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by Todd Ciolek, Jan 16th 2013

All right, game industry. Let's see what controversy we can find this week. Oh, here we go. Deep Silver recently unveiled the European Dead Island: Riptide special edition, and it comes with a statuette of a woman's decapitated and armless torso. The press materials liken it to gory version of an “iconic Roman marble torso sculpture,” which makes it perfect for anyone who ever looked at the Venus de Milo and thought it needed an exposed ribcage, plenty of blood, and a Union-Jack bikini.

Entirely justified outrage followed, and Deep Silver handled it badly. For starters, the administrator of the company's Twitter feed casually replied that the statue “might have a cock down there,” as though this would mitigate the gruesome offensiveness of the whole thing. Then Deep Silver issued a public apology, which you can see at The Mary Sue. As many people noticed, at no point does the company announce that they're canceling the bloody bikini torso thing entirely. Nope.

At any rate, Deep Silver now vaults to the top of whatever chart ranks inappropriate and misogynistic pack-ins for video games. Aksys and Arc System Works may have bundled titles with suggestive body-pillow covers and “3-D boobie mousemats,” but at least the women depicted thereon kept their heads.

NEWS

HERE'S WHY THE FIRE EMBLEM 3DS BUNDLE IS IMPORTANT
By now, you've heard about the new special-edition 3DS arriving on February 4. It comes with Fire Emblem: Awakening, it's decorated accordingly, and it runs about $200. The big surprise is that it's actually coming out here.

Nintendo generally saves its special-edition North American consoles for familiar franchises: Mario games, Pokémon, and so forth. It's rare to see the company back a second-string series like Fire Emblem so thoroughly on these shores. Perhaps that's because Fire Emblem: Awakening is Nintendo's first big non-Mario RPG for the 3DS, a system where most of the genre cases are ports like Devil Survivor or spin-offs like Theatrythm: Final Fantasy. Are there RPG fans who'll be moved to buy a 3DS for Fire Emblem: Awakening? Nintendo hopes so.

PROFESSOR LAYTON'S ALLEGEDLY LAST CASE HAS A DRESS-UP GAME
I'm not sure anyone believes that the next Professor Layton game will be the last. Level-5 said as much when Professor Layton and the Azran Legacies was announced last September, and the game's first trailer even has his assistant Emmy saying “Goodbye, Professor Layton” all somber and dramatic. But Level-5's made so much money from the Layton games that this surely won't be the end of the series. It'll be the end of the Layton prequel trilogy and the last game with Layton as the main character, but you can rest assured that Level-5's at work on the next game, probably starring Emmy or an older version of Luke. Or perhaps they'll each get a series. Such is Professor Layton's popularity.

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacies finds the learned hero in a remote and frigid corner of the world, where he investigates a body preserved in the ice. The alleged mummy turns out to be a young girl named Aria, and she's connected to the ruins, secrets, and ominous cuneiform inscriptions of an ancient civilization. Puzzles and plot twists abound as usual, but Azran Legacies adds a sub-game where players design outfits for the people of the algid town. The game's due out in Japan this February, and an American release seems like a lock.

ASURA CROSS NOW AVAILABLE ON ITUNES, ANDROID, AND TECHNICALLY THE GP32
Of the many games revived for smartphones, Asura Cross has an especially interesting background. Its origins lie on the Game Park 32, a Korean handheld released way back in 2001. The system lent itself quite ably to open-source development, and one of its most talented supporters was the one-man studio of Byulbram, who's made games since the early 1990s. Asura Cross was a particularly ambitious project: a fighting game with the style of SNK's The King of Fighters and a branching storyline similar to a visual novel. The game was first shown off in 2003 and didn't emerge until seven years later, but now it's on iTunes and the Google Play store for free.

And it's kinda fun, considering the size of the development team. The attacks are all a bit mundane and the game really wants you to buy additional characters, but there's a good bit of content in the free material. The storyline is also batshit crazy even by the loose logic of fighting games, as it combines alien abductions, rogue Vatican agents, and pro-wrestler priests.

SPECIAL FEATURE: 2013 PREDICTIONS

Here's where I predict the future. Well, not the important parts of the future. I'm just predicting the parts about video games, and I like it that way. I don't want to summons prophecies about how a charismatic dictator will rise, declare his own nation in Midwest North America, and rend the continent in half with his nuclear earthquake cannon. That's just depressing. By comparison, it's not so bad to say that SNK or Sega might go out of business by the year's end.

