The X Button - Lux Aeternaby Todd Ciolek,
I don't like you, 2009. You've already disposed of Electronic Gaming Monthly, Blender, and the game companies Seta and Jaleco. Now you've brought the end of a magazine that I was part of for nearly three years: Anime Insider.
I joined Anime Insider in 2005 and worked there as an associate editor from issue 25 to issue 58. It was my first real exposure to the inner dealings of anime and manga, and it brought me face to face with just how devoted, bizarre, and strangely endearing the whole thing can get. It's not every aspiring journalist who gets to interview the creator of Hellsing, pass off hours of cartoon-viewing as work, and wander through crowds of con-goers who exhibited varying degrees of costuming prowess and bodily funk. Such was my time at Anime Insider, and I wouldn't have traded those years for any other job.
You can imagine how I took the news of the magazine shutting down with issue 67. I'll miss you, Anime Insider.
FINAL FANTASY IV: THE AFTER YEARS AN OFFICIAL WIIWARE GAME
Square's upcoming WiiWare release of the Final Fantasy IV sequel The After Years was leaked out through good ol' trademark registration weeks ago, but now we have an official announcement and actual translated screens. With them comes the confirmation that the main character really is named Ceodore and that it wasn't a needlessly creative revision of "Theodore." And just which two Final Fantasy IV characters are Ceodore's parents?
The After Years doesn't look bad for a game born on cell phones, and the translation is, well, at least better than what we endured in Final Fantasy IV (then II) back in 1991. The official website and press release don't mention if the game will be sold in character-specific chapters (as it was in Japan) or as a single title, though I hope Square Enix will dish it all out in one lump.
NINTENDO LAUNCHES NEW ZELDA, VIRTUAL CONSOLE ARCADE GAMES
Some Zelda fans were crestfallen at Nintendo announcing a mere DS The Legend of Zelda at the Gamer's Day Conference, but those fans have apparently forgotten how much fun they had with the last DS Zelda, The Phantom Hourglass. The new The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks has a cel-shaded look similar to The Phantom Hourglass and The Wind Waker, though neither of those games involved Link taking charge of a train and pelting foes with cannon shot. Nintendo's Spirit Tracks footage showed little more than that and a scene with Zelda and Link, though the game's already on track for a release this year.
As for the Wii, Nintendo revealed an SD Card Menu for storing and running games on removable cards, which should fix a few space problems for Wii owners who've bought too many Virtual Console games. They'll be able to buy even more now, as the VC added a bunch of older arcade titles in Japan. The first round of games, some of which might trickle out West, features Space Harrier, Star Force, Gaplus, Solvalou, Mappy, Return of Ishtar, Emeraldia, and The Tower of Druaga. This opens the door for countless other arcade games, and with Namco so clearly invested, I'll be aghast if The Legend of Valkyrie doesn't make the Virtual Console.
Also on the Nintendo front, I was clearly wrong to worry about the odds of another Professor Layton game coming here. Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, the second title in the puzzle-driven adventure series, will be released in North America by year's end.
YS SEVEN ADDS NEW CHARACTER, MARKETING HOOK
Falcom confirmed that Ys Seven is headed to the PSP, along with a port of Ys I and II. The seventh proper Ys game (not counting Ys Origin or the two distinct versions of Ys IV) has much the same aesthetics as Ys VI, although the character models are larger and more impressive.
And Aisha is "moe" as hell itself. Falcom's clearly seen what modern fans want, even if Gust might have them beat when it comes to niche-level RPGs about connivingly fashioned anime girls.
ATELIER RORONA LOOKS BETTER THAN ANYONE EXPECTED
Gust is known for making lots of cutesy RPGs, but not so much for making them look great. From Mana Khemia to Ar Tonelico II, Gust RPGs look fairly primitive, with polygon scenery and large 2-D characters that seldom impress. So you'd hardly expect Atelier Rorona, the newest Gust RPG, to visually stun anyone, even if it is a PlayStation 3 game.
Well, I'd say Gust has grown up a bit. Granted, it's still a fluffy fairy-tale game about little girls with names like Rororina and Cuderia, and it doesn't look too much better than, say, Tales of Vesperia. As Gust games go, however, it's a leap ahead, and any fan of the company's sugary RPGs should hope that NIS America has the resources to properly localize Atelier Rorona.
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
The visual novel is still very much a rarity in Western games. Hotel Dusk, Time Hollow, and the Phoenix Wright series have introduced many to the concept of a game driven by dialogue and simple exploration, and yet Lux-Pain is perhaps the closest mainstream games have come to the typical visual novel. With its slow pace and voluminous stream of conversations, it's an introduction to the genre's strengths and, unfortunately, the unique ways it can fail.
Lux-Pain ventures the concept of Silent, a psychic parasite that takes root in human minds and compels its hosts to commit horrifying crimes against society and nature. It's the sort of thing that calls for a special police force brimming with technological wonders and telepathic investigators. That's what Fort is, and its most gifted young recruit is a quiet kid named Atsuki Saijo, who acquired the power to sense and destroy Silent after his family was murdered by infected soldiers. When a rash of suicides draws Fort to the seemingly gentle Kisaragi City, Atsuki enrolls at the local high school and starts his gloomy detective work.
