The X Button
Storm Watching

by Todd Ciolek,
I found Bandai Namco's Global Gamers Day modest. This wasn't because of the games shown there. It was because the whole thing occurred in the sedate meeting rooms of New York New York, one of those hotel-casino fiefdoms that takes up an entire block on the Vegas strip. Any mere video game feels restrained when the path to it leads you across a glowing, shrieking floor of slot machines, blackjack tables, tourists, bars, restaurants, roller coasters, and Vegas excess dolled up like a Little Italy neighborhood.

Walking through that shrill neon maze made me realize how cheaply produced a lot of gambling machines are from a video-game perspective. Yes, a complex ripoff mechanism churns inside each one, but the actual video displays use primitive animation and put crude artwork on the slots, as though they're made with Google Image Search. Setpieces like the above Beetlejuice thing are the exception rather than the standard. They have nothing on those flashy Japanese pachislot games that show off professional Fatal Fury or Guilty Gear artwork and cutscenes for the sake of pachinko rattling.

Bandai Namco spoiled the press simply by holding an event here, but the trip wasn't a huge extravagance. The company offerings didn't go far beyond lodging, food, and a few sensible trinkets. There were no limo rides, no free betting cards, no private concerts by Barry Manilow or the surviving members of Big Country. The closest we came was a bar where two men roared Billy Joel covers beneath TVs spooling Naruto and Tales of Zestiria. I'd say it was like a strange anime music video, but by the standards of anime fans and Vegas itself, it was normal.

NEWS

STAR OCEAN 5 IS SHOCKINGLY REAL
Well, that didn't take long. A brief scare ensued among tri-Ace fans back in February, when the developer became the property of mobile game company Nepro Japan. They needn't worry about tri-Ace vanishing into a smartphone ether, though, because Square Enix has them working on Star Ocean 5: Integrity and Faithlessness. That is, in fact, the real subtitle and not a lingering April Fool's joke.

Set between the second and third Star Ocean games, Integrity and Faithlessness finds humanity on the verge of galactic peace. Yet there's a threat to this expansive space civilization, and it comes from a remote, primitive planet called Faicreed. This apparently justifies the routine Star Ocean practice of introducing vast interplanetary networks and high technology only to dump the player on a low-fantasy world. The earliest screens show star ships interiors and battles in cobblestone streets, suggesting the same sort of intergalactic sci-fantasy slumming.

Our heroes in this escapade of honesty and disingenuousness are blue-haired swordsman Fidel Camus and his pink-haired non-girlfriend Miki. They're joined by a furs-wrapped girl named Lilia and a witch who wears a checkerboard outfit sure to vex cosplayers. The designs range from generic to hideous, and tri-Ace still seems to struggle with awkward anime-like faces. Miki looks like a squirrel.

Oddly, the characters are the work of Akira "Akiman" Yasuda, one of the artists who defined Capcom's style through the 1990s and beyond. He did amazing work on dozens of Capcom games, from Street Fighter II to Red Earth and Power Stone, so it's a shame that Star Ocean's inherent blandness trumped his style.

Star Ocean 5: Integrity and Faithlessness is headed to the PlayStation 3 and 4, and Famitsu says the game is about 30 percent complete. It looks like a typical Star Ocean, and that doesn't inspire me. Yet it's a good sign all the same, because tri-Ace is still doing what they clearly want.

ATLUS HAS DUNGEON TRAVELERS 2 IN SOME WAY
Dungeon Travelers 2 hides a convoluted history. It begins with the dating sim ToHeart, which spawned the sequel ToHeart2, which spawned the RPG spin-off ToHeart2: Dungeon Travelers. So Dungeon Travelers 2 is the sequel to a spin-off of a sequel. That's why Atlus dropped the ToHeart nomenclature when bringing it to the west this summer.

The important thing is that Dungeon Travelers 2: The Royal Library and The Monster Seal is another RPG on the Vita. Knowledge of prior ToHeart games is unnecessary, as this one scoops up their characters and dumps them into the land of Romulea. The protagonist Fried (as in Siegfried, not okra) gathers a bunch of warriors, mages, and other RPG archetypes, with bonus party members played by the ladies of ToHeart2 in new guises.

As the characters plumb through dungeons and towers and other fantasy environments, they'll gain Sealbook power-ups and advance in their special classes. They'll also bond with the protagonist/player in little sub-plots. It's based on a dating sim, after all.

Atlus plans a retail and digital release for Dungeon Travelers 2, with the original Japanese voices included in lieu of a dub. It's also PlayStation TV compatible, should you be among the traitors who abandoned the good ship Vita.

