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by Todd Ciolek, Apr 4th 2012

Another April Fool's Day came and went this week, and numerous game companies and websites came up with gags that didn't quite fool anyone. Sega unveiled Bass Fishing of the Dead, Valve announced Ricochet 2, Marvelous mentioned an all-guys version of their exploitive she-ninja game Senran Kagura, and Square-Enix put out press releases for a “Chocolate Dimension” in Quantum Conundrum and a “gymnast” class for Final Fantasy XI. The best might've been the 8-bit version of Google Maps, which turned our world into a Dragon Quest parody.

Unfortunately, my favorite source for game-industry April Foolery in years past proved a disappointment. Irem once devised an entire game console for an April 1st prank, but this year they just put up an ad for a “Pachinko Professional School." It's a sign of just how far Irem's fallen from their days of making fun action games. In the past year, Irem canceled its two biggest projects, put out a failed dating sim, and drove away the director of its Steambot Chronicles franchise. Now Irem's only upcoming title is Pachipara 3D: Ocean Story 2, a routine exercise in pachishot games and badly drawn anime heroines. It includes the Game Boy versions of Hammerin' Harry, R-Type, Ninja Spirit, and Undercover Cops, all to remind us of better times. And that makes this April Fool's a bit of a downer. I suppose this is how Irem dies, not with a bang but with the clatter of virtual pachinko balls and the beeping of old Game Boy titles.

NEWS

SEGA IS NOT DEAD, EVERYONE CALM DOWN
The big scare this week concerns Sega of America, which is facing cutbacks and layoffs and cancellations. It's quite panicky to paint this as the end of the Sega we knew, but the numbers are disheartening all the same. Parent company Sega Sammy is looking at losses of $86.4 million, and that means something's on the block.

Sonic the Hedgehog, Total War, Football Manager, and Aliens. In other words, they're sticking with what works. This doesn't rule out the company backing a Bayonetta 2 or a Phantasy Star V in the future—it just makes them a lot less likely. And what of Sega's reissues, like the rumored Shenmue HD port for XBox Live?.

At least there's one good upcoming Sega release that won't be canceled. News of a Monster World collection leaked a little while ago, and it turns out that the anthology is still headed to XBox Live and the PLAYSTATION Network this spring. Plus there's another set of well-known Sega titles: Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Revenge of Shinobi, and Super Hang-On. The games will be sold separately on the PLAYSTATION Network, while XBox Live will have them in two $10 bundles: one for the Monster World games and another for the remaining three titles.

There's also a hint that Valkyria Chronicles and Yakuza might weather the coming storm somehow. Sega filed trademarks for “Valkyria Duel” and “Ryu ga Gotoku Kizuna,” the latter of which refers to Yakuza's Japanese title. Also listed was the name “Galaxy Conquest,” but that one's up for guesses. It's probably not Phantasy Star V.

NIS AMERICA LINES UP THREE GAMES, EDITS ONE
Nippon Ichi Software and its allies make a certain type of game, full of giant anime eyes, irreverent humor, and battle systems that beg players to exploit them. Al of that's in effect for the latest additions to NIS America's lineup: The Witch and the Hundred Knights, Mugen Souls, and Legasista.

Announced last year, The Witch and the Hundred Knights (above) is a PlayStation 3 action-RPG, and it carries a Disgaea-esque overtone thanks to the art of Takehito Harada. The witch of the title is a snide, swamp-dwelling woman who revives a pint-size knight and his 99 fellow warriors to help her vanquish a rival sorceress. Players control one little armored minion, equipping multiple weapons and solving strangers' problems as he wanders around. The game was recently delayed in Japan, so it's no surprise that NISA gave it a 2013 release window for North America.

The most controversial of the three games is Mugen Souls (above), a PlayStation 3 RPG that arrives here in the fall. It follows a would-be conqueror as she tries to bend seven different worlds to her will, and this results in a lot of territory for players to explore. The battles let characters roam freely, and their combo attacks fill the screen with very high numbers. NISA announced that they will “edit certain aspects of this title” for the North American and European versions. This likely refers to the game's infamous bathing scenes depicting alarmingly young heroines. If you value your faith in a just world, don't research this feature any further.

