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Story of the Class

by Todd Ciolek, Jun 26th 2013

Well, there's no denying that Final Fantasy XV is a thing. Now that Square's re-branded Final Fantasy Versus XIII into the next full game in the series, information trickles out much faster. Thus begins the long-running tradition of introducing new Final Fantasy characters, plus the equally long-running tradition of fans speculating about them. This dates as far back as 1996, when we all looked over Final Fantasy VII previews and wondered a) whether Aeris or Tifa would be Cloud's girlfriend and b) if Cait Sith was some magazine editor's idea of a joke.

Square recently released profiles for Final Fantasy XV's main character Noctis Lucis Caelum and his entourage, all of whom are playable characters. So let's get to 'em, going left to right.

We begin with the blond-haired Prompto Argentum, early frontrunner for being the game's chief dipshit. Apparently an school friend of Noctis, he has a name ridiculous even by Final Fantasy standards, and an early trailer shows him offhandedly shooting an enemy and high-fiving Noctis about it.
Cliché Rating: 9 out of 10

Next in line is Gladiolus Amicitia, a tattooed, open-shirted fellow who meets the macho-character quota. He's the lord of a noble house closely allied with Noctis' royal family, and he's chums with Noctis as well. He looks a shade different from the usual Final Fantasy character, though he wouldn't stand out in, say, the next Infamous game.
Cliché Rating: 7

That's Noctis himself in the middle, and Square's profile reveals a little more about the game's world. He's your standard-issue brash anime kid in demeanor, and he's apparently able to foresee the deaths of other people. His family also holds the only crystal in the world yet to be taken by the militant empire of Baron Niflheim, and this puts him at the heart of a nasty little turf war.
Cliché Rating: 8

Yes, the smart and bespectacled member of the group is named Scientia. Ignis Scientia, actually. He's the educated peacemaker of the group, intended to be a royal adviser once Noctis assumes the family throne. Every RPG has its brainy character, but one must admit that Ignis is the snappiest dresser in the group.
Cliché Rating: 7

Lastly, Cor Leonis fills the role of “I'm too old for this shit” caretaker. He's a veteran fighter in the service of the royal family, and he's there to keep Noctis and his bratty friends out of trouble. This already makes him the most sympathetic character of the lineup, though in Final Fantasy terms it also makes him the most likely to sacrifice himself in some noble, tragic, and predictable fashion.
Cliché Rating: 5

Who's not pictured? Women. Previews of the game show heroine Stella Nox Fleuret and an unnamed woman, but nothing suggests they'll be playable. If the above five represent all of the game's party members, it's a strange turn for the series. Final Fantasy XII and XIII had equal numbers of men and women in the lead roles, and just about every Final Fantasy since 1991 features at least three female characters. Final Fantasy IX had four, if you count Quina.

Perhaps the all-male party stems from Final Fantasy XV's origins as a spin-off. It didn't play by the usual Final Fantasy rules. Or perhaps this is just what fans of the series want.

NEWS

COSMIC STAR HEROINE ANNOUNCED, LOOKS SUFFICIENTLY RETRO
Zeboyd Games most recently made a Penny Arcade RPG, but before that they crafted original genre throwbacks like Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World. Their next project ventures back into that pixelly fray with Cosmic Star Heroine. A clear take on the space-opera themes of Phantasy Star and Cosmic Fantasy (and, I don't know, Alshark?), the game follows Alyssa L'Salle as the intergalactic government blows her cover as an elite secret agent. Her identity revealed, she contends with bothersome fans, vengeful former adversaries, and some conspiracy or another.

That's concept artwork of Alyssa, complete with her transforming staff-gun and high-tech Bag of Holding. Her name also seems to recall Alis from the original Phantasy Star, and that's not the only echo of a bygone era. Alyssa's color palette is the sort of thing you'd see in a Sega Master System game, perhaps one of the rare great ones that made you forget how you really wanted an NES. That's a type of nostalgia rarely evoked by games today.

KICKSTARTER WATCH: A HAT IN TIME
It took me a little while to warm up to A Hat in Time, a cute 3-D platformer currently making the Kickstarter rounds. Why? Because it's openly billed as a game “in the spirit of the classic Nintendo 64 titles you know and love.” Trouble is, I never was too fond of the Nintendo 64. While others have fond memories of playing Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I mostly just remember how the Nintendo 64 had few good RPGs and very little of the franchises I'd liked on the NES and Super NES. But I shouldn't hold that against A Hat in Time.

