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Digital Division

by Todd Ciolek, May 9th 2012

I know that I talk about the Monster World games quite a bit. Well, that's because they're good little action-RPGs with plenty of personality. Their place in history is also overlooked by the game industry today. In fact, the same goes for just about every game made by Westone, who's now wasting away programming disposable anime titles and typing simulators. There's no justice in the world.

Anyway, the point here is that a bunch of Monster World games will soon arrive on all three consoles. This Thursday, the Wii's Virtual Console gets Wonder Boy in Monster Land for the arcade and Monster World IV for the Sega Genesis. The latter is particularly interesting, as it'll be the first time Monster World IV is officially available in English.

This may seem like a good opportunity, but the Wii versions of the two games will run 900 points each. If you own another system, there's a better deal in the future. Sega plans to release a Vintage Collection with three Monster World games: Wonder Boy in Monster Land for the Master System, Wonder Boy in Monster World for the Genesis, and the lovely, above-pictured Monster World IV. They'll be six bucks apiece on the PlayStation 3, while the Xbox 360 gets all three in a ten-dollar package. Unfortunately, there's no release date for these PS3 and Xbox releases, but it shouldn't be long now. Once they arrive, I can gush about the games and get it all out of my system.

NEWS

XSEED TRIPLES ITS VITA LINEUP WITH RAGNAROK ODYSSEY, ORGARHYTHM
Unpleasant little rumors arose about the PS Vita a while back, suggesting that several companies had abandoned the system entirely. Even if it's true, XSEED Games isn't one of those companies. Not so long after releasing Sumioni, the publisher announced two other Vita games: Game Arts' Ragnarok Odyssey and Acquire's Orgarhythm.

CAPCOM's Monster Hunter series is a powerhouse in the Japanese game market, and so far it's ignored the Vita. That's where Ragnarok Odyssey comes in. Like Monster Hunter, it's an ambitious action game with customized characters, a spacious world, multiplayer quests, and pretty decent sales so far. Yet Ragnarok Odyssey also tries for a speedier, flashier style of play, similar to what Gods Eater Burst attempted. It's also linked to Gung Ho's highly popular Ragnarok online RPG series, so the game's world features everything from generic orcs to those suggestively shaped Poring blobs. XSEED's releasing the most recent version of Ragnarok Odyssey here, so it'll have the online play and other extras than Japan didn't get at the game's launch.

XSEED technically revealed Orgarhythm a month ago through the game's teaser site. It falls under the heading of “rhythm-strategy game," resembling a top-view battle simulator where legions are commanded by music. It seems more like Pikmin than Patapon: the player's troops come in three different elemental varieties, and players command them by tapping the Vita's touch-screen in time with the soundtrack. It's an intriguing concept from Takashi Hirai of Shenmue and Rez, and XSEED plans to invite musical contributions from fans.

Both games presently have nebulous release dates for this year, and Ragnarok Odyssey will arrive as a disc-based retail title. Orgarhythm's format isn't yet decided, and it may end up a downloadable release like Sumioni.

IMAGEEPOCH SCHEDULES SOL TRIGGER, ENDS PSP DAYS
Imageepoch, maker of many anime-ish RPGs and disdainer of traditional spelling, gave the PSP Last Ranker, Final Promise Story, 7th Dragon 2020, and Black Rock Shooter: The Game. Now they've designated the upcoming Sol Trigger as their big-budget farewell to the system.

Sol Trigger has the marks of imageepoch's more serious PSP efforts, as its set in a somewhat advanced fantasy world where a few young revolutionaries are gifted with mysterious weapons. The protagonist, Farrell, wields a sword, while his childhood friend Emma gets a firearm and his fellow subversive Walter has a scythe. That's a glaring pile-up of clichés, but it's also the work of frequent Final Fantasy scribe Kazushige Nojima. He sometimes surprises us.

Beyond that, Sol Trigger looks decidedly good for a PSP title. The characters are detailed and nicely animated in their rebel-goth regalia, and the battle system provides many chances for them to speed up and pull of acrobatic attacks like the cast from Resonance of Fate. Combat also breaks with an RPG tradition by letting characters stay alive even after losing all their hit points—they'll just survive on their “Sol” energy instead. That, or they can just use up all of their Sol in one burst, killing themselves but helping out the rest of the party.

So that's Sol Trigger, and it arrives in Japan this winter as imageepoch's last PSP offering. Will it come to North America? Well, we haven't seen imageepoch's Black Rock Shooter yet, though it was announced last year. Perhaps Sol Trigger will arrive here, but it probably won't be on the ol' PSP.

