The X Button - Gaist in the Shellby Todd Ciolek,
The first X Button of 2014 brings many opportunities: new games, new trends, and new ways to be completely wrong about all of them. Before I get to that, though, I need to look back on the past year and the things I noticed the most.
MOST IN NEED OF ONLINE PLAY: CHAOS CODE
Many games do just fine without online modes, even in this era of superconnected multiplayer fanciness. Fighting games, however, struggle there. They thrive on head-to-head competition with other players, and that's built best through robust online features. Miserable is the rare fighter that sits locked within a living room while all the other kids, from Aquapazza to Real Steel, cavort across the world entire. In 2013, there was no more pitiable a homebody than Chaos Code.
Chaos Code may not be a classic in hiding, but it has plenty of good points: solid control, abundant special moves, backgrounds loaded with in-jokes, and a cast that includes brutish chefs and otaku special-agents amid the more obvious stereotypes. It's a shame that Chaos Code still lacks an online to community to match up and figure out just how to master the game and warp it in various unfair and entertaining ways. Every fighting game deserves that.
MOST UNEXPECTED LOCALIZATION: PROJECT X ZONE
Most of the left-field appearances in 2013 made sense in one way or another. Visual novels like Sweet Fuse and Hakuoki have followings, as do obscure dungeon treks like Elminage Original. As for controversial pieces like Senran Kagura…well, there's still a reason they're localized. In my book, the biggest surprise of the year was Project X Zone, due to the sheer legal challenge of bringing together characters from Bandai, Sega, Capcom, and Namco.
Well, we thought it was a challenge, anyway. Sources have it that Project X Zone didn't present too many legal hurdles in its trip to North America. Sure, it mixes in characters from Sakura Wars to .hack to Darkstalkers, but they're all under the wings of four major companies. And if Project X Zone wasn't such a problem, perhaps it wasn't copyright quibbling that denied us localizations of Namco X Capcom and all of those Super Robot Wars mash-ups. Perhaps it was just the expectation that they wouldn't sell.
MOST SURPRISINGLY SENSIBLE FOOTWEAR: MILLA, TALES OF XILLIA
At a glance, Milla Maxwell wears the sort of nonsensical costume often issued to RPG heroines. Tales of Xillia throws in some half-hearted jokes about how Milla, an intelligent but socially unschooled avatar of divine will, deliberately chose her Bondage Barbie getup for combat mobility and the easy manipulation of mortal men. But that's not fooling anyone. Milla dresses like this because it's the genre standard, and she's lucky that she had artist Mutsumi Inomata to set her design above the crowd.
Yet one part of Milla's ensemble makes perfect sense: her boots. They're frilly and all, but they're also the sort of high, protective footwear one might choose when slogging across forests and swamps and other places full of monsters and porous ground. Giving her high heels would've been the usual decision in RPG character design, so it's good that Inomata and the rest of the Tales team made her ensemble at least partly credible.
MOST MISOGYNISTIC: VALHALLA KNIGHTS 3
Several strong contenders put in bids for demeaning women this year, with the garish depictions of Dragon's Crown threatening to trump the predictable exploitation of Grand Theft Auto V. Yet there was a champion waiting, a game of overt misogyny that went largely undetected before its release: Valhalla Knights 3.
Valhalla Knights 3 unfolds within a medieval-fantasy prison turned lawless city, where players plunge through dungeons and spend downtime romancing various women of the hostess district. Like a filthier version of the Yakuza clubs, these diversions find the player talking with and suggestively massaging the women (through the Vita's touch-screen, of course). This would be disturbing enough without Valhalla Knights 3 bringing it into the story proper. Upon arriving at the nightmarish keep, the player watches local thugs murder two fresh prisoners and carry off a third, a woman named Emma. She reappears later as a hostess, emotionally rattled but grateful for her newfound life of quasi-prostitution. It's disturbing to the core, and Valhalla Knights 3 uses it for nothing but titillation and grimy plot upholstery. And so it out-disgusts every other widely available game of the past year.
