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Blood on Blood

by Todd Ciolek, Apr 22nd 2009

The first playable Final Fantasy XIII demo shipped with the Japanese Blu-Ray release of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children last week, and I'm not going to pretend that all of you haven't either played it yourselves or at least watched the footage of the demo in its entirety.

What do I think? Well, I think I've accepted that Square Enix is going back to the flashier, sillier anime-crystal-technopunk mélange of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X after stepping toward something slightly more dignified and medieval with Final Fantasy XII. In fact, I now suspect that I'll be satisfied as long as Final Fantasy XIII's battles are quickly engaging and its story isn't extremely slow or any dumber than normal.

By the way, the front-runner for best character so far is the baby chocobo. Heroine Lightning is a businesslike blank, and one can already hear her friend Sazh saying “Damn, girl! You CRAZY!” and other stereotypical goofy-black-sidekick lines as he follows her on a commando raid in a high-tech monorail system. Then there's bare-chested revolutionary leader Snow and his band of rebels straight from Final Fantasy VII's bleak city of Midgar. They seem a little more intriguing, but nothing about the game made me smile as much as the baby chocobo kweh-ing triumphantly after a perfect landing six minutes into the demo.

NEWS

SQUARE ANNOUNCES NEW SHOOTERS FOR XBOX LIVE
Square has made shooters before, both big-budget console games like Einhander and swiftly forgotten cell-phone stuff like Brave Shot, so it wasn't out of line for them to announce two XBox Live Arcade shooters. The first one's named 0 Day Attack on Earth. Though the modern environments look somewhat realistic, they're destroyed by huge, blubbery alien creatures as the player's ship scoots freely through the skies and fires in various directions, much like the icon in Geometry Wars or the hero of Robotron. The best part? It's multiplayer, even if the early screens show only one ship.

Square's second XBLA shooter is Project Cube, a free-roaming game with similar Robotron-like controls. It looks radically different from 0 Day Attack on Earth, as the shiny, simple polygons of Project Cube bring to mind Lumines or Square's PlayStation shooter Internal Section. Both Project Cube and 0 Day Attack on Earth will be out later this year, and the former might get a title change.

…AND SO DOES SNK
I didn't expect an XBox Live Arcade shooter from SNK, which usually sticks to fighting games nowadays. The King of Fighters: Sky Stage features characters from the long-running fighter series in a traditional shooting game, one where they float through skies and whip out signature attacks. No, seriously.

Recurring characters Kyo Kusanagi and Athena Asamiya are shown in the first batch of screens, and I doubt that SNK will leave the roster at that. Fans will also note that the game is using the Athena portrait from The King of Fighters XII, while the character model itself is based on older Athena designs.

This isn't SNK's only XBLA contribution, as some older (but still good) fighters are heading there as well. Garou: Mark of the Wolves, otherwise known as the Best Fatal Fury Game Ever, is coming out this summer, while The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match hits next year. If you're impatient, you can find both games on the PlayStation 2 in Japan (and Garou on the Dreamcast over here), but playing them online is worth a short wait, I say.

LET'S TRY TO CARE ABOUT SENKO NO RONDE DUO
The first Senko no Ronde found a frequently harsh reception when it came to America as WarTech: Senko no Ronde. Some dismissed the head-to-head mecha fighter as simplistic, but the game has a cult following over in Japan, and that's where G.Rev is bringing out a sequel, Senko no Ronde Duo, in arcades this very week. Here's the official trailer from G.Rev's official YouTube account.

If you've never tried it, Senko no Ronde is an overhead fighting game of sorts, one where mecha twirl around and spew shooter-like patterns of bullets as their anime-portrait pilots chatter excitedly. It really doesn't look like much at a glance, but there's a bit of technique to it all. Senko no Ronde Duo adds a word that apparently means “Dis-United Order,” along with a team-up system that lets players use two characters at once. The fliers suggest five new main pilots and three new partners, along with the returning cast of characters who look like they could star in some forgettable anime visual-novel game. If you're wondering about its chances in North America, remember that the first game's Xbox 360 port went from $60 to ten bucks about a month after it shipped. Yeah.

SEGA ANNOUNCES NEW SHINING FORCE
My sympathies go out to those Shining Force fans who just want another straight-up strategy-RPG with grids and centaur knights and elf mages. Sega's keeping the series alive, of course, but through action-RPGs that often don't draw the same affection as Shining Force I through III.

The newest entry is Shining Force Cross, an arcade game that lets as many as four players join in online quests. It has the fairy-tale look of the typical Shining Force game, and the action (for the fighter classes, at least) almost resembles a brawler more than a measured online RPG. It starts location-testing in Japan in early May, and anyone wanting to play it in the West should hope for a console port, since arcades over here generally don't go for multiplayer RPGs.