POKEMON CONQUEST ARRIVES NEXT MONTH, IS STILL A REAL THING
Pokemon Conquest may not be the weirdest crossover hatched this year, but it's still quite a sight in one of Nintendo's most predictable franchises. It's essentially a Nobunaga's Ambition game, complete with all of the political maneuvering and feudal warfare that marked the 16th-century conquest of Japan. But now it's full of Pokemon. They drive the game's strategic maps and battles, where various warlords defend their territories by summoning Mewtwos and Jigglypuffs and other cute little monsters.

In other ways, this late-stage DS game isn't all that different from a normal Pokemon outing. Instead of taking on other animal-trainers, players tackle other warlords and recruit them when they're defeated. Some characters benefit from being bonded to specific Pokemon, and those beasts can gain levels and abilities just as they would in a color-coded Pokemon title. Players control a generic male or female warrior (and an Eevee) at first, but there's a wide range of historical Japanese figures turned into cartoonish Pokemon keepers. It's seemingly aimed at Pokemon fans as well as history geeks who'll debate whether or not Masanori Fukushima would've chosen a Krokorok as his Pokemon.

Pokemon Conquest comes to North America on June 18, just over three months after its Japanese release.

OPINION: THE DOWNLOADABLE FUTURE

The recent Class of Heroes 2 Kickstarter project wasn't just a donation call for a Japanese RPG localization. It was also a resurgence of the ideals of defunct RPG publisher Working Designs, which put together lavish special editions for RPGs and other games throughout the 1990s. Unfortunately, the Class of Heroes 2 Kickstarter was also a failure. It gathered just under $100,000 in pledges, well shy of its $500,000 goal. Organizers John Greiner of MonkeyPaw Games and Victor Ireland of Gaijinworks (and formerly head of Working Designs) point out a few reasons for this: the project was rushed a bit after other companies succeeded on Kickstarter, and the actual localization of the game was never in jeopardy. Class of Heroes 2 will still see a digital-only release with a basic translation job. And so it'll become something else: a sign of just where niche Japanese games are headed in North America.

Critics of the Kickstarter were quick to point out that Class of Heroes 2 has little esteem among Western fans: it's a Wizardry-style RPG, and the original Class of Heroes was largely ignored when Atlus released it for the PSP (though the second game is said to be vastly improved). However, Class of Heroes 2 is hardly the only Japanese RPG relegated to a digital edition in today's market. XSEED Games recently announced an English version of Unchained Blades, a dungeon-crawler with character designs by a number of anime-industry talents. Four years ago, it would've likely shipped to GameStop with a soundtrack, an artbook, or some other pre-order knickknack. Today, it's arriving on the 3DS and PSP as a downloadable title.

Digital releases gained a lot of ground in the past few years, inspiring much hand-wringing over a future where boxed, disc-based games are extinct. Such a change isn't happening any time soon, but publishers of niche Japanese titles are turning more and more to download-only releases. XSEED currently has several Ys games ready for the PC's Steam service, including the never-before-translated Ys Origin. CAPCOM recently mentioned that Ace Attorney Investigations 2, once denied a U.S. release, might be feasible as a digital title. NIS America's treading a similar path with their upcoming Playstation dungeon-hack Legasista; it's a retail disc release in Japan, but it'll be digital-only on these shores. And this is to say nothing of publishers like Carpe Fulgur and Nyu Media, who localize doujin games with no need for physical editions.

It leaves fans of lesser-known Japanese titles in a curious position. RPG geeks do enjoy their fancy special editions, a tradition stretching from Working Designs' Lunar: The Silver Star Story Complete to the recent pizza-box packaging of Catherine. But many of their favored games may go without any boxes at all. This holds especially true with the wealth of RPGs confined to the Japanese PSP: Last Ranker, Valkyria Chronicles 3, 7th Dragon 2020, the latest Suikoden, and the above Sol Trigger. If they show up at all in North America, they'll probably be downloadable releases. This stings most for the devoted fans who want merchandise and nice packages to display on their shelves.

Yet the all-digital age hasn't taken over. Numerous major mainstream titles are still shipping in garish collector's editions stuffed with statues and artbooks and whatever else might convince players that a brand-new game is worth more than sixty dollars. And while some lesser-known Japanese releases are slipping into download country, some RPGs still get the royal treatment. Aksys Games offers a Record of Agarest War 2 special edition with a towel and a (relatively innocuous) blow-up doll featuring the game's characters. NIS America offers similar deluxe sets through an online store where players can buy recent releases like Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 and Atelier Meruru with soundtracks and art booklets. And they've done it for years. As is the case with hard drugs or Aniplex's $600 anime Blu-Ray sets, somebody's buying them.

