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Future Vision

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 15th 2014

This January has few big games…or games at all, for that matter. Yet it does have one terribly important release: Broken Age. That's the long-awaited adventure game from Double Fine, the game that raised astounding sums through Kickstarter and convinced smaller developers everywhere that they could bankroll their projects much the same way.

Broken Age wasn't an instant messiah, though. Double Fine delayed it from the initial October 2012 release date and split the game. Today, project backers get Act One of Broken Age, and it'll see a wider Steam release on January 28. Backers also get the second half of the game…whenever it comes out.

And I think it's worth it. During the hour or so I've played, Broken Age is exceptionally charming in both appearances and tone, following a boy in futuristic constraints and a girl chosen as a baking-themed village's sacrificial maiden. Their stories glide along on amusing descriptions and intuitive puzzles, and the art has a unique, gentle look despite the obvious limits of the budget. It's like the best LucasArts adventure games of old, and that's precisely what most of the game's backers wanted. Perhaps it's too early to call Broken Age a complete success…but eh, I'll do it anyway.

NEWS

MONKEYPAW BREAKS OUT NEW-OLD IMPORTS FOR NEW-NEW YEAR
With January such a wan month, MonkeyPaw Games took the opportunity to reveal more imported PSone titles on the PLAYSTATION Network. They'll release one old Japan-only PlayStation game per week from now through February 18, and their lineup is intriguing.

This week brings out a strange piece of Double Dragon history: the Neo Geo fighting game. Now, don't confuse it with Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls, a regrettable detour from 1994. This Double Dragon is very much a standard-issue Neo Geo fighter, with large characters, a zooming-in camera, and basic moves. The characters mix Double Dragon regulars in with some newcomers, so you'll see Billy Lee and Abobo fighting unmemorable contenders like Rebecca and Eddie.

Yet this Double Dragon introduces itself through the laughable 1993 live-action movie, including a intro that splices clips of Robert Patrick and Alyssa Milano alongside a game that bears little to no resemblance to the film. So it's a curious artifact in two respects, but it's not that interesting of a fighting game. Perhaps the hardcore fan will…wait, does Double Dragon really have hardcore fans? It's a classic among old beat-'em-ups, but does it really attract the type of geek who'll obsess over character backstories and buy this just for the chance to play as Marian or Burnov, the level-one boss from Double Dragon II? I don't know.

Fortunately, stronger entries await in the rest of the MonkeyPaw cavalcade. Next week brings the fantasy brawler Lucifer Ring (which we'll address later), and the week after that has The Firemen 2: Pete and Danny, a cartoonish firefighting action title with some impressive music. Subsequent weeks see Hyper Crazy Climber, a remake of Nichibutsu's old arcade game, plus the PlayStation port of Data East's arcade mecha shooter Wolf Fang. And then it's on to the highlight of the bunch: Tomba 2.

The Tomba series emerged as a creative twist on the old side-scroller, offering a 3-D perspective on the jumping antics and weaponry of its pink-haired hero. Both Tomba games slid by the public in their day, and developer Whoopee Camp wasn't around for long. Yet their creations have since become cult favorites with the attendant acclaim and eBay prices, so it's good to see some cheap PLAYSTATION Network reissues. MonkeyPaw released the first Tomba there in 2012, and after staying exclusive to Japan and Europe for a good while, the sequel heads to our region at last.

PLAYDEK AND YASUMI MATSUNO LAUNCH KICKSTARTER, PROMISE BLEAK RPG
Playdek and Yasumi Matsuno are an unexpected alliance: a company known for adapting tabletop games to smartphones, and a director known for bleak medieval fantasy. Yet Matsuno fans won't mind as long as he evokes the same complex, despondent airs he brought to Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, and the best parts of Final Fantasy XII. And that's exactly what Playdek's new KickStarter promises to do.

Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians sounds like vintage Matsuno: a strategic RPG set in the land of Rasfalia, focused on men and women forgotten by history even though they helped make it. Each episode of the game follows a different character through a momentous period of Rasfalia's past, and players most often control the neglected heroes serving alongside the leaders enshrined by the ages to come. It's the same idea as Final Fantasy Tactics, retold several times. That alone is fascinating.

The play mechanics of Unsung Story also recall Matsuno's tactical RPGs. Battles transpire on 3-D fields, and all of the player's recruits advance through character classes. The KickStarter pitch describes War Mages and Ballast Knights, plus a branch of warrior that uses math and science in weaponry.

