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Shoot the Corps

by Todd Ciolek, Mar 9th 2011

The biggest news last week came from the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, though the important part had nothing to do with actual games. It had everything to do with TH*Q angering local residents by releasing scores of balloons to promote HomeFront. Though the balloons are biodegradable, it's still an unfortunate blunder for the company.

I could comment further on this, but instead I'll just remember the days when game advertising embarrassed itself merely on TV and in magazines. For example, here's an ad for the Turbo Touch 360 controller.

This ran in several magazines back in the early 1990s, and I'm still surprised that it was conceived, drawn, approved, and published without anyone thinking it could be taken the wrong way. Or perhaps, unlike TH*Q, the people involved in promoting the Turbo Touch 360 knew exactly what they were doing.

NEWS

SKULLGIRLS IS A 2-D FIGHTER WITH GIRLS. SKULLS FORTHCOMING
Not a bad time for 2-D fighting games, is it? Even after setting aside Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3, The King of Fighters XIII and other big names, you'll find a host of lesser-known fighters in waiting: Sega's Chaos Code, French-Bread's Under Night In-Birth, Examu's Arcana Heart 3, and 07th Expansion's Ougon Musou Kyoku. Unfortunately, most of those aren't easy to find, and only Arcana Heart 3 is coming to North America so far. Skullgirls, on the other hand, is far more accessible. It's a Western take on the Japan-bred idea of anime-infused, all-female fighting games, and it's coming to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this summer.

Skullgirls seems different from the norm at a glance, as artist Alex Ahad gives the characters a thick-lined, cartoonish look with vaguer-than-usual manga overtones. Of the combatants shown so far, two are routine archetypes with creatures called Parasites attached. Fillia's a schoolgirl in thigh-highs, but there's a shadowy, fanged horror named Samson riding on her head. Acrobat Cerebella wears a revealing costume like most fighting-game women do, but she's also sporting a hat that's really a massive-armed monster called Vice-Versa. And then there's Peacock, a deranged killer apparently spawned from old Silly Symphonies shorts.

Developed by fighting-game enthusiasts, Skullgirls adopts a six-button array for attacks, and it's all very friendly toward combos. The game's tag-team mode imitates the likes of Marvel vs. CAPCOM, with players swapping between characters or calling a reserve partner out for brief attacks. Yet Skullgirls offers more options: players can choose a more powerful version of a lone character instead of two fighters, and they can customize a reserve fighter's short strikes however they choose. Being the creation of tournament players, Skullgirls also discourages cheap, endless combos and allows opponents to escape repeated attacks easily.

Skullgirls clearly has a few more characters to reveal, but it'll be playable at the upcoming PAX East this month. And when it arrives in full this summer, we won't need to live near Japanese arcades or pay import fees to experience Skullgirls.

SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED IS FULL OF DEMONS, DIRTY JOKES
Shadows of the Damned drew some notice last year on account of its creators. Goichi “Suda 51” Suda is known for playing jokes on entire sections of the game industry with his No More Heroes titles, and Shinji Mikami earned his place by creating Resident Evil and the recent action-shooter Vanquish. A collaboration between the two shouldn't go ignored. Especially not when it stars a demon-slayer named Garcia Hotspur.

Mr. Hotspur descends into hell itself in search of his girlfriend Paula, and he's armed with a machine gun called the “Boner.” Because it shoots bullet-shaped bones, that's why. This isn't his only weapon, as monsters are also vulnerable to light, whether it's from hellish streetlamps or the Boner's under-barrel photon thrower.

The game is heavy on macabre imagery interspersed with rather crude humor, from Hotspur's informative Johnsonpedia guide to profane posters scattered all around levels. That's the Suda 51 we all know, and there'll be plenty of his influence showing when Shadows of the Damned arrives on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in June.

MOON DIVER HAS A RELEASE DATE
I was worried about Moon Diver for a little while. The game looked impressive when it was first announced as Necromachina in the West, but it dropped out of sight for a few months, and I started wondered if Square Enix had canceled it in some fit of financial panic. But Moon Diver, as it's now called everyhwere, is still around, and it still shows promise as a ninja-action title from Koichi “Isuke” Yotsui, the man responsible for a lot of what made CAPCOM's Strider arcade game so awesome. Moon Diver technically isn't Strider, but look at that familiar sword-slash aura. C'mon.

