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Innuendo

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 11th 2009

I am convinced that Street Fighter IV will be one of this year's biggest releases, if only for the arguments it will inevitably fuel. In fact, people are already debating the value of the game's alternate outfits for characters. Some of these costumes might be included with the special edition Street Fighter IV bundles, but others will be available in downloadable packs of five, which will cost about $4 per pack. Sure, they're just extras, but they're extras that any Capcom fan would want. Zangief's bonus costume makes him look like Final Fight's Mike Haggar. Rose gets an Arabian ninja suit. El Fuerte wears a chef's uniform. Guile dresses up like Charlie from the Street Fighter Alpha series. And Blanka gets the best new outfit of them all.

If Blanka's costume is clearly the finest, Chun-Li's is the most mystifying. It's hardly out of the ordinary for Capcom to stick her in a revealing little cocktail number, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen it somewhere before. I was a huge Street Fighter nerd around ten years ago, and I still have artbooks, games, and all sorts of trivial knowledge to show for it. I grew convinced that Chun-Li's dress and strangely bright-colored shoes were some in-joke that I was just on the verge of getting.

And then it hit me. Chun-Li's alternate costume resembles one she wore in an episode of the American Street Fighter animated series. And not just any episode, but the worst episode from the show's entire run. For those who've never seen it, the Street Fighter cartoon was based loosely on the live-action Street Fighter: The Movie, in which most of the cast joined some international peacekeeping force. In the cartoon, all of the characters look like their game counterparts, but they're still a team of special agents devoted to fighting the evil M. Bison's criminal empire in ways that would've been laughed out of the dumbest G.I. Joe scripts. Remember how I said I was a huge Street Fighter nerd? The cartoon killed that nerd.

For one notably stupid episode, Chun-Li dons a slinky blue dress and pink pumps (not shown) to infiltrate a party where M. Bison is showing off a strange and powerful crystal. Chun-Li confronts him, but they're interrupted when a warrior-king from the crystal's home dimension shows up. By the end of the episode, the warrior-king, who never gets an actual name, departs to chase the crystal in another far-off world, but not before he and Chun-Li fall in love. I'm not making up a word of this. You can find the whole episode in the usual places under the unimaginative title of “The Warrior King,” along with numerous other examples of the show. It's the worst thing that ever happened to Street Fighter. Worse than Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight. Worse than Jean-Claude Van Damme's “who wants to go with meeee?” speech in the live-action film. Worse than the upcoming Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li movie could ever hope to be.

NEWS

FIRST PERSONA, GROWLANSER TO HIT PSP
Some argue that the original Persona never got a fair shake in the West, where a younger Atlus screwed with it by changing some character designs and cutting out a rather large sub-quest. Some counter that Persona didn't deserve a fair shake, since it's slow-paced and has the ugliest overhead map ever seen in an RPG. Something tells me that Atlus agrees with the former crowd. While the new Persona port for the PSP has yet to be announced for North America, it's a very strong possibility.

If the PSP version of Persona comes here, anyone who sat through the PlayStation original will find new video intermissions, new dungeon levels, a quicksave option, and, thank heavens, a completely redone world map, one that will no longer show a board-game peg shuffling along beside primitive gray polygon buildings on gray streets in the grayest neighborhood in Graytown.

Also coming to the PSP is the original Growlanser, which will get at least one new story path and at least two new playable characters, both of whom can be seen at the official website. The Growlanser series is very much the successor to the Langrisser games. While they're not technically related, both series were developed by Careersoft, both are strategy-RPGs, and both have character art by Satoshi Urushihara and soundtracks by Noriyuki Iwadare (the Lunar series). Langrisser was a reasonably popular series in Japan through the 1990s, but when it began to wane, the more phallic-sounding Growlanser, released in 1999 on the PlayStation, was there to pick up the mantle with another round of Urushihara-designed characters. Since then, the second and third Growlanser games formed Working Designs' last release with Growlanser Generations, and Atlus released the fifth game here as Growlanser: Heritage of War in 2007. The PSP Growlanser isn't as much of a lock as the Persona port, but I'm learning not to underestimate Atlus.

