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Status Check Part 2

by Todd Ciolek, Mar 16th 2011

Last week was terrible, and I assume everyone knows why. Video games surely seem unimportant now, but they're still useful in some small way. Many publishers are donating to help Japan recover from the earthquake, and while you can (and should) contribute directly, you can also aid the cause by buying a game or two.

For example, CAPCOM dropped the price of the iPhone's Street Fighter IV to 99 cents, with all proceeds going to relief efforts, on top of the 100 million yen CAPCOM's already donated. Publisher 5pb. has the iPhone edition of the visual novel Memories Off for 350 yen, and all sales benefit quake victims. Meanwhile, gaming website Siliconera has a fundraising raffle going, with the prize a Cecil Harvey figure signed by Takashi Tokita.

NEWS

GAMES CANCELED, DELAYED AFTER EARTHQUAKE
Nationwide disaster invariably echoes through the game industry. Not long after 9-11, Sony replaced box art on Syphon Filter while Konami edited out scenes of New York from Metal Gear Solid 2 and Sega canceled its Dreamcast release of Propeller Arena. And so the recent earthquake in Japan had similar effects.

Earlier this week, Sega announced that Yakuza: Of the End would be delayed from its March 17 launch date, with no new release window specified for the time being. The latest in the Yakuza crime-simulator series for the PlayStation 3, Of the End has players brawling through hordes of zombies in a destroyed sector of Tokyo. Sega's reasons for keeping that under wraps are obvious.

Sega wasn't alone in delaying games. CAPCOM pushed back the debut of two Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 characters, Jill Valentine and Shuma-Gorath, for the Japanese market. This doesn't apply to other regions, though, so the pair should be available today in North America. Other games with delayed Japanese release dates include Nintendo's Steel Diver for the 3DS, Konami's Powerful Golf for the DS, Kadokawa's The Mahjong of Haruhi Suzumiya for the PSP, Level-5's Inazuma Eleven for the Wii, and Irem's prank-turned-reality cosplay RPG Doki Doki Suikoden for the PSP.

Irem was also the first company to flat-out cancel a game in the earthquake's aftermath, and that game is Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories. As in previous games in the series, Disaster Report 4 had players guiding seemingly average people through a relatively realistic city struck by catastrophe: in this case, an earthquake. The game was Irem's biggest upcoming title, aside from the habitually delayed Steambot Chronicles 2.

PARASITE EVE ON PLAYSTATION NETWORK, JUST IN TIME
Square's Parasite Eve series was an open attempt at appealing to Western audiences, with the game's American setting, cinematic angles, and storyline halfway between a John Carpenter horror film and the original novel Parasite Eve. So it was odd that Square released both Parasite Eve and its sequel on the Japanese PLAYSTATION Network without bringing them to North America and Europe.

Well, that's no longer a problem. Today sees the PSN debut of Parasite Eve, a tale of NYPD officer Aya Brea battling mutant outbreaks in New York City, with gameplay that fuses RPGs and Resident Evil. Parasite Eve II, which leans much more to the Resident Evil side of that formula, will also arrive at a later date.

It's enough to make you wish that Square were making a third Parasite Eve. Oh wait. They are. They're just calling it The 3rd Birthday because of some bizarre creative reason that surely has the company's marketing department happy. But it's Parasite Eve 3 for the PSP by any honest measure, and it arrives here on March 29.

RPG STATUS CHECK: PART 2

I took on the J-RPG market last month, studying the fortunes of the biggest series it has to offer. I was, of course, in way over my head. Japan's game industry has far too many major RPG names to fit into one column, so it's time for a second pass. I excluded strategy-RPGs this time around, along with any game series with fewer than four entries. Sorry, Earthbound fans.

