, the tri-Ace off-shoot responsible for Eternal Sonata. Fragile's hook thus far appears to be a flashlight controlled by the Wii remote as a boy named Seto explores barren, moonlight-bathed modern ruins. The game's deserted world has a curiously beautiful atmosphere, carried further by an entrancing soundtrack and disrupted only by the look of a waifish heroine, Rin (or possibly Lin), who appears to be wearing nothing but an apron. Fragile makes use of hit points and a few other RPG features, but every trailer and screenshot suggests a game more in line with survival horror. Or art-house horror, perhaps.

KAMEN NO MAID GUY SOMEHOW SPAWNS PSP FIGHTER
You may mistake Kamen no Maid Guy for a pure parody of awful maid anime, since it stars a burly, sharp-toothed hero of the Go Nagai variety in a frilly housekeeper's outfit. But then you'll notice that most of the other characters are girls who adhere closely to the blushing, yelling, and involuntarily stripping varieties found in any other hopelessly pandering maid show. And if by this point you still care about Kamen no Maid Guy, you'll be glad to know that it's getting a fighting game on the PSP.

Developed by Gadgetsoft, Kamen no Maid Guy Poyoyon Battle Royale presents a 2-D fighter with both the characters and scenery fashioned from 3-D visuals. The combatants can leap between the background and foreground while smacking each other with hand-to-hand moves and various projectiles, and, if that official and not-entirely-work-safe trailer is any indication, there's a close-up whenever a female fighter loses clothing and/or dignity. Seven characters are confirmed so far, including the eponymous Maid Guy, Kogarashi.

Gadgetsoft isn't satisfied with a fighting game, so Poyoyon Battle Royale also features an RPG-like mode with plenty of maid-centric conversations and old-fashioned, menu-driven battles. Something tells me that most of this is garnish for the game's true fans, considering that the official website's “system” section is dedicated to showing just how the game engine handles bouncing polygon breasts and underwear. Yes, Gadgetsoft uploaded official YouTube videos just for that. And still they say Japan's game industry is lagging behind.

SPECIAL IMPORT PREVIEW: VALKYRIE PROFILE: COVENANT OF THE PLUME

We must accept that tri-Ace will never make another game quite like the original Valkyrie Profile. Considering how bland the rest of tri-Ace's offerings are, it's astounding that the developer was ever able to create a complex RPG that bastardized Norse myth in countless engaging ways. Even Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, entertaining as it could be, was never the cohesive wonder that its predecessor was. Valkyrie Profile was Hamlet typed by monkeys, and that doesn't happen twice. Fortunately, that won't keep tri-Ace from reaching for those heights with other Valkyrie Profile games, and they come remarkably close with the DS side-story Covenant of the Plume.

Having learned a few lessons from Valkyrie Profile 2's sluggish narrative, Covenant of the Plume defies tradition by not starring an actual valkyrie. The focus instead lies on Wylfred, a young soldier whose joyous home life is shattered when his father dies in battle, resulting in Wylfred's mother going half-crazy and his kid sister dying. Wylfred is angry and eager to blame someone. Does he blame the enemies who killed his father? No. Does he blame his father for dying so recklessly? No. Does he blame Lenneth, the valkyrie who claimed his father's soul as an einherjar, one of the Aesir's chosen warriors? Why, yes. Apparently Wylfred has never heard that valkyries recruit only people who are already deceased, and neither has anyone he meets.

Wylfred's directionless quest for revenge gets some help when he falls on the battlefield and finds himself at the mercy of Hel, goddess of the underworld. Upon learning of his anti-valkyrie sentiments, Hel agrees to return him to life so he can make good on his threats, giving him a feather as a sign of their pact. Wylfred also gets an advisor in the form of Ailyth, an exceptionally polite woman who dispenses insights and occasionally remarks pithily on the flaws of human nature. I don't trust my Japanese enough to fully judge the story, but it's far better paced than the usual RPG pabulum, as Wylfred's overall goals overlap with countless subplots in the gray, war-torn kingdoms he visits.

In his search for Lenneth, Wylfred finds wanderers, mercenaries, and other misfits who'll join his cause, which brings us to another of Covenant of the Plume's improvements. Unlike the poorly developed followers of Valkyrie Profile 2, the supporting characters of Covenant get distinct personalities and unique story arcs that often end in tragedy. Ah, sweet despair. It wouldn't be Valkyrie Profile without you.

Yet Covenant of the Plume breaks away from the action-oriented RPG structure of previous Valkyrie Profiles. It's a strategy-RPG, and that means grids and turns and little big-headed characters slaughtering each other when they're not walking in place. Still, Covenant doesn't forget that it's a Valkyrie Profile game, and it exploits the button-mashing combo systems of its predecessors. You can bring only four characters into battle, but all of them can be linked to take part in attacking an enemy as long as they're in range. Other strategy-RPGs have employed combos (most notably Disgaea), but Covenant goes beyond simple team-ups by using the Valkyrie Profile method of mapping each character's attacks to a face button. Jabbing a buttons makes a party member strike once, and mastering the timing and order of their hits will build up a meter for extra-powerful moves. As a result, Covenant feels like no other strategy-RPG on the market; the reflexive combat is much like an action game, and setting up those combos is an art in itself. If you want to survive battles, you'll have to maneuver your mages, heavy-hitters, and archers so they can join in on every teammate's attack.

