The X Button
Crimson Guide

by Todd Ciolek, Dec 19th 2012

The X Button won't be here next week due to the Christmas break, so enjoy a round of snowball fights and hot chocolate and Super Nintendo and whatever else you do when you pretend that you're still ten years old. If you care to play some more recent games, there's a lump of downloadable stuff available this month, and a new Megaman is among them.

Technically, Street Fighter X Megaman is a fan-made game, but CAPCOM is giving it away for free through their website. That makes it official, and it also obviates the need for whatever opinion I might have of it. After all, you're just a few clicks away from playing it for the grand price of nothing.

But what do I think? Perhaps I'm biased due to Megaman deprivation, but I like it. Designer Seow Zong Hui has a good grasp of the classic NES games' sensibilities, and the sprite work's often quite adorable (particularly when it comes to Blanka). I'm also impressed by the music's habit of blending Street Fighter character themes with Megaman beats. It suffers from some dull stage layouts and respawning enemies, but there's enough challenge here to put it the midst of the NES games (which CAPCOM plans to release on the 3DS eShop). I'd say it's a more fitting Megaman birthday gift than some limp iPhone game.

For those who want to remember the last great Megaman game, The Mega Man Network recently put up a bunch of early designs for the Megaman 9 bosses. The biggest surprises? Splash Woman was originally male, and Hornet Man was going to be Honey Woman (with a really cool honeycomb hand-cannon) before the designers flipped Splash's gender. In fact, all of the early Hornet Man designs are better than the one found in the final game.

NEWS

DUNGEON HACKERY CONTINUES WITH DEMON GAZE, CLASS OF HEROES 2
Dungeon-crawler RPGs are a growing industry nowadays, perhaps because they're easy to make. Get a decent character designer, come up with some classes, add a smidgen of backstory, and design some extensive dungeons full of nasty enemies. Of course, most of today's notable Roguelikes and maze-heavy RPGs are a bit more complicated. For example, Demon Gaze follows an adventurer named Oz, who's lacking in memories but gifted with a magically powerful eye. It allows him to bend half-mechanical demons to his will, and this proves handy as he and his fellow warriors tread the Labyrinth of Mislid.

Oz comes with an assortment of party members, from the bikini-clad, beastlike warrior Avee to the gluttonous healer Pepet. Yet players are also free to fashion their own characters from the various races and classes. The available jobs are fighter, paladin, assassin, samurai, ranger, wizard, and healer. That's far more limited than the dungeon-hack standard of Etrian Odyssey, but at least Demon Gaze has different character designs for each combination of race and battlefield pursuit. And they're all styled with modern anime design.

The artwork also ties into Demon Gaze's dating-sim side, in which Oz bonds with his party members as well as Fran, the bartender at his favorite inn. The establishment also demands room and board for any demon allies that Oz creates through his demonic sight. The game's due out for the Vita next month in Japan, and I'd say that it probably won't come to North America, as its predecessor, Students of the Round, never did. But more and more dungeon hacks make their way over here.

For example, Acquire's Class of Heroes 2 is still coming to the domestic PSP courtesy of Gaijinworks and Monkey Paw Games. A Kickstarter for a retail version failed, but the game's still due out for a downloadable release next year. It has ideas similar to Demon Gaze, with a lineup of races and classes for the player's customization.

All of these are detailed on the game's website, though the other sections have yet to emerge. There isn't a firm release date, either, but delays were the hallmark of Gaijinworks founder Victor Ireland's previous outfit, the '90s RPG publisher Working Designs.

LOOK AT LIGHTNING'S NEW OUTFIT AND ANOTHER MANA GAME
There isn't a good deal of news this time of year, so it's an important deal when Lightning, the long-suffering heroine of Final Fantasy XIII, gets a new outfit. As Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII emerges, Square Enix saw fit to give her a fresh suit of armor.

Well, I assume it's armor, anyway. It looks more like something from David Lynch's Dune, plus a cape and flowing coattail trousers (are those Snow's?). Some will say it looks silly, and they will be right. But I think it's a bit more visually striking than the pantsless, feathery armor she wore for Final Fantasy XIII-2. Of course, the real question is whether or not players will care about Lightning's ongoing struggle, which now involves a timed quest to save her world. I find her to be an interesting character in an uninteresting story, as neither the original Final Fantasy XIII nor its sequel did her justice. The latest on Lightning Returns (again) suggests that she'll be able to roam environments with all the freedom of an action game, though this also means more stealth-based gameplay.

