The X Button Bunny Hops
by Todd Ciolek,
This week brings some good news to anyone who hated Final Fantasy XIII and is likely to hate Final Fantasy XIII-2. A demo of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is now available on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, so you can search for new and better things to loathe about the game. For those who are less antagonistic toward Final Fantasy XIII-2, the demo's a chance to see just how Square's apologizing for the shortcomings of Final Fantasy XIII.
The demo also makes something perfectly clear: if you truly disliked everything about Final Fantasy XIII, this awkwardly named sequel will not win you over. Despite all of the improvements made, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is built on the same foundations as its source. The battles are faster and include quick-time events, but they still revolve around switching from one team-based “paradigm” tactic to another. The pacing is apparently quicker, but the story keeps the neon techno-magical frills and bizarre terminology of the original Final Fantasy XIII. Serah actually does things this time, but she and newcomer Noel (and their jarringly cute Moogle pet) are all familiar characters for anyone who's played at least one Final Fantasy. And while previous Final Fantasy sequels such as X-2 and Revenant Wings were lighthearted, Final Fantasy XIII-2's demo seems almost as serious as the original. Well, except for the traveling shopkeeper who's somewhere between a Chocobo cosplayer and a Brazilian carnival dancer.
There's one thing that I definitely like about Final Fantasy XIII-2, though. You can jump freely. Final Fantasy needed this feature ever since the series adopted 3-D backgrounds, and yet even games like the above-mentioned Final Fantasy X-2 only let players jump in predetermined spots. For years the abysmal Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was the most jumping-friendly Final Fantasy, but that stands no longer. Noel and Serah can leap around whenever and wherever they please in Final Fantasy XIII-2, and it's refreshing. Not that I spent a good five minutes of the demo just making the characters jump around. Not me. That'd be nerdy even by Final Fantasy standards.
THE NEXT SUIKODEN IS PROBABLY DOOMED
Pity the next Suikoden game, a PSP offering with the subtitle The Woven Web of a Century. The Suikoden series slid sharply after the first two games, and while Suikoden V and Tactics have their defenders, no one quite trusts Konami with the series after Suikoden Tierkreis tried an alternate-world spin on the DS. Where does this leave Suikoden: The Woven Web of a Century? Well, it'sabout a hero who's hurled 100 years into the past as part of some scheme to destroy a fearsome threat to the world. He's accompanied at first by his friends Jino and Myra…and Zephon, the mage who started him on the whole quest. And there's a dog-duck thing named Meamei.
The game's time-traveling gimmick also figures into combat. The main characters pick up new abilities from watching their ancestors in battle, and party members can fit into several different classes (or “sub-jobs”). In Suikoden tradition, up to six characters can join the fray at one time, though there's no sign yet of any team-up attacks. The Woven Web of a Century has plenty of animation, though, and the game's website shows it off in a trailer.
What's missing? Well, just about everything that made prior Suikoden games interesting. Where are the 108 recruitable characters? Where are the harsh political decisions? Where are the duels with major enemies and the open-field strategic battles with entire armies? Perhaps they're hidden in there, but Konami's running out of time to unveil such details—this new game arrives on February 9. Still, Konami's hasn't forgotten Suikoden's roots entirely. The pricey special edition comes with a soundtrack, a radio drama, an artbook, a poster, and an encyclopedia that chronicles past Suikoden games.
PHANTOM BREAKER CONFIRMED FOR U.S., SHOCKINGLY ENOUGH
Of all the recent 2-D fighting games to pop up in Japan and circle like curious sharks, Phantom Breaker seemed destined to avoid North America. No major publisher backed it, and the roster lined up all sorts of modern-day samurai, cosplayers, ninja, maids, magical girls, magical ninja maids, and cameos by Chaos;Head Noah's Rimi and Steins;Gate's Kurisu. But 7Sixty, a publisher that started up this past July, will bring Phantom Breaker here at the end of February. And it's not some timid release lurking in the Xbox Live backwaters, either. There'll be a Phantom Breaker special edition with a strategy guide, posters, and a calendar.
Phantom Breaker's pandering surface hides a few interesting ideas, I'll grant. Characters are either blocking, hard-hitting heavies or agile, dodging lightweights, and players can cancel an opponent's attacks. If that doesn't impress the fighting-game scene (and the Japanese version didn't), it's at least a good sign to see an obscure fighter on these shores, and it may pave a path for French-Bread's Under Night In-Birth, 07th Expansion's Ougon Musou Kyoku X, or perhaps Sega and PK Digital's Chaos Code. Yes, those are also heavy on the generic anime-fan hooks, but at least Chaos Code has a combat chef.
THE WITCH AND THE HUNDRED CAVALRYMEN DELIVERS ONE PERCENT OF TITLE PROMISE
Nippon Ichi Software's known for strategy-RPGs, but in between porting and remarking various Disgaea games, the developer put together a PlayStation 3 action-RPG called The Witch and the Hundred Cavalrymen. It still boasts many NIS motifs, of course, including the art of Takehito Harada and a cynical storyline. The witch of the title is an ambitious, swamp-dwelling sorceress named Metallica (in the Japanese version, anyway), and she's found the perfect weapon for her ongoing battle with a forest-based rival witch. That weapon is technically an army of a hundred soldiers, but the player controls only one most of the time.
