The X Button
by Todd Ciolek,
The story started up as Kojima's name and his production company disappeared from Metal Gear Solid V's publicity materials, prompting reports that he would depart after Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This led Konami to issue a press release, complete with Kojima quotes assuring the populace that he's still working on The Phantom Pain. It rather conspicuously didn't say anything about Kojima, who's seemed a bit weary of Metal Gear for a while, staying with Konami to direct future installments. The closing lines mention a new Metal Gear already in the works. Konami's planning to recruit new talent for it…and, well, they don't explicitly note that Kojima will be part of that.
If there's meat to the reports, the real question isn't so much about Metal Gear's future, but rather the fate of Silent Hills, a promising survival-horror follow-up backed by Kojima and Guillermo del Toro. It's possible that Kojima would stay on to finish the project just as he would The Phantom Pain…or it could end up like Mega Man Legends 3, which Capcom thoughtlessly canceled after Inafune departed. I never will tire of bringing up that injustice.
If Kojima strikes off on his own, I hope that he'll return to the themes of his earlier works. No, not the cyberpunk visual-novel stylings of Snatcher and Policenauts. Those are great games, but I want to see Kojima on another penguin game.
Kojima's first published work at Konami was Penguin Adventure for the MSX, and it even pulled off some Metal Gear-ish twists for a penguin-themed quest of running and jumping. If the player doesn't pause the game just right, the imperiled penguin princess won't survive the ending. Kojima didn't forget about Penguin Adventure, as you can see Sunny playing it in Metal Gear Solid 4. And maybe he hasn't forgotten penguins in general. There's a lack of good penguin games these days.
Or perhaps Kojima would break away from Konami and remake the first game he ever pitched to them: Lost Warld (as in “war-world”), a platform-action game that starred a woman wrestler-superhero