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The X Button Ways Forward
by Todd Ciolek, Jan 5th 2011
Welcome to The X Button, where I hope to spend yet another year as your number-one source of complaints about how no one makes sequels to forgotten old NES games. But let's discuss something a little more relevant: game music.
Xenogears, Square's insane prog-rock album of an RPG, divides opinions even today, but even its detractors agree that Yasunori Mitsuda's soundtrack is pretty good. It's all in the style of a 16-bit RPG, though, and the sound technology of the PlayStation doesn't really elevate it. So Square, after sheepishly ignoring all things Xenogears for over a decade, will release Mitsuda's Myth: The Xenogears Orchestral Album this February. It's all well that Myth records 14 Xenogears tracks with a full orchestra, but it represents an interesting opportunity. Many of Square's older game soundtracks have benefited from orchestral versions in the past, but others still go ignored. And perhaps we'll see a few more of them dragged up and re-recorded if Myth is a success. I can't wait for the King's Knight orchestral release.
VAGRANT STORY, XENOGEARS, THREADS OF FATE ON PSN
Technically, Square's had Vagrant Story, Xenogears, Threads of Fate, and Legend of Mana on the PLAYSTATION Network for some time, but never for North America. Fortunately, that's where the ESRB just cleared all four games for PLAYSTATION Network release, so it won't be long before this continent can conveniently experience three of Square's more interesting PlayStation releases. And Legend of Mana.
Of the four, Vagrant Story earned the most critical acclaim. It's an explorative action-RPG directed by Yasumi Matsuno and loosely connected to the world he built in Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII. Like his other works, it's restrained and detailed; nearly the whole game is set in a ruined medieval-fantasy city where royal agent Ashley Riot stalks a mysterious cult leader. There's a complex weapon-building system and a lot of territory to uncover, though Vagrant Story drew attention more for its translation, marking the first time that Alexander O. Smith imbued a Matsuno game with flourishes of Ye Olde Mocke Englishe. The game's weapons provide its only sticking point, as you're required to switch between them constantly by going in and out of menus. A shame that the PLAYSTATION Network version won't fix that, since it's just the original PlayStation game from 2000.
Xenogears is the most frequently discussed of the bunch, and with good reason: it's one of the most crazily ambitious RPGs ever made. There's still debate over whether it is Square's brilliant opus or a complete mess, and many will find it in the middle. A big, sloppy paean to giant robots and RPGs, Xenogears sprawls over a lengthy quest that tackles everything from reincarnation to godlike computers, all wrapped up in Christian/Gnostic/Judaic/I-Don't-Even-Know imagery and techno-fantasy RPG stylings. For the price of a PLAYSTATION Network download, that's at least worth a look.
If you want something easier to enjoy, Threads of Fate is the most reliable choice. It's a basic, bathos-free action game with two playable heroes: a firebrand princess named Mint and a blander, shapeshifting warrior named Rue. Each goes through a different version of the same general story, with Mint wielding magic while Rue morphs into the various monsters he meets. It's quite a charming little game, and I hope it won't be overshadowed by the other titles in this Square menagerie.
And then there's Legend of Mana. Square's never recaptured what made Secret of Mana so much fun, though they've certainly tried time and time again. Legend of Mana at least puts on a decent show, with gorgeous scenery and a vibrant Yoko Shimomura soundtrack. Unfortunately, the storyline has no direction, muddling through quests in a world that players lay out themselves. The gameplay also runs like a more primitive version of previous Mana games, and it all results in what was the first of many mediocre Mana follow-ups.
CARPE FULGUR ANNOUNCES CHANTELISE
If I were given to tabloid sensationalism, I'd proclaim Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale to be the SURPRISE SUCCESS OF THE YEAR or some such nonsense. Yes, it was a surprise to see all the mainstream acclaim around an indie Japanese PC game that was half dungeon-crawler and half item-shop simulation. First-time translation studio Carpe Fulgur found a hit in Recettear, and it was enough to get another indie PC game in the pipeline.
That game is Chantelise: Chante and Elise's Story, a 2006 action-RPG by EasyGameStation, the same Japanese outfit that created Recettear. The Chante of the title is a headstrong young woman who's turned into a fairy by some forest-dwelling witch, and her sister Elise helps her search for the responsible party. The two of them explore various 3-D ruins, with Chante launching magical attacks while Elise shoulders the dirty work of swordplay. It lacks Recettear's merchant exploits, but there's a lot to find in Chantelise's world. Carpe Fulgur aims to release it later this year.
SOUL CALIBUR V COMING
It was an unexpected Christmas present: Namco producer Daishi Odama sent out a Twitter message (I refuse to call it a Tweet) with a simple announcement: Soul Calibur's coming back. He's currently taking suggestions for the next game, though he hasn't dropped too many details yet. Like Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada, Mr. Odama needs to pick a friendly fight with someone at CAPCOM.
