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Bullet Witch

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 13th 2010

You know what I like? Learning more about games that will never see the light of day. Know what else I like? Final Fantasy XII, no matter what anyone says. So when there's a canceled Final Fantasy XII game out there, it demands my attention.

Swedish developer Grin's aborted Final Fantasy game was mentioned back in September, not so long after the studio, which made CAPCOM's unkindly received Bionic Commando, closed up. At first, only humdrum scenery of “Project Fortress” was shown, with no indication as to its story or connections to other Final Fantasies. Recently, however, a bunch of images turned up at Grin-affiliated artist Joakim Hellstedt's online portfolio.

One piece of art shows two versions of Final Fantasy XII's Ashe B'nargin Dalmasca in more regal variants on her standard outfit (which almost, almost has pants this time). The rest of the Project Fortress illustrations show various monsters, creatures, and other designs that fit with Final Fantasy XII's style. And there's a mechanic moogle.

Was Grin really making a sequel to Final Fantasy XII? Or was this art merely to impress Square into greenlighting some other Final Fantasy game? Would it have been better than the cute but pointless Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings? Would Ashe have been a playable character, or just a royal supporter for a new cast of Grin-designed heroes? Would I care half this much if the Final Fantasy in question wasn't XII?

NEWS

LUPIN III STEALS FROM PROFESSOR LAYTON, GETS AWAY WITH IT
It's perhaps futile to hope for the next Lupin III game to break the mold of licensed mediocrity, but the DS title Lupin III: The Greatest Brain Battle has one thing going for it: lots of logic puzzles, just like those in the Professor Layton series. When not wrapped up in cracking strangely abstract safe combinations, Lupin III sneaks through various side-scrolling levels full of armed guards and block-pushing challenges.

Part of the Lupin Steal Japan Project currently brewing, Lupin III: The Greatest Brain Battle is much like any Lupin III TV special. It has a bizarre premise, a comically imposing villain, and a one-off female character in a white-blonde woman named Sondora Paradox, all but guaranteed to disappear from Lupin III canon after this particular installment. Of course, the game also features Lupin III's principal cast: Inspector Koichi Zenigata, the gunman Daisuke Jigen, the swordsman Goemon Ishikawa, and the scheming thief Fujiko Mine. In fact, there's an entire mini-game dedicated to rubbing oil on a sunbathing Fujiko. I'm not sure if I should be showing screens of that.

Too late now. Lupin III: The Greatest Brain Battle will be out in Japan this February, and it will likely never come out in the U.S. Yes, Bandai released a Lupin III game for the PlayStation 2 here many years ago, but that was back when Lupin III was airing on Adult Swim and the U.S. anime industry had more than two productive publishers. Those days are over. Over. Do you hear me? Over!

HEXYZ FORCE COMING HERE
Back in November, I predicted that Atlus would bring Sting's PSP-based RPG Hexyz Force to North America, and now's my chance to gloat about being right. Don't remind me that anyone who follows Atlus releases could've predicted the same, since Atlus already translated a bunch of Sting-developed strategy-RPGs: Yggdra Union, Riviera: The Promised Land, and Knights in the Nightmare. They're known for cute characters and complex play mechanics, and not so much for dramatic, gameplay-overshadowing stories.

Hexyz Force changes that focus, as it gives players two lead characters in a world strictly divided into well-lit countries and sunless wastelands. Shrilly nice cleric Cecilia and her pet squirrel drive one half of the story, while the darkness-dwelling knight Levant and his allies tell the grimmer part of it. The two of them and their parties meet up during a war, and players see both sides of the conflict over the course of the game. True to Sting tradition, Hexyz Force also has a complicated battle system involving chain attacks, color-coded weaknesses, and item-creating subgames. That should keep most of the Sting fans from complaining when Hexyz Force arrives in May.

Atlus also released Hexyz Force in Japan, so you can look for much the same cover here, give or take a ratings box and some kanji.

IN BRIEF: NEW MICROSOFT RPG, NEW TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM MINI-GAME
Microsoft hasn't backed a major Japanese RPG since Lost Odyssey, which didn't quite dethrone Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Yet there's another game on the horizon, as Feelplus, the developer of Lost Odyssey, recently sought a designer for a big Microsoft-connected RPG. Feelplus isn't the only company with a big game in the works, as Mistwalker, which co-created Lost Odyssey, also has an undisclosed RPG in development. Hmmm...

Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM: Ultimate All-Stars gets plenty of enhancements for its new U.S. edition, including four new characters and ending illustrations by Udon Comics artists, but the biggest new addition might be a shooter mini-game. Dubbed Ultimate All-Shooters, it features Ryu, Ken (Gatchaman Ken, that is), and other cast members running around in an overhead run-and-gun similar to Ikari Warriors or Heavenly Guardian. At this rate, I expect no one to complain about how the American edition of Ultimate All-Stars doesn't have the genie from Hakushon Daimaō.

Lastly, Knights in the Nightmare, Sting's obtuse and morbid strategy-RPG for the DS, is coming to the PSP. Little else about the game is known right now. We especially don't know how well it'll handle the bullet-dodging gameplay on a system without a stylus.

REVIEW: BAYONETTA

Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Bayonetta is complete trash. It is garish, self-indulgent, self-aware nonsense wrapped around a slinking heroine who wears guns on her feet and poses seductively at the touch of a button. It is a tribute to bad taste by Hideki Kamiya, the man behind Resident Evil 2, Devil May Cry, Viewful Joe, and Okami, none of which was half as shameless as Bayonetta. It is also the best action game in a long, long time.

