The X Button
Creative Destruction

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 10th 2010

Final Fantasy XIII comes to North America in less than a month, and something is missing. Not the hype or the TV ads or the heated arguments over which Final Fantasy is best (and whether or not the entire series sucks). We'll have all of those in good time. What's missing now is any sort of special bonus for people who reserve the game.

There are generally two reasons to reserve a game nowadays: either you get some promotional trinket, or you get to order a special edition of the game that'll be selling for five hundred thousand dollars in the near future. Reserving Final Fantasy VII got people T-shirts back in 1997, and Final Fantasy XII came in a steelbook two-disc collector's edition in 2006. Final Fantasy XIII doesn't explore either camp, at least not in North America. Europe gets a box set with a soundtrack, an art book, prints, and a decal that no one will ever use. North America gets nothing.

Meanwhile, the Japanese special edition for KOEI's upcoming Fist of the North Star game includes a business card holder, a soundtrack, and a clock that wakes you up with Kenshiro screaming like he's pummeling you until your head explodes. Sometimes the game industry just isn't fair.

NEWS

BLASTER MASTER BLASTS YET AGAIN
This year's biggest game-related surprise so far: a new Blaster Master, announced just days before it hit the Wii. Sunsoft had discussed their return to the American market with the help of former Working Designs head Victor Ireland, but I never expected them to roll out something like Blaster Master: Overdrive so quickly.

The game imitates the original Blaster Master quite closely: players drive a wheeled assault vehicle through side-scrolling stages and explore top-viewed labyrinths on foot. It's laid out a bit like Metroid, as newly discovered power-ups let your tank reach and navigate subsequent stages. The storyline strikes off in a direction apart from Sunsoft's previously continuity (which, amusingly, used the Blaster Master Worlds of Power children's book), and there are no lost frogs to be rescued. That aside, it's faithful to the Blaster Master beloved by so many NES owners, and it's out right now if you want it.

BLAZBLUE: CONTINUUM SHIFT GETS NEW CHARACTER WITH HOME VERSION
There's a line between a mere upgrade to a fighting game and a genuine sequel, and Blazblue: Continuum Shift is slowing crossing it. The new version of Blazblue already added three new characters in its arcade release, and the console port will feature another one: μ-12. She's resembles both fighter Noel Vermillion and the game's semi-boss V-13, and the fact that all three characters are voiced by the same actress, Kanako Kondo, shouldn't be lost on BlazBlue fans.

Continuum Shift, scheduled to hit the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, will also feature those three other new faces: Tsubaki, Hazama, and Λ-11 (who's technically another version of V-13, but any fresh characters are nice). You can expect an American release from Aksys Games not long after the game lands in Japan this summer.

LUFIA II REMAKE CHANGES THINGS, POSSIBLY FOR THE BETTER
I'll give the developers at Neverland some credit: they're remaking Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, but they're not doing it halfway. Instead of just taking the original's designs and putting them into new 3-D graphics, they're changing things all over. The story still has humans warring with a bunch of jerkass deities on a floating isle, but most of the cast, from heroic warrior Maxim to the slender elf Artea, look a little different. Some of them look like completely new characters, and it's Tia, the admiring friend of Maxim, who gets the most drastic redesign.

Actually, I take that back. The most drastic redesign belongs to the thieves Berty and Bart, They've been renamed Jamie and Jimmy, and one of them is now a woman. Of course, they're only supporting characters, and they won't have the gameplay impact that Tia will.

Indeed, this DS-based Lufia remake completely overhauls that gameplay. The original RPG featured menu-driven battles, but the dungeon crawls in between were littered with action-oriented puzzles. As shown in a new trailer, the remake turns everything into an action-RPG, one where each character has specialized attacks and puzzle-solving tools. Players can switch between party members instantly, and both the upper and lower DS screens are used during boss battles. It's out in Japan at the end of this month, and I will be very, very surprised if no American company picks it up.

However, don't expect any translated release for the other recent Lufia project, a cell-phone port of the first game, Lufia and the Fortress of Doom (which is actually the second game chronically, since Lufia II is a prequel, and now my head hurts). We're not missing too much, as it's just a straight adaptation of the 16-bit title, complete with squat characters and far too many random battles. It does, however, have some new artwork.

That'd be Lufia (left) and the player-named hero who helps her on a quest to recover her memories and destroy the evil that's threatening the world. There was a time when that sort of story was new to us RPG fans, though now it proves that the first Lufia game could use a remake even more than the second one.

And yes, I'm aware that the Japanese name of the series is Estpolis, and that the DS remake is called Estpolis: The Lands Cursed by the Gods. I prefer Lufia.