YES, ATLUS CANNOT BE STOPPED
Among Atlus games that are already confirmed to come here, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2 has the best extras so far. The first-run copies of the game, shipping May 12, will come with a plush toy of Atlus mascot Jack Frost dressed up as Raidou Kuzunoha, the game's demon-collecting hero. Set in the 1920s, Devil Summoner 2 is an action-RPG take on the same sort of alternate history explored in the Shadow Hearts franchise, albeit with darker tones and even weirder visions of pre-WWII Japan. The first Raidou-based Devil Summoner game on the PS2 was overlooked in comparison to Persona 4, so perhaps a nice first-edition bonus will get it some attention. That's why I'm showing a plush toy here. Sure, I could put up shots of the game's demon-control system or Kazuma Kaneko's artwork, but I'm sticking with happy little Jack Frost.

Atlus also uploaded an official trailer for Devil Survivor, the DS-based Shin Megami Tensei spin-off that looks a bit like an apocalyptic strategy-RPG version of Square's The World Ends With You.

The character art comes from Suzuhito Yasuda, who's been getting more and more attention since his Yozakura Quartet manga became an anime series. Kazuma Kaneko's back doing the monster art, though, so the creatures infesting Tokyo will be just as grotesque as past Shin Megami Tensei aberrations. Well, almost as grotesque. I doubt Nintendo would allow a monster made entirely of naked demon boobs.

DEAD RISING 2, IN BRIEF
Let's see, Dead Rising 2…set three years after the first game…coming to the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC…zombie virus engulfs much of America…Keiji Inafune overseeing development with Blue Castle Games…ah, here's the important part: you can ride motorcycles.

And there's really no game that isn't improved by that.

STAR OCEAN: THE LAST HOPE TONES DOWN ITS ANIME LOOK
Here's something that may offend a few sensitive anime fans. Know how Star Ocean: The Last Hope is Square Enix's next major RPG? Well, the game's North American version is apparently downplaying its anime-style character portraits, according to Siliconera. In both battles and status menus seen in the American version, CG-rendered art of the cast replaces the softer, 2-D illustrations seen in the Japanese version. Bear in mind that the game won't be out in the U.S. until later this month, so that anime-ish art could still be in there as an optional display for players. Still, one wonders why Square's regressing back to 1991, when companies actively hid whatever Japanese pop style a game had. Does Square honestly think that Star Ocean: The Last Hope, with its blue-haired catgirls and all, will become more palatable to mainstream America merely by losing some anime art?

REVIEW: AR TONELICO II

Developer: Gust
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PS2
MSRP: $39.99

When it was released in Japan, Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica had the dubious privilege of inspiring a new term in supremely pathetic otaku culture. When it comes to anime, manga, and games aimed at desperate Japanese nerds, female character archetypes are known by twee little nicknames. A “yandere” is a girl who's sweet at first and then violently insane, while a “tsundere” is a girl who's initially rude and spiteful but later melts like a big-eyed stick of butter in the arms of some bland audience-insertion hero. Cloche, the haughty blonde part of Ar tonelico II's love triangle, was quickly classified as a tsundere, but when they came to the other heroine, Luca Trulyworth, the arbiters of Japan's otaku tastes had to invent a new classification. So they dubbed her a “dorodere,” an outwardly cheerful girl who hides all sorts of nasty emotional scars.

That's the sort of game Ar tonelico II is. It's a long, loud reading from the gospel of moe culture, commanding easily wiled nerds to gorge themselves on cutesy anime-girl excess at every turn. There's an RPG underneath it all, and it's not a bad RPG. It's just slathered in syrupy bait for lonesome geeks.