THE LAST GUARDIAN FINALLY SHOWS UP AND IS TOTALLY NOT CANCELLED
The past year wasn't quite as disappointing as the one before when it came to Fumito Ueda's long-delayed The Last Guardian. In 2011, both Ueda and producer Yoshifusa Hayama left Sony (though Ueda reportedly stayed on as a freelancer), and Gamestop even listed the game as canceled for a brief time. More reassuring news emerged in 2012, as Sony attempted to quell fan concerns by stating that the game was still in development by Ueda and his team. Yet it didn't show up at E3, and many stayed worried. Would they ever see this successor to their precious Ico and Shadow of the Colossus?

I say that they will. Sony needs to get the game back in the public eye, and they'll roll it out for the next E3 with promises of a release date within the year. That latter vow might not quite stick, and The Last Guardian might become the first big game of 2014, but at least it'll show up. Counterpoint:
You could've made this same prediction last year, and we all know how that turned out. The Last Guardian doesn't seem to be a huge priority for Sony, at least not as huge as the latest God of War or whatever first-person shooter they're cooking for the PlayStation 4. So don't get your hopes up.

AN UNEXPECTED FINAL BURST OF WII GAMES
So the Wii's dead, right? The Wii U is now upon us, and Nintendo has retired their successful little box even faster than the GameCube was put out to pasture. Well, the system itself is clearly departing, but Wii games might not make so quick an exit. All Wii titles are compatible with Wii U systems, and there's a notable lack of Wii U games arriving in the near future. This might lead all sorts of opportunistic publishers to snatch up cheap, lesser-known Wii titles and release them as Wii U ports with minimal changes.

Such a trend would be nothing new, as low-effort ports and sub-par twaddle dominated too much of the Wii's catalog. Yet there's one reason fans of obscure Japanese games should care: in their attempts to raid the Wii catalog for “new” releases, publishers might grab a few overseas offerings. They likely won't lay hand on first-party Nintendo titles like Pandora's Tower or Captain Rainbow. If anything, they'll dig up third-party creations like D3's Simple Wii series, the swiftly forgotten Tōshinden reboot, and perhaps even Enterbrain's promising RPG Earth Seeker.

Counterpoint:
It doesn't make much sense for shameless publishers to buy old Japanese Wii material when they can just make some cheap party game or Ninjabread Man 2: Kupcake Kombat. And there aren't many notable import-only Wii games when you take Nintendo-backed titles out of the equation. If this all came to pass, we'd probably just get an inexplicable U.S. release of Twinkle Queen.

TALES TAKES OFF AT LAST
Fans of Namco's Tales RPGs all know the score: the series is a big, steadily churning game machine over in the Japan, but in America it's always a toss-up as to whether we'll even get a new Tales title in English. Some blame the games themselves, which are a bit heavier on cartoonishly proportioned characters and anime influences than Final Fantasy. Others maintain that the series just isn't translated often enough to have a fair shot at this continent.

Well, I think the upcoming Tales of Xillia will change that. It may not be the best of the Tales games (which is as tough to pin down as the best Final Fantasy), but it's done well enough in Japan to earn a sequel. It's also a bit more visually impressive than prior Tales outings, thanks to a new player perspective and designs that combine the art of franchise designers Mutsumi Inomata and Kosuke Fujishima. Moreover, there's growing discontentment with Final Fantasy, which has long been the most prominent Japan-bred RPG on these shores. Tales games are a bit more approachable, and 2012 might be their big chance.

Counterpoint: Sure, Xillia will usher in success for the Tales franchise in North America. Just like Tales of Graces F was supposed to. And Tales of the Abyss. And Tales of Legendia. And that Game Boy Advance version of Tales of Phantasia.

WAS I RIGHT LAST YEAR?
I came up with a bunch of predictions a year ago, and honor demands that I look back on them and see just how close I came to the mark. Honor also demands that I make fun of myself if I didn't.

The Last Story Comes to America, Pandora's Tower Doesn't: RIGHT
This proved correct, I'm sad to say. XSEED Games released Mistwalker's The Last Story to brisk sales and moderate acclaim, but no one brought Pandora's Tower to the U.S., even though Nintendo of Europe translated and published it. Perhaps it's time to grab that European edition if you're at all interested. And if doing that doesn't make XSEED license Pandora's Tower, nothing will. [In fact, XSEED announced it for a spring release a few hours after this column went up. I swear they did that deliberately.]

