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First Impressions: Bravely Second: End Layer

by Todd Ciolek,
I hope you like Valkyrie Profile, because it comes up in this week's column yet again. And I actually have an excuse for discussing it, too!

But first we have a mystery on our hands.

It's rare for an unreleased video game to turn up, and it's even rarer for someone to discover an unreleased game completely undocumented in its time. No one ever saw Bio Force Ape or Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill or Bounty Arms on store shelves, but they saw magazine previews and ads for them, so at least some memory lingered. Yet there are games that lived and died in development without the outside world ever noticing, and sometimes they bob to the surface.

Last week, Neo-Geo.com forums member NeoTurfMasta showed off a curious Neo Geo prototype game he found on old development hardware. It has no title screen and several of the characters are unfinished (and consequently look like Guardian Heroes extras), but a good share of the game is there, from the character-select screen to the well-animated backgrounds. It appears to be a medieval-fantasy fighting game with knights and armored monstrosities battling alongside a shirtless samurai and a clone of X-Men's Rogue.

Its ideas are interesting for something apparently made two decades ago: the game lets players chose from Neutral, Lawful, or Chaotic versions of each character, with moves and sidekick animals changing accordingly. The roster seems a little ahead of its time, with an emphasis on handsome male combatants possibly aimed at female players, and one character is actually two bizarrely dressed kids who fight in unison. That's an idea I don't recall surfacing again until Chaos Code. But perhaps I'm forgetting something.

It's a fascinating piece of history from the Neo Geo, which is often fascinating itself. It was an expensive, powerful attempt at bridging arcade hardware and home consoles, and it maintains a devoted, borderline-crazy fan base even today. And that fan base had questions. Who made this game? Why was it canceled? And what was it called?

Answers came quickly. Graphic artist Takumi Matsumae recalled that his studio and a company called FACE were developing the game, and that it was tentatively named Dragon's Heaven. It dates back to 1997, and its programmers included former Technos Japan staff. It makes sense, since the unfinished fighter contains some graphics from FACE's Money Idol Exchanger, while the hardware that housed it also contained Technos Japan's terrible Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer. So that may solve the mystery.

Even so, I think Dragon's Heaven is a strange name for something that has no playable dragons, and it already appears on another canceled game—a Saturn RPG from Data East. In fact, artist Makoto Kobayashi used the name Dragon's Heaven for a manga and a nice-looking (if utterly superficial) OVA back in the 1980s. I hope the publisher would've gone with something more alliterative for the finished game, like Shattered Swords, Lancer Legacy, or Covington Cross: The Fighting.

NEWS

VALKYRIE PROFILE RETURNS AS ANATOMIA ANOMALY
A Valkyrie Profile mobile game was a running joke among us fans for years. “Sure, another Valkyrie Profile would be great,” we might say, “But the way things are going among Japanese developers, it'd probably be a dinky iPhone and Android game where you have to pay money to collect rare dead warriors.” How we laughed. Well, Square Enix has a new Valkyrie Profile, and it's a mobile game. Now the laughs sound a touch bitter.

Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin technically doesn't have “Profile” in its title, but its logo has the same Valkyrie silhouette, the same font, and the same sort of dramatic tagline: “Destiny undone in the name of the Divine.” As the title clearly denotes, it's set before the original Valkyrie Profile, though the staff didn't say whether it also unfolds before the DS-based prequel Covenant of the Plume.

And what of the staff? Yoshinori Yamagishi is the producer (just as he was for the first two Valkyrie Profiles), Motoi Sakuraba returns for the music, and playwright Daisuke “Bun-O” Fujisawa, fresh off Yuuyake Dandan, provides the scenario. Illustrators Kou Yoshinari and You Yoshinari aren't listed, but Square Enix hasn't revealed any artists for the project just yet. Miho Akabane, planner/writer for Valkyrie Profile 2 and Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, doesn't appear to be involved, though.

The first trailer reveals very little about the game apart from the staff and a few lines (possibly read by Miyuki Sawashiro) from a valkyrie who laments the gods' cruel machinations and asks a departed soul to join her as an Einherjar. In fact, you'll see something new only if you pause the trailer right before the title appears. I like that challenge. It makes me feel like I'm hunting for a lake monster.