The game follows a traveler named Hat Kid in a search for various artifacts of time travel, and finding them will somehow halt the wicked schemes of the game's central villain, Mustache Girl. This involves much exploration and item-collecting, sure to remind Nintendo 64 owners of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. And if you want to get more obscure, it also brings up cute old-fashioned action games like Gurumin, Magical Pop'n, The Twisted Tales of Spike McFang, and other lighthearted creations that got cute without bleeding sap everywhere. You needn't worry about it missing its Kickstarter, as it already cleared six times the required goal. But you can donate all the same.

DOWNLOAD REVIEWS: JUNE

CLASS OF HEROES 2
Developer: Acquire
Publisher: Gaijinworks/Monkey Paw Games
Platform: Sony PSP (Vita Compatible)
MSRP: $26.99 (download)

Every good dungeon hack is all about hatred. The game hates the player and shows it by serving up mazes full of tenacious enemies that may deliver death at any moment. Yet the game must hate with the proper artful touch; it must know when to push a party of adventurers to the brink of doom, when to punish them for exploring just a bit too far, and when to leave just enough of a margin so the resourceful and lucky might escape. The original Class of Heroes hated too recklessly and rewarded too seldom, but much of that is amended in Class of Heroes 2.

Like its predecessor, Class of Heroes 2 sticks to the rigid challenges of Ye Olde Wizardry Games. It's most noticeable in the throngs of monsters that appear quite often as your party of six treads labyrinths, and they harrow players throughout the many dead ends and wrong turns. It's also not a quick-paced RPG, as surviving the first real maze and gaining decent equipment takes several return trips. Yet Class of Heroes 2 knows when to lay off. The mazes are no longer randomized, and it's easy to defuse the traps that seem to lie inside every treasure chest. The game also offers a good deal of variety in its classes and races, and it's easy to assemble and class-change a party of dragon-kin knights, angelic healers, and cat-earned puppet mages. It doesn't capture the same delights as Etrian Odyssey's dungeon-mapping depths and exhilarating F.O.E. clashes, but there's a healthy sense of direction driving players to a newly uncovered section of the world map.

There's no captivating tale to be found within Class of Heroes 2, but that doesn't deny it character. As he did with so many RPGs in the days of Working Designs, Gaijinworks director Victor Ireland strives to imbue every inch of dialogue and description with as much personality as possible, and it brings life to the game's academy of would-be adventurers and their teachers. It won't stand with the best of the dungeon-hack renaissance, but Class of Heroes knows how to hate you properly.

DUNGEON & DRAGONS: CHRONICLES OF MYSTARA
Developer: CAPCOM/Iron Galaxy
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: XBox Live/PLAYSTATION Network/
MSRP: $14.99 (PSN, PC)/1400 Points (Xbox)/Seven-and-a-quarter Shillingpence (Alternate Steampunk Reality)

CAPCOM's Dungeons & Dragons brawlers were ahead of their times in a strange sense. Video games tried to capture the workings of a tabletop D&D session in the 1990s, but such was beyond the grasp of an industry where online gaming was larval and consoles supported only two players. Yet CAPCOM pulled it off in the arcades, where four players could pick from variety of D&D archetypes and hack through side-scrolling stages full of kobolds and goblins and, yes, a screen-filling dragon or two. All of that is preserved quite ably in Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara, which features the original Dungeons & Dragon: Tower of Doom and its sequel, Shadow Over Mystara.

We're now in an age where countless online RPGs replicate a combat-heavy Dungeons & Dragons experience, but CAPCOM's old brawlers still command a certain respect. They're solid in their level design and mechanics, with moments of quarter-eating arcade greed, and they're surprisingly broad for mid-1990s fare. The character classes range from the usual fighters and healers to a well-balanced elf mage and the sequel's nimble thief, and Shadow Over Mystara further enhances the combat with special moves culled from CAPCOM's fighters. There's also a lot to see for an arcade export, as the story branches quite frequently and offers all sorts of textbook-fantasy sights. True, it's the stuff of those old Dungeons & Dragons novels with names like Dragons of Summer Vacation, but it's enough to reward those who come back for more.

Arcade brawlers of the '90s always suffered from repetition, and CAPCOM's take on Dungeons & Dragons can't quite escape that. For all of the game's diverse paths, the same enemies pop up a bit too often, as though the dungeon master's pulling from a really limited bestiary. The control also snags when menus for items and spells pop up, as it's hard to navigate them while dodging arrows and angry mer-folk. That's the price of complexity in an arcade game.

