The X Button
Skull-O-Mania

by Todd Ciolek, Apr 18th 2012

We now know a bit more about Namco Bandai, Sega, and Capcom's Project X Zone. And it's already disappointed me. That's because this is the first image I saw of the game, and for one brief moment I forgot everything else and thought that Capcom was finally making a new Darkstalkers. A 2-D Darkstalkers with squat characters, but a new Darkstalkers all the same.

Then I remembered that this is not a new Darkstalkers. It's Project X Zone, a 3DS crossover strategy-RPG that brings together characters from Namco, Sega, and Capcom franchises. And I was sad.

Not that Project X Zone looks immediately terrible or anything. It's a pile-up of characters in the tradition of Namco X Capcom (the X is even pronounced “Cross” in both games), but with three companies contributing here. Staged as a strategy-RPG, the game depicts attacks in side-view battles where two or more warriors often team up. It's apparently not the work of Namco X Capcom developer Monolith Soft (they're with Nintendo now), and perhaps it'll prove a bit more challenging. As amusing as it was to see the likes of Dig Dug and Megaman team up in Namco X Capcom, the game itself was a complete pushover.

Of course, the whole point of Project X Zone is to mix in as many familiar names as possible, and the roster already includes 25 characters. Capcom's choices are predictable so far; Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter, Chris and Jill from Resident Evil, X and Zero from Megaman, Dante from Devil May Cry, and Dimitri from Darkstalkers. Sega, however, skipped over Sonic for some more nerd-friendly contributions: Sakura and Ogami from Sakura Wars, Akira and Pai from Virtua Fighter, Ulala from Space Channel 5, Kurt and Riela from Valkyria Chronicles 3, and Touma and Cyrille from Shining Force EXA. Namco does the same with their selection: Jin and Xiaoyu from Tekken, Yuri and Estel from Tales of Vesperia, KOS-MOS and T-elos from Xenosaga, Kite and Black Rose from .hack, and Sanger Zonvolt from Super Robot Wars. Yes, Sanger. Not Excellen or Lamia or any other marketable woman from Super Robot Wars. I'm sure one will be added later.

In fact, I expect the whole roster to double in size before the game's finished. Namco X Capcom had well over fifty characters, and that set a good precedent for this sort of crossover. Project X Zone's due out later this year in Japan, but perhaps it'll defy its predecessor's example by actually coming to the West.

NEWS

GRASSHOPPER ANNOUNCES KILLER IS DEAD, QUICKLY DISAVOWS KILLER 7 LINK
Goichi “Suda51” Suda is known for self-indulgent, satire-flavored cheese like No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw nowadays, but it was Killer7 that put him on the map back in 2005. A bizarre mixture of linear first-person shooting and abstract storytelling, it had everyone arguing over plot details and the game's ultimate artistic value. And some of those arguments looked ready to start again when Suda's studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, announced a new title called Killer is Dead.

Yet Killer is Dead has no direct link to Killer7. At this early stage, it seems to share more with Suda's No More Heroes titles, inasmuch as the main character is a swordsman who tracks down a string of vicious criminals. The game's look and mechanics are still unknown, and Grasshopper's released only concept art like that shown above. Suda's also remarked that the game has a “brilliant” atmosphere for mass appeal, which sounds like the polar opposite of Lollipop Chainsaw's zombie-slaying cheerleaders. Killer is Dead gets a worldwide release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 next year.

TRAILS OF NAYUTA DOESN'T NEED LEGENDS OR HEROES
Falcom's Legend of Heroes franchise is a voracious monster of the RPG industry. It's been around since 1989, but the whole thing's exploded in the past decade, first with the Trails in the Sky trilogy (one-third of which is available in the U.S.) and then with the Trails of Zero and Trails of Blue follow-ups. Now there's Trails of Nayuta, a new installment that doesn't even use the Legend of Heroes banner.

Why would Trails of Nayuta step out from the Legend of Heroes name? Perhaps that's because Nayuta's not a traditional RPG. It's an action-oriented game with RPG elements, not unlike Falcom's recent Ys titles. The Nayuta of the title is an astronomy student travelling through a chain of islands. Most of his society believes that their world is flat, but perhaps Nayuta will prove them wrong. And then he'll be burned at the stake for his vile heresy.

Together with his swordsman pal Signa and a pink-haired fairy sorceress named Noi, Nayuta roams around and wields various bladed weapons. He's able to access special moves quickly, and Noi's spells are also at the player's immediate disposal. There's an item-crafting system for Nayuta to use, but I'm actually surprised when a modern RPG doesn't have an item-crafting system. It's due out on the PSP in Japan later this year, and there's no word of it coming here just yet. We're a little behind on these games, anyway.

