The X Button
Diabolical Machinations

by Todd Ciolek, Sep 23rd 2009

There are changes ahead for The X Button. Minor changes, but changes all the same. After some thought, I've decided that I can't ignore non-Japanese games as much as I do. This is an anime website, and this column will always reflect that. However, good games come from all over, and I'd like to think that anime fans often cast their interests beyond things Japanese. So I'm going to add more coverage of games that might not have anything to do with Japan.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I've played and enjoyed the demo for Double Fine's upcoming Brütal Legend. Or the fact that WayForward is making another Shantae game. Those are completely unrelated matters.

NEWS

NIS UNVEILS ABSOLUTE HERO AND YET ANOTHER DISGAEA
NIS showed early artwork from Absolute Hero Modifying Project (or "Zettai Hero Kaizou Keikaku") about a month ago, and now the PSP game has taken shape. It's a “dungeon-RPG” involving a Gatchaman-esque hero who customizes his body with all sorts of cyborg parts and pieces of devil-penguin Prinnies.

The dungeons are randomly generated, much like Disgaea's bonus stages, and there's a cast of cute and cynical characters (again, much like Disgaea) to recruit or battle. Absolute Hero comes out in Japan next year, and it's all but certain that a) NIS America will try to bring it here and b) one or more Disgaea characters will show up in the game. Speaking of which…

Of course, NIS is still making Disgaea titles. Disgaea Infinite is new ground for the series, and yet it isn't. Like Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?, Infinite stars a demonic, tiny-winged penguin, but Infinite is a PSP-based visual novel, driven by dialogue and branching plotlines.

Those plotlines all feature Disgaea regulars, including the original's cast and the stars of Disgaea 3, though the lead is a Prinny using psychic powers to possess others and investigate a murder mystery. It suits the Disgaea series, where static conversations often provide some of the biggest fan-pleasing moments. Disgaea Infinite comes out on Japan's PLAYSTATION Network this November, and an English release would be unlikely if this weren't Disgaea.

SAKURA WARS: SO LONG, MY LOVE ALREADY HAS THE BEST DUB EVER
There's a lot riding on Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, since it's the first of the huge-in-Japan Sakura Wars titles to come to the U.S. It's also the biggest NIS America project that doesn't have “Disgaea” in its title, and everyone who picks up the PlayStation 2 version or the new Wii port will expect a game free of bugs and annoyances. The important thing, though, is that Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love has an utterly glorious English trailer in which samurai cowgirl Gemini Sunrise (right) enthuses about Sockra Warrs makin' its way to th' good-ol' YOO-ESS-AY. Really, this sort of thing fits the Sakura Wars series and its historical inaccuracies quite well. For a strategy-RPG that finds a Japanese ensign commanding a squad of mecha-piloting actresses in steampunk 1928 New York City, subtlety would be a poison.

Too bad Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love isn't coming out until early 2010, alongside Fragile and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces and Sin and Punishment 2 and lots of other delayed Wii games. Still it'll deliver some value: NIS America plans to ship Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love in a two-disc set, with one disc bearing English voices and the other Japanese. I'm going to throw in the English-language disc and never look back.

YAKUZA 3 MIGHT BE COMING HERE, VALKYRIA CHRONICLES 2 DEFINITELY IS
Come now, Sega. First Yakuza 3 was only for the Japanese PlayStation 3, then some Sega insider casually quipped that it might come out in North America and Europe. Now news sites are reporting that the game's on its way to English-speaking audiences. Just announce the damn thing, Sega. Or is this all part of your scheme? Is this a calculated way to build up anticipation among Yakuza's fan base and give others the chance to try out the first two Yakuzas, with their realistic street brawling and hostess-romancing and criminal scheming? That's fine as long as Yakuza 3 comes here.

At least Sega's clear on Valkyria Chronicles 2. The PSP sequel to last year's unique cult-hit strategy game will arrive in Europe and America next summer, according to a brief trailer. So brief it is that it barely introduces the new fake-European conflict and the way some fresh-faced military cadets are caught in the middle of it. The trailer doesn't even show this blue-haired warrior woman, the apparent successor to the first game's troubled battlefield-clearing valkyrie Selvaria Bles.

When I start posting art like that, it's time to move on to the next section.

IN BRIEF: STAR OCEAN: THE LAST HOPE INTERNATIONAL COMING HERE, FAIRY TAIL COMING TO PSP, FINAL FANTASY TACTICS ON PSN
I mentioned Star Ocean: The Last Hope International last week, after which Square Enix immediately confirmed it for a North American release. In fact, it'll hit here on February 9, just when the Japanese version ships.

Konami's making a PSP game based on Fairy Tail, at least according to their Tokyo Game Show listings. Perhaps more will be revealed at said show.