Like its predecessor, Ar tonelico II explores a stretch of the world known as Ar Ciel, where floating islands support small colonies of humans and an artificial, all-female, all-attractive race known as Reyvateils. In one corner of the globe, a faction of the Grand Bell church skips ahead in the standard RPG plot and declares open war against the land's patron goddess. Croix Bartel, a young knight from the Grand Bell ranks, finds himself guarding the church's snobbish Reyvateil figurehead, Lady Cloche Leythal Pastalia, with the reluctant help of his bubbly, would-be Reyvateil girlfriend, Luca Trulyworth. Their inevitable romantic entanglements are quickly surrounded by church conspiracies, revolutionaries, divine punishment, and a virus that's turning Reyvateils into insane killing machines.

There's a convoluted plot at work in Ar tonelico II, but the designers are careful to build it around the heroines. After five hours of flirting banter and left-field plot twists, Croix must choose a woman and, with her, a side in the coming war. Cloche's high-society upbringing has left her persnickety but also isolated and miserable, while Luca is an outwardly cheerful psychic therapist who's carrying a metric ton of issues and ulterior motives just below the surface. For those players who dislike both women, a third Reyvateil love interest appears later in the game, with her own bizarre problems and ties to the first Ar tonelico.

Croix gets to know the Reyvateil leads through both face-to-face conversations and psychic dives into their Cosmospheres, layered abstractions of their mental states. Once submerged in a Reyvateil's inner world, Croix trots from one board-game point to another, exploring dialogue trees and discussions akin to those of a visual novel. Each Reyvateil's insecurities play out differently, but the game often decides to stroke well-worn fantasies by putting on symbolic schoolgirl dramas, superhero stories, and other genre standards.

Ar tonelico II is still an RPG, of course, and diving into a Cosmosphere unlocks new songs for Reyvateils to use in the game's surprisingly detailed combat. Each battle finds two of the party's melee fighters shielding a pair of Reyvateils, who sing to unleash various magical attacks. The warriors strike at foes by using various combinations of the directional pad and buttons, and each attack boosts a Reyvateil's power. When enemies hit, the front-line characters protect the Reyvateil singers with timed button-taps almost closer to a music-based game. This is all accompanied by constant chatter, with a typical battle finding Cloche intoning “It's OVERFLOWING from inside!” while Luca squeaks “I feel it…STRONGER!” and Croix blasts an enemy into space, shouting “Maximum PENETRATION!” It's well past innuendo.

After the possibly intentional comedy of the voices wears off, the battle system reveals an impressive little equation. Within each limited turn, the player must sync up attacks for combos and pay attention to the graph that indicates the Reyvateils' preferences, all so they'll throw out more powerful spells. It's a complex engine for what's essentially a puffball moe-moe game, and Gust pulls it off with minimal frustration. Enemy encounters are nicely spaced out and most of the levels are simple, easily mapped affairs, making almost every battle a short, enjoyable test. A test filled with orgiastic moans and screams, that is.

When not wandering though dungeons, towns, and the fragile mindscapes of Cloche and Luca, Croix finds many other pursuits steeped in saccharine atmosphere. Reyvateils can gain levels, abilities, and better sync-ratios by taking crystal-infused baths together. Friendly shopkeepers, all of them female, let Croix and his harem create new weapons, items, and bath accessories during cooking scenes (and neither Luca nor Cloche can cook well! Isn't that fucking hilarious?). There's also a host of infected young Reyvateils that, once defeated in battle, can be rehabilitated through Luca's Dive Therapy and used to empower party members. It all fits together quite conveniently.

