The X Button
Interview: Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness

by Todd Ciolek,
Welcome to another edition of the X Button. I must interrupt your regularly scheduled Valkyrie Profile updates for some news about Sony's new PlayStation 4.

Yes, some solid rumors point to Sony releasing an upgraded version of the PlayStation 4 under the name “Neo.” It'll have a faster CPU, more memory bandwidth, and support for 4K. There will be no Neo-exclusive games, as everything released on the PlayStation 4 will have regular and Neo versions. The Neo stuff will just look nicer.

It's a rare move among console manufacturers: every successful system sees a new model, but they're usually just more efficient in space and heat dispersal—or even lacking features like the early PlayStation 3's PS2 compatibility. The Neo sounds more like a computer upgrade, and that's at odds with the simplicity one expects from a dedicated game console. At last I understand why my parents were so annoyed at my wanting a “Super” Nintendo a few years after I got a regular one.

Of course, this doesn't replace the regular PlayStation 4, pictured above. The only problem would arise if a game is optimized for the Neo and runs slow and clumsy on the vanilla PS4. And if that game is Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last Guardian, Gravity Rush 2, or some other anticipated PlayStation 4 outing, established PlayStation 4 owners won't be happy.

NEWS

VALKYRIE ANATOMIA SHOWS FIRST ARTWORK, SIGNS OF QUALITY
What's new with Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin? Just enough for me to assemble a news story, I hope. A prequel to the original Valkyrie Profile, it's due out on Android and iOS devices in the spring, and Square Enix released the first full illustration and character profiles.

The art is just the full version of the Valkyrie briefly glimpsed in the trailer, and it confirms that, yes, the heroine is Lenneth Valkyrie, protagonist of the first game. It's a fine illustration, though it apparently comes from longtime Square artist/art director Hideo Minaba instead of You Yoshinari or Kou Yoshinari, the artists/animators who contributed to all three previous Valkyrie Profile games.

Lenneth, previously voiced by Yumi Toma, gets a new actress in Miyuki Sawashiro. The other Norse deities revealed so far are allfather Odin (Koichi Yamadera), and a goddess of fate called Norn (Ai Kakuma). Anatomia also revealed two mortal women: Sena (Ayane Sakura) is a valiant swordfighter, and Darine (Hitomi Nabatame) is simply described as inhumanly beautiful. Nabatame also voiced the hellish emissary Ailyth in Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. I assume that's a hint.

And that's all for now. Square Enix opened registration for the game through the official site. Their system locks out overseas access, but you can circumvent that with a VPN, an account registered as Japanese, and a few doses of trial and error.

LET IT DIE CRIES BLOODY MURDER
Before anyone discusses Let It Die, we should take a moment to remember Tae Ioroi. She was the star of Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture's stylish PlayStation 4 action game Lily Bergamo, which was abruptly canceled in 2014. We saw only a trailer and some promotional artwork.

Various pieces of Lily Bergamo re-formed into Suda51's new Let It Die for the PlayStation 4, but Tae herself disappeared with her game's cancellation. So as we take in the new trailer for Let It Die, we should remember that there's no point in scanning the backgrounds and costumes for Tae Ioroi cameos. She is not there.

Let It Die continues Suda51's efforts to simultaneously parody violent modern video games and play to them. It's a free-to-play “survival action game” where players roam a grimy, multi-tiered clump of a city that holds everything from glossy skyscrapers to rotting theme parks. The default setting outfits the player's character with swim trunks and bare fists, but all sorts of outfits and weapons and opportunities for murder await.

The trailer shows off someone in skater-reaper garb, an apparent katana-wielding protagonist in a pilot's helmet, and a giant pulsating mutant suitable for any decent Resident Evil game. Let It Die doesn't have the snap of Lily Bergamo's trailer (where Tae used cloth streamers to constrain a huge creature), but it might make up for that in sheer variety.