Legasista (above) will be the first of the games to arrive here, as it hits the PS3's PLAYSTATION Network in August. A dungeon hack with a simple visual style, the game takes after ClaDun in the gameplay department, allowing all sorts of skill development and customized characters. It's a dungeon hack through and through, as players form parties of three characters and explore an ancient edifice called the Ivy Tower. That's where adventurous kid Alto Straiter goes in search of a way to lift the curse on his sister, who's somehow become a decorative crystal. In his dungeon dive, Alto joins up with Melize, a living weapon crafted by some ancient technology. The two of them also encounter an android, a dragon-girl, a preposterously buxom witch, her sentient-weapon sidekick, and a thief called “Volks Zaid.” Really.

.HACK//VERSUS IS A FIGHTING GAME ALL RIGHT
Bandai must've done well with those box sets that combine Macross Blu-rays and PlayStation 3 games, because they're doing the same thing for their resilient .hack franchise. The next big production is .hack//Versus, a 3-D fighter that comes with the new .hack movie The Other Side of the World and a whole mess of .hack crap.

If a fighting game is new territory for .hack, it's familiar ground for developer CyberConnect2, as they've made Naruto Ultimate Ninja fighters for years. And that's what .hack//Versus most strongly resembles. Sora, Tsukasa, Ouan, Soraya, the mysterious figure 9, and .hack//G.U. protagonist Haseo are the only characters shown in combat so far, but Sora's sidekicks Baldore and Gondeaux appear during one of her special moves. Haseo, on the other hand, just morphs into four different incarnations. And at least one of them has a gun.

The bundle with .hack//Versus hits Japan on June 28, and there's no word on a U.S. release. In truth, I've lost track of just how popular or unpopular .hack is over here, but it stands a much better chance of making it over than the legally stymied Macross titles.

ATELIER AYESHA IS A SHOCKING TALE OF DESPAIR AND MADNESS
Joking, joking. Gust's new Atelier game is, like most of those before it, the story of a young woman on a cutesy little adventure. The latest heroine is Ayesha Altuge, who's left all alone in a remote woodland; first her grandfather died, and then her sister Nio vanished during an herb run into the local forest. Spurred to action after spotting Nio in some nearby ruins, Ayesha heads out to find her sister and learn the ancient art of alchemy.

Atelier Ayesha: Alchemist of the Ground of Dusk has the usual elements of an Atelier RPG, including a turn-based battle system and a mode that refines all sorts of ingredients into useful items. But it's also a more somber game in its atmosphere and story, as Ayesha keeps diary entries to assuage her crippling depression. Not to spoil anything, but I strongly suspect that she will make friends and inspire scads of merchandise for Gust to sell.

OPINION: THE MOTION WAVE BREAKS

Innovation has its price. Nintendo changed a lot by introducing the Wii's motion-sensing controllers, and the system made a mainstream staple out of an idea that was long relegated to overpriced, unreliable peripherals. The price came within a year of the Wii's debut, when the system was swamped with dull, low-effort crap that simply applied motion controls to the same sort of shovelware seen on other systems. Yet the Wii's new method of play had an undeniable impact, and it sent Nintendo's competitors scurrying off to imitate: Microsoft with the Kinect for the Xbox 360, and Sony with the PlayStation Move for the PlayStation 3. They wanted their own piece of the pie…and their own libraries of trite, forgettable cash-in games to go with it.

Now on the market for about seventeen months, the Kinect still stands without a big showcase, or “killer app” as the marketing-minded like to say. True, it works marvelously with Q Entertainment's Child of Eden, but the game plays just fine with a stock Xbox 360 controller. Among those games that actually require a Kinect, there's little beyond party offerings like Double Fine Happy Action Theater. The Gunstringer was swiftly forgotten, Sega's Rise of Nightmares was largely disappointing, and both were quickly drowned in a tide of Just Dance Kids and Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012. It says something that the Kinect's biggest upcoming title is a Star Wars mini-game collection that features a Cloud City dance-off and the oppressive feeling that no dignity whatsoever remains in the franchise.

Yet there's still Crimson Dragon. First known as Project Draco, it's a shooting and flight simulation where players raise, customize, and ride fire-belching creatures into battle. Many are quick to label this Kinect-only title as director Yukio Futatsugi's return to his best-known creation: the Panzer Dragoon series. Crimson Dragon also looks to be a rather substantial game. Dragons come in many different malleable forms, and they can equip three out of over 100 different skills. It's the first Kinect exclusive that's drawn attention beyond the party-game crowd, and some hope it'll vindicate the whole add-on when it arrives later this year.

