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Strike Through

by Todd Ciolek, Sep 28th 2011

Let's talk about witches. Not real-life Wiccan ones or whatever, but the pop-culture witches that turn up in videogames with magical powers and giant hats and broomsticks. They're rarely given the spotlight, and they're all too often generic enemies or capriciously neutral characters like Deneb from Tactics Ogre.

Witch heroines aren't terribly common in games. In days of the NES, one could try the not-quite-classic The Krion Conquest, though Vic Tokai removed the Japanese version's story scenes and pentagram symbols. Perhaps they were afraid that the antics of a Megaman-like witch named Francesca would drive the youth of America to forge pacts with the devil. The same era also saw the witches of Magical Chase and the Cotton series, but neither caught on.

In modern times, NIS America was impaired by no Puritan judgments in making the DS RPG A Witch's Tale, which fell through the cracks rather quickly. There's also Bullet Witch, but that had no high points outside of a pump-action broomstick shotgun. And let's not even discuss SNK's witch-touching Doki Doki Majo Shinpan games.

This brings us to the latest NIS venture, an upcoming PlayStation 3 action-RPG called The Witch and the Hundred Cavalrymen. The above art is the first glimpse of the game, and it's described as a violent open-world experience with 3-D graphics. The player controls a cavalry soldier in service to a blonde witch named, it seems, Metallica (I hope that's true, and I hope it stays that way in the English version). Moral decisions play a role in the story, and the game's portrayal of witches may be all up to the player. So there's another new take on video-game witches.

NEWS

GRAND KNIGHTS HISTORY COMING HERE, PHYSICALLY AND OTHERWISE
Some North American companies have forsaken the PSP, but XSeed Games isn't one of them. On top of the graphic adventure Corpse Party, the publisher also landed one of prettiest games from the system's final generation. Grand Knights History, an RPG from Vanillaware, is headed to North America as a downloadable PLAYSTATION Network release—and a boxed, retail-shelf version that you can walk into the store and buy, just as nature intended.

Grand Knights History explores a war among three nations: the religious empire of Union, the magically active land of Avalon, and the mountain dictatorship of Logres. While there's a host of characters caught up in bloodshed, the player creates a personal knight as an avatar, choosing everything from a hair color to a specialized weapon. Alongside a squire named Lisha (Ricia?), players explore the conflict through broad strategic maps and menu-driven battles. It's all covered by Vanillaware's signature look, with large, jointed, highly detailed characters. XSEED hopes to have it out this winter.

PROFESSOR LAYTON HAS BONUS RPG, LOOKS FAMILIAR
Professor Layton and the Curious Specter for the DS has the usual round of puzzles and conveniently puzzle-related plot twists to confront Layton and his assistant Luke. It also has one of the coolest bonus modes in ages: a 2-D RPG called London Life.

London Life lets players create an avatar and roam around a version of the city peopled with various Professor Layton characters. Nintendo claims that the game has over 100 hours of play in its many subquests and unlockable London areas. If that's exaggerated, there's surely a good RPG's worth of time in London Life. And if it looks a lot like Mother 3, that's easily explained: developer Brownie Brown also crafted Mother 3 for Nintendo.

The main storyline in Professor Layton and the Curious Specter is a prequel to the original Layton game, detailing just how Luke and the logical professor met. Their first adventure involves a town built on allegedly haunted ancient ruins, with the specter of the title controlled by a mysterious flute. The game's due out on October 17, and the London Life bonus mode will be available from the start.

YS IV REMADE YET AGAIN, THIS TIME ON VITA
It's hard to believe that Falcom was dormant for a while back in the late 1990s. They're downright aggressive with their games now, as evidenced by Ys Celceta: Sea of Trees showing up as a PlayStation Vita title. It's technically not another Ys sequel, but rather a reimagining of Ys IV by Falcom proper. There were two separate versions of Ys IV made back in 1994, but Falcom didn't handle either: the TurboDuo version, known as The Dawn of Ys, was a Hudson project, and the Super Famicom game, the canonical Mask of the Sun, was made by Tonkin House. Neither game came to North America, but Celceta stands a better chance of that, what with Xseed and Falcom's partnership.

Ys Celceta: Sea of Trees takes a few cues from Ys Seven, mostly in the game's combat system and the player's ability to command a party of characters instead of just boring ol' Adol. Of course, the redheaded warrior Adol is still the focus of the game, which finds him stricken with (surprise!) amnesia and forced to rebuild his adventurer's experience. Ys Celceta is scheduled for a 2012 release in Japan.

DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP: SEPTEMBER

BASTION
Developer: SuperGiant Games
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform: XBox Live Arcade, PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $14.99

Bastion's look suggests a typical anime-inspired action game, with a silent, white-haired young hero treading through diagonally arrayed levels and uncovering new weapons along the way. But it sure doesn't sound like the typical fare, as a narrator describes the player's every major action. Plot twists, weapon acquisitions, enemy introductions, and even falls into bottomless pits are accompanied by the wry gravity of newcomer Logan Cunningham's voice. It's a novel approach that alleviates the need for tepid tutorial modes or frequent melodrama, and it turns Bastion into a rare experience.