If you just want to play Let it Die and are weary of muckrakers like me bringing up Lily Bergamo, you can find it at Pax East this weekend.

NIER AUTOMATA AUTOMATES CHARACTERS
Nier: Automata apparently doesn't believe in a happy endings, at least not when they pertain to its predecessor. That's because Nier Automata, technically stylized NieR: Automata, returns to the world of the original Nier and finds it deep in a proxy war between aliens and the puny surviving lunar sliver of the human race. The aliens use Living Machines to overrun the earth, while the moon-based humans dispatch YorHa androids to reclaim the planet. That's where the game's protagonists enter the picture.

We met 2B when Square Enix and director Taro Yoko first announced Nier: Automata for the PlayStation 4. She's a no-nonsense, general-purpose combat machine, adaptable to both melee moves and long-range attacks. She fights in a dress and high heels, though the most unusual part of her ensemble is a blindfold-like visor that she's seldom without.

Square Enix also introduced two other androids. On the left we have 9S, an outgoing soldier who gathers information for his squadmates. On the right is A2, a mute prototype model that uses hand-to-hand attacks.

The designs seem unremarkable so far, but that's not really why some (myself included) look forward to Nier: Automata. It's more the fusion of Taro Yoko's bizarre, ingeniously brutal storytelling and Platinum Games' expertly crafted action. Drakengard 3 and Nier are among the most intriguing games of the past generation, but they could've used more refined gameplay. Platinum can provide that, and new gameplay footage of Nier: Automata shows promise. It mostly consists of 2B and 9S dashing around a robot-filled foundry, and they're able to air-dash, slide around, and move with all the grace you'd expect from a typical Platinum hero or heroine.

INTERVIEW: STAR OCEAN 5'S SHUICHI KOBAYASHI

Some counted Star Ocean out. The series seemed to negate itself with an annoying, Matrix-like plot twist in Star Ocean 3: 'Til the End of Time, and the follow-up, Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope, felt clichéd and halfhearted. Moreover, series developer tri-Ace looked bound for background roles and mobile-game toil after Nepro Japan bought a big stake in the company and Square Enix relegated them to support work on Final Fantasy XIII sequels.

But tri-Ace endured, and so did Star Ocean. Integrity and Faithlessness, the fifth game in the series (or sixth, if you count Blue Sphere), arrived in Japan this March for the PlayStation 3 and 4, and it hits North America in June.

Contributor Heidi Kemps met up with producer Shūichi Kobayashi to talk about Star Ocean's staying power, Valkyrie Profile sequels, and how to get a stricter CERO rating in Japan.

HEIDI KEMPS: I'm used to JRPGs having three-or-four-person parties. I was bit surprised upon seeing all of my recruited party members onscreen at once. I'm not used to that! Why did you decide on having such a big party this time around?

SHUICHI KOBAYASHI: We wanted to implement seamless events and battles, which take place directly on the map. Since that was a goal, the three-or-four person party felt awkward—some characters are engaging, while others are just standing around! I thought it would be more natural to just have everyone participate in the battle. By doing that, we were able to create a new experience for players, where they can see many character battling onscreen all at the same time. Within the seven-person party, every character plays a different role—swordsman, hand-to-hand combat, long-range, etc.—you can switch between those characters whenever you want. It's very easy to find a character that you personally enjoy using.

Since the characters you aren't in direct control of are handled by the AI, we've added a “role” system, where you can assign up to four “roles” for each character. With this system, you can assign and level up various AI traits across characters. This allows you to increase the breadth of things you can do with the game.

I did play around with the role system a bit. I like that it does more than just affecting AI, like changing character stats. There was one role I saw that befuddled me, however. It's called “eccentric” and makes that character and other characters behave more erratically for a huge attack boost. Is this actually useful, or one of those weird “challenge” options you see thrown in games?