REVIEW: SANDS OF DESTRUCTION

Developer: Image Epoch
Publisher: Sega
Platform: DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $34.99

Sands of Destruction is a curious throwback. It may be a modern RPG backed by its own manga and anime series, but it's truly a remnant of the PlayStation age, which historians place somewhere between 1995 and 2000. The RPGs of this era were strange hybrids of traditional style and crude 3-D visuals. They were rough explorers, treading into narratives and gameplay their ancestors had dared not court. They were also messy at times, and the same goes for Sands of Destruction.

In a break with RPG tradition, Sands openly casts its two ostensible heroes as mentally unstable instruments of chaos. One of them is Kyrie, a self-deprecating boy concealing a mysterious ability that obliterated his hometown. The other is Morte, a wanted revolutionary out to use Kyrie in reaching her World Annihilation Front's clearly labeled goal. The world that Morte wants to end isn't a particularly nice one for humans, as they're slaves in a civilization of beast-people (who are, admittedly, never as harsh as the subterranean genocides of Gurren Lagann). Nevertheless, semi-crazy Morte wants the world ended, and her quest drags Kyrie through a standard Japanese RPG stage of medieval societies and selectively advanced technologies. There are caves and dungeons to plumb, towns to explore, and bosses to fight, all in the fashion of old-school RPGs.

Sands sheds some traditions with its battle system. Characters have the usual options of casting offensive spells and healing, but their attacks lead into all sorts of combos. Each party member starts off with a heavy single blow or a quick succession of strikes, and both types create more powerful moves. The strength and accuracy of every technique can be balanced and increased, and new ones frequently pop up for fighters to learn. It's an engaging method of attacking, similar to the ones used in Xenogears and Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier, and it helps a combat system that's occasionally frustrating.

It's hard to mention Sands of Destruction without bringing up Xenogears, as the games share at least three staffers: writer Masato Kato, artist Kunihiko Tanaka, and composer Yasunori Mitsuda. Sands doesn't attempt the same tribute to dozens of science fiction classics and anime series, but reflections of Xenogears can be seen in Sands: the 3-D environments, the combo-based battles, the introductory fate of the hero's hometown, and, sadly, in the tedious moments.

In theory, Sands of Destruction uses an active battle system, with each character and enemy taking a turn as shown on a meter. Yet the developers at Imageepoch apparently thought this boring, so the game sometimes gives the enemy unexpected boosts in attacking, particular during boss fights. It's apparently random, and it detracts greatly from any attempt at strategy. A fight with a major foe might take twenty minutes of back-and-forth, or that foe might get four turns in a row and wipe out your entire party before you can react.

Pacing problems bring down Sands in many ways. RPGs were just starting to shake off the idea of random battles in the PlayStation era, but Sands returns to them full force. The surprise encounters often grow repetitive, and, as usual, they deter players from exploring. The game's combo system also takes hours to get interesting, and the various castles, dungeons and other stages are fairly bland at the start. Poor pacing even clings to the storyline; Morte and Kyrie putter around their world far too slowly at first, and it's possible that many longtime RPG fans will shut off the game and never look back once the heroes are fetching various items for a cat-pirate.

Yet there's a trace of invention in Sands of Destruction. Masato Kato's script may have been neutered from its grim first draft (which had beast-people eating humans), but some bite remains. Morte, for one, is an interesting break from traditionally sidelined RPG heroines. Her design is pure modern anime-girl lace and thigh-highs, but she's also driven, impulsive, and weirdly upbeat in her thirst for Armageddon. The other supporting characters are a bit boring by comparison, with the only standout being Taupy, an adorable teddy-bear creature with a rasping, battle-hardened voice (like a Teddy Ruxpin piping out Steven Seagal movies). Kato also side-steps conventions when the player least expects it. One scene has a defeated villain swearing revenge, which would normally be followed by his escape. Instead, Morte straight-up murders him on the spot. Sadly, scenes like this are rarely questioned, and their effects are usually swept aside by unremarkable fantasy tropes.

Sands of Destruction looks the part of a vintage-1999 RPG, with decent sprite characters, some fairly impressive 3-D environments, and rather grainy video cutscenes. Kunihiko Tanaka's character designs aren't his best work, lacking the unique classic-anime style of Xenogears or the futuristic look of Xenosaga. The soundtrack is a mostly standard contribution from Yasunori Mitsuda and a few other names. Mitsuda's a long way from his work on Chrono Cross, though his phoned-in tracks are still better than most game composers' top material.

