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by Todd Ciolek,

E3 is this week, and once again, I hate it. It's partly because I'm not invited, which means I sit here pecking out a column while other people are submerged in the gauche sensory overload of the game industry pole-dancing for all of the important press to watch. It's also because anything I put in the news section will be invariably outdated seconds after it goes up. So if Nintendo announces tomorrow that Kid Icarus Rising is no longer on the 3DS and is now, in fact, being made for Apple IIGS computers bought in 1986, please don't be too hard on this column.


I can't lie: Nintendo has the highlight of E3 so far with the 3DS, the DS successor that displays three-dimensional images through its upper screen. About the only disappointing part is its appearance: it looks like a modestly enhanced version of the DSi, which was a modestly enhanced version of the DS Lite, which was…well, you get the idea. But hey, it comes in black, red, and teal.

Of course, there's a lot that's new about the 3DS. For one thing, it has a nicely sized analog pad, which the original DS really needed. It also features a motion sensor, a gyro sensor, three cameras (for that 3-D effect, ya know), a top screen that's larger than the stock DS one (but a little smaller than the DS XL's), and the option to turn off the 3-D effect entirely. No price is known at this writing.

And there are 3DS games. Lots of them. The scene-stealer is, of course, Kid Icarus Uprising, the first game in Nintendo's Kid Icarus series since 1991's Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters on the Game Boy. It's a 3-D action title in development by Project Sora and director Masahiro Sakurai, who had a hand in Kid Icarus' appearance in the Smash Bros. games.

Kid Icarus Uprising was apparently designed to show just what the 3DS can do, because its trailer is full of fast-paced action and looks amazingly slick for a handheld game. Pit, the Kid Icarus of the title, soars through levels and sharpshoots recognizable Kid Icarus enemies, while the narrator-goddess mentions the seed of an interesting play mechanic: like the Icarus of myth, Pit can only stay airborne for so long until his wings fall off. Also, his voice is an improvement on the Kid Icarus no one liked in Captain N: The Game Master.

Nintendo's remaining 3DS lineup is mostly familiar material: Pilotwings Resort, a 3-D revamp of Starfox 64, and new versions of Nintendogs, Paper Mario, Mario Kart, and Animal Crossing. There's also a submarine shooter called Steel Diver and, more interestingly, the well-supported rumor that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time will arrive in a 3DS port.

Many other companies have 3DS games on the way. Capcom's bringing Super Street Fighter IV and Resident Evil Revelations, Konami has a port of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater: The Naked Sample (yes, that's the PS2 game), Level-5 has a Professor Layton title, Atlus has various Shin Megami Tensei games, Namco Bandai has its usual assortment of anime licenses, and Tecmo Koei has Dead Or Alive, Ninja Gaiden, and Samurai Warriors. Square Enix came up with the most robust lineup to actually show at E3, announcing both Kingdom Hearts 3D and Chocobo Racing 3D (above) while promising new Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles.

All of this overshadowed Nintendo's Wii offerings, including another Donkey Kong Country, a new Goldeneye, and even the next The Legend of Zelda. Subtitled Skyward Sword, this Zelda employs the Wii MotionPlus in Link's swordplay. Its story is still under wraps, though the adult-sized characters make plain that it's not set in the same line as Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. Another notable revelation was Kirby's Epic Yarn, a side-scroller where the pink-puff hero uses a ball of yarn as a grappling hook, a rolling weapon, and a tool for changing the levels around him. He also morphs into a car, a parachute, and all sorts of platformer-oriented devices.

Microsoft's big reveal so far involves something already shown: the motion-sensing Project Natal. Only now it's called Kinect, and it has a U.S. release date of November 4th along with a lineup of games. It also has Video Kinect, essentially a video-chat feature that can reach anywhere an Xbox 360 can be connected.

Most of the launch Kinect games are showcase stuff, mixing predictable genre samples with more interesting ideas. Kintectimals is a simple virtual-pet simulator and Shape Fitness Evolved's title is self-explanatory, but Microsoft also exhibited new Star Wars and Forza games. Ubisoft had the most impressive Kinect game of the show: Child of Eden, a colorful sense-flayer from Tetsuya Mizoguchi, creator of Rez.

Microsoft's unveiling of the Xbox 360 Slim was a bit predictable: it's black, it's a little more angular than the regular 360, and it includes an internal Wi-Fi connector. More interesting was the fact that it went on sale right on the day of E3. Go out and buy one if you've put off the purchase just because of the system's color.

As for traditional Xbox 360 games, Konami came through with new footage of Metal Gear Solid Rising. It's yet another spin-off of Metal Gear Solid, but it's the first to star the cyborg version of Raiden. It also looks impressive, as Raiden can apparently cut through just about anything, including brick walls, cars, and, in slow-motion moves reminiscent of the Afro Samurai game, unfortunate enemy soldiers.

