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Further Complications

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 26th 2010

This week's news starts with the Shin Megami Tensei series, and it's made me think about just how far these games have come in North America. In the days of the NES and Super NES, no company in their right mind would release a full Shin Megami Tensei title in the West, what with the games' tendencies to feature grotesque monsters and final bosses who happen to be the actual Christian God. Things loosened up in the later 1990s and Atlus released some games in the SMT-related Persona series, though fans still had to watch titles like Soul Hackers and the Innocent Sin half of Persona 2 gather dust in Japan.

Today, things are different. Atlus can release three different versions of Persona 3 in North America, and every Shin Megami Tensei game stands a good chance of coming here. Well, except for the PSP version of Devil Summoner. You can't have everything.

But what was the first Shin Megami Tensei game released in the West? It wasn't the original Persona, which was localized for the PlayStation in 1996. About a year before that, Atlus took a risk on Jack Bros., a Shin Megami Tensei spin-off for the Virtual Boy.

A maze-based shooter, Jack Bros. stars Atlus mascot Jack Frost and two other similarly cute heroes named Jack. Unlike other Shin Megami Tensei titles, the game required minimal sanitizing for kids: the three brothers became “fairies” instead of demons, and Jack Ripper was dubbed “Jack Skelton” for the English version. It's a charming little game, encumbered only by the Virtual Boy's harsh red-on-black color palette. Not many noticed it, since Nintendo killed the Virtual Boy after its first two and half minutes on the market, but Jack Bros. would live on as the most expensive of the dozen or so Virtual Boy games released in North America.

So when you next play a game from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, remember the minor debt we all owe to the Jack Bros.

NEWS

PERSONA 3 PORTABLE OUT IN JULY, STRANGE JOURNEY IN MARCH
It's hard to imagine someone buying and playing through the regular Persona 3 and Persona 3 FES on the PlayStation 2 and then doing it all over again with the PSP version, but it's the sort of game that invites replays with branching paths and multiple relationships. Persona 3 Portable isn't quite the definite version of the game, as it lacks the “Answer” epilogue from Persona 3 FES, but it has all sorts of other enhancements.

The biggest such enhancement is the chance to play as a female character with her own Persona spirit-avatar, storyline, and dating options. Portable also features redone, sprite-based overhead graphics and, better still, the option to directly control party members in battle (a choice absent from the PlayStation 2 versions). So there are several good reasons to play or re-play it when it hits North America this July.

For those who can't wait, Atlus has Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey arriving in March. It's a little more grim and a little less character-driven than Persona, as Strange Journey's all about exploring the bizarre mazes that lie on the other side of an Antarctic rift between dimensions. Atlus is shipping it with a GameStop pre-order incentive, even if it's just a poster of the game's nondescript cast. Buyers also get a soundtrack CD, whether they reserve the game or not.

DEAD OR ALIVE PARADISE ALSO COMING IN MARCH
I find it hard to be outraged or even mockingly amused by the Dead or Alive Xtreme series. On one hand, it's a silly and shameless parade of the women from the Dead or Alive fighting games as they're playing volleyball, jumping around, and posing in bikinis (and less) for the player to faux-photograph. On the other hand, it's usually such conventional titillation, the sort you'd see in the pages of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (well, aside from Xtreme 2's pole-dancing). Compared to what regularly comes along in Japanese gaming circles, Xtreme is mild stuff.

And now there's more of it. Dead or Alive Paradise recreates diversions from the first two Xtremes on the PSP, including the volleyball matches, the poolside games, the casinos, and, of course, the rampant and convenient photo-ops. Paradise also adds Rio, the mascot of numerous fine pachinko properties, to the lineup of models. Custom soundtracks can be spliced from music files from the PSP's memory stick, so you can feel clever by playing that awful Duran Duran song whenever Rio's dancing. And if you're one of those Dead or Alive fans who demands plastic abstraction, the Japanese special edition of Paradise comes with a Kasumi statue. In America, there likely won't be any such bonus when the game arrives on the PSP in March.

AGAREST SENKI LIMITED EDITION HOLDS NOTHING BACK
Some publishers may balk at releasing suggestive trinkets with their titles, but not Aksys Games. No, no, no. Their newly announced Record of Agarest War special edition includes, to borrow the press release's phrasing, a “Yearning Ellis” pillowcase, a selectively rounded “Sensual Vira-Lor” mousepad, a “Naughty Collector's Box,” and a soundtrack with apparently risqué labels.

Though I wasn't keeping track, this may be the first time a North American game publisher has sold a boobs-gel mousepad with a game. The pillowcase may also be a historic first, but I'm not sure if it qualifies as one of those body-pillow covers that one reads so much about nowadays. Both are featured in this suitably lascivious trailer for the special edition, which will run $59.99 when it ships for the Xbox 360 this spring. PlayStation 3 owners must content themselves with the game's downloadable version.

FRONT MISSION EVOLVED COMING HERE, POSSIBLY IN MARCH
Square Enix really wants Front Mission to do well in North America. Sure, they never released Front Mission 5 over here, but they released the DS port of the original game and made sure that the newest entry in the series, Front Mission Evolved, was developed by Double Helix Games, which is based right in Irvine, California.

Evolved's storyline is standard fare for Front Mission: in a near-future world where massive empires control warfare and commerce, a youth named Dylan Ramsey stumbles into an international conspiracy involving politics and giant mecha called Wanzers. Of course, the real change is in the gameplay: past Front Missions were strategy-RPGs, and Evolved is a third-person shooter.

Currently headed for the PS3 and Xbox 360, Evolved breaks further from its predecessors by letting players control humans outside of their battle mecha. Many Front Mission fans disowned the game upon sight of these somewhat generic scenes, but I'm intrigued by the potential. Will Wanzer pilots be able to hop from their mecha and explore on foot, as players could in Blaster Master and Metal Warriors? If Evolved can pull that off, it might win over all sorts of new fans when it arrives in North America this spring.

