The X Button
Monster Mismash

by Todd Ciolek, May 12th 2010

Well, there's no avoiding this news: someone's making a new Strike Witches game. To the unfamiliar, I could introduce Strike Witches as the perfect example of everything wrong with modern anime, but the truth is that far too many other series could share that description. So I'll just say that it's a show about cutesy, pantsless teenage girls flying around with aerial engines on their legs. Each of them is based on an actual plane and/or a famous pilot, and there's even a blonde pseudo-American girl named after Chuck Yeager.

CyberFront's game, Strike Witches: Wings of Silver, is a horizontal shooter in which players pick three Strike Witches heroines and fly through levels full of candy-colored bullets. It's out this summer in Japan, and while it looks like the sort of thing you'd download from XBox Live for ten bucks, it'll sell as a full-priced Xbox 360 title.

If you want an official and slightly more dignified game related to Chuck Yeager, someone's selling a never-before-seen prototype of Chuck Yeager's Fighter Combat, an unreleased NES game. As of this writing, it costs $1,250 and features no teenage sky-fighters.

NEWS

SQUARE ADDS YOUNGER HERO TO NIER DOWNLOADS, THREADS OF FATE TO PSN
Some are likely still disappointed that the North American version of Nier features only a grizzled hero while Japanese players can choose between the gruff and manful warrior of the Xbox 360's Nier Gestalt and a willowy younger version of him in the PlayStation 3's Nier Replicant. Well, Square Enix apparently heard enough of this complaining, and so the downloadable Nier bonus content, “The World of Recycled Vessel,” will feature a playable young Nier, along with revelations about Nier's wife. Other new features include costumes, more items, and new profanity packs for Nier's angry intersexed swordswoman sidekick, Kaine.

If you prefer an older, warmer, and perhaps better action-RPG from Square, the company recently confirmed that Threads of Fate will arrive on the PLAYSTATION Network for Japan (where it's known as Dewprism). A sturdy and charming game, Threads of Fate charts separate stories for its two playable heroes: the shapeshifting Rue and the irritable, magic-wielding princess Mint. It's good to see the game get another chance at the market, as it was overshadowed back in 2000 by Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy IX. Still, there's no word on when it'll come to North America, and Square hasn't even brought Vagrant Story here. At least we're getting Final Fantasy IX sometime soon.

METAL SLUG XX COMING TO XBOX LIVE
Someone at SNK really likes Metal Slug XX, or at least thinks that it hasn't turned enough profit. After appearing on the DS and PSP, the latest in SNK's side-scrolling shooter series will hit XBox Live next week in Japan, with a North American release very, very likely.

It appears to be the same as the PSP version, with a two-player mode and a training school where a drill sergeant named Cynthia slowly flirts with you. The game will run $15, plus extras. The additional downloads are yet unspecified, but they'll probably include Leona from The King of Fighters series as a playable character, just as in the PSP game. That matters more to me than I wish it did.

MONSTER HUNTER FRONTIER HITS THE XBOX 360
This being a column largely all about Monster Hunter, it should be noted that the Xbox 360 version of Monster Hunter Frontier will be out in Japan this June 24. In fact, the beta test for the game starts tomorrow, so perhaps you can get in if you live in Japan and ask Capcom really nicely before the day's over.

Released on the PC way back in 2007, Frontier still has a few advantages over the recent Monster Hunter Tri. The player lobbies are much larger, and it can claim the largest hunt-able creature in the series. Capcom will likely add more to the Xbox 360 version, and they're already throwing in a year's world of XBox Live Gold with the game.

REVIEW: A WEEK WITH MONSTER HUNTER TRI

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Wii
Players: 1-4 (online)
MSRP: $49.99/$59.99 (special edition)

I doubt anyone expected Monster Hunter to quietly become a huge success in Japan and verge on a cultural phenomenon. But that's what Capcom pulled off, blending an action-RPG with a simplified approach to stalking and killing prey alongside other players. It's not half as popular in North America, but Capcom clearly wants to change that. They're pushing the latest in the series, Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii, like they've never before pushed a Monster Hunter game. So if there's a time to tackle this juggernaut of Japan's game industry head now, that time is now. And tackle it is what I did over the course of a week.

DAY 1
I start with Monster Hunter Tri's single-player mode, and that mode starts with a character's creation, defining his or her skin tone, hair style, undergarments, and so on. It's all largely mundane, though I appreciate any game where your character can possess inhuman, all-white eyes. Secure in my masculinity, I create a female character and then equip her with the largest sword the game has to offer.