Of course, the KickStarter doesn't show any of this just yet. While the art on display isn't bad, it's also distant and broad in its depictions, and it lacks the more human touches of Matsuno's other RPGs. The Kickstarter hopes to bring in three of Matsuno's frequent collaborators: composter Hitoshi Sakimoto and translators Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder. It's here that the funding gives me pause. The $600,000 stretch goal seems attainable (it's already past 100K), but Sakimoto only comes aboard if the money exceeds $1.3 million. Are Matsuno's fans that devoted?

2014 PREDICTIONS

It's comforting to predict the future of the game industry, no matter how wrong you might be. It's just entertainment, after all, and while other prophets warn of calamitous weather and societal chaos, we'll just speculate about Nintendo's fortunes, Final Fantasy's descent, or the odds of seeing a Run Saber sequel. So let's get to it!

A NEW METROID IS IN DEVELOPMENT, THE GALAXY IS AT PEACE
We'll start with a safe bet. Rumors of a new Metroid game stirred all throughout 2013, and many had it that Retro Studios, makers of the Metroid Prime trilogy, would be the ones behind the revival. Nintendo and Retro worked closely on other titles, most recently Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and it makes more sense to hand the franchise over to Retro instead of leaving it with Yoshio Sakamoto. After Metroid: Other M, series fans regard Sakamoto the way Star Wars geeks regard George Lucas: a meddlesome buffoon who should be kept far away from the series he helped create.

That said, I do feel a bit sorry for Sakamoto. He clearly thought he was turning Metroid heroine Samus Aran into a deeper character by giving her maternal pangs and bossy space-marine allies in Other M, as though the game would do for Samus what Aliens did for Ellen Ripley. He was wrong, and fans won't trust him with another Metroid.

Thus Nintendo likely favors another Metroid in the vein of Prime, a gameplay-driven first-person shooter with a minimal plot that wreaks no great changes upon Metroid canon. With the Wii U struggling as it is, Nintendo can't afford to go wrong with a major property.

Counterpoint: Nintendo might want a new Metroid to do for the Wii U what Metroid Prime for the GameCube, but Metroid's still far behind Mario and Zelda among Nintendo's big guns, and the series was never all that popular in Japan.

DRAKENGARD 3 OVERSHADOWS LIGHTNING RETURNS
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII faces several hurdles: tying up the giant mess of Final Fantasy XIII plotlines, making players care once again about a Final Fantasy installment that divided fans even more harsly than usual, and doing it all in a game with an unorthodox doomsday time limit similar to The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and Valkyrie Profile (which makes sense with tri-Ace aboard). But the greatest challenge to Lightning Returns may come from Square Enix's own ranks, where a game called Drakengard 3 is set to ship later in 2014.

And when the year ends, I suspect that more people will talk about Drakengard 3 than they will Lightning Returns. This chart may explain why.

The first two Drakengard games weren't very good, but they garnered a small, strange fan base fascinated by the original's bizarre turns, loathsome characters, and openly hateful worldview. A lot of these fans don't even recommend playing the games; instead they'll point you toward a Let's Play chronicle of the disturbing lengths to which Drakengard director Taro Yoko and developer Cavia went to set apart their mixture of Dynasty Warriors battlefield carnage and dragon-riding shooter interludes.

Yoko and Cavia went on to make Nier, a genuinely interesting game with some downright cruel ideas. Yet Drakengard 3 finds Yoko, now working with developer Acquire, returning to a lurid hellscape that detests even the player. It's equal parts violent comedy and nonsensical shock value, and that may well get more attention than poor ol' Lightning, who just wants to save the world and doesn't have to kill her own family to do it.

Counterpoint: Square Enix seems intent on giving Drakengard 3 a low-key debut in North America. At this writing, the retail version is exclusive to the company's online store, suggesting that the game will see only a wider release in digital form. That alone will keep a lot of people from noticing it.

THE GAME INDUSTRY STUBBORNLY REFUSES TO CRASH
Plenty of folks talk about the game industry crashing, just like it did back in 1983. Development budgets are bloated to ridiculous heights, generic male-centric themes dominate most games, and everyone from the bug testers to the producers are overworked at the whims of executives who might not even play games. Some people actually look forward to it; a crash will shake out the bad apples, they say. It'll end the corrupt, anti-consumer methods employed by publishers and force video games to rebuild themselves on sturdier ground. Sure, it'll also destroy most of the games we happen to like, but we're making an omelet here, and you know what they say about that.