Konami also delivered the first good look at Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, a multiplayer Xbox Live side-scroller patterned after all of those 2-D Castlevania maze hunts. The playable cast includes Alucard, Soma Cruz, Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia, JONATHAN! and CHARLOTTE! from Portrait of Ruin, and other familiar characters from previous games. Some may tire of Konami's 2-D Castlevanias, but Harmony of Despair is at least headed somewhere new…and at least not a 3-D fighter.

Sony's big E3 surprises were noticeably less surprising than Nintendo's, though I'm sure many are glad to hear about a new Twisted Metal for the PlayStation 3, a Portal 2 port, or Patapon 3 for the PSP. Much of Sony's show involved new looks at previously announced games, including Little Big Planet 2, God of War: Ghost of Sparta, and Gran Turismo 5.

Sony also nailed down their plans for the PlayStation Move, the company's contribution to the ongoing war of motion-capturing console games. It's out in North America on September 19, with the Move unit itself running $49.99 alone or $99.99 when bundled with Sports Champions. New Move games include the spell-based dungeon hack Sorcery and the Sony mascot free-for-all Heroes on the Move.

Let's take a look at Square Enix's pre-E3 announcements. They have two Bearsworth Manor games for WiiWare, both of them puzzle titles with Hot Topic-styled bear cutouts. The PlayStation Network and Xbox Live get Space Invaders Infinity Gene, a new update of the classic arcade shooter with enemies that evolve to suit your playing habits. Oh, and then there's Necromachina, a 2-D action title from the guy behind the original Strider arcade game.

And that, my friends, is something. Strider is still an excellent action title full of cinematic panache, yet its director, Kouichi Yotsui, only revisited the concept with the obscure Cannon Dancer, leaving others to make the awful Strider Returns and the lacking Strider 2. Necromachina has the wall-hanging and laser-sword arcs of Strider, along with an insane storyline about inanimate objects coming to life and rebelling against humans, with only the techno-ninja Moondivers left to stem the tide.

But here's one thing that Necromachina has that Strider never did: a multiplayer focus. The game's trailer shows four characters hacking and slashing around a very busy screen, with marginal clues as to how it all plays out. It's coming for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, and while there's no release date, the Strider influences and glitzy flair (and the strangely familiar character art) make it the old-school standout at this year's E3.

As a fan of pointless game-industry trivia, I'm always interested when a new developer splits off from an established one. And that happened not so long ago when some employees of Flight Plan, the company behind the Summon Night action-RPGs, broke away and formed a little outfit called Apollosoft. This new studio's first PSP project, backed by Nippon Ichi Software, is called Blue Roses and…well, it satisfies the checklist of modern niche RPGs.

Scenes of talking character cutouts? Check.

Strategy-RPG setup? Check.

Side-view battles? Check. Well, I suppose that last one isn't too common in modern RPGs, but it's straight out of Summon Night's combat engine. Fitting, as this game's director is Hirokazu Kawase, who helmed several Summon Night games and Eternal Poison, which were released here by Atlus and swiftly forgotten (meanwhile, Kawase's Black Matrix games never left Japan). There's an eager audience for this type of RPG nowadays, and I'd expect NIS America to bring us Blue Roses: The Fairy and Blue-Eyed Warriors. Perhaps they'll change that subtitle.


Developer: Sting
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Sony PSP (UMD and Downloadable)
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

Sting's built a reputation on combining the cute and the complex. Their RPGs mix standard big-eyed anime heroes and heroines with strategic battle systems that often veer into the barely comprehensible. Heyxz Force takes a step back from this curious mélange. It's Sting's attempt at going mainstream and returning to the groundwork of Evolution, Treasure Hunter G, and the more traditional titles Sting made a decade ago. And in satisfying the demands of a typical RPG, it's a small success.

Countless RPGs flirt with light-and-dark themes, but Hexyz Force goes right for the throat. It tells two vaguely intertwined stories set in the land of Berge, where a chasm divides the continent into a well-lit kingdom and a constantly dark one. The brighter half is the home of Cecilia Armaclite, a young cleric thrown towards a divinely mandated destiny after evil forces attack her home monastery. The other tale concerns Levant von Schweitzer, a knight who initially helps his king marry an elven woman and bring peace between the darkened country's many warring races. Horrible things ensue, of course, and Levant's soon thrown into an alliance with his former enemies while his homeland falls into corruption.

Hexyz Force lands soundly in the realm of RPG clichés. Cecilia is a slightly irresponsible innocent partnered with a plucky swordsman, a magical girl, and a critical-minded flying groundhog/squirrel sidekick. Levant is a grumpy warrior prodigy in the company of an elf archer, a savagely cheerful beast-man, a baseborn princess (who's clearly in love with the oblivious Levant), and another floating animal sidekick. Around them all, there's a host of legends and heaven-sent magical weapons, as the heroes and heroines are marked as “Hexyz” and drafted into saving the world whether they want to or not.

