Totally Unnamed Gaming Column - In a region far, far away...

by Mutsuki, Sep 3rd 2009

Welcome to a column which will give everyone here in Australia an opportunity to look beyond our poor restricted borders and towards the far reaches of the world. We'll travel the gaming landscape from our brothers and sisters in the PAL Region (otherwise known as Europe), across the Pacific towards the new gaming world of the United States and of course, the new and zany in the land of the rising sun and home of the weird and fun, Japan.

From time to time we'll even call home and see what's happening around Australia.

Being “made in Japan” doesn't qualify a game to be a instant classic or pinnacle of gaming, so we're asking you to open your minds, and check any preconceptions at the door. Though we'll definitely have fun looking around and that's what gaming is all about, right?

Importing a game isn't as daunting as it first seems and surprisingly, neither is playing a game not written in a language you understand.

To begin with we want to take you in at the ground level with the games we look at.

We mean it, we'll explain the issues around getting the games we talk about, covering what's actually out there, and how to get there, all the while avoiding pit traps, dodgy tricks and places to get confused around getting the game of choice.

However, we are not going to be like everyone else. We won't be reviewing the big blockbuster titles all the other gaming websites cover, we'll be focusing on titles that are just as good as some of the blockbuster games but never got the attention that a multimillion dollar advertising campaign can get you. We'll be sorting the good stuff from the static and will present you items that we hope you will find interesting and informative.

This isn't to say that our word will be the first and final, but we'll show how we got there ourselves and you can come along, however you like. We'd like to think we're more like guides, helping find out that there's more to gaming than what's at your local EB, JB, GAME or other Australian major retailer.

We'll be offering insight into some of the practices of the industry here and abroad, and of course, just all out have some fun with the unexpected things you can do with what's out there. You might be surprised by what some games can be capable of.

Since we'd like to invite you along, how about you help us name this column? You're part of it as much as we are, and if your name is chosen, you'll get the name titled up top in all its glory... and a little gift from us to get you started on your way.

What sort of gift, you ask?

For our lucky winner, they'll either get any TWO GAMES named in this edition OR any ONE GAME from the next three columns. System the games are on aren't included, but you'd be surprised how much effort getting the game alone is...

We'll also give a small bonus for a lucky person who comes up with something interesting to support their, or another entry. The bonus is a secret though...

Enter now, by e-mailing our poor editor in chief at [email protected] (jon at animenewsnetwork.com.au?subject=Name%20the%20Column%20Competition) with a suggestion for a name and if you want to try your luck for the bonus, add a little something extra as well.

Don't worry, you don't need to tell us now what you'd like, unless you have your heart set on something named right here. The offer's only open to Australian Residents, and will close at 11:59 AEST on the 31st of October.

For now, and while you think of something up, how about we look at the games which did come out here but most people probably didn't give a second glance at? Sometimes a good game can be found right under your nose here in Australia and you probably didn't realise. A few games in 2008 and in 2009 which you may or may not have known about...

PS3: Valkyria Chronicles (Sega)

I'm sure the name is a little more famous now compared to back during its release thanks to the anime adaptation, but Valkryia Chronicles was and probably still is one of those titles which got overlooked and not necessarily for good reasons.

It didn't help much that it was released by Sega, who unfortunately are not well known for their stellar marketing strategies. It really didn't help that it was released on the PS3 back during a time where you could count all the good games on the PS3 on one, maybe two hands tops. You know, back when the PS3 was considered a Blu-ray player that just happened to also play games.

Do you remember the Eminence Symphony Orchestra? You know, the troupe that was doing gaming orchestrations for most of 2006 and 2007 in Australia, as well as around the world in 2008? Yes, those guys. They played a role in the creation of the game, lending their musical skills to perform part of the musical score, which definitely shows when you sit down and play it. The score itself will knock you down and blow you away. It really is the sort of soundtrack you could easily sit down and listen to on its own.

The soundtrack of course is but one component of of the game's atmosphere, with cel-shading and some very well picked design facets you're immersed into the theme and the atmosphere of a war - being told after the event - of a superpower fighting a determined resistance. It tells a story of love in war, tragedy, loss and while the plot can get somewhat sappy and may not be to everyone's liking, the game is worth the effort in finding for the gameplay alone. For those curious, the anime and game run along similar lines but take different paths to get to a similar conclusion. It's quite interesting how the two complement each other, so if you like one, you'll probably like the other.

The game itself plays solidly with a surprisingly easy learning curve, a balance of turn based strategy with the pressures of real-time aiming and movement, considering everyone's trying to shoot you while you line up your shots. Simple to get the hang of the basic concepts with an environment that makes you want to take one more turn, there really isn't any reason why you should pass the game up if you own a PS3.

