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The X Button Status Check
by Todd Ciolek, Feb 9th 2011
Video games. Yep. Let's talk about them.
ANARCHY REIGNS IS TOTALLY IN SOMEONE'S FACE
Platinum Games built up an interesting reputation with Bayonetta, MadWorld, and Vanquish, though none of their games has inspired a sequel just yet. Not technically, anyway. Their latest, Anarchy Reigns, isn't a sequel to MadWorld's cavalcade of bloodshed, but it's damned close.
Anarchy Reigns is a hyperviolent brawler set in a decaying urban battlefield not unlike MadWorld's walled-off city, and it even features MadWorld's main character, Jack, and his chainsaw gauntlets. The difference lies in the approach: Anarchy Reigns is all about multiplayer carnage, with many different characters for avatars. Aside from Jack, Platinum has so far introduced a cyborg ninja named Zero, an armored hammer-wielder named Big Bull, and an ice-throwing woman named Bayone…uh, Sasha. Producer Atsushi Inaba emphasizes the online side of the game, offering tag-team matches and free-for-all modes, with more to come.
So far, Anarchy Reigns lacks the black-and-white-and-red palette that was so striking in MadWorld, but it's clearly aiming for the same level of violence and the same sector of the game industry. It hits the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in the fall.
TALES OF GRACES F COMES TO AMERICA
Someone at Namco Bandai knows how to play the North American RPG fan. Let's say there's a new game in the Tales series, a game that many players want in English. Well, you can't just announce that it's coming to America right away. You have to stay quiet about the game, maybe set up a mysterious website with hints and vague symbols. Then you announce that you're localizing Tales of Graces F for the PlayStation 3, and it becomes big news. All because of the waiting game.
The original Tales of Graces appeared on the Wii in 2009, offering another round of Tales-style RPG questing and battle systems with direct character control. It follows Asbel, a young nobleman who inherits his father's title and inexplicably meets a young woman who died many years ago. It has the usual Tales decorations: a J-pop theme song, a cast of squabbling anime archetypes, and a battle system with a needlessly complicated name. The Wii version is staying in Japan, but Namco Bandai has different plans for Tales of Graces F, an enhanced port of the game for the PlayStation 3. Included are a new epilogue, new scenes, graphical improvements, and new costumes. This last category is particularly extensive, featuring outfits from previous Tales games as well as Code Geass and the Hatsune Miku wardrobe. Namco Bandai has set no release date for North America, but the official website says “coming soon.” That's enough to make some Tales fans happy.
DYNASTY WARRIORS GUNDAM 3 IS EXACTLY WHAT IT SAYS
For those who care more about Gundam than the latest Tales excursion, Namco Bandai announced that the third Dynasty Warriors Gundam title will arrive in North America this summer.
Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 now looks closer to its anime roots, as the game's cel-shaded. Other minor improvements include the ability to dash out of danger, recover energy mid-fight, or summon partner mecha in the heat of battle. Of course, the big draw is the lineup of playable robots, which adds the Acguy from Mobile Suit Gundam; the Physalis and the Full Vernian Zephyranthes from Gundam 0083; the Unicorn, the Sinanju, and the Kshatriya from Gundam U.C.; the Gedlav from Victory Gundam; the Deathscythe Hell, the Heavyarms Kai, and the Tallgeese II from Gundam Wing; the Double X from Gundam X; the Kapool from Turn A Gundam; the GINN from Gundam Seed; the Raiser, the Reborns, the Cherudim, the Arios, and the Seravee from Gundam 00; and the squat little Knight Gundam from SD Gundam Gaiden Sieg Zeon Hen. At long last, the Kapool's adoring public will be satisfied.