BLEACH: THE THIRD PHANTOM GAME COMING HERE
If you want to convince someone that Bleach is still a success in North America, don't point to the show's double-stacked Adult Swim airings. Point to the fact that Sega is translating another Bleach game, and a text-heavy Bleach game at that. The Third Phantom is a strategy-RPG with an original storyline overseen by series creator Tite Kubo himself, though that surely won't save it from being irrelevant to Bleach canon.

That said, The Third Phantom still gets two new characters: Fujimaru and his twin sister Matsuri, one of whom becomes the player's avatar. As soul reapers, the two of them end up in a fight with an Arrancar named Arturo, who Sega and Kubo made up for the Wii fighting game Bleach: The Shattered Blade, and they're sealed off from the world for years on end. When they're freed, the twins readjust to current Bleach continuity and the massive cast of characters there.

The Third Phantom presents battles via legions of big-headed warriors moving around, with side-view duels breaking out whenever characters attack. It also takes inspiration from Disgaea in that party members can team up to take on enemies. The Third Phantom comes out here in the fall, when even a game essentially about grim reapers will find it hard to unseat Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume as this year's most gruelingly morbid strategy-RPG.

Meanwhile, Sony's PSP-based Bleach: Heat the Soul series still refuses to come West. Its sixth game arrives in Japan next month, supporting 72 playable Bleach characters in manga-accurate forms. That and a fighter-customizing mode are the only notable new things about this game, but no Bleach fan in North America would really fuss about that, since they don't have any Heat the Soul games thus far. Whether by some contract or by simply caring more, Sega has a lock on Bleach games over here.

YU SUZUKI DEPARTS SEGA, SHENMUE'S FUTURE GOES WITH HIM
Since a lot of the news above deals with Sega, here's one thing I forgot to mention last week: Yu Suzuki, creator of Virtua Fighter and many other classic Sega titles, retired from the company as far as game development goes. He'll still oversee some operations at Sega, but this means that Suzuki's unfinished Shenmue series is likely to stay that way.

REVIEW: MADWORLD

Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Wii
MSRP: $49.99

It may be more helpful to simply describe MadWorld than to criticize it. For example, the game's fourth boss is a woman who wears a revealing cheongsam and spins around with two huge, bladed fans. Upon her defeat, the player's avatar, a Hellboy-like hulk named Jack, tosses her into a giant robotic Chinese-chef signboard, which plucks her up with chopsticks and crushes her in its mouth. That should tell you just how to take Platinum Games and Sega's MadWorld. It's one of those games, the sort of outrage-baiting exploitation that starts debates and sets tender souls to fretting about how depraved the entire industry has become.

In MadWorld, such carnage is commonplace for Varrigan City, which, thanks to some confluence of biological terrorism and corporate takeovers, is now the grounds for the TV show Death Watch. Victims of a plague butcher each other for survival, and the whole stage has been pared down to ranks of roided-out Mad Max thugs by the time Jack and his retractable chainsaw gauntlet arrive on the scene. Driven by a secret organization and some vague, bloodthirsty motives, Jack easily picks up the rules of the game: slaughter others as creatively as possible. Using the Wii remote and nunchuck, players start off by maneuvering Jack into snatching up parking signs, ramming them through the heads of beefy punks, and then impaling them on conveniently placed spikes. And that's just the first of many torturous methods of killing enemies. With various remote motions, Jack throws enemies around, slices them into pieces with his chainsaw, and slams oil drums, garbage cans, Daruma dolls, and various other objects over his foes. He's also capable of numerous savage finishing moves, including pulling out an opponent's heart or folding him in half with one spine-breaking crunch.

It's rampant, gruesome excess that never lets up, made only a hair less graphic by MadWorld's unique black-and-white palette. Shamelessly inspired by Sin City, Platinum Games renders Madworld in stark grays and shadows, with the only other colors coming from comic-book sound effects and blood (both human and alien). It's striking in a way rarely seen in video games, even if the limited tones sometimes make it hard to tell just what's coming your way. Fortunately, there's usually some on-screen prompt for remote-waving. And if there isn't, it's safe to assume that you're supposed to kill something as horribly and painfully as the game allows.

Irredeemably grotesque as it is, Madworld is rarely uncreative. The Manhattan-like isle at the center of Varrigan City is divided into several boroughs, and the mixture of starkly colored graphics and new features hides just how cliché the scenery is. A Chinatown stretch (so trite that even Jack's radio sidekick remarks on it) has clawed assassins, ninja, a sumo ring lined with spiked garbage, and a giant wok into which Jack can toss and fry his attackers. A transplanted Austrian castle has zombies, giant guillotines, wolf-men, a switchblade statue, and a vampire boss. Other levels jump to high-speed roadway duels, casinos, and government facilities littered with alien technology. Jack's never far from pointy, heavy, whirring, sparking, grinding, or slashing implements, and his arsenal of moves results in a staggering variety of ways to kill things. While the game's use of flashing, wave-this-way prompts may remind some of No More Heroes and God of War, MadWorld is truly the successor to the freeform cartoonish violence of CAPCOM's God Hand, which Atsushi Inaba and other members of MadWorld's team just so happened to create when they were still with CAPCOM.