Hyakukihei, as the little cavalryman is known, treks around the swamp and other environments with his sword at the ready, but he's also able to call on the other 99 soldiers at opportune times. Most interesting is the developer's promise of the player's moral freedom in The Witch and the Hundred Cavalrymen: Hyakukihei can kill friendly characters as well as enemies, and the story changes along with his demeanor. Metallica the witch seems to stay out of the mundane parts of Hyakukihei's quest, but she's there to summon allies and enslave defeated foes (and the game's special edition includes her as a Nendoroid Puchi figure). Will she show up as a hidden character in the next Disgaea? That's a safe bet. Will NIS America bring out The Witch and the Hundred Cavalrymen not long after its spring debut in Japan? That's an even safer bet.
IMPORT ROUNDUP: DECEMBER
Platform: Sony PSP
It's unfair to write off Frontier Gate as another Monster Hunter imitator. Make no mistake, it's going for precisely the same audience, as the game's spacious fantasy world is just as large, just as dangerous, and just as open to multiplayer exploration as any Monster Hunter. To set itself a step or two distant, Frontier Gate presents a mysterious and unsettled continent for the player's customized, initially nameless hero or heroine. When trekking around this land of wild creatures and medieval-fantasy colonies, the player can pick an ally out of over a dozen adventurers. It's here that the game reflects its developers, who include staff from both tri-Ace and the Suikoden series. The optional recruits are a mixture of standard classes and Suikoden-like weirdos: a crossbowman named Volker and a spearfighter named Mariashalte (really) might not strike any new veins, but there's also Loutill, an eccentric who carries shields twice her size. And all of these companions factor into the game's multiplayer mode, where quests are shared by three players and three chosen computer-controlled partners.
Frontier Gate's battles land firmly in the territory of tri-Ace RPGs. Combat cuts to a separate playfield, where players construct elaborate combination strikes and cooperative moves that recall the frantic combat of tri-Ace's Star Ocean 3 and Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. The storyline's also frequently in motion, as a player's choice of partners affects the ending of the game. Konami's thrown in their share of references as downloadable extras: a sword shaped like the Vic Viper from Gradius, the outfit of the hero from the original Suikoden, and schoolgirl costumes from…Love Plus. Yes, Love Plus apparently surpasses Castlevania, Contra and Metal Gear when it comes to Konami's cameo hierarchy. These are dark times indeed.
Import Barrier: Frontier Gate is certainly an RPG in the text department. Still, it's nothing a simple guide (or some trial-and-error) won't fix, and PSP games are still region-free.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Not good, what with the Vita stealing attention away from the dwindling PSP market. But Konami's reportedly thinking about it.
METAL MAX 2 RELOADED
In a sense, Metal Max 2 Reloaded is what more RPGs should be. A remake of a Super Famicom title, Reloaded embraces a post-apocalyptic future where players roam nuclear wastelands instead of fairy-tale realms, fight mutants instead of slimes, and craft tanks and weapons instead of buying new swords. The lead, female or male, starts off as a bounty hunter from a run-down village where a deranged scientist specializes in Frankenstein-style zombies. In the ensuing trek through desolate lands, the player picks up a mechanic named Axel, an archer named Mischka, and Pochi, a little dog who carries two miniguns on his back. The party's also free to build their own vehicles, which range from motorcycles to buses to a Lamborghini tricked out like a Back to the Future time machine.
In another sense, though, Metal Max 2 Reloaded goes where many RPGs went many times before. It reimagines an game from 1993, and it doesn't push visual design very far past the 16-bit ideal. It looks better, to be sure, but the characters are still small, big-headed folk, and the battles are still traditional menu-driven encounters. Metal Max 2 also knows where the money is today. Party members can take on various classes, each with male and conveniently underdressed female versions. At least those classes break from the usual lines; along with hunters and fighters, there are also mechanics, wrestlers, and artists. Well, someone has to paint the steady extinction of humanity.
Import Barrier: There's a lot of talking, but the menus aren't that tough to navigate. Oh, and Japanese DS games run just fine on any system.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Metal Max had its chance when Atlus released Metal Saga on the PlayStation 2 many years ago. No one bit when Metal Max 3 arrived in Japan last year, so don't expect any nibbles now.
USAVICH: GAME TIME
Usavich is a survivor. While more ambitious anime creations rose and fell around it, this 2006 series merrily bounced along for five years. It helps that Usavich is short, of course. Designed for a cell-phone service and MTV's Japanese branch, Usavich's 90-second episodes follow two incarcerated Russian rabbits: the merciless, indestructible Kirenenko and the far more fragile (and ironically named) Putin. Only now has Namco Bandai decided to give them a video game. Reaching back to Usavich's first season, the DS title finds Putin and Kireneko in a cell and at the mercy of largely unseen guards. Well, Putin's at their mercy. It's the other way 'round for Kirenenko.
True to the brief nature of the series, Usavich: Game Time is a collection of simple challenges, often reflecting the stranger points of the show. The mini-games include battles with the door-guards, conversations with the easily panicked Putin, code-breaking, and encounters with a lipstick-wearing baby chick named Comanechi and a frog named Leningrad. That's Usavich all right.
Import Barrier: While there's some text here and there, the games are as easy to understand as an episode of Usavich itself.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Despite its broad appeal, Usavich isn't legally available in North America—even though its airing alone would make North America's MTV worth watching again. And with no TV show, it's very unlikely that anyone will bring an Usavich game here.
NEXT WEEK'S LACK OF RELEASES
Bad news: nothing remotely interesting comes out next week. Good news: it's the last stretch of post-Christmas doldrums, as the rest of the month is crammed with a bunch of big releases. And yes, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the biggest of them.
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