FEATURE: J-RPG STATUS CHECK
Japan-made RPGs are often seen as cuter, nicer alternatives to their Western cousins. While the Western RPG is a creature of hard stats, optional brutality, and blood-drenched commercials set to Marilyn Manson, the J-RPG is stereotyped as a font of big anime eyes, pop songs, and chicken-horse creatures called Chocobos. Well, J-RPGs can be quite harsh, and so can the industry that creates them. The J-RPG market is a vicious place, where franchises rise and fall each decade, with newcomers constantly trying to overtake the established sovereigns. With a new decade now upon us, here's a look at exactly where the biggest J-RPG series of the past 25 years stand today—and where they're going.
There is no finer example of a game franchise that's huge in Japan and minor in the West. The original Dragon Quest and its sequels were smashing successes back in the 1980s, inspiring the oft-bandied-around story about Enix getting widespread complaints of students and office workers ducking their duties for Dragon Quest. Yet it was never the same in North America, where even Nintendo Power's offer of a free copy of Dragon Quest (published as Dragon Warrior) couldn't launch the series to great heights. Enix released the games here up to Dragon Warrior IV on the NES, then quietly stopped bothering. Dragon Quest VII arrived in North America in 2000, but it was 2005's Dragon Quest VIII that exposed the franchise to new fans. With this month's release of Dragon Quest VI on the DS, the English-speaking world is finally caught up on the series, even if it'll never be as huge here as it is in Japan.
Status: Little is known about Dragon Quest X, apart from it being on the Nintendo Wii. In the meantime, Japanese fans have paced themselves with spin-offs like Dragon Quest Swords (available here), the DS Rocket Slime (also available), and the Dragon Quest VIII prequel Young Yangus and the Mystery Dungeon (planned for a U.S. release, but later canceled). The series can't catch Final Fantasy here in the West, but it has several advantages: it's been backed by Nintendo since last year's Dragon Quest IX (above), the games are well-received despite their unchanging play mechanics, and the name of Dragon Quest isn't yet as overexposed as Final Fantasy.
Like it or not, Final Fantasy is the biggest, loudest, most successful Japan-born RPG series worldwide. It's the only such franchise that regularly cracks the bestseller charts in North America (unless you count Pokémon), and it's what comes to mind when most game nerds think of Japan's RPG output. Square enlarges the series wherever it can, even in places where it loses money. After the all-CG film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within cost a ridiculous amount in 2001, Square's stuck primarily to more reliable paths of expanding the empire.
Status: That empire shows no signs of retracting. Square Enix is currently preparing three games just for its thematically connected Fabula Nova Crystalis branch of Final Fantasy: Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0 (previously known as Final Fantasy Agito) and Final Fantasy XIII-2 (above). Also in development are the fighting game Dissidia 012: Final Fantasy and the ongoing Final Fantasy Legends: Warriors of Light and Darkness serial RPG for Japanese mobile phones. Then there are ports, including a slightly touched-up version of Final Fantasy IV and its sequel The After Years for the PSP. And that's to say nothing of the expansions for the online RPG Final Fantasy IV, or the Final Fantasy titles that exist only in trademarks.
It's all become far too much for any single fan to take in, leaving most of the franchise's followers to pick and choose just what Final Fantasy they care about. And that helps the series in a strange way. Most Final Fantasy games are stand-alone titles, requiring little knowledge of the rest of the line, and it keeps the Final Fantasy name from turning into the game version of some convoluted comic-book universe where any reader has to read seven monthly storylines just to keep up. Yet there's growing discontentment: Final Fantasy XIII left more than the usual round of disappointed fans in its wake, and Square's desperately trying to fix Final Fantasy XIV. If there isn't another unifying, high-quality Final Fantasy soon, many fans may choose to ignore the series entirely.
The original Phantasy Star was the best Japanese RPG of the 8-bit era: a complex, lengthy tale with a unique space-opera style. Too bad it was appreciated only by those who owned a Sega Master System in an age dominated by its Nintendo Entertainment System competitor. Sega followed with sequels and a few spin-offs, capping off the series with the excellent Phantasy Star IV. The name of Phantasy Star laid dormant until the end of the 1990s, when Phantasy Star Online became one of the Dreamcast's flagship titles and showed off the nascent world of online console gaming. Since then, Sega has put out Phantasy Star Zero (above) and other games with varying attention paid to cohesive, single-player storylines. Yet they've never satisfied fan demand for a return to the aesthetics of the original Phantasy Star series.
