The X Button
Metal Storm

by Todd Ciolek, Oct 21st 2009

This particular installment of The X Button is important, because it contains the column's first review of a game that's completely unrelated to Japan or its cartoons. Fortunately, it's a fairly good game. Brütal Legend isn't without problems, but it reminds me of something a perceptive critic once said: “My favorite games are all B-pluses.”

Yes, the games that we enjoy the most are often quite flawed. They're not perfect, brilliant creations that anyone can enjoy, but they're driven by clever ideas, strong characters, or something else that's far more appealing than any polished, critically lauded A-lister. Valkyrie Profile is a slow, melodrama-choked RPG that forces you to use a strategy guide if you want a good ending. Grim Fandango, also from Brütal Legend creator Tim Schafer, is a linear, play-once adventure game with obtuse puzzles. The Guardian Legend has an awful password system and graphics that flicker constantly. And if I ever have to put together a list of my favorite games, all three of those will be near the top.

So please don't think any less of me if I'm not appropriately harsh when it comes to Brütal Legend, because a great game is never as important as the right game. I'll be a jackass next week, I promise.

NEWS

KOEI'S FIST OF THE NORTH STAR BRAWLER DETAILED
In some ways, Hokuto Musou is just what you'd expect from KOEI combining Fist of the North Star and Dynasty Warriors. It features Kenshiro, bearer of the legendary Hokuto Shinken arts and shoulder pads, wandering a nuked-out wasteland in search of his abducted true love, Yuria/Julia/I Don't Even Know Anymore. Facing dozens of generic brawny thugs at once, Kenshiro can build up his warrior-ful energy and make enemies explode horrifically. That's one side of the game, and it follows the Fist of the North Star manga and anime in general terms. For the other side, KOEI promises an all-new storyline, which I imagine will have a villain and supporting characters that fans have never seen before and will never see again once the game's over.

The real surprise here is that Hokuto Musou will probably come to North America, as KOEI USA itself put out a press release discussing the game. I can only assume that the American version will remove all of the blood, change Kenshiro's name to “Aarzak,” and give the other characters neon hair, just as Sega did to a Fist of the North Star game for the Sega Genesis many, many years ago.

THE KING OF FIGHTERS SKY STAGE NOW SLIGHTLY MORE APPEALING
The King of Fighters Sky Stage still sounds like a strange and mercenary idea: characters from the popular SNK fighting franchise are dropped into a vertical 2-D shooter, using familiar attacks to plow through enemy swarms. At least SNK is broadening the roster, because if The King of Fighters XII proved nothing else, it's that SNK fans don't like it when the company cuts back on characters they know and like a little too much.

Drawing from a series with over 50 playable cast members, Sky Stage initially had only Kyo Kusanagi and Athena Asamiya taking to the air, but the latest version of the game, tested in Akihabara last weekend, adds Iori Yagami and the ice-powered Kula Diamond. I can't complain about that, though the game's attack system still seems basic, as it just transplants the characters' super moves into ashooter. That, and the screens still look like detail-deficient 3-D, the sort you'd see in a mediocre PC freeware shooter or perhaps an iPhone game.

BADMAN GETS A UMD RELEASE IF YOU CARE ENOUGH
Remember Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve This?, the dungeon-designer from NIS? It was enjoyed by many (myself included), but some were upset that the game, released as a UMD-based PSP title in Japan, was download-only in North America. Publisher NIS America has a solution: if at least 1000 PSP owners pre-order the game on disc, they'll get a version of Badman to stick in their PSP and smoke or whatever. It's a nice gesture on the part of NIS, which isn't even charging extra for a physical copy of Badman.

IN BRIEF: MISTWALKER STILL AROUND, MAGNACARTA 2 COMEDY COSTS EXTRA
I feel sorta sorry for Mistwalker. True, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's co-development house has a clear success with Blue Dragon, but their promising-sounding Cry On was canceled, and the DS RPG ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat sold poorly in Japan and never came out in North America (despite being graded by the ESRB). But Sakaguchi isn't giving up. In addition to rubber-stamping another Blue Dragon title for the DS, he's apparently just finishing up a project that hasn't even been properly announced. Is it even a game? Probably.