Yes, that's artwork of what could well be a valkyrie, possibly drawn by the Yoshinaris. She lacks the flowing dress and conspicuously modeled armor of the Valkyrie Profile goddesses, but that looks a lot like the distinctive braid of Lenneth, protagonist of the first Valkyrie Profile and the most prominent character in the series. Sorry, Hrist Valkyrie. I don't think this is your long-desired chance in the spotlight.

The website also confirms the game for iOS and Android devices, though the gameplay remains undescribed. Not that this has kept people from predicting a shallow, cheap, and unsatisfying Valkyrie Profile mobile distraction.

Well, I won't give in to doomsaying. Being a mobile game doesn't make Valkyrie Anatomia innately bad. We've seen recent mobile titles that pack fun gameplay and lots of visual appeal into a smartphone screen. It's not out of the question that Square Enix will fashion an impressive RPG on the same lines as Chaos Rings. And the third Chaos Rings even came to the Vita! It'll be OK, really!

I'm glad that Square Enix remembers Valkyrie Profile in any capacity, and a successful mobile game might make them greenlight producer Shuichi Kobayashi's Valkyrie Profile 3 proposal. And hey, it's a new Valkyrie Profile in spirit, if not in name. My only worry is that Square Enix won't bother localizing it.

No, wait. I have one more misgiving, and it's the same one I have for all mobile games. They lack permanence. I've cut down my game collection considerably over the years, but I still have every Valkyrie Profile title (some twice over). I plan to keep them and thus evoke the irony of clutching a series about the transient nature of all things. How will I hold on to a game that exists only as a digital download for an iPad or Galaxy S7? How will I preserve the entirety of Valkyrie Profile so that my descendants can experience it, whether they want to or not?

CHRONOS MATERIA FINALLY CANCELED
It's not just old Neo Geo fighting games that end up canceled. Gust announced Chronos Materia for the Vita back in 2013, sticking it with a release date in September. And then it disappeared. Most of the people who remembered the game assumed it was canceled at some point around 2015, but it wasn't until this week that Gust officially shut the door on Chronos Materia.

From what Gust revealed, Chronos Materia is (or was) an RPG that follows a band of five kids dumped in a fantasy realm where humans are long extinct. In their search for a way back home, the group gathers elements to create homunculi and brings them into battles. It sounds a lot like Gust's Atelier games in that regard, which may explain why it didn't get much attention.

Still, any canceled game is a minor loss at the very least, and perhaps we'll see Chronos Materia someday. Going by recent events, someone will dig it up around 2035.

ATLUS HOISTS UP THE KING OF FIGHTERS XIV
Well, The King of Fighters XIV still doesn't look so good in a technical sense. But SNK believes in it, and so does Atlus. In fact, Atlus will bring the PlayStation 4 fighter to North America later this year. And if their treatment of The King of Fighters XIII is any indication, they'll at least bundle it with a soundtrack or some other nice trinket.

This seems as good a time as any to discuss The King of Fighters XIV's all-new characters. The fifty-strong roster is over halfway revealed now, and we have five additions who've never before appeared in a King of Fighters game. Well, technically Mui Mui appeared in an SNK pachislot game called Dragon Gal, so she's not all new. She also looks like Li Xiangfei. Kukri is a mysterious hooded character, and just about anyone could be under the robes and gloves. Nelson's a boxer and, from his appearance, an attempt at combing Street Fighter and Tekken aesthetics to bland effect. Also predictable is Luong, a revealing clad woman with kick-centric attacks and a move where she sits on her opponent's face and slams him or her to the ground. Classy.