Status: Phantasy Star Portable is the current standard-bearer of the series, playing into Japan's current fascination with multiplayer RPGs for the PSP. It pays some respect to story-driven RPGs as a player-created character follows a mysterious girl around a solar system, but it's very much an online-friendly game. Multiplayer quests drive the game, and Sega expands it with new content and cameos. If nothing else, it's the only game where you can raid space-monster lairs with KFC's Colonel Sanders at your side. And even that isn't good enough for some old Phantasy Star fans.
The original Ys went everywhere: to the Sega Master System, the NES, the TurboGrafx-16, and all sorts of Japanese personal computers. By the early 1990s, Ys was a titan of the game scene. Sure, every game presented a similar plot of red-haired hero Adol confronting some ancient menace, and the “classic” Ys gameplay involved running headlong into enemies. But the series caught droves of fans. Of particular note was the music: about eighty thousand versions of the Ys soundtrack were released, and it's still remembered as a high point of RPG compositions. Unfortunately, Falcom couldn't stay on top of the industry. While Ys survives with new installments and remakes, it's pretty much the same action-RPG series that it always was.
Status: The only thing that's recently changed about Ys is its exposure outside of Japan. Previous Ys games trickled to North America here and there in decades past, with the mediocre Wanderers from Ys arriving on all three 16-bit systems in the 1990s, while Konami released Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim in 2005. Last year, XSeed Games had enough of this sluggish recognition and announced a new partnership with Falcom. Ys Seven (above) and Ys: The Oath in Felghana were released for the PSP, with Ys I and II Chronicles arriving this month. The fourth and the poorly received fifth Ys games are still no-shows on these shores, but it probably won't be long before Falcom remakes them.
SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI
Shin Megami Tensei is an odd standout among Japan's RPGs. Without heroic swordsmen or other medieval-fantasy stylings, it stakes out the world of modern Japanese teenagers caught up in demonic invasions. The original games doused themselves in Western mythology and put up God Himself as a final boss to be defeated, all years before such things were en vogue with other RPGs. Shin Megami Tensei is a dark, frequently grotesque collection of games, with spin-offs reaching into decayed futures and a gruesome version of 1920s Japan. Unsurprisingly, it's a massive cult favorite, and it's by far the biggest thing Atlus has going in any part of the world. In fact, the Persona series, a spin-off of the main Shin Megami Tensei line, is now the most popular part of the franchise among Western players.
Status: Atlus remains quiet on Persona 5, apart from confirming that it's in development. In the meantime, they've thrown their weight behind Catherine, a surreal puzzle-action game about a directionless office worker named Vincent, who's trapped between two women and his own freakish nightmares. It wanders even further from the main Shin Megami Tensei line, but it's linked by a few references and a Vincent cameo in the PSP version of Persona 3 (above). Oh, and by the fact that Catherine's also batshit insane.
Tengai Makyo is the only series in this little feature that's never truly stepped outside Japan. It was too text-heavy, too odd, and “too Japanese” in a literal sense. Devised by Hiroi Ohji and Red Company, the series began as the completely made-up Western author P.H. Chada's distorted version of Japan, all crazed samurai and geisha robots and ridiculous fantasy. This caught on massively, and Tengai Makyo went through four major titles and a bunch of spin-offs, including two separate fighting games (one of which, the Neo Geo's Kabuki Klash, is the only part of the series official translated to English). The series fizzled in the late 1990s, as flashy RPGs like Final Fantasy VII took center stage and Red turned to the Sakura Wars series. But Tengai Makyo still has fans: including American ones who want to finally play it in English.