While it might not carry as much competitive weight as Street Fighter IV or Virtua Fighter, Soul Calibur has long held appeal for casual players and any fighting-game fan who appreciates a bit of atmosphere. Yet the series grew repetitive with its tales of demonic swords driving warriors in the Age of Exploration, and Soul Calibur IV desperately tried to liven up its cast with characters from Star Wars and the pens of popular manga artists. Perhaps Soul Calibur V will steer toward a more coherent path. Or maybe it'll just be this.
VIRTUAL ON FORCE IS REGION-FREE
See this? It's the Japanese version of Virtual On Force for the Xbox 360. And there's nothing to stop you from importing a copy of it and playing in on that Xbox 360 that you haven't modified at all beyond a small spill of Coke Zero. Sega even translated the important parts of the game into English. Of course, you still have to pay money for it, and you certainly should do that if you like mecha-based combat games and want to encourage Sega to make more. Otherwise they'll just give up and make another crappy Golden Axe sequel.
PREDICTIONS FOR 2011
It's time once again for that favorite yearly feature among game critics. Why is it a favorite? Well, because it has us doing nothing but spewing half-informed predictions about the coming twelve months. And we don't have to worry about being grossly inaccurate, because no one's going to remember these studiously educated guesses by the end of 2011, when a year will have passed without Nintendo stopping all game development in order to make hanafuda playing cards once again.
THE LAST STORY MAKES OR BREAKS MISTWALKER, PROBABLY BREAKS
It's hard not to draw parallels between the The Last Story's title and the original Final Fantasy, which Hironobu Sakaguchi so named because he expected it to be his last game. Decades later, Sakaguchi is directing The Last Story through Mistwalker, a studio he founded after leaving Square in 2004. And he's mentioned that he's throwing himself into the project as though it's his last game, even if it isn't. So there's evidently a lot riding on The Last Story. Mistwalker hasn't found much success in RPGs beyond the Blue Dragon franchise, and even that went from a well-budgeted Xbox 360 game to a line of cheaper DS titles. Mistwalker also canceled the vaguely promising Cry On, a co-production with normally mediocre developer Cavia. So Mistwalker has every reason to want The Last Story to become what they've sought all these years: the Next Big RPG in Japan.
In that regard, The Last Story tries to avoid what Japan's RPGs have done before, at least in gameplay. The battle system uses environments, projectiles, feints, and combat in ways almost more suited to an action game. The storyline, on the other hand, has a mercenary hero, a sequestered princess (with Mysterious Powers!), and a ragtag supporting cast of mages and warriors. The game's style blends anime-eyed looks with a more realistic sense, and that's not always popular with Japanese audiences.
Counterpoint: The Last Story's a major RPG for the Wii, and it's backed by Nintendo. With Dragon Quest X and the next Final Fantasy a ways off, The Last Story's only potential competition is another Nintendo-backed Wii RPG: Xenoblade. And the Final Fantasy connection will turn some heads when The Last Story. Now if only Nintendo would actually announce when it's coming to North America.
SQUARE STUMBLES, GETS FINAL FANTASY ALL OVER THE PLACE
Final Fantasy XIII wasn't what Square wanted. Sure, it sold by the wagon-load, but it also drew plenty of criticism for its linear play, poor pacing, and failure to be exactly what every Final Fantasy fan wanted. Plus, it took five years and a lot of money to make. And then Final Fantasy XIV came along and…well, it hasn't pleased anyone too much. It's no wonder that Square Enix CEO and President Yoichi Wada isn't sure of just where the series is going.
If Square Enix's past successes are any indication, Final Fantasy is going somewhere cheaper. Enix shocked a few by making Dragon Quest IX for the DS, but it resulted in a critical and commercial hit, all without eating up years of development time and money. Square has long been the less stable half of the Square Enix union, and they've emulated Enix's propensity for remakes and handheld spin-offs more and more in the years since the two companies merged. Making Final Fantasy XV on Nintendo's upcoming 3DS would be a much safer bet than plugging another half-decade into a big-budget Final Fantasy.
And when it comes to Final Fantasy, Square might just turn a future installment of the series over to a Western developer. The company considered doing that with Project Fortress, a Final Fantasy XII sequel planned by Bionic Commando developer Grin. The game was swiftly dropped when Grin folded, but Square's clearly not opposed to working with developers outside of Japan, and Final Fantasy's losing ground to Western RPGs that appeal to a broader North American audience.
Counterpoint: Final Fantasy's known for extravagance, and you can only get so much sweeping scenery and stunning combat out of a 3DS display. There'll be something Final Fantasy for the 3DS, but Square has too much pride to make it an official numbered game. Oh, and we're sure that Square will hand a Final Fantasy game over to a Western developer after the runaway success of Front Mission Evolved.