The least inspiring of the new crop is Sylvie Paula Paula, a special NESTS operative who dresses like a garish pop idol. Her outfit and antics are a headache, and the game's already unspectacular graphics engine makes her cute posturing unintentionally hideous, as though she's a glitching character from an anime version of Assassin's Creed. She's a weird fit for The King of Fighters, which usually sticks to semi-realistic fashions. I know this is intended as a riff on Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, but I like to think maybe she's a tribute to the rampantly bizarre costumes of The King of Fighters Maximum Impact games. All of sudden, they seem sadly unappreciated.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: BRAVELY SECOND: END LAYER

By Heidi Kemps

There's a bit of a debate as to whether or not you have to actually finish a game in order to properly review it. I'm generally of the opinion that a 100% playthrough of a game isn't completely necessary in many cases, but a good argument for playing to completion is the original Bravely Default. It's a beautiful and charming return to the best RPGs of the golden age, with fun dialogue, a great soundtrack, and a class-changing system that's tons of fun to play around with. It's a delightful adventure...for about two-thirds of its playtime, at which point it violently shits the bed in a story twist that I'm sure sounded great in planning but was pure misery in execution. Even with the late-game downturn, however, Bravely Default found an eager audience hungry for an old-fashioned JRPG with some smart new additions. Thus, we now have the sequel, Bravely Second, bringing us new jobs, old faces, and (hopefully) far less doing everything over again.

The game revs into high gear pretty darn fast, especially compared to the original title. While Bravely Default started out with an intriguing CG sequence of Agnes calling out to you for help and then abruptly switching to Tiz's quiet hamlet, Bravely Second begins with Agnes and her guardians under attack by someone who appears to be the game's Big Bad, Kaiser Oblivion. He's in charge of the Glanz Empire, a malevolent force that materialized just as unity and peace between the Crystal Orthodoxy and the Duchy of Eternia was within reach. His motives are as puzzling as his sudden appearance, but he is unfathomably strong, wiping out most of Agnes's guardians and spiriting her away to the Empire's stronghold in the sky.

Yew was one of the survivors of that attack, and he's not about to let Pope Agnes be a prisoner in a sky fortress—he's going to muster the might of the Crystal Corps to take her back! Or so he hopes. He immediately sets out with two of his friends and a legion of backup to plan a strike against the Empire. Things don't go as planned, though: the plot twists start hitting fast and strong, and before you know it, Yew is alone, haunted by the souls of his fallen comrades, frozen in fear against one of the Empire's elite fighters. Thankfully, somebody jumps into to fray to kick his butt into gear... somebody very familiar, at that! Edea's been looking for Yew under the advice of "The Astrologer." It seems like fate already has big plans for him. And that's just the first hour and a half of plot!

My first thought upon seeing Bravely Second was the first thought I had when seeing Bravely Default: good lord, this game is gorgeous. Not just "gorgeous for a 3DS game," either - the art direction for these titles is top-notch. I'm sure the direction of famed artist and character designer Akihiko Yoshida certainly helps things on this front, but it's also easy to forget that co-developers Silicon Studio's core business is selling graphical middleware applications across a broad range of platforms. These guys know how to wring power out of a 3DS like nobody's business. The result is a lavish, storybook-style fantasy world that feels like a living, breathing illustration out of a concept art book.

I'm a ways into the game now, and things feel like they're moving at a brisker pace than in the original game. Maybe it's better pacing, or maybe it's because I set the battles to go at super-fast speed from the outset. Either way, it just feels a little faster overall, and that's not a bad thing. Combat's still as intense and thought-provoking as ever (and I appreciate how even the first few bosses will wreck you if you don't use the brave/default system wisely), plus there's a lot of new job classes (and accompanying abilities) to play around with. While there isn't much in the way of new battle mechanics, the new classes/abilities essentially fill that role, so it's not something I'm terribly broken up about.

I'm really digging the snappy English dialogue, as well—localization firm Binari Sonari keeps a very similar tone to the original game, putting an endearing emphasis on strangle little character quirks that make encounters with both friends and foes memorable. The English dub quality has also improved a fair bit, and if you want to play it in the original Japanese, you can do that, too. It's multi-language and dual-audio!

You don't have to wait long to play Bravely Second, as it's out this Friday. If you're still going through Fire Emblem, and I know I bunch of you are (heck, I am too), you can probably wait a bit before taking the plunge on this one. Sure, you might have to watch for spoilers, but if you successfully evaded the first wave of plot details from the game's European release two months ago, you'll likely already know how to avoid getting details you don't want to hear.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

LANGRISSER RE: INCARNATION TENSEI
Developer: Career Soft / Masaya
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: April 19
Plastic Little Cameos: Doubtful
MSRP: $39.99

The Langrisser series is known for two things: complex strategic battles and the shiny, unflaggingly risque artwork of Satoshi Urushihara. It was the province of importers for most of its life, as the only part of it that came to North America was a Sega Genesis port of the original game. It was called Warsong, and it changed a few character names and made their eyes smaller. Anime looks didn't play in early-'90s marketing.

