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New Annuals

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 4th 2012

It's a new year, and with that comes new beginnings. But before I launch into another twelve months of covering games and ranting about the lack of a BloodStorm sequel, I'd like to remark on a low point from last year: the loss of Hudson Soft's American branch.

Hudson has deep roots in the game industry. Like a lot of old-school Japanese companies, they started off in personal computers and expanded into games during the 1980s. While they're known in the West mostly for Bomberman and Adventure Island, Hudson's biggest gamble came with the TurboGrafx-16 (a.k.a. the PC Engine), a system co-developed with NEC. Competing with the Super NES and Sega Genesis, The TurboGrafx-16 was a hit in Japan and a fumbling last-place finisher in North America. After the system and its short-lived successor faded, Hudson persevered as a third-party developer. In 2003, Hudson started a new North American branch called Hudson Entertainment, and it released everything from Virtual Console games to the recent Wii adventure Lost in Shadow.

Yet this wouldn't last. In January of 2011, Konami acquired Hudson Soft and shut down Hudson Entertainment in North America. A promising Bonk sequel called Brink of Extinction was lost in the shuffle, and other Hudson projects, including Bomberman 3DS and some Wii RPGs, remain in limbo. Hudson Soft is still around in Japan, though Konami shows little interest in pursuing any less profitable Hudson titles. A recent Twitter prank is probably the closest we'll ever get to another Bloody Roar.

In fact, the Hudson Soft we knew is already slipping into history. Takahashi Meijin, Hudson's spokesman and the “Master Higgins” star of Adventure Island, amicably parted ways with the company earlier this year. And what of the Hudson Bee, that adorable little mascot and power-up? Will it ever fly free again? Perhaps not. As Hudson Entertainment's Morgan Haro observed in a blog post, the modern game industry has little room for middle-ground developers.

NEWS

WE'RE PRETTY SURE THAT ATLUS HAS GUNGNIR
Atlus ran a contest last month asking fans to guess their latest license. Most of the hints pointed to Sting's new strategy-RPG Gungnir, and now the Canadian branch of EB Games spoiled the surprise by posting an entry for the PSP game, complete with box art and a June 12 release date.

Gungnir also fits in perfectly with Sting's other titles in the Atlus catalog, including Knights in the Nightmare, Riviera, and Hexyz Force. While some Sting RPGs are exceedingly complex, Gungnir uses accessible grids and commands. It also uses a tactical gauge system that lets players change the order of character turns, and certain parts of the battlefield, such as a taut bridge, can be manipulated so that they damage enemies.

Loosely tied to Norse myths, Gungnir follows Julio, an impoverished young rebel in the city of Espada. Upon rescuing a meek slave named Alyssa, Julio plunges his fellow revolutionaries into a war against the Gargantia Empire, and alliances are further muddied when a Valkyrie named Elise shows up with a message from above. Gungnir hit Japan back in May, and there's a demo on the Japanese PSN for those curious about what Atlus will (almost certainly!) launch here in the summer.

TRAILS IN THE SKY SEQUELS IN ENGLISH
Last year's The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky won over a surprising number of RPG fans—who, of course, immediately wanted to know when XSeed Games would release the other two chapters of Trails in the Sky. XSeed hasn't yet announced a firm release date, though they're still working with Trails creator Falcom. In the meantime, there's another chance for a translated Trails in the Sky. Publisher Aeria Games has the trilogy licensed for iPhone ports, and they plan to release the whole thing in English.

Aeria, which previously revamped Falcom's old RPG Sorcerian for the iPhone, has a much greater challenge in the Trails in the Sky trilogy: three lengthy RPGs with tons of text to translate. And Aeria won't be using XSeed's script for the first game, since XSeed isn't involved in the iPhone versions of the series. There's no English release date for any iPhone port of Trails as of yet, and perhaps this'll all come to nothing. But it's still good news for anyone begging to play the remaining two-thirds of Trails in English.

