The X Button
Inner Stella

by Todd Ciolek,
The Fire Emblem series has a few controversies, but you'll have to dig to find them. Those games with the more disturbing plot twists, such as Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, went unreleased in North America, and the most alarming thing about the recent Fire Emblem: Awakening was its decision to let players romance a millennia-old dragon who looked like a preteen girl. But now Fire Emblem finds a new point of contention, and it even slipped into mainstream news. Fire Emblem: Fates, the next installment (or installments) of the series, lets the player's avatar marry a member of the same sex.

Much of the nattering isn't due to same-sex marriage itself. Fates is hardly the first game to allow this, and today it's a common feature of wide-range RPGs like Dragon Age and Final Fantasy XIV. The real cause of the palaver comes from Nintendo allowing it. For generations past, Nintendo's reputation among game geeks was comparable with Disney's: that of a controlling, conservative empire careful to avoid offending anyone. Well, Disney doesn't dodge the issue of same-sex couples any longer, and neither does Nintendo. Last year, Nintendo apologized for Tomodachi Life's lack of same-sex marriage options, and Fire Emblem: Fates seems to be a stepstone in their apology. And good for them.

I suspect it won't be long before same-sex options are standard for any game that allows players to date and/or marry other characters. Natsume mentioned that they'd include such an option in future Harvest Moon games if enough players requested it, and therein lies a way for Natsume's home-grown Harvest Moon to beat rival XSEED's Story of Seasons farming-life simulators in at least one category.

I expect the controversy will simmer down rapidly, leaving us to debate the real issues with Fire Emblem: Fates. For one thing, it lets the player's avatar bond with other characters, step-relatives included, by poking their faces on the touch-screen and peeping at them in the equipment-changing rooms. That sounds like the sort of thing Nintendo will tone down (and should tone down) for a Western release, in which case fans will argue over it anew.

What's more, Fates is a bifurcated game. Your avatar is a royal heir abducted and raised by a rival nation, and players have to choose which side they'll take by purchasing one of two versions of Fates: the Birthright version returns players to side with their homeland of Hoshido, while the tougher Conquest version has them shrugging and going along with their allegedly wicked stepfamily in the land of Nohr. Nintendo even divides up the same-sex marriage option. A player's male avatar can wed a man in the Nohr campaign and a female avatar can marry a woman in the Hoshido version of the game.

That's far stingier than Nintendo milking the usual differences between Pokemon's Marzipan and Marmalade versions (or whatever titles they're up to), and it seems we'll get the same deal when Fire Emblem: Fates comes west. Still, players in Japan can buy a second copy of the game at a discount, and there's a third DLC scenario out in July. I sure hope Nintendo cuts players a price break over here.

For those who can't wait, this helpful site lets Fire Emblem customize a Fates avatar in preparation for the games. It's a simple arrangement, but it let me make a reasonable facsimile of Leona from The King of Fighters. Just assume that hairpin doubles as a micro-grenade.

NEWS

GAIJINWORKS DIPS TOE IN SUMMON NIGHT 5 BATHTUB
The death of physical media is a common and cynical prediction, especially as it pertains to video games. As the prognostication goes, digital distribution will one day eliminate the need for discs or cartridges or packaging, and that day is coming soon. Even if that comes to pass for most mainstream releases, I like to think that a cottage industry of material games will survive based on our lingering desire to own something permanent. So I applaud Gaijinworks for laying out a plan for a physical release of Summon Night 5 for the PSP. Most companies would just toss it on the PlayStation Network and pray for downloads.

If you want a real copy of Summon Night 5 with a manual and case and bonus poster and everything, you can head to the Gaijinworks site and pledge your loyalty to physical games. If there aren't enough such vows, Gaijinworks will resort to a digital release of Summon Night 5 (and they'll run a similar test for Class of Heroes 3). No matter how it shakes out, it's nice to see a Summon Night game released here. The numbered titles are strategy-RPGs in the vein of Tactics Ogre, but with cute monsters and anime heroes instead of medieval tragedy and ethnic cleansing. Atlus localized two of the three Summon Night: Swordcraft Story outings for the Game Boy Advance, but those were spin-offs that adopted more straightforward RPG approaches.