There's also the problem of the feather that Hel gave Wylfred. Much to his horror, it can turn any party member into a high-powered killing machine capable of overrunning just about any foe. Once the battle's done, however, Wylfred must watch that feather-empowered character die permanently, often in front of family and friends. It raises questions both strategic and moral. If you sacrifice your best warrior just to win one battle, will his or her absence make the rest of the game tougher? More importantly, do you even want to sacrifice your trusting comrades? Sure, your group includes some disgusting louts and sickening lunatics, but it's hard to betray the sweet-natured archer Cheripha and her estranged father without feeling like an absolute monster.

That feather also has another catch. Covenant of the Plume lasts only 20 hours or so, but it has several branching story paths and three different endings, and some characters can only be recruited if you take a certain route through the game. What's more, you can't see everything the game has to offer unless you kill a few allies with Hel's feather. And just to make the decision even tougher, it's often the most sympathetic cast members who have to go. The game even loves tormenting you by introducing people who'll take part in one battle, prove themselves spectacular, and then die tragically before they can permanently join you. That's what you get for visiting the wrong town twelve hours ago.

Covenant of the Plume looks respectable enough for a DS RPG, despite some lazy shorcuts. The characters are well-animated, but they're also rather small, and zooming in on them only reveals just how primitive centimeter-high sprites can look. That may be why much of the story is told through portraits drawn by the talented animators Kou Yoshinari and Yoh Yoshinari. They've done an excellent job on the cast, aside from Wylfred's jarringly stupid ponytails. All of the melodrama is backed by mostly accomplished voice acting (Cheripha's actress deserves special mention for being squeaky and upbeat without getting annoying), with the occasional high-quality video sequence delivering a particularly important revelation. More disappointing is the soundtrack, which mostly just remixes Motoi Sakuraba's original Valkyrie Profile score. It's some of the best music ever written for an RPG, but Covenant of the Plume repeats tracks too much.

The game also suffers from a manic-depressive sense of challenge. Most battles are well-designed workouts, but Covenant of the Plume sometimes pits you against obscenely high-level enemies with no way to raise your levels. Then there are the scenes in which you're forced to rescue a computer-controlled ally. Most of the games that do this give the target some grasp of self-preservation, but Covenant of the Plume's NPCs-in-distress are complete imbeciles who invariably march up to the biggest, most overpowered enemy on the playing field, pick a fight with it, and get themselves killed before you can even reach them. And when they're dead, the battle is lost. Thanks a lot, moron.

Covenant of the Plume's simple production values (and complete ignorance of the DS stylus) may suggest a cheap spin-off, but it's nothing of the sort. The combination of button-flailing battles and broader strategy puts it leagues ahead of its contemporaries, and the storyline is a pleasant return to the fair pace and delightful misery of the original Valkyrie Profile. Square-Enix is also aiming for a refreshingly quick translation, with a North American version arriving in March. It may not equal the original Valkyrie Profile, but Covenant of the Plume doesn't really have to do that. It's enough for it to be the most fascinatingly enjoyable strategy-RPG in years.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 12-14

ULTIMATE SHOOTING COLLECTION
(Tommo/UFO, Wii, $29.99)
Like many of the games released by Tommo and UFO Interactive, Ultimate Shooting Collection has an unclear release date. The official line says December 15, but Amazon gives it a January shipping estimate and other retailers simply list it as being out of stock. Yet this pack of three Milestone games might be worth all the calls to local GameStops, provided that you're into 2-D shooters. Radio Allergy (a.k.a. Radilgy) uses cel-shaded graphics to present somewhat standard shooter where a teenage girl and her robot suit take on terrorists. Radilgy's look was re-used in Karous, which is far starker in its black-and-white palette and a little more complex in its scoring and power-up systems. The third game in the collection, Chaos Field, has a selection of three ships, 3-D backdrops, a twirling energy sword right out of Radiant Silvergun, and levels made up almost entirely of boss fights. Of the three, only Chaos Field came out here previously; it hit the GameCube in 2005, though Q3 planned to release Radilgy and even made a website for it. None of the three shooters is revered as a classic among fans, but they're all decent little twitchers. And they're cheap, too.
Get Excited If: You've played Castle of Shikigami III to death and need another Wii shooter.

EXTRA LIVES: SAKURA WARS: HANAGUMI TAISEN COLUMNS

Sakura Wars is yet another game series that's huge in Japan and somehow remains largely unknown in North America. That may be because no Sakura Wars game was ever released over here, but it's also likely that the games' mixtures of dating-sim elements, alternate-1920s theatrics, and steampunk-ish strategy-RPG gameplay wouldn't find an Western audience to match its Japanese following, which inspired even a Sakura Wars café. Granted, the adapted anime series and at least one manga series came here, but they've mostly served to prove that Sakura Wars is better off as a video game.

