The X Button - Ultimate Journeyby Todd Ciolek,
Kid Icarus: Uprising arrives this Friday. Nintendo's making a big deal out of the game, as it revives a franchise that hasn't stood on its own since 1991. Nintendo's also positioning it as a showcase for the 3DS and its AR card system. Other games use the cards to project graphics onto the real-world view of the 3DS camera, but Kid Icarus: Uprising and its AR card battles are getting much more attention. Nintendo will even give you a free pack of AR cards if you sign up for their special club. The game itself includes a randomly chosen set of cards, and more are available by picking up Nintendo Power and Game Informer or by attending special events at GameStop. Sadly, Nintendo has no plans to sell cards with packages of chocolate in North America, though they're doing that in Japan.
It makes me wonder if AR cards will be a bigger success as the nation's youth embraces the 3DS. Those Skylanders figures have proven highly collectible, so who's to say that kids won't start trading Kid Icarus and Pokemon AR cards just as heavily as they swapped baseball cards in the 1950s or Garbage Pail Kids in the 1980s? That probably won't happen, but I rather like the idea of Kid Icarus jump-starting some widespread grade-school trend after lying dormant for all these years.
GUST SHOWS MORE CIEL NO SURGE, ANNOUNCES ANOTHER ATELIER, MENTIONS BARREL
Gust's upcoming Ciel no Surge looked grim at first, as the initial trailer for the game just showed black-and-white footage of the heroine curled up in a bleakly furnished room. But fans of Gust's past anime-styled games need not worry, because Ciel no Surge is much lighter in tone than it first appeared. In fact, the Vita game appears to be Gust's attempt at a modern real-time dating simulator.
Ciel no Surge stars an amnesiac young woman named Ion. In order to revive her memories, the player must build a relationship with her through casual conversations and (of course) romantic moments. Ion's interactions with the player and others in her world all reflect the Vita's internal clock, adding that whole “realistic” angle that today's dating-sim fans seem to like. When not talking with Ion, players are diving into the bizarre inner world that symbolizes her mind, seeking the truth about her lost identity and her Chobits-like headgear. Players also jog Ion's memory by creating vaguely unsettling fairies called Chars from any product barcodes the Vita might scan. Ciel no Surge is out in Japan next month, but its odd approach to psychotherapy hasn't caught any North American publisher's attention.
For those who prefer the more traditional aims of Gust's Atelier RPGs, there's another one in the works under the tentative name of “Project A14.” Director Yoshito Okamura mentioned that the game's tagline is “The Promise Begins,” presumably reflecting a new start for the Atelier series now that the Arland sub-trilogy has wrapped up in Japan.
The Arland saga will wrap up in North America on May 22, when NIS America releases Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland. As usual, NIS has a special edition of the game available through their website, where $65 will get you an art book, a soundtrack, a big shirt that says “Barrel,” and a box to hold it all. You'll also get the game itself, which will help explain the whole “Barrel” in-joke.
MONSTER WORLD COLLECTION COMING TO XBOX LIVE, PART FOUR FINALLY IN ENGLISH
Westone's Monster World series is routinely undervalued. There are two good reasons for that: Westone sank into a swamp of licensed games and dating sims over a decade ago, and their Monster World games overlap with the Wonder Boy titles in various confusing ways. For example, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap is Monster World II, Wonder Boy in Monster World is Monster World III, and Monster World IV isn't even part of Wonder Boy. But they're all enjoyable side-scrolling action-RPGs, filled with the cartoonish charms of an age long gone by, from the strange animals shopkeepers to the giant bosses. Sega still owns the franchise, and they're preserving it with a new anthology for Xbox Live.
Part of the Sega Vintage Collection, this Monster World package includes Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and Monster World IV. It's very similar to the collection that Sega released for the Japanese PlayStation 2, only with fewer games; Wonder Boy III's absence is peculiar, since its Metroid-like layout often wins it praise. But the really important thing is that Monster World IV, a charming tale of an adventurer and her Haro-ish flying pet, will finally be available in English.
Why is that important? Because Monster World IV is one of the best action-RPGs of the 16-bit era, and it was cruelly denied an American release on the Sega Genesis back in 1994. The Sega Vintage Collection is the first officially translated version of the game, and it's about time. The Monster World compilation's listing vanished from Xbox Live Arcade's website shortly after appearing last week, but it showed the game arriving on April 20. Here's hoping that holds true.
