The X Button
Treading Trails

by Todd Ciolek, Oct 2nd 2013

Hey, folks. There'll be no column next week, but there'll be plenty of me as I cover the New York Comic Con. I expect it'll be a little more subdued in terms of game announcements—for one thing, Capcom apparently won't hold any panels. That's a drastic difference from last's year festivities, which saw Capcom announcing Darkstalkers Resurrection. They'll have a booth, of course, and I will be there to lay a single rose upon the Darkstalkers franchise's grave.

In the meantime, there's a lot to enjoy. A demo for the upcoming Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies just went up on the 3DS eShop, so you can see Phoenix's momentous return to the law alongside ain't-she-wacky assistant Athena Cykes. Or you can try out Rain, a new PlayStation 3 title where all of the characters are mere outlines cast by a downpour.

I've played only a little of it so far (got this column to finish, you know), but it's already striking for its visual choices alone. Like Parappa the Rapper's opening stage or Bokosuka Wars' game-over screen, Rain is worth pulling out to show even those people who don't care much about video games.

NEWS

KIRBY EYES THE 3DS, ZELDA BREAKS RANK JUST A LITTLE
The recent Nintendo Direct was short on major revelations. Super Smash Bros. Wii U officially added Sonic while dodging a release date, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was delayed to February, and Super Mario 3D World remains the big Wii U game for the holiday season, shipping right around the post-Thanksgiving rush.

The upcoming The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds defies expectations in one small way: Link can take on dungeons in any order, abandoning the previous Zelda practice of each new labyrinth holding some new item necessary to progress. Now Link just rents those essential tools from a rabbit-like merchant. That aside, the game upholds the tradition of bringing back a version of Princess Zelda for each new game in addition to a handful of original characters. As the big 3DS game of the season, it's out the same day as Super Mario 3D World: November 22.

The only major rollout of the whole showing was a new Kirby game for the 3DS. This isn't too surprising, mind you; Kirby's a solid B-lister in Nintendo's arsenal, and he hasn't suffered a franchise-killing Metroid: Other M or anything like that. The trailer for his first 3DS outing recalls the original Kirby's Dream Land in both music and level layouts, but the preview soon expands into more Kirby frontiers, showing the pink puffball morphing into a pirate, an ice dancer, and other alter-egos. It's out next year.

MIGHTY NO. 9 DOES PRETTY DARN WELL FOR ITSELF
There was no question that Mighty No. 9, Keiji Inafune's Capcom-defying reboot of Mega Man, would hit its Kickstarter target funding. It took less than two days for it to get there, actually. It even cleared all of its disclosed stretch goals, including an online battle-racing mode, PS Vita and 3DS versions of the full game, and a stage dedicated to the heroic Beck's partner, Call. Many things remain to be decided, of course, and Call's design is among them.

Inafune and the rest of the development staff put up a poll to decide just what Call looks like. Reflecting the Mega Man backstory, Beck and Call are robots who dodged a virus that drove other automatons to rebellion. Call is the research assistant of Dr. Sanda, friend of Beck's creator Dr. White (get it?), and she'll join Beck in a two-player mode, enjoy her own level, and provide general assistance. The designers all drew up robot girls, and it's no surprise that the most votes went to the one who looks a lot like Roll, Mega Man's housekeeping counterpart.

Second and third place went to the above two designs, and all three would-be Calls now proceed to the final round. Particularly interesting is the “H” one, who looks a bit like Aero, heroine of the tragically canceled Mega Man Legends 3. That got my sympathy vote.

Mighty No. 9 remains a long way off, as the game's estimated release date is April of 2015—and considering how other Kickstarter games have fared, it may slip a bit. But it was funded, and that counts for a lot. Meanwhile, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is in its last leg, just in case you'd like to support a second side-scroller that looks charming as all get-out.