SAGA
Started: 1989
Handler: Square Enix
Total Games: 9

There's conjecture that Akitoshi Kawazu started the SaGa series as a dumping ground for all of the ideas that were too bizarre and uncommercial to risk in a Final Fantasy. But SaGa was still fairly approachable in its original GameBoy trilogy, which gave players greater than usual freedom in assembling and developing their party. It was all at the expense of storyline, though, and SaGa never had the same following as Final Fantasy. That divide widened in 1998, when Saga Frontier looked unfinished (which it was) and empty (which it probably wasn't) next to the previous year's Final Fantasy VII. While critics didn't hate Frontier and its sequel, a number of RPG fans certainly did, and they liked the PlayStation 2's Unlimited SaGa even less.

Status: The last official console outing for the series was 2005's Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song, but that was a remake of the first Romancing Saga from 1991. We say “official” because there's a plausible theory that The Last Remnant, Square's big RPG of 2008, is a SaGa game in disguise, from the obtuse play mechanics to the broad character customization. Yet it confused as many fans as it won over, and there likely won't be a Last Remnant 2. Perhaps the games are better off going back to a portable system: SaGa 2 and SaGa 3 were extensively remodeled into DS games in recent years, though Square balked at releasing them in North America.

LUFIA
Started: 1993
Handler: Neverland Company, Atelier Double
Total Games: 5

The Lufia games range from enjoyable B-listers to the blandly horrible, but all of them have one thing in common: good timing. The original Lufia and the Fortress of Doom arrived in North American during the Great RPG Drought of 1993, and Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistralswas the perfect send-off for the Super NES in 1996. Lufia: the Legend Returns had the Game Boy Color's RPG library almost to itself, and even the dreadful Lufia: Ruins of Lore (the only part of the series not made by Neverland) came along just before the Game Boy Advance was swamped with RPGs in 2003. Neverland's vision of Lufia isn't far from RPG standards: there's usually a determined hero, a blue-haired woman of mysterious or troubled background, and a race of evil gods for mankind to overthrow. But the best parts of the series are held together by sturdy gameplay, decent puzzles, and the occasional well-handled plot twist.

Status: The series looked to have ended when Ruins of Lore faded quickly, but Neverland returned to their baby in 2010 with Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, a DS-based remake of Lufia II. While it brought a novel action-RPG feel to the original game's story, Curse of the Sinistrals didn't take off. Neverland seems content with Lufia's perpetual runner-up status, though, and they last put out a port of the first game for cell phones. Perhaps a true Lufia 3 isn't such a wild fantasy.

BREATH OF FIRE
Started: 1993
Handler: CAPCOM
Total Games: 5

It's hard to make a game full of fish-people, snake witches, grass-skinned sorcerers, and dragon-morphing heroes into something completely dull, but the first two Breath of Fire games tried to do just that. The series was at first an uninspired clash of unique character design and humdrum play mechanics, and it didn't shake off the formula until the fourth Breath of Fire arrived on the PlayStation. CAPCOM took the hint, and the fifth game, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, was something new. It lacked the creative casting of the earlier games, though it still kept the series staples of a dragon-imbued hero named Ryu and a winged girl named Nina. Most importantly, Dragon Quarter had a fascinating free-roaming combat system and a storyline that encouraged players to die and play through again. It was a radical take on the usual RPG mechanism, and it promised great things for Breath of Fire. Of course, it failed.

Status: While Breath of Fire is still the closest thing CAPCOM has to a major RPG series, the company's apparently stopped trying. Two cell-phone Breath of Fire IV spin-offs were released in 2008, and that's all we've heard of Breath of Fire since then. No character cameos in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3, and no Dragon Quarter port for the PSP. Oh well. It wouldn't be the first series that CAPCOM's quietly tossed aside.

SUIKODEN
Started: 1996
Handler: Konami
Total Games: 10

The first two Suikoden games never dethroned Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, yet they swept into the PlayStation library with fresh accomplishments: managing over a hundred characters per game, pulling off large-scale field battles as well as traditional RPG encounters, and telling a story with an efficient, powerful tone. Building from the Chinese legend of The Water Margin, Suikoden I and II offered a well-built world where players rallied an army of misfit characters, surprisingly memorable for the brief attention paid them. Then Suikoden III arrived. Some fans liked it and some didn't, but Suikoden III lost the wide appeal that had carried the first two games, possibly due to series creator Yoshitaka Murayama leaving Konami halfway through the third game. Suikoden III was sluggish and low-budget in the new world of PlayStation 2 games, and Suikoden IV wandered even further into poor design. The fifth game was a valiant effort to set things back on track, but even it lacked the crisp pacing of the best Suikodens. So Konami sent the series onto the DS to die.