GAME OF THE YEAR: I DON'T KNOW
This is usually rather easy. Most years leave me with a handful of games that I really enjoyed, and one of them rises above the others. Yet I don't have a clear choice for 2013. There were many games that drew me in: Pandora's Tower is a rough and intriguing clash of ideas, Fire Emblem: Awakening made me care honestly about a lineup of fantasy-anime foot soldiers, and Rune Factory 4 proved a laid-back delight. I also had fun watching smaller-scale games come into their own, as the likes of Gone Home and Papers, Please inspired nearly as much vociferous, insult-clogged debate as The Last of Us. In the thick of all of this, it's hard to pick one game above the others.
Oh, what the hell. I'll go for Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies. It has the nursemaided pacing and overt explanations that the series never will abandon, but it's also rich with the same brand of free-flowing comedy. Phoenix Wright is once again unafraid to frame allegedly serious court cases with the relentlessly absurd: killers whales on trial for murder, a town haunted by pro-wrestler folklore, or witnesses who pull out rap lyrics and chalkboards on the stand. So many games were fixated on serious things this year, questing for straight-faced kinship with movies and books. That makes Phoenix Wright all the more refreshing.
MIGHTY NO. 9 FINALIZES TOTALLY-NOT-ROLL'S DESIGN
Mighty No. 9 did a lot to stoke fan involvement with its Call heroine, inviting Kickstarter backers to vote on her design. Of course, everyone spotted the clear favorite among the entries. That favorite was the one that looked the most like Roll from the Mega Man series, just as Mighty No. 9's Beck is a repackaged Mega Man himself.
So it's no surprise that the winning entry was Call F, designed by Yuuji Natsume of Inti Creates. Of the three entries, this Call clearly shows the most work—they even made a 3-D version of her—and it's not a bad design. Sure, she looks a little too much like Roll and Ciel from Mega Man Zero (which Inti Creates developed), but the little hair-bow accessories add a lot to her expressions. Besides, the more Roll-like she is, the more Mighty No. 9 will be the Mega Man series reborn.
That said, the voting was pretty damn close. Call F landed 43.39 percent of the vote, but 41.14 percent of the backers favored Call E (above). While that Call resembles a robot-mission dispatcher a little more than the winning Call, I think the voters made the right choice. Call will be playable in the final game, and Call E just doesn't lend herself to running through levels and blasting rogue machines.
Yet many wonder if Mighty No. 9 should use the losing designs for other supporting characters. The second-placer needn't be Call; she could be a new character who exists to give mission briefings to Beck and Call. In fact, the poll's distant-third Call could become…oh, let's say, the owner of a shop full of weapons and upgrades. And so the feminist takeover of Mighty No. 9 would continue.
In other castoff news, the developers of Sound Rangers: Rhythm and Battle! hinted at a new character whose silhouette looks a lot like Aero, pink-haired heroine of the abandoned Mega Man Legends 3. And this brings us to another Capcom revival…
A NEW DARKSTALKERS GAME APPEARS! OH BOY OH BOY…OH
In truth, Line Drop Spirit Catcher isn't new. Capcom and Line released it in Japan last summer as Line Drop Spirit Catcher – Lei Lei, and in December the game appeared on the Android and iOS stores for Western audiences and the desperate Darkstalkers fans among them. It's another sign of how less-popular game series will survive in an age of smartphone attractions.
Make no mistake: Line Drop Spirit Catcher is a typical smartphone puzzle fest. It imitates the common block-matching of Tetris Attack/Puzzle League and Candy Crush Saga, and though it's free to download, it begs for real money whenever possible. A handful of Darkstalkers characters appear in cute clip-art form, with Hsien-Ko (aka Lei Lei) serving as guide. For even the devoted Darkstalkers nerd, it's not worth the trouble. Line Drop Spirit Catcher asks for a Line service registration, and without it the game crashed on two different Android devices of mine. It runs smoother on iOS devices, but even then it's just a trinket, useful only if a trivia contest springs the question “What's the most recent Darkstalkers game?” The answer will please no one.