Keeping track of Jack's killing-based score, each stage trots out new weapons, sub-bosses, and Bloodbath Challenges. These include a giant turbine that grinds up enemies, a crushing press, spiked subway trains, and the self-explanatory diversions of Man Darts and Man Golf. The oddest would be a Challenge in which Jack shakes up giant soda bottles and crams them down enemies' throats, propelling them toward Vegas-like billboard women wearing suggestively placed targets. And lest MadWorld slip into taste for a moment, each Challenge is introduced by a pimp named The Black Baron, who's murdered by his female assistant for each demonstration.

MadWorld sells itself on graphic overkill and not so much on story. Granted, it's drawn more attention than an action-game's script normally would, as it's the most recent work of Yasumi Matsuno, creator of the complex semi-medieval worlds of Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII, and the Ogre Battle series. Yet Matsuno didn't come up with MadWorld; he just scripted it around Platinum Games' ideas, and he wrings out another twist on The Running Man's template of game shows born in a world of cynical sleaze and corporate robber-barons. There are a few Matsuno-y jabs at how society's lower strata are exploited by the opulent ruling classes (and how this apparently justifies Jack backhanding a mayor's spoiled daughter across a ballroom), yet MadWorld is, at its serious moments, just another tale of a brutal secret agent made sympathetic by everyone else being uglier than he is. Matsuno's remarked about using the game to examine the compartmentalization of violence, but thoughtful treatises on modern aggression tend to get derailed when your protagonist defeats a beltstrap-clad, Morrigan-like succubus by spanking her through a stained-glass window. At least you got a paycheck for this, Mr. Matsuno.

If it's violent filth, MadWorld at least has the grace to laugh at itself. Matsuno's script is localized with deliberately trashy flair, and the levels' constant clichés almost seem to make fun of current games. Nowhere is the parody more obvious than in Howard and Kreese, two announcers who narrate Jack's rampages. While the game's well-voiced all around (with anime superstar Steven Blum growling his way through Jack's role), Greg Proops and John DiMaggio's foul-mouthed radio commentators steal the show. Some of their lines are cringing frat-boy groaners and all of them get repeated too often, but the two play off each other marvelously, and their jokes add a softening layer of humor to, say, Jack dumping a zombie into a flaming barrel and then driving a spike through its pelvis. The soundtrack ranges from nice hip-hop backing to some hilarious tracks that threaten the Afro Samurai score in terms of lyrical hero worship. Yes, music, Jack is indeed “a psycho maniac.”

If you're willing to accept the shame of enjoying MadWorld's horrors, the game isn't a completely smooth ride. While the Wii controls are fairly responsive when it comes to attacks, the object detection can get quite awkward when you're trying to pick up something amid throngs of enemies. The camera is also a mess, as its lock-on system never works quite right outside of boss battles. MadWorld isn't for those who like smart opponents; most of the common enemies are rock-stupid (they pretty much have to be, to endure Jack's tortures), and the bosses follow simple patterns. At five to six hours long, MadWorld isn't particularly drawn-out. Even with a higher difficulty setting, new weapons, and multiplayer Bloodbath Challenges, the allure of it all burns out quickly.

Is MadWorld morally reprehensible tripe and a mockery of all good taste? Probably, but it's enjoyable in a debasing way that makes you realize how restrained Grand Theft Auto really is. Some may recoil at the eviscerations and skull-splitting revelry, and others will scoff at the game's length and messy camera. Don't let that bother you. For those who can stomach it, MadWorld is a brief, vicious burst of fun that's ultimately too ridiculous to be all that offensive.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 4-26

DYNASTY WARRIORS: STRIKEFORCE
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: KOEI
Platform: PSP
MSRP: $39.99

Release as many Dynasty Warriors games as you like in North America, KOEI, but the franchise will never be as huge here as it is in Japan. Well, maybe it already is, in a way. After all, it takes some looking to find a Dynasty Warriors game that wasn't brought West, while other Japanese franchises, Fatal Frame and Tales among them, can hardly boast such inclusive histories. Arriving here two months after it hit Japan, Strikeforce is a pretty Dynasty Warriors 6 for the PSP, with one important addition: flying. Well, it's hovering, at least, and you can use this technique to bring down destruction on hordes of dense enemy soldiers, and, to complete that anime-superhero illusion, turn characters into glowing, spiky versions of their already stylized Chinese-historical-hero selves. They can also carry secondary weapons, but that's not quite as fun as flying.
Get Excited If: Everyone laughed at you when you suggested a Dragon Ball Z version of Dynasty Warriors. You'll show them, you will.

