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Girlfriend is Better

by Todd Ciolek, Aug 17th 2011

Last week I mentioned the Final Fantasy Type-0 demo for the PSP, now available from the game's official Japanese site. I've played it, and I can safely say this: yep, it's a Final Fantasy game.

Of course, this means that Type-0 is different from previous Final Fantasies in several ways. For one thing, it doesn't sanitize the war that's engulfing its vaguely 19th-century world—at least not at first. The game's introduction is littered with death and bloodshed, recalling the tone of Final Fantasy XII more than the glittery opera of Final Fantasy XIII and X. Yet it soon turns to the Peristylium Suzaku magical academy and all of the stereotypical characters we'll be following for the game. They range from suave young magic-users to punk-haired young scythe-wielders, but all of them are students and all of them fit within the increasingly staid Final Fantasy mold. One can only hope that the game's grim opener isn't just a fake-out.

Type-0's most promising in its gameplay, though that's more for its ideas than execution. Three-character parties roam around and attack enemies without a need for random encounters or battle menus: attacks are tied to the PSP's face buttons, and you can pull off repeated strikes and evasive moves just by holding down one button. The environments also show more versatility, as seen when a huge robotic scorpion climbs a building to launch missiles and blast vehicles high into the air. A shame that it's not put together so well at this point: the hit detection's a little off, and the camera is terrible. At least director Hajime Tabata's promised to fix the latter in the final game.

Final Fantasy Type-0 isn't that far from its Japanese release in October, and we've learned the name of the last playable cadet—she'd be the shotgun-packing Cater. Yet we haven't learned just how Square Enix will bring the game to North America. They'd be foolish to skip it entirely (lagging PSP market or not, this is still a Final Fantasy), so it may be available only in downloadable form for the English market. I admit I'm intrigued enough to try the final version, just as long as the camera's better.

NEWS

NURA: RISE OF THE YOKAI CLAN TURNS FIGHTING
Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan probably isn't the next Naruto in the U.S., seeing as how Viz couldn't even get Nura a spot on cable TV. But hey, it's got a large cast and ninja-heavy action that works pretty well in the confines of a fighting game. Konami and Arc System Works, developers of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, clearly realized this when crafting Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan: Great War of a Hundred Gathering Demons.

This upcoming Nura fighter makes good use of that cast, as the game's playable characters can be paired with over 100 yokai, with each combination granting different abilities. The game's also outfitted with four-player combat and an online mode, and the whole thing's wrapped in a visual style that recalls Okami and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. It's out for Japan's PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on November 17, with an American launch none too likely.

STEEL BATTALION: HEAVY ARMOR ALIVE AND ON THE KINECT
I half-expected CAPCOM to cancel Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. After all, CAPCOM killed two Megaman games, and Steel Battalion is far from a top franchise. The original Steel Battalion was an impressive achievement, simulating mecha combat better than any game has before or since, but most remember it just for its giant controller and $200 price tag. But CAPCOM still has Heavy Armor in the works, and it has the most important thing a Steel Battalion game needs: complicated controls.

Steel Battalion still can't resist an abnormal scheme: players use Xbox 360 controllers to handle the movement and attacks of their Vertical Tanks, but the Kinect comes into the mix for less direct actions. The motion-sensing controls let players start up the VT, interact with the other people inside the machine's cockpit, and work the various knobs and dials on the mecha's switchboards (I believe that's an eject button on the right). All of this is carried out in the battlefields of the year 2082—which, thanks to technological setbacks, now looks a lot like a battlefield from the year 1954.

Nude Maker, the co-developer of the original Steel Battalion, are seemingly uninvolved with this sequel—and Atsushi Inaba, who started Steel Battalion as a pet project, is no longer with CAPCOM. Instead, Heavy Armor's the work of From Software, best known for all of those Armored Core titles. The game arrives next year, just for the 360. By itself, it won't cost quite as much as the first Steel Battalion, but many of that game's fans might pick up Kinects just for Heavy Armor.

IN BRIEF: ZOE 3 RUMORS, PS3 PRICE DROP, MORE FIGHTERS IN FIGHTERS
Hideo Kojima recently stirred the pot of Zone of the Enders 3 rumors simply by posting a shot of a model he found on the desk of “Omori-kun” (evidently artist Takahiro Omori). The mecha and the logo behind it have many squealing that Zone of the Enders 3(DS) is coming, after years of Kojima working on Metal Gear Solid instead. Nothing was confirmed, so don't get your hopes up. Then again, Konami's reviving both Zone of the Enders and its sequel for an HD Collection, so the franchise still has some standing.

A week after Nintendo dropped the 3DS to $169.99, Sony announced a price cut of their own: the 160GB PlayStation is now $50 cheaper, retailing for $249.99 in good ol' soon-to-be-devalued American money. At this rate, the system will be $49.99 by the end of the decade, so plot your bargain hunting accordingly.

