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by Todd Ciolek, Feb 1st 2011

Final Fantasy games dominate the news this week, and I sure love Final Fantasying about Final Fantasies all the live-long Final Fantasied day. Well, the truth is that I don't mind so much. As usual, my childhood is to blame.

Back in the 1990s, proper Final Fantasy games came to North America every few years if you were lucky (and if you ignored Final Fantasy Mystic Quest), so there was always some anticipation about them. Most game magazines of this age didn't cover Final Fantasy any more than the typical release, not when there were new Mortal Kombats and Street Fighters each month. So I'd studiously flip through issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro, passing pages of previews about World Heroes and Aero the Acrobat and Awesome Possum Kicks Dr. Machino's Butt before I got to a blurb about the next Final Fantasy.

And that's why I never hesitate to push Final Fantasy news here: revenge.

NEWS

FINAL FANTASY VERSUS XIII SHOWS SOME GAMEPLAY, LITTLE ORIGINALITY
Final Fantasy Versus XIII hid itself well. Square Enix announced it for the PS3 in 2006, billing it as an action game linked to the main Final Fantasy XIII in theme but not storyline. Then Versus laid low while Final Fantasy XIII made its debut and disappointed a bunch of people. Now Versus is Square's next big Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XIII's sequel notwithstanding, and they've finally granted a good look at its gameplay.

The game's new trailer indulges in showing the usual morose hero and demurely curious heroine, but their world is one not terribly far from a modern city. That hero, Noctis Lucis Caelum, is bound by his heritage to protect the Crystals guarded by his father's urban empire, while the heroine is Stella Nox Fleuret, daughter of an influential family from a rival nation. You can see where this is headed.

When the trailer breaks into gameplay, Noctis is shown directly attacking while other characters support him in an arrangement not unlike Kingdom Hearts. The other party members include heavyweight swordsman Gladiolus, ranged attacker Ignis, and shotgun-toting Prompto. Noctis also hops into a riot-control mecha at one point and pilots it into combat.

The trailer's heavy on cinematic aplomb, with Noctis facing aerial battles, giant enemies, and a scantily clad woman in armor. With its gloomy cityscapes and modernist style, Versus is aimed at the contingent of fans who reckon Final Fantasy VII the best of the series, and its direct hack-and-slash combat is a counterpoint to Final Fantasy XIII's preparation-heavy battles.

On the other hand, Versus looks like every other Japan-made action game from the last five years. The acrobatic style, enemy design, and urban levels resemble Ninja Blade and Devil May Cry. Driving vehicles is straight out of Lost Planet. And the pole-dancing knight recalls Ninja Gaiden 2's flattering portraits of women. Thank you, Square Enix, for proving that Final Fantasy can be just as generic as the majority of modern games.

MARVEL VS CAPCOM NOW CLOSEST WE'LL GET TO DARKSTALKERS 4
At this point, learning about new Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 characters is like being excited for a Christmas present that you knew you were getting back in September. Sure, you're glad to have Hsien-Ko from Darkstalkers and Sentinel from X-Men in CAPCOM's next major fighting game, but not as glad as you'd be if they were complete surprises. And they're not, because someone leaked their names months ago.

But they still look great. Hsien-Ko, for those of you who did not rightly spend your youth playing Darkstalkers games, is a Chinese ghost warrior and, technically, two characters in one. Her sister Mei-Ling, also a ghost, takes the form of the yellow talisman on Hsien-Ko's hat. Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 apparently preserves all of Hsien-Ko's attacks from Darkstalkers, and most of them involve her pulling foreign objects from her giant sleeves and huge claws, which are actually wooden extensions that she works like puppets.

Players are unconcerned with Sentinel's backstory: it's one of many large robots that hunt mutants in the X-Men universe. The real point of putting Sentinel in the game is his tier ranking in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 2: along with Storm and Magneto, Sentinel is considered one of the game's most powerful characters, though some frown on such cheap tactics. With any luck, he won't be overbearing in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3, though he's clearly the largest.