LOST PLANET RETURNS, SO DOES ITS PLOT
I wasn't expecting to see Lost Planet again. The original game and its multiplayer-oriented sequel were modest successes, but they were also connected to producer Keiji Inafune (who later recalled that he had tricked Capcom's higher-ups into approving the series). Capcom wasted no time in ignoring Inafune's Megaman projects after he left the company, but they're apparently cutting his other creations a break. Lost Planet 3 is currently in the works at Spark Unlimited, the Sherman Oaks-based developer behind first-person shooters like Legendary and Call of Duty: Finest Hour.

Details of the gameplay remain unclear, but the first trailer introduces Jim, a robot-piloting prospector who heads to E.D.N. III. This rapidly terraformed ice planet, seen in the first two games, remains a hostile place, and Jim explores it both on foot and via his giant mining mecha. Lost Planet 3 is due out in 2013.

IN BRIEF: NEPTUNIA V GOES BACK IN TIME, CLASS OF HEROES HACKS FEWER DUNGEONS
The two Neptunia games bank heavily on one joke: a world where all of the countries and major players represent parts of the game industry. They also bank on the characters all being anime girls, but even this wasn't enough. Compile Heart apparently decided that some ham-fisted nostalgia was needed, so their new title, Neptunia V, takes place in the 1980s. It'll feature the game-system goddesses from the original Neptunia, along with '80s versions of their respective kingdoms. Yes, even the Microsoft one.

As the Class of Heroes 2 Kickstarter still sits well shy of its $500,000 goal, developer Acquire plans the future of the franchise. New Class of Heroes: Chrono Academy is set to arrive on the Japanese PSP this July, and it's reportedly a more traditional RPG instead of a dungeon hack like previous Class of Heroes games.

REVIEW: SKULLGIRLS

Developer: Reverge Labs
Publisher: Autumn Games/Konami
Platform: XBox Live Arcade/PlayStation Network
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $14.99

Every kid who killed afternoons at a 1990s arcade surely thought of making a fighting game. Most got no further than notebook sketches and overwrought backstories, but some of those kids kept it up and fully embraced the genre's competitive scene. That's where a lot of Skullgirls comes from. It's a commercial creation through and through, but it's also the work of players who've watched the fighter industry for a good while.

That's possibly why Skullgirls is comfortable with a well-worn premise: there's a mystical gewgaw called the Skull Heart, which grants wishes to the worthy and transforms the undeserving into the Skullgirl. This results in much squabbling among eight women, ranging from a twisted experiment called Painwheel to a bubbly circus girl named Cerebella, who wears a giant-armed monster as a hat. If it's a small roster, Skullgirls at least gives the characters plenty of variety. It's hard to pick out a generic Ryu archetype in the bunch, though any experienced fighter nerd will spot the myriad references, whether it's ninja-nurse Valentine's aerial strikes or zombie catgirl Ms. Fortune's Berserker Barrage. Or the fact that the girl with demonic, living hair is named Filia.

When it comes to throwing all of those odd characters into a fighter, Skullgirls doesn't disappoint. The controls are a responsive, six-button setup, and special moves are all fairly easy to do. Like Mark of the Wolves, Skullgirls keeps controller motions simple so players can concentrate more on timing, spacing, and the many minutiae of two cartoon characters beating each other into comas. Chain combos figure heavily into play, but the game also relies on dashing, double-jumping, combo-escaping, and launching an enemy into the air. There's further strategy in another idea that Skullgirls pilfered and refined: players can pick a single character or go with pairs and trios of them. Teams of fighters are less powerful individually, but they can switch out mid-match or briefly step into frame to assist their teammates.

Skullgirls also makes sure that its characters are unique in both playstyles and appearances. Royal peacekeeper Parasoul bounces fireballs around the screen and summons a retinue of faux-Nazi stormtroopers. Ms. Fortune's moveset changes after she tosses her head (which then lies on the ground and bites opponents). Valentine's most powerful super resurrects defeated teammates. And it's all fairly easy to understand. A robust tutorial mode lays out the rules of chaining, countering, and stringing together combos with air dashes and launchers. For some reason, though, the developers neglected to include a command list in the game's pause menu. Perhaps that'll be in the future patch that also fixes numerous little bugs.