Roles like these might not seem good at first, but if you play around with them, you can definitely find some uses, especially if you mix and match with other roles. This role, for example— it makes the character behave more erratically and attack more, but increases everyone's strength. There's a character, Relia, who you can't really control yourself, but she does a lot of debuffs. If you put that role onto her, everyone gets the strength boost, and she throws out her debuffs more often, so it lessens the negative impact of the role. That's just one example of how you can strategize with the customizability of the role system.

Wow, that sort of thing sounds like it must have been hell to program the AI for.

It was a real hassle to QA, too. [laughs]

With so many characters onscreen at once, did you ever consider any sort of online or offline multiplayer?

I feel like the Star Ocean series is built around the single-player experience. For SO5, we really wanted to focus on the AI customizability. That's what I hope the players will enjoy.

I was surprised and rather happy when I ran into the character Welch early on in my demo. She's one of the few characters who had a recurring role throughout Star Ocean. How did she come to assume this role?

Welch was originally conceived as a guide in Star Ocean 3 to help players through item creation, since the items creation process varied greatly from game to game. Her being retconned into PSP Star Ocean 1 and 2 was something as an anomaly. Since then, however, we've used her as a tutorial character to explain what can be done with item creation.

By the way, every Welch is a different, unrelated girl who just happens to have the same name and mannerisms. We actually didn't originally plan for her to be in this game, but we felt that the regular tutorials were a bit dull, so we had her join in as well.

Star Ocean 1, 2, 4, and 5 all had an established Japanese artist doing character designs and illustrations for the game. Why did you pick Akiman for design duties this time around? What do you feel his designs add to the game?

The base character designs for the previous games were actually done first at Tri-Ace. We asked illustrators to help us after those base designs were completed - which is a bit of a reverse order from how character designs are usually done. For Star Ocean 5, since the PS4 is such a powerful platform, we felt that that major differences between the illustrations and the in-game models would just seem strange. So we looked for someone who was skilled at designing characters, keeping in mind that there would be seven characters onscreen at once. Players would need to be able to tell, at a glance, what kind of character they were and what their combat role and personality was. That's why we looked to Akiman, who has a legacy of that sort of character design with Street Fighter. When we reached out to him and asked him to do the character design for us, we actually didn't have the game scenario finished yet. We figured out the Private Action sub-events and character personalities after we got the drafts of his character designs. He was really integrated into the character creation process from the start.

By the way, Fiore's outfit design was the factor that took the game up from a CERO B to a CERO C rating in Japan. [laughs]

That's an amusing anecdote, especially considering there's a bit of a hubbub over changing a character's panties.

Yeah, Japanese users basically interpreted it the wrong way. We just made the undergarments on Miki a little bit bigger. The reason why she even has underwear to begin with is because it's a realistic game model, and it would just be weird if the underside of her skirt tapered off into some bizarre black void. *laughs* It doesn't affect the game at all, and nobody's talking about it in Japan anymore, either. I would be happy if players enjoyed the game for other reasons besides the underwear.

Do you find that CERO is a bit stricter about some things than game ratings boards abroad?

Well, really, besides Fiore, there weren't many issues with the rating for this title. There's no blood or gore. We've got a T rating in North America, which isn't too far off from what we received in Japan. I was just shocked that that one outfit would be such a big impact, honestly.

It's really striking how there are few transitions for things like battles and story cutscenes. How important was it to you that everything be so seamless?

I'm glad you asked that. JRPGs used to be focused on anime-like bridge cutscenes that you'd sit and watch. Star Ocean, up until now, has been like this, too—Star Ocean 4 had about ten hours of cutscenes. While it was great to convey the story that way, the wait time was just really long. We'd been getting user feedback that they wanted to actually play the game more. This time, the events happen while you still move and fight, so you rarely have to “stop playing.” That was one thing I really wanted to achieve with this game.

