The X Button
by Todd Ciolek,
I'm starting to feel sorta silly discussing cheap and good Xbox Live Indie games, because they're often so inexpensive as to make a review irrelevant. For example, I don't need to say that much beyond “go out and spend about three bucks on Protect Me Knight, the new multiplayer action-RPG from Ancient.” It's fun and stylishly evocative of NES titles and computer games from the 1980s, especially in the garbled English directions and the opening scenes of simulated cartridge-blowing.
At this writing, it's also unhelpfully listed under its hiragana-and-kanji Japanese title on Live, so just go to the "all" section and look for the box-front shown above. It's the fifth or sixth game from the bottom.
And if that doesn't interest you, perhaps Protect Me Knight's seemingly vintage-1987 box art will.
XSEED PARTNERS WITH FALCOM, SIGNS A SIX-GAME DEAL
The game developers at Falcom clearly remember better times for the company, times when every new Ys action-RPG was an industry-stunning event and the likes of Brandish, Sorcerian, Popful Mail, and Legend of Heroes sold across the board. Well, Falcom wants to revive those days, and they're aiming to do it in North America, where Xseed Games now plans to publish six Falcom titles. It's an interesting partnership and a test of just how popular Falcom can be over here. Ys had a following among RPG fans back in the 1990s, but it's competing in much more crowded territory today.
The leader of the pack is Ys Seven (above), released for the PSP in Japan just last September. Xseed also has the rights to the PSP versions of Ys Book I and II and Ys: The Oath in Felghana (which is a remake of Ys III). The non-Ys titles included are the three games from The Legend of the Heroes: Trails in the Sky. (a.k.a. Sora no Kiseki), a subset of the largest Legend of the Heroes RPG franchise. And there are more Falcom games to be licensed, such as the recent PSP-based Brandish remake and the upcoming Ys vs. Sora no Kiseki crossover fighter. No release dates are set so far, but the first games in the lineup should be out this fall. If I were Xseed, I'd start with Ys Seven. And then I'd beg Falcom to remake Popful Mail.
CASTLEVANIA BECOMES A PUZZLE GAME
The idea of a Castlevania: Symphony of the Night puzzle game for the iPhone doesn't bother me. In fact, I was initially glad to hear that it was something like Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and I thought of super-deformed versions of Alucard and Maria and other Castlevania celebrities joyfully beating up each other while gems rained down beside them. Well, I was right about the gems, at least.
The rest of Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night is disappointing, as Alucard and the rest of the game's cast are normally sized characters. The game follows Alucard through Dracula's castle, and he encounters monsters and upgrades his equipment along the way. And if you want to play as the axe armor or a fish-man, you can do that as well. There's hope that Konami will add more Castlevania heroes and heroines to the game before it's released on the iPhone and iPad Touch. Don't look for Sonia Belmont from Castlevania Legends, though, because Konami booted her from the series canon years ago.
KINGDOM HEARTS ADDS NEW CELEBRITY VOICES
It'd be marginal news if Square Enix just announced a September 7th release date for Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep the new PSP action-RPG entry in the ongoing Disney-Square orgy. But they also gave a run-down of some of the game's celebrity voices. While James Woods has already played Hades in several games, Mark Hamill and Leonard Nimoy are new to the series. Hamill's role is unspecified as of yet, and Nimoy, surprisingly, isn't reprising his part from Atlantis: the Lost Empire. He's audible in an early Birth by Sleep trailer, where he voices an elderly tender of a keyblade graveyard.
In Square-related news that I consider far more important, the company renewed its copyright for Tactics Ogre, the influential 1995 strategy-RPG by now-elsewhere Final Fantasy XII director Yasumi Matsuno. Square Enix also trademarked the name “Warrior of Light and Darkness,” which may be completely unrelated. If Square isn't planning a remake of Tactics Ogre, the game could sure use one.
SPECIAL FEATURE: THE NEXT LITTLE RPG WAVE
The Japanese RPG is in a curious place. With Final Fantasy spinning off into side projects and Dragon Quest still not a roaring success in North America, many RPG fans are paying more and more attention to lesser-known series. A lot of that attention will be directed at the Wii's two big guns, Mistwalker's The Last Story and Monolith Soft's Xenoblade, in the coming months, and this column will follow suit. But they aren't the only interesting RPGs arriving in Japan and likely getting tickets for these shores.