As with most lower-level RPGs that lack Square Enix budgets, Ar tonelico II sports clean but fairly simple backgrounds and large 2-D character sprites, with rare video clips popping up during key scenes. Most of Gust's budget likely went into the soundtrack, an impressive mixture of everything from sitar-tinged themes to oppressive techno-choral numbers (though I could do without the creepy-little-kid whispers of “Ar tonelio” popping up everywhere). While the Reyvateils seldom sing in combat, there are more than a few actual songs used during the story, and all of them were left untranslated. The rest of the game has both Japanese and English voice tracks, though NIS cut many voiced lines for the U.S. version. A number of characters are now mute, and some of the game's most memorable dramatic scenes don't have any vocal accompaniment. It doesn't help that typos and awkward lines are strewn throughout the dialogue, along with the rare untranslated text. It's a sloppy localization by modern standards, and it's smoothed over only when the player can hear the capable voice cast, featuring Kate Higgins as Cloche and Laura Bailey as Luca.

Ar tonelico II's inventive battles and unique diversions make it all the more unpleasant when the game joins the same cutesy-sexy horror show that supplies too much of today's anime industry. Luca and Cloche are conventional leads, but those who dive in deep enough will uncover younger and less innocuous characters, including a line of Reyvateil girls with doll-like faces and prominent cleavage. There's also Croix's adopted little sister, Cocona, who dresses like a child prostitute and should appeal to players barred from living within three miles of any school. She's also presented as a potential future girlfriend for Croix. Eww.

Few of Ar tonelico II's ideas make it through undamaged. Wandering a character's subconscious is a promising move for a game, suggesting an RPG-ish Psychonauts or a dialogue-driven Persona 4, but the Cosmosphere quests in Ar tonelico II rarely hit clever moments. They're mostly predictable allegories or bathetic purges, and clearing stages of a Reyvateil's psyche unlocks an increasingly risqué line of outfits for them to wear in combat.

Setting aside all of the suggestive noise, Ar tonelico II doesn't survive as a RPG. It offers a creative world and some potentially interesting details, but they're unraveled by weak writing and abundant clichés. From the floating continents to the wars against deities, nearly every concept in Ar tonelico II is half-formed, resulting in plenty of big, allegedly dramatic twists that carry little to no weight or explanation.

The characters suffer much the same. For example, Croix and Luca at first seem refreshingly unique for an RPG couple; they're already together at the game's outset, but their carefree affections are soon tested as ugly secrets come to light. In a better story, they'd repeatedly confront the truth of their relationship and decide if it was worth saving. Yet Ar tonelico II just puts them through largely facile reconciliation and a jumble of metaphysical bullshit that quickly collapses under its own jargon. For all of the game's barely veiled sexual winking, none of the actual relationships gets beyond inane, rushed, and childish concepts of romance.

One more problem emerges in the game's final round. Due to a memory issue, the third-to-last boss freezes the game unless she's defeated within three complete turns, forcing players to concoct all sorts of cheap strategies to defeat her. It's one of the most embarrassing console-game bugs in a long time, and it shows little sign of being fixed.

There are traces of a great RPG within Ar tonelico II, but it demands too high a tolerance for modern anime pandering. Get over that, and you might revel in the kinetic battle system and the novel veins of character growth. You might also look past the fumbled story and nauseating otaku fetishes. Yet the game may best be left to the truly devoted fans, the ones who will buy Luca model kits and use “dorodere” in future conversations. With so many more accomplished RPGs on the market, there's little reason to try Ar tonelico II unless you plan to lap up every bit of its fake-girlfriend fantasy.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 2-15

DRAGON QUEST V: HAND OF THE HEAVENLY BRIDE

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: DS
MSRP: $39.99

Were you an RPG-loving kid during the days of the Super NES? You might not have known it then, but you came very close to getting Dragon Quest V, which Enix was prepared to translate until they realized it was more profitable to put the design team to work on another Dragon Quest for Japan. Or so the rumor went. The DS version of Dragon Quest V is styled much like last year's Dragon Quest IV remake, with 3-D environments, sprite characters, and, well, battles that aren't too different from those of the original Dragon Quest. The difference here lies not so much in the combat, but in the freedom of recruiting 60 different breeds of monster to join your party. Dragon Quest V also stands apart by tracking a hero's life as he quests, ages, and spawns more heroes. The subtitle refers to the woman he'll choose to marry, a decision framed more as a narrative and tactical keystone than a moe circlejerk. While the original Dragon Quest V had only two possible wives, the DS game adds the vain, hedonistic Deborah almost as a comedy option. I'm sure the otaku will invent a nickname for her character type.
Get Excited If: You've wanted a decent marriage-based RPG ever since Phantasy Star III let you down all those years ago.