On one hand, you lose a bit of that cinematic feel you get from more traditional JRPGs. On the other hand, it makes it feel like there's more meat to the game; that you spend more time actually playing. What used to be ten hours of pure cutscenes is now ten hours of gameplay. I've received some feedback that does does make the game itself feel a bit shorter, however. In the future, I want to see if we can strike more of a balance between that movie-like feel and gameplay.

If you stop and look closely, you can see that all the characters have proper facial expressions and gestures. If you looked at them through a more traditional camera, they'd play out just like a regular cutscene. But we purposely made it so that players could move around as they pleased, so you can choose if you want to stick around and watch things play out or just move along quickly.

How did you do mocap for those scenes while taking into account that the player would be able to move around?

For the most important scenes, when we wanted to make characters move in a very specific way, we took mocap for those scenes. For other scenes, we took a lot of generic mocaps, to mix and match from those to create what we needed. Things like “who the character looks at when speaking” and “if this character moves like this, than character B moves like this” involved the use of a huge chart for every single event. This ensured that the characters moved naturally in a way we had envisioned accordingly with the players' movements. This was incredibly hard to do, and honestly, it would have been easier to do traditional setpiece cutscenes.

What's particularly interesting about these “dynamic cutscenes,” as we call them, is that even when there's a speaking character you really need to listen to, you can still find background characters who are chatting about totally different things. We included this kind of gimmick because you are able to move around.

What would you say are the biggest challenges in releasing a big-budget RPG like this, both in Japan and abroad?

The simple answer: Time and money! [laughs]

The more complex answer… when you think about creating RPGs, you have to consider everything that goes on in the game. Even something as simple as a town—You have to figure out who populates the town, what they do, how they speak, how they move, and so on. You might even have to change these elements in response to event that occur as the player progresses through the game. Star Ocean is very scenario-driven, so a lot of thought has to be put into these things. There might be easier ways to handle all of this, to maybe lessen the amount of scenario work or character planning. For open-world games, maybe there's a big overarching storyline, some sub-quests, and various characters who might not need that much detail, but the world itself is just really big. That's one way to do it. SO5, with its seamless gameplay, is created like an open world, but it's a scenario-driven game, so it wound up being a tremendous amount of work.

Star Ocean 3 felt like it was a pretty conclusive ending to the series, but Star Ocean 4 and Star Ocean 5 have gone to different points in the timeline. Has it been difficult creating new Star Ocean games with SO3's ending in mind?

Well, even the original dev team was of the mindset that Star Ocean 1 through 3 were a trilogy, with a complete story. Star Ocean 4 was the story before that. The users felt the same way—that the story had concluded—but they wanted more of the gameplay they'd come to love from the series. When I went to go talk to Yoshiharu Gotanda, the president of Tri-Ace and the Star Ocean series creator, I asked him if there was anything we could do with the series from this point. Gotanda-san actually replied that he thought they could do a lot more within the series' framework. He even has ideas for the story that go beyond the end of Star Ocean 3. That's why we opted to start a new “season,” so-to-speak, of Star Ocean. In my mind, this is the first story of a new Star Ocean “season.” It is a challenge to create stories like this, but it is a way for us to both start anew and expand the Star Ocean universe.

Tri-Ace was recently purchased by Nepro Japan, a mobile-focused company. Has this changed the way you work with them at all?

Since it's not about our company, we can't really go into detail. There's a lot we don't really know, either. It was mostly for monetary reasons. From what I hear, tri-Ace is a lot healthier now. They still want us to utilize their skills in creating games, so our relationship hasn't changed at all. We've rebuilt our relationship with them through this title, and I'd like to work with them even more in the future.

Is that a hint of Valkyrie Profile 3 in the works? [laughs] I really want to make Valkyrie Profile 3! If SO5 is successful, I'd love to work on Valkyrie Profile 3 as soon as possible. But it's a challenge, for sure. Frankly, Valkyrie Profile 1 was a masterpiece, with a lot of unique story and system elements. Valkyrie Profile 2, however, was more like a traditional RPG, and it wasn't as successful. If we do create a new VP, we really need to figure out what users want out of it. Even if we make a Valkyrie Profile 3, we won't be able to make a great game without doing the proper research on what the fans would like. I've been constantly thinking about it.