And yes, these would be physical PSP releases for both Summon Night 5 and Class of Heroes 3 if the support presents itself. I knew that system had legs.

NEW ACE ATTORNEY GAME NEARS RELEASE, EVADES LOCALIZATION
The latest Ace Attorney game is out in Japan this July 9, but perhaps I shouldn't call it that. Everyone's calling it The Great Ace Attorney instead of its Japanese title of Dai Gyakuten Saiban (The Great Turnabout Trial), but Capcom hasn't announced any official plan to localize it. So let's see what we might be missing in North America.

The Great Ace Attorney goes back to the later Meiji era, which'd be in the early 1900s, and introduces Ryunosuke Naruhodo, apparent ancestor of Ace Attorney hero Phoenix Wright (Ryuichi Naruhodo), as a fledgling defense attorney at a time when doctors prescribed cocaine for toothaches and hay fever. His well-read teenage assistant Susato accompanies him (above they're shown reminding real-life Tokyo residents to lock up bikes properly), and he's aided in some cases by his upperclassman consultant Kazuma, a begoggled Sherlock Holmes, and a 10-year-old girl version of Watson. His chief rival in cases is Barok van Zieks, a severe man known as the “God of Death” in English courts.

As implied, The Great Ace Attorney sends Ryunosuke from his native Japan to England, where he'll engage in cases ranging from an in-carriage murder and a courtroom fire to Holmes tributes about The Speckled Band and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The game's split into investigations and trials, though both modes see changes from previous Ace Attorney titles. The investigations here often turn into debates between Sherlock and Ryunosuke, and the scenery offers more details to search. Trials let players question multiple witnesses in the same turn, much like Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, and even the members of the jury are up for interrogation. The characters all animate very well, and Capcom seems to have perfected the 3-D modeling seen in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies. And it's all by Shu Takumi, the creator of Phoenix Wright and an undeniably talented storyteller.

So will Capcom release it here? Nothing's been said just yet, and last year's Layton-Phoenix crossover needed a push from Nintendo to get a physical release. If that's necessary here, so much the better.

SUIKODEN III APPEARS ON PSN, OPINIONS TO FOLLOW
In the surprise-release category, Konami put Suikoden III on the PlayStation Network last week. The first two games in the RPG series are already available, and with the third we have easy ways to enjoy every major title that knew the hand of series creator Yoshitaka Murayama (excluding the Suikogaidens, but they never saw official translations). In some ways, Suikoden III sticks to the traditions of its predecessors. It's a lengthy saga about a war between rival nations, mercenaries, tribes, and a struggling castle of misfits—108 of whom the player can recruit.

Yet I'll admit that I never liked Suikoden III nearly as much as the first two games. Suikoden and Suikoden II were briskly paced and reasonably well-plotted. Suikoden III is slow and bland in many ways. The game tells the same story through three main characters, but instead of a Rashomon fable it's just tedious, and the battle system is oversimplified. Everything feels a bit more empty, too, as Konami couldn't find the same appeal with PlayStation 2 polygons as it did with sprites in the first two Suikodens. Some point to the fourth game as the nadir of Suikoden, but my fondness for the whole series first slipped with Suikoden III.

It's not all bad, though. The supporting characters are mostly great, and there's a little surprise in the game's epilogue. Suikoden III also builds a comfortably dignified heroine in knight commander Chris Lightfellow, even if she's not that compelling beyond her presentation. And it's a handy ten bucks on the PlayStation Network, though some players reported problems bringing in their save files from Suikoden II.