THE ANOTHER WORLD
System: Nintendo DS
A.k.a.: Ni No Kuni
Release date: Fall 2010
The Another World made news by being one of the first games in long, long time to involve Studio Ghibli. Of course, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata aren't working on it, and many suspect that Miyazaki hates video games, anyway. Yet Ghibli's handling the game's animation scenes, Ghibli composer Joe Hisashi is on the soundtrack, and all of the character art looks like it came from some Miyazaki creation (or at least something by frequent Ghibli contributor Katsuya Kondo). The story finds a young boy named Oliver drawn into a fantasy realm after the death of his mother, with a lantern-nosed fairy to guide him through it all. In a twist older than The Wizard of Oz, many of this fantasyland's inhabitants resemble Oliver's real-world friends and acquaintances.
Ghibli's involvement overshadows the track record of Level-5, which has put out a mixture of solid RPGs (Dark Cloud 2) and somewhat disappointing ones (Rogue Galaxy). They're also behind the Professor Layton series, and that puzzle-game influence extends to The Another World's battle system, which involves drawing symbols to invoke spells. The rest of the gameplay has the look of a traditional RPG, though there's strategy in arranging party members to best deflect enemy attacks.
Why should we care? The trailer proves one thing: even standard-issue Ghibli animation is stunning.
Will it come here? It's very likely, though the involvement of Ghibli might give it a higher price tag among middle-range RPG publishers.
AR TONELICO III
Publisher: Namco Bandai
System: PlayStation 3
Release date: It came out in January.
The first two Ar Tonelico games were B-level RPGs in budget if not design, with simple sprite graphics, talking character cutouts, and linear, side-view battles. Ar Tonelico III dispenses with much of that: the characters are now 3-D in everything but their talking-head scenes, and the battle system's become a real-time combat engine. The music's also much more impressive, with the in-battle songs provided by noted pop singers.
In other ways, this is the same Ar Tonelico that RPG fans have either loved or hated. The main character is once again an earnest young man wrapped up in a plot with two Reyvateil songstresses, and the battles still involve protecting them while they chant musical spells. Ar Tonelico III also goes even further into dating-simulator territory with the franchise's psychic-diving Cosmosphere feature, as the two Reyvateils, Saki and Finnel, hide multiple personas and go through all sorts of costume changes. It's also set two years after the events of Ar Tonelico 2, and there's vague rumor that it ends Gust's little RPG trilogy. I doubt that's true, if Ar Tonelico III's sales hold any sway with the developer.
Why Should We Care? It may not win over many outside of the existing fan base, but in terms of production values, this is the best that Ar Tonelico has ever looked.
Will it come here? NIS America brought out the first two, so…yes.
HYPER DIMENSION GAME NEPTUNE
Developer: Compile Heart
System: PlayStation 3
Release date: Summer 2010
Hyper Dimension Game Neptune is the rare video game that examines its own bizarre and turbulent industry, albeit through cutesy abstraction. It imagines four game consoles in the forms of big-eyed, scantily clad goddesses who squabble over space-fantasy equivalents of marketing, popularity, and fan devotion. The game plays it vague in depicting systems: heroine Neptune might be a Sega console (she shares her name with Sega's unreleased 32X variant, after all), and she's joined by representations of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii.
Consoles aren't the only characters, as four other cast members represent game developers Gust, Idea Factory, Nippon Ichi Software, and Compile Heart. Naturally, the NIS incarnation (above) looks a little like a Prinny.
It's a clever idea for an RPG, so that makes it all the more disheartening when Hyper Dimension Game Neptune coats itself in the same generic anime sex appeal that now blankets a good percentage of Japan's modern games. The whole thing's clearly inspired by the school of art that turns computers into drawings of cartoon girls, and that school can be a creepy place. All of that aside, the game's showing some impressive effects in its battles, which find the four bickering console-women banding together to face down some unspecified threat. I hope it's an army of arcade games.