Talking to the villagers, I learn that a giant sea creature recently threatened their calm island homes, and I see the game's translators make the most of generic townsfolk babble. My first task is to slay an innocent herbivore creature for its meat, so I head out and slaughter a deerlike dinosaur in front of its young. I'm somewhat relieved when my character bloodlessly carves up the beast by waving her knives over it, since its dino-deer children are traumatized enough already.

DAY 2
By butchering more creatures and gathering more resources, I gain a home camp and learn how strangely bureaucratic this tiny maritime village can be. Hunts results in resource points, which must be filed and tracked by villagers, while the local blacksmith, weapons merchant, and peddler keep up the commerce. Like every other video game, they are never so grateful to their world's savior that they'll give anything away for free. At least they give me a spit for roasting freshly murdered beast flesh.

I also find Monster Hunter Tri's weapons to be sluggish at first. Even the long-range crossbows and extended lances move slow. Yet there's a combo system at work, and it's more intuitive than I expected. My hunter swings her giant sword slowly, but tapping the attack buttons at the right moments lets her whirl it back and forth, establishing a rhythm to her strikes. Too bad the hit detection makes her miss creatures that are standing right next to her.

In fact, every weapon has subtle uses. Long swords have gauges that build with each blow landed and unleash huge combos. Switch-axes, new to this Monster Hunter, shift from one weapon form to the other, though the sword version must be periodically recharged. Bowguns see some interesting changes, as I'm free to build my own from stocks, frames, and barrels of varying power. That's once I can afford them, of course. Nothing comes immediately in Monster Hunter.

DAY 3
After playing in solitude for two days, it's time for me to enter the game's online mode. Players congregate in small cities where quests are handed out and parties are formed. Meeting others evinces how relatively mundane the people of Monster Hunter Tri are at first; compared to the cartoonish orcs and taurens from World of Warcraft, the Monster Hunter crowd are all human tax accounts with furred belts and switch-axes. Not that there aren't more elaborate costumes to find, and you find them by killing more creatures. In this multiplayer world, I immediately set off on a hunt and get mauled by Jaggis, because I forgot to pack any healing items. Oops.

I suspect that Monster Hunter's popularity in Japan was aided greatly by the PSP, which lets players gather in groups and hack through beasties during each morning's subway sit-down. Monster Hunter Tri limits itself to four characters in each city-style lobby, though their pursuits go beyond simple multi-hunter quests. An arena is on-hand to simulate quick-and-dirty battles with a partner, and the game also allows split-screen offline play for two.

DAY 4
Having gone through some quests with others, I'm soon glad for the game's WiiSpeak option. Typing out conversations on a virtual keypad gets tedious, and it, unfortunately, makes a WiiSpeak accessory all but essential if you want to get the most out of the game's online play. Of course, I can always communicate in grunts and gestures, accessed through a simple menu.

Another necessity for the game is a Wii classic controller, which Capcom is packing into the special edition of Monster Hunter Tri. The Wii remote tries its best, but this is a game designed from the ground up for a traditional interface. The familiar controller makes combos and movement much more reliable, particularly when you're flailing through a pack of Jaggi raptors. Unfortunately, neither control option presents a lock-on system, something sorely needed when tangling with animals that often run away or circle behind you.

Meanwhile, the single-player mode has my lone swordswoman taking on various odd jobs for the village and discovering new and deadlier creatures in the region. She's also trying out new weapons, and the game doesn't restrict her to specializing. Hammers, axes, and all of the other armaments can be swapped for her giant sword at her home camp, and the game's armor system proves just as extensive.

DAY 5
With a few good-sized kills under my furry monster-leather belt, I start to explore the world a little. Aside from the monsters roaming around, it's surprisingly barren. There's little sign of civilization, ancient or otherwise, beyond the villages, and traipsing from one area to another brings up relatively long load times (though as someone who remembers the Sega CD era, I find it odd to complain about loading that lasts under ten seconds). It's even worse when a monster knocks my character back through an entrance and into the previous area.

Monster Hunter is not about exploring antediluvian remnants, of course. It's about stalking monsters. And those monsters are impressive. Well-animated and often vicious, they're the true stars of the game. Most give off a Mesozoic air, from the giant mosquitoes to the TRICERATOPS-like Rhenoplos, though high billing goes to the Lagiacrus, an underwater gator-dragon monstrosity that highlights the new underwater mechanics of Monster Hunter Tri. Then there's the Jhen Moran, a massive desert beast brought down in a battle that recalls Shadow of the Colossus. In contrast, the rest of the game looks bland in comparison, and the soundtrack adds little.