SUPER ROBOT TAISEN OG SAGA: ENDLESS FRONTIER
Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: DS
MSRP: $34.99

Endless Frontier is a Super Robot Wars game, and yet it isn't. It's a spin-off of the Original Generation line, which was itself a spin-off of the anime-influenced Super Robot Wars. More importantly, Endless Frontier is heavier on anime women (and anime breasts) than it is on actual robots. You'll see some squat versions of Original Generation robots summoned during battles, but the true combatants and their storyline are all human-scale and stereotyped: cowboy bounty hunter Haken Browning and his bipolar android Aschen start off the game, and they're joined by KOS-MOS from Xenosaga, Reiji and Xiaomu from Namco X CAPCOM, and a sword-wielding princess who the storyline treats like a walking boob joke. The gameplay? There's actually some of that, and it's a straight RPG with battles that resemble Namco X CAPCOM. That means they're stacked with elaborate chain combos in which party members bust out over-the-top attacks that spill into titillating animated clips. Yes, I have to make lewd references here, because anyone who picks up Endless Frontier will sit through so many more of them.
Get Excited If: You played Super Robot Wars less for the actual robots and more for Excellen's commentary about taking showers and wearing Playboy bunny outfits.

EXTRA LIVES: ASTRO BOY

I was planning to write about an Astro Boy game, and I could think of none better than Astro Boy: The Omega Factor, Treasure's enjoyable 2004 side-scroller. Then I realized something: lots of people already know about it. Sega released it in North America, and it's since become a cult favorite beyond the borders of our little anime-game ghetto. So I decided to go back to a time when Astro Boy wasn't popular enough to get games published in his Western name. The time I went to was 1988, and the game I went to was Konami's Astro Boy, or Tetsuwan Atom, for the Famicom. Boy, did I make a mistake.

Konami tried to capture the right touches of Astro Boy in the game, as the title screen bursts with an NES-grade rendition of the original show's theme song while Astro himself flies around and waves at the player. Then the game kicks off with a bunch of hunchbacked, bazooka-toting thugs carrying ill-gotten money sacks through the streets of some glowing, Tezuka-ish city of the future. Dr. Elefun (OK, he's Professor Ochanomizu in Japan) spots this and sends Astro after them. The game's not without fun details, either: tiny hiragana letters float out of the thugs as Astro punches them, apparently spelling “I'm sorry” in Japanese. Astro can also crouch and, well, fart out hiragana that summons Dr. Elefun for repairs. And when Astro dies, he tumbles into spare parts as Elefun rushes onto the screen to reassemble him.

Unfortunately, Astro dies a lot. Early NES and Famicom games are known for dragging out simple levels by making player-characters really vulnerable, and Konami gave Astro no real protection. Some foes, including birds, merely damage him, but one bomb or gunshot reduces him to pieces and kicks the player back to the start of the level. The controls are little help. Astro can jump and punch easily enough, but jetting through the air requires a ridiculous sequence of running, leaping three times, and then tapping up on the directional pad. This could be overlooked if Astro had his fingertip lasers or butt-mounted machine guns, but Konami ignored those.

It's a shame that the game is a frustrating chore, as there's the occasional hint of a good idea. The second stage has Astro ringing bells to mimic tunes played when he defeats enemies, while a later level is set mostly in darkness. With ten stages, it's a fairly long game, but I doubt anyone in this day and age has the patience needed to explore it all. And they shouldn't.

Konami's Astro Boy game looks weak, with primitive sprites, jagged backgrounds, and frequently jarring colors. Such graphics were understandable in early NES and Famicom games, but Astro Boy was released in 1988, when Konami was putting out Contra, Metal Gear, Blades of Steel, and other then-impressive NES titles. Perhaps their Astro Boy game was completed years earlier and just sat around until 1988, because there's really no other excuse for this thing looking the way it does. The sound effects are also basic, and the music's grating once you get past the opening Astro Boy anthem.

Astro Boy was among the few anime characters who would've been recognizable to the NES-buying public of 1988, but Konami decided to leave the game in Japan. It was for the best. This might be a curiosity for the Astro Boy fan who must have every scrap of merchandise approved by Tezuka and his estate, but I'll just go back to Astro Boy: The Omega Factor for now.

You can land Astro Boy Famicom cartridges for under $10, so don't go paying three times that in the dealers' room at some anime convention. Of course, you'll pay more if you want it with a box and manual, which may prove more amusing than the game itself.


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