Well, Galactus should be the largest character in the game. But he's the final boss and, as such, fills up a good chunk of the screen with his upper half alone. He isn't officially unveiled yet, but Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 ships on February 15.

DISSIDIA 012 ADDS COSTUMES, CHARACTERS, ANNOYANCES
Speaking of other things fans have spoiled, someone went into a demo of Square's upcoming Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy fighting game and dug up a bunch of alternate costumes for the game's characters.

Dissidia 012 improves on at least one of the original Dissidia's problems: a lineup with too many boring lead villains and heroes. Dissidia 012 adds Final Fantasy XIII's Lightning and Final Fantasy XII's Vaan, plus supporting characters like Final Fantasy IV's Kain Highwind, Final Fantasy V's Gilgamesh, Final Fantasy VII's Tifa Lockhart, Final Fantasy VIII's Laguna Loire, Final Fantasy X's Yuna, and Final Fantasy XI's Prishe. Final Fantasy VII's Aerith also appears as an assist character, hopping into battle with a specialized attack or two. Curiously absent so far are extra characters from Final Fantasy VI and IX. I vote for Umaro the yeti and Quina Quen the androgynous glutton-monster.

The bonus outfits are a mixture of minor redesigns and amusing references. Some, like Vaan, have extra outfits based on subtly new art by artist Yoshitaka Amano. Others get more elaborate changes: Tifa has her black Advent Children suit and her cowgirl guide getup from Final Fantasy VII's flashbacks, Kain wears his disguise from Final Fantasy IV: the After Years, and Lightning gets several different soldier outfits and the stock clothing of Parasite Eve's Aya Brea.

Square Enix also confirmed release dates for two other PSP highlights. The package deal of Final Fantasy IV (with touched-up sprites) and The After Years sequel will arrive in North America on April 19 for $29.99. The 3rd Birthday, which everyone is just going to call Parasite Eve 3, hits here March 29. It's also $29.99, which is a pleasant surprise considering Square Enix's usual PSP software prices.

IN BRIEF: MORE SNK CLASSICS, A DEMON'S SOULS SEQUEL, AND A TACTICS OGRE UPDATE
Still intent on reminding everyone of an age when people cared about arcade games, SNK announced another PSP compilation of older titles. Instead of NeoGeo games, SNK Arcade Classics Zero features twenty arcade titles from the 1980s: The Ikari Warriors trilogy, Athena, Psycho Soldier, Gold Medalist, Super Championship Baseball, Touchdown Fever, Bermuda Triangle, Prehistoric Isle, T.A.N.K., Sasuke vs. Commander, Vanguard 2, HAL 21, ASO (a.k.a. Alpha Mission), P.O.W., Street Smart, Guerilla War, Search and Rescue, and Marvin's Maze. Most of them have aged badly, though Guerilla War stands as the only shooter to star Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The compilation is out in Japan this April.

Demon's Souls was a major cult success on the PlayStation 3 in 2009, and From Software had a follow-up called “Project Dark” in the works. It's now known as Dark Souls, and it's coming out shortly. The game has no storyline connections to Demon's Souls, but it aims for the same ground: a grueling, fascinatingly tough dungeon hack where players die often and leave each other grim messages. Dark Souls reportedly has much larger worlds and arsenals of weapons, and Namco Bandai's delivering it to North America this year.

This is will likely be the last Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together update before the game ships on February 15, and I'm doing it just to show off the impressive new trailer. That's a nice trailer. A-yep.

DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP: JANUARY

The realm of downloadable games, spanning consoles as well as handhelds and cell phones, is fascinating in what it offers: classic titles revived, independent creations exposed to a wide audience, and a lot of complete garbage clogging every avenue. Yet there are highlights each month, and it's important to take note of what's good or, at the very least, more interesting than a game about throwing away used tampons.

