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Virtual Goods

by Todd Ciolek, Jun 27th 2012

Last week, I went on for a bit about Final Fantasy's future. This week, Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada said something particularly relevant to my ramblings. In a shareholder get-together, he reportedly mentioned that Final Fantasy VII still has the widest appeal of any Square game, and that instead of remaking it, he'd rather create a game that surpasses it.

Wada has a point about Final Fantasy VII, of course. It changed a lot back in 1997, and it remains the industry's nearest common reference for both the good and bad points of Japanese RPGs. Yet Wada's statement also reveals why Square keeps taking Final Fantasy in a certain direction.

The numbered, big-budget entries in the series always strain for some epic, world-sweeping tale, clearly hoping to strike the same vein that Final Fantasy VII did. And that limits the games in a strange way. Final Fantasy XII was satisfying partly because it didn't try to cover an entire globe, and Final Fantasy X's most interesting struggle dealt with the main character and his father instead of earth-shaking calamity. Both games were forced into a certain mold, perhaps in the hopes of growing sequels and spin-offs just like Final Fantasy VII did. But they'll never surpass Final Fantasy VII by imitating it, and I wonder if Square knows that.


Why is there no Armored Core game for the Vita? Perhaps it's because the Vita has a hard time reminding Japanese developers that it exists. Far too many companies are still making PSP games that, while often compatible with the Vita, don't really show off Sony's new little toy. Marvelous AQL, however, recently hauled out a multiplayer Vita action title by the name of Assault Gunners, and it takes after Armored Core's detail-obsessed mecha simulations.

Assault Gunners has players roaming war zones in teams of four, with computer-controlled allies filling in when real ones can't be had. Much of the game's draw comes from its parts catalog: over a hundred pieces of robot are available when it comes to customizing your machine, and the mecha can be bipeds, four-legged models, or tread-riding types (just like Cyberbots). The game might not be as meaty as a full Armored Core, as it's just a downloadable title selling for $15 over in Japan, but it's clearly aimed at the mecha freaks out there. It's out on the Japanese PlayStation Network later this week, and there's a demo up right now.

So, how about that Tales of Xillia? No, Namco Bandai hasn't given it a release date for North America, but at least they've trademarked it there. And because the Western world must never fully catch up with any Tales RPG, Namco also revealed Tales of Xillia 2, set to ship this winter in Japan and heaven-knows-when in North America.

Xillia 2 starts up about a year after the original game. Our main character this time around is named Ludgar (Ludger?) Will Kresnik, and he's scraping by as a cook in the city of Trigraph. His career plans go astray when a bratty little girl named Elle Mel Martha crosses his path and drags him along on a journey to rescue her father. Their shared story branches at certain points, and some scenes give the player mere seconds to redirect the entire plot.

A goofily named battle system comes standard on any Tales model, and Xillia 2 has the Cross Double Raid Linear Motion Battle System. The CDR-LMBS allows characters to switch between weapons in the thick of battle, a feature demonstrated by Ludgar swapping his short-range swords for long-range pistols during a clash with monsters. It's an idea with potential, particularly if the game also imitates the two-character combos of Tales of Xillia, which had the Dual Raid Linear Motion Battle System. These are real names for things, we assure you.

With the debacle of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor still fresh, many devoted nerds look to Yukio Futatsugi's Crimson Dragon to make or break Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect. And they'll be looking for a while longer. Microsoft delayed Crimson Dragon on the eve of its June 13 launch in Japan, and there's no new date in sight. Perhaps Microsoft's switching Crimson Dragon over from an Xbox Live title to a full-priced retail game, or perhaps they're making it playable with a conventional controller. Even if it's as bad as Steel Battalion, it'll be a while before we find out for sure.

Back in 2010, Idea Factory released My Wife: A Bride For You, a game in which the player weds a chosen anime woman and goes through various newlywed tribulations. It was essentially a dating sim that went beyond the usual realm of virtual-girlfriend romances. Now its sequel, I Seriously Made an Angel for the Xbox 360, heads past that point by letting players have children with their new wives. While that's a novel idea for the whole dating-sim genre, I doubt that it'll explore much beyond pandering. After all, a good chunk of players will take up the game because they don't (or think they can't) have real-life marriages and children.