LET'S TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT CODE OF PRINCESS
Code of Princess didn't sound like much at first. Based on artwork Kinu Nishimura once drew of a scantily dressed princess, the 3DS brawler looked like a primitive offering from the largely unproved developer Agatsuma Entertainment. Weeks later, and new details have emerged. The most important one is that Treasure luminaries Tetsuhiko “Han” Kikuchi and Masao Ukyou are working on Code of Princess. Both Han and Ukyou were part of Treasure's Guardian Heroes (a.k.a. The Best Brawler Ever), and that's a big plus for ol' Code of Princess.

Other pluses include the game's four playable characters: in addition to the blonde and underclad Solange Blanchefleur de Luxe (really), there's a thief named Alia Vava, a zombie mage named Lady Zozo, and an elf guitarist named Allegro Nantabile Cantabile. On the downside, the game's graphics still look rather crude (though that might just be due to the low quality of the screenshots). The opening movie is also generic anime-fantasy stuff through and through, even if it pays surprisingly little attention to Solange's preposterous outfit.

THE TOP FIVE OVERLOOKED GAMES OF 2011

If the game industry is a soul-crushingly commercialized monolith where original games are never rewarded, that true nature was well hidden this year. A few games slipped through the cracks, but many titles of offbeat tastes proved successful, either in sales or in critical acclaim: Catherine, Bastion, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, Trails in the Sky, and even Child of Eden. So thank you, game industry, for making this list harder and harder to compile.

5. SOLATOROBO
It was a shade depressing that Solatorobo didn't blaze a trail straight to the top of the sales charts. As a sequel to the 1998 action-adventure Tail Concerto, Solatorobo was a long time coming—CyberConnect2 spent a relatively short time making the game, but it was in the back of their minds for over ten years. And it comes through nicley. Solatorobo is endearing at every turn as Red, a dog-man explorer, hops from one floating island to another in his grappling jet-robot. It's creative like few other games; every locale has its distinct appeal, and the game's art and soundtrack are exceptional. It's a bright little wonder in a field that often takes itself far too seriously.

Why It Was Overlooked: In all fairness, Solatorobo didn't quite deserve the highest accolades. Like a puppy, it's bouncy and cute…and also very, very simple-minded. Red's attacks are annoyingly limited for the first half of the game, and there's little challenge in the enemies Red faces and the puzzles he so very easily solves. The game offers some appeasement in a deeper second half and in the sheer volume of odd jobs Red can take, but the gameplay itself still lacks in substance. There's also the question of the animal-people characters. They may be designed by Nobuteru Yuuki, but they're too cutesy for many an adult game nerd.

Dog Factor: Off the charts. Dog-people make up half the world of Solatorobo.

4. EL SHADDAI : ASCENSION OF THE METATRON
Vague Biblical references pop up in games all the time, but there's no halfway point for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It's directly based on the Book of Enoch, though Enoch is now a blond-haired holy warrior in anime-styled armor, and he's out to defeat seven robot masters fallen angels. With help from a modern-day Lucifel, Enoch journeys through spectacular stages of bizarre, explosive colors and alien landscapes. El Shaddai looks like nothing else on the market. It's gorgeous, but it's also approachable in its combat, wherein three different weapons offer distinct advantages and speeds.

Why It Was Overlooked: El Shaddai's spectacular sights worked against it. Astounding it may be, but this is perhaps the wrong game at the wrong time, a psychedelic oddity in an era that prefers grimy cover shooters that start Sam Worthington lookalikes in either regular or extra beefy flavors. The game's three-weapon arsenal is also scant compared to the armaments of other action games. On top of that, the El Shaddai demo was disjointed and repetitive when compared to the final game. Ignition tried hard to sell the game industry on El Shaddai, but it was never going to be a mainstream hit.

Dog Factor: Relatively low, aside from some wolf-like creatures here and there.

3. GODS EATER BURST
Gods Eater Burst tried to build a better Monster Hunter, unabashedly rooting itself in Capcom's successful line of multiplayer action games. In some ways, it succeeded. Instead of turning players loose in plotless group searches for lumbering dragons and fellow hunters, Gods Eater Burst cuts to the chase. Players are thrown into smaller stages full of aggressive and bizarre enemies, and semi-smart AI companions stand ready to fill any empty slots in the party. There's no wait to build a decent warrior, either, as fresh recruits can pull off long-range and melee attacks with a transforming God Arc weapon. And unlike the nondescript world of Monster Hunter, Gods Eater Burst cranks up the style with a post-apocalyptic world and a metric ton of anime atmosphere. The main character is a player-created observer for much of the game, but there's still an ongoing story with a complete cast of fellow hunters. They're nothing previously unseen in RPGs or action games, yet even a supporting lineup of stereotypes helps Gods Eater Burst stand above the fray.