Status: It's all quiet on the Tengai Makyo front, with the last new game in the series being Tengai Makyo III: Namida (above), a PlayStation 2 remake of the once-canceled third Tengai Makyo. Hudson and Red also remade the popular Tengai Makyo II: Manjimaru (which Working Designs president Victor Ireland once named as his favorite RPG) for the PlayStation 2, and talk of a North American release arose. Nothing happened. Today, fans can only pin their hopes on a publisher translating the PSP version of Tengai Makyo: The Fourth Apocalypse. Set in a wonderfully inaccurate version of 1890s America, it's easily the funniest and most palatable to American audiences. And it probably won't be seen over here.
For RPG-loving American children of the early 1990s, the Lunar series seemed more popular than it actually was. It was a success in Japan, to be sure, but so were many other RPGs. It was Lunar's showing in North America that made the difference. Localized with both goofy modern humor and dramatic panache by Working Designs, Lunar: The Silver Star and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue were captivating RPGs for a generation of fans who had only Final Fantasy and some mediocre samples of the genre to play in English. Yet a third Lunar (rumored to be awful) never went anywhere, and only the simplistic Magical School Lunar came out. Perhaps motivated by legal disputes with Lunar's developer Studio Alex, GameArts favored the new Grandia series. It wasn't until 2005 that Japan Art Media attempted a prequel with Lunar: Dragon Song for the DS. Everyone hated it.
Status: Lunar now endures only through remakes. The most recent, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (above) for the PSP, sold poorly in Japan, and there's no word of anyone remaking Lunar 2. Perhaps Lunar was merely a 1990s thing.
First there was Tales of Phantasia, a decent RPG released for the Super Famicom in 1995. Tales of Destiny followed three years later on the Sony PlayStation (though the game still looked like a Super Famicom title). Then came Tales of Eternia, Legendia, Symphonia, Innocence, Vesperia, Hearts, Graces, the World, the Tempest, and the Abyss. Namco turned Tales into the second-most prolific RPG series around, rivaling even Final Fantasy in the sheer number of main games and spin-offs released each year. Tales titles stick to RPG routine with their resolute male leads and worlds full of ancient technology, but they're consistently popular in Japan. They're not exactly failures in North America and Europe, either, though Namco is careful not to flood the market. Only nine Tales games are available outside of Japan.
Status: Still very much alive. The latest game is Tales of Xillia (above) for the PlayStation 3, and its staff promise a visual style different from previous Tales titles. This apparently translated to “a Tales game that looks a lot like a new Final Fantasy, but still with anime-style characters.” Xillia features the seemingly alien swordswoman Mira Maxwell and fistfighter Jude Mathis in the lead roles, with the supporting characters fitting such stereotypes as the Older Mercenary and the Childhood Friend of the Hero. The battle system features an action-game approach, with linkable moves and two-character attacks. And so the Tales juggernaut rolls on.
Sakura Wars grew from the same alternate-history concept as Tengai Makyo, as Sakura Wars is set in a 1920s world that never was. Yet Sakura Wars also filled itself with the same anime-girl archetypes one seems in dating simulators, and it made a world of difference. Backed by experienced anime voice actresses and the artwork of Kosuke Fujishima, Sakura Wars stabbed precisely at the heart of Japan's otaku in the 1990s while keeping relatively clean. Part strategy-RPG and part conversational visual novel, Sakura Wars games presents themselves as anime-show simulations, mixed with strategy-RPG gameplay like a steam-powered Front Mission. Sakura Wars emerged as a huge success on Sega's beleaguered Saturn and Dreamcast, even if its pull in Japan never drew in any U.S. publishers. NIS America finally took a chance on it in 2010, delivering an English version of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, the fifth and most America-centric game in the series, for the Wii and PlayStation 2.
Status: The heyday of Sakura Wars is long over in Japan. The Sakura Wars café in Ikebukuro is closed, and the last Sakura Wars game was a DS dungeon-crawler. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, also sold below NIS America's expectations, so don't look for any more of the series in English. Yet Sega hasn't given up entirely: there's a browser-based Sakura Wars strategy game (above) in the works, complete with animated attacks and new main characters. At least English-speaking fans won't have to pay import prices for it.