IMPORT ROUNDUP: SEPTEMBER

BATTLE PRINCESS OF ARCADIA
Developer: Apollosoft
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Platform: PlayStation 3

Nippon Ichi made their name with strategy-RPGs. Big, reckless strategy-RPGs full of demons and warriors and other comically rendered combatants belting each other into excess and oblivion. Battle Princess of Arcadia is not a strategy-RPG in this sense, but it has the same spirit at heart. It's a side-scrolling action-RPG, one in which each kingdom of a fantasy world gets its own war-princess. The land of Schwert has Plume, who craves battle and proves it by amassing some 900 different weapons over the course of the game. She's joined by a boy-next-door archer, a foul-mouthed young sorceress, a lecherous spymaster, and some allies from neighboring lands. Her royal brother also helps, even if he's temporarily turned into a goose. Well, I suppose he's a gander, to put it more accurately.

Princess Plume leads a company of troops into battle, though the game offers different takes on the fray. Sometimes the player's limited to one attacker at a time, switching between characters and bashing around monsters of varying size and abstraction. At other times, Plume and her major allies clash with enemies while two armies fight in the background, their numbers and morale changing to reflect their leaders' duel. The gameplay recalls Vanillaware's Princess Crown, Odin Sphere, and Grand Knights History in its setup, though without the sumptuous illustrated-storybook style. Still, developer Apollosoft (an offshoot of defunct Summon Night studio Flight Plan) preserves Nippon Ichi's penchant for wide-scale damage. It's particularly clear when Plume leads an entire phalanx of foot soldiers into battle against some towering boss, complete with all the combos and special attacks one expects from Disgaea.

Import Barrier: There's a good bit of dialogue and behind-the-scenes management in Japanese. Patient fans are better off waiting, because…

Chances of a Domestic Release: It's likely that NIS America will bring this over here, barring some translation quibble or unforeseen inappropriate material. In fact, word is that NISA will announce some new titles reaaaal soon.

Inevitable Crossover: Plume already joined NISA's stable of cameos, as she's a downloadable character in Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness.

ELMINAGE GOTHIC 3D REMIX
Developer: Starfish
Publisher: Starfish
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

It's hard to believe that the Elminage series only dates back to 2008. It gives the air of something hatched in the arcane realm of 1980s Japanese PC games, not so long after Wizardry and its attendant clones introduced the idea of dungeon crawlers to the world. Elminage Gothic is true to that long-running tradition at nearly every step. Players create characters from a variety of races and specialties, and all of them venture into perplexingly arranged dungeons. Battles follow the menu-driven turns and first-person viewpoints of classic RPGs, and they rarely take it easy on the player. Of course, it's also possible to create a second party to retrieve the first party when they meet their inevitable demise deep in some blighted labyrinth.

Elminage Gothic, originally a PSP title, flavors its predecessors' medieval-fantasy style with a few traces of…well, gothic horror. There are gloomy cathedrals and stirrings of long-dormant deities to go along with the usual complements of elves and dwarves and beast-folk. New to the 3DS version are four character races: half-demons, angelic Badians, formidable giants, and downright unsettling marionette-like homunculi. Starfish also added more mapping features and shortcuts, making for a slightly less punishing experience.

Import Barrier: Between the rampant Japanese text and the 3DS lockout, this isn't the easiest thing to navigate.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Not all that bad. Between Etrian Odyssey and Unchained Blades, the 3DS certainly isn't averse to dungeon hacks, and UFO Games localized Elminage Original for the PSP just last year.

Inevitable Crossover: In theory, just about anything can show up in Elminage Gothic. Photos from the 3DS camera turn into character portraits, so it's possible to create a party of Ultraman villains or Beat Generation authors.

THE LEGEND OF HEROES: TRAILS IN THE FLASH
Developer: Falcom
Publisher: Falcom
Platform: PlayStation 3/ PS Vita

Fans of Falcom's The Legend of Heroes games must accept that they'll always lag behind the Japanese releases by a few games. XSEED Games and Carpe Fulgur just announced plans to localize the second chapter of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, which leaves only the third chapter of Trails in the Sky, the entirety of Trails of Zero, and then the whole of Trails of Blue. After all of those considerably large RPGs are localized, we'll be ready for the latest in the series, Trails in the Flash. No rush or anything.