If you're one of the surprisingly large number of people who bought Magnacarta 2 this week, you'll probably want to try out the game's downloadable content on XBox Live. The weapon pack is standard fare for a console RPG, but less commonplace is a set of goofy cutscenes featuring the game's playable cast. I'm not sure what to make of the idea of players buying bonus narrative content (however trivial) for a $60 game, but then I'd be downloading the hell out of extra scenes for Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume.

REVIEW: BRÜTAL LEGEND

Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2 (online)
MSRP: $59.99

Tim Schafer got his start making offbeat graphic-adventure games and, in a sense, he hasn't stopped yet. His first major works were LucasArts charmers driven mostly by puzzles and clever writing: Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango. Even after leaving LucasArts, Schafer didn't abandon the genre that suited him. Psychonauts, the first game from his Double Fine studio, is a endearing action-platform game set mostly inside the heads of a psychic summer camp's students and counselors, but beneath the jumping and boss battles lies the character of the best LucasArts games. The same can be said for the heavy-metal glories of Brütal Legend. It's a brawler, a racing battle, and even a crude strategy game. But in the ways that truly matter, it's a comedy.

Brütal Legend is also one of the most ridiculously well-honed tributes to heavy metal ever assembled. Instead of openly mocking it, the game embraces the genre in all its juvenile pomp and irony-free swagger, embodied by Jack Black's roadie hero (yes, his name's Eddie Riggs, but isn't Jack Black always Jack Black?). Disgusted with working for a hollow modern funk-metal outfit, he's spirited off by a gigantic chrome beast after an accident involving stage props and a belt buckle. He's then deposited in a world painstakingly based on every gaudy heavy-metal album cover, with the towering demonic symbols jutting from the earth and trees sprouting exhaust pipes. Eddie quickly runs afoul of the local monstrous overlords and falls in with a three-member resistance, consisting of determined rebel Ophelia, noble rock-star leader Lars, and Lars' distrustful (sometimes justifiably so) sister Lita. Fortunately, Eddie is a roadie to his core, and he's soon organizing an army, amassing weapons, and, as he points out in the game's prologue, making other people look good.

At its start, Brütal Legend is a brawler not terribly far from God of War: armed with both an axe and a guitar, Eddie plows messily through grotesque creatures and goofily exaggerated avatars of hair metal. Quite soon, Eddie's army-building takes on strange and novel pursuits, from freeing head-banging slaves to guarding the official tour bus of the rebellion. The game's world is an open expanse of broken highways and ragged mountains, all scattered with statues, story-revealing shrines, and underworld car shops staffed by Ozzy Osbourne.

In paying homage to its favored music, Brütal Legend pulls no punches. Every motif and character fills some part of the heavy-metal cliché, whether it's a shrieking, flying mockery of bad '80s rock or a legion of jungle amazons dressed like the KISS army. Brütal Legend's world is a unique patchwork of styles, realizing the partly medieval, partly 1970s realm of grim warfare that, in retrospect, a lot of metal bands tried to evoke without noticing it. It's a place where battles are fought like bloody concerts, with hulking metal followers and pale gothic demons slaughtering each other before huge rock stages. It's all just cartoonish enough in appearance, with detailed graphics and only a few slowdown snags. It's also full of metal itself, with a soundtrack that runs from Angel Witch to Dragonforce, and a cast of surprisingly well-matched cameos by rock celebrities, including Lemmy Kilmister, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford, and Lita Ford. Most of them pretty much play themselves, while Tim Curry voices a villain who looks like the best monster Soul Calibur never used.