Because no column is complete without mentioning a Final Fantasy game, I should point out that the original PlayStation version of Final Fantasy Tactics is now available on the PLAYSTATION Network. I should also recommend it, since it's one of my favorite games, but the truth is that the PlayStation edition lacks the bonus content and coherent translation of the PSP version, which you can find fairly cheap. Come to think of it, Greatest Hits copies of the PlayStation edition are also easy to find if you want the gloriously awful translation. So, uh, never mind.

SPOTLIGHT: SOUL EATER GAMES

The past few years haven't found anime at its best in North America. Sales are sliding, companies are folding, and promising niche titles are being left in Japan. Worse still, there's no sign of another guaranteed breakout hit, no crowd-pleasing, high-profile series that'll surely smash into the mainstream like Naruto, Pokémon, and a few fortunate other shows did before. There is, however, Soul Eater. It's one of the biggest new shonen-manga series around, and it's made some inroads here already through its manga, now running in Yen Plus. FUNimation plans to release the anime series in North America next year, with a curious lack of a TV deal.

Perhaps Adult Swim and the Sci Fi Channel (wait, that's the Syfy Channel) will pass, but Soul Eater could easily win over this continent's devoted young anime fans, and perhaps it might even draw in some of the rapidly growing-up Naruto kids. Granted, Soul Eater's components are borrowed from other sources, as it's set at a perpetually Halloween-themed magical academy where teenage students and their living weapons clash with witches, demons, and other horrors. It's Harry Potter, Bleach, and The Nightmare Before Christmas in a blender, but Soul Eater also has a certain edge lacking in other kid-manga material. That edge is largely visual, as the characters all have punkish appeal, and the anime series looks far prettier than the usual Naruto/Bleach/One Piece milieu. There's even a stab at maturity hidden somewhere in Soul Eater's cast, despite their devotion to a spirit-collecting plot device. While Code Geass, last year's biggest anime launch, wrapped up its Adult Swim run without convincing any U.S. game publishers, Soul Eater's sharp looks (and lack of inane nationalism) may well succeed in dragging over some games. Here's a look at what we might get, or what we'll otherwise have to import.

SOUL EATER: MEDUSA NO INBOU (DS)
Some anime series start off by inspiring stiff, talky, barely interactive digital comics, but Soul Eater began its video-game run with a completely realized brawler. Set during Soul Eater's first major story arc, Medusa no Inbou (“Medusa's Plot”) offers big-headed versions of the three main student-warriors and their weapons: irritable Maka and her scythe-sidekick Soul, over-driven Black Star and his versatile ninja-arms partner Tsubaki, and OCD-riddled Death the Kid and his pistol-forming allies Patti and Liz. All of them are controlled through the DS touch-screen as they run through battles and various Soul Eater locales. The visual style isn't too far from last year's broadly structured Dragon Ball Origins DS game, though Soul Eater's world has a decidedly more gothic flair.
Will it come here?: The DS is often the first stop for anime properties that succeed in America. If Soul Eater does just that, Medusa no Inbou will be first in line.

SOUL EATER: BATTLE RESONANCE (PS2/PSP)
Medusa no Inbou may seem a fair introduction to Soul Eater, but it's annoyingly restricted to three leading teams of characters. Wouldn't Soul Eater be better served by a fighting game, one where fans could play the rest of the relevant cast, from the cat-witch Blair (a courtesy laugh to you, Soul Eater creator Atsushi Okubo) to Medusa's mistreated daughter Crona? Well, that's what Battle Resonance is: a 3-D fighter that features cel-shaded versions of 13 Soul Eater characters and/or weaponized partners. The gameplay's mostly locked to a 2-D level, making this closer to Tekken or Soul Calibur than the wild run-around fighting of Power Stone or One Piece: Grand Battle. It's also standard-issue in its features: the “adventure” mode drives characters on various missions, with heavy hitters like Medusa available once the game's finished once or twice. The PlayStation 2 and PSP versions are largely identical, though the PS2 one includes a bunch of anime clips.
Will it come here?: The PlayStation 2 might not be getting too much attention by the time Soul Eater arrives in 2010, though the PSP version has a clear shot. If Capcom can release Fate/Unlimited Codes here, Soul Eater can't be counted out.

SOUL EATER: MONOTONE PRINCESS (Wii)
Monotone Princess is the most ambitious of the Soul Eater games thus far, and not just because it's the most visually impressive. Crossing the line between dull anime adaptation and slightly more interesting anime adaptation, Monotone Princess includes exclusive animated cutscenes as well as two new characters: Grimoire (who's technically in the manga) and the title princess, a spider-patterned woman named Ponera. The actual gameplay is similar to a full-size version of Medusa no Inbou, with Maka, Death the Kid, and Black Star all running through 3-D scenery, slashing and shooting everything in the way. Unfortunately, Monotone Princess also insists on using the Wii nunchuk and remote for gameplay that works much better with a standard controller, not unlike Sega's awkward Wii-based Bleach fighter.
Will it come here?:The Wii's very much alive and very much stocked with all sorts of games, so no one would oppose a Soul Eater title if they thought they could make American money off of it.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 9-27