The original Disgaea burst onto the RPG scene in 2003 with its novel strategy-RPG mechanics and something few other RPGs had: self-mockery. Since then, Disgaea's sold itself as much on its sense of humor as its dynamic, openly exploitable play mechanics. Disgaea spikes its cartoon stories with endearingly evil demon rulers, rock-stupid good guys, and a procession of explosive penguins called Prinnies. Technically the souls of the condemned sinful, Prinnies are the mascots of the Disgaea franchise, and they earned their own spin-off series with the Prinny side-scrolling games. It's largely a cult favorite, but Disgaea remains the most enduring RPG franchise spawned in the last decade.
Status: With Disgaea 4 on its way and Disgaea characters popping up in 3DS games, NIS certainly isn't sick of Disgaea. Yet some fans might be. The second Prinny action game, tellingly subtitled Dawn of Operation Panties, found only lukewarm receptions. Prinnies may be cute, marketable little creatures, but their antics (and habit of ending each sentence with “dood!”) aren't as funny as they were a few years ago. And the same might go for Disgaea itself, especially if the fourth installment delivers the exact same thing.
...AND THE REST
Other would-be RPG franchises rose and fell in the last 25 years. Enix and tri-Ace's Star Ocean now appears defunct, after peaking with its second game and going deeper into the uncanny valley. And tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile isn't really a franchise, no matter how much I wish otherwise. Namco and Monolith Soft's Xenosaga series stood on ground just as shaky, and it lives now only through android KOS-MOS popping up in other Monolith-made games. Shadow Hearts, a promising series started by developer Sacnoth, was laid to rest after the developer's dissolution, and the recent PSP Arms' Heart was a pale successor. Mistwalker's Blue Dragon keeps going, though it's apparently moved to portable game systems.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
DRAGON QUEST VI: REALMS OF REVELATION
Dragon Quest VI's American debut comes in the wake of sad news: one of its oldest fans, who wrote Nintendo Power about the game 15 years ago, passed away a month before it arrived in North America. Yes, that's how long people have wanted an official English version of the game, the last Dragon Quest that hasn't hit these shores. Realms of Revelation didn't draw the same cult following as Dragon Quest V or inspire a years-long wait like Dragon Quest VII, but it has its own novel premise: the game's hero and his allies explore two parallels worlds. One is a typical Dragon Quest fantasy, the other is a dreamlike nether-land. Those expeditions involve plenty of secrets, optional monster allies, and the turn-based battles that drive some away from Dragon Quest games. All of the characters can change to a variety of different classes, even combining them for new types of combat work. The DS version makes a few changes to the battle system, though its best addition might be a Slime Curling mini-game where the trademark blue blobs slide around a playfield and make curling an interesting sight. And that's impressive.
HARD CORPS UPRISING
Contra Hard Corps is an underrated marvel. Everyone thinks of the original Contra, Super C, and Contra III when the series comes up, but Hard Corps eclipses them with its memorable boss fights, non-linear design, and selectable weapons. Some complain that it doesn't feel like a Contra game, and Konami seems to agree. Perhaps that's why Hard Corps Uprising doesn't have “Contra” in its title, even though it references the series everywhere, from the first-stage fortress boss to the lineup of weapon upgrades. But Uprising is also the creation of Arc System Works, developer of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, so there's more than just another Contra revamp with spread guns and homing lasers. In this apparent prequel, the heavily armed Krystal and Bahamut (who Contra historians will recall as the villain in the original Hard Corps) can double-jump, bounce back enemy fire, swap weapons on the fly, and dash on the ground or in the air. It seems highly versatile for an old-fashioned shootin' game, and Uprising has the same bright, sharp mixture of detailed sprite characters and 3-D backgrounds as BlazBlue. In tribute to the paralyzingly tough American version and easier Japanese version of Contra Hard Corps, Uprising also has two modes: one with a life bar, and one where you're dead after one hit, as Contra and quarter-hungry arcade games intended.
MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 3: FATE OF TWO WORLDS
I wonder if CAPCOM secretly hopes that they won't have to make Marvel vs. CAPCOM 4 until 2021. See, Marvel vs. CAPCOM 2 was introduced in 2000, and even today it's a popular fighter among both casual fans and competitive nutbags. Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 doesn't have its predecessor's insane 56-character cast, but it's still impressive. On the Marvel side, we find Wolverine, Taskmaster, She-Hulk, the Incredible Hulk, Magneto, Doctor Doom, Storm, X-23, Spider-Man, Deadpool, M.O.D.O.K., Sentinel, Super-Skrull, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Phoenix, and Dormammu. The CAPCOM half: Dante, Chun-Li, Viewtiful Joe, Mike Haggar, Amaterasu, Tron Bonne, Felicia, Ryu, Crimson Viper, Trish, Akuma, Hsien-Ko, Morrigan, Chris Redfield, Arthur, Zero, Albert Wesker, and, for some reason, Nathan Spencer from the Bionic Commando game that bombed. Two other characters, Jill Valentine and Shuma-Gorath, are also available as downloads or with the special edition of the game. In gameplay, Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 has a lot in common with the lesser-known Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM, including 3-D character art that deliberately mimics a 2-D fighter. The two games also share simplified controls: Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 has only three attack buttons, plus an exchange button for swapping characters and launching air combos. Some obsessed fighting-game fans may grouse about this basic arrangement compared to Street Fighter's six-button setup, but those fans are likely also getting this to play Tron Bonne in a new fighter.
Hyperdimension Neptunia has a marvelous concept: an RPG set in a land where everything, from the supporting characters to the floating islands, is based on a game console or company. As this is the creation of an otaku-friendly niche developer, however, those game-system heroes are all large-eyed, scantily clad anime girls that the publisher had to rearrange on the cover so as not to rile the ESRB. Set in a world called Gamindustri (subtle!), Neptunia follows four goddesses and their superheroine alter-egos: the aggressive Noire of Lastation, the easygoing Very of Leanbox, the childlike Blanc of Lowee, and the main character, Neptune of Planeptune. The last one's a Sega reference, it seems. Their quest is one of simple conversation scenes and typical RPG battles, but there's another good idea in there: players can edit symbols and special attacks, putting new emblems on characters or, better yet, designing new weapons to be summoned in combat. The artwork may scare away some players genuinely interested in Neptunia's industry jokes, and Developer Idea Factory has the unfortunate habit of turning neat crossover ideas into mediocre games (see Chaos Wars). Yet there's no denying the appeal of playing as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
TACTICS OGRE: LET US CLING TOGETHER
Tactics Ogre didn't get a proper shake in North America for two reasons. One, the original Super Famicom game stayed in Japan, and the PlayStation version didn't come to North American until 1998, when it was overshadowed by its faster, more approachable successor, Final Fantasy Tactics. Two, Tactics Ogre is a difficult game to like at first: the battles are tough, characters can't be revived once dead, and level-grinding involves boring mock skirmishes. But it's a game with great ideas, from the vast playfields to the complex, dramatically winding storyline. As with most Yasumi Matsuno works, this is a tale of medieval politics. The isle of Valeria is a mess of ethnic wars and nasty power struggles. One of them involves Denam, who's at first just another rebel along with his worried sister Catiua and his reckless friend Vyce. But he's soon part of a struggle for the kingdom's future, and he faces several harsh moral decisions. The story twists down a different path with each of those decisions, and Tactics Ogre even lets players jump back to previous plot points, just in case they don't like Denam murdering everyone. The gameplay is a grid-based strategy affair, with all sorts of terrain effects and elemental alignments driving the battles. The experience-building system, so tedious in the original Tactics Ogre, is now refined to allow players to level up classes instead of individual characters, with new subquests and at least one new warrior to recruit. It's all made by the same staff behind the original, and supported by many of the people who worked on Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, including artist Akihiko Yoshida and translators Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder. But there's still a tenaciously hard RPG there, and it's ready for its moment in the spotlight.
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