For most, however, the idea of a game-industry cataclysm is cause for worry. It's also unlikely. The PlayStation 4 is selling far too well to augur the console market's downfall, and even the Xbox One isn't doing so bad. The game industry remains a vast, profitable enterprise, and for every company, critic, artist, or programmer who shrugs and leaves, there's another round of newcomers hoping for the next big break. The Gartner research firm puts the industry's revenue at a global $93 billion for the past year, and that's not exactly a sign of impending catastrophe.

If you need further reassurances, just remember that people have predicted another crash since the Double Dragon clone craze of the early 1990s.

Counterpoint: Maybe the game industry isn't doomed, but you know what is? Anything that's not a big-budget game, a low-budget indie creation, or a pandering wad of creepiness. We've seen numerous game series slip into irrelevance simply by not being triple-A sellers, with their developers either shutting down or scurrying off to unpleasant venues. In an industry where a cult series like Phoenix Wright doesn't merit an in-store release in North America, there's definitely something wrong.

WAS I RIGHT LAST YEAR?
It's common practice to ignore the predictions you made a year ago. For one thing, you'll only embarrass yourself. For another, no one cares how wrong you were. Well, I care about how wrong I was, so here's a recap of what I predicted for 2013.

THE LAST GUARDIAN FINALLY SHOWS UP AND IS TOTALLY NOT CANCELED: HALF-RIGHT
Technically, The Last Guardian didn't show up. Fumito Ueda's stunning tale of a child and a griffin pup made no appearances at E3 or the Tokyo Game Show, marking four years of absences from trade shows.

But wait! It wasn't canceled either. After rumors surfaced of the game being on hiatus, Sony executives quickly circled around to affirm that it was still “in active development.” Rumors have it that The Last Guardian will hit the PlayStation 4 instead of the PlayStation 3, and that's effectively the opposite of being canceled.

AN UNEXPECTED FINAL BURST OF WII GAMES: WRONG
And how. I predicted a last gasp of interesting Wii games as the system rolled away and the Wii U took over, perhaps in the form of previously neglected Japanese titles. Well, Wii owners got Pandora's Tower thanks to XSEED, and that was it. The Wii died quicker than the original Xbox did in the wake of its successor, so I may owe an apology to anyone who owns only a Wii and looked forward to a bountiful closing year in 2013.

TALES TAKES OFF AT LAST: RIGHT
Yes, it's high time the Tales series got a firmer grip on the North American market. Namco Bandai's series is effectively the third leg of Japan's RPG market, alongside Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and domestic fans often complain of being left behind. While Namco's actually released most of the central Tales titles over here, it's a small simulacrum of the series' popularity in Japan.

Tales never will have the same pull in North America, but 2014 looks to be a prouder time for the series. Tales of Symphonia Chronicles, an upscaled collection of the GameCube game and its Wii sequel, gets a February release with a collector's set and everything, and Tales of Xillia 2 comes along later in the year. That actually gives Tales a better recent track record than either of its two imported RPG rivals, seeing as how both Dragon Quest X and Final Fantasy Type-0 remain no-shows over here.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

LUCIFER RING
Developer: Soft Machine
Publisher: Toshiba EMI/Hamster
Platform: PlayStation
Release Date: January 21
Lucifer: A mistranslation
MSRP: $5.99

Lucifer Ring is precisely the sort of original PlayStation import I like to see. Despite wasting too much time in the study of obscure Japanese games, I had never heard of this one until MonkeyPaw added it to their upcoming Retro Rush lineup. It's an obscure creation from an obscure source, as Soft Machine is another Japanese studio with a brief and varied career. Headed by Pengo programmer Akira Nakakuma, the developer went from prolific Famicom creations to 16-bit collaborations to PlayStation titles to handheld games before vanishing from the fossil record around the turn of the century. But now they can live on through Lucifer Ring.

The cover of Lucifer Ring suggests a PlayStation action-RPG, perhaps one along the lines of Dragon Valor or Alundra 2. Yet it's much closer to a brawler, a beat-'em-up, a hack-and-slasher, or whatever you might call a descendant of Double Dragon and Golden Axe. There's little fantasy preamble: you play a tow-headed swordsman named Nash, and he carves up monster after monster on his way to stop a wizard from calling forth the powers of hell. The game shows a curious lack of a two-player mode, which is standard gear for most brawlers, though Nash is at least outfitted with decent attacks. He dashes, uncovers various combos, and uses four different types of magical blade in thinning out the evil hordes before him. Yes, Lucifer Ring is concerned more with getting the basics right than with taking them in new directions. But for Soft Machine's short legacy, that'll have to do.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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