The X Button - Curses and Courses

by Todd Ciolek,

I hope that all of you had a good holiday season. You surely did if you judge the entire Christmas span in terms of how many new Guilty Gear games arrive. Guilty Gear Xrd came out in December, and the special edition, briefly delayed by labor strikes, squeaked out just before Christmas. The whole of Xrd merits a full review, but there's nothing to stop me from taking on the game's Limited Edition in all its material pandering.

Priced at twenty bucks more than the vanilla edition, Guilty Gear Xrd's box set packs everything in an outer sleeve and a mock-up of the Backyard. As seen in the game's melodramatic pseudo-Biblical intro, the Backyard is the essence of a parallel dimension reduced to a cog-covered book for philosophical purposes. The Limited Edition's box is just slightly embossed instead of coated in machinery, but you can't expect a fully mechanized demon-book for twenty bucks.

Within you'll find a Guilty Gear Codex, a soundtrack CD, Guilty Gear Xrd with its special cover, and a metal keychain with the word FREE on it. We'll explain that later. The CD is a touch disappointing, as it's not the full soundtrack. It's a ten-track “Vocal Collection” with Naoki Hashimoto roaring over Guilty Gear creator Daisuke Ishiwatari's compositions. I've always liked Guilty Gear's music, but I prefer it without singing—even when that singing comes from Hashimoto.

The Codex is the most interesting chunk of the Limited Edition. It's full of character profiles and backstory, plus a little glossary of warped Guilty Gear terminology. While the game itself has a voluminous collection of history, the Codex is a good supplement for fans who need to know about May's fellow Jellyfish Pirates or Dr. Paradigm's loosely allied Ganymede Archipelago or what the hair-sculpting Millia Rage cares about (chastity, for some reason). There's some artwork in there as well, though the illustrations aren't as extensive as you'll find in a full collection. Until the good people at Udon release a Guilty Gear artbook, the Codex is as close as English-speaking fans can get.

Lastly, we have the keychain. Sol Badguy, protagonist of a series seldom given to subtlety, wears a belt buckle that reads FREE, and this keychain replicates that. It's strange that Aksys Games didn't make it a real belt buckle, but there's slightly more chance of people actually using a keychain. I find myself mystified, though; it's a little too nice to haul around with scratchy keys, but it's not the sort of thing I'd display proudly on the car's rear-view mirror. So back in the box it goes.

Is this box set really worth an extra twenty bucks? As much as I like the book and the outer packaging, I think something is missing. A second, more art-heavy book? A statue of Sol or Millia or President Chipp Zanuff? A Ramlethal Valentine punching puppet? I'm not sure. Perhaps I just expected more reading material from a giant book.

NEWS

DISASTER REPORT COMES BACK TO ITS CREATOR
The Disaster Report series met a strange end back in 2011. The Tohoku Earthquake struck right when Irem was to release the fourth catastrophe-survival game in Japan, and such real-world horrors led Irem to delay and eventually cancel the now-controversial title. It effectively ended Irem's association with interesting video games, as the company also canceled Steambot Chronicles 2 and resigned themselves to a life of humdrum pachislot titles and occasional classic reissue or visual novel. But things were not over for Disaster Report.

As often happens when a game company disintegrates, Irem's talent fled elsewhere. Kazuma Kujo, producer of the Disaster Report and Steambot Chronicles titles, started up a company called Granzella. And he recently snatched the rights to the Disaster Report series from the ruins of Irem's game catalog. A new Disaster Report is currently in development and facing a 2015 release, and Granzella plans to hype it with a PlayStation 2 Classics re-release of the older titles, including the PSP's Disaster Report 3. That's all exclusive to Japan at the moment, though. The third Disaster Report was never localized (you'll find it under the title Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3), and there's no word on the new game or its re-issued PlayStation Network predecessors making their way here. But it's darned good news for anyone who wants more Disaster Report titles. If everyone buys 'em, maybe Granzella will rescue Steambot Chronicles!