IMPORT ROUNDUP: JUNE

AZITO X TATSUNOKO LEGENDS
Developer: Hamster
Publisher: Hamster
Platform: Xbox One

Video games owe a good deal to the creations of Tatsunoko Productions. You can look to the Mega Man series, where everything from a robot dog to the Legends spin-off has roots in Tatsunoko shows. Or you can see a broader pattern in the superheroes and giant goofy robots that video games pull from the skein of anime pop culture. Tatsunoko cartoons cemented those things in the minds of an entire generation, one that grew up to make video games.

Tatsunoko crafted many series, but they're best known for superhero tales. And those snuggle right into Hamster's Azito games. They tend to be tower-defense games of a sort, where players build skyscrapers and fortresses above and below ground, strategically defending them from monster invasions. It's all rendered in primitive pixels, though that works well from a visual standpoint when you're managing a complex system of elevators and subterranean hospitals and tank emplacements. It's a little like a side-view Sim City where monsters are a constant menace instead of an occasional novelty.

Azito X Tatsunoko puts numerous cartoon stars to work in fending off the (relatively) large kaiju who attack pixel cities, and the lineup includes Yatterman, Gatchaman, Casshern, Speed Racer, and even Muteking (which features a villain with Dr. Eggman's mustache). It's a straightforward crossover except for one thing: it's an Xbox One exclusive, and it's only out in Japan. That gives it an audience about as large as, say, a homebrewed N-Gage puzzle game.

Import Barrier: A lot of the menus are visual in nature, but some Japanese aptitude is still necessary. So is a fondness for Tatsunoko characters. Domestic Release: Not much of a chance unless Tatsunoko Pro's classic shows spike in popularity over here. Maybe Muteking is due for a breakthrough in North America. Also Try: Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, or the import-only Tatsunoko Fight.

RHYTHM HEAVEN: THE BEST PLUS
Developer: Nintendo SPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: PS Vita Nintendo 3DS
A.K.A.: Rhythm Tengoku: The Best Plus

The Rhythm Heaven series is one of the best subtle successes in Nintendo's catalog. They're collections of mini-games, sure, but they're served up with a persistent charm and musical accompaniment that's hard to resist. You might fill up robots to a clanking beat. You might play mid-air badminton with pilot dogs and cats. You might guide an army of one girl and several dozen monkeys in synchronized sleeping. You might see a yippy reporter interviewing a wrestler and, in the process, becoming a minor Internet meme. Whatever it is, it's somehow a wonderful pairing of music and gameplay.

Rhythm Heaven: The Best Plus is technically the fourth game in the series, but about two-thirds of its 100-some levels are taken from previous Rhythm Heaven outings, including the Wii game. Some of the small stages are remixed, but you'll get about 30 new challenges here. A new story mode tasks players with guiding a creature named Teribi back to his heavenly home, but it's mostly there to introduce new mini-games and show off cute characters suitable for keychains, stuffed toys, and tattoo catalogs. Players also can trek through a Challenge Land of attractions and use the resulting money to buy even more games.

As with previous Rhythm Heaven games, everything sticks to an appealing simplicity. It's all a matter of tapping the screen just right and keeping with the beat. If it sounds a little like Wario Ware, that's because both games come from roughly the same staff. And that's why some Wario Ware characters cameo in the latest Rhythm Heaven.

Import Barrier: That no-good regional lockout keeps you from slapping this into an off-the-shelf American 3DS, but there are workarounds. And if you find them, it's very easy to understand Rhythm Heaven's gameplay.

Domestic Release: Nintendo has said nothing yet, but Rhythm Heaven games often wait a while before coming West. See if this pops up next year.

Also Try: Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! and Elite Beat Agents.

