The X Button
Interview: Grand Kingdom

by Todd Ciolek,
The X Button takes a short summer vacation next week, as I'm moving. And when you're moving, you go through all of your possessions and realize just how much crap you're keeping.

For example, I discovered that I saved almost every Flying Warriors and Little Ninja Brothers comic from GamePro. I didn't keep the GamePro issues themselves; just the comics. I suspect I did this because no one had scanned them in and uploaded them at the time, and I wanted to preserve these strange pieces of early-1990s comics-as-advertising.

Culture Brain is a long-lived game publisher with a modestly varied catalog, and Flying Warriors and Little Ninja Brothers formed their boldest move in North America. The two NES games had comics smack-dab in the middle of GamePro issues throughout 1991, and they're both strange collisions of manga stylings and odd translations.

The Flying Warriors comic draws together five masked and caped superheroes in a modern story with the usual trappings of mystical powers and martial-arts matches. I've never learned if this was originally a Japanese comic, but the dialogue has the archaic phrasings and weird grammar you'd seen in something translated with few editors or native speakers to look it over.

Flying Warriors is also given to sudden bursts of violence. It's nothing we wouldn't see in anime or R-rated movies, but kids might've been surprised when the largely sanitized GamePro magazine showed a demon-powered boxer reduced to a smoking stain on the mat by a casual wave of the real villain's hand.

Little Ninja Brothers is lighter affair, chronicling the journey of heroes Jack and Ryu through an ancient fantasyland. It's goofy and brief, and the all-caps dialogue makes it seem like everyone's yelling or in a Jerkcity strip, especially when they say "RUSH TO YOUR LOCAL TOY STORE!" at the end of every chapter. It amuses me that Culture Brain was just a little ahead of the times; Little Ninja Brothers echoes Dragon Ball while Flying Warriors emulates its more violent follow-up. Both forms of Dragon Ball enticed kids by the end of the 1990s, but the Flying Warriors and Little Ninja Brothers fell into obscurity five seconds after their comics stopped running.

I never got around to scanning either comic, and at this point that's not necessary. Retromags has a huge store of GamePro issues, including the two Culture Brain comics. It's comforting to know that they'll be around for future generations to regard with…well, mild curiosity, I guess.

NEWS

MIGHTY NO. 9 ARRIVES, STUMBLES A LITTLE
Mighty No. 9 showed up at long last this week, ending the first chapter in a fascinating Kickstarter mess. To recap, Capcom expat Keiji Inafune crowfunded Mighty No. 9 in the hopes of reviving Mega Man and earned just under $4 million in donations. The project saw numerous delays, and Inafune's ambitions led to him attempt a Mega Man Legends reboot (known as Red Ash) before Mighty No. 9 was out. It soon became apparent that the game wouldn't look half as good as the Kickstarter mock-ups suggested, and the project bled away a lot of goodwill, culminating in a clueless trailer just prior to its release. And now it's arrived.

Well, Mighty No. 9 is at least out for the Playstation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox One, and Windows. The 3DS, Vita, Xbox 360, and Linux versions are due later this year. Oh, and about that Wii U version…it suffers from load times, slowdown, and, in some cases, crashes that brick the console itself. Publisher Deep Silver put together a patch, but it's still an embarrassing blemish on the game's launch.

And what about the game? From what I've played, it's a competent side-scroller in the Mega Man tradition. Heroic robot Beck runs, jumps, shoots, and dashes like a Mega Man X character, and the stages have a few decent gimmicks amid the rhythm of shooting enemies and dashing to absorb their powers. On that note, it seems very much intended for speedrunners and other players who like to learn just when to dash and snag an enemy's glowing aura.

Unfortunately, the game looks mediocre. There's little style in the levels beyond the unique boss characters (who are, I admit, cool enough to start a toy line), and the whole thing pales before other Kickstarted 2-D spectacles like Bloodstained and the new Shantae. As far as I can tell, it's not Mega Man's second coming. It's just an unobtrusively fun side-scroller on par with a solid Mega Man X outing. And that's not what most of the game's backers wanted.

TECMO KOEI HACKS, SLASHES, THEN HACKS SOME MORE AT A BERSERK GAME
It fits perfectly. Tecmo Koei turned plenty of anime series into Dynasty Warriors derivatives where you pound away at dozens of foes at a time. But they haven't touched the anime/manga series that perhaps embraces mass slaughter more than any other: Kentaro Miura's Berserk, which contains a plot point about the antiheroic Guts butchering a hundred enemy soldiers in a single night. Tecmo Koei noticed this and did something about it.