The art of 2-D animation is still painfully underrepresented in games, so it's quite refreshing to see Skullgirls. Drawn with a mixture of anime stylings and more unique exaggerations, the characters all have fluid, detailed motions and creative attacks. It's even littered with tiny details, such as Cerebella stomping bitterly on her demon-hat when the match's timer runs out. The cast's corny quips are voiced by decent actors, and there's a jazzy soundtrack featuring Castlevania composer Michuru Yamane and others.

Unfortunately, Skullgirls also delivers an overdose of pandering. Those abundant frames of animation show off jutting bosoms, exposed underwear, or preposterous cleavage to the point of self-parody, and it's ridiculous even for a fighting game. The only notable exception is Peacock, a deranged 1920s cartoon cyborg whose every attack references something. She's rather amusing, but the rest of the game seems a clash of cute comedy, Ragtime-era atmosphere, and panty-shot anime. Sometimes the humor shines through, and sometimes it's just grotesque.

Skulligirls sports standard modes of play, though its online matches are built with solid GGPO interfaces and convenient pairings. The story mode's a mishmash of clichés, and it's interesting only for the glimpses of its world. Like any properly planned fighter, Skullgirls has a number of background characters who'd make decent additions to the playable roster. Perhaps we'll see them in Skullgirls: Champion Edition.

A shameless expansion wouldn't be a bad thing, because Skullgirls has plenty of potential. It's a fighting game for fighting game fans, both in its compelling pastiche of gameplay and its unthinking excess of T&A. And while that may turn away some players, there's no doubt that Skullgirls has something beneath the surface.

THIS WEEK'S RELEASES

DISGAEA 3: ABSENCE OF DETENTION
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99

The Disgaea series is nothing if not shrewd. The first two games were ported all over the place, and now the third arrives on the Vita right when Sony's new system is suffering from a little post-launch drought. And if Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention is yet another port, it's at least a substantial one. Like the rest of its ilk, Disgaea 3 is a cynical endeavor, with a battle system that freely encourages players to break the rules and sympathize with ne'er-do-wells. This time around, our bitter protagonist is a would-be tyrant named Mao. Upon hatching a scheme to take over the netherworld's Evil Academy, he's pitted against the school's fiercest delinquent, a human princess, her would-be rescuer, and other misfits. Most of them end up in Mao's army of darkness alongside ranks of player-crafted warriors, mages, gunslingers, and clerics. Overblown team-up attacks are in effect throughout Disgaea 3's tale of conquest, and the game rewards players who build massive towers of characters to traverse the map and take out enemies with excessive flair.

Absence of Detention remains much the same as the PlayStation 3 version of Disgaea 3, with numerous little additions in lieu of anything major. Two new characters, Stella and Rutile, add extra chapters to the storyline, and the Vita port also includes bonus features that PS3 owners had to purchase separately. Mao's recruited soldiers also feature new skills, a new magic level, and new levels of weapon customizing. It's a port clear and simple, but Disgaea 3 has at least one advantage: with the bonus modes that push the game past 100 hours of playtime, it might be the highest-volume Vita release yet.

Also Available:
House of the Dead 4 arrives on the PlayStation Network, with levels from the game's "Special" version, interviews with the staff, and, most important of all, PlayStation m.o.v.e support. So it feels like a light-gun game, y'know?

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASE

CHERRY TREE HIGH COMEDY CLUB
Developer: Atelier773
Publisher: Nyu Media
Platform: PC ( Steam, GamersGate, GameTap, GameFly, Impulse, The Capcom Store)
Players: 1
MSRP: $7.99

Cherry Tree High Comedy Club can't be classified as anything but a broadly termed “adventure” game. It's set at a leftist heathen liberal arts high school, where chipper student Miley Verisse wants to revive a dormant comedy club. To recruit members she races around side-scrolling town streets and school hallways in search of would-be comedians. Simply talking to students isn't enough to win them over (possibly because “comedy club” doesn't impress on a college application), so Miley builds up her knowledge of politics, music, and anything else that might interest potential club members. Players must divide their time among Miley's homework, a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and other side-quests, but no moment is truly wasted. Even watching TV or playing arcade games will boost Miley's pop-cultural acuity. And that's the game.

So Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is a bit like the social side of Persona 3 or 4, but with no RPG (or other genre) to dilute the story-driven aims. It's all about the player's choices in dialogue and free time, with each decision putting Miley closer to the seven possible members of her club. The supporting cast ranges from the upbeat Vivian Bergman to Cindy Smith, who's all perfectly teenage punk-rock grumpiness. As one might guess, Nyu Media and Tezuka Productions (!) put a Western spin on most of the names; Haru became Cindy, Tamane became Rebecca, and so on. That doesn't change the whole point of Miley's quest, though—or the fact that it's unique among the games brought to these shores.


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