Langrisser fans generally agree that the series ended in spirit with Langrisser V in 1998, after which developer Career Soft went off to make the similar but more suggestively titled Growlanser games (which had better luck in coming to North America). Langrisser games puttered around the Millennium sub-series and some multiplayer titles, but they're generally inferior. And then Career Soft returned to the series on the 3DS of all places.

Langrisser Re: Incarnation Tensei lays its base in the same concepts that served its predecessors. The spiky-haired hero this time around is named Ares, and he discovers an ancient and powerful sword while hiding from an invading force. He gathers together a band of companions, including knights, archers, his long-lost younger sister, and the ageless recurring Langrisser mystic Jessica. Contending with an overbearing church and a rapacious empire, the heroes face darker threats in overhead-view battles. There players direct and position units, while attacks are shown in brief animated battles similar to Fire Emblem…and similar to old Langrisser games, for that matter.

Those who imported Langrisser Re: Incarnation Tensei weren't kind to the game, citing awkward menus, terrible graphics, and awkward character progression. Perhaps Aksys and Career Soft improved a few things since the game's Japanese debut, but one thing is clear: the new artwork doesn't have Satoshi Urushihara's distinctive gloss. It does follow his habit of garbing female characters in very little, only now some of those heroines look alarmingly young. And it all makes Urushihara's art look comparatively tasteful.

STAR FOX ZERO
Developer: Platinum Games / Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: April 22
Best Character: Herbert
MSRP: $59.99

Why did Star Fox never assume the same enormous domain as Mario or Zelda? It's backed by Nintendo, after all, and it had a game on every major Nintendo platform from the Super NES onward, with the curious exception of the Wii. And it never fell in fan esteem like Metroid did with Other M. Perhaps Star Fox is caught in an unfortunate medium: the spacefaring animal-people work just fine when setting up galaxy-wide struggle against a simian despot, but they don't rate well enough for cartoons or merchandise.

Star Fox Zero doesn't set itself up as a direct sequel or prequel to any part of the series, but its plotline sticks with standards: Fox McCloud and his wingmen (experienced rabbit Peppery, jerk avian Falco, and punching-bag toad Slippy) lead a campaign to defeat the ape overlord Andross and his forces. Their Arwing fighters cruise through space, descend to planetary battles, dive through space colonies, and take on enough space cruisers and mechanized weapons to fill any given Star Wars. They also meet more animal folk, to the point where the whole thing recalls Bucky O'Hare with less overt pro-mammal biases.

Nintendo recruited Platinum Games to develop Star Fox Zero, and while the results aren't as crazed as Bayonetta or Vanquish, the Star Fox gameplay heads in some new directions. Levels once again range from free-flying stages to rail-like paths, while the vehicle lineup expands. The standard Arwing can transform into a walker straight out of the canceled Star Fox 2, the Landmaster tank can turn into an armored hovercraft, and the all-new gyrowing uses the Wii U's gamepad to guide a tether and move items…awkwardly so, in some cases.

Star Fox Zero also comes with Star Fox Guard, a separate tower-defense game where the player fends off a robot invasion by using a multi-camera array represented on the Wii U pad and TV screen. You can buy it separately further on down the line, but I expect that anyone fond enough of Star Fox to buy a game with Slippy and his uncle Grippy (does he have influenza?) will already want Star Fox Zero in full.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Steam gets two older titles of note next week. On April 18, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair arrives with its plethora of murder mysteries and comical horrors, all of which hinge on rapid-fire dialogue and subverted high-school stereotypes. The following day, you'll see a Steam version of Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code, the most recent version of French-Bread's impressive 2-D fighter based on the Tsukihime series. The original game is over a decade old, but it's had plenty of polish applied in the years since its doujin debut. Anyone who enjoyed the developer's work on Under Night In-Birth or Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax should give their earlier effort a fair shake. You'll also recognize a bunch of characters if you still play that SaltyBet thing.


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


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