It's all an ambitious shot at making several different games at once. The bloody, one-man battles soon give way to large-scale clashes wherein Eddie summons squads of soldiers, including grunt-level Headbangers, gun-toting Razorgirls, sonically disruptive Roadies, health-restoring bikers, and amazon warriors riding flame-breathing monsters. All of these forces follow Eddie into battle against similarly varied legions of Tim Burton-ish zombies, rival metal fans, and demons. All the while, Eddie wails out guitar solos to power-up his allies, summon creatures, or build army-sustaining merchandise booths over geysers of underworld fans.

I'm comfortable in admitting that Brütal Legend is often a mess. The driving portions and smaller battles are straightforward, but the strategic major fights are a preposterous balancing act of summoning units and leading into vicious battles, and also protecting your own power sources and launching into the occasional guitar lick. It's admittedly an enjoyable mess, with a nice set of upgradeable attacks for axe and guitar, but it's often haphazard and frustrating. Schafer's said that Brütal Legend isn't a real-time strategy game, and he's right: it's something halfway between that and a full-on brawler, and it never fully reaches either.

Yes Brütal Legend is a mess. And that doesn't matter, because it's massively entertaining in lots of little ways. It might be a lengthy background conversation about hair care. It might be battlefield cries about bad roadie posture. It might even be some ridiculous piece of hard-rock scenery, but Brütal Legend's humor hits the mark. Schaefer's knack for low-key comedy fits strangely well with the overblown scale of things, resulting in the rare game where talking to every character and hearing their replies is one of the main attractions (just as it was in those old LucasArts adventures). The story itself gets a bit rushed and melodramatic later on, but seriously, look at the game. It'd be horribly disappointing if this didn't get melodramatic.

Some will likely complain about Brütal Legend's length. If you jump from one plainly outlined plot point to another, you can wrap up the main storyline in under eight hours. Take time to explore, though, and find the hidden sights and pieces of backstory (or else you'll be lost during some conversations), and you'll get a fairly long and elaborate game. And like a good album, it's worth revisiting. The side-quests are repetitive, but the world still holds some surprises after the game technically ends, and the online multiplayer mode uses the strategic stage battles in surprisingly fun ways.

Brütal Legend is a far cry from recent, carefully polished and calculated action spectacles, and yet its rough, memorable edge keeps it more alive than most of its company. Unique and richly amusing, Brütal Legend will stay with you long after you've put the latest Halo knock-off to rest, slogged through the latest clichéd RPG or traded in this year's Madden for next year's. That's far too rare a quality among games, and it's enough to make Brütal Legend something special.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 10-25

ATELIER ANNIE: ALCHEMISTS OF SERA ISLAND
Developer: Gust
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99
Bonus Stuff:A $39.99 special edition includes figurines of Annie and Pepe.

Remember Falcata, the mediocre early PlayStation RPG? Or Welcome House, an adventure game where a stiffly animated rube explored a booby-trapped home? Well, those games are long behind Gust. Nowadays the developer is all about cute RPGs where magically inclined girls create potions and change costumes a lot. The 12-year-old Atelier series is heavy on the former category, as most of the games follow a young woman's search to create new alchemic marvels. Much like the heroine of the NIS-developed Rhapsody, Annie is joined by a bossy fairy sidekick and makes it her goal in life to win a prince's heart. The game's battle system plays out with simplistic combat (again, like Rhapsody), with much more emphasis on crafting the right items for the situation at hand. It's a laid-back experience even by the usual Atelier standards, which may in fact make it perfect for the DS's RPG scene.
Get Excited If: You played through Rhapsody on the PlayStation and the DS. Several times each.

DRAWN TO LIFE: NEXT CHAPTER
Developer:5th Cell/Planet Moon Studios
Publisher: THQ
Platform: DS/Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99/$49.99

Before this year's beloved Scribblenauts, there was an action-RPG called Drawn to Life, a game that made much of creating items, characters, and a playable hero through the use of the DS stylus. The Wii-and-DS sequels offer the same mechanics, along with another storyline in which the “creator” (i.e. you) smiles upon a race of fox-like creatures and rescues them from numerous horrors. Less open than Scribblenauts, Drawn to Life explores a distinct fantasy setting with side-scrolling levels. Not that there isn't creativity involved: you're free to make all sorts of designs depending on your artistic abilities, so your hero could be Samus Aran, Naruto, or some other defilement of copyrights or good taste.
Get Excited If: You spent most of Scribblenauts sketching out a fantasy RPG.