Let me ask you: If there's a Valkyrie Profile 3, what kind of game would you like it to be?

Me?! Uh, well… do you, uh, want a nice big list of everything I want in a VP3? [laughs] Seriously, though, I love the game's non-traditional structure. I think one of my favorite things about the original Valkyrie Profile was learning about the world and its sorry state through the tragic stories of the Einherjar who Lenneth recruits. The whole game had such a unique, somber tone to it. You didn't get quite the same sense of sorrow in the second game.

Oh, I completely understand what you mean by that! Did you see the very last ending of Valkyrie Profile? Lenneth ascends to godhood, but I don't know what we can do after that. How to expand the story from there is boggling.

You've still got Hrist.

Yes, we do! [laughs] Well, the probability of another VP sequel happening would definitely increase should SO5 become a success!

One last question: Star Ocean 4's localization had, quite notoriously, a very weak English dub. How closely did you work with the localization team for SO5 to ensure the English version was up to the same quality as the Japanese version?

Since I also oversee the Western versions of the game, I made sure to convey to the localization team that I wanted more than just a simple translation. I wanted to nuance to remain intact, for the text, script, and dialogue to make sense and sound natural in English. The Square Enix localization team is quite skilled in doing that, so we didn't have any worries. While the Japanese voice cast has a lot of popular seiyuu, I was more concerned with how voices fit the characters in the English version. I think that even if you switch between the Japanese and English audio, the two won't feel much different!

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

LOST REAVERS
Developer: Bandai Namco Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: April 28
Shadow Stalker: Spooooky
MSRP: Free, technically

The Wii U isn't brimming with big first-hit-is-free multiplayer action games, whether due to the console's limited sales or Nintendo's traditional ways. Lost Reavers, however, marks Nintendo and Bandai Namco's foray into stylish, free-to-play cooperative games.

Lost Reavers doesn't waste much time. You'll choose and customize one of four archetype characters: Sayuri has a katana and a submachine gun, Dwayne carries an autorifle and bazooka, Victoria favors accurate firearms, and the masked Shadow Stalker has an axe, a shotgun, and a name that implies he takes himself a little too seriously. He also has nothing to with Athena's Shadow Stalker for the Super NES, which was canceled back in 1993. I just wanted to clarify that.

While early footage of Lost Reavers showed the four protagonists racing through monster-filled tombs and recovering treasure, the game isn't limited to ancient secrets. Players delve through laboratories, forests, and other places where one might expect to find zombies, mutants, and assorted lumbering horrors. The objectives still involve treasure of some kind, but you'll have to slay countless creatures and solve minor puzzles on the way there. The open beta is running right now, so you can see what Lost Reavers is all about. You won't see KOS-MOS from Xenosaga, as some people predicted, but those are the breaks.

MINI MARIO & FRIENDS AMIIBO CHALLENGE
Developer: Nintendo Software Technology Corporation
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS / Wii U
Release Date: April 28
Mini-Spek: A breakout star
MSRP: Probably cheap

The amiibo craze sure slowed down, didn't it? Why, I haven't seen a message-board freakout or filthy eBay profiteering scam involving the toys in months. But the little electronically encoded figures remain a vital part of Nintendo's plans, and the evidence sits right there in the upcoming Mini-Mario & Friends amiibo Challenge.

Past Mini-Mario games cast little wind-up versions of Mario characters in side-scrolling stages, where the player guides them by building bridges, erecting walls, and otherwise re-arranging levels. That's the overriding idea for amiibo Challenge as well, but there's a new twist that involves amiibo. And yes, it's lowercased even in the title of the game.