Atsuki's lengthy investigation finds him sitting through classes, hanging around with fellow students, and scanning the local scenery for Shinen, the emotional residue given off by potential Silent victims. The game's first few hours are one long introduction to Kisaragi City and its student population, which includes a studious aspiring reporter, a troubled punk, an impish computer expert, an upbeat fortune-teller, a friendly bookworm, a shy artist, and a precocious grade-schooler who prowls the neighborhoods while telepathically talking to her animal friends. They're backed by a larger community of adults, from stressed-out policewomen to imposing, gun-nut teachers and suspiciously pleasant philanthropists. If that doesn't sound stereotypical enough, there's always Natsuki, a 13-year-old girl who psychically tracks Shinen while dressed in the height of gothic-lolita fashion.
The cast is ostensibly quite cliché, but Lux-Pain clearly wants the player to care about them. Every major character has secrets and hang-ups, and Atsuki spends much of his time ferreting them out through Lux-Pain's occasional moments of gameplay. Scan a character with Atsuki's power, and then scratch at their image with the DS stylus, hunting for yellow Silent worms that drift below the surface. Destroy them, and you'll reveal hidden thoughts that bleed and sway across the DS screen like awkward, despairing middle-school poetry. In rare extreme cases, Atsuki's required to pull off slightly more elaborate screen-tapping against abstract Silent creatures. It's hard to lose during the day-to-day Shinen hunts, but failing in the big battles ends the game, as Fort's nastier members kill off any characters that Atsuki couldn't save.
Don't let the DS stylus fool you. Lux-Pain is a visual novel deep down, and so it lives or dies by its mood and storyline. It's quite bleak there, seeming less like a Phoenix Wright comedy and more like a Persona game minus the RPG elements or optional relationships. There are no school dungeons teeming with freakish breast-monsters and corrupted gods in Lux-Pain, but it's nonetheless a chronicle of emotional turmoil and adolescent struggle on an eerie modern stage. Marvelous and Killaware set out to make a game about suicide, bullying, message-board cultism, anomie, broken families, and other Issues Facing Today's Youth, though the messages are a bit muddled when every social ill is the work of hideous mental larvae.
Lux-Pain is in no hurry to tell its story or make it clear. Most of Atsuki's days are filled with idle conversations and mild bursts of high-school drama, as the script does its best to draw the player into a daily routine and a superficially pleasant Japanese suburbia. It's all quite confusing at first, with plot threads introduced and ignored while Atsuki picks up one cryptic, ethereal clue after another. Lux-Pain is aimed squarely at the patient player with no prejudice against anime, even though anime fans are also the most likely to get bored with the numerous character types and plot devices they've seen so many times already. At least it's not hard to look at. Lux-Pain's artwork is decent in spite of its familiar subjects, and the soundtrack can be effective horror synth when it isn't blasting annoying department-store music.
A sense of immersion, so essential for hooking a player, is often derailed in Lux-Pain by Atsuki's restrained interaction with all of the tragedy brimming around him. Unlike other visual-novel protagonists who serve as player insertions, his responses are limited to simple lines and occasional emotional displays, and his thoughts stay clinical and unsympathetic. A distant and brooding hero is one thing, but it's hard to identify with a guy who apparently just stands and analytically stares when a classmate's failed suicide attempt leaves her in tears.
The real problem in Lux-Pain lies with its most important element: the dialogue. Ignition's localization is actually two translations awkwardly mixed into one, since the fairly respectable voice work rarely matches the text on the screen. The differences range from minor word changes to completely altered lines and meanings, as though someone re-wrote the lines for the voice actors and forgot to fix the game's script accordingly. And you'd want to fix the script, because Lux-Pain may have more errors than any translated game I've seen since Castle Shikigami 2. Misspellings pop up everywhere, gender pronouns are confused, and the game seems to think that words like “wanna” and “gonna” need apostrophes. This would be a glaring flaw in an RPG and an amusing blemish on a shooter. In a text-driven game like Lux-Pain, it's a deal-breaker.
Yet there's some appeal once Lux-Pain sinks in. A compelling mystery lies at its core, and half of the suspense comes from guessing which semi-likeable archetype will next succumb to mental illness. The game's leisurely pace makes it much longer than the typical puzzle-driven adventure, and the Shinen-hunting mini-games occasionally get difficult. Lux-Pain also avoids courting anime fetishes more often than its artwork might suggest. Despite the frilly psychic maid assistant and a vaguely harem-like lineup of female characters, the game makes an honest attempt to develop them beyond the props of a dating simulator.
Ignition deserves praise for taking a chance on Lux-Pain, just as they deserve censure for screwing up the translation. With clever dialogue and sharper proofreading, Lux-Pain could have risen above its laid-back tone and passive approach. Yet the Lux-Pain we have is a rocky affair, and there's no gem buried inside it. There's only a slightly intriguing game that deserved better.
RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 4-5
Most of Nintendo's mid-life system upgrades are largely cosmetic, granting an existing system a sleeker design, better resolution, or a different slot for the DS stylus. This makes the DSi all the most interesting, since it gives the basic DS model two cameras (one pointing out, one aimed at the player), a slot for an SD card, a web browser, and the ability to play music and record sounds. The system also downloads Nintendo's new line of DSiWare games and applications, with the possibility of Game Boy Advance and Game Boy titles also being available. They'd better be available, because the DSi doesn't have a slot for GBA games, and this also means that the Guitar Hero DS titles won't work on one, either. The DSi went over quite well in Japan, and I doubt it'll have trouble corralling early adopters over here. Will younger DS owners be as willing to trade in their perfectly good DS Lites? Answer: yes, as soon as there's a Pokemon game that works only on the DSi.
DRAGON BALL EVOLUTION|
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
As the Dragonball: Evolution movie heads to theaters next week, there's a good chance that the Dragonball : Evolution PSP game might be much more appealing. That's not just because the movie has been savagely condemned by most early viewers. It's also because the game seems to be based on the dependable, familiar Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai fighting engine instead of some hastily assembled hackwork. Of course, all of the characters still look like the movie's cast, so I'm sure more than a few Dragon Ball Z fans will reject it just for reminding them that a live-action Dragon Ball ever existed and had Goku using his chi to open every locker in his high school or whatever. That aside, it might be a satisfying fighter made all the more amusing by its license. Sorta like a Capcom-made Howard the Duck platformer for the NES.
GUILTY GEAR XX ACCENT CORE PLUS|
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
It's been over 10 years since Guilty Gear first staked out a corner of the fighting-game world, mostly by being completely batshit insane compared to The King of Fighters or Samurai Shodown. While nearly every experimental Guilty Gear off-shoot has failed somehow, its core fighters have always delivered quick, raucous combat, gorgeous (if stiff) visual style and an atmosphere that's somewhere between futurepunk anime and gaudy '80s heavy metal. It's this bizarre world-building that truly drives Accent Core Plus. The game itself is not terribly different from 2007's regular Accent Core, though Plus adds a 3-on-3 team battle feature and two previously absent fighters: Kliff and Justice. The big change is the story mode in Plus, which presents each character with all sorts of paths and endings as he or she bickers with other Guilty Gear fighters. It's hardly going to change the way we think about game storylines, but the various conversations are a fun ride for any Guilty Gear devotee. With BlazBlue apparently taking its place as Arc System Works' flagship series, Plus might be the last traditional Guilty Gear fighter we see for a while. That makes this the definitive game where it's perfectly normal for a guitarist witch and her talking hat to duel a demonic pool-player in a blood-red sea of tombstones.
I can't fault Atlus for calling this game Hammerin' Hero, as I doubt many people remember that Irem's Gen-san series was once known as Hammerin' Harry in North America. The main character is now called Gen-san in the West as well, but the gameplay follows the same ideas as its mostly forgotten predecessors: side-scrolling levels, big-headed characters, and many blunt objects. Built with 3-D visuals and 2-D gameplay, Hammerin' Hero features Gen-san fighting corporate oppression by hurling through various scenes from modern life and switching outfits frequently. He wields a construction hammer, a bat, a fish, an anchor, records, and other implements, all which let him beat enemies and the modern insecurities of his fellow townspeople (a concept that would sell me the game almost by itself). Hammerin' Hero also promises two unlockable bonus characters, one of them being Gen-san's girl-next-door pal Kanna.
NINJA BLADE |
Developer: From Software
Platform: Xbox 360
It's tempting to compare Ninja Blade directly to Ninja Gaiden, since they're both about black-clad swordsmen sleekly dismembering other ninja and gigantic demons. Yet From Software cobbled Ninja Blade together from just about every notable action title of this generation: it features designs by Lost Planet's Keiji Nakaoka, animation from Production I.G, and gameplay that frequently breaks into those button-jabbing “quick-time events” that Resident Evil 4 popularized. Like many of today's action games, Ninja Blade gorges itself on wild summer-movie conventions, including scenes of alpha ninja Ken surfing on a missile and slicing free a motorcycle in mid-air just so he can ride it. When not wrapped up in such theatrics, Ken carries a variety of conventional ninja attacks, including two short blades, one large blade, and a shuriken that launches fire, wind, and electric charges. Ninja Blade may not look too different from what's out there, but From's developers know something about smooth action. They brought us the underappreciated Otogi series on the original Xbox, after all.
The original Rhythm Tengoku, a GameBoy Advance game from 2006, never came to the U.S., perhaps for the same unclarified reasons Mother 3 didn't. Nintendo is making amends by bringing out the sequel, Rhythm Heaven, and its novel mixture of music and WarioWare-like split-second challenges. Players are hit with numerous mini-games: assembling robots, firing screws, hopping across a sea of small knolls, making little creatures squeal in harmony, and so on. In each diversion, moving the stylus on the DS touch screen helps complete the assigned game and simultaneously keep the beat with the background music. The original Rhythm Tengoku matched up button presses with creative sound-syncing, and the sequel does much the same with the DS hardware. Rhythm Heaven might not get the same advertising as the latest Mario spin-off, so here's hoping this isn't as neglected as Elite Beat Agents.
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