More new additions for fighting games: Street Fighter X Tekken adds the ninja Raven and the bear Kuma (and presumably his alt, Panda) for the Tekken side, while the Street Fighter camp responds with its own ninja, Ibuki, and its own grappler, Hugo from Final Fight and Street Fighter III. Meanwhile, Soul Calibur V confirms other returning characters, most of whom haven't changed much. Voldo's still a creepy, heavy-breathing assassin. Tira still looks like a goth parrot. Hilde's still armored head to toe. And Maxi looks a lot like he did in Soul Calibur IV, despite the fifth game being set 17 years down the road. This will surely disappoint the fans who wanted him to take his Elvis-like looks to their overweight, middle-aged conclusion.

REVIEW: CATHERINE

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Catherine is easily misunderstood. It's advertised with all the restraint of a crass dating simulator, as its blonde lead splays across pianos, messily eats pizza, and suggestively gazes out at would-be buyers. That's all part of Catherine, but the game defies such simple expectations. Beyond the cover, it's a much stranger and, dare I say it, more mature creation.

Vincent is an aimless fellow slinking through his post-30 life, his coding job, and his relationship with a reserved, sensible career woman named Katherine. He has a circle of friends, but Vincent doesn't seem to know what he wants—until one night brings him face to face with a beguiling younger woman named Catherine. She's predatory, she's cynical about marriage, and she's sleeping next to Vincent the following morning, even though he can't remember how she got there.

Vincent can't remember his harrowing dreams, either, but the player experiences them all. He's dropped into a world that's part baroque citadel, part mystical slaughterhouse. Here, upright-walking sheep climb for their lives on massive towers where shoving blocks around is the only way to proceed up. Disturbingly enough, all of the sheep seem to be men caught in a shared nightmare, and each of them thinks he's the only human in the flock. Goaded on by the mocking proprietor of this purgatory, Vincent makes his way up the tower, rallying the other sheep every step of the way.

When not caught up in nocturnal horrors, Vincent tries to sort out the mess he's made of his life. Players guide the indecisive schlub through afternoons at his local hangout, chatting with friends and meeting some oddball patrons who resemble the same sheep-men from his dreams. In a move reminiscent of Persona, Vincent builds a social life by talking to the other barflies, most of whom wrestle with infidelity or commitment. And then there's the matter of Catherine and Katherine: both of them press Vincent in different ways, and both of them ply him with text messages and demands. Of course, none of this has anything to do with the recent rash of mysterious deaths among local men—many of whom were reportedly unfaithful to their wives and girlfriends.

Hard as it may be to believe, Catherine's reserved in its treatment of sex. It's implied and mentioned and prodded at, but the game's really about broken relationships, exploring why men cheat, what it does to them, and what, if anything, they do about it. Vincent himself is caught in what may be his life's biggest decision: sticking with the stable Katherine (who's possibly pregnant), jumping to the girlish Catherine (who's possibly pure evil), or being an idiot and juggling both of them. His insecurities come to light in the levels of his nightmares, each of which caps off with Vincent pursued by a giant embodiment of his fears of commitment, sexuality, and even Eraserhead-grade trepidations about fatherhood.

So goes half of Catherine. The other half lies in the block towers, where Vincent shoves cubes around and scrambles upward. He's able to push them, pull them, and climb them, making for a rather simple approach before the game adds new hazards: some blocks explode, some can't be moved, some have teeth, and some have other sheep standing on them. Fortunately, Vincent picks up techniques easily, and players must learn how to create stairs, how to bring down unscalable walls, and how to keep blocks in the air as long as they touch another block's edge. And these things must be learned quickly, for the lowermost section of the tower falls into oblivion every so often.

The tower's fast-paced block puzzles add to the macabre tone of Catherine, even though they're also its greatest annoyance. Continues are plentiful and the game allows many different solutions for reaching the next level, but the controls suffer from strange hiccups, particularly when Vincent's hanging from a cube and edging his way around the tower. It's quite frustrating to have the perfect solution ruined because Vincent simply couldn't get to the right block in time, and it's a strange flaw in such simple gameplay.

It's not the gameplay alone that makes Catherine interesting. Free of broad conflicts and world-threatening dangers, it's a game about one man figuring out just what he is. Vincent's a strange lead: in the game's version of real life, he's a nebbish, begging the question of why either woman would want him. In the dreamscape, however, he's a resolute leader, spurring the sheep onward and ultimately saving as many of them as the player manages. In fact, much of the game has a subtle side. There are indeed shrieking infant hellspawn to face, but there's also a steadily building sense of dread, and it reaches disturbing heights when Vincent's fellow tortured souls confront their own issues—and sometimes fail, if you haven't been attentive enough. The same goes for the game's concept of romance; Catherine texts Vincent naughty pictures and teases him at all turns, but it's largely realistic and tied to more complex problems. After seeing countless other games approach sex with all the maturity of a bad comic book, it's refreshing to find one that actually uses it to make a point.