Their new Berserk game is tentatively named Berserk Musou, which you can easily dub Berserk Warriors. It's due out on the PlayStation 4, Vita, and PlayStation 3 later this year, and the first screenshots show Guts and his commander Griffith (in his nice-guy, pre-corrupted form) slicing through phalanxes of armored foes. This captures the parts of Berserk replete with battlefield carnage.

The first trailer for the game, however, shows demon tongues licking all over the naked form of Casca, compatriot of Guts and Griffith. This captures the parts of Berserk that some of us would rather not discuss. Poor Casca. At least she'll be a playable character until…well, you know.

THE LAST GUARDIAN GETS PRESTIGIOUS PACKAGE
The special edition bundles for video games operate on the same principle as commercials for commemorative plates or collectible porcelain figures. In theory, you buy them because you like Halo or Xenoblade or Tales of Gastromatica so much that you want toys and artbooks detailing them. Yet the desire to profit from a collector's bundle always lingers. While no one can say just how much your special-edition Rodea the Sky Soldier might be worth in five years, a copy of the Amazon-exclusive Fallout 3 Survival Edition recently sold for over $300.

The Last Guardian's special edition blurs that line even more. For $120, you get an artbook, a soundtrack, a steelbook case, a cratelike box for it all, and, most importantly, a dignified statuette of the griffin-pup Trico and his human handler. It's suitable for display right next to your grandmother's Hummels, and if it weren't for “The Last Guardian” engraved on the base, no one would know it was from a video game. Prestige for the medium at last!

It doesn't look that bad for the price, assuming the statuette is well-made and not some dreadful plastic thing that chips and flakes and was painted with food coloring. It almost makes up for Sony not releasing an affordable North American version of the Gravity Rush Remastered special edition and its Kat figure.

INTERVIEW: GRAND KINGDOM'S TOMOHIKO DEGUCHI

You might think you've seen Grand Kingdom before. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Grand Knights History, a PSP strategy game from Vanillaware. Yet Grand Kingdom is a new game with a different take on the idea and a different (though directly connected) developer: Monokuro Corp.

Available digitally this week and at retail next week, Grand Kingdom is a gorgeous fantasy game, and Heidi Kemps sat down with director and Monokuro president Tomohiko Deguchi to find out just what went into it.

Heidi Kemps: To start us off, can you tell us a little bit about your company, Monokuro?

Tomohiko Deguchi: Monokuro was founded three years ago. Grand Kingdom is our first published game. I should note, everyone on our staff is very young! For the last three years, we've put everything we have into working on Grand Kingdom.

Before forming Monokuro, what sort of work did you do in the game industry?

I was working at Vanillaware, where I was the level designer on Oboro Muramasa and the director of the PSP game Grand Knights History. I had many ideas inside myself for games, however, and I felt that the best way to go about realizing them was to create my own company, and my own environment in which to do that.

These days, forming a new company in Japan to do games for traditional consoles seems like an extremely risky venture. What sort of obstacles did you encounter on the way to establishing your company?

It is a very difficult environment. However, creating a mobile game has a lot of the same potential pratfalls as creating a traditional console game, so I don't think that's the big issue. I feel like the biggest issue right now is the decrease in the youth population of Japan. With that in mind, finding a way to get my games out in front of the biggest audience of potential players is what I need to address most.

How did you wind up with Spike Chunsoft as your Japanese publishing partner?

Well, when I worked on Grand Knights History, I was actually working with Mr. Watanabe, who is now at Spike Chunsoft, as a producer. Since we had a good working relationship in the past, I went to him again for this title.

Do you consider this a spiritual successor to Grand Knights History, then?

The concept of Grand Kingdom is similar, yes, but in terms of gameplay, it's completely different. The biggest difference is that Grand Knights History is a command-driven RPG, while Grand Kingdom has more realtime and strategy elements.

Grand Kingdom has gorgeous, elaborate 2D visuals. What is it about this graphical style that made you choose it for this particular title?

As a kid, I played a lot of Famicom games. I have a deep attachment to 2D game art from my youth. That's why I wanted to make a 2D game. Everybody is making 3D games now, and I want to keep the culture of 2D games alive.

I've spoken to some other developers who have mentioned that it's difficult to find staff for games that can do high-quality 2D spritework. Did you have any issues on this front?

Yes, that's right. It's actually really difficult to find people who want to work with 2D nowadays, so getting the right staff for the project was tough. That said, Japan still has a very strong culture of 2D visual creators.

What are the biggest challenges you face in the creation of 2D art for modern platforms?

It's the animations. Everyone expects the 2D animation in games to be really beautiful and detailed. Meeting peoples' expectations in that regard is a challenge.