Moon Diver has something Strider didn't: a four-player mode, with each player controlling a different color-coded ninja assassin. It's all part of a war between mankind and an army of evil, formerly inanimate objects. That idea lends itself to all sorts of crazy enemies and boss encounters, and I really hope Moon Diver makes the most of it all. It already has cool team-up attacks called “MoonSaults.”

And Moon Diver now has a release date: March 29 on the PLAYSTATION Network, with an Xbox 360 debut not yet pinned down. Until then, Strider fans can just play as Sayuri in Hard Corps: Uprising. Speaking of which….

REVIEW: HARD CORPS: UPRISING

Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Konami
Platform: XBox Live Arcade (available now)/PLAYSTATION Network (March 15)
Players: 1-2
MSRP:1200 Points (XBox Live)/$9.99 (PSN)

Hard Corps: Uprising is a game without a home. It's technically tied to Contra: Hard Corps, the best and most experimental of Konami's blisteringly hard action-shooters. Yet Konami and developer Arc System Works balked at putting “Contra” in Uprising's title, intending to give the Hard Corps line its own identity. And they're right: Uprising really isn't a Contra game. But it's still a side-scrolling shooter of cruel design, and it stands upon that fine line between a challenging game and a dose of pure masochism.

Both a prequel and a retcon to Contra: Hard Corps, Hard Corps: Uprising finds four soldiers facing the military strength of the oppressive Commonwealth and its dictator, Tiberius. This resistance cell is led by the former Commonwealth soldier Bahamut, who was (perhaps) the villain in Contra: Hard Corps, and Krystal, an eyepatched survivor of a vicious Commonwealth attack. They're accompanied by two characters available as extra downloads: the sturdy, pompadour-sporting Harley Daniels and the swordswoman Sayuri. There's a bit of exposition before each stage and a little plotline involving one of Bahamut's former comrades, but let's be realistic: Uprising's all about the chaos of combat, and the destruction players can bring to the army that the Commonwealth throws at them.

In facing the Commonwealth, the characters are doled out a standard set of Contra weapons: the Machine Gun, the Spread Gun, the slow-and-powerful Crush Gun, the charge-able Heated Plasma flamethrower, the bullet-bouncing Reflector, and the heat-seeking Chain Laser. Each can be upgraded twice, and two weapons can be carried and switched out in battle. Arc System Works also gives the Uprising cast some new abilities: they can double-jump, dash in the air or on the ground, strafe enemies, and fire in any direction without moving. The game's Arcade mode sticks to these basics, but the Rising mode allows players to buy new abilities: automatically powered-up weapons, extra lives, speed boosts, triple jumps, bullet-deflecting moves, and various dashing attacks.

Yet there's an unpleasant sluggishness to the characters at first. They're slower and larger targets than the usual Contra heroes, and they start off with only a weak rifle. The best Contra games had sense enough to give players a machine gun as a default weapon, but Uprising sticks you with a limited peashooter. Other annoyances arise: you can only deflect enemy fire when you're standing perfectly still, and that opens you up to all sorts of damage. The game may have the weapons and giant fortresses of Contra, and yet under the surface Hard Corps Uprising has a lot more in common with Dolphin Blue, a lesser-known arcade shooter that Arc System Works made in the style of Metal Slug. Dolphin Blue was vaguely fun, but it was also loose and unfair in its structure. Uprising has better control (and diagonal firing), but its shortcomings still bring down the experience.

That's because Hard Corps: Uprising is terribly difficult, and not always in a rewarding way. The first stage unleashes cunningly aimed projectiles and limitless supplies of dense troopers, and it only gets tougher from there. This is a game all about memorizing enemy patterns, devising strategies, and then counting on pure reflexes to pull you through. The Commonwealth army boasts all sorts of soldiers, creatures, and transforming boss mechs, always with some new way to kill you. Concessions are few: the continue checkpoints are forgiving, and characters have life meters instead of dying from one hit. But there's no lack of dangers, and if you fall down a pit after being struck, you lose one whole life anyway.

There's nothing wrong with a nastily hard game so long as there's clever design to make it all worthwhile. Hard Corps: Uprising doesn't always deliver that design. For every insane, edge-of-your-seat boss battle or enjoyable spate of carnage, there's a dull stretch. The first level ends with a memorable speeder-bike chase and a pitched battle against a robotic sandworm, but then the second stage drags on through a jungle war where you face repetitive arrays of snipers and toxic plants, with a bland helicopter boss thrown in the middle. The later stages show off a brutal highway duel on hover-boards and a missile-riding ascent through Commonweath headquarters. Yet there's also a laboratory raid that includes sneaking around and an escort mission, two things that have no place in any chaotic action title.