Will they keep buying their favored games, even when those big boxed sets give way to downloadable releases? There's an understandable desire to own a game in physical form, particularly if you're buying it at full price on its day of release. However, the future might have something else in store for fans of under-the-radar titles. Something cheaper, something more convenient, something that can't look nice on one's shelf. And when it comes to a game that might otherwise never reach North America, it's better than nothing.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

AKAI KATANA
Developer: Cave
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Platform: Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $39.99

It seems rather unfair that Akai Katana is only the third Cave-developed game to show up on North American store shelves. True, Cave works mostly with shooters, a niche that attracts a relatively small (but dedicated) cadre of fans, and some of their titles filtered out on XBox Live. Rising Star Games isn't slinking around, though. After years of bringing Japanese creations to Europe, the publisher's branching out to these shores with Akai Katana. A departure from Cave's usual vertical shooter, Akai Katana adopts a curiously titled side-view to tell its tale of an alternate-history Japan. Caught in the industrialism of the early 1900s, the nation's conquered its neighbors with the power of mystically forged Blood Swords (the titular red katana, we presume). Naturally, this reckless conquest has left many dead and many more upset, so three different pilot teams take on an imperial armada of Taisho-era tanks, planes, and whatever strange mechanical concoctions Cave has designed.

Of course, the meat of any Cave shooter lies in its gameplay—its bullet-dodging, score-boosting, constantly hectic gameplay. Like many a Cave offering, Akai Katana frequently hurls waves of bright-colored enemy shots at the player, and there are several methods of avoiding an untimely demise. Each ship has a fighter-plane form that replenishes its energy upon destroying enemies and sucks in power-ups (not unlike the stars of Progear no Arashi), but the crafts can also morph into humanoid ninja who create defensive shields and destroy enemies for extra points. Considering that each of the three selectable fighters has a slightly different play style, Akai Katana seems a rather complex package for a game that's ostensibly about shooting things. Also of note: though it doesn't say so in the title, Rising Star's release of the game is Akai Katana Shin, which expands the original arcade game with a new mode, an extra stage, and an original boss character who fits right into Cave's continuing appeals to the anime fan.

GAME OF THRONES
Developer: Cyanide
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

First the bad news for fans of A Game of Thrones: this is not an old NES-style platformer where the final boss is King Joffrey in a giant Dr. Wily machine. Nor is it a cutesy puzzle game where big-headed versions of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Strong Belwas drop multicolored gems on each other. No, this is a serious game, much like the fantasy novels and HBO series that inspired it. Not that it tries to recreate the same gargantuan web of storylines seen in the books and TV show. Instead, the player sees a slice of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, where seasons can last for decades on end and the nobility never stop backstabbing each other. Two original characters present themselves for points of view. Mors Westford is a ranger for the Night's Watch, an order of warriors guarding a massive icy wall that stands between the civilized realm and an untamed, mysterious northern waste. Alester Sawyck, on the other hand, is a nobleman who's joined the flame-obsessed cult of R'hllor, and he's out to reclaim his southern fief. Ice and fire. Get it?

The bigger question is whether or not the two main characters will survive their own stories, considering how Martin likes knocking people off. At least they'll get to roam around and meet some familiar characters from the series (including a dead ringer for the author himself, if trailers are to be believed). In battle, the game adopts a real-time combat system that can be slowed down at the player's discretion, allowing a few precious seconds to switch tactics. There's also a variety of abilities to suit each character: Mors can adopt various heavy-warrior techniques, while Alester can explore archery and more graceful swordplay. A lot of it resembles a more firmly medieval version of Skyrim or a single-character Dragon Age, but that's perhaps the best way to adapt A Song of Ice and Fire. Well, apart from turning it into a kart racer.

Also Available:
Diablo III will have many a PC owner talking, as it brings back one of the biggest action-RPG franchises to ever require a mouse-click. Meanwhile, Max Payne 3 revives the hard-boiled pulp hero on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, though without a ridiculous subtitle like “A Film Noir Love Story.” Lastly, Battleship hits every major system just in time to prepare us for the movie based on the board game. That completes some arcane multimedia cycle, I'm sure.

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