A single game may not justify the Playstation 3's price tag, even with the recent announcement of a PS3 price drop due to the slim making the cost something slightly more sane. But if you have one, there's really no excuse to not look the game up to at least see if you like it - if you can find it on the shelves, that is.

NDS: Etrian Odyssey (Atlus)

Suspiciously dragon free...
I'd be willing to bet that a fair few of you probably looked at this title on the shelves, and promptly looked elsewhere without closer examination. If anyone was looking for a anime style RPG and picked Etrian Odyssey up, they were probably confronted with its potentially insane difficulty and quickly returned the game back to the retailer.

What Etrian Odyssey offered was something a little different and a heck of a lot harder. For those who like challenge, being able to run around a dungeon, interact with its denizens and hope that you didn't run across something large enough to wipe your entire party instantly although generally, they're so big and bad you'll see them coming on the map. It had puzzles, it required you to map your way around yourself using your stylus, an interesting plot and some nice anime artwork, all in first person view.

Etrian Odyssey is not for everyone. For those who enjoyed the old NES days (or know what Nintendo hard actually means) or liked a classic dungeon crawler where monsters were more than happy to trounce you if you sneezed the wrong way at the beginning, this would be worth looking at. If nothing else, it's an entertaining and challenging way to pass the time, trying to get your way around a well designed dungeon, and unravelling its mysteries.

The FOEs, who will teach you the idea of staying well away from them until you're well prepared, even inspired a song in Japan, if you're curious.


NDS: Shiren the Wanderer (Sega)

Samurai would have made Masterchef far more entertaining.
Surprise, surprise, another Sega title which probably fell under the radar over 2008. It's a remake of a Japanese SNES title and considered one of the grandfathers of the wandering dungeon series of games. The remake was done very solidly, with much of the game faithfully ported and looking good in all its 16 bit glory, with a little touch up and some much needed extras.

The game itself is fairly simple - You went into a randomly generated dungeon where you had to get to the next floor any way you could in simple turn based glory. Sound simple enough? The game throws you traps galore, monsters ranging from the simple to the weird and the outright insidious, and even getting hungry can prove deadly for the unwary. A cast of people who could either help you or end your life in seconds and more challenges than you can throw a stick at, including multiple dungeons after you finished the main game, many of them revolving around specific mechanics in the main game.

The game taught you how merciless a random number generator could get. It didn't allow for multiple saves and if you died, you lost everything. From time to time the game could be outright unfair, particularly when you found an item for the first time. There is, there is no way of really knowing what it the item could do, apart from trying your luck and seeing what it did and unfortunately, not all items will benefit you. Some may be cursed, others may just weaken you, others may not actually be items at all!

It does however allow for someone else in the game to bravely go forth and rescue you via its friend code system - if you're lucky enough to have a friend (or even a random stranger) who has the game they can mount a rescue operation to prevent you having to start from scratch. That's assuming that two people were lucky enough to find the title in Australia or you knew friends elsewhere who could bail you out... and they could.

The game itself even has a disclaimer warning you not to throw your DS on the event of your death, so it certainly isn't for those who take their losses lightly. At least in Etrian Oddessy, you can reload your last save if you get your backside handed to you. This is not an option in Shiren, so be warned at how ridiculously fast the difficulty can ramp up. The game WILL teach you to be very, very careful and that everything can come crashing down in very short order if you let it.

There isn't quite anything like the tension of creeping through a dungeon step by step, trying your best to stay alive... And the euphoria of surviving a nasty encounter but taking a gamble is excellent. Just be warned the good can come with the bad in this title. Definitely find a friend to play with, either online or someone you know as having someone come out and rescue you makes the game so much easier... and have someone to brag or share sob stories with.

PS2: Persona 3/Persona 3 FES (Atlus)

Who the heck plays the Playstation 2 these days? The 360, Wii and PS3 is all where it's at, right? Who the heck would stay on an antiquated system?

For those who stayed back on the older consoles, you might have caught onto the gem that's known as Persona 3. If you're extremely lucky (or if you had the sense to import the game from England, which uses PAL like we do) you may have lucked onto the Festival version - The original Persona 3 with a whole bevy of extras, including a second storyline and improvements on the original with extra challenges and extra difficulty levels.

What was the big deal? You could spend your days at a high school that we all would have dreamed of attending with none of the study and most of the socialising, then moonlighting as a fighter of justice and laying the smack down on the weirdest creatures you'll ever meet in a hour that doesn't technically exist.

... Well, not quite fighter of justice style, but you'll be saving the city from various infestations and chaos... all in the name of finding the answer to why it's all happening. That's worth something, right?

Persona 3 sports a hip-hop soundtrack instead of the usual orchestral you expect in a turn based RPG and the character and game design will leave you intrigued. The game itself encourages you to play smarter not harder, as there is a limited amount of time in the game and it will reward you for capitalizing on the enemy's weaknesses. This in turn encourages strategy over brute force, and rewards you for interacting with the game's rich environment, personalities and demons.

