The X Button
First Impressions: Nights of Azure

by Todd Ciolek,
I came down with a stomach virus last week, and it made me think about the mixed blessing of staying home sick when I was a kid. I'd stretch out in bed, sip flat 7-Up, read books and magazines, and maybe get propped up in front of the TV if I was well into recovering.

Somehow I never played video games. I'm not sure why; either I lacked the constitution to twiddle around on a Game Boy or Super NES controller while nauseous, or I suspected that my parents would declare me well enough for school if they spotted me dexterously manipulating anything more complex than a TV remote.

But am I alone in this? Did other kids have video games as part of their regular sick-day ritual? Did plunging through Link's Awakening or Pokémon Yellow or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance take your mind off the fact that you couldn't eat anything but bananas and toast for two whole days? Or did you just ride out that illness without any entertainment?

I'd like to hear your replies. They'll help me through the game industry's inevitable flurry of April Fools' gags this weekend.

NEWS

NINTENDO FIRES MARKETING REP AMID FIRE EMBLEM FUSS
This year doesn't want for controversies about sexual content in game. Just this week, Blizzard vowed to remove the Tracer archetype's victory pose in Overwatch, while Square Enix revealed that Star Ocean 5's heroine Miki will wear more substantial underwear in both the Japanese and American versions. Yet the biggest battle of all continues to wage over Nintendo's localization of Fire Emblem Fates. It recently cost one Nintendo of America employee her job.

Shortly before Fire Emblem Fates arrived in North America, some fans took issue with Nintendo removing a face-touching feature from the game and altering some of the dialogue. Reasonable criticisms emerged, but a different cadre of malcontents took up the cause as another Gamergate-like crusade against those feminists and activists who allegedly seek to ruin video games by covering cleavage and obscuring buttslaps. The online mob focused their ire on Alison Rapp, a marketing rep for Nintendo of America. Rapp spoke extensively about the issue on Twitter, and for that she became a target.

Determined to get her fired from Nintendo, Rapp's detractors looked for dirt and found some: in 2011, a college-age Rapp wrote an essay debating the legality of child porn. Among other statements, she argues for “less strict legislation against the simple possession of child pornography” on the grounds that such laws often fail to lessen actual child exploitation. It's a creepy line of thought, but Rapp treats the subject entirely in an academic context. Higher education is full of bizarre and potentially repulsive arguments often made from a devil's advocate perspective.

This detail was lost on Rapp's detractors, who launched a campaign to label Rapp “pro-pedophile.” Among those calling for her dismissal were such varied voices as the Wayne Foundation, which opposes sex trafficking, and the Neo-Nazis at The Daily Stormer. Of course, Rapp was not truly attacked for the statements she'd made in a college paper five years ago; she was attacked for being part of Nintendo's marketing arm (not its localization team) and having feminist opinions on Twitter.

The ruse worked. Rapp announced Wednesday that Nintendo had fired her, and Nintendo released a statement that Rapp was let go “due to violation of an internal company policy involving holding a second job in conflict with Nintendo's corporate culture” and denied that the social-media barrage aimed at axing Rapp had anything to do with the company's decision. This is standard corporate practice when dealing with controversy, and signs point to Nintendo technically axing Rapp over her part-time job…which her self-declared enemies also dug up and reported.

It seems apparent that Nintendo fired Rapp for the same reasons the company fired localizer Chris Pranger after he spoke too freely on a podcast, and, indeed, the same reasons Nintendo removed risque content from Xenoblade Chronicles X and Fire Emblem Fates. Nintendo is a cautious, uptight company with a family-friendly image. Nintendo keeps its American branch on a tight leach. Nintendo dislikes controversy. Yet there's another reason this time around: Nintendo gave in to a witch hunt.

All of this comes the day before Nintendo rolled out the Miitomo app that brings the company's Mii avatar to a social-media game on iOS and Android. And it's hard to separate that from this recent mess, even when Nintendo's giving us cute Miis that caper around and ask about our favorite foods.