IN BRIEF: YS HITS STEAM, SOMETHING BIG IS HAPPENING TO THREE COMPANIES
You may have already played Falcom's Ys: The Oath in Felghana on the PSP, but now the English version is available to PC owners in slightly more convenient form. The action-RPG, a remake of the 16-bit oddity Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, is now up on Steam, and it includes prettier graphics and a bunch of adorably named achievements (a lot of players have already earned the “Consult an FAQ Already” distinction). There's something downright creepy about seeing “Forever Alone” pop up in an Ys game, though.
So what's this mysterious new collaboration from Capcom, Sega, and Namco Bandai? Is it some huge crossover fighting game? Is it some boring card-battle game that we'll never even see in the U.S.? Well, we don't know. But we do have a strange website that identifies the project as a 3DS title and shows little Xs in petri dishes. It's possible that each X reflects the color palette of a certain character, and many people are driving themselves mad with guesses. We likely won't know for sure until next month, but feel free to check out the symbols and the website's ain't-it-spooky atmosphere.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation Network
You're alone in a desert. You're a curious little figure, hidden completely by a mask and a pointed robe. There's not much around you apart from some gravestone-like symbols, but in the distance you can see a mountain, its peak glowing with a light that isn't the sun. It's the only destination in sight. So off you go.
That's all the direction Journey gives you, apart from one or two hints about the controller. You're sent to wander through a windswept desert, first finding ruins and then plunging into the depths of what can only be some fallen civilization. Journey is an abstract creation, set in a world of ancient carvings and long-dormant mechanisms powered by a mysterious glow. Creatures made of flying carpets swoop and float, floating stone serpents stalk prey, and your avatar wanders through it all. Much like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Journey's built with a careful sense of minimalism, and its story is told in imagery broad enough to allow all sorts of interpretations.
Your wanderer's options also stay simple. You have no methods of attacking, and your only constantly available skill is emitting musical tones. For a game that invites wandering, Journey makes the potentially disastrous choice of limiting your ability to jump. You're grounded at first, but after siphoning off energy from floating flocks of talismans, your avatar grows a scarf and is able to leap around—as long as that scarf has some glow to it. Each hop takes away some energy, and you'll have to refill it by making music at some nearby source. Fortunately, the game allows plenty of opportunities to do that, as everything from sagging banners to a rising tide of sparkling water fuels your jumping.
Journey isn't a particularly long game. Your avatar treads a desert, slides through some ruins, traverses caverns patrolled by snake statues, and soon finds a path to the mountain's snowy slopes. Yet it's all a magnificent sight. The scenery is quite beautiful its simplicity, and it's backed by an equally accomplished orchestral score. And Journey knows exactly how to use itself. It knows when to bog down players for a moment, when to let them loose, when to swell with music all over, and when to let the silence of the moment carry everything.
For a game so deliberately barren at first glance, Journey reveals all sorts of unexpected depths. A straightforward playthrough leads to many memorable scenes, from a desperate underground chase to a harsh mountain ascent, but there's more to be found if you take the time to explore. Some rooms hide murals that detail the history of this strange little wasteland, while easily overlooked ledges hold power-ups to extend your scarf. And then there are times when you just want to walk around and watch everything. That's a rare pleasure in games.
It's also vastly different when another traveler joins. Players are paired up at random, and your partner is identified only by the symbols given off when squeaking (though the credits reveal player names). There's no talking or typing; it's just beeps and chimes and other musical notes. While two apparently armless avatars can't assist each other physically, they can refill each other's jumping energy by singing or just walking next to each other. It's even possible to help each other jump in tandem, with two players chirping their way up through the air. And sometimes it's enough just to have a companion. A companion who seems all the more endearing because you're not shouting at each other over headsets.
It's tempting to label the whole thing pretentious, but Journey resists that. It's gorgeous in its scenery and skillfully reserved in its story, but it never drags the player into speeches, lengthy cutscenes, or other ponderous searches for meaning. While the game doesn't change dramatically on replays, it's the sort of thing worth visiting again to find more power-ups, understand the backstory a little more, or check out every nook and cranny of the world. No matter how long it lasts, Journey's fascinating in every way.
THIS WEEK'S RELEASE
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture, Digital Reality
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15)
Sine Mora has the look of a typical shooter, sending a little fighter through waves of enemy bullets and other challenges. But there's much, much more to this. For one thing, players don't lose energy when they're hit—they lose time, and they gain it by destroying the opposition. The game's three different types of fighter also offer the ability to reflect shot or rewind time itself, and some of the game's levels revisit the same places in different periods. That alone sets Sine Mora apart, and it's aided by some sharp vehicle design in the vein of Battle Garegga or a darker Porco Rosso. The game's website calls it “diesel-punk,” and that apparently means a vision of 1940s warfare that's both grittier and less plausible, with prop engines and imposingly detailed machinery. For that matter, the boss designs come courtesy of Mahiro Maeda, and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka provided the soundtrack.