BRAVELY DEFAULT CENSORSHIP ANGERS SOME, REALLY SHOULDN'T
What's got game-playing people irrationally upset this month? Well, there's Bravely Default. You can grab a nice, long demo of Square Enix's new RPG off the 3DS eShop right now, but that's not the controversial part of it. No, it's the fact that the localized game tones down some of the suggestive costumes from the Japanese release. Several main characters had their ages raised to 18, and as these screencaps from IGN board user BangSilverGang show, a few of the job outfits aren't as revealing as they once were.
For some reason, a number of RPG fans are mad, mad, MAD about this. Never mind that the characters are all big-headed munchkins for whom the concept of sexy oufits is either ridiculous or off-putting. Some claim it's the principle of the matter, that it'll be risqué outfits one day and fascist crackdowns the next. Frankly, this is one measure of censorship I can live with, and I would not complain if other games imposed it. Fire Emblem: Awakening, for example.
IMPORT ROUNDUP: DECEMBER
ATTACK ON TITAN: THE LAST WINGS OF MANKIND |
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Attack on Titan is an undisputed Big Thing right now, having claimed broad sectors of anime and manga while setting sights on live-action movies. Video games cannot escape, though Spike Chunsoft played it safe for the first full-blown Attack on Titan adaptation. Rather than create some blindingly fast PlayStation 3 exhibition that captured the war between the naked giants and medieval-grade humans of a catastrophic future, The Last Wings of Mankind aims to do it all on the 3DS, where budgets are smaller and younger players are more common.
Spike Chunsoft doesn't do things small, either. Following Eren, Mikasa, and Armin through much of the manga and anime's initial storyline, The Last Wings of Mankind lets players zip around, hang on the side of buildings, and pull off attacks using that spring-powered ninja grappling gear that just so happens to be the only reliable way of killing Titans. Battles in towns and forests provide plenty of places to maneuver, while open-field battles leave the characters on horseback. Other scenes switch to Eren in his (spoiler) Titan form, where more brutish hand-to-hand combat takes over.
Yet it's a bit rough at the edges. Battles against titans are driven heavily by quicktime events that involve lining up circles just right, and that's hard to do when you're swinging around like some Bionic Commando assassin. Spike Chunsoft also isn't ashamed of dishing out downloadable extras, and fans pay extra if they want to unlock story modes for Levi and Sasha. Guess who two of the fan-favorite characters are?
Import Barrier: The learning curve is a bit steeper if you can't take in the tutorial, but it's no major obstacle. The storyline also sticks tight to the anime, right down to the cutscenes. Don't forget that region lock, though.
Chances of a Domestic Release: No news of one yet. That may change once the Attack on Titan anime makes deeper inroads into North America.
Merchandising Opportunities: The Last Wings of Mankind is yet another piece of Attack on Titan's cross-marketing, which now includes everything from jerky to reversible t-shirts. Sadly, the 3DS game does not include a creepy fleshless cover for the system, but give it time.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Gaist Crusher is a Treasure game, and that's all a certain segment of fan needs to hear. It doesn't matter that Gaist Crusher is part of a multimedia spike targeted at kids, with Gaist Crusher anime and comics backing an extensive toy line. It's enough that this is the work of Treasure, the developer behind Gunstar Heroes, Bangai-O, and Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. Treasure's been alarmingly quiet as of late, and it's always good to see that they haven't gone the way of Neverland, Flight Plan, and other smaller studios in Japan's game industry.
Of course, Treasure has numerous mediocrities to its name, particularly when working with licenses. Gaist Crusher suffers from that very little, though, and it's closer in quality to Astro Boy: The Omega Factor than Dragon Drive or Buster's Bad Dream. It follows members of the Gaist Crusher brigade in their war against insidious metallic monsters called, naturally enough, Gaists. Outfitted like futuristic Saint Seiya heroes, the characters brawl through 3-D stages, throwing punches and launching special attacks.