A HARVEST MOON WARS UPDATE
Opinion seems divided on Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, Natsume's first in-house offering in the series since losing the Bokujo Monogatari games to XSEED. Some find its customization and streamlined pace compelling, while others think it far too limited in scope when compared to prior Harvest Moons. Well, those who picked up The Lost Valley can get more of it in January, when Natsume will deliver the game's first downloadable extras. Natsume hasn't clarified just what the DLC will be, but I'd hope for a pet cat.

XSEED hasn't nailed down a release date for Story of Seasons, their new name for the next game in the Bokujo Monogatari line (which we knew as Harvest Moon up until this present conflict). They have, however, announced the pre-order trinket: an Angora rabbit pocket plushie. The Dreamcast-logo cheek swirls make it a little more fanciful than the grounded cuteness of Natsume's Harvest Moon stuffed animals, but that fits the equally more ornate look of Story of Seasons.

Angora rabbits aren't the most intriguing animal of the game, either. According to XSEED's latest blog post, players can keep elephants, polar bears, penguins, lemurs, and other exotic creatures in a local nature preserve. Of course, this raises the question of why XSEED didn't opt for a pre-order penguin. Perhaps they're saving that for a special edition.

THE TOP FIVE OVERLOOKED GAMES OF 2014

The past year was kind to a great many games. Cute, digital-only offerings like Child of Light and Never Alone earned plenty of attention, cult successes like Danganronpa staked out even larger audiences, and plenty of people heard about the year's most interesting game, Drakengard 3. Yet some titles were sidelined for one reason or another, and it's time to pick my favorites among them. These are just my suggestions, of course, so you're welcome to tell me why The Guardian Legend is actually the greatest undiscovered gem of 2014 despite it being released 25 years ago. I'm halfway convinced already.

5. NATURAL DOCTRINE
(PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PS Vita)
Natural Doctrine, or NAtURAL DOCtRINE as it prefers to be capitalized, doesn't deserve widespread laudation. It's very, very difficult to enjoy. It's an ugly game, with characters and environments seemingly built for the last generation's PSP instead of a current system. It's a slow game, one where characters trudge around needlessly and even losing due to a surprise attack is a drawn-out ordeal. It's an exceptionally hard game, one that dooms the player's party if even one ally falls in battle. The last of these conceals Natural Doctrine's only arguable saving grace. It's sure to turn off legions of strategy-RPG fans, but there's something here for the uncommon masochistic soul willing to put up with a lot of bad decisions.

Natural Doctrine stacks its typical fantasy story against the human race: monsters vastly outnumber them, and foraging groups regularly risk death by raiding hostile dungeons. The ensuing battles grow imposing and complex; diagrams of attacking lines-of-sight, supporting characters, and defensive zones look like migration charts for an entire ocean. Enemy monsters take their time in attacking, and they're always willing to exploit the battle system to gang up on the player's weakest combatant. It's tempting to give up, particularly after a 45-minute battle goes south due to one lazy decision, and I wouldn't blame anyone who walked away from that. The only ones to stick with it will be those strategy-RPG fans who relish a highly unfair challenge, who plunged through Final Fantasy Tactics' Deep Dungeon with only a lineup of underleveled dancers, and who obsessively reset their games if they loose even one character. Within Natural Doctrine, they'll find surprising twists, a King Crimson song, and a lot to digest. There's a great deal to track behind the scenes, and those underlying complications make the game's hard-won triumphs a little more satisfying.

I wouldn't recommend Natural Doctrine to the majority of strategy-RPG fans; they're better off with the recent Fire Emblem: Awakening or the new Steam edition of Valkyria Chronicles. If you're a true devotee of punishing games…you still might hate Natural Doctrine. But you may want to know for sure.

Notable Hair: Sharpshooting squad leader Anka thinks nothing of taking her massive ponytail into monster-swarmed dungeons. Can't blame her, considering how even sensibly armed explorers die easily there.

4. FREEDOM WARS
(PS Vita, PlayStation TV)
Freedom Wars faced a few setbacks. It's a hunt-driven action game, and we already have plenty of those in the form of Gods Eater Burst and Soul Sacrifice and the trend-setting Monster Hunter. And the title? It sounds more like a generic rah-rah military shooting gallery instead of a post-apocalyptic dystopian quest for social mobility. Atop all that, it's a Vita game, and all those unkind remarks about the Vita struggling aren't entirely wrong.