In terms of gameplay, were there any titles that influenced you heavily in the creation of Grand Kingdom?

There were a lot of different games that influenced me in the creation of this title, really. You could call it a chimera of sorts. It's really difficult to pinpoint specific titles, though, because I just play so many games! Not just video games either, but also traditional board games.

In terms of the marketplace, what do you see as the biggest obstacle to success for titles like Grand Kingdom?

Personally, when I create and play games, I like games that require a high degree of skill. More and more, I feel that the market is moving towards games that don't require much skill of the player at all. Personally, I feel that's pretty lamentable. Conversely, what I want to do is create these sort of games that do have a high skill requirement. Hopefully, through my work, I can help expand the market for these types of titles again. I did try to make Grand Kingdom a bit more initially accessible in response to market pressure, but that said, since this is a game I made, so there are many areas I refused to budge on.

What sort of takeaways do you want Western players to get from Grand Kingdom?

I really want them to enjoy the campaign mode. I put a lot of effort into making sure that the campaign and story were high-quality. Once they're done with that, I'd like them to take the characters and party they've put a lot of effort into and bring them into the online portion of the game and enjoy that as well.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

GOD EATER RESURRECTION
Developer: Shift
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PS Vita / Windows (digital)
Release Date: June 28
Smoking: Apparently Cool
MSRP: TBA

That's more like it, God Eater. No more mollifying “Gods Eater” pluralization here. You're God Eater, just as your creators intended, and you're bearing a vaguely blasphemous subtitle, too.

The original God Eater remains my favorite take on the Monster Hunter formula. Capcom's original Monster Hunter games are too laid back and Soul Sacrifice is too grim, but God Eater captured an engaging middle space with an apocalyptic future where humankind fights an apparently losing war against raging supernatural demon-beasts called Aragami. When not out slaying these creatures, the overbearingly cool operatives of the Fenrir organization hang around home base and gradually explore a storyline with the usual future-anime turns and angles. It wouldn't have drawn me in so much if it were a TV series (and once adapted, it didn't), but God Eater's mix of visual panache and solid-paced gameplay won my interest.

God Eater's monster hunters send the player's avatar and three allies (all AI-controlled if no one else is on hand) into environments infested with aragami large and small…well, medium-sized, anyway. Once these creatures appear, large-scale battles ensue, with characters circling and attacking with their God Arcs. Customizable and varied, God Arcs transform from long-range firearms to close-range melee weapons at the player's quick direction, and they'll gain power by sprouting jaws and devouring a downed Aragami. It's carried off with a speed and visual flourish surpassing the usual hunting-party games, spiked with unrealistic marvels everywhere from the minigun-axe God Arcs to Alisa's ridiculous battle ensemble.

Resurrection is a prettied-up recast of the game we saw here as Gods Eater Burst, and it adds a story arc connecting the game with God Eater 2. The gameplay also lets players use a Predator Style option for their God Arc, granting it more powers if it snacks on Aragami mid-air or as part of a combo move. It's a digital-only release, but it's a sharp repackaging of an overlooked game—and an appetizer before God Eater 2, due out later this year.

JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE: EYES OF HEAVEN
Developer: Cyberconnect2
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PlayStation 4 (digital)
Release Date: June 28
Best Character: Juri Han
MSRP: TBA

The most vital question about the latest JoJo's Bizarre Adventure game is this: is Eyes of Heaven a pop-music reference? Jojo's Bizarre Adventure is full of those, but I'm not sure what “Eyes of Heaven” means. Could creator Hirohiko Araki or developer CyberConnect2 be really fond of southern gospel trio The Booth Brothers? Well, I'm sure someone will point out the connection and make me feel silly for not knowing enough about Jojo's or music.

Whatever its source, Eyes of Heaven drenches itself in the style of Araki's manga. The title screen is a mix of desert backdrops and crazed comic sound effects, and the story mode opens with a gorgeously animated Dio and Jotaro Kujo recreating the climactic battle of the Stardust Crusaders story arc. Eyes of Heaven focuses heavily on the best-known parts of Jojo's, but you'll see plotlines from all across the series. More importantly, you'll see a roster with the same spread, inviting characters from the earliest arcs to Steel Ball Run. Some of the fighters use Ripple energy, and others summon spectral beings called Stands. If you want to annoy Jojo's fans, say “Hey, that's just like the Persona games!” within earshot.

