The X Button - Terra Forms

by Todd Ciolek,

There's still time to enter the X Button's latest contest! All you need to do is write up a treasured and humorous memory involving the holidays and video games. Then you send it in, and one lucky winner walks away with the prize pack!

What's in the prize pack? We have a Master Grade 1/100 Mobile Suit Unicorn Gundam model kit, a Sonic the Hedgehog wall clock, A Final Fantasy XII potion (long ago emptied and cleaned), a set of Nintendo Platinum Playing Cards, a Samurai Naruto figure from the Shinobi Relations line, a Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage Visual Story Book signed by producer Hisashi Koinuma, and a Fist of the North Star Character Voice Clock that will scream ATATATATATATATATA and other catchphrases until you wake up. It's great.

Naturally, there are rules for this.

Entries should be about 250 words or less. The format is up to you, but let's avoid poems and rewritten Christmas carols.

Entries should be about video games and the holidays. It doesn't have to be about playing games, but it needs to involve them in some way.

The contest is open to everyone except industry folk and professional writers. If you won another contest in the last year or so, it's only fair to abstain this time. Also, one entry per person.

Entries are due to me (toddciolek at gmail.com) by midnight EST on Sunday, December 14. That'll give me time to get the package sent out before Christmas.

And that's it for regulations! We'll have the results next week!

NEWS

PLAYSTATION EXPERIENCE SHOWS OFF STREET FIGHTER V, OTHER SONY TAKEOVERS
Sony's recent PlayStation Experience was a large affair: a Vegas showcase of games that covered everything from grandiose attention-getters like Uncharted 4: A Thief's End to smaller projects like Giant Sparrow's haunting What Remains of Edith Finch. Yet the biggest news came with Street Fighter V, poised as an exclusive for the PlayStation 4 and PC.

Early footage of Street Fighter V shows Ryu and Chun-Li hashing out their differences before a neon gallery of shop signs. Despite the lack of actual onlookers, the two of them show off impressive character models—just a little more realistic than those of Street Fighter IV—and attacks resplendent with glowing auras and paintbrush swipes. Ryu and Chun-Li also exhibit stage-breaks, downed-enemy hits, and a greater emphasis on aerial moves (with possibly easier juggles). Of course, it's the same core idea that Street Fighter's gone over since 1991, and most of Ryu and Chun-Li's maneuvers seemed straight from the Street Fighter IV playbook. But Chun-Li has a new mid-air spin!

The most interesting thing about Street Fighter V is Sony's involvement. The company's backing Capcom's new Street Fighter game, and in exchange they get the assurance of it never being on another console. Oh, and they get a PS4 version of this year's Ultra Street Fighter IV. One assumes Sony isn't terribly worried about competition from the PC version. Between this and Guilty Gear Xrd sticking to the PlayStation 3 and 4, Sony's shored up a good among of fighting-game support. How will Microsoft respond? Well, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer remarked that “when we have a first-party franchise in a genre I'd rather invest in ours.” He's talking about Microsoft's revival of Killer Instinct, which hasn't been as big as Street Fighter, historically speaking. In fact, Killer Instinct went dormant back in 1996, smack-dab in the middle of that decade's fighting-game craze. Microsoft clearly hopes this era will be different.

Street Fighter wasn't the only series granted new life by Sony. Sega's Yakuza 5, released for the Japanese PlayStation 3 two years ago, heads to North America in the third quarter of 2015. A crime-drama simulation like its predecessors, Yakuza 5 follows recurring hero Kazuma Kiryu, now a taxi driver, and four other characters wrapped up in organized crime somehow—even Haruka Sawamura, a resolute orphan in prior Yakuza games, is now an aspiring pop star fallen in with a shady talent agency. The underworld saga takes players to five different seedy neighborhoods throughout Japan, and it maintains a mix of brawling and recreation, whether those side attractions are batting cages, casinos, or visits to club hostesses. Yakuza fans are quite vocal about Sega's torpid pace when it comes to localizing Yakuza games, so their wishes might be better sent to Sony.

Other PlayStation Experience revelations were unsurprising crossovers. Persona 5, previously just a PlayStation 3 title, will head to the PlayStation 4 as well when it arrives next year. Also coming is Final Fantasy VII…not a remake or a sequel or even a new version that replaces the field's jarring Popeye-esque character models with the battle-scene ones, but a port of the PC edition of the game.