If nothing else, it's a slice of life game which encourages you to put a gun to your head to destroy the shadows while spending the daylight hours at high school trying to pass your classes. How many other games let you do that?

The game can get particularly hard at some points, and you'll need to have a lot of time to play due to the length of the dungeons. Some people may not appreciate how the game can feel like it's grinding in certain parts, and of course, since time is limited in the game, you may have to redo certain parts to get results that you actually want.

For those completionists, good luck if you put it on hard because the game WILL be utterly merciless if you try to go for everything all in one go.

Good luck finding the game though - FES is by far the superior of the two versions, although the original is hardly something you want to pass up if it wanders your way. There was no advertising and the game crept onto the shelves, hiding with so many other titles and ending up unnoticed, as is typical of Atlus published titles here.

PS2: Persona 4 (Atlus)

Sure, there had to have been other games in 2009, but I challenge any of you to name more than two other notable games with any sort of Japanese influence that hit the shelves in Australia in 2009. The sad part is, most people would be hard pressed. There were a couple of others, but surprisingly Persona 4 was one of the few standouts.

Essentially, Persona 4 moves you away from the crowded city of Persona 3 and into a sleepy country town in Japan. Some of the game mechanics have been refined, opting for a series of more focused objectives instead of just forced events of Persona 3 - failure means you'll get offered to start again a full week back, or if you think that's not far enough, back from your previous save.

The time management is still there with a large variety of characters to interact with, often in some very strange ways. Some can be endearing, aloof, downright scary and just plain strange. Compared to Persona 3, you'll peer more into each of the cast as a person as more of this game revolves around the characters.

The music is once again not what you'd expect out of a normal RPG, embracing music that sounds more modern. You won't get to shoot your own head off in the name of calling your darker side (You'll get to abuse the heck out of your tarot cards instead), but you get to crawl around the inside TV world. Within TV world, which is to say the least rather strange, you get charged into figuring out just why someone's using the rather revealing world to conduct mass murder. If you picked up Persona 3, there's no reason to miss this - For a slice of life RPG with magical elements, it does it very well.

Persona 4, courtesy of Ubisoft, also packaged a Music CD that came with every copy of the game. It's not quite as good as its US counterpart, which also came with a special art book, but it's nice to see little extras out there.

360: Tales of Vesperia (Bandai-Namco)

The hit game of 2008 finally graced PAL, bringing the cast of Yuri, his pet wolf Repede, a young female noble by the name Estellise and a weird cast of characters as they find themselves going from a simple quest to get a item back at the beginning of the game to saving the world.

I would be lying if I didn't tell you that storyline is nothing particularly new, particularly if you have played a Japanese RPG before. However, the whole arc is well designed and very well executed. The characters themselves you will either like them or love to hate them and the game is pretty well paced, meaning you'll find yourself led from point to point without finding yourself bored in the meantime. Granted, it can get predictable but if you're willing to ignore that and go with the flow the game pans out rather well.

Visually it's no slouch and the music fits well, making the game fit as one neatly arranged package.

Combat on the other hand is fast paced, pretty and quite intensive. Considering you have near real time control over one character and you are able to issue commands to the others, it means that players are encouraged to create massive combos, unload spells galore and other special attacks all in the name of victory. And better yet, if a friend's over you can just give them another control pad and have them help you beat enemies senseless during combat and let them join in the fun.

There's always the option to crank the difficulty up, if you're finding that enemies are too easy or combat is too tedious, and there are quite a few rewards for good combat play, meaning there is plenty of incentive into perfecting combat as opposed to just trading blows and letting the statistics talk.

Some issues aside which won't likely affect us here revolving around the Japanese pending release on the PS3 (an extra character will be available on the PS3 version, but for whatever reason, the resolution took a hit). If you liked previous Tales titles, you'd have this already, and if you're an RPG fan, it's a solid title to pick up. For those who'd like to start on playing an RPG playing this would be a good idea, particularly with the combat system.

One of the not so notable things the game is famous for is the fact that you can spend real money to purchase in game currency. It's like a macro transaction Massively Multiplayer Online Game... except it's offline.

This begs the question... who'd spend the money for it? Your guess is as good as mine, unfortunately.

In Closing...

There's also plenty of other games out there with a much higher profile or we haven't got time to cover right now like Star Ocean: The Last Hope on Xbox 360, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile: Shadow of the Plume and Disgaea all on the DS and even games like Trauma Centre or Fire Emblem Radiance Dawn on the Wii.

They're all out there hiding in an Australian store, somewhere, and how about we get a couple under our belts before we depart on our journey across the world?

Remember, email entries to [email protected] (jon at animenewsnetwork.com.au?subject=Name%20the%20Column%20Competition), and let us know!

We'll be here next week, to take you to your next destination.


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