By placing a Mario-related amiibo on the 3DS, players will unlock a new character to control. The corresponding amiibo will spawn a little wind-up version of Luigi, Peach, Toad, Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Yoshi, Bowser, Bowser Jr., or Rosalina, each with unique abilities. And what if you tap the 3DS with an amiibo of Mega Man, Link, Kirby, or some other character largely unaffiliated with Mario? You unlock Mini-Spek, a little robot that looks like a square Bob-Omb. I expect to see Mini-Spek in the next Mario Kart and Mario Party games, and I'll be sad if it's ignored.

SEGA 3D CLASSICS COLLECTION
Developer: M2 / Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Seg…uh, Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: April 26
Launch Knick-knack: A decal sheet
MSRP: $29.99

It was hard to escape Sega at the company's apex. They never had Nintendo's vast pop-culture penetration, but Sega games were everywhere. I'd posit that even the stuffiest, game-disdaining fogeys of the era still noticed someone messing around with Out Run at a pizza parlor or watched grandkids unwrap a Sega Genesis one Christmas and argue over who got to be Sonic and who'd get stuck with Tails. Sega has a wide history of games, and they've found new exposure on the 3DS thanks to M2 and their painstakingly recreated versions of old titles.

The Sega 3D Classics filtered out to the 3DS over the past year or so, and the Collection combines six previously available titles with four new ones. The “Classics” label might be debatable in some cases, but it's entirely possible that every game here will stoke some nostalgia regardless of how good it is (or was). And most of the selections are solid stuff. Puyo Puyo Tsu is an engaging puzzle game about blobs, Sonic the Hedgehog is the speedy side-scroller that gave Sega its permanent mascot, Fantasy Zone II, Fantasy Zone II W, and the original Fantasy Zone (included as a bonus to be unlocked) are colorful shooters, and Power Drift is an impressive, cartoony racer that predates Mario Kart by a good stretch.

Even the lesser inclusions work well on the 3DS. Maze Hunter 3-D is a repetitive labyrinth crawl, but the 3DS emulates it in a way that was previously impossible without digging out the Master System's 3-D glasses. The 3-D effect also works well for Galaxy Force II, a rail shooter from 1988, and even the clumsy Thunder Blade benefits on the handheld. That leaves Altered Beast, a short and simplistic side-scroller notable mostly for its impressive monsters and voiceovers. Even so, I'm sure many of you have fond memories of putting it in your Sega Genesis and firing up the console for the first time ever back around 1989. If so, you were lucky little shits. I didn't get a Genesis until 1996.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
The Vita version of Stranger of Sword City drops on April 26. As I mentioned when the Xbox version arrived last month, it's a dungeon crawl set in a grimy and mysterious city that seems to draw visitors across time and space. Players delve through labyrinths while siding with one of three factions: a regal church, an ominous techno-cult, and a group of adventurers who just want to get back home.

If you've enjoyed Pokémon Rumble World in its free-to-play digital form so much that you must have a physical copy, you'll find it in the 3DS section on April 29. It's a top-view action where the player raises and controls Pokémon in battles...and boosts their powers with Poke Diamonds that you can either earn in the game or buy with real money. I'm sure the parents of Pokémon-adoring kids are just thrilled by that feature, and they may be relieved that the retail version comes with all the gems available.

The original Corpse Party arrives on Steam with its franchise-spawning take on a haunted-school story. Styled like a 16-bit overhead adventure, it nonetheless crams in plenty of grisly flair and horror-film exploitation. Steam gets the polished-up 2008 version of the game, plus a retelling of the “Tooth” chapter from Corpse Party: Book of Shadows.

The obnoxiously capitalized htoL#NiQ: Firefly Diary was supposed to hit Steam a month or two ago, but it's now scheduled for April 25. It's a side-view adventure game with a weird antlered heroine, a firefly sidekick, and a fascinating ruinous-factory setting that might make the sluggish controls worth the adjustment.


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


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