ELEMENTAL DRAGOON HAS GENERIC TITLE, NOBLE HERITAGE
Emerald Dragon remains one of my favorite RPGs that almost made it. Originally released on Japanese computers in the late 1980s, it spread to other systems and peaked on the PC Engine…and that was all. It never came to North America, though if it had, I think it could've been a cult favorite to rival Lunar and Lufia. Ostensibly the tale of a dragon and a human woman taking down a vicious despot and setting old curses to rights, Emerald Dragon has a lot of common RPG clichés, but it also has a really fun battle system, likeable characters, and a cinematic panache that doesn't overstay its welcome.

The creators of Emerald Dragon dispersed long ago. The original developer, Glodia, vanished in the early 1990s, and off-shoot Right Stuff didn't survive the decade. But all is not lost. Fellow ANN contributor Heidi Kemps alerted me to news about Elemental Dragoon, a drama CD from D4 Enterprises and illustrator Akihiro Kimura. It trades on Kimura's experience as Emerald Dragon's main illustrator, and his shaded, heavy-haired style is in effect here. He seems to be the only Emerald Dragon staffer involved so far, but others are still in the game industry. Writer Atsushi Ii recently directed the strategy-RPG NAtURAL DOCtRINE, and co-composer Tenpei Sato can be heard in the Disgaea series and other Nippon Ichi games.

Elemental Dragoon looks to follow the same decades-old routines as its RPG forefathers. The early artwork shows hero Barrage tripping over heroine Hamel…and then getting comically flustered when she plants herself in his bed. Still, Kimura's illustrations have the flourish of old RPGs from the time of the MSX and PC-88, and there's a certain charm to them. Elemental Dragoon may not be a sequel to Emerald Dragon, but it wouldn't be the first time Kimura's revisited the idea. He drew a four-volume Emerald Dragon doujinshi sequel that I'm dying to collect.

ARCADE ARCHIVES ADDS LIFEFORCE The Arcade Archives are much appreciated. I realize that most PlayStation 4 owners didn't buy a $300 console to play old coin-op games from the 1980s, but there's something immensely satisfying about a perfectly rendered arcade title from decades past, ready and waiting for you to play it like you never could when each attempt demanded a quarter and a round of begging your parents. Bubble Bobble remains my favorite arcade title revived on the PlayStation 4 by Sony and the adorably named Hamster Corporation, but the Archives keep expanding nicely, and this week brings Lifeforce to North America.

Lifeforce, known as Salamander in Japan, is a less prolific off-shoot of Konami's side-scrolling Gradius shooters, but I always preferred Lifeforce. It's a little faster in pace, with a two-player mode and a variety of horizontal and vertical stages. And it has a really great design motif: you're plumbing the depths of a planet-shaped creature, so you'll see veins and organs and other parts of its innards. In fact, the first boss is a giant brain that sprouts an eye and claws, as though it's the remains of some entity largely digested long ago by the world.

That grotesque imagery made Lifeforce a memorable shooter on the NES, and those who enjoyed it there should find the arcade original much the same; it doesn't have as many morbid sights as the NES game, but it's quicker and looks a lot better, while adding a narrator who electronically chirps advice like “KIDNEY STONE CANNOT BE DESTROYED.” The PlayStation 4 version includes both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the game, plus the usual leaderboard options. It's also eight bucks, and that's a fair price for those who don't want to wait for a flash sale.

And then you can go watch the Salamander anime series and marvel at a time when a plotless shooting game could land a four-part animated OVA.

SOCKS THE CAT ROCKS THE HILL RETURNS SOMEHOW
Among those who study such things, Socks the cat might be the most famous presidential pet. He appeared in everything from children's books to Eek! The Cat cartoons in the years after Bill Clinton took office, but the most ambitious offering came with a Super NES and Sega Genesis game called Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill. It followed a side-scroller template as Socks dodged spies and faced politicians (including Ross Perot) all around the White House. The game would be a mildly amusing piece of early '90s errata had it been released, but Kaneko canceled plans to bring it out. That made it a mystery.

Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill was not lost entirely, and a prototype of the Super NES version appeared years ago. While many such unreleased games made their way online in the last decade, Socks remained in collector clutches, seen only in YouTube uploads and the living rooms of its owners. The game currently rests with Tom Curtin, who owns not only the prototype but the trademark as well, and he plans to make the game available through a Kickstarter that'll include digital releases and an actual Super NES cartridge. It's presumably meant to offset the cost of the prototype, as such unreleased games regularly go for thousands of dollars.

It seems like a lot of fuss made over a platform game that looks no better than Rocky Rodent or Dino City, but Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill is at least curious in a cultural sense, and I'm glad we'll get to play it. After all, this isn't the only canceled presidential pet production—Warner Bros. and Bob Clampett worked on For He's a Jolly Good Fala, a cartoon based on FDR's White House dog, only to abandon the project when the president passed away in office. The existing animation wound up in a later cartoon, but we'll never see the original as it was intended. Fate was kinder to Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: NIGHTS OF AZURE

Tecmo KOEI readily describes Nights of Azure as a “darker” game for developer Gust, known primarily for colorful Atelier outings that supply pastoral lands with cheerful alchemists. In contrast, Nights of Azure is a bleak tale unfolding on a cursed isle, and it's the work of director Keisuke Kikuchi, who co-created and still oversees the survival-horror Fatal Frame series. Nights of Azure snags itself somewhere between the two genres. It's not a bucolic exercise in chemistry, it's not a harrowing battle against camera-shy spirits, and it's not even what it clearly wants to be.

Nights of Azure introduces itself with appropriately grim tidings on Ruswal, an island that, contrary to all actual geography, lies between England and the Netherlands. Centuries ago, a demon overlord perished in a battle above and, in death, managed to bleed all over the isle. This blue rain transformed some humans into nocturnal monsters, and no one in Ruswal roams the streets at night. Indeed, the only two people seen in the game's outset are the grumbling hunter Arnice and the priestess Lilysse, dispatched there to end the isle's long-running curse.

The mission isn't easy on either of them. Lilysse is intent on sealing the overlord's lingering power, but that may well demand her own life. For her part, the half-demon Arnice seems more intent on saving Lilysee from herself; the two of them are former university pals and, as the game all but gives away in its promotional artwork, they're in love with each other.

Nights of Azure wants to tell a despairing tale of two women forced to make hard decisions about their feelings and the greater good of an entire isle. That's where the problems start. The game lacks the needed flourishes for such a story, as the streets and hallways of Rusmal are drab and vacant. While only the PlayStation 4 version made it to North America, Nights of Azure is very much a PlayStation 3 and Vita creation, and it seems like an Atelier game stripped of its colors. Mazelike courtyards, alleyways, and furnished hotels all look crisp at the edges but want for detail and atmosphere, despite the best efforts of the soundtrack and the Japanese voice cast (no dub here, folks). What should be haunting and curious just seems empty.

This hollow atmosphere even drags down the storyline. It's a largely routine plot beyond the Sapphic overtones, and cut corners emerge early. Not long into their visit to the isle, the two women meet a gigantic shadow-wolf that leaps forward and captures Lilysee…during a cutaway. We're left to imagine just how Arnice let this happen, because the game couldn't show it.

Nor does it help that many of the conversations try to mix heartfelt anguish with incongruous pandering. Even as their relationship deepens, there's always an excuse for Arnice and Lilysse to wear less, and it's hard to be intimidated by a city's nightly horrors when the two leads stand and talk while their breasts relentlessly wobble inside scant outfits. Perhaps our heroines plan on getting parts in the next Dead or Alive if Nights of Azure doesn't earn a sequel.