In other Square Enix news, the recently trademarked Circle of Mana was revealed to be a social game for the mobile GREE platform. Everyone expected this, but it's still a little sad to see a recognizable Square Enix franchise spawning another smartphone diversion that likely won't be released in the U.S.

Circle of Mana doesn't have much to show beyond some ads and a story summary, both of which do their best to evoke past touchstones. There's the crab boss from Seiken Densetsu 3, artwork from Dawn of Mana, and a big backdrop from Secret of Mana. The plot involves the assorted dimensions linked by the Mana Tree, and the player explores several of them in a search for a legendary sword. It's the same idea that's been passed around since the original Seiken Densetsu (released here as Final Fantasy Adventure), and Square will warm it up once again for iOS and Android devices next year.

SCREENSHOT OF THE WEEK: DARKSTALKERS RESURRECTION
CAPCOM released another round of screens from the upcoming Darkstalkers Resurrection two-pack, and one of them sums up one of the reasons I enjoy this short-lived series so much: the little touches.

In the above shot, Lilith's special attack drops her opponent onto a stage, where they dance and spout catchphrase-filled word balloons. It's actually a mini-game, played with those punch-and-kick symbols that appear above Lilith. It's just one of the marvelous details in the Darkstalkers games.

DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP: DECEMBER

AERO PORTER
Developer: Vivarium Inc.
Publisher: Level-5
Platform: Nintendo 3DS eShop
MSRP: $4.99

I imagine that some wrote off Aero Porter for its premise, as it's a puzzle game all about…handling airline luggage. But it's the work of Yoot Saito, whose strange and fascinating Seaman was technically a game about raising fish. So there's more to Aero Porter than a simple idea. It presents a descending series of conveyor belts, each funneling suitcases and valises and trunks into a different departing flight. Players must sort the oncoming baggage by raising and lowering the conveyor ramps with the 3DS shoulder buttons, and it creates a taut and demanding equation. Tilting a ramp moves the others in accord, so dropping a suitcase onto one level might bring down a hail of items onto the tracks above. The equation grows more complex as players call down fuel capsules to keep the system running, turn off lights to save power, speed up the belts, and do it all in time for each flight's take-off.

Aero Porter is fascinating once properly grasped. The continuous flow of luggage, all of it color-coded, provides one troubling challenge atop another, and the game concocts further tests, including VIP luggage that's deceptively mismarked. Skipping a flight or bungling a politician's suitcase won't end the game, but it'll set back your goals and put you further from the game's other modes. Once you're marginally successful at managing the luggage turnstiles, you can purchase and customize planes of your own. And like all good puzzle games, the simple triumphs are highly satisfying.

BLACK KNIGHT SWORD
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture/Digital Reality
Publisher: Reverb Communications
Platform: XBox Live/PLAYSTATION Network
MSRP: $9.99

Goichi “Suda51” Suda may seem an odd fit for the Hungarian developer Digital Reality—the creator of No More Heroes paired with a studio that's dabbled in everything from outer-space strategy to Extreme Ghostbusters games. Yet their first collaboration was the strange Sine Mora, a 2-D shooter with a league of anthropomorphic pilots fighting a world war. Their second cross-pollination sires even stranger offspring. Black Knight Sword is a side-scroller presented as a stage play of papercraft. Two-dimensional puppets tell the grisly tale of a hanged man seemingly resurrected to slay one of two sorceress sisters, and the first stage alone introduces power-up microwaves, collectible potted cats, and trudging heads that cry mournfully upon death, like it's all a hellish version of Keith Courage. The game's power-up shop is run by a falsetto-voiced wheel of gruesome monster maws, and the story's narrator even advises players not to trust this eldritch horror. Topped with Akira Yamaoka's soundtrack, Black Knight Sword is a morbid package recalling the original Brothers Grimm, Edward Gorey, and other notorious child-shocking grotesqueries.