Why It Was Overlooked: Monster Hunter isn't one-tenth as popular in the West as it is in Japan, so games that tirelessly imitate Monster Hunter face a similarly small audience. As a hybrid of action games and character-customizing online RPGs, Gods Eater Burst ran into problems with both crowds. The monster hunts recycle enemies a lot more than the typical slash-it-all fare, and the game's story didn't dig deep enough for players expecting an elaborate Persona-like dose of character development and dating opportunities. In Japan, Gods Eater Burst fared well, and there's a sequel planned for the PSP this year. In North America, though, we'll likely never see more of the series.

Dog Factor: Minimal, though the God Arc looks vaguely canine when it sprouts jaws and devours the corpses of defeated monsters.

2. RADIANT HISTORIA
Time-travel RPGs don't come along very often, and those that do usually fall short of the exalted Chrono Trigger. Yet Radiant Historiaexcels, perhaps because it doesn't go for traditional ideas. Rather than traverse time through machines and gates, Radiant Historia uses more mystical terms. Stocke, a laconic agent for a kingdom on the brink of war, finds himself blessed and cursed with the ability to journey back in time and change the flow of events, all to suit the whims of two mysterious children. Reminiscent of the best RPGs from ages past, Radiant Historia marries simple graphics with an interesting premise, and the battle system emphasizes positioning and combos that knock enemies around. It likely wouldn't tug so strongly without the story, which presents all sorts of avenues through its rewindable plot twists. Japanese RPGs are often restrictive, but there's plenty to explore in Radiant Historia's narrative weavings.

Why It Was Overlooked: Supply and demand, for one thing. Radiant Historia wasn't produced in great quantities, and it's sold out in many places (and commanding inflated prices on Amazon). The game also doesn't impress at a glance. The character sprites aren't quite as polished as the cast of, say, The World Ends With You, and the artwork, while capable, doesn't suggest a standout RPG. But that's what awaited anyone who got Radiant Historia while the getting was good.

Dog Factor : Low, aside from some beastlike races in Radiant Historia's world.

1. GHOST TRICK
As enjoyable as the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games can be, the whole series was a touch overexposed after three sequels and two spin-offs. It was time for franchise creator Shu Takumi to branch out, and branch out he did. His Ghost Trick departs from many Ace Attorney standards, swapping in lanky, fluidly animated characters and adventure-game puzzles for Ace Attorney's anime-like courtroom theatrics. And it works so very, very well. The game follows Sissel, a departed soul trying to solve his own murder, and the investigation leads to all sorts of unexpected revelations from goofball characters (most of whom are rather upbeat about death). Sissel can travel through objects and manipulate them, so every location becomes an elaborate puzzle where everyday objects help prevent murders. It may offer few replay bonuses, but Ghost Trick is so endearing, funny, and weirdly uplifting that it's always good for a return trip.

Why It Was Overlooked: Ghost Trick earned its share of praise, even garnering “Best Portable Game of 2011” from GameSpot. But it wasn't quite the phenomenon that Phoenix Wright was, perhaps due to the lack of self-contained legal cases (and fan-fiction-friendly character designs). Indeed, Capcom's said little about Ghost Trick sequels. Not that the game necessarily needs one but it's hard to watch previews for Takashi Miike's Phoenix Wright film without wondering when Ghost Trick will get its due.

Dog Factor: High. One of Sissel's first allies is an adorable Pomeranian named Missile, and he's perhaps the best dog ever seen in a video game.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

Nothing, really. Konami's Choplifter HD might arrive, but it hasn't settled on a release date yet. There's also Gotham City Impostors, a first-person shooter that might interest anyone who didn't get their fill of Batman with Arkham City.


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