Uprising has remedies for its stiff gameplay, but they must be earned. Yes, players have to spend points on things that should've been part of the game from the start: a default machine-gun weapon, a decent walking speed, and a dash that's actually useful. Upgrading characters adds a lot to the game, but Arc System Works hid a little too much and made everything a little too expensive. What's more, upgrades are unique to a character: if you turn Krystal into a powered-up, fluidly controlling character, none of those improvements will apply to Bahamut. You'll just have to go through the game with him.

Also up for purchase are two extra characters: Harley and Sayuri. Biker-cool Harley isn't all that different from Bahamut and Krystal, apart from resisting more damage. Sayuri, on the other hand, changes the entire game. She's limited to sword-swipes and charged energy shots, counting on her powerful attacks to neutralize enemies before she's damaged. Sayuri turns Uprising into Strider 3, making the game slightly easier, but considerably more interesting. And that's well worth the extra cost.

Uprising looks surprisingly clean for a game about battlefield mayhem. The characters are mostly 2-D sprites, from the masked stormtroopers to the snapping robot alligators, while the major bosses and backgrounds are 3-D. They don't clash in appearance as much as they do in style: the hand-drawn characters are animated and designed well (some soldiers even surrender, just to make you feel bad). The backgrounds, on the other hand, can be strangely empty, and some of the more organic bosses would be better if they were hand-drawn. The soundtrack's a huge pile of marvelous heavy-metal shrieking by Guilty Gear creator Daisuke Ishiwatari, and it fits both the game and the delightfully ridiculous animated intro. In contrast, the voices are terrible, as though Konami deliberately wanted to evoke a stiff '80s arcade game. It's strangely hilarious to hear one boss's stilted laughter or Krystal's robotic readings of quips like “I thought beautiful women didn't get tickets.”

So Hard Corps Uprising really isn't Contra after all. It's just not tight enough or fair enough to match the best in the series. Yet it's also better in some ways, with a look that breaks away from the typical Contra revamps. It has plenty of enjoyable moments and the intriguing bonus of Sayuri, making it easy to forgive some poor design choices. It's a stylish bundle of the highs and lows that make run-and-gun games what they are: brutal, messy, and somehow compelling through it all.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

AR TONELICO QOGA
Developer: Gust
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1
MSRP:$59.99

Couldn't just call this Ar Tonelico 3, could you, Gust? It had to be Ar Tonelico Qoga, just so GameStop clerks across North America could hear customers ask for “Ar Tonelico AWOOGA.” It's pronounced “Ko-ga” or "Quo-ga" and apparently means “end” in the magical made-up language of Ar Tonelico's world, but perhaps you shouldn't tell the clerks that. At any rate, another Ar Tonelico means another tale of a young swordsman joined by two women from the artificial, all-female race of Reyvateils. The hero is Aoto, while the Reyvateils are the escaped experiment Saki and the down-to-earth Finnel. The two women have three different personalities each, and they come into play during the game's Diving scenes. In these dialogue-driven excursions, Aoto explores the mental mazes of the Reyvateils, strengthening their in-battle song magic and, of course, unlocking new outfits for them to wear. There's also a large cast of supporting characters, with a few guests from the last Ar Tonelico. This new Ar Tonelico has changed in other ways: the battles are now free-roaming, with a Reyvanteil singing spells while other characters race around to attack and, naturally, protect the female character. The game's also 3-D now, and it looks surprisingly good for a Gust game, faint as that praise may be. And since this is an NIS America release, the game comes with a soundtrack CD and an artbook, the latter of which will tell you all you need to know about the game.