Yet all of this coats an unsweetened filling. Black Knight Sword is a throwback to the ideas of Ghosts 'N Goblins, which can be summed up as “kill the player as much as possible so that they're glad for each tiny piece of new ground they cover.” Black Knight Sword isn't quite so vicious, but it's nonetheless fond of harsh and perhaps unfair deaths, made more frequent by the game's abstract environments (where it's sometimes hard to tell what's solid and what's thin air). There are interesting touches: difficulty levels shift enemy behaviors, and a shooter interlude finds the knightly hero astride a chicken. The game's rudimentary shop also awards new power-ups for collecting the unpleasantly realistic hearts left by enemies. It's perhaps a good diversion for the fan of sturdily challenging side-scrollers, but there's still something lacking at the core of Black Knight Sword. Despite all it demands from the player, the whole thing seems mostly for show.

CRIMSON SHROUD
Developer: Nex Entertainment
Publisher: Level-5
Platform: Nintendo 3DS eShop
MSRP: $7.99

Yasumi Matsuno asked a curious question with his contribution to the Guild01 omnibus: What if an RPG went back to its tabletop roots, with dice rolls and miniatures and lots of flavor text? Crimson Shroud is his answer, a recreation of a traditional role-playing session in a seven-hour adventure. It's overlaid with the usual Matsuno trappings, of course. The world is a distinctly medieval one where nobles plot and bribe and murder, often driven by magically empowered “gifts.” As royals bicker above, Hunter Giauque, nomadic spellcaster Frea, and magically reassembled archer Lippi are contracted to hunt a missing monk and perhaps the secret of the original gift. Like a visual novel (or visual short story), there's ample description of the scenery, the dialogue, and the backstory that drives Giauque and his companions through the ruined palace of Rahab.

Beyond this, Crimson Shroud is built like a tabletop game. The characters are all static figures on bases (complete with Level-5 insignias), and they stay rigid even in the game's story sequences. The battles are driven by menus and turns, though multicolored dice will roll around the lower 3DS panel to decide whether a spell succeeds or a battle is avoided. There's quite a bit beneath the surface: characters gain stats and skills by equipping items, new materials can be crafted, and combat allows party members two actions each turn. It's a strategic and rewarding system, though it's rarely a fast-paced one. Matsuno also pulls one cruel trick from old-time RPGs: the first subterranean stretch of Rahab is impassible until a certain enemy drops a certain item at random, and there's no guarantee it'll happen on the first try. Or the second. Or the tenth.

Aside from that roadblock, Crimson Shroud is a substantial delight. It's very much like his Vagrant Story in tone, right down to the Hitoshi Sakimoto soundtrack and the images of an ominous, ancient city full of secrets best undisturbed. The script benefits from the hand of frequent Matsuno translator Alexander O. Smith, even if it's a bit goofier than his prior treatments. Crimson Shroud also lacks the customization of Matsuno's other games (the underdressed woman is the magic user, and that's how she'll stay), but the underlying complexities and a rewarding second trip offer plenty of material. For those who can abide the flow of RPGs in their oldest sense, Crimson Shroud is a memorable journey—and an argument that Matsuno should be heard more often.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 12-30

UNCHAINED BLADES
Developer: Furyu
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
MSRP: $29.99

Astute readers and dungeon-hack fans will remember that Unchained Blades arrived on the PSP earlier this year. It attempts to bridge the ground between an explorative, battle-heavy RPG and one driven by a band of oddball characters. Most of the labyrinths that players tread are in fact the innards of lumbering stone giants, and the world is peopled by various monsters who begin life in a human-like larval stage. The lead is a dragon warped back to his mortal incarnation through divine punishment, and he leads a throng of other misfit heroes, all of them designed by various manga/anime/game artists. Those followers include a shrinking golem prince, a deceitful phoenix princess, a timid medusa mage, two grim reapers, a mandragora child, and an overeager nine-tailed kitsune lass. They aren't the only party members, either, as every character can recruit monsters and command them as loyal minions. These servants come to the fore during Judgment Battles, where the player's army of amassed creatures squabbles with an enemy horde in one big open-field brawl reminiscent of Dragon Force.

Most of the gameplay in Unchained Blades finds the characters treading through labyrinths, where traps and dead-ends are all too common. Charting out a big and hazardous maze is part of any dungeon hack, of course, and the 3DS version of the game offers a handy auto-mapper on the system's upper screen (the same feature was slightly less accessible in the PSP version). Most of the complaints about the PSP game stem from the tedious nature of the labyrinths and the excessive grinding required to get pawn monsters up to standards. The 3DS edition likely won't fix these. Still, Unchained Blades remains the only RPG where a phoenix fights alongside a fox-girl.


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