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Robot Monsters

by Todd Ciolek,

So what's the first big game of 2012? Final Fantasy XIII-2? Soul Calibur V? Well, both of them were beaten to the punch by a title that's already known throughout many nerd subcultures. That title is Katawa Shoujo, a free PC-based dating simulator.

Why all the fuss? Well, Katawa Shoujo is set at a school for the disabled, and the potential love interests encountered by the player's character (who suffers from a heart defect) include a blind girl, a deaf girl, a badly scarred burn victim, a girl with prosthetic legs, and a girl with underdeveloped arms. All of this started with a single illustration that depicted the characters as a parody of dating sims, and some fans of the genre took it upon themselves to make an entire game out of it.

I think I'll abstain from playing this. I believe there's a good idea somewhere in Katawa Shoujo, as it deals with a subject rarely addressed by games. But it's hard to separate that idea from the implied fetishizing of the girls' disabilities, which only makes the innate “moe” elements (look at poor Hanako! She's so shy!) even creepier. That said, I'm mentioning Katawa Shoujo here because of the impact it's had and the questions it raises. I also want to hear from people who've played it, provided that they aren't completely insane.


By now you've all seen the big trailer for Resident Evil 6, and it's probably reminded you of previous games. Leon Kennedy, looking much like he did in Resident Evil 4, shows up in Tall Oaks, a major city overrun by zombies much like in Resident Evil 2 and 3. And then Chris Redfield, fresh from Resident Evil 5, arrives to help contain the outbreak. But there are new characters alongside the returning ones. Resident Evil 4's Ashley Graham is seen shepherding a yet-to-be-named mercenary jackass whose blood might be the key to counteracting a zombie virus. Leon's also accompanied by Helena Harper, a member of the president's security detail. Unfortunately, the president doesn't survive the first few seconds of the trailer, and Helena apparently blames herself for all of this.

Of course, the best thing about the trailer is its promise of gameplay ideas new to Resident Evil. The city swarms with enough horrors to stock a Dead Rising game, and Leon is seen sliding around the ground like the hero of Platnium's underrated action spectacle Vanquish (conveniently made by some former CAPCOM talent). The other snippets of zombie-fighting look a bit more fluid than previous Resident Evils, and the trailer even mocks the idea of taking cover, since that doesn't stop a monster's giant tentacle-mouth.

Also interesting is the game's release date of November 20, 2012 on the PS3 and Xbox 360. With Revelations arriving on the 3DS next month and Operation Raccoon City hitting the PS3, 360, and PC in March, this means we're getting three different Resident Evil games in one year.

Countless RPGs have animated cutscenes and distinctly anime-ish casts, but neither option was good enough for the makers of Tokitowa. Billed as the “world's first HD animation RPG," the PlayStation 3 title uses 2-D animation for the characters in every aspect of the game. While the environments are 3-D, the producers at Namco Bandai and Imageepoch are quick to point out that there's not a scrap of CG modeling on the characters.

The game begins with the royal wedding of a prince of Kamuza Kingdom and a magically empowered princess named Toki. Their nuptials are rudely interrupted, and from there an elaborate quest begins. All of the characters (including Toki's pet dragon) were designed by Taiwanese illustrator VOfan, and the soundtrack is the work of Yuzo Koshiro, who's made catchy music since the days of Ys Book I and II and Streets of Rage.

Tokitowa's look comes courtesy of Satelight, the same anime studio that put all sorts of 3-D effects in shows like Macross Frontier and Arjuna. If that seems an odd pairing, Namco Bandai and Imageepoch are apparently quite committed to showing off traditional animation in Tokitowa, and we're at least guaranteed a game that looks unique later this year.

Gust tends to make lighthearted RPGs staffed by big-eyed girls, and their latest, a Vita game called Ciel no Surge: Song of the Lost Star's Offering, stars a similarly earnest heroine named Ion. However, Gust found a unique way of promoting the game. The first hints of it showed Ion posing in mugshots, while a mock-up of grainy security-camera footage found her huddled in a corner.

The game itself isn't quite so harsh, of course. Early reports describe it as a “communication” title where players interact with Ion, whether it's in directing her everyday activities or exploring the floating city of Coron and the world of La Ciel. No one's labeled Ciel no Surge a dating sim just yet, but it doesn't sound all that different from a bout of Love Plus or any other game that revolves around talking to a young woman. More details are sure to emerge before Ciel no Surge arrives in Japan this April.