Trails in the Sky began with squabbling mercenaries and Trails of Zero/Blue with rookie police investigators, and now Trails in the Flash heads to school. The game starts off at the Thors Academy in the capital of the Erebonian Empire, neighbor to the Liberl Kingdom that hosted much of Trails in the Sky. Our student-heroes mix familiar fantasy-RPG archetypes with the slightly more industrialized milieu of the Trails games. Rean Schwarzer is your basic noble-raised swordsman with an insecure side, while his fellow sword-wielder Laura Arseid seems more at ease with her own elite family's background. Archer Alisa Reinford rebels against her wealthy gunmaker family in her academy enrollment as well as her choice of weapon, shotgun-wielder Machias Regnitz is the gloomy son of the governor, and sorcerer Eliot Craig is at the academy on account of his military-hero father, even though he'd rather study music. Less rebellious are the brilliant herbalist Emma Millstein, snotty noble Jusis Albarea, spear-toting farmboy Gaius Worzel, and the nap-loving gunner Fie Claussell (who seems undeclared in both her studies and personality). The teachers at Thors include the classist older brother of Jusis, the elderly martial-artist head of the academy, and, of course, alluring drunkard professor Sara Valestin. These things invariably feature a sexy boozehound “older” woman who's all of 25 years old, but at least Trails in the Sky gives her a useful sword-pistol combo.

The journey to the Vita and PlayStation 3 makes Trails in the Flash look substantially better than prior Trails games, both in the large environments of the city and the smaller details of tanks and motorcycles and mecha-knights. The battles introduce new concepts in a turn-based flow, including a “Tactical Link Function” that binds party members and lets them attack successively in battle. Characters also improve their relationships and stats through school events, studying, and the franchise's familiar Orbment skill-building system. Should players be overwhelmed by all of the advancements and hectic schedules of life in the capital, they can just ride a horse through the countryside.

Import Barrier: The grind of the battles isn't very hard to figure out, but you'll lose a great deal of the storyline if you can't understand Japanese.

Chances of a Domestic Release: It's not so much a matter of “Will they?” as it is “When will they?” XSEED Games clearly wants to localize more of the series, but there are three Legend of Heroes games standing in front of Trails in the Sky.

Inevitable Crossover: Trails in the Flash shares a world with Trails in the Sky, so there are plenty of references to go around. Gaius, for example, was spurred toward education by a certain character from a previous game.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

BEYOND: TWO SOULS
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: October 8
David Bowie Cameo: Probably Not
MSRP: $59.99

Opinions remain divided over David Cage and the good people of Quantic Dream. Some see them as visionaries who spur onward the art of storytelling in games. Others see their efforts as bathetic exhibitions that hide mediocre writing and minimal player acknowledgement under the aegis of “interactive drama.” Both sides agree that Indigo Prophecy really took a dive in the last act.

Beyond: Two Souls by no means erodes Cage's fondness for cinematic games. It fact, it goes a step further than Heavy Rain by promoting its recognizable cast as heavily as a movie or an old Sega CD game would. Through the game's exceptionally realistic character rendering, Ellen Page plays Jodie Holmes, a young woman bound to a disembodied spirit named Aiden. Willem Dafoe is her scientist caretaker, and he watches Jodie grow from an introvert child to a rebellious teenager and, later, a fugitive hounded by the authorities. Jodie and Aiden's gift leads them on various paths, including the rigorous life of a assassin straight out of Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell.

The game chronicles all of this with the selective interaction typical of past Cage movie-games. Jodie moves around at the player's direction, but Beyond frequently brings up press-the-button prompts to accomplish certain tasks and manipulate Aiden. Her poltergeist companion is particularly useful, as it can generate shields, read the color-coded auras of others, possess people, or just toss a meddlesome SWAT team around like playthings. The game aims for smooth pacing, quicktime sessions and all, and previews suggest an experience much tenser than Heavy Rain's child-finding simulations. The storyline isn't restricted to a single route, either, as the player's choices unfold variations in each level. That storyline may not bring much new to the familiar chronicle of a misfit with supernatural powers, but sometimes it's all in the telling.