TEKKEN 6
Developer:Namco
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $59.99

Not so long ago, Tekken 6 was to be a PlayStation 3 showcase, extolling the system right out of the gate. Now it's sneaking out for the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, and, come November, the PSP, but that doesn't make it any less interesting of a fighter. I doubt that even Tekken fans care that much about the plot and the unceasing squabbles between three generations of the Mishima family, though Tekken 6 makes an effort to get in just about everyone's favorite character. The roster here stands at 42 fighters, with new faces like the willowy Zafina, the bloated bob, and the trim-but-not-frail Leo. Namco also enlisted a few manga artists to design costumes, with Mutsumi Inomata drawing Zafina's butterfly getup while Masashi Kishimoto, the Naruto creator himself, contributes an outfit for another new character, Lars Andersson. Don't worry; the bear's still in it.
Get Excited If: You know the bear's name, backstory, and subtle movelist changes that come with each game.

EXTRA LIVES: FIST OF THE NORTH STAR

Developer:Arc System Works
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PlayStation 2 (JP)
Players: 1-2
Released: March 2007

The best thing about Fist of the North Star is the fact that so many people watched the series, exploding heads and all, when they were children. Sure, young Americans didn't even see Fist of the North in some censored and carelessly rewritten form, but lots of kids around the world freely enjoyed the post-apocalyptic bloodshed of Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's comic and its resulting cartoon. One of those impressionable youths was Daisuke Ishiwatari. Many years later, he'd create his own fighting game series with Guilty Gear, and, despite its success, he never forgot Fist of the North Star. So when Sega offered Ishiwatari and Arc System Works the chance to make a Fist of the North Star fighting game for the Atomiswave arcade system (and later the PlayStation 2), they seized that opportunity and, if you'll pardon the flowery language, punched it until its head exploded. And that's good.

Early Fist of the North Star games pitted Kenshiro, hero and Mad Max/Bruce Lee/Violence Jack hybrid, against wave upon wave of thugs in a post-apocalyptic stage. While no fans will forget the first time Kenshiro made some murderous punk's head burst, the truth is that watching him pulp no-name cretins gets a bit tiresome, whether its in the Fist manga, the anime, or a video game. Fist of the North Star is driven by its major characters, the sadistic warlords and determined heroes who dominate its nuked-out hellscape of a world. It's the sort of thing that needs a fighting game, though most attempts fail quite blandly at capturing the proper Fist spectacle. Yet Arc System Works knows all about anime overkill and put it to great use in the ridiculous heavy-metal pastiche of the Guilty Gear series. And they do the same with Fist of the North Star, or “Hokuto no Ken: Shinpan no Sousousei Kengou Retsuden,” as the purists will surely tell me it's called.

Arc System Works wastes no time with Fist of the North Star lightweights. The cast is pared down to the ten biggest names of the story's first leg, with Kenshiro joined by his sharp-handed ally Rei, his rival Shin, and his lineup of adopted brothers: the fearsome Raoh, the benevolent Toki, and the cruel but none-too-bright Jagi. Also on the card are the sadistic warlord Juda (sometimes mistaken for a particularly burly woman by non-fans, but this ain't a Go Nagai series), the conflicted warlord Souther (Romanized here as "Thouther," which sets up all sorts of jokes I refuse to make), the jolly fat-guy Heart, and Mamiya, who uses motorcycles, yo-yos, and crossbows to compensate for the fact that she's fighting psychotic men twice her size.