THE TALE OF ALLTYNEX
Developer:Siter Skain
Publisher: Nyu Media
Platform: PC (Gamersgate, Desura, Rice Digital)
MSRP: $19.99 (download)

The tale in this trilogy of indie shooters is a perplexing one. It actually starts with ALLTYNEX Second, which itself is a sequel to an old FM-Towns shooter called Alltynex. This in turns leads to…you know what? Let's just start with the oldest game in The Tale of Alltynex. That'd be Kamui, a 1999 shooter that emulates Taito's old Layer Section titles (and is actually the last of the trilogy, story-wise). The player's craft can target ships passing beneath it and destroy them with a laser, and the multi-plane mechanics add a lot to the conventional shooter stylings. Tap the lock-on button while firing standard shots, and the ship spews an energy beam that can actually deflect certain shots. It all figures into Kamui's level design, which improves upon just about every cliché of 2-D shooters. Bullet-hell volleys of enemy fire are arranged with care. The boss-rush before a mad-computer mastermind consists of entirely new enemies. And there's plenty to shoot on both levels. Dented only by a little sluggish control, Kamui stands just the best professional shooters of its decade.

RefleX, released in 2008, ditches Kamui's multi-layer targeting for an energy shield with two uses. Certain enemy bullets are absorbed, but others are bounced back to the target in much the same way they arrived. It turns each oncoming ship into an experiment, as you'll have to test just how the shield handles their shots, and you'll need to time the deflector just right. RefleX remains a 2-D shooter, though the sprites are sharper and the effects more elaborate than ol' Kamui. Yet it doesn't have the same intensity, and Kamui's piercing laser remains the more satisfying instrument of destruction.

ALLTYNEX Second, the latest in the series (and the first in the story), picks and chooses from its predecessors. It adopts an auto-targeting laser, but without the multi-plane attacks of Kamui. Instead, the laser button also brings out an energy sword, inviting your ship to start some close-range slashing. Certain bullets are absorbed by the blade, and the game forces you to test out each type of projectile, much like RefleX. While Siter Skain's shift to 3-D isn't as appealing as their hand-drawn work, the game rarely wants in level design or shooter homages. You know the R-Type tradition of fighting your way around a huge battleship? Well, ALLTYNEX Second has you attacking all sides of a space colony, using the coils of a robot snake to block the station's laser barrage.

Deciphering The Tale of ALLTYNEX's limited narrative results in some strange twists about supercomputers and transplanted brains, but here's the important part: the shooters themselves are great. Though they span two different eras in their appearances, the same exceptional design drives each game.

NEXT THIS WEEK'S RELEASES

Next week looks mighty lean. That's just fine, though, because we have a few last-minute stragglers and radar-edge games coming this week, including a little tank shooter I never thought we'd see here.

IF MY HEART HAD WINGS
Developer: Pulltop
Publisher: MoeNovel
Platform: PC
Release date: June 28
MSRP: $29.99 (digital)/ $34.99 (physical copy)

So what's If My Heart Had Wings all about? Well, it finds a dejected young named Aoi Minase heading back to his hometown, a place of open fields, strong breezes, and hope-filled aerial symbolism. There he ends up in charge of a girls' dormintory and meets Kotori Habane, who gets around in a wheelchair while dreaming of flying. So they bring back their school's tellingly named Soaring Club and recruit other students, thereby complicating Aoi and Kotori's relationship. For example, the bubbly Ageha Himegi just happens to be Aoi's almost-girlfriend from five years ago, while brilliant klutz Amane Mochizuki is building a glider as a tribute to somebody. Like most visual novels, the game's all about dialogue and description, and the story branches to reflect the player's decisions. Of course, much of the sticky melodrama within If My Heart Had Wings is wrapped around flying, with plenty of images of planes, clouds, sky, wind-blown petals, and even wind turbines.

If My Heart Had Wings is also about a new publisher entering North America's visual-novel market, a niche enterprise if ever there was one. It's the first release from MoeNovel, a company that promotes a “visual novel HD” aethestic. Yet fans are far more concerned with the game's underlying content. The Japanese version of If My Heart Had Wings is an adults-only title, but the American edition yanked out all of the naughty sections in order to earn a “T” rating and, presumably, appeal to a wider audience. This doesn't sit right with a lot of visual-novel fans, who are arguably the actual audience for this sort of thing. This could leave If My Heart Had Wings in some neglected middle ground, shunned by hardcore players and never noticed by mainstream fans. Then again, maybe the controversy will get it noticed.