Konami had better RPG news with Suikoden II's debut on the PlayStation Network. The game remains a classic of the original PlayStation library: an efficiently paced fantasy tale of political struggles and costly ambitions, framed by the player recruiting a revolutionary army of 108 characters. It goes for well over a hundred bucks on eBay, so fans hoped for a cheap, legal alternative through the PlayStation Classics line. After rumors and rating-system approvals, Konami delivered the game for the PS3 and Vita this past Tuesday, alongside a Vita-capable release of the original Suikoden. Now to see just how those eBay prices trend…

Grim Fandango isn't a PlayStation exclusive. It'll arrive on the PC, Mac, and Linux as well as the Vita and PlayStation 4. Nevertheless, it was nice to see it in Sony's extravaganza. The peak of LucasArts adventure games, Grim Fandango is all about the redemption of a two-bit salesman in an afterlife that's part art-deco crime drama, part Day of the Dead festival. The revamp is largely cosmetic: better lighting, sharper models, and enhanced sound. It doesn't fix the original game's awkward interface, which was more of a Resident Evil control setup than a point-and-click affair. Still, it's Grim Fandango, and it's coming in January.

Grim Fandango director Tim Schafer introduced another revived LucasArts title: Day of the Tentacle, a time-traveling sequel to the classic Maniac Mansion. Like Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle will pretty itself up for its re-issue on PS4, Vita, and the PC/Mac/Linux collective. It's not my personal favorite of the LucasArts oldies, but it's good to have more from that catalog. Also headed to PlayStation 4 and Vita: Schafer's new adventure game Broken Age, once the second half of it shows up next year.

LUCKY CHLOE CAUSES CATGIRL CONTROVERSY
Lucky Chloe isn't unusual for a Tekken character. She's a youthful martial artist who wears cat ears, paw-sleeves, headphones, and a little black mini-dress. Sexist? Probably, though I wonder if she isn't aimed just as much at cosplayers. Chloe would be at home in the halls of an anime or comic convention (or a furry convention, for that matter). As the latest addition to the Tekken 7 cast, she seems just another stereotype in a series that already has a boxing kangaroo, a panda, and a robot girl with interchangeable exploding heads.

What makes Lucky Chloe controversial? It's not her vague resemblance to Dead or Alive's Marie Rose. It's the fan reaction. Some Tekken followers didn't much care for Chloe, and their complaints reached Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada. He responded that Chloe will be an exclusive to East Asia and Europe. Pressed for an explanation, Harada replied “Because you don't need that character, right?” and quipped that U.S. players “just want Muscle & Skinhead (with Gun or MMA style).” Here he's referring to the Bald Space Marine aesthetic seen in a lot of modern action games.

Some took Harada's comments at face value, but I suspect he's about as serious as Hideki Kamiya was when he suggested that Bayonetta 2 include Twitter user Jackelbeaver's naked mother as a secret character. Harada clearly didn't care for some of the reactions to Lucky Chloe, and his sarcasm seems evident. I expect that Chloe will be in North America's version of Tekken 7 when it arrives, though I wouldn't put it past opportunistic Namco reps to include her as a paid DLC character. Or perhaps Harada will make players pay extra to remove her. That'll show 'em.

DRAKENGARD 3 DIRECTOR LIVES AGAIN
I was a little worried about Taro Yoko. The games he's directed, from the deliberately repulsive Drakengard to the fascinating Nier, were never runaway hits, and I'm not sure how well things went for his most recent work, Drakengard 3. I assume it was a middling success at best, seeing as how Square Enix isn't cranking out collectible gashapon figures and hundred-dollar model kits of its blood-spattered heroine. Yoko subsequently announced a new manga series with Daisuke Moriyama, one called Kimi Shini Tamou Koto Nakare (or “Thou Shalt Not Die”). I wondered if he might drift away from games altogether and find comics a better vehicle for his horrors.

Well, that's not happening just yet. In this week's Dengeki PlayStation, Yoko revealed that he's working on a new game and added that he'd “get killed by all kinds of people” if he reveals it now. I'd say he's speaking figuratively, but the things seen in Drakengard 3 give me pause.

MOBILE MATTERS: TERRA STRIKE CHRONICLES

CHAIN CHRONICLE
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega/gumi
Platform: Android/iOS Devices
Free to Play: Uh-huh
Chain Chronicle is very much a modern anime-themed RPG. It's stocked with detailed illustrations of impractically attired fantasy archetypes. Its story involves an amnesiac girl, a fairy sidekick, a world named Yggdra, and a legion of dark forces inadvisably translated as “Black Troops.” It also has a basic-looking but inwardly complex approach to battles, one that wouldn't be out of place in the latest NIS release. But this isn't a Vita or PlayStation 2 offering. It's the latest mobile endeavor from Sega.