LONG-DEMANDED SEQUELS FLOP
We game nerds like to imagine that we're a stronger force than we actually are. We'll spend years begging companies to make a sequel to a beloved title, and then we'll find some reason not to buy it when it finally appears. Or perhaps we're just not as influential as we think, and all of the exuberant message-board posts of hardcore fans grant a game only modest sales at best.
These theories will be tested this year with two long-awaited titles: Kid Icarus: Uprising and Mega Man Legends 3. They're both long-requested games among devoted fans, and they're both being made for the expensive new Nintendo 3DS. And that may be reason enough for some fans to put off buying them. In fact, Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune worried that the people clamoring for another Mega Man Legends might abandon the game once it was announced. And they're more likely to shun Mega Man Legends 3 when they have to buy a new handheld system just to play it.
And let's face it: the first two Mega Man Legends were cult favorites at best, and they weren't revamped or reissued while other Mega Man titles were. What's more, Kid Icarus was never a particularly popular name in Nintendo's catalog. We blame Captain N for that.
Counterpoint: Never underestimate Mega Man fans and their willingness to support the franchise. Besides, there aren't that many must-buy titles scheduled for the 3DS in its first year, and a solid 3-D action game like Legends 3 might be just what plenty of new 3DS owners need. And the Kid Icarus name has enough recognition to sell games just for the “Come on, it's Kid Icarus!” angle, Captain N be damned.
SOMEONE FINALLY MAKES A GUARDIAN LEGEND SEQUEL
It was small news when Compile Heart, a developer formed in part by ex-employees of Compile, announced that they'd acquired the rights to Compile's old game catalog. But this means that Compile Heart can make a sequel to The Guardian Legend, Compile's wonderful NES-based fusion of shooter and labyrinthine action-RPG. Well, there's the fact that The Guardian Legend came out in 1989 and doesn't have much name recognition today. That might hold things up.
But that doesn't matter. It's been far too long since a game married shooters and action-RPGs like The Guardian Legend, and WayForward's well-meaning Sigma Star Sigma isn't good enough to count. The game industry needs another The Guardian Legend, even if Compile Heart plays it safe and turns the transforming jet-android heroine into a blushing modern anime doll. We'd even buy a 3DS for it.
Counterpoint: Yes, I'm sure Compile Heart's top priority is to revive a 21-year-old NES game that Compile never returned to in its heyday. And then SNK will make another Crystalis, Sega will make another Panzer Dragoon, and Sega will buy the rights to Bubsy and make him their new mascot in place of Sonic the Hedgehog.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
KINGDOM HEARTS: RE:CODED
For those of you who demand another proper Kingdom Hearts instead of side-stories and remarks, I suggest that you just take a marker and put a large “3” on the cover of Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded, because this is as close as you'll get to an actual sequel this year. It's based on Kingdom Hears: Coded, a cell-phone game set after the convolutions of Kingdom Hearts II, though Square's overhauled the battle system such that Re: Coded now plays more like Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, and a new “overclock” gauge gives recurring hero Sora new abilities as he attacks foes. The storyline remains largely unchanged from the cell-phone game, as Jiminy Cricket uncovers some mysterious piece of lore and sets Sora, Donald Duck, Goofy, and other companions on another journey across Square's fusion of Disney-movie dimensions and rarer cameos by Final Fantasy characters. Even that's a little different: the cutscenes are now much more detailed, and Traverse Town now plays like a side-scrolling scene from Super Mario Bros. Except with floppy-haired, keyblade-wielding heroes instead of plumbers.
PRINNY 2: DAWN OF OPERATION PANTIES, DOOD!|
Platform: Sony PSP
The original Prinny action game, Can I Really Be the Hero? was an endearing tribute to the nail-tough side-scrollers of decades past. In other words, it was Ghosts 'N Goblins for the Disgaea world, with adorable demon-penguins leaping through castles, hacking through monsters, and dying by the truckload. It was a little stiff and more than a little demanding, but it embodied the cute side of the Disgaea franchise in a fun action-platformer. The sequel has a lot of the same ideas, though its premise also embodies the less cuddly aspect of Disgaea. It's called Dawn of Operation Panties, after all, and it finds Prinnies hunting for the stolen underwear of Etna, a bullying demon lord who looks about 12 years old. Ew. That aside, Prinny 2 adds a forgiving difficultly level, new attacks for the 1000 Prinnies, and the chance to play as a fireball-chucking Prinny version of Disgaea antihero Laharl. The original game's bonus character also returns for Prinny 2's “Asagi Wars” mode, where penguin-ified warrior Asagi hauls out rifles and gatling guns to cut her way through the underworld…and a giant, 8-bit pixel version of herself, seemingly filched from Cladun. And so the Prinny series once again fills the often empty niche of side-scrolling action games starring penguins. Can't remember the last time we saw a lot of those.
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