CTHULHU SAVES THE WORLD
Developer: Zeboyd Games
Publisher: Zeboyd Games
Platform: XBox Live Indie Games
Players: 1
MSRP:240 Microsoft Points ($3.00)

Cthulhu-based comedy has grown cliché. The Internet saw to that well before South Park turned H.P. Lovecraft's tentacle-faced, dragon-winged elder god into a My Neighbor Totoro parody. To give Zeboyd Games due credit, however, I can't find record of any other game where you actually play as Cthulhu. That's the idea behind Cthulhu Saves the World, where the octopus-mouthed monster falls to the earth and decides to conquer it through heroism. Reduced to a tiny 8-bit sprite, Cthulhu wanders an RPG kingdom littered with references to Lovecraft, minus the author's gibbous, squamous, non-Euclidean prose and undisguised racism. Quite garrulous for an alien deity, Cthulhu chats with everyone from townspeople to the game's actual narrator (by speaking English instead of some eldritch tongue that drives mere humans insane just to hear it). Like Zeboyd's Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World is an accessibly fun RPG that never overstays its welcome. It quickly ushers players through menu-based battles with team-up attacks for the game's seven characters, and the dialogue is strewn with (mostly) on-the-mark deadpan humor. The graphics have an old-fashioned, Nintendo-era charm, as does the soundtrack. And despite Cthulhu's overexposure, this is the only place you'll find a Lovecraft icon questing about like a squat Dragon Warrior hero.

THE MAID-SAN'S CAVING ADVENTURE
Developer: Kohei
Publisher: Kohei
Platform: XBox Live Indie Games
Players: 1
MSRP: 80 Microsoft Points ($1.00)

I will freely admit that I hate the anime-maid movement, but I like the English title chosen for this side-scroller. She's not a maid, she's THE maid, thank you very much. Of course, this maid is still an instrument of “moe” anime fandom, so she carries no pick, helmet, or weapon of any kind as she explores caverns full of pot-bellied, club-wielding ogres. Her only defenses are jumping and…well, cowering in terror. The latter actually serves a purpose: when curled up and trembling, she can't be seen by unsuspecting cave trolls. While she's sniveling, though, the player's field of vision dims, and ducking in fear won't do any good if a troll's already spotted her. The game looks like a typical Japanese indie game, with large, clean sprites and insufferably upbeat music. This alone gives it higher production values than 95 percent of the games on the XBox Live Indie circuit. It's also downright cruel in its challenges: you're not there just to survive each stage, but to collect items and make it out with time to spare. It's not exactly the game version of The Descent, but it might appeal to fans of cheap, nastily difficult platform-jumping games. Cynical students of modern anime will also note the extra work that went into animating the maid heroine.

NEOGEO STATION
Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Platform: PLAYSTATION Network
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $8.99 per game or $79.99 for the Bundle Pack

How much do you like the NeoGeo? That's the question behind the NeoGeo Station, SNK's latest adventure in promoting the arcade beast that defined the company in the 1990s and beyond. The NeoGeo Station's first round of ten titles covers many of the system's early successes, and they're all emulated right down to the original arcade games' bugs (which players can turn off in some cases). It's a fine gesture, but there's one problem: every game here is outdated. In fact, they were outdated by the mid-1990s. Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, The King of Fighters '94 and Art of Fighting were all made redundant by their sequels. The same goes for Baseball Stars Professional. League Bowling and Super Sidekicks are fair sports titles at best. Alpha Mission II is an average shooter, and Magician Lord is a style-over-substance action game with some amusing voice acting. Metal Slug, the first of Nazca's cartoonishly gruesome wartime side-scrollers, is the best of the bunch, and even it doesn't rate high next to Metal Slug 2 or 3. SNK also skipped some of the more interesting games from early NeoGeo lore: the enjoyably unique Super Baseball 2020 is nowhere to be seen, and there's nothing from SNK's goofball King of the Monsters series. Perhaps better NeoGeo games will follow, but the current lineup is wanting. Those in need of a nostalgic NeoGeo burst are better served by the PSP's NeoGeo Heroes Ultimate Shooting.