IN BRIEF: AFTER BURNER CLIMAX, SAMURAI SHOWDOWN: EDGE OF DESTINY STILL ALIVE
If After Burner Climax proves nothing else, it's that people can still get excited about arcade games coming home. Climax, a visually splendid follow-up to the 1980s jet-shooter After Burner, arrived in arcades back in 2006, complete with a special cockpit-like cabinet. Sega recently slipped out news of the game coming to XBox Live and the PLAYSTATION Network this spring, presumably without the giant pilot-seat apparatus.

Samurai Shodown: Edge of Destiny hasn't stirred up much talk over here, as past attempts at making the Samurai Shodown fighters into 3-D games have fallen flat. However, Edge of Destiny is still on its way to the Xbox 360, and after sitting at Ignition for a while, it's now being published in North America by Xseed Games. It's also now called Samurai Spirits Sen. This is all a reversal of what happened with Muramasa: The Demon Blade last year, when it jumped from Xseed to Ignition.

IMPORT ROUNDUP: JANUARY

CORO PATA
Developer: LukPlus
Publisher: LukPlus
Platform: DS
Players: 1

The puzzle-platform game isn't all that prominent on the DS, though there are offerings like Henry Hatsworth and Boing! Docomodake. Coro Pata is a similar idea, albeit one wrapped up in too-cute anime trappings. DS stylus in hand, the player manipulates objects to guide a small girl named Himawari! through side-scrolling levels. Puzzles range from jumping challenges to odd contraptions that must be built, all to keep Himawari! from falling over or crying uncontrollably or being anything less than completely happy. It's simple in appearances, though the character animation is reasonably impressive for the DS. As far as the intended audience goes, I'm not quite sure if Coro Pata is supposed to be some Yotsuba&!-like charmer for both kids and adults, or just something for aging otaku seeking a childlike escape from the soul-deadening lives they've built around themselves. I prefer to think it's the former.
Import Barrier: Much of the gameplay is visual, though players will be lost when it comes to dialogue that's all in Japanese.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Not good, though it might catch the eye of Atlus or a competing publisher.

THE DEVIL HUNTERS: EXORSISTER
Developer: Tamsoft
Publisher: D3
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-4 (ad-hoc)

Here's a premise soundly familiar to anyone who watched anime or read comics or played video games too often in the last twenty years: there's this group of women, OK? And they fight monsters, OK? And they do it while wearing revealing outfits! The Devil Hunters: Exorsister is this sort of production, a violent action game wherein four women, all members of the anti-monster task force code-named Exorsister, take down various creatures in various ways. The heroines, who have names like “Silva Conscious” and “Mina Berry,” get bladed weapons as well as firearms (and numerous costumes) to use in 3-D brawling levels. Up to four players can join the carnage, and it all lives up to the spirit of Tamsoft's own Onechanbara series. Like Onechanbara, Exorsister is part of the Simple 2500 line of budget games, so don't expect Bayonetta-level detail and design in terms of game complexity. Still, Onechanbara started just as small, and now it's a live-action film. Laugh now, but perhaps you'll one day see the name of The Demon Hunters: Exorsister on a movie poster. Next to the name of Uwe Boll.
Import Barrier: Dialogue's in Japanese, but the controls and various dress-up options should be easy to figure out.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Moderate. Onechanbara came out here for the Xbox 360, after all.

MAGICAL GIRL LYRICAL NANOHA A'S PORTABLE: BATTLE OF ACES
Developer: Witchcraft/Natsume
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-2 (ad-hoc)

I've seen Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha described as a fighting series in the guise of a girlish magical-heroine drama, so it's only fitting that a Nanoha game is a grandiose fighter. Well, it's grandiose in terms of the attacks hurled by the game's lineup of magicians as they brawl in spacious arenas (which sometimes don't even have ground to stand on). Flashy projectile attacks are emphasized, and dodging those projectiles is all but essential. Battles often come down to building up a power meter and unleashing some straight-from-the-anime destruction, but that's likely the main draw for the Nanoha fan. Less grand is the game's lineup of only nine combatants, though it includes most of the principal cast from the A's sequel, with rival warriors Nanoha and Fate joined by Hayate, Signum, Reinforce, Vita, Shamal, Chrono, and Zafila. If the characters are few, they're at least customizable, as each fighter can equip up to four different powers before battle. That alone should keep Battle of Aces above water for a few days of play.
Import Barrier: The story is entirely in Japanese, but any English-speaker who buys this likely knows the plot.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Nothing to speak of.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 1-31

WHITE KNIGHT CHRONICLES
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Sony doesn't challenge the RPG empires of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest too often, but they usually bring in Level-5 when they do. After developing Sony's last major console RPG with the space-opera Rogue Galaxy, Level-5 adopts a more fantasy-themed style with White Knight Chronicles. The story smacks of routine, since there's a hero with mysterious transformation-based powers, a shadowy organization, and a princess to save. In gameplay, however, White Knight Chronicles carefully swipes from recent RPGs. Enemies are visible well before battle, and combat gives the player direct control over the lead character, with the others using AI-based attacks and combos to take on the game's frequently huge monsters. The game's “Georama” mode also creates a customized town for other players to visit online, complete with recruited townspeople. Sure, that idea probably came from the Suikoden games, but at least Level-5 steals only the best. And for all of its generic mashing-ups of clichés, White Knight Chronicles has traces of a unique style, at least as far as huge suits of armor are concerned.
Get Excited If: You want a big-budget console RPG that stands just a hair apart from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest milieus.


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