GODS EATER BURST
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1-4 (ad-hoc)
MSRP:$39.99

So you didn't like Monster Hunter? Or Square's Monster Hunter clone, Lord of Arcana? Well, maybe you'll like Gods Eater Burst, Namco Bandai's stab at the pie of multiplayer action-RPGs cooked up by Monster Hunter like a big…well, a big, awkward metaphor. Anyway, Gods Eater Burst tries to stand apart in a few ways. For one thing, there's an Actual Plot, even if the cutscenes and characters all set up expeditions to take down creatures called Aragami. These beasts have brought the human race to ruin, and the best weapons against them are warriors called Gods Eaters (renamed from the Japanese version, God Eater, to avoid offending anyone). Instead of forcing players to choose between bows and swords, the game gives characters God Arcs, customizable weapons that can switch between close-range blades, long-range guns, and shields. Upgrades enhance not only the God Arcs, but also their wielders. While there's no defined system of classes, the game itself judges and rates players on what they do during battle, with healers, tanks, and (I expect) inveterate cowards. The game's world of destroyed cities and wastelands is a little more intriguing than the comfy wilderness of Monster Rancher, even though Gods Eater Burst is still about the multiplayer first and foremost. And if you can't find three other players in ad-hoc mode, you can recruit computer-controlled allies for your lonely Gods Eater.

JIKANDIA: THE TIMELESS LAND
Developer: Opus Studio
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1-4 (ad-hoc)
MSRP:$29.99

Jikandia is like many RPGs: a three-character party explores dungeons, gaining levels and slaying monsters. But Jikandia is set up like a side-scrolling action game. With two party members in tow, the lead character hops and slashes through levels straight out of an action-platform title. The game's deliberately basic visual style, comparable to ClaDun or Cave Story, suggests the days of NES games and computer RPGs like Sorcerian, though there are plenty of modern touches. Players control one dimensionally displaced kid in search of his classmates, and each rescued character adds something to the game. In combat, characters can activate an Awakening mode for extra-powerful attacks, and there's a four-player mode with a variety of mini-games. Yet the most interesting thing about Jikandia is its player-controlled timer. Set it for a few minutes, and the game grants you a short dungeon crawl; set it for more time, and the dungeon grows comparably longer and different in design. It's a convenient idea, and I can only hope it will spawn more RPG levels than can be beaten during the five spare minutes of a lunch break. It also makes the most of Jikandia's basic appearances. But dungeon hacks don't have to be beautiful, do they?

OKAMIDEN
Developer: CAPCOM
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP:$29.99

There's something vaguely tragic about CAPCOM making an Okami sequel when Studio Clover, the original game's developer, has scattered and re-formed as Platinum Games. But CAPCOM will have its sequel, and that sequel turns Okami's realm of gentle scenery, Japanese deities, and paintbrush gameplay into a DS game. Naturally, the graphics aren't as gorgeous as they were on the PlayStation 2, but shrinking the game has its advantages. For one thing, Okami's wolf-heroine Amaterasu has given way (or perhaps given birth) to Okamiden's Chibiterasu, an adorable little wolf puppy. Though inexperienced, Chibi still has the Celestial Brush, and he uses it to repaint and repair the watercolor world around him. Armed with a bouncing Reflector weapon and upgradeable brushstrokes, Chibi is joined by useful allies, from the sword-wielding Kuni to the floating Kurow. Comparisons to the Zelda games still ring true: Chibi treads through dungeons and uses his newest ally's abilities to solve puzzles, upgrading his arsenal along the way. Zelda rarely let players destroy demons with a giant paintbrush, though. And with the DS stylus, that destruction feels far more natural.

YAKUZA 4
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1
MSRP:$59.99

Yakuza 4's trip West was far smoother than that of Yakuza 3, which was the subject of some cruel guessing games organized by Sega's U.S. branch. But here's Yakuza 4, delivered with minimal uproar. As yet another free-roaming simulation of the Japanese mob, Yakuza 4 again follows middle-aged Kiryu Kazuma, who's successfully running an orphanage and unsuccessfully trying to avoid his former life as a gangster. He's accompanied this time around by three aspiring goons: balanced ladykiller Shun Akiyama, heavyweight ex-con Taiga Saejima, and quick-and-dirty cop Masayoshi Tanimura. As they roam the streets and rooftops of Kamurocho, they'll take on mob missions, meet club hostesses who aren't just after their money, and brawl a lot in the game's rather detailed fighting system. Aside from the three newly playable characters, Yakuza 4 revamps the franchise's leveling-building system, letting players buy new abilities and explore different branches of combat skills. The game also won't be trimmed as much as Yakuza 3; while the Answer X Answer quiz will still be yanked for the American release, Sega plans to leave in the mini-games pertaining to mahjong, ping-pong, and club hostesses. It has just about everything short of a zombie outbreak. And that's in the next Yakuza. Really.


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