FIRE EMBLEM: SHADOW DRAGON
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: DS
MSRP: $34.99

If you have trouble keeping track of the Fire Emblem games, just remember that the original Fire Emblem has been remade twice, once as the first half of Fire Emblem: Monsho no Nazo for the Super Famicom and again as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the DS. It also inspired a lousy two-part OVA series that, through some cruel joke, was the first piece of the Fire Emblem franchise that anyone brought to North America. Fortunately, those days are over, and we will soon have Shadow Dragon, complete with all-new (and surprisingly clean) illustrations by groundbreaking manga author and filthy pornographer Masamune Shirow. The story finds Marth, a prince and mainstay of several Smash Bros. games, exiled from his homeland to a remote isle, where he starts his bid for retaking the throne with the help of swordsmen, mages, and a Pegasus-riding princess who's clearly in love with him. Shadow Dragon has the same battle grids and rock-paper-scissors system (except it's spear-axe-sword) as previous games, and the hand-to-hand combat shows off rather primitive character sprites. Still, you can't let any of them fall in battle, or else they're dead forever and you'll feel bad about it.
Get Excited If: You actually watched the Fire Emblem anime and wanted to play the game.

PRINNY: CAN I REALLY BE THE HERO?
Developer: NIS
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PSP
MSRP: $39.99

The PSP's wide horizontal screen seems perfect for side-scrolling 2-D action games, but there have been surprisingly few beyond the polygon remakes and spin-offs of Mega Man, Castlevania, and Ghouls 'N Ghosts. Prinny: Can I Really be the Hero? is technically a spin-off as well, but it's the first Disgaea game that's not a strategy-RPG. It's a good, old-fashioned platform game, with lots of careful timing, double-jumping, and bouncing on enemies' heads. It also stars about a thousand Prinnies, the finest achievement of the whole Disgaea franchise. Prinny offers six initial selectable stages (plus more) full of colorful hand-drawn enemies and the occasional bullet-spewing vehicle for the demon-penguins to commandeer. The jumping mechanics seem based on the stiff old Castlevania ideal than more recent and fluid concepts, but it wouldn't be a faithfully nostalgic platformer without unfair deaths.
Get Excited If: You were disappointed with the lack of penguins in Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins.

STREET FIGHTER IV
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3
MSRP: $59.99/79.99

Street Fighter IV is important by several measures. For one thing, it's a test of just how well Street Fighter holds up, both as a brand and as a fighting game. It's also a remarkable source of amusement for those of us who remember a time when Capcom couldn't bear to make Street Fighter III, much less a fourth game. Most of all, it's an attempt to return Street Fighter to the public eye, as IV courts old and lapsed fans with both its gameplay and its character lineup. This makes it less ostensibly daring than Street Fighter III, as all but a half-dozen of Street Fighter IV's martial artists are returning from previous games. Likewise, the designers were careful not to scare off the casual element, as IV's move system and “focus attacks” are quite approachable compared to the intricacies of Guilty Gear or Virtua Fighter, while the visuals preserve a slightly cartoonish look, with goofy bug-eyed expressions denoting a successful crotch kick. It's also getting the royal treatment in merchandise, including Saturn-like controllers and a special-edition package that includes a soundtrack, a figure (Ryu for the PS3, Crimson Viper for the Xbox 360), and that Street Fighter anime film by Studio 4ºC and the under-used Koji Morimoto.
Get Excited If: You like Street Fighter. Yeah, I can't really joke about this.

