The X Button - Stretching Ahead

by Todd Ciolek,

This week finds me figuratively lugging out a crystal ball and making predictions for the year ahead. As usual, I don't expect people to take me all that seriously in this regard, but I do feel certain of one thing: I'll be disappointed with 2015.

Let me explain. It may be that 2013 wasn't a great year for video games, but it brought along a new Phoenix Wright, some neat fighters, at least one typical but fun RPG from Japan, some “art” games, and a flawed yet fascinating action title called Pandora's Tower. Then 2014 had a new Phoenix Wright (and a reissue), some neat fighters, at least one typical but fun RPG from Japan, some more “art” games, and a flawed yet fascinating action title called Drakengard 3. What's ahead in 2015? There'll be fighting games and RPGs and games that make us argue over just what “art” is, but the next Phoenix Wright (set in Meiji-era Japan) probably won't see translation this year. What's worse, I don't detect any troubled but grim and intriguingly strange action games on the horizon. Even Hellblade, intentionally pitched as “independent AAA,” seems too polished.

There are big-budget action titles and promising smaller-scale ones, but there's not much from the middle ground that brought about some of the most interesting games from the past generations. I miss finding rough, weird, or niche-oriented titles like Chulip, Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, and The Last Story on consoles instead of watching them shuffle off to handhelds, mobile devices, and Steam releases. But that's the way of the market—and the way of 2015, I expect.

NEWS

HARVEST DECEMBER GETS ENGLISH TRANSLATION, THE 3DS GETS ANOTHER VISUAL NOVEL
I can't think of very many visual novels translated for the 3DS. I suppose I could count Phoenix Wright or Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, but they aren't what comes to mind when I think “visual novel.” Harvest December, with its youthful characters and love triangles, is a lot closer to my possibly unfair stereotype of the genre. It's all about high-school romance and meddlesome patron gods, and its story unfurls through character portraits, descriptions, and conversations.

It's a small surprise to see Harvest December on the 3DS, as visual novels generally favor the elongated screens of the Vita and PSP. That didn't stop Talestune from bringing the original PC version of Harvest December to the 3DS, and it won't stop Circle Entertainment from translating it. Harvest December is an episodic release that emerged at one chapter a month in Japan, though Circle Entertainment won't keep up the same pace for North America. And it'll be a while before the initial chapter arrives. Visual novels take time to translate, after all.

…AND THE VITA GETS YUMI'S ODD ODYSSEY
What almost made my Top Five Overlooked Games of 2014? Yumi's Odd Odyssey. It's a 3DS treatment of Umihara Kawase, a delightful series of games about a girl, her grappling-line fishhook, and how she uses it to traverse puzzling levels full of creatures. It emerged in Japan under the title Sayonara Umihara Kawase, suggesting that it'd be the last in the series. That may hold true, but it doesn't rule out ports. So the Vita gets one.

Yes, it's a reversal of traditions: the 3DS gets a visual novel, and the Vita gets a cute action title. It'll have the 3DS version's 50 stages and four playable characters (including kid and adult incarnations of Yumi), plus some rearranged enemies, all-new levels, and sharper graphics. That's very welcome, since the 3DS versions looks basic at times. So basic, in fact, that I'll forego showing a screenshot of it and just use art of Yumi possibly creating a paradox and destroying all time by meeting her younger self. Tread lightly, Yumi.

TEKKEN GETS A NEW CHARACTER AND STIRS LITTLE CONTROVERSY
Tekken 7's newly introduced catgirl Lucky Chloe kicked up a fuss a month ago, but there's less debate over the game's newest addition. He's Shaheen, a Saudi Arabian martial artist, and he's a relatively reserved stereotype for a fighting-game line that has robots, panda bears, living wooden dummies, and Paul Phoenix's hairstyle.

Series producer Katsuhiro Harada headed off objections months ago by showing concept art of Shaheen and asking for fan opinions. In August, Harada stated that the new addition might be altered or removed entirely “If this character is not received well by the Middle Eastern Tekken fan community members.”

Apparently no one objected, because Shaheen's final design is pretty close to the earlier sketches. This leaves Lucky Chloe to shoulder the bulk of modern Tekken complaints. Poor catgirl.

2015 PREDICTIONS

Who can predict the future? Well, technically anyone can, but being right about it is another matter entirely. And let's face it: being wrong about foretelling the coming year is often a lot more fun. So I hope the following will at least amuse someone by the end of 2015.

FINAL FANTASY TYPE-0 KISSES, MAKES UP WITH FANS
Square Enix dragged Final Fantasy XIII out for as long as it could. Most modern Final Fantasy games get some sort of follow-up, but Final Fantasy XIII trudged through three titles. Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns both improved on the original game, yet their reuse of Final Fantasy XIII's aesthetics made me wonder if Square should've just moved on to other games. That's what Square is doing this year, even if it involves a new version of something released back in 2011.

That game is Final Fantasy Type-0, which started out as a PSP game…no wait, it started out as a mobile phone game called Final Fantasy Agito XIII, part of Square's original multi-release plan for Final Fantasy XIII. Type-0 escaped that morass and made it to the PSP, but it saw no official translation at the time. Last year, Square announced plans to bring a localized version of the game to the Xbox One and PS4 (but not the PSP's handheld successor, the Vita) early in 2015, because, by all that's right, no year should go without a Final Fantasy.

Yet Type-0 seems a lot closer to what Final Fantasy fans want out of the series. It's all about a gaggle of teenagers saving the world, but they do it as a squad of student rebels in the thick of a nasty war. The world resembles a fantasy version of revolution-era France more than the metaphysical sci-fi mushball of Final Fantasy XIII, and the characters, most of them vaguely named after playing cards, are plentiful stereotypes. It may have the largest playable cast of any Final Fantasy since VI, and its real-time battles show a more direct approach than Final Fantasy XIII's layered commands. With gaudy style and a bellicose nation named Milites (pronounced just as ham-fistedly as you'd think), Type-0 won't win over those who ignored even the best of the series. But I think it'll preach to a currently distracted choir.