There's something else here that shooters rarely even attempt: a storyline. Sine Mora occurs during a war made endless by an army's ability to travel in time, and it's driven by an oddly philosophical approach to the themes of loss, death, and the worthiness of survivors. And all of the characters are realistically envisioned animal-people, including a legless, alcoholic Bison veteran, a cat-woman mechanic, a lizard captain, and a bear-headed imperial flying ace named Argus Pytel. In keeping with Grasshopper Manufacture's other games, Sine Mora also gets rather dark in its themes and content, earning an M rating just for its dialogue. Yes, it's a shooter where bears and bison fly planes through the fabric of time and debate the very meaning of existence. And if all of that doesn't put Sine Mora above the usual fare, I'm not sure what sort of concoction ever could.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
CAPCOM DIGITAL COLLECTION|
Platform: Xbox 360
Capcom is never far from the arcade. After all, that was where the company found its feet with Commando and Ghouls N' Ghosts and Street Fighter II. The arcade industry fell into disrepair a decade ago, but that didn't stop Capcom. They went to Xbox Live Arcade instead, commissioning remakes and sequels of their best-remembered titles. Leaving no sector undisturbed by reissues, Capcom now packs eight (or is it nine?) of these games into an Xbox 360 disc collection, and it features 1942: Joint Strike, Bionic Commando Rearmed 2, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Final Fight Double Impact, Flock!, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Rocketmen: Axis of Evil, and Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3. It's not a bad deal from a practical standpoint: bought one by one on Live, these titles would run well over $80, and here they're offered for half of that.
In terms of quality, the collection's a little less even. The HD Remix versions of Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo and Super Street Fighter II Turbo are sturdy, glossy revamps of some of Capcom's most enduring successes, and they're well worth trying. Rearmed 2 is the less popular sequel to GRIN's initial remake of Bionic Commando (which apparently isn't part of this compilation). Backbone's 1942: Joint Strike is a decent tribute to the arcade shooter, while the same developer's Wolf of the Battlefielddoesn't get as much right. Final Fight: Double Impact features the pure arcade versions of Final Fight and Magic Sword, neither of which holds up over long-term play. Flock! is a cute puzzle title where players use a UFO to herd sheep, and Rocketmen: Axis of Evil and its sequel are derivative old-school shooters with some cute cutscenes. It's a convenient roundup of Capcom's Xbox Live Arcade ventures as long as you haven't already bought these in some form—and as long as you're willing to put up with a few duds alongside the solid stuff.
WARRIORS OROCHI 3|
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Platform: PlayStation 3 (download only) / Xbox 360
MSRP: $49.99 (PS3) / $59.99 (Xbox 360)
Ah, Warriors Orochi, the brunch of Koei's battlefield action games. It mixes Dynasty Warriors' take on ancient Chinese heroes with Samurai Warriors' vision of feudal Japan, and then it sprinkles on ground-up pieces of other Koei brawlers. Continuing the same we-don't-care numbering trend as Armored Core and Resident Evil, this is actually the fourth Warriors Orochi. It picks up all of the Dynasty and Samurai characters from Warriors Orochi Z, a Japan-only hybrid of the first two Orochi titles. So it's really the first Warriors Orochi that North America's seen since the second one and…uh…look, the key thing here is that it has a bunch of new characters and guest stars. New to the franchise are the time-traveling maiden Kaguya, the demon Shuten Doji, the godlike Susano-o, and the cyborg (yes, really) Nezha. When it comes to other Koei and Tecmo series, Orochi 3 draws Ryu Hayabusa and Ayane from Ninja Gaiden, Nemea from Zill O'll, Achilles from Warriors: Legends of Troy, and Joan of Arc from Bladestorm: the Hundred Years' War. She's hardly the most ridiculous video-game version of Joan of Arc, though; that title still goes to World Heroes and its husband-hunting swordswoman Janne.
Those who haven't played Warriors Orochi before will find the third game up to speed with the recent Dynasty Warriors 7, as it features the same “bond” system that lets players build relationships with supporting characters. New to Orochi are the Break Guard counterattack, an improved dashing system, and a maneuver that switches characters out in the middle of a combination attack. Players can edit the game's battlefields, even down to the soldiers' dialogue, and upload them for others to hack through. The multiplayer mode also allows online clashes as well as local split-screen play, for that long-awaited crossover of the Trojan War and Ninja Gaiden.
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