The real value of it, both for toy lines and young players, lies in in sheer volume of gaist gear to be found. The game's hundred-some accessories unlock new abilities for the characters, and they're even allowed to turn into enormous gaist creatures for brief and destructive rampages. Gaist Crusher sports a pleasing, cel-shaded look and some momentous boss battles, and it's all conditioned for the younger crowd. Yet they weren't enticed by Gaist Crusher and its Skylanders-like method of interacting with a toy line. The game did poorly in Japan.
Import Barrier: Region lock aside, Gaist Crusher poses little problem for English speakers
Chances of a Domestic Release: Ten years back, Capcom might've found some toy company willing to back all things Gaist Crusher, right down to the anime and special 3DS attachments. Today, there's far less interest over here.
Merchandising Opportunities: Gaist Crusher interacts with its toys through the Gaifan Cover, a plastic cover that attaches to the 3DS. Once attached, transformable Gaist Gear figures unlock new missions in the game.
LIBERATION MAIDEN SIN |
Platform: PlayStation 3
Suda51's Liberation Maiden started with an entertaining idea: in the future, assassins fell the first president of New Japan and leave his teenage daughter, Shoko Ozora, to defend a country under siege. She does do by hopping into a battle mecha, destroying the invaders, and possibly saving the environment in the process. It resulted in an enjoyable shooter, even if it didn't make good on the comic potential of a nation governed by a young woman and her faithful mecha.
Liberation Maiden Sin hopes to fix that by dispensing with the shooter part of the original. A visual novel, Sin picks up shortly after Shoko's victories in the first game, and it goes pretty much where any regular imbiber of visual novels and anime might expect. Shoko now has an entire cabinet of teens to help her run the nation and join her in the aerial robot battles that futuristic executives duties often entail. Most of the supporting characters are chipper young girls, predictably enough, but Shoko is perhaps closest to her chief assistant, Kiyoto Kaido, as he's both her childhood friend and a mind-reading psychic.
It's nice to see Liberation Maiden Sin play up its premise to greater effect, though it's hard to distinguish the results from numerous other visual novels that group teenage girl around a semi-absurd premise. The original Liberation Maiden's shooter tones are sorely missed, particular when Sin builds up to Shoko's mecha-piloting forays. Perhaps the best possible Liberation Maiden would be a mix of the two…or perhaps Suda51 and Mages will see it through to its natural evolution: an anime series.
Import Barrier: It's a visual novel, so there's text aplenty. No region lock, though!
Chances of a Domestic Release: Very, very slight.
Merchandising Opportunities: No one's made Liberation Maiden figures yet, but Mages clearly designed most of the cast with that market in mind. Minister of Defense Kaguya Akeboshi wears cat ears, after all.
You may notice that I skipped one prominent December release from the Japanese market: Drag-on Dragoon 3 for the PlayStation 3. That's partly because it'll come here this year as Drakengard 3, and partly because it's the sort of thing best appreciated after an official localization. Nier showed that director Taro Yoko loves to mess with players, and I refuse to face his trickery anywhere other than my home turf.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
Releases are thin next week, but you might well watch the Steam lineup for Nidhogg, an elaborate take on the idea of a fighting game. It's built with the primitive pixels you might see in an old Atari game, but everything moves beautifully as two duelists chase each other across forests, cloudscapes, mineshafts, ballrooms, and just about anywhere else that could host a swordfight. Aside from fencing, Nidhogg boasts many other ways to do in your opponent, and the entire struggle is a race to be eaten by an enormous flying worm. And that's a grand way to start off the year.
This week, you can nab Chibi Robo: Photo Finder on the 3DS. It's just a scavenger hunt played through the system's camera, but I support anything that might get Kenichi Nishi some royalties.
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