Developer: Witch Craft
Publisher: Banpresto
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1

Hey there! Looking to re-ignite a bunch of old anime series that are just sorta sitting around? Don't go through the trouble of reading manga or watching cartoons! You can get them all in one big crossover video game! That game is Heroes Phantasia, a mash-up of ten anime series from the past two decades! You'll find Slayers, Orphen, Blood+, Rune Soldier Louie, Read or Die, My-HiME, two Darker than Black shows, s-CRY-ed, and Sgt. Frog all in one package! We'll even throw in a pair of all-new characters, the lancer Eiji and the spear-wielding Shinobu! Get all your favorite hits by the original artists!

Well, that's the pitch behind Heroes Phantasia, which is admittedly ambitious in its plan to combine ten anime titles into one RPG. It takes a few pages from the Super Robot Taisen series, as the story conveniently brings about 40 anime characters to the same world, adding in some forgettable original cast members to stabilize everything. There's also no lack of elaborate special moves that replicate party members' anime attacks (often with strangely cheap animation), and players can switch out their four front-line characters for reserve ones during battle. Heroes Phantasia is intended less for RPG enthusiasts and more for people who actually remember series like Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, so it's really just a showcase.

Import Barrier: It's region-free (like all PSP games), and anyone who's trudged through an untranslated Super Robot Taisen game will have no trouble with Heroes Phantasia.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Minimal. Even though every anime represented here was released in North America, the rights are still too much trouble—and most of the series don't command big enough followings.

Developer: Tamsoft
Publisher: D3
Platform: Xbox 360
Players: 1-2

The Onechanbara games started off in the Simple 2000 series, essentially the PlayStation 2 equivalent of Roger Corman's trash-cinema studios. And like the rare B-movie that hit it big, Onechanbara rose from its budget-label origins on a tide of zombie-slaying violence and underdressed heroines. Heck, it even became a film itself. This brings us to Kagura, the latest in the series and the first game to turn the tables. Aya and Saki, half-sister heroines of previous Onechanbara titles, are apparently the villains this time around, and they've loosed a plague of vampires on Tokyo. So the player controls a new duo: the red-haired Romanian half-vampire Kagura and her younger sidekick Saaya, who is no relation to the Blood+ heroine. They just look a lot alike.

The two new heroines use various methods of dicing their way through mindless undead hordes. Kagura gets two different sword attacks and a boomerang, while Saaya has a chainsaw, spiked gloves, and a morning star. The vampire element isn't just window dressing, either, as Kagura and Saaya can heal themselves by gathering up their lost blood. They're also able to do extra damage and gain new moves by vampirically draining bosses. Aside from these extra features, Onechanbara Kagura Z aims for the guilty, graphic pleasures of slaughtering dozens of monstrous creatures with each level, and there's a two-player mode that divides the screen. The design of it all isn't particularly novel, but one expects that from a series that was accurately called Bikini Zombie Slayers by its North American publishers.

Import Barrier: Minimal, provided you have an Xbox 360 that runs region-locked Japanese games.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Looking good, since the trailer for the game had an English narrator. If D3 wants to bring it to North America, though, they should do so before Lollipop Chainsaw takes over the trashy, zombie-slaying scene in April.

Developer: BB Studio
Publisher: Banpresto
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1

Banpresto blankets Japan in Super Robot Taisen games all the time, but this particular installment is something rarer: it's a sequel to Super Robot Taisen Masou Kishin: The Lord of Elemental, which hit the Super Famicom back in 1996. Of course, the original Masou Kishin (remade for the DS in 2010) was a prequel to the main Super Robot Taisen series, which is known for cramming all sorts of popular anime robots into strategy-RPGs. But Masou Kishin II is part of the Original Generation sub-series, so there are no Gundams or Gunbusters or Overman King Gainers to be seen. There's only a lineup with some of the hulking original mecha created just for the Super Robot Taisen franchise—yes, Super Robot Taisen is just that big. Masou Kishin II returns to the story of Masaki Andōh, one of those Japanese kids drafted to fight a war in some other dimension. The first Masou Kishin saw him piloting the Cybuster, and the second game returns him to the cockpit for a lengthy tale of ancient evils, bizarre cults, cursed bloodlines, and plenty of giant-robot carnage.

Masou Kishin II may confound those familiar only with the two Original Generation games released in North America, at least when it comes to the story. Aside from Masaki and Ryune, there aren't too many familiar faces in the roster. The gameplay, however, is the same bedrock as other Super Robot Taisen battles: mecha are arranged on angled battlefields, and their attacks are all conveyed through close-up animation of the robots slashing, shooting, glowing, jetting, or transforming, all to the fierce battle cries of their pilots. That's long been a selling point of Super Robot Taisen, and Masou Kishin II has plenty of that, along with the usual in-jokes for longtime fans. And if you want to become a longtime fan, the special edition of the game comes with a UMD version of the first Masou Kishin's DS remake.