The cast seems small at ten characters, though Arc System Works at least gives everyone a robust selection of moves. Most of them prize faithful anime depictions above technical use, but there's still fun to be had. Rei has fluid aerial attacks, Souther/Thouther has linked strikes, and Mamiya's yo-yo manuevers make her feel like a projectile-heavy version of Guilty Gear's Bridget. Yes, I mention Guilty Gear a lot here, and that's because Arc System Works clearly used it as a blueprint: Fist of the North Star has similar controls, similar mid-air recoveries, and a similarly method of canceling moves and turning them into combos. Of course, Fist of the North Star doubtless influenced Guilty Gear in the first place, so perhaps it's deeply appropriate when Fist's battles kick off with a splashy line like “Decide the Destiny!”

Fist of the North Star would be unworthy of its license if no one died with style, and this fighter goes beyond that basic requirement. Each character has a seven-star gauge beneath his or her lifebar, with special attacks and other properly fierce hits removing a star. Once they're all gone, said character can be hit with a nasty “Fatal K.O.” straight from Fist lore. Some finishers are more impressive than others, though Fist fans will adore all of them. Casual players may like Souther dropping a pyramid on someone, but they'll wonder why Shin's slinking away and jumping to his death.

Arc System Works rarely makes a bland-looking fighter, and their version of Fist of the North Star is a strain on the eyes. From the dusty streets of roid-raging gangs to spacious palace halls, every background recalls some important piece of Fist's setting or storyline. And every fight brings explosions of color, portraits of the characters, and constant flashes or smoking effects. The characters also look quite sharp, even if the animation isn't any smoother than it is in the Guilty Gear games. The soundtrack draws from many Fist of the North Star themes, though it's forgettable beyond the opening number and the stronger tracks from the anime. Sega also hired most of the anime's voice cast, though neither Akira Kamiya nor Takehito Koyasu voices Kenshiro here for some reason.

With rare exceptions, anime-based fighting games don't aim for refined game balance. Fist of the North Star is a bit more complex than most of its low-effort spin-offs, but it's still not a game to be played at high-level tournaments by people who care about that sort of thing. No character overwhelms the others right out of the gate, but Rei and Toki emerge as nearly unbeatable in the hands of good players. Even some of the less powerful characters have infinite combos, and that's a deal-breaker for the “serious” fighter crowd.

The average fighting-game fan might be disappointed with Fist of the North Star. While it never wants for flash, a lineup that's 90 percent post-apocalyptic musclemen pales next to the diverse casts of Street Fighter or other popular fighter franchises (many of which, to be fair, stole wholeheartedly from Fist of the North Star in the first place). Compared to the varied fighting styles of Guilty Gear or even BlazBlue, Fist of the North Star feels bland and limited unless you take its source into account.

Fist of the North Star made a modest sweep through Japanese arcades (and even some American ones) before landing on the PlayStation 2. Instead of adding any extra characters, Arc System Works played to the fans and threw in history mode. A stiff retelling of the Fist of the North Star tale, it plays out major battles from the series, tasking players with picking the right character and pulling off a Fatal K.O. The results are pure fan-bait: Shin and his phalanx of guards torment Kenshiro, Raoh wraps Rei in his cloak and impales him with a finger, and Rei recreates the franchise's proudest moment when he humiliates Mamiya by shredding her clothes and thereby revealing her womanly ineptitude in the face of battle. And that's Fist of the North Star right there.

Arc System Works' tribute to a favorite childhood bloodfest might not be the best anime-based fighter in history, though it's the frontrunner for the finest game treatment Fist of the North Star has yet seen. Casual fans and devoted game-competition freaks can ignore it, but anyone who's liked Fist of the North Star should own it, enjoy it, and analyze the depths of it for canonical accuracy.

Had Fist of the North Star arrived a year or two later, it might've been localized and brought to America amid other anime-heavy fighters like Arcana Heart and Fate/Unlimited Codes. But it was too early for that trip, and so you'll have to track down the PlayStation 2 import. The original pressing comes with a DVD full of training features, while the Best reissue has an uglier box and doesn't seem to be much cheaper than the original. Perhaps someone will one day stick this on the PLAYSTATION Network or XBox Live as a $10 download. Until then, you'll pay about $35 for it online.


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