If it's a unique tale for a game, Catherine isn't completely smooth. The script tries to explain itself in half-plausible terms at the end, and it winds up in places both cutesy and cliche. Without spoiling too much, Catherine and Katherine are almost exactly what they seem, and the game's downright manichean about their differences. As a convenient meter shows, Katherine's a decent, stable woman, and Catherine's a wicked little interloper. The game's only breaks with this strict morality come in the form of questions thrown Vincent's way, and the answers are judged by bizarre standards: is golf really more sinful than baseball?

If the game's world isn't terribly broad, it at least looks good, as the characters evoke a 3-D anime style without crossing over into the grotesque. The soundtrack draws from classical pieces fairly often, and the voice acting is impressive. Granted, the game's graphics engine allows for detailed mouth movements, and this makes the dubbing a little more obvious than usual. There's no option for the original Japanese track, but the English cast has excellent work from the usual suspects: Troy Baker gives Vincent far more of a spine than he might otherwise have, and Laura Bailey's Catherine leaves nothing to complain about. Hints are narrated by Jamieson Price, who made Catherine the rare game where I didn't skip the tutorial.

And there's the real hook: Catherine stands apart in many little ways. For all of its obvious symbolism and seemingly standard-issue anime influences, there's a genuinely intriguing tale about things rarely approached well in games—and there's a frequently enjoyable puzzle game to go with it. If the simplicity sometimes grates in both fields, there's no denying that Catherine's a novel break from the routines of the game industry. It's easy to get the wrong idea about the game at a glance, but it's hard to put it aside once you understand.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Human Revolution has the unenviable task of pleasing a rather picky fan base. The original Deus Ex is still revered in many parts, and those parts show no mercy to follow-ups that aren't every bit as impressive. Witness the reception of Deus Ex: Invisible War, an OK sequel reviled mostly for not being as large and diversified as its predecessor. Perhaps they'll be nicer to a prequel.

Human Revolution is set 25 years prior to the events of Deus Ex, so it plays in a more primitive time, a time before nanotechnology took the place of good ol' Shadowrun-esque cybernetic limbs and night-vision eyes. Corporate security specialist Adam Jensen is acquainted with such enhancements when he's wounded by rival operatives. As he stumbles through manifold conspiracies, Jensen's augmentations are largely directed by the player, with a number of different parts available for the discerning cyborg. As in the original Deus Ex, players get a choice in play styles, with the game allowing stealthy tactics, violent gunplay, and dialogue-driven negotiation. If it truly lives up to Deus Ex's reputation, half the fun will come from screwing with awkwardly voiced bystanders.

SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: DEVIL SURVIVOR OVERCLOCKED
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99

Devil Survivor ruffled a few feathers by getting its character designs from manga artist Suzuhito Yasuda instead of longtime Shin Megami Tensei illustrator Kazuma Kaneko. Yet it's still a strategy-RPG very much in the franchise's tradition, as it follows a band of Tokyo citizens caught in a city that was attacked by demons and sealed off by the military. In this sequestered little pocket of hell, our heroes make it through with the help of various demons. Battles find three-character squads moving and attacking on grids, and gaining new abilities from downed enemies. The game branches in many directions with the player's decisions, and multiple endings await.

The Overclocked version of Devil Survivor adds an extra day's worth of storyline, extensive voice acting, difficulty levels, and about 20 or so usable demons. It's also optimized for the 3DS, though the game's sprite-based graphics aren't as striking as a 3-D title. Yet it's a fun strategy-RPG on a system that has very few of them at present, and that's a good enough selling point for 3DS owners who've never tried Devil Survivor before.

STREET FIGHTER III: 3RD STRIKE ONLINE EDITION
Developer: CAPCOM
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: XBox Live/PLAYSTATION Network
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $14.99

CAPCOM might've found Street Fighter III disappointing at first. Despite all of the time and detail the company put into the game and its hand-drawn graphics, Street Fighter III failed to re-ignite the franchise's popularity and restore the fighting-game craze of the 1990s. It did, however, go through three incarnations, and the third of these is considering by some to be the competitive peak of Street Fighter. Should the civilized world survive the next twenty years, I have no doubt that fighting-game tournament players will still go at it on 3rd Strike. That's what we're dealing with here, and CAPCOM's smart to bring it to XBox Live and PLAYSTATION Network instead of porting…I don't know, CAPCOM Fighting Evolution.

For its Online Edition, 3rd Strike was shined up a lot: all of the graphics are now in HD, with each character getting a specialized filter, and even the music is remixed. The game also adds a Theater mode for online play and a string of increasingly tough challenges for players to complete, thereby unlocking a gallery of art, endings, and backgrounds. Setting aside all of the polish, 3rd Strike has everything good about the Street Fighter III line, including the best gameplay adjustments and the most characters (even if the Mitsuteru-Yokoyama-esque Q and the shapeshifting Twelve push the oddness). This is the important part for anyone who truly digs into a fighting game, and Online Edition appears to have the accuracy and the netcode to deliver it.


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