Developer: CyberConnect2
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1-2

If ever you want proof that Japan's anime and video-game sectors are coalescing into a huge sentient blob, look no further than the .hack franchise. It has anime that pretends to be an online RPG called The World, and it has games that pretend to be anime pretending to be that same online RPG. It was never a market-eating success, but Bandai revives it every few years or so. Their most recent resuscitation is a film called .hack//BeyondTheWorld, and its Blu-Ray release includes another .hack game (Bandai pulled the same thing with recent Macross and Gundam releases). Yet this new .hack isn't some elaborate mock-up of an anime-themed World of Warcraft or anything like that. It's a fighting game simply titled .hack//Versus.

This isn't new ground for developer Cyberconnect2, though. They've spent years making Naruto fighters for Bandai, and Versus takes a similar approach, as characters in Versus roam around small arenas and attack with everything from swords to enormous summoned virtual avatars. The game stays true to the .hack ideal of a simulated online experience; its story mode is accompanied by animated cutscenes, and little comment balloons scroll across the screen in some battles, just like a NicoNico video. The character lineup features .hack characters from various sections of the franchise, with Tsukasa from .hack//SIGN, Haseo and Ovan from .hack/G.U., Sakuya from .hack//Quantum, Kite and Black Rose from the original .hack games, and 9 from .hack//Link, though the .hack universe often muddies just which game characters are controlled by which “real life” players. The new movie contributes Balder, Gondo, and Sora, the last of whom apparently hails from the same player-class as Kite and Sakuya.

Import Barrier: There's a bit more plot than the typical fighter, but the gameplay's all rather approachable. And there's no regional lockout on PlayStation 3 titles.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Marginal. FUNimation released the .hack//Quantum OVA earlier this year, but it hasn't spiked .hack's popularity.

Developer: Gust
Publisher: Gust
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1

At times like this, I'm glad that the Atelier series is well off the radar of stand-up comedians. If it weren't, some unfunny hack would surely do a bit about how ateliers are workshops and how calling the game “Atelier Ayesha” is like calling it “Restaurant Ayesha” or “Wal-Mart Pharmacy Ayesha.” Then that comedian would pause and hope for polite laughter.

Yet the Atelier series is a success even if it doesn't attract the notice of the comedy circuit, and Gust's latest effort stars yet another young woman discovering the art of alchemy. Ayesha actually doesn't have much else to do, as she's stuck alone in a forest home after her grandfather passes away and her sister goes missing. Setting out in search of her sibling, Ayesha finds allies in a hunter, a ruins scavenger (that is, a ruin explorer), a witch in training, a straight-laced guardswoman, and a middle-aged alchemist. All of them can join her in battles that improve on the somewhat static formula of recent Atelier titles. Characters can now move around the battlefield, and their distance from enemies affects just who can strike what. Of course, this has been a common feature of RPGs since Tales of Phantasia and the Lunar games in the 1990s, but combat isn't really the strong suit of an Atelier game. It's more about the things that Ayesha can make in her studio, and the franchise features some of the deepest item-crafting mechanics around. It also features plenty of hyper-cute characters for today's modern anime fan, and many supporting characters get expanded story arcs in the game's downloadable extras. Yes, every other genre's exploiting paid extra content, so why shouldn't niche RPGs join the fun?

Import Barrier: Considering the heavy emphasis on following recipes and judging ingredients, it's a good idea to known something of Japanese before tackling an Atelier game.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Very likely. NIS American brought out all of the Atelier games in the Arland sub-trilogy, though they haven't announced any specific plans for Ayesha.