THIS WEEK'S RELEASES

BIONIC COMMANDO REARMED 2
Developer: Fatshark
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: PLAYSTATION Network/XBox Live
Players: 1-4
MSRP:$14.99/1200 Microsoft Points

Bionic Commando: Rearmed is an excellent example of how to update a revered classic. Though recast with modern graphics and self-aware humor, it sticks to the principles of the original Bionic CommandoRearmed 2 changes that. It returns Spencer to duty with a bushy new moustache and various new moves, some pulled from the original (and lousy) arcade version of Bionic Commando. And he can jump. For those who insist than the original game was just fine without jumping and even improved by its absence, that feature can be turned off in Rearmed 2. Other changes are in store, as the sequel was created by developer Fatshark after the orignal's maker, Grin, went under. Fatshark removed the overhead interludes from the first Bionic Commando, and Rearmed 2's levels are no longer staged in branching order. That said, I imagine some will be buying this just to hit the jump button.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

MARIO SPORTS MIX
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Players: 1-4
MSRP:$49.99

Remember when Electronic Gaming Monthly put together a fake Square-Nintendo crossover game called Mushroom Kingdom Hearts? Remember how many people wanted to believe it was real? Well, they'll never make that game. The nearest you'll come right now is Mario Sports Mix, a collection of volleyball, dodgeball, basketball, and the field and ice flavors of hockey. Square Enix isn't just the unseen developer in all of this; they've inserted monsters and character classes from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest into the game, so you'll see slimes and White Mages backing Mario, Diddy Kong, and other Nintendo stars. All of the sports are simplified versions of the ones played in actual life, but Mario-style power-ups appears on the playfield, and every character has a specialized skill. Well, except for the Mii characters that the player can bring into the game. This is the game's way of telling you that you're not special. But you can vent that disappointment through various online modes.

NARUTO SHIPPUDEN: SHINOBI RUMBLE
Developer: Tomy
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1-4 (local wireless)
MSRP:$29.99

I have nothing against Naruto. I think Naruto is a fine ambassador to young anime viewers. And yet it's had free run of the market for over five years. Shouldn't there be another show to usurp the throne and have legions of grown-up Naruto fans complaining about how much better their childhood series was? But no, Naruto is still atop the heap, and there are still games like Naruto Shippūden: Shinobi Rumble headed to our shores. A 2-D fighter for the DS, Shinobi Rumble boasts a story mode with various missions, along with 16 playable characters. That would be an acceptably large cast for a typical fighter, but it seems strangely anemic for the Naruto series, which has about 75,000 different characters, each with some arcane and heavily narrated style of combat. To its credit, Shinobi Rumble uses the DS for plenty of aerial combat, and elaborate combos recreate the moves of the ninja who are actually in the game. At the very least, it'll be better than Windy X Windham.

TRINITY: SOULS OF ZILL O'LL
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: KOEI
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1
MSRP:$59.99

In a gutsy move, KOEI didn't dramatically rename Trinity: Souls of Zill O'll for the North American market. While the “Trinity” part of the title is large and looming, there's no denying the rest of it. This is Zill O'll, and the hell with you if you and everyone else at the local GameStop can't pronounce it. OK, so KOEI removed the “Zero” from the title, but it's not as though players need to be familiar with the rest of the Zill O'll series. Trinity follows three characters on a journey through a medieval-grade land rent asunder by war, dramatically detailed in sepia maps and arrows on the game's European website. It all boils down to massive amounts of carnage dolled out by the playable heroes: Areus is a balanced half-elf swordsman, Dagoa is the heavyweight, and Selene is the pale, nimble assassin who really should wear more armor if she's going to dice her way across the battlefield. Yes, it's the same trio of character types that's entertained brawler fans since the days of Final Fight. Developer Omega Force created most of the Dynasty Warriors games, and Trinity reflects that in the rampant destruction the characters can visit upon enemies. Omega Force pitched the game at North American audiences: the medieval-fantasy backdrops, the towering monsters, and the underdressed heroines all look straight from the covers of paperbacks with names like Sword of the Storm Lands and Curse of the Shadow Lords and Wizard King of the King Wizards.


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