This overshadowed many good things in Freedom Wars. The player-customized protagonist hails from a subterranean society where petty criminals and idle folk earn ridiculous sentences and get drafted for deadly above-ground forays. On the surface, players wield firearms and grappling hooks and varied energy weapons as they take on towering Abductor monsters and rescue fellow humans. Battles move at an enjoyably fast pace, and squad tactics work well with other players and AI companions. The opening act drags for a bit, but there's a nice Fallout-style cynicism in the world of Freedom Wars; the player's avatar trades mission credits to pay off a million-year debt to society, with a customized android companion and a cute bear mascot praising each minor reward doled out to the “sinner” under their charge. Taking down a mechanized dino-worm the size of an ocean liner is a little more satisfying when it slices 3000 years off your prison sentence.

Freedom Wars doesn't see its ideas to their greatest heights. The monsters grow a bit repetitive, and the ongoing storyline keeps its dystopian flourishes superficial. Yet there's plenty of room for it to improve, and the game's superb sales in Japan at least suggest a sequel there. I hope we'll see it again in North America.

Notable Hair: All sorts of styles await in the game's customization mode, including grandly impractical hoop-tails and more traditional spiked bangs.

3. MIGHTY GUNVOLT
(Nintendo 3DS eShop)
Azure Striker Gunvolt became one of 2014's finer throwbacks: a futuristic side-scroller that recalled Mega Man without slavishly reproducing it. It was very much the spiritual successor to Inti Creates' Mega Man Zero titles, but it told an all-new storyline and added a novel force-field attack. Mega Man fans, more numerous than Capcom cares to financially acknowledge, noticed Azure Striker Gunvolt, and any who bought the game before November 28 found themselves with an easily forgotten bonus: Mighty Gunvolt.

If Azure Striker Gunvolt broke away from Mega Man in enjoyable ways, Mighty Gunvolt is far more worshipful. It's a new-as-old game, built with the lovable simplicity of an NES classic and none of the technical snags. It spans three Inti Creates projects: Gunvolt's titular hero uses his homing electricity, and he's joined by the Cupid-like Ekoro from Gal Gun and Beck from the upcoming Not Mega Man revival Mighty No. 9. True to his obvious inspirations, Beck has an arm cannon and dash maneuvers, but Ekoro may have the most interesting gameplay. By zapping a foe with a powered-up romantic arrow, she converts that enemy into a floating helper who attacks on her behalf. It's a fun twist on the Mega Man formula, and I dare say it's the best thing Gal Gun ever spawned. Mighty Gunvolt's overall play time shouldn't pass half an hour, but it's quite robust for a side attraction. Each character makes for a distinct experience, and some creative boss encounters emerge on Ekoro's side. Even if you'll pay extra for it now, it's well worth the three bucks.

Notable Hair: Not much, considering the limitations of Mighty Gunvolt's deliberate 8-bit palette.

2. TALES OF HEARTS R
(PS Vita, PlayStation TV)
How can a Tales game go neglected? Isn't Tales the third biggest RPG series to come out of Japan? And isn't it probably the second biggest console RPG line in North America, now that Dragon Quest is stuck in localization limbo? Yes and yes, but Tales of Hearts R met with several impediments. Its retail version shipped only to GameStop locations, its digital release was fairly quiet, and it came along only a few months after the louder and bigger Tales of Xillia 2. So it's OK if you didn't notice Tales of Hearts R. If you have any affection for Tales RPGs, though, you should consider it.

Tales of Hearts R, an extensive remake of a DS game, meets all of the guidelines for a Tales title. We have a plucky hero, a shakily explained system of world-sustaining magic, a few awkward names, and a heroine who's both reasonably confident and, due to a mysterious spell, an effective blank slate. The storyline has few strengths, though it benefits from the usual constant Tales flurry of characters quibbling, so it's not too tough to like Kor Meteor or Kohaku Hearts.