In this routine arrangement, Hexyz Force redeems itself not by being particularly daring, but by being fast. Thirty minutes into Levant's story, the player's seen a treaty fail, a massacre ensue, and a bastard princess, Irene, betray her entire kingdom just to get a soon-to-be-executed Levant broken out of prison. Cecilia's story also gets to the point fairly quickly, when a more traditional game would have the player wander around her monastery and talk to boring fellow clerics.

Yes, Sting built Hexyz Force for speed, right down to the battles. Instead of drawing out some long tutorials, the game flashes a few cards and then assumes that players know the basics of RPG combat by now: characters can attack and heal, with their turns dictated by a meter on the side. A Force Burst gauge builds up with actions taken and damage received, letting players use extra-powerful attacks once it's full. Battles may not be terribly different from the basics of, say, the 13-year-old Final Fantasy VII, but at least they're quick. They're also avoidable, as players can see enemies in advance and dodge them with a little effort.

Hexyz Force is initially simple, but it's still a Sting RPG. Attacks vary in their ranges, and a system of three elements determines what enemies are weak against certain weapons. A “hexyz charge” takes effect when these elements stack up properly, boosting stats for the player's party as well as their foes. Outside of battle, there's a method for creating items and customizing “ragnafact” weapons, and lead characters can scan areas of a dungeon to uncover items and reveal new passages. None of these is a new idea for the genre, but at least Hexyz Force rarely leaves the player with nothing to do.

In appearances, Hexyz Force's 3-D big-headed characters would excel in an early PSP game, but they're often stiffly animated and lacking in detail. The game relies more on artwork of the characters for its dramatic impact, and that artwork is often technically solid despite its uncreative designs. The game's soundtrack is the usual booming RPG stuff, and the voice cast has Atlus' usual choice selections of anime-dub regulars. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn at first sounds almost too grown-up as Princess Irene, but it's a welcome change from the haughty prom-queen tones that stick to such characters. Besides, I refuse to believe that Mary Elizabeth McGlynn could be miscast for any role.

Hexyz Force delivers some surprises here and there. Its tale is predictable material, and the two halves of the story get along fairly well; a more intriguing plot would pit Levant and Cecilia constantly against each other. It's also deadened by a surprisingly average text localization for an Atlus game. Still, there's a handful of different endings that depend on player-chosen responses, and the characters break with type in small ways. Cecilia's not quite as scatterbrained as suggested by her writeup in the manual (her hobbies are eating and sleeping!), and Irene shows an agency far beyond the usual love-interest role. Not that Hexyz Force takes a high road or anything. For example, here's how Cecilia is introduced.

With some tired trappings and familiar looks, Hexyz Force will change no one's mind about anime-tinged RPGs. That was never Sting's goal, anyway. Hexyz Force merely sharpens the usually dull formula, and it brings decent pacing to a typical storyline and a complicated backdrop to its battles. It's nothing new for Sting or for RPGs, but it's a solid bet for anyone who wants to see an old-fashioned game handled well. Or at least handled quickly.


Developer: Game Republic
Publisher: Atari
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

The first Dragon Ball Origins was a presentable action game that, unlike other Dragon Ball adaptations, didn't try to cram an entire series' worth of battles into one game. It didn't get through the whole of the Dragon Ball story, and now it's up to the second game to encompass Goku's war against the Red Ribbon Army. The gameplay remains a stylus-controlled affair, with attacks and dodging all carried out through the touch-screen, though Origins 2 brings a side-scrolling viewpoint to some boss encounters. Goku's also joined by Bulma, Krillin, Yamcha, and other playable allies; they're not limited to the single-player mode, either, as there's a decent multiplayer mode that broadens as you conquer the game solo. The Japanese version included the original 8-bit Dragon Ball: The Mystery of Shen Long, which was mangled and released for the NES under the title Dragon Power, but the press material for Origins 2 says nothing about it being in the American version.
Get Excited If: You're a Dragon Ball fan who's often annoyed at Dragon Ball Z fighters getting all the attention.

Developer: High Moon Studios
Publisher: Activision
Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/Nintendo DS
Players: 1-online multiplayer
MSRP: $59.99 (360, PS3)/$29.99 (DS)

Any child who watched and loved the original Transformers cartoon remembers the coolest thing about the first episode: it started off on Cybertron and had all of the Autobots and Decepticons turning into futuristic cars and jets. Then they went to earth and became 1980s Volkswagens and F-15s: still cool for an '80s kid, but not as otherworldly. War for Cybertron makes good on the first episode's promise, though, as it finds the Autobots and Decepticons fighting and changing into newly re-imagined Cybertron versions of trucks and planes and tanks. The battles emphasize a multiplayer angle: online co-op is available, and even those who go it alone will find their transforming character flanked by two fellow warriors. The storyline also digs into the history of the Transformers, detailing Optimus Prime's rise to leadership, plus the first meeting of Megatron and Starscream. This gives players control of both sides, laying waste as the Decepticons and beating back the destruction as the Autobots.
Get Excited If: You always wanted toys of those first-episode Autobots and Decepticons.

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