Meanwhile, Sony's PlayStation Move is in similar straits, though players seem less demanding of it. While the Kinect is an overgrown sensor bar that needs no controllers and runs about $150, the Move costs a third of that. It's also just a controller, and it's judged that way. Fairly or not, many view the Kinect as a peripheral system, inviting comparisons to the 32X, the Jaguar CD, and every other undersupported game-playing device that ever latched onto an existing console. On the other hand, the Move is just a new kind of controller in the eyes of many, and novelty controllers are rarely supported all that well. Just ask anyone who owned a Power Glove or a Super Scope.

That said, the Move has few highlights ahead of it. Like the Kinect, its best titles are either multiplayer party attractions or regular games with Move support added. It's also effective in recreating light-gun shooters and other arcade-style titles, though games like the recent Ninja Gaiden 3 go a bit far in crafting customized holders for the Move remote. With no equivalent to Crimson Dragon on the horizon, the Move will likely remain a side attraction, and it will decide little when it comes to the PlayStation 3's place in the market.

In the final estimation, neither the Kinect nor the Move will really match the Wii, which has a good chunk of Nintendo-made A-listers that use motion control in truly inventive ways. That leaves the Move a harmless toy, but the Kinect might be remembered in nastier terms on account of its higher price. Like the last generation's console wars, there isn't a plainly apparent loser this time around. Instead, the failures lurk in under-supported peripherals, and the Kinect risks joining them. And that makes Crimson Dragon a much more important game than it first appears.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

SKULLGIRLS
Developer: Reverge Labs
Publisher: Autumn Games/Konami
Platform: XBox Live Arcade/PLAYSTATION Network
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $14.99

Let's see…what drama did Skullgirls stir up? Oh yes. It's a fighter with an all-female cast, and so there's a good amount of exposed flesh. Back in December, the game's lead designer spoke with Eurogamer and defended the T&A in the worst way possible: by invoking the whole “strong, powerful women” and “our lead animator is a woman” arguments that everyone pretty much laughs at now. The resulting fuss caused the game's lead artist to step in and claim that Eurogamer had taken those remarks out of context, an accusation that Eurogamer then disputed.

All of this briefly overshadowed the more substantial points of Skullgirls, such as its bizarre lineup of characters. They're all drawn in a half-ghoulish, half-cute style that surpasses even Darkstalkers in anime distortion and general freakishness. Cerebella wears a huge-armed monster for a hat, Peacock resembles a deranged old rubber-armed cartoon, the umbrella-wielding Parasoul calls on gasmasked soldiers, and even the obligatory shapeshifter character, Double, wears the guise of a pleasant little nun.

Another of those substantial points is the fighting engine. It was crafted by devoted, tournament-going fans of the genre, and it addresses a number of frequent fan requests. The six-button attack setup allows for elaborately animated super moves, but it also prevents players from abusing infinite combos, unblockable onslaughts, and other techniques that might cheapen the game's competitive angle. There's also a system of “Custom Assists” that lets players call in a partner for momentary strikes, similar to CAPCOM's assorted Versus games. The creators also promise reliable GGPO netcode, and that'll be a blessing after The King of Fighters XIII and Street Fighter X Tekken. True, Skullgirls offers only eight characters, though perhaps that'll make for a balanced game. And for one more point, the soundtrack features longtime Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane.

SPIRIT CAMERA: THE CURSED MEMOIR
Developer: Tecmo KOEI
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99

Do you still long for Nintendo and Tecmo to release Fatal Frame 4 in North America? Well, they won't. Too bad. But the two of them came together for a Fatal Frame spin-off that's headed here a mere three months after its Japanese release. Spirit Camera is also quite true to the Fatal Frame atmosphere, as its storyline concerns a mysterious tome called the Book of Faces, and it's actually included with the game. Well, it's more like a pamphlet of Nintendo's “Augmented Reality” panels instead of a cursed and ancient text, but it's used in a fairly inventive way. When viewed through the 3DS system's camera, the “book” projects images over real-world locations. So all of the game's unpleasant ghosts and mysterious entities, including an unnerving little kid in a mask, show up in your living room.

Beyond the real-world intrusions, Spirit Camera also sends players into an in-game environment: an old house that teems with restless spirits and gloomy J-horror suspense. Players explore it step by step, using the in-game camera and 3DS gyroscope to fend off ghosts and look around. With all of the gameplay similarities, it's funny that Nintendo of America simply didn't re-christen the game Fatal Frame: Something Something. Perhaps there's some legal snag, but make no mistake: this is Fatal Frame, and a fairly intriguing treatment of the well-worn horror genre at that.


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