Chain Chronicle also sets up its battles as side-view struggles of attrition, where players rearrange party members on grids to fend off a tide of enemy soldiers. Attackers are best at the front line, mages and archers stand in reserve, and it's easy to guide characters to attack and defend when needed. A pre-battle roulette spin doles out special moves and advantages, though of course it's possible to buy power-ups as well. Subquests and new areas reveal more characters, and you might borrow characters from other players who just happen to be online at the time. It's not particularly complicated, and battles are quick fixes.

There's little done blatantly wrong in Chain Chronicle, but it doesn't inspire much attention. Characters fit into predictable slots both in gameplay and personality, and while the art's respectable, it's no different than what you'd see in handheld RPGs like Demon Gaze and Etrian Odyssey. The game, just released this Monday, also has a few rough patches. It's possible to get stuck in tutorial mode and be forced to skip it (thus losing bonus items), and there are times when the hero's fairy sidekick, Pirika, uses placeholder asterisks instead of his real name.

That's what appears to happen, at least. I suppose she could be addressing him with some fairy imprecation too arcane and foul for mortal understanding.

MONSTER STRIKE
Developer: Deluxe Games/Mixi
Publisher: Mixi
Platform: Android/iOS Devices
Free to Play: Yep
Monster Strike is a phenomenon in Japan, reaching more than 15 million downloads since its November 2013 debut. It even nudged the nigh-unstoppable Puzzle & Dragons from the number-one spot last week. And I couldn't be happier about that. It's not so much the game itself, though it's a clever turn on monster-raising. It's more that Monster Strike is the latest work from Yoshiki Okamoto, a game-industry veteran who produced some of Capcom's biggest arcade hits, including that persistently popular Street Fighter II. Yet he didn't do so well after leaving Capcom. His studio, Game Republic, couldn't catch a break with any game, be it the underrated Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom or the disappointing Knights Contract. Okamoto hit a rough patch after Game Republic's demise, but Monster Strike seems to be his big comeback.

And it's an enjoyable comeback. Players get a collection of monsters that function as billiard balls in battle. Choose your launch speed and trajectory, and they'll ricochet around the playfield. The monster-balls deal damage when they strike foes and have varying effects on their comrade beasties. Some of them shoot projectiles when struck, others cast spells, and several just bounce around to unleash combination attacks. Enemies lash out with laser breath, melee attacks, screen-filling strikes, and more predictable forms of retaliation. It's a well-calculated challenge: plotting a trajectory requires some thought, but the game unleashes just the right dose of random physics to keep things from getting too predictable.

Like all decent mobile titles, Monster Strike has plenty behind the scenes. The clacking ball-battles take up little time, but players can spend much longer evolving, combing, selling, and hatching monsters. The little creatures are drawn with endearing kiddie-manga styling, and there's already a spate of themed bonus hatchlings based on Alice in Wonderland characters and Bakumatsu heroes. As with all free-to-play models, rare characters and assured victories can be bought for actual money. That's the way of mobile games, and if it puts Okamoto and other game-industry talents back on top, I can't object.

TERRA BATTLE
Developer: Mistwalker
Publisher: Mistwalker
Platform: Android/iOS Devices
Free to Play: Yes
Terra Battle is further proof that mobile games might save prominent game-crafters when the rest of the market fails them. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his Mistwalker studio didn't have the best luck with their recent projects. While I thought The Last Story was their best work yet, Nintendo hasn't hired them for a follow-up, and they've turned to mobile titles.

That's not to say Terra Battle is unambitious. It has music from Final Fantasy's Nobuo Uematsu, character designs from Drakengard and The Last Story's Kimihiko Fujisaka, and a lot of ground to cover. It sends player on an underground quest in a realm hurtling toward an apocalypse, one that only a hidden subterranean Maker can allay. It all comes down to battles on grids, where the player's characters and their enemies slide around to arrange combination attacks, healing spells, and other staples of any RPG. Terra Battle goes deeper than mere simulation, though; stage obstacles range from spikes to enemy secretions, bosses have the same quirks as any Final Fantasy level-master, and a single careful swipe of the screen can arrange a full-party attack that wipes out the entire enemy. Combination attacks also bring up that nice Fujisaka art that I never tire of seeing. Fujisaka's clearly playing with fantasy stereotypes here, and his work varies from typical bosomy warriors to dapper lizardmen and graffiti-covered stonefolk.