SOUND FANTASY EMERGES FROM MUSICAL CHRYSALIS
Sound Fantasy is one of Nintendo's more intriguing canceled projects. It's not as feverishly sought as, say, the Nintendo 64 version of Mother 3, but Sound Fantasy involves at least two underappreciated things. One of them is the Super NES mouse, a peripheral that few people used beyond Mario Paint. The other is the catalog of Toshio Iwai, creator of games like Electroplankton and Otocky as well as music-installation art aplenty. Based on an earlier Iwai project called Music Insects, Sound Fantasy featured four musical mini-games best controlled with a Super NES mouse.

Nintendo canceled Sound Fantasy somewhere around its scheduled 1994 release, and for years it stood as a strange curiosity. Thanks to an unknown benefactor, a prototype of the game emerged in the usual places last week. It has three of the four attractions. Pix Quartet is closest to Iwai's Music Insects project, in which the player creates music by letting bugs crawl across colorful patterns. Another, Star Fly, turns dots in a night sky into musical notes. Strangely, it's the weakest game that I find the most compelling. Beat Hopper is a basic distraction where the player helps a pogo-ing grasshopper leap from one sonic tile to another, lest he fall into a void resembling the background from an Earthbound battle. It's a routine concept, and the control's a little too loose. Yet its bug protagonist has the most character, and I wonder if Caeliferus (as I named him) would've found his way into Smash Bros. if Sound Fantasy had made it to the market.

This may be all that we see of Sound Fantasy, leaving the fourth part, a Breakout-style game called Ice Sweeper, out of sight. That's OK. It's enough that we get to try seventy-five percent of Iwai's unique creation.

BANDAI NAMCO'S GLOBAL GAMERS DAY: PART ONE

Bandai Namco laid down several things at Global Gamers Day. For starters, the company made plain that it's Bandai Namco Entertainment, not Bandai Namco Games or Namco Bandai Games or That Company That Makes Goku Games and Soul Calibur. The name “embodies a new mantra,” according to Denny Chiu, Bandai Namco's director of Communications and Social Media.

Despite Bandai's name coming first, the company's new “entertainment” focus seems to be just as much Namco in its endgame. As far back as the PlayStation era, Namco's made much of its arcade roots, Pac-Man connections, and underlying sense of nostalgia and simplicity. Global Gamers Day began with a promotional video that showed infants, children, and wistful sunset-lit streets seemingly cribbed from Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life. Yet it eventually made a point, showcasing Namco and Bandai references from The Avengers to clean-cut cosplayers to soccer striker Diego Rivarola pulling off his jersey to show a Goku T-shirt. Video games are all over the place, Bandai Namco says, and they're about having fun beneath it all.

Bandai Namco hopes to extend beyond games, of course. The promotional video showed a trailer for the upcoming Adam Sandler movie Pixels, which, not by coincidence, has Pac-Man and other classic arcade creatures invading the Earth. It looks tiresome and unamusing, as if that Futurama episode with the same premise were a Family Guy sketch instead. Even a gag with Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani (played by Denis Akiyama) is mishandled. Not that Bandai Namco is to blame for this.

Yet most of Global Gamers Day was, in fact, about video games. For the most part, the showcased games aren't blazingly original. They're either direct sequels, series successors, or treatments of established genres. And that's part of Bandai Namco's ethos: the familiar makes us happy, and there's nothing wrong with that.

PROJECT X ZONE 2
Bandai Namco vowed to announce at least two new titles at Global Gamers Day, and I had them pegged as localizations of existing Japanese releases like God Eater 2: Rage Burst. Yet Namco Bandai went one better and brought out footage of Project X Zone 2, which previously slunk around only in vague leaks and trademarks. The original Project X Zone is a four-way crossover between Sega, Bandai, Namco, and Capcom. As a strategy-RPG it's troubled by repetitive combat and drawn-out fights, but as a nuthouse fusion of major characters from four game companies, it remains unmatched.

Project X Zone 2 appears to play by the same rules: characters gather on battle grids, form attacking parties, and pile up their moves in massive combos where button presses determine who strikes when. With any luck, developer Monolith Soft learned from the first game (and, uh, their previous Namco X Capcom) and paced the overall battles more efficiently.