STELLA GLOW
Developer: Imageepoch
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Stella Glow arrives in the thick of scandal. It has nothing to do with the game itself. Rather, it's developer Imageepoch inviting speculation and mystery. The company filed for bankruptcy on May 7, their offices were shuttered before that, their websites are gone, many staff members have fled, and no one seems to know just where CEO Ryoei Mikage is right now. Some theorize that he's fled the country or changed his identity to elude creditors, as Imageepoch supposedly owes 1.1 billion yen. Others maintain that he's lurking at Idea Factory and that he's the masked wrestler in a recent promo video for the RPG Makai Shin Trillion. Whatever the reason, it's one of the strangest tales to come from Japan's game industry in a good while, and it's a sad ending to a somewhat promising developer. Imageepoch started off with solid games like the Luminous Arc strategy-RPGs and the 7th Dragon dungeon hacks, but the last few years saw their profits fall amid the disastrous Time and Eternity. There's a story behind that game, and I bet it's not happy.

If Stella Glow is Imageepoch's last creation, it reaches back to better times. It's a strategy-RPG much in line with the Luminous Arc games. It follows knights (and childhood pals) Alto and Risette as they meet up with a witch whose song has supposedly cursed the world. She's not the only witch in the player's domain, and the songs of these musical sorceresses come in handy during battle. Such spells aren't free, however, and players have to plunge into a witch's psyche and destroy monsters there in order to free her true potential. This often means stabbing them in the chest with a magical blade, like a Revolutionary Girl Utena scene played in reverse.

Aside from battling through mental witchscapes, players can strengthen party bonds by chatting with characters. That's a feature common enough in RPGs these days, but I actually like it. It handily lets party members combine their skills into team-up attacks. The battles play out a lot like Luminous Arc clashes, though the cutaway attacks are flashier than anything in the game's spiritual ancestors. If it's Imageepoch's final note, Stella Glow is sturdy enough…and certainly a better exit than Time and Eternity.

Import Barrier: Lots of menus, plenty of cutscenes, and that 3DS lockout. It might not be worth the trouble, considering…

Domestic Release: Atlus has Stella Glow on track for a North American release sometime around Christmas.

Also Try: Nier, The Red Star, and L.O.L.: Lack of Love—all notable games that sent off their developers.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
You'll hear about Natsuiro High School: Seishun Hakusho for the worst reasons. It's a romantic high-school simulator for the PlayStation 3 and 4, and it casts players as a photography student who can wander around campus and the local town, romance several girls, and…well, take upskirt shots aplenty. That's not a side attraction, either. Trailers even play it up quite a bit. The game's put together with a higher budget than other disposable perv-sims, but in some ways that just makes everything worse.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

YATAGARASU: ATTACK ON CATACLYSM
Developer: Yatagarasu Dev Team
Publisher: Nyu Media
Platform: PC (Steam)
Release Date: July 7
Crows: Very Smart
MSRP: $14.99

You might've played Yatagarasu: Attack on Cataclysm before. The original version came out for Japanese computers years ago, and backers of the newer version's IndieGogo campaign got an early taste of the game. Yet this is the definitive edition of Yatagarasu, a small-team fighter hybridized from both Capcom and SNK classics. The main developers are former staffers from SNK, so you'll see a little bit of The King of Fighters in the way Yatagarasu plays and shows off its characters. Yet it's a lot closer to Street Fighter III in its animation, moves, and the way little round sparks and starbursts flash with each punch or kick's impact.

For those not versed in the subtleties of fighting games or the moot Capcom-SNK rivalry of years past, Yatagarasu remains a sturdy, handsome piece of work. The controls arrange two kick and two punch buttons, and the game's parry system (another swipe from Street Fighter III) lets a player stop an oncoming attack and turn the tide with a vicious combination. It's also possible to lessen a combo's impact by tapping buttons in response. There's one fighting-game move I'll never be good enough to pull off consistently.

Yatagarasu boasts some impressive 2-D spritework, even if the designs want for style. The first round of characters are a generic lot; Hina and Shimo all but share a body, and the same goes for Crow and Kou. The newly added characters offer some more flair, but the game will disappoint fans spoiled by the voluminous story modes of Guilty Gear or Persona 4 Arena. For anyone who wants a solid fighting game, however, Yatagarasu is hard to resist.


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


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