The voice acting is also mixed. Instead of using the cast from FUNimation's dub of the Sands of Destruction anime, Sega went with completely new actors (possibly because they finished the game's translation months before FUNimation did the anime). Taupy's voice is an excellent fit, but most of the other characters sound average, and dramatic scenes suffer from notable pauses between lines. Morte's actress sounds especially unrehearsed, as though she's constantly trying to find the right tone for the character. It all undermines both the storyline and a neat option that lets you equip characters with different mid-battle quotes.

Fans of the Sands of Destruction anime will find the game a different creation. Not only does the anime put supporting characters in new roles (a prominent face in the game dies in the show's first twenty minutes), but it also moves much quicker. Given the choice between a briskly paced 13-episode series and a frequently laborious RPG that's five times as long, many will opt for the former.

For all of its flaws, there's something strangely compelling about Sands of Destruction. It's dragged down for hours at a time by sluggish storytelling and repetitive, bizarrely unfair battles, but it offers a good point every now and then: a well-designed dungeon, a rewarding boss fight, or a half-intriguing plot twist. If that doesn't make Sands worth playing, it at least makes it true to the muddled and vaguely fascinating RPGs of that bygone PlayStation era. Sands of Destruction may be a relic, but it still works.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 2-14

ACE ATTORNEY INVESTIGATIONS: MILES EDGEWORTH
Developer: CAPCOM
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

Let's be honest: the cult-favorite Phoenix Wright legal-thriller games and their eponymous star wouldn't be half as fun without good villains. And the games have no more endearing antagonist than Miles Edgeworth, the haughty prosecutor with a love of cravats and a completely, unmistakably platonic rivalry with Phoenix. Investigations is Edgeworth's chance to shine, as it puts him in the thick of court cases as well as crime-scene examinations. Much of the game uses the conversational interface of past Phoenix Wrights, though Edgeworth's work finds him and his cohorts traipsing through side-view scenery, much like some classic point-and-click adventure game. Of course, Edgeworth needs his own assistants and rivals: Phoenix Wright fans already know earnestly inept police detective Dick Gumshoe, but Investigations introduces prying thief Kay Faraday and flamboyant Interpol officer Shi-Long Lang. It's a slightly new direction for the Phoenix Wright series, and I hope it succeeds to the point where we're playing Ace Attorney Investigations: Larry Butz in 2015.
Get Excited If: You know who Larry is.

DYNASTY WARRIORS: STRIKEFORCE
Developer:
Publisher: KOEI
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $49.99

Strikeforce will seem familiar to Dynasty Warriors fans, and not just because it once again puts them in control of a single soldier hacking through entire armies. See, Strikeforce was also released on the PSP last year, when it tried to stand apart from its Dynasty Warriors 6 brethren by giving its heroes glowing, flying superhero abilities. Of course, characters start off as relatively realistic warriors of ancient China, but their powered-up modes enable all sorts of hectic combos, ridiculous attacks, and Dragon Ball Z imitations. Aside from looking better and adding more dense enemies, the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Strikeforce also use computer-controlled partners in battle, with an online multiplayer mode.
Get Excited If: You passed up the PSP version of Strikeforce because it didn't let you fight enough enemies at once.

KORG DS-10 SYNTHESIZER PLUS
Developer:
Publisher: XSEED
Platform: DS
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $29.99

The KORG DS-10 wasn't quite the next Guitar Hero, but it's a novel little program for the Nintendo DS. I say “program” because I don't want to start a debate over just what sets that apart from a “game.” By any name, the KORG DS-10 Synthesizer Plus is an improved version of the original, and it lets DS owners create their own music in various ways, right down to the wiring of a simulated sound board. The program can also link with eight other DS systems (all with their own KORG cartridges, of course) to play tracks and exchange music. It even has “flanger” sound effects, and the Internet says that these are created when two effects are mixed together. This is a big deal for the KORG DS-10 Synthesizer Plus, I gather.
Get Excited If: You sneer at music games that don't let you compose anything.

RAGNAROK
Developer: GungHo
Publisher: XSEED
Platform: DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $34.99

Yes, this is the same Ragnarök that took over the world of cheap, simple, teen-friendly online RPGing before Maple Story and Gaia Online came along. It looks much like it does on computers, with fantasy-anime motifs and two-dimensional, big-headed sprite characters. Character progression is also handled with skill points, cards, and upgradeable weapons. The difference? Well, attacks and spells are carried out with the DS stylus instead of repeated mouse-clicks. Oh yeah, and it's not exactly a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG any longer, seeing as how the game allows only three players to tackle dungeons together. Still, that's more players than many other DS action-RPGs allow.
Get Excited If: You're disappointed only because the DS game won't accept the high-level Ragnarök Online character you've built up over the past two years.


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