EXTRA LIVES: GALL FORCE: ETERNAL STORY

I confess that I enjoyed Gall Force - Eternal Story at least once back in the mid-1990s, when it was periodically aired in the Sci Fi Channel's Saturday Anime lineup. Perhaps it just looked good next to Lily C.A.T. and Lensman, but Gall Force had a quick pace, hideous aliens, frequent (and, in retrospect, retarded) character deaths, and space battles with lots of explosions and bending laser beams. That killed off a Saturday morning better than the crappy third season of Gargoyles, I'd say. Of course, Gall Force had more than just one easily entertained kid's attention when it arrived in the mid-1980s. It had sequels, toys, manga, CDs, and all the video games a successful space-opera anime could merit.

The most notable Gall Force game was a vertical shooter that HAL Laboratory released on the Famicom Disc System in 1986, not a moment after Eternal Story proved itself a success. HAL's game offers control of the Star Leaf, the large three-section ship that housed Gall Force's cast of Kenichi Sonoda girls. Players eventually rescue and control all of the crew over the course of the game, but it starts off with only Rabby, who proved herself heroine material in the film simply by being slightly less incompetent than her crewmates, piloting the Star Leaf through surprisingly thick sweeps of first-stage enemies. In contrast to the movie's habit of whittling down the cast like some anime version of Ten Little Indians, Rabby adds a new crew member after each defeated boss.

For a mid-1980s shooter based on an anime series, HAL's Gall Force game shows some real depth of design. There's a lot variety in the basic enemies, and a few even mimic the film's painstakingly detailed mecha. The Star Leaf can grab a decent array of power-ups by destroying ground targets, and every recovered character enables a new attack: Pony launches drone fighters, Eluza adds a rear-firing laser, Patty activates highly useful side-mounted guns, and even Rumy, who was pretty much a whiny load in the movie, gives the Star Leaf a 360-degree shot. The player's also free to cycle through the weapons at will.

HAL also realized that people get sick of seeing the same scenery in a shooter, so Gall Force doesn't stick with one backdrop for too long. After five minutes of flying over a desert, plain, or ocean, the Star Leaf is faced with three or more launch catapults. Fly into one, and the ship is hurled up into space, where it runs a gauntlet of fierce enemies and square blocks reminiscent of Star Soldier. Skip the catapults, and it's more earth-based stages for you. There are no cutscenes in between the levels, though they'd be pixelly Nintendo versions of the characters taking showers and sitting contemplatively on the toilet, if the movie is any indication.

As a game, Gall Force - Eternal Story stays straightforward and occasionally gets frustrating. The Star Leaf is a big and initially slow target, and it compensates by being tougher than most shooter icons. The two side-sections of the ship are jettisoned as they take damage, making it easier to survive tenacious flocks of enemies. A strange rule crops up with the bosses; die anywhere else in a stage, and a new Star Leaf will fly onto the screen, but die while fighting a boss and you're sent back down to terrestrial shooting. Worse yet, the space catapults aren't labeled, and it's possible to beat the same orbital stage twice without rescuing any new comrades. And, in a final surge of hatred for the player, the game stacks up all of the previous bosses in the last level. I hate when that happens.

HAL went beyond the usual assembly-line aims in making Gall Force into an FDS shooter (and in making a similar one for the MSX personal computer), though everyone involved has moved on. Gall Force faded after a lousy late-1990s remake, Kenichi Sonoda started drawing other things, and HAL went on to program The Adventures of Lolo, Mother 3, and many Kirby games. Gall Force - Eternal Story is now just an undemanding little time-killer, much like the movie that inspired it.

No one published any Gall Force games in the U.S., and online prices for the game range from $10 to five times that. You'd also need a Famicom Disk System (or Twin Famicom) to play it, and that's a lot of trouble to go through for anything Gall Force. There's always emulation, of course.


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