KOKUGA
Developer: G.Rev
Publisher: G. Rev
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (download only)
Release date: June 27
MSRP: $14.99

Hiroshi Iuchi is a great friend to devoted shooter fans and eBay scalpers alike. While working at Treasure, he directed Gradius V, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga, all esteemed shooters that now go for exorbitant sums. Iuchi wasn't quite as active after departing Treasure in 2006, but he's rallied lately with a 3DS title called Kokuga, and G.Rev somehow finagled a downloadable release for the 3DS on these shores. It transplants Iuchi's sensibilities to a slightly different sort of overhead shooter, one where tanks glide through neon grids and snipe at enemies from all directions. And no, it's not a Tron game.

The bullet-dodging summons memories of Radiant Silvergun, as does the game's soundtrack, and yet Kokuga has more than Iuchi's older ideas inside a tank turret. Players get power-ups by activating cards during battle, and they start with a stack of 20 random draws that bring weapons or abilities. The game also allows some choice in reaching the last stretch, as the levels are arranged in a Darius-like pyramid for the player's selection. Beyond that, there's a four-player mode where multicolored tanks take on the stages together. Again, this isn't a Tron game. But you can pretend it is. No one will judge you.

NEO GEO X CLASSICS VOLUMES 1-5
Developer: SNK
Publisher: Tommo
Platform: Neo Geo X
Release date: June 28
MSRP: $24.99 (each) / $79.99 (collected)

The Neo Geo X remains the most obscure and inexplicable of any modern game system: an iPhone-sized handheld that so far runs nothing but old Neo Geo games. Some of those who noticed it last year took issue with the build quality and limited pack-ins, but Tommo shan't abandon the whole idea. The second round of Neo Geo classics is upon us, packed in five separate, surprisingly expensive three-game volumes or one big, equally overpriced bundle. As with the Neo Geo library on the whole, the selection mixes one or two genuine hits in with offerings that were worth a try in an arcade back in 1996.

Metal Slug 2 is an odd choice, for starters. The Metal Slug series hosted some of the Neo Geo's best games, but the second is pointless in light of its remixed incarnation, Metal Slug X. Also of debatable inclusion is Blue's Journey, an early and largely average platformer where people dress like bugs. Top Hunter fares a little better, with multi-plane stages and a Gunstar Heroes atmosphere, but it never rises above the expected. Sengoku is a side-scrolling brawler, a Final Fight slog notable only for its Wild Soda billboards. And then there's Super Sidekicks 3: The Next Glory, a reminder that the Neo Geo had several soccer games.

Of course, there are fighting games aplenty. The King of Fighters '96 is the least necessary; nothing terrible about it, but Tommo really should've cut to the chase and thrown in the 1998 entry. World Heroes 2 Jet is the second-best game in a goofball series that few people care about (though I'll always remember its romantic Rasputin and desperately single Joan of Arc). Savage Reign is a tolerable outing with elaborate stages and long-range weapons, while its sequel, Kizuna Encounter, has a tag-team system and…well, the reputation as the rarest Neo Geo game released in the west. Art of Fighting III: The Path of the Warrior marked the last piece of its particular series before The King of Fighters swallowed it up, and it's a solid exiting note. Samurai Shodown III provides a similar glimpse of its franchsie; it's gorgeous, but the slow-paced combat suffers horrible damage imbalance.

The highlight in this big Neo Geo jambalaya is Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, a stunning reinvention of SNK's first fighting series. The accessible moves and gorgeous style show SNK at their top of their craft, just before the company's downfall in 2000. The Last Blade is along the same lines, with some of the most tastefully reserved aesthetics you'll ever find in a fighting game. Shock Troopers and Blazing Star also sit near the top. The former's a sturdy overhead Rambo-ish shooter with three-character teams, and the latter's a decent side-scrolling shooter beneath its lumpy, computer-rendered look. This leaves the question of just how much all of this is worth. Eighty dollars seem steep for an anthology, doesn't it? Dubious Neo Geo X owners could just get Volume 4, which has Mark of the Wolves and Shock Troopers. That's thoughtful.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter. Don't take it too seriously.


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