The true value of a Tales game often lies in its battle system, and the Vita revamp of Hearts proves a marvelous surprise. It's called the Aerial Chase Linear Motion Battle System, but it really just means this: you can launch enemies into the air and use varied attacks to juggle the crap out of them. Tales combat systems often imitate fighting games in their team-up moves and free-roaming tactics, and Hearts R may well come the closest to that vision. Unlike recent Tales games, battles pop up at random in the game's routine dungeons. For once, you won't care.

Notable Hair: Mutsumi Inomata's coiffures for Tales of Hearts R lag behind the ones she designed for Tales of Xillia, but the newly introduced Gall Gruner sports the sort of hairstyle you might see throughout your local Led Zeppelin cover band.

1. SHANTAE AND THE PIRATE'S CURSE
(Nintendo 3DS, Wii U)
It's getting more and more difficult to consider Shantae an underappreciated series. Fundraisers for the reboot Shantae: Half-Genie Hero approached a million dollars, and a number of people (myself included) tossed Shantae and the Pirate's Curse onto their best-of-the-year buffet plates. It probably won't be long before Shantae has a cartoon, a Dreamworks movie deal, a line of Happy Meals, and a huge, potentially insane fandom to accompany everything. So I'd better make the most of her underdog status while it lasts.

Besides, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse surely slid by a few people. It arrived in a busy rush just before the holiday season, and a retail release still eludes poor Shantae. Her Game Boy Color debut was an actual cartridge (and a darned rare one), but Shantae and the Pirate's Curse remains a digital exclusive. So she'll be a scrapper for a little while longer.

Other reasons to sympathize with Shantae: at the start of The Pirate's Curse, she lacks all of her shapeshifting half-genie powers. To protect her seaside hometown and ward off a dastardly pirate's resurrection, she arms herself with a magic lamp, a sword, a flintlock, and varied buccaneer accessories. All of it fits into the game's Metroid-like layout very well, as new powers open new passages and inspire returns to old locations. The layout seems more solid than previous Shantae outings, and the control feels just a little more accurate in The Pirate's Curse. WayForward's spritework is magnificent as ever, packing all sorts of cute detail into casual villagers and tiny monsters. It goes a little too far in sexing up the characters; Shantae never was exactly a nun, but The Pirate's Curse takes her and other female characters to pneumatic extremes. That said, it's a charming little adventure—and the best Shantae yet.

Notable Hair: Even without her genie magic, Shantae remains able to whack enemies with her big purple ponytail. Millia Rage would approve.

SPECIAL MENTION: SUIKODEN II
You could have missed Suikoden II twice. It came out in the fall of 1999, when Final Fantasy VIII and Grandia and Thousand Arms and at least one other RPG were found in greater numbers. You could've missed it again in the last ten years, when the game's limited production run and high demand meant that the only way to experience it involved preposterous eBay auctions or outright thievery. No longer. After a year or so of rumors and ratings, Konami put Suikoden II on the PlayStation Network for ten dollars.

Suikoden II may not win fans instantly. It's not a pretty game, aside from some deft flashes of character animation. Its protagonist is a typical RPG teenager thrust toward a destiny beyond his knowing, and his childhood friend is marked as a rival from the game's first scenes. Yet there's so much to what follows: surprising and tragic turns, wide-scale strategic clashes, one-on-one duels, and many subtle decisions forced on the player. There's a rebel army of 108 recruitable characters, and about half of them can be brought into the game's surprisingly well-paced random battles. It's one of the most memorable creations from the entire realm of RPGs, and it's hard to miss now.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

Next week has nothing scheduled, though I wouldn't put it past XSEED to sneak out Brandish: The Dark Revenant for the PSP and Vita. It's a remake of Falcom's old dungeon hack, known (and often maligned) for its unique habit of rotating the entire labyrinth around the player's viewpoint. The effect is far less disconcerting in The Dark Revenant, and there's a bonus mode where players control the protagonist's nemesis Dela, a.k.a. Alexis in the Super NES version. XSEED points to a non-specific January release for the game's digital-only launch, so fans of contentious Falcom dungeon-crawlers should keep watch.


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


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