There's a story behind Bayonetta, and it involves witches, demons, angels, and a war that's apparently simmered since the Middle Ages. Bayonetta is a warrior-witch who somehow slumbered at the bottom of a lake for centuries, and she's now flitting between planes of existence while slaughtering any creatures that dare to chase her. She's dogged by a rival witch named Jeanne and aided by a roundup of stereotyped supporters, including a demonic gunsmith and an obsessed admirer named Luka. It's a plot that can be safely ignored, or at least seen as an excuse for constant battles against angel-winged monstrosities.

The story's also an excuse for Bayonetta to pull off all sorts of preposterous, aren't-I-sexy combat maneuvers. Her starting repertoire includes several dozen combos built from an assortment of kicks, punches, and gunfire. The game adds to that constantly, introducing new moves to be purchased and learned: aerial dodges, handstand gunfire attacks, and one trick where Bayonetta flails around in a bullet-spewing breakdance, ending it with a wink at the player and the sound of a camera's shutter. Dodging attacks opens up the slow-motion world of “witch time,” and pounding on enemies reveals various torture attacks involving nearby objects and Bayonetta's hair. When not wrapped around her as clothing, that hair forms giant spike-heels, fists, dragons, and other devastating implements of death. And it also leaves her nearly naked. Of course.

These detailed basic attacks are merely the groundwork for something far beyond the typical action game. Unlike many recent genre examples, Bayonetta fully embraces aerial combat, letting its heroine double-jump and hit enemies with fluid style, and a skilled player can keep her airborne for most of a fight. With various guns on both her hands and feet, she's better-equipped than any other action star, and she's even allowed to switch between two different weapons in the heat of combat. There's never a lack of arms, whether it's a charged-up sword strike or a car lifted and thrown by Bayonetta's magical hair.

Bayonetta could easily sell itself on the combat alone, but there's more than the hacking and slashing and summoning hair-dragons to devour foes. As Bayonetta skips through city streets or medieval nightmares, she encounters little tests of her witchery: doors that must be broken and dashed through before they reform, a wall-running race against a wave of magma, and a collapsing aerial tower that she rides down to the earth. It's stunning even to watch and, surprisingly, rarely annoying to play. After fielding these mostly welcome distractions throughout the game, Bayonetta hops on a missile and pulls off a dizzying shooter tribute to Sega's Space Harrier.

It's a game that does its best to overwhelm you, and that occasionally takes it off the rails. The camera has confusing seizures in the middle of battle, and using the target-locking options only makes it easier for Bayonetta to run into scenery. Bayonetta's also an assault on coherent art, packed with gaudy angels and glittering butterfly effects whenever Bayonetta jumps. For those left reeling by the heavy-metal anime aesthetics of say, Guilty Gear, Bayonetta may induce convulsions and nausea. Not to say that it isn't gorgeous to look at, and the soundtrack has both tacky modern style and blaring gothic material.

Less praise can be given to the story sequences. See, Bayonetta is entirely aware that it's high-gloss pulp brimming with Hollywood parody, and it tries to be the best sort of bad. It doesn't always succeed. Witness the opening scenes, in which Bayonetta's wacky sidekick Enzo hurls boring jokes for what feels like three hours, all in an attempt to channel Joe Pesci (at best, he's the unfunny Pesci-like pigeon from Animaniacs). Bayonetta herself is more amusing, though there's not much to her beyond comical sex appeal. Some embarrassing arguments point to her role as an empowering step forward for women in video games, and yet she's just as vapidly written and cliché-infected as any comparable male action-game hero. She's reminiscent of those banal “bad girl” comics that proliferated throughout the 1990s. Remember Avengelyne, Nira X, Glory, Pandora, Magdalena, Razor, Hellina, Aphrodite IX, or Wynonna Earp? You probably don't, and I doubt anyone would remember Bayonetta if she weren't starring in such an amazing game.

Bayonetta might not make it as an icon in the game industry, but her debut's a magnificent achievement. It offers variety far beyond what most action games even hint at, and, most importantly of all, it never lets up. Bayonetta knows precisely what it wants to be: a noisy, reckless, richly challenging shock to the senses. And it pulls it off in style.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 1-17

GLORY OF HERACLES
Developer: Paon
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $34.99

Well, this is a surprise: an RPG from an obscure series, released in North America by Nintendo itself. Then again, the Glory of Heracles series is nothing new. Data East started the franchise back in 1987, and while Heracles RPGs arrived in Japan up through 1994, none came to North America. This new DS-based Heracles is the fifth game in the series, though it's built from old parts: turn-based battles, sprite-based characters, amnesiac heroes, and in-game hints that walk newcomers through the concepts of Role-Playing Games. While it courts an audience younger than, say, the Valkyrie Profile series, Glory of Heracles remains one of the few console RPG set within Greek myth. It's not all that accurate, but numerous gods and monsters show up as a player-named swordsman wanders around in search of his memories, accompanied by several stuffshirt faux-heroes and a nagging, androgynous godly sidekick. One last bit of trivia: the Glory of Heracles games saw the first major work of scriptwriter Kazushige Nojima, and it helped him land a gig writing most of the modern Final Fantasy titles.
Get Excited If: You wish RPGs would stick to adapting one vein of mythology instead of making a giant stew of random folklore.


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