KINGDOM HEARTS 358/2 DAYS
Developer: h.a.n.d.
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $34.99

When Kingdom Hearts II arrived years ago, some were very put out, as they say, by initially having to play a blond newcomer named Roxas in place of series hero Sora. Of course, Roxas was connected to Sora in many ways, and those ways are explored in 358/2 Days. Set between the events of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, the new DS title finds Roxas with Organization XIII, the cadre of black-clad, anime-haired villains who now overshadow the usual casts of Disney ne'er-do-wells. He's joined by another new member, Xion, who has her own angst-fueled existential crisis to worry about. Their quest plays out with the typical Kingdom Hearts combat interface, enhanced this time by a “panel system” that swaps in all sorts of moves and abilities. It's not Kingdom Hearts III just yet, but it might answer a few questions about what the hell happened in Kingdom Hearts II, and raise about a billion more questions in the process.
Get Excited If: You care more about Organization XIII than the constant Disney cameos in Kingdom Hearts.

NINJA GAIDEN SIGMA 2
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Platform: PS3
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $59.99

You may have heard (and seen) that Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 lets the player wave the PS3 controller to make female characters' breasts bounce, so let's get that part out of the way. Yes, it does. Wow, look at that. There's no hope for the world as it stands. Well, anyway! There's more to Sigma 2. Just as the first Sigma added Rachel, the dominatrix-lookin' hunter of demons, to the first Ninja Gaiden, Sigma 2 brings her back along with two other new playable characters: Momiji, who appeared in 2008's Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, and Ayane, a Dead or Alive regular who's had cameos in previous Ninja Gaidens. The three of them add an extra chapter apiece, and a new cooperative mode lets two players confront enemies online. The original Ninja Gaiden II's viciously fast action and fiendish difficulty are still in effect, of course, as is much of the game's storyline. The plot's highlight should still be an old man saying “No one knows where a ninja goes.”
Get Excited If: You went through Ninja Gaiden II at least twice. Or you thought Momiji was wearing too much in Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword.

THE PSP GO
Publisher: Sony
Platform: I dunno.
MSRP: $249.99

You'll have to forgive me for not listing the PlayStation 3 slim when it came out, as console redesigns usually aren't notable unless they differ greatly. For example, the PSP Go changes a number of things about its predecessors, the original PSP and the streamlined PSP 3000. The Go is smaller than both of them, and its slide-out controls make it look like some cell-phone evolution. The major change, however, is the Go's lack of a UMD slot. Instead of taking games on discs, it stores them internally, starting with its included 16 GB of flash memory. It's a risk, but several publishers are releasing PSP games only as downloads (Fate/Unlimited Codes among them), and Sony plans to ship all sorts of download-only offerings, including a bunch of older UMD-based games. Still, the biggest game accompanying the Go to market is a newGran Turismo, and it's also available as a standard UMD game.
Get Excited If: You never liked putting UMDs in your PSP anyway.

UNDEAD KNIGHTS
Developer: Team Tachyon
Publisher: Tecmo
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-4
MSRP: $39.99

If it's yet another game about zombies, at least Undead Knights presents the rare chance to command them in a gritty medieval-fantasy world. That's where a band of warriors, murdered on the orders of a corrupt monarch, rises from the dead and brings a legion of hideous walking corpses with them. Combat plays out in spacious 3-D areas similar to Dynasty Warriors battlegrounds, but the characters can do more than hack and slash and sashay through enemies on their own. They also have squads of undead to throw around, whether that involves siccing them on foes or ordering them to move armaments around the playfield. Of course, zombie bites create more zombies, so it's possible to build your army while destroying another. It's a decidedly dark game with echoes of Tecmo's Deception series, and there's also a plot-free versus mode available for up to four players. Not bad for a sleeper title.
Get Excited If: You preferred playing the zombies in Left 4 Dead.

THE WIZARD OF OZ: BEYOND THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD
Developer: Media Vision
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: DS
Players: 1-4
MSRP: $29.99

God bless the public domain. Without it, L. Frank Baum's Oz books would still be copyrighted and Media Vision might've had to make just another generic anime-style RPG. But they were able to create a Wizard of Oz RPG, one where Dorothy and her friends are only slightly manga-like versions of their traditional incarnations. Granted, there's also a lineup of dragons and the witches are now gothic young women, but no one likes a slavishly faithful adaptation. Dorothy wanders an impressive (for the DS, anyway) version of the Oz world, with the player using the DS's lower screen like a trackball. The battles that interrupt her journey use typical menu-based commands, with each of the four principal characters having some special ability. Perhaps it won't escape Dragon Quest's shadow, but Wizard of Oz RPGs don't come along that often.
Get Excited If: You're waiting for the next volume of Dorothy of Oz.


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