If the storyline rarely finds solid ground, Nights of Azure stands firmer in Arnice's violent campaigns. She races along streets, carving through monsters with three different attack levels and a retinue of little creatures called Servans. Ranging from lumbering tree-golems to angelic dolls, the Servans appear beside Arnice at the touch of a button, attacking with their own elemental specialties. They're easy to arrange and collect, and Arnice soon has a full party of them to manage, equip, and loosely direct in battle.

Being a half-demon and an ecumenically certified hunter, Arnice is formidable on her own. She can dash, dodge, and launch limited combos at first, but the game expands her repertoire with new weapons and temporary demonic incarnations. Hacking through enemies rarely gets old, even if she's by no means as agile as the leads of Devil May Cry, Drakengard 3, or Bayonetta; her attacks and summonable allies recall a less boring and more terrestrial version of Chaos Legion, if anyone remembers that.

Nights of Azure works best not as a pure action game, but more as a heated and smooth dungeon-dive. Arnice and her allies rush through mansions, labyrinths, and other local sights with a timer running, and after fifteen minutes, it's back to the weirdly unoccupied hotel that serves as her base camp. Nights of Azure has the marks of a substantial game, too, as Arnice finds side-quests, weapon upgrades, an international merchant ring, and a combat arena to distract from the central storyline.

That might be Nights of Azure's true calling: mere distraction. It has enjoyable substance in its gameplay but wants for overall impact, ending up in an uneven netherland between a violent action game and a cute, gradually serious RPG. It can't satisfy either world, and it's too derivative to be an experiment or mark a new direction. Yet there's fun to be had within its complexities.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

QUANTUM BREAK
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox One / Windows
Release Date: April 5
Jack Joyce: Stately, Plump
MSRP: $59.99

Quantum Break popped up among the first round of Xbox One games shown off in 2013, in that treacherous little swamp where a console's show-off titles often disappear. And that's what happened to Quantum Break for a while. It missed its original 2014 and 2015 release dates, but now it's finished. That may not seem relevant here, but I'm always fascinated by early-generation games that go astray. Just ask any Nintendo 64 owner about Robotech: Crystal Dreams.

Seizing a halfway plausible take on time travel, Quantum Break traps its protagonist, Jack Joyce, in a shockingly well-funded university experiment that grants him limited temporal-bending abilities. He's hunted by the insidious Monarch Solutions, which puts him at odds with a variety of mercenaries and soldiers. It's here that his time-bending abilities come out: while the game is a shooter, Jack's able to slow down time to dodge bullets, shield himself, race across distances in an instant, solve puzzles, and even attack enemies with time itself, however that works. The slowdown mechanic should be familiar to fans of Max Payne, the pulpy tributes that, by no coincidence, Remedy Entertainment also developed. Quantum Break also lets players take up the other side of the story, as they'll make plot-forking decisions as the project's ominous lead, Paul Serene.

Quantum Break favors the modern trend of prominent actors recreated in-game. Jack is played by Shawn Ashmore, Dominic Monaghan appears as his brother William, and Aidan Gillen of Game of Thrones notoriety is Serene. All of them look a little stiff and not-quite-right in the game's engine, but I am not troubled by this. I lived through a time when video games sold themselves with grainy footage of Hulk Hogan or Scottie Pippen.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
OK, what'd I miss while I was sick? Well, on top of the above-mentioned Nights of Azure, we have Trillion: God of Destruction for the Vita. It's one of those Compile Heart RPGs about demons, parody, and preposterous damage. Its battles follow a strategy-RPG grid with dungeon-hack concepts: when you move, the enemies move as well, unless you cheat a little. Outside of that, the protagonist Zeabolos builds relationships with demon-lords, and they're all Disgaea-like anime girls. Oh, and some of them are his cousins. Ewww.

One interesting game slipped out earlier, and it's Aegis of Earth: Protonovus Assault. It puts the player in charge of a high-tech revolving city staffed by goofy heroes and routinely attacked by monsters. Defenses are strengthened through SimCity-style planning, but enemy assaults require first-person shooting and strategic rotations of the city's quarters. It's out now on the Vita and PlayStation 4.


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


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