Eyes of Heaven is more an arena fighter than a linear Street Fighter affair, as stages span large rooftops, streets, and other scenes in which combatants can roam about and bash each other. Varying levels and small traps add some surprises to the fisticuffs, but the meat of the game lies in the elaborate combination attacks that characters can unleash with their Stands and other powers. As devoted to the series as ever, CyberConnect2 recreates the characters in marvelous detail, with shading and composition easily mistaken for a full-blown animated TV series. And it's faithful to the many quirks of Jojo's, be it the elder Joestar's mid-battle “OH MY GOD!” or the way nearly every character can insult Josuke's hairstyle before a match. And in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, fashion is something to fight over.

STAR OCEAN: INTEGRITY AND FAITHLESSNESS
Developer: tri-Ace
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: June 28
Alternate Title: Probity and Perfidy
MSRP: $59.99

Star Ocean invites sympathy. It's not so much the spacefaring heroes themselves, but rather the actual series. It remains tri-Ace's biggest creation (though not their best; that's Valkyrie Profile), and it enjoyed several sequels and a Game Boy Color spin-off before spawning Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope. This apparent series-slayer is a hokey and frequently hideous reheating of Star Ocean's typical traits: fun battles, interplanetary travel, clichéd characters, and dragging plotlines. Square Enix gave Star Ocean another chance—and a big chance, at that. Star Ocean: Integrity And Faithlessness is a PlayStation 4 (and PlayStation 3, if you import) extravaganza with big pretty cutscenes and space opera aesthetics. All while Valkyrie Profile gets only a piddling mobile game. But I'm not bitter.

Integrity and Faithlessness opens in between the second and third Star Ocean titles, setting itself on the backwater planet Faykreed. Roughly equivalent to a medieval fantasy realm, the world becomes the stage for broader matters when the Pangalatic Federation visits, and at the center of the conflict are swordsman Fidel Camus and his mage friend Miki Sauvester (who calls him “Fiddly”). Their quest leads all over their world and, with any luck, off of it. Star Ocean games have the bad habit of sticking around dull planets too long.

Fortunately, Star Ocean games also have the habit of assembling fast-paced battle systems closer to action games or brawlers than the typical menu-plucking of a Dragon Quest RPG. Characters run freely around small battle areas, hacking and slashing and launching spells as they please. An underlying damage system balances out small quick attacks and slower, more powerful ones, and a slowly building Reserve Meter enables big, gaudy special moves. This being a tri-Ace RPG, characters have many customizable actions and stats. The Star Ocean staple of private actions also returns, so little skits unfold as characters explore towns and dungeons. Therein we will find the integrity and faithlessness that the title promises us, I'm sure.

ZERO TIME DILEMMA
Developer: Chime
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft / Aksys Games
Platform: Nintendo 3DS / PS Vita
Release Date: June 28
Best Zero: Drakengard 3, Mega Man X, Nightmare Before Christmas
MSRP: $39.99

Zero Time Dilemma almost didn't make it. Spike Chunsoft and creator Kotaro Uchikoshi started work on it, the third and final Zero Escape game, around 2012, but delays and the sales of the second Zero Escape put any future games in limbo. It was only last year that development resumed. Yes, even the making of a Zero Escape title is tense and complicated.

The Zero Escape series made a name by gathering strangers and putting them through bizarre tests of loyalty, a concept with a good fifty-year history in the mystery genre. Nine Hours, Nine Persona, Nine Doors put its cast on a sinking cruise ship and forced them to solve cooperative puzzles. Virtue's Last Reward united another group under a similar premise, giving them watches that counted down toward their doom depending on how they trusted or betrayed each other in a Prisoner's Dilemma. Various insane plot twists arose in both games, weaving a tale of lunar colonies, clones, and false memories. And now Zero Time Dilemma arrives to wrap it all up. Maybe.

Zero Time Dilemma starts off between the two previous games, dropping its cast into a facility that allegedly tests candidates for a colony on Mars. The characters separate into three teams, each with some familiar faces. The C-Team links firefighter Carlos with agent Akane and her friend Junpei, both of whom resemble the leads from Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. D-Team has the nurse Diana plus snarky, white-haired Phi and athletic Sigma from Virtue's Last Reward. Q-Team sticks the young couple Mira and Eric with a strange amnesiac wearing a helmet. At least, that's how it appears. Zero Escape games are rarely what they seem.

Players navigate this nest of deadly mind games and logic puzzles through the training center's 3-D environments, which hide various items used to escape rooms and stymie the moral decisions imposed by the game's Jigsaw-voiced tormentor. The game's chapters unfold in player-chosen order, gradually assembling a timeline, and the characters themselves lose their memories every hour and a half. Zero Escape's plot twists often polarize fans: some consider them brilliant, and others find them tightrope acts that fall to netless catastrophe at the climax. Either way, Zero Time Dilemma has a major job ahead of it.


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


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