Then again, that might not be such a big deal. Most of the people who liked the first Project X Zone liked it because it was a huge pileup of beloved characters, not because it was brilliant in its strategy (and it wasn't). Those people probably will like the sequel just as long as it adds even more faces. The confirmed additions are Resident Evil's Leon Kennedy, Yakuza's Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima (specifically, their Dead Souls incarnations), Devil May Cry's Vergil, .hack//G.U.'s Haseo, Strider's Hiryu, Virtua Fighter's Kage-maru, Tekken's Kazuya, Shinobi's Hotsuna, and, surprisingly, Soul Calibur V's Natsu. I didn't think many people remembered Soul Calibur V.

Returning faces include Resident Evil's Jill and Chris, Tales of Vesperia's Yuri and Flynn, Sakura Wars' Ogami and Erica, Tekken's Jin, Mega Man's X and Zero, Virtua Fighter's Akira, .hack's Kite, and Devil May Cry's Dante. Stick around to the trailer's end and you'll see Reiji and Xiaomu, Monolith's recurring original character first introduced with Namco X Capcom. It's a relief to see them instead of Project X Zone's dull Mii and Kogoro. That is, of course, just the official roster so far. Barring some legal tiffs, I can't see why Monolith wouldn't bring back the entire cast from the first game.

NARUTO SHIPPUDEN: ULTIMATE NINJA STORM 4
It's not enough for CyberConnect2 President Hiroshi Matsuyama to craft video games based on Naruto and .hack and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. Matsuyama also dresses up as characters from his company's games, and for Global Gamers Day he appeared in full Naruto regalia and posed accordingly. I wish I could enjoy anything half as much as he clearly enjoys making Naruto games.

His pride isn't misplaced. In purely visual terms, Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is as close as games come to playable cartoons. Its cel-shaded flair looks strikingly similar to most anime productions in the demo's opening moments, which pitted the reunited Sakura, Naruto, and Sasuke against the waxy, fanged specter of Ten-Tails. The demo let players control a summoned Gamakichi, and the giant frog bounded across a field of Ten-Tails minions. He moved with the lumbering weight one would expect of an enormous ninja amphibian, but his available attacks, denoted onscreen at the touch of a button, all worked well. CyberConnect2 also kept the enemies just as limited in their pacing, even as Gamakichi mowed down a stygian field of pale clay-skinned creatures who wouldn't be out of place in Fantasia's Night On Bald Mountain. Rather hellish for something that ostensibly started off as a kids' series.

Once Gamakichi vanquished the largest Ten-Tails surrogate, Naruto and his teammates rode toward the source. Here Gamakichi leapt from one monster-spawned rail to another as fireballs rained down, and the battle ended with Naruto and Sasuke priming their attacks in time with the player's button presses. It recalled Asura's Wrath, a CyberConnect2 action spectacle that relied heavily (and perhaps too much) on simple button-mashing cutscenes.

The complete Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 will be more than huge-scale boss battles when it arrives on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam later this year. The meat of it will offer several dozen playable ninja, including the rarely seen Hanabi Hyuga, in arena battles and more traditional stages. Players control a team of three ninja and, in a welcome addition, switch between them at any time. A wall-running move is also part of the standard repertoire. The entire storyline ties into the recent The Last: Naruto the Movie, but Matsuyama remains confident that there'll be more Naruto games—and that he'll be part of them.

SAINT SEIYA: SOLDIERS' SOUL
Global Gamers Day looked well beyond North America, and nowhere was that more apparent than Bandai Namco's newly announced Saint Seiya fighting game. The original anime series came to Europe and Latin America back in its heyday, ensuring that a generation of kids there grew up on the heated brawls of armored Zodiac-themed heroes. Meanwhile, U.S. and Canadian children were sitting through ALF Tales, Foofur, and Star Fairies.

Saint Seiya: Soldiers' Soul (which refers to one soul shared by many, apparently) resembles 2013's Brave Soldiers fighting game on the surface, though Bandai Namco promises refined fighting systems and more characters. Most of the new additions will come from the Saint Seiya anime series Soul of Gold. Both game and anime revive the Gold Saints and give them new Cloths, which denotes massive suits of armor. The game was far too early for producer Ryo Mito to discuss the roster's full extent or allow any hands-on tests, though he revealed that it'll have online multiplayer in all regions.

Knowing where their audience lies, Bandai Namco will ship Saint Seiya: Soldiers' Soul with voiceovers by the anime's Japanese, Mexican, and Brazilian casts, plus Spanish, English, French, and Brazilian Portuguese text. It'll be out on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4…and Steam, which is seeing a bunch of new Bandai Namco titles.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

There isn't much next week, though you'll see Shovel Knight on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PS Vita. It's one of the best neo-retro action games in recent memory, and I expect it'll be particularly nice on the Vita. Something about an elongated screen suits a side-scroller.


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


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