Why Should We Care? Some might be put off by the barefaced otaku pandering of Hyper Dimension Game Neptune, but even they might find it worth a look if Compile Heart delivers on the game's potential for game-industry satire. And others might play to see if the Playdia, the Virtual Boy, and the PC-FX get turned into characters.
Will it come here? NIS America and other publishers have proven that few RPGs are “too anime” for this continent, so Neptune stands a good chance.
Release date: July 2010
It's no secret that Japanese RPGs share a lot of clichés with boys' manga, but Last Ranker wears that inspiration proudly. Its hero, Zig, wants nothing more than to become the world's top-ranked fighter, and the game charts his progression through the many warriors in his way, including the Knights of Seven. In fact, the game frequently has a counter in its upper-left corner, keeping track of just where Zig lies. It's a traditional tale by both RPG and manga conventions, but the staff behind isn't so mundane. Phoenix Wright producer Minae Matsukawa and Etrian Odyssey creator Kazuya Niinou are overseeing the game, and the script comes from Kazushige Nojima, who's written the Kingdom Hearts games and most of the Final Fantasies since VII.
With the game's battles being largely one-on-one, Last Ranker sheds the usual dependency on menus. It's closer to an action-RPG, with quick reactions when Zig attacks, defends, switches weapons, or does any of his rank-raising deeds. Still, the game's producers maintain that it's a turn-based system at heart, and the game's first trailer made it look disappointingly stilted. That was, however, almost a year ago, so there's plenty of time for improvement.
Why Should We Care? Capcom doesn't back RPGs too often, but the results are often interesting when they do. Last Ranker's staff certainly has experience, and, hey, it's getting a soundtrack from Square composer Yoko Shimomura.
Will it come here? It's already trademarked for North America.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
Hexyz Force deserves credit for devising a literal light-and-dark setting I've never seen in an RPG before: half of a continent is in constant sunlight, the other in constant darkness. The logistics of this would leave both halves uninhabitable wastelands in real life, but in Hexyz Force they're opposing kingdoms that each spawn one potential world savior. From Lustrous Berge, there's the mild-mannered cleric Cecilia Armaclite, while the knight Levant von Schweitzer and his allies hail from Dark Berge. Having two distinct parties of characters breaks with RPG conventions, though the game's official website spells out the fact that the light and dark warriors won't be enemies for long. Outside of this now-predictable plot, Hexyz Force has typical RPG features like turn-based combat, weapon customization, and a special-attack gauge that can be charged during battle. Then again, this is the work of Sting, the developer of such complicated cult hits as Yggdra Union and Knights in the Nightmare.
SUPER MARIO GALAXY 2|
Super Mario Galaxy 2 has already been labeled Super Mario Galaxy: The Leftovers in some circles, but there's no need to be so cynical. It has the same general premise as the first Galaxy in sending Mario planet-hopping through various levels, but there's plenty of new material, with both reintroduced Mario staples and things the series never did before. Mario can now ride Yoshi, whose useful traits include a grappling tongue and balloon-like levitation. Better yet, Mario has all-new powers: one mushroom turns him into a rolling rock creature, and another lets him create cloud platforms. There's also a drill power-up for excavating stars (I've come to accept that the Hammer Bros. Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3 is never coming back). Naturally, the game's level design is top-caliber Nintendo stuff, with many puzzles and new devices, including a Koopa-shell flashlight. There's also word of the game having less plot, though I can't imagine Mario fans caring one way or the other.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Witch's Wish has the look of something aimed at the thirty-year-old anime-geeks who've seen every episode of Pretty Cure, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that Witch's Wish is actually for young girls. In a village where witching school is reserved mostly for the wealthy, a lower-class heroine named Vicky sets out to earn a witching degree through good ol' fashioned hard work, or at least through a community witching college with a generous student-loan program. Her academic journey throws her into various RPG-ish quests and magical duels, with spells carried out by drawing with the DS stylus. It's perhaps a bit two cute for the hardened Gears of War fan, but there are many RPG enthusiasts who won't be bothered.
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