DAY 6
When comparing quests online and off, I'm less fond of the single-player experience. There's something lonely about the monster hunts when there's no one around to share the triumph, and outfitting your fighter with new gear is a bit pointless when you can't show it off.

Hunting alone brings up another problem: unlike real animals, these creatures of Monster Hunter rarely go down after taking a broadsword across the jaw. Killing them requires a number of hits, and it's much easier and satisfying to gang up on creatures. Monster Hunter Tri also isn't an RPG in the level-building sense; while your armor and weapons improve, you can't steamroll enemies by grinding for hours. Monster Hunter Tri is an action game in MMORPG clothing, and it rewards skill over repetition.

DAY 7
Looking back on the week, I may understand why Monster Hunter isn't yet huge in North America: traditional online RPG players want a game where they're guaranteed progress just by gaining levels, and the Devil May Cry crowd wants backflips, aerial gunplay, and other nonsense that Monster Hunter can't deliver. Yet Monster Hunter Tri allows borrows the right parts of both worlds, delivering action alongside a robust online game community. It may not refine the Monster Hunter template as much as it needs to be refined, but Tri is a great introduction to it.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

ALAN WAKE
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

There's a good reason everything written about Alan Wake mentions Stephen King: this horror-adventure game has King's emphasis on obsessed authors and evil-drenched rural towns. A writer, struggling to find ideas, finds himself searching for his missing wife, and the trail leads him to live out a novel that he hasn't yet written, a novel where he's menaced by light-sensitive creatures. Granted, this could just as easily be a mediocre Dean Koontz potboiler as it could be one of the better Stephen King works, but there's actual gameplay to help it all along. Alan's forced to play with various light sources to fend off enemies, and the game seems to favor a certain realism in its challenges. Alan Wake might follow the critical darling Heavy Rain and the wonderfully, beautifully bad Deadly Premonition, but it deserves a look for anyone interested in how games can play with stories and suspense.
Get Excited If: You wanted more Silent Hill in your Heavy Rain and less comedy in your Deadly Premonition.

BLUE DRAGON: AWAKENED SHADOW
Developer: tri-Crescendo/Mistwalker
Publisher: DS Publisher
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1-3
MSRP: $34.99

The Blue Dragon series went through an identity crisis: first it was a big-budget RPG designed as a Dragon Quest alternative, then Blue Dragon Plus became a free-roaming strategy-RPG. Now it's trying for an action-RPG, albeit once with familiar Dragon Quest manners. Awakened Shadow, set after the events of Plus, centers on a player-created protagonist, one who'll meet familiar characters in a search for the world's lost shadow-magic The game's battles still have party members summoning shadow creatures, but their attacks, defensive moves, and spirit creatures are all directly controlled. This also figures into the game's three-player mode, in which everyone controls a member of the adventuring group. Of course, Dragon Quest IX has a very similar multiplayer feature, but Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow beat it to the market. Awakened Shadow also has Poo Birds, successors to the Poo Snake enemies that are perhaps more recognizable than actual Blue Dragon heroes or villains.
Get Excited If: You watched the Blue Dragon anime to its end and read Blue Dragon: Ral Grad for reasons other than the artwork.

TRAUMA TEAM
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Wii
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $39.99

Let's give the Trauma Center series a hand: it may not have the fantastically…er, offbeat humor of Phoenix Wright, but it's a consistently enjoyable source of surgery-based gameplay. While previous Trauma Center games showed up at opportune times (such as the Wii's lacking launch) Trauma Team is smack-dab in the middle of a very busy season. Yet Trauma Team also takes the series to broad new venues, featuring six different characters in various pursuits: basic surgery, intrusive endoscopy, bone-sawing orthopedics, crime-solving forensics, stabilizing first-responses, and diagnosis. The cast ranges from returning Trauma Center medical examiner Naomi Kimishima to the hotheaded Maria Torres and CR-S01, an amnesiac convict retaining only his memories of surgery. That alone promises another Trauma Center medical drama, though the new fields of medicine promise more extensive gameplay and novel new uses of the Wii remote.
Get Excited If: You remember the plot of any previous Trauma Center.


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