Import Barrier: With no region lock on PSP, players are limited only by their ability to understand mecha-battle bravado in Japanese.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Let's put it this way. The most prominent mecha in the game is the Cybuster. The Cybuster loosely inspired its own anime series. Geneon released that Cybuster series here in 2004. It reportedly sold less than a hundred DVDs.


Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99/$79.99 (Special Edition)

Square Enix made several Final Fantasy sequels, but this is the first time they've made a Final Fantasy apology. Though the company won't come right out and say it, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is clearly meant to make up for a lot of what went wrong in Final Fantasy XIII. For one thing, this sequel promises a good deal more freedom than the restrictive hallway races of the original. Areas now branch out like proper RPGs should, monsters periodically appear from thin air, and some actual puzzles show up. Much of this is the result of a story involving time travel and dimensional rifts, and heroine Lightning is off gallivanting around another world while wearing feathery armor. Her sister Serah, a waifish plot device in the original Final Fantasy XIII, sets off on a rescue mission with the help of time-traveling youth Noel Kreiss. Suffice to say that Final Fantasy XII-2 won't fix Final Fantasy XIII's giant mess of a plot.

It's also true that Final Fantasy XIII-2 refines its predecessor's ideas instead of replacing them. The battle system is still a broadly strategic affair where party members take on different specialized roles: commandos use physical attacks, sentinels guard themselves and others, healers repair damage, and so on. Players build Paradigms with specific roles for each character and switch between them in the thick of battle. Final Fantasy XIII-2 does this again, but with faster transitions and the chance to recruit monsters into the party. Perhaps it won't fall far enough from Final Fantasy XIII-2 for some people, but I suspect those people have given up on Final Fantasy for good.

Developer: Rebellion Developments
Publisher: Konami
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Many games explore the idea of immortality: Chakan, Lost Odyssey, and, technically, anything with an invincibility code. NeverDead goes one better, though. It follows Bryce, a demon hunter cursed in the distant past by a monstrous overlord named Astaroth (no relation to the Soul Calibur one). Their run-in leaves Bryce's wife dead and Bryce himself a vengeful immortal, as these things often go. Some five centuries later, Bryce is the midst of a demon rampage in a modern city, and he still can't die. But he can detach his body parts without much trouble.

As the work of Metal Gear Solid's Shinta Nojiri and the Britain-based Rebellion Developments, Neverdead shows odd influences. The game initially follows the Max Payne mold as Bryce guns down enemies. Then he pulls off his arm and throws it, and NeverDead seems a bit different from the usual fare. Bryce's easily disassembled form can be used to strike enemies and reach new areas, but it also comes into play when he takes damage. It's possible for brutal enemy attacks to reduce him to a head or an arm, rolling around in search of the rest of him. Bryce's decidedly mortal partner Arcadia also figures into the gameplay; sometimes she provides firepower, and sometimes Bryce is required to keep her in One Piece. It's an imaginative premise that might not work out over the course of a full-length action game, but I still hope NeverDead won't be overlooked just because it's sandwiched between the first two major console games of the year.

Developer: Namco
Publisher: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $59.99/ $79.99 (Special Edition)

There are changes in store with Soul Calibur V, I tell you. Big changes. For example, it's set 17 years after Soul Calibur IV. So instead of Xianghua, it has Xianghua's daughter! instead of Sophitia, it has Sophitia's son and daughter! And instead of Taki, there's another ninja in a painfully tight red costume—except she's blond and her name is Natsu! And the characters who return from previous Soul Caliburs? They're all slightly older!

To be fair, Soul Calibur V alters a great deal when compared to previous games in the series. It gets rid of the Critical Finish moves that annoyed everyone in Soul Calibur IV, it makes sidestepping easier, and it adds a new guarding system that rewards players who block just in time (ala Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves). The roster ditches about half of the regular characters, leaving Mitsurugi, Maxi, Ivy, Hilde, Yoshimitsu, Cervantes, Siegfried, Edge Master, Tira, Algol, Nightmare, Voldo, Astaroth (sorta), Dampierre, Raphael, Yoshimitsu, Aeon “Lizardman” Calcos, and possibly Kilik. A lot of the new characters effectively replace the old ones, though the sharp-nailed Viola and swordfighter Z.W.E.I. are new in appearances and combat styles. The characters also look a shade more cartoonish than the Soul Calibur IV cast, and the designers apparently aren't as obsessed with giant breasts this time around. And for those disappointed that Seong Mi-Na or Rock or Ashlotte was passed over, there's always the chance to replicate them in the considerably detailed character-creation mode.

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