Bastion isn't lacking in the rudiments of an action game, either. The Kid, as the hero is known, snaps up a wealth of interesting armaments with customizable effects, and players can enhance The Kid himself with RPG-like efficiency. The game also expands at the player's discretion, as a massive hub world grows with optional discoveries. And it's built with colorful style, resembling some high-gloss mixture of the Old West and a Final Fantasy netherworld. Isometric action games are rarely done so well—or even done at all—and that's another reason to give Bastion a shot.

RADIANT SILVERGUN
Developer:Treasure
Publisher: Treasure
Platform: XBox Live Arcade
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $14.99

Is Radiant Silvergun the best shooter ever? Some would tell you that, even though the game's reputation rides high on Treasure's pedigree and pricey demand for the original Saturn release. But now all of that's stripped away by the game's affordably priced and slightly improved XBox Live release, and Radiant Silvergun holds up surprisingly well without a $200 eBay auction behind it. It's a 2-D shooter at its core, but it's willing to overstep the restrictions of many other entries in the genre: the limited weaponry, the static bosses, the reliance on giant sheets of enemy bullets instead of thoughtful game design. Radiant dodges at lot of that by giving the player seven weapons at any time, including six conventional shots and a close-range blade that swipes up special pink projectiles and morphs into a screen-clearing scissors. Radiant also paces itself a little slower than conventional shooters, approaching its levels more like an intricate action game. This makes for some rather clever challenges and some amazing boss encounters, and it's spurred by a combo system that rewards players for shooting down enemies by their colors.

The XBox Live version of Radiant Silvergun preserves the original game well, with an added HD touch-up for the graphics and some new online features. The story mode has a stingier continue system, though it's still the main thrust the game, letting players level-up their weapons while a ridiculous, overdramatic story builds around them. That story remains a mix of anime theatrics and some intriguing twists on the end of human civilization, and it's all subtitled for player convenience. It also sets the tone of the game rather effectively, and the same can be said for Hitoshi Sakimoto's soundtrack. It's all an impressive package, and if it's not the best shooter ever, it's a steal at fifteen bucks.

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

Like Radiant Silvergun, Street Fighter III: Third Strike is a classic of its field. It wasn't recognized as such when the original Street Fighter III arrived back in 1997, both daring and old-fashioned. The characters were mostly new, but the graphics, pretty as they were, stuck with a 2-D approach in a world that was passionately embracing 3-D fighters. As the game progressed through CAPCOM's usual round of upgrades, however, more and more people noticed just how deft the animation was and how rewarding the fighting system could be. Third Strike is the ultimate refinement of that, and many still seize on it as the apex of fighting games. If that's a bit much, it's at least an impressive treatment of the whole idea, and it's the sequel Street Fighter II needed for years.

Unfortunately, the Online Edition of the game stumbles on a crucial point. CAPCOM polished up the graphics and preserved the gameplay quite well, but the online fighting—you know, the entire reason for getting this port—isn't as convenient as it should be. Both ranked and unranked matches take too long to start up, and there's not enough protection against players with sluggish connections. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's far more irritating than the perfectly useful net play of Super Street Fighter IV. At least the offline extras are enjoyable, including a set of challenges to complete. I must also note that this release doesn't include everything from the trilogy, as a playable Shin Akuma and the earlier games' exclusive backgrounds aren't there. That's a minor complaint, but the limited online play isn't, and Third Strike deserves better.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DARK SOULS
Developer:From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-multiplayer
MSRP: $59.99

Demon's Souls was the rare RPG that bridged the considerable divide between Western and Eastern design philosophies, and it proved easy for anyone to enjoy, so long as they liked dying constantly. Frequent player demises come standard with any respectable dungeon-hack, but Demon's Souls put several creative spins on the idea. Most intriguing was the online interaction: players could leave messages for others to read or even see how previous adventurers had perished. Dark Souls is the successor to this hazardous action-RPG, and some accounts suggest that it's even harder.

There's a tale of ancient gods and doomed dragons behind the labyrinths and bleakness of Dark Souls, but it's mostly there for mood's sake. Player characters are once again customizable to suit many designs and job classes, which range from typical pursuits to the fire-wielding pyromancer and the “deprived” warriors, who barely have shirts on their backs. Other choices influence the play of Dark Souls, as adventurers make pacts with certain entities, both humans and not, from the game's backstory. These pacts affect online multiplayer, both in cooperative and contentious modes, and there are many more opportunities to screw with other explorers. An untimely demise leaves a player's character as a wandering phantom, one that can hide in unexpected (or expected) places and ambush players who are still living and human. And that's to say nothing of the game's built-in assortment of monsters. At least there's a new respawning system that lets players pick just where they'll reappear when they're killed by a trap or a phantom or a zombie dragon. That's “when.” Not “if.”


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