It's also fair to say that the Sakura Wars games aren't at the top of their hybridized genre. Even the first of them, which won best-of-the-year awards in its day, is a bit dated; the strategy-RPG elements are far too easygoing, and the storyline, which seems less a dating simulator and more a full-blown anime series in game form, is fraught with clichés. Yet one Sakura Wars spin-off holds up well, and it borrows Sega's Columns series to do it.

Released in the arcades shortly after the first Sakura Wars hit it big in 1996, Hanagumi Taisen Columns carries much of the franchise's atmosphere despite its puzzle-game limitations. In the 1920s, young Japanese naval ensign Ichiro Oogami gets a reprieve from brutally invading other countries when he's transferred to the Imperial Assault Force's Flower Division, which consists of various stereotyped young women who perform as a theater troupe while secretly piloting steam-powered mechs in battles against invading clockwork demons. The major cast members from the first Sakura Wars are all playable in Hanagumi Taisen Columns: snobbish Sumire, tomboy martial artist Kanna, aloof half-Ukrainian Maria, bratty French psychic Iris, well-rounded Sakura, and bespectacled, Kansai-accented Kouran. The only man in the lineup is the alcoholic Admiral Yoneda, as putting Oogami in would give him too much personality for a dating-sim lead.

Columns, familiar to anyone who played any games during the Tetris-clone craze of the 1990s, was Sega's slightly less successful attempt at horning in on the puzzle market. Vertical trios of different gems fall from above, and lining up three or more of them whisks those jewels off the playfield. Hanagumi Taisen Columns fully exploits the two-player aspect of this: the chosen characters sit in between the playfields, clutching controllers as the gems fall, match, and get dumped on the other side. Eliminating gems fills up a three-stage power meter, and each full point offers you the choice of throwing a massive pile of momentarily un-linkable columns at your opponent or reducing the stack on your side. The third and most rewarding option is, of course, to let the meter build to its maximum and then slam the other player with a screen-filling avalanche.

It doesn't stray very far from the regular Columns structure, but the Sakura Wars version of the game gives everything some much-needed character. As in CAPCOM's Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, the super-deformed Sakura Wars cast members twitch, fume, laugh, cheer, bite controllers, and howl with frustration to match the game's flow, and the results determine just who gets what role in the troupe's next play. While you can find the same base gameplay in any Columns title, it's so much more satisfying when your victory is accompanied by the other player's avatar psychically throwing her controller into the air and screaming like a Peanuts character (and then playing the part of a tree). Each game is also accompanied by a background slideshow of images showing the cast in various outfits and moods, and the illustrations are downright puritanical compared to what's called “fan service” today.

The game's drawbacks lie less with Sakura Wars and more with Columns itself. Despite Sega's best efforts to popularize it, the puzzle series was never the equal of Tetris or Puyo Puyo, and it seems rather limited compared to all of the browser-based block games now on the market. Hanagumi Taisen Columns improves the formula by giving each character different gem patterns and tactical advantages, but it's not quite as developed as Super Puzzle Fighter's world of shattering jewels and ferocious counterattacks.

Hanagumi Taisen Columns later arrived on the Sega Saturn with a few enhancements. In addition to the regular arcade mode, there's a challenge mode starring Oogami as well as new story mode in which each of the six Sakura Wars leads finds her way through the unit's theater, fending off the other pilots in Columns matches and fighting to spend some time with Oogami. Each little plot arc is short and peppered with dialogue choices similar to those in the regular Sakura Wars titles, though it's strange to see all of the cast pursuing Oogami when the original game went out of its way to cast Sakura as his ONE TUWOO WUV.

Sega returned to the concept with Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2 for the Sega Dreamcast, not even bothering with an arcade version of it. The sequel includes the new characters from Sakura Wars 2 (the insufferable Orihime and androgynous young Reni/Leni), but its best feature back in 2000 was a multiplayer mode that worked through the Dreamcast's online service. Of course, Sega never released it in the U.S., though it would have fit in nicely with all those games of Phantasy Star Online and Chu Chu Rocket.

The Hangumi Taisen Columns sub-series appears to be dead. Even though Sakura Wars sequels expanded to include New York and Paris branches of mech-piloting young women, Sega hasn't bothered to put the samurai cowgirls and machine-gun-packing nuns of these later titles into a puzzle game. Perhaps there's not much to improve on. Sakura Wars might never make it in America and might not even deserve to, but the Hanagumi Taisen Columns games are still endearingly competitive puzzlers, fun even for those who hate Sakura Wars and all it represents.

Like most of the older Sakura Wars games, the Saturn version of Hanagumi Taisen Columns is now quite cheap, usually available for $10 online. The Dreamcast sequel goes for twice that, and it's debatable as to whether a few more characters, a more elaborate story mode, and a defunct online feature are worth the extra money.


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