THE WII U AND VITA SEE BETTER SALES, MORE CHEAP CRAP
The Wii U put up with derision and doubt in its first year on the market, but now a shift seems incipient. The console cleared seven million units back in September, and Super Smash Bros. helped it during the holiday season. I think 2015 will be kind to Nintendo. I think the Wii U will keep selling. And I think this will be a mixed blessing.

The Wii U has a long way to go before it matches the breakout success of the original Wii, but that same breakout success invited all sorts of trash, from an Alvin and the Chipmunks sing-a-long to dozens of cheap party games. The Wii U hasn't seen nearly as much of that due to its more limited popularity. The more it succeeds, however, the more likely we'll see a return of the Wii shovelware avalanche.

And what of the Vita? I don't think it has to worry about boatloads of mediocrity swarming its little corner of GameStop. It should be far more concerned with getting actual games. It's currently subsisting on ports and smaller releases. While I think The Firefly Diary and Operation Abyss will entertain their niche audiences, I suspect the Vita's redemption will come, oddly enough, from stuff that can be found elsewhere. The Vita will offer Resident Evil Revelations 2 and Grim Fandango Remastered and Hatoful Boyfriend on a portable system, even if they're all available on consoles, and that convenience may well be the Vita's temporary savior.

Of course, the Vita's true savior is Gravity Rush 2, but I expect that won't come out for another year.

CONTROVERSY ERUPTS AND UNITES ALL NERDS, FOR A CHANGE
There were controversies aplenty in 2014, and most of them divided game geeks into vituperative factions ready to draw blood and ruin careers over opinions. That's why I hope for a different kind of controversy this year: one that actually brings disparate nerd circles together.

It's been a while since a game stirred up rancor in the scandal-hungry mainstream news hellpit. Fox News prattled over violent games and Mass Effect's same-sex romances, but I think there's an even easier and more likely target in the sexed-up, anime-styled games often peddled by NIS America, XSEED, and other relatively small publishers. They've escaped notice by ducking under the radar, yet it may not be long before some insipid circle of pundits pegs a suggestive game as an easy target and a perfect example of entertainment corrupting children who probably aren't even experiencing it. Perhaps we'll even see calls for legislation to curb overtly sexualized titles.

And what will happen then? Game-playing people of all stripes will deride such shoddy arguments and the accompanying nudges toward censorship. Some find games like Senran Kagura and Akiba's Strip grotesque and perhaps even harmful, but few among those critics will join a call for externally enforced artistic censorship—particularly when those calls come from noxious media blowhards. For one controversy's brief life, game geeks will agree on something. Then they'll go back to quarreling over what's under a Shy Guy's mask.

WAS I RIGHT LAST YEAR?
There may not be much point in revisiting the prophesies I made last year, but let it not be said that the X Button avoids personal shame. We shall see how close I came to the mark with my 2014 predictions.

A NEW METROID IS IN DEVELOPMENT, THE GALAXY IS AT PEACE: WRONG
Boy, this one was completely off-base. Metroid stayed silent all through the year, unless you count Samus Aran's appearances as a Super Smash Bros. character and Amiibo collectible. Rumors of a new Metroid game remain unfulfilled, whether they suggest a fresh Metroid Prime or another game from oft-upbraided series co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto. Fans seem to favor another Prime, considering how Sakamoto turned Samus Aran into a fragile mockery of herself with Metroid: Other M. Yet last year didn't bring either.

DRAKENGARD 3 OVERSHADOWS LIGHTNING RETURNS: MAYBE
Here's a tough one to call. Heaven knows Drakengard 3 got more attention in this column, right up to my year-end awards. Yet I'm not sure which game proved more popular when it came to actual important places. The numbers favor Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, since it's a major franchise that people will play just to loathe. But don't worry, Drakengard 3. You came out ahead here.

THE GAME INDUSTRY STUBBORNLY REFUSES TO CRASH: RIGHT, OF COURSE
This was an annoyingly safe bet. The game industry does billions in revenue each year, and it isn't going to crash anytime soon. I'm not even sure if the Steam market will face any shakeout, though you'd expect some sort of consequences in a PC game scene where frequent sales make anything above five bucks seem a rip-off. At most, we're seeing an erosion of solid B-list titles, a category that actually interests me. So I'm right only in the worst way.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

The new year's first releases are familiar. You might've seen Alphadia Genesis on Android devices, iThings, and even in the Wii U store. It's out for the Steam service this January 12, and it's worth a glance or two if you're fond of Kemco's throwbacks to classic RPGs. In fact, Alphadia Genesis looks more advanced than many previous Kemco nostalgia pieces; the overhead scenes are 2-D sprite fare, but the battles are polygonal. Think of it as an unholy, polished-up union of a Super NES RPG and a PlayStation successor.

Atelier Ayesha Plus is somewhat more advanced in its appearance, as it's a Vita version of last year's PlayStation 3 RPG. It sticks to the original's storyline of a lonely forest alchemist making friends and exploring, though the Vita version makes its battles faster and somewhat more strategic now that players can swap out party members during combat. Ayesha and her friends also get extra missions and boss hunts, featuring some beasts from Atelier Escha & Logy. Oh, and costumes. They always get more costumes. All of that's available on the PlayStation Store for $39.99.

If you're up for something this week, the Xbox One has Funk of Titans, a side-scrolling action game from the makers of A Crowd of Monsters. It should be out by Friday.


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


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