DISGAEA D2: A BRIGHTER DARKNESS
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: October 8
Prinny Jokes: Wearing Thin
MSRP: $49.99

The original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was a refreshing marvel when it arrived here over ten years ago. Where many RPGs were humorous in a small, casual tones, Disagea spared little. It spread out a comical Netherworld where demons war over dessert, a hellish parliament is vetoed by force, and the souls of the sinful reside in Prinnies, peg-legged penguin devils who conclude each sentence with “dood.” People liked that, and they liked the game's central trio of bratty overlord Laharl, disloyal servant Etna, and the adorably naïve angel-in-training Flonne. She became a demon in the game's best ending, by the way.

In a sense, the three of them never left the series. Later Disgaea games followed other plots with other characters, but Laharl, Etna, and Flonne often popped up in cameos and playable roles (Etna's even a major factor in Disgaea 2). However, Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness is a dedicated sequel, tossing the trio into the center of yet more Netherworld power struggles and general nonsense. Laharl fends off both a group of usurpers and a plague of angelic flowers, but the game also sticks him with the torments of standard-issue sitcom plot twists. First up is the lost-long relative, as an angel-girl named Sicily appears, claims to be Laharl's sister, and makes a nuisance of herself. This is followed by the gender switch, which involves Laharl transforming into a woman overnight. The Disgaea brand of humor seems a bit long in the tooth—Prinnies have been saying “dood” for over ten years now. Yet that's only half the appeal of the series.

For the game's multitude of battles, Disgaea D2 maintains much the same grid system as its predecessors. Characters can pile up their attacks, and their success now depends on the strength of their friendship (or perhaps their shared enmity; they're demons, after all). Gone is the Magichange system that changed monsters into weapons, and now the human members of Laharl's army simply ride their monster comrades to much the same effect. Other tweaks lurk in the game's numerous stats, allowing players to boost a character's ratings further or toy with their weapon and elemental affinities while creating them. All of this comes down to Disgaea's clever turn on strategy-RPGs: the challenge lies in cheating as efficiently, as obviously, as self-indulgently as you can. Exploit weaknesses! Arrange team-ups! Drive combos to ridiculous heights! Don't bother with restraint. Disgaea never has.

POKEMON X AND Y
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: October 12
Cutest Starter Pokemon: Chespin
MSRP: $39.99

Pity the poor columnist or marketer who dubbed Pokemon a doomed fad back in 1999. While Nintendo's exercise in animal captivity is no longer the stuff of mainstream magazine covers or evening news reports, it's long since joined Mario and Zelda among the company's reliable, profitable franchises. I just hope none of those alleged media experts bet money on Pokemon being dead in fourteen years.

In fact, Pokemon X and Y look new in ways noticeable to disinterested parents. Abandoning the sprite look of previous Pokemon titles, X and Y now have 3-D environments and battles. It's apparent in the various new ways players can face down Pokemon creatures and their trainers. Sometimes they'll fight a trainer in a largely aerial duel, other times they'll encounter a throng of Pokemon instead of just one, and they'll have to change tactics accordingly. Also new is Pokemon-Amie, a mode that presents the Pokemon as another not-quite-a-fad: the virtual pet. Players feed and amuse their Pokemon through the touch screen and 3DS camera, resulting in a closer bond between a trainer and a non-existent animal.

Other new pieces of Pokemon X and Y will matter less to elders and more to those who've plunged through prior games. Pokemon can increase their stats by training in simulated battles at any time, and the new “Mega Evolution” feature enhances Pokemon even further: Bulbasaur Venusaur sprouts a taller tree from its back, while Blastoise grows a third shell-gun. On top of the several dozen new Pokemon in the game, X and Y also add the “fairy” classification, a form that works destructive wonders on dragon-grade Pokemon. The underlying concept remains the same: players gather Pokemon, train them, and send them into battle against both wild beasties and rival trainers' menageries. That's kept a franchise alive all these years, so the experts can't argue with that.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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