Status: Well, Konami didn't mean to kill the franchise with Suikoden Tierkreis. Despite the game's decent reviews, its alternate-reality setting and lack of any recurring Suikoden characters (not even Viki or Jeane) alienated many fans. At this writing, the only Suikoden project in the works lies at that insulting home of farmed-out franchises: the “pachislot” world of slot-pachinko machines. Still, there's always hope in rumors: Murayama's Blue Moon Studio recently mentioned that he “received an offer from a certain company,” and every Suikoden fan hopes it's Konami.

STAR OCEAN
Started: 1996
Handler: tri-Ace
Total Games: 5

The Star Ocean games are known for three things: space-opera settings, quick runaround battles, and horrible bait-and-switch pranks. Each Star Ocean game starts the same way: characters are shown (sometimes quite briefly) in a far-flung future of starships and space exploration, promising a break from the usual RPG fantasy. Then, for one reason or another, the protagonists end up stuck on a less-civilized world full of the same fantasy clichés as every other RPG in history. But Star Ocean games also have efficient combat. Characters race freely around playfields to attack, and the most complex entries in the series even resemble a 3-D fighting game (which is a bonus mode in Star Ocean 3). Star Ocean wasn't remotely as creative as tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile series, but it was noticeably more popular up through the PlayStation 2 era. Star Ocean 3 eroded that somewhat, thanks to a late-game plot twist that rewrote the entire franchise's backstory. In recent years, Square Enix and tri-Ace went all-out in shoving the series toward players, with remakes of the first two games for the PSP and the big-budget showcase of Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Status: And that's where Star Ocean stands today. While The Last Hope earned positive reviews, it's now largely seen as the low point of the series thanks to hideous character designs and even worse attempts at humor. Not much has come from tri-Ace since 2010's Resonance of Fate, though the company's at work on another console RPG. Odds are it's not a new Star Ocean.

WILD ARMS
Started: 1996
Handler: Media.Vision
Total Games: 7

America's RPG geeks remember the first Wild ARMS as an appetizer for Final Fantasy VII. A Western-themed RPG, Wild ARMS wasn't particularly good, but it was something to fill up the summer before Square's cinematic monster arrived in September of 1997. Whether by Sony's financial backing or an under-reported wealth of fans, Wild ARMS caught on: it inspired an anime series, a manga, and a line of follow-ups stretching over the next ten years. Though unconnected in plot, the Wild ARMS games all pepper standard RPG combat and puzzles with Wild-West themes, some games being more obvious about it than others. Still, there's never been a breakout Wild ARMS: the second was horribly translated and buried by other RPGs in 2000, Wild ARMS 3 lost out to Suikoden III and Kingdom Hearts in 2002, and the fourth and fifth games couldn't fight off better-backed competitors in the PlayStation 2's RPG glut of 2007-2008. A remake of the first Wild ARMS failed to re-ignite the series, and Media.Vision tried a different tack with the strategy-RPG Wild ARMS XF. It's seldom mentioned now, though it's one of the few recent Japanese RPGs to use hexagons instead of squares in its grid.

Status: Sony stopped publishing the series in the West after its third entry, delegating the rights to publishers like XSEED Games. Despite its solid track record of overseas releases, Wild ARMS may be losing its backers' attention; Sony hasn't greenlit anything new from the series, and Media.Vision's busying itself with iPhone games like Chaos Rings. Fans must once again take refuge in gossip: some visitors to the 2009 Tokyo Game Show claimed to see footage of Wild ARMS VI, and Media.Vision put out a hiring call for an ambitious project last year.