When not in battle, the player's party grows by recruiting characters at taverns and in the wake of battle. Each archer or mage or warrior has two major upgrades in store (including grim surprises in some cases), and customizing their abilities helps out greatly in combat. Terra Battle isn't quite The Last Story or Lost Odyssey shrunk down: its characters have limited development, and the storyline is more of a narrated tabletop-game campaign than an intricate saga. It's not without twists, however, and some of them prove more fascinating than what many big-budget console and PC RPGs foist on the characters.

Terra Battle has the usual free-to-play options: shell out actual money, and you'll find it easier to befriend rare characters or survive tough battles. Still, it's all kept low-key. Sakaguchi's also promising an array of new material based on downloads—not purchases, but the number of people who nab Terra Battle for free. The next big goal is an art book, so I definitely suggest trying Terra Battle if you haven't already. Or maybe you could go into your local Best Buy and download it on all of the store's demo phones and tablets. Tell them it's for a good cause.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

GUILTY GEAR XRD -SIGN-
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PlayStation 3 / PlayStation 4
Release Date: December 16
Most Wanted Character: Jilted Jam
MSRP: $49.99 / $59.99 (regular editions), $69.99 / $79.99 (delayed special editions)

A new Guilty Gear! Finally! Yes, there's rarely been a year without some iteration of the series, but most of them were spin-offs, experiments, or modifications of the ten-year-old Guilty Gear X2. The only exception was Guilty Gear 2: Overture, a curious strategic action game that few understood and even fewer cared about. Yet those doubtful times are over. Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign- is a straight-up fighting game, as Guilty Gear probably should be.

Unlike the last big Guilty Gear sequel, Guilty Gear Xrd sticks to its bedrock. It has a gorgeous new look that imitates hand-drawn artwork with cell-shaded 3-D animation, but it has the same glamorous fusion of heavy-metal grandeur and post-apocalyptic anime exaggeration as its predecessors. It's a game where a rugged bounty-hunter named Sol Badguy might square off against a kid in a spiked, weaponized mechanical bed before a backdrop of Paris overgrown with jack-o-lantern faces. It's a game where a poolstick-wielding assassin's finishing move transforms a ninja president into a billiard ball and rockets him around a table. It's a game where giant swords and shapeshifting hair and stormy hellscape stages are just another part of the mix. Most of the gameplay features of prior titles are refined here: Dust Attacks lead to homing jumps and dashes, the Blitz shield protects against regular hits (but not throws), and two attacks can clash and give a player the chance for a nasty combo strike. That's all atop a complicated system of Roman Cancels, Faultless Defenses, Psych Bursts, and other Guilty Gear methods of livening up the basic free-for-all of a fighting game.

Most of the characters are familiar: the aforementioned Sol, goody-goody knight-turned-king Ky Kiske, hair-morphing Millia Rage, pirate girl May, mysterious bag-headed doctor Faust, politically ambitious ninja Chipp Zanuff, towering military grappler Potemkin, time-travelling British chain-slinger Axl Low, billiard shark Venom, unflappably stylin' vampire Slayer, flirty witch rocker I-No, and the strangely revived Zato-1 (who was seemingly dead and possessed by his shadowy familiar Eddy in prior games). The newcomers are verbose bed-warrior Bedman, Ky's flag-wielding son Sin Kiske, bridal gunner Elphelt, swordsman ruler Leo Whitefang, and Ramlethal Valentine, who resembles a tanned version of Guilty Gear 2's antagonist. Other Guilty Gear characters pop up in supporting story-mode roles, though that doesn't make up for martial-artist chef Jam Kuradoberi, one-armed samurai Baiken, or the poor possessed dope Zappa being excluded. But that puts us in the Upgrade Dilemma again: if we shun this and wait for an expansion called Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign- Max Overload November Rain Metal Health Edition, Arc System Works might not be able to make one.

I doubt Guilty Gear Xrd will run dry. Many fans even nabbed the Japanese version, which is already patched with English text and voices. I'll wait for the U.S. release, and that brings up the matter of the special edition. It comes with a “vocal collection” soundtrack, a “codex” book full of artwork and backstory, a keychain shaped like Sol Badguy's signature FREE belt buckle (why not make it an actual belt buckle?), and a box that resembles the Backyard, a trans-dimensional tome from Guilty Gear's nutcase storyline. Sadly, both PS3 and PS4 versions of this package won't be available next week: a shipping strike delayed them until December 23, Aksys says. You can grab the regular editions easily, but I might hold out for that big boxset. When you've gone years without a brand new Guilty Gear, a week's delay is a trifle.


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


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