The Fighting Game Wave Breaks: PARTLY RIGHT
Last year wasn't unkind to fighters, and Persona 4 Arena was a welcome success. Yet others stumbled. Street Fighter X Tekken was upbraided for hiding a good chunk of its characters to be sold as paid downloads, and the Vita version was an apology too late. Soul Calibur V and Dead or Alive 5 also met with lukewarm receptions. Still, the industry can't be too bad for the genre when Sega resurrects obscurities like Sonic the Fighters and Fighting Vipers on XBox Live and the PLAYSTATION Network.

The Vita is a Modest Success, The Wii U Is a Slow Starter: MOSTLY WRONG
Whoops. The exact opposite came true. The Vita remains sluggish, and Sony recently described the console's sales as “low-end expectations.” Meanwhile, the Wii U isn't doing bad at all, moving about 890,000 systems worldwide. Shows what I know.

The Divide Grows: PROBABLY RIGHT
I predicted that the industry would put more and more distance between the smaller indie developers and the larger publishers, and that mid-range companies would get stomped in the process. A number of studios shut down in 2012, from Crimson Skies developer Zipper Interactive to the last vestiges of Hudson Soft. Yet that's the nature of the business, and the past year didn't do any more damage than usual. But it's still happening. Mark my words.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

CROIXLEUR
Developer: souvenir circ.
Publisher: Nyu Media
Platform: PC (direct download)
Release date: January 24
MSRP: $4.99

Croixleur is a dungeon hack…sort of. It demands that players fight through floor after floor of monsters, but this is no RPG. It's an action game with a highly agile heroine named Lucrezia Visconti. Her constant battles are all part of the Adjuvant Trial, a ritual that sends two warriors to battle multiple levels stocked with cartoonish creatures. The first entrant to finish the trial claims victory for her entire social class, and Lucrezia's battling for the sake of the Aristocracy. Her rival is the Knight Academy's straight-laced Francesca Storaro, who just so happens to be Lucrezia's childhood friend. It's always sad when that sort of thing happens.

There's a story to see in Croixleur, but most of the game is propelled by battle. Lucrezia has the usual fantasy-warrior accoutrements, including magic spells and special attacks, but her maneuvers go beyond the norm. She can dash on the ground or in the air, cancel various moves into combos, parry enemy strikes, and calculate a foe's “Rigid Body State” to attack more effectively. For those who care primarily about such things, the game offers score-attack and survival modes that pare things down to the gameplay. The Japanese version of the game came out a few years back, but Nyu Media's localized release has widescreen and HD modes. It's available next week via the game's website, and Nyu's trying to get it voted onto Steam.

NI NO KUNI: WRATH OF THE WHITE WITCH
Developer: Level-5/Studio Ghibli
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release date: January 22
MSRP: $59.99

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch brings back memories of Jade Cocoon, a PlayStation RPG about hunting and training giant bugs. Many people assumed that Jade Cocoon was affiliated with Studio Ghibli, on account of the Nausicaä-ish setting and the character designs of Katsuya Kondo. Well, it wasn't. Kondo's art was the only real link, but he wasn't providing it through Ghibli (a similar arrangement leads some to mistake Like the Clouds, Like the Wind for a Ghibli film to this day). By contrast, Ni no Kuni is the real deal: an RPG developed as a collaboration between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli. It may not involve Ghibli founders Isao Takahata or Hayao Miyazaki (or Miyazaki's upstart son Goro), but Ni no Kuni has the look of a Ghibli production, the soundtrack of frequent collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and a depressingly realistic undercurrent to guide its flights of childhood fantasy. The game finds its young hero Oliver distraught over the death of his mother, but he's interrupted when a stuffed animal comes to life, introduces himself as Drippy, and offers Oliver a book that leads him to another world. In this fantasy realm, Oliver meets a number of characters who resemble folks from his real life, causing players to wonder if the whole thing's a therapeutic hallucination. That would be just like a Ghibli movie, wouldn't it?

The RPG portion of Ni no Kuni reflects Level-5's fondness for open-field battles, as each enemy encounter (visible ahead of time) drops Oliver and his allies into a sub-stage where they and their foes can maneuver. Much of the fighting is done by fairy creatures that the game's human characters gather and train. It's a little bit Pokémon in gameplay and a little bit Dragon Quest VIII in appearances, but Ni no Kuni stands alone in its beautiful Ghibli-style renditions of a fantasy realm. Here's hoping it holds up in the long run that a modern RPG demands. As we've seen in recent years, not everything touched by Ghibli turns to gold.


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