Developer: PlayStation Camp/Crispy's
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1

I really hope Sony's daring enough to use Tokyo Jungle's Japanese cover when the game arrives in the U.S. It's an adorably stark image: no throngs of wild predators or freeze-frames of grisly action; just a little Pomeranian sitting alone in the street. The dog is one of many animals under the player's control in the aftermath of some vague cataclysm. Whatever it was, it took away every last human, and now Japan's largest city is the domain of pets, zoo escapees, and all sorts of wildlife. The game's story mode follows various animals as they struggle to survive and inadvertently learn just what happened to all of the people. The cover Pomeranian (surely good at barking) is an important character, but players also follow a racehorse and several other creatures.

If these vignettes strike you as melodramatic, Tokyo Jungle offers an alternative in its Survival Mode. Here players control various animals in their day-to-day attempts to eat, rest, and avoid becoming food for something else. The lineup of beasts is quite impressive, including hyenas, horses, lions, pigs, elephants, deer, leopards, bears, stray cats, apes, pandas, kangaroos, zebra, foxes, dinosaurs (?), and even a team of little yellow chicks. It's a bizarre premise, and the game's combat has a stripped-down approach that suits the animalistic nature of the whole thing. At the very least, it's likely to sate the action-game fan more than Sony's last wilderness foray, Afrika.

Import Barrier: The demands of the animal kingdom aren't hard to understand, but anyone interested might want to wait a bit. That's because…

Chances of a Domestic Release: Sony confirmed North American and European releases for Tokyo Jungle. No dates were set for North America, however.


Developer: Edelweiss
Publisher: Nyu Media
Platform: PC (Steam, GamersGate, GameStop, GameTap)
Players: 1
MSRP: $7.99

Ether Vapor Remaster hails from that long-dormant school of shooters with multiple perspectives. They weren't all that common in the genre's heyday, either, when only Axelay, Lifeforce, and a few other games interspersed side-scrolling stages with vertically oriented ones. The creation of indie developer Edelweiss, Ether Vapor doesn't settle for just two viewpoints, either. It mixes top-down with side-view, behind-the-ship with a curiously tilted vantage point. And it hits you with these new angles several times in each stage.

In another throwback, Ether Vapor isn't much of a modern bullet-hell shooter. Instead of overloading the player with curtains of glowing enemy fire, the game uses measured projectiles and adopts the more strategic approaches of older shooters. It also doesn't force players to grab new weapons. Three are available at any time: forward-mounted miniguns, wider-range blasters, and a homing laser straight out of RayStorm. Ether Vapor is also retrospective in pricing: as an indie release from publisher Nyu Media, the game's just as much as you'd pay for Axelay on the Wii's Virtual Console.

Developer: indieszero
Publisher: Square enix
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Players: 1-4
MSRP: $39.99

I may never live this down: the first CD I ever bought with my own money was a three-disc Final Fantasy VI soundtrack, or “Kefka's Domain,” as it was called in the U.S. This was not the last Final Fantasy soundtrack I bought, either. I suspect that Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy is aimed at those fans. The fans who went home after school and cranked up “Aria de Mezzo Caratterre” or “Techno de Chocobo” while all of their classmates were listening to Alanis Morissette and Stone Temple Pilots.

And Theatrythm is all about Final Fantasy music. Much like the Dissidia fighters, it gathers together characters from numerous Final Fantasy titles for a big battle of Chaos and Cosmos and that sort of thing. The important matter, however, is that their little quest is accomplished by matching beats in various Final Fantasy tunes. So when you guide your party across a sprawling overworld, there's a stream of little dots to tap while the main theme of a Final Fantasy plays. When you get into battles, there's a meter before each of your four characters, and they slash at oncoming dots in time with the music. And sometimes the game just plays a scene from Final Fantasy history with a webwork of rhythm-dots blinking in front of it, like something from Elite Beat Agents. It's a fan's game through and through, and the characters are all turned into strange little marionette-headed munchkins. At least the roster's larger than Dissidia's routine lineup. All of the games' protagonists are on hand, and you'll also get underrated supporting characters like Final Fantasy IV's Rydia and Final Fantasy V's Faris.

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