GRANDIA
Started: 1997
Handler: Game Arts
Total Games: 5

Game Arts announced Grandia to much fanfare back in 1996: the company was just coming off of the well-received Lunar series, and instead of making Lunar 3, they made a good-looking original RPG. Grandia had the same upbeat style as Lunar, but with key differences: the world was more industrial, the battle system was faster, and, conveniently, Game Arts didn't have to share the rights to Grandia with Lunar co-creators Studio Alex. Yet the Grandia games always had trouble finding the right tone: the original, heralded as a visual wonder on the Sega Saturn, was so brainlessly cheerful and golly-gee adventurous that it annoyed many. Grandia II, debuting on the Dreamcast in 2000, went the opposite direction, with a bitter douche of a main character finding his way through the 10,000th RPG plot about an evil church. While the games' quick battle systems were praised, Grandia just couldn't stand on it own. Spin-offs like Grandia Xtreme and Grandia Parallel Trippers went nowhere, and Grandia III didn't arrive until 2005 on the PlayStation 2. It tilted toward the first game's approach: cutesy, eager, and generally bland.

Status: Back in 2004, Game Arts took time out of its busy schedule of rubber-stamping Lunar remakes and tried a new direction for Grandia. Staged as a prequel to the first game in the series, Grandia Online went through many development problems: it was announced in 2004, then languished in development until an open beta was launched in 2009. The game still isn't finalized, though GungHo Works (the company behind Ragnarok Online and the recent Lunar PSP port) continues to back it. Don't get your hopes up for Grandia IV.

ATELIER
Started: 1997
Handler: Gust
Total Games: 19

If RPGs were publicly traded companies, we'd all want to travel time and buy stock in the Atelier line back in 1997, when it was just a single game about an alchemist girl and her shop. A game that showed no sign of ever spawning a cult following or leaving Japan, mind you. But Atelier continued, and it got its chance with a Disgaea-led surge of obscure J-RPGs in the West. To date, NIS America has released three Atelier Iris games, the two Mana Khemia spin-offs, Atelier Annie, Atelier Rorona, and, of course, Atelier vs. CAPCOM. Like the Ar Tonelico trilogy, the Atelier games started out as basic 2-D RPGs, but recent entries have embraced proper 3-D. The games have always embraced alchemy too, as the titular heroines normally spend much time refining, combining, and collecting various items to create new weapons, tinctures, nostrums, and assorted sundries.

Status: The latest in the series, Atelier Violet: Alchemist of Gramnad 2, arrived on the Japanese PSP this February, complete with a special edition and minor improvements over its original version. It stands a fairly good chance of coming to North America through NISA. And even if it doesn't, there's sure to be another Atelier game in Gust's future.

SHADOW HEARTS
Started: 1999
Handler: Sacnoth/Nautilus
Total Games: 4

Shadow Hearts took a few games to find its center. It began with Koudelka, a PlayStation fusion of RPG and 19th-century Resident Evil clone, devised by musician Hiroki Kikuta and other former Square employees. Koudelka was awkward and a bit too straight-faced, and Kikuta departed the company soon after that. Sacnoth, now called Nautilus, tried again with a semi-sequel called Shadow Hearts and a unique timing-based battle system. By this point, Nautilus realized the folly of making a “serious” RPG about demon-hunters in the time of World War I. So they created Shadow Hearts: Covenant, an openly absurd RPG where vampire wrestlers and Princess Anastasia teamed up to fight Rasputin and a corrupt Catholic cadre. Sadly, the concept fueled only one more Shadow Hearts title: From the New World, which brought samurai and giant cats to the most delightfully warped version of America since Tengai Makyo IV.

Status: Shadow Hearts came and went within a few years, but many Nautilus expats joined FeelPlus, with their work best seen in Mistwalkers' big-budget Lost Odyssey. Shadow Hearts: Covenant director Matsuzo Machida also struck out on his own to make ARMS' Heart, a PSP title with Shadow Hearts' gothic-anime style and timing-based RPG battles. It was not well-received.

XENOSAGA
Started: 2002
Handler: Monolith Soft
Total Games: 5

When Xenosaga was first announced, creator Tetsuya Takahashi pointed out that it wasn't directly related to Xenogears, the cult-fave RPG he'd made at Square. Xenosaga was a new project, a re-imagining of the ideas behind Xenogears, and Takahashi and other Monolith staffers had left Square to make the game for Namco. It soon became clear that Takahashi's ideas had been too big for Xenogears or any other frame that the game industry could offer. Originally conceived as a six-game series, Xenosaga grew bloated with cinematic style and a Christian-Gnostic-Nietzsche stew of references. In spite of its decent battle system, Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht was bogged down by overlong cutscenes and some downright ugly anime-doll characters. Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose tried to fix things with a more palatable-looking cast, but it also changed the combat into something both more complex and more frustrating. Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra rushed everything to a finale, simplifying both the cutscenes and the gameplay in an effort to hit every major plot point before Namco lost patience and pulled the plug. And so Xenosaga ended, delivering the vague Xenogears connections (and the Jesus cameo) that everyone expected from the start.

Status: Xenosaga's over, but its most visible main characters, scantily clad androids KOS-MOS and T-elos, live on through cameos. Both showed up in the Monolith-made Super Robot Taisen OG Saga Endless Frontier, and they'll always have a home in anime-fan merchandising. Monolith's last project was Xenoblade, a Wii RPG that, despite the name, isn't connected to Xenosaga or Xenogears. They're serious this time.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DISSIDIA 012 DUODECIM FINAL FANTASY
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1-2
MSRP:$29.99

The first Dissidia was almost the spectacle that young Final Fantasy nerds first dreamt up back in 1994, when both fighting games and Final Fantasy were new and in vogue. Dissidia was a little too strict in selecting characters, though: the protagonists and major villains of the first ten Final Fantasies were all included, whether or not they were interesting to watch and play. Dissidia 012 makes small amends by adding popular secondary characters: Kain from Final Fantasy IV, Gilgamesh from Final Fantasy V, Tifa from Final Fantasy VII, Laguna from Final Fantasy VIII, Yuna from Final Fantasy X, Prishe from Final Fantasy XI, and…uh, nobody from Final Fantasy VI. That's surprising. As for new leads, Final Fantasy XII's Vaan and XIII's Lightning also join the cast. Dissidia 012 also overhauls the original's story mode, replacing the dull board-game navigation with something missing from many modern Final Fantasies: a world map. The actual fighting is less radically enhanced. It's still an arena brawler, though characters can summon sidekicks into battle for combo attacks and other opponent-damaging effects. There's even an “RPG mode” to boil down the fighting to simple attack-and-defend commands, for those players who've never touched a fighter before. And one more thing: Aerith from Final Fantasy VII appears as an “Assist” character, but only if you buy the Dissidia duodecim prologus demo for $2.99. Just pretend you're bringing her back to life like you never could in Final Fantasy VII. Unless you had a GameShark, of course.

NARUTO SHIPPUDEN KIZUNA DRIVE
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1-4
MSRP:$39.99

I'm reminded of a notable Kizuna in the game industry: Kizuna Encounter, a tag-team Neo-Geo fighter notorious only because its European home-cartridge version is preposterously rare, with the circumstances of its release debated even today. Naruto Shippūden Kizuna Drive likely won't be remembered, unless it's given an equally limited print run. It's another Naruto excursion, though not a one-on-one fighter. As the successor to Naruto Shippūden Legends: Akatsuki Rising, Kizuna Drive is a 3-D brawler in which the player's chosen ninja roams around and pounds various foes, all while up to three allies, controlled by the computer or other players, join in the attacks. The battle system uses a mere two buttons for basic moves, but each character has special attacks to unleash when ganging up on enemies. While the roster of playable characters is smaller than those of dedicated Naruto fighters, it's well-stocked for an action game, with Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, Kakashi, Shikamaru, Ino, Sai, Rock Lee, Hinata, Choji, Neji, Sai, Yamato, Itachi, Jugo, and Suigetsu, and Karin all on hand. Perhaps it won't stand out from the pack of Naruto games released so far, but it's at least not another straight-ahead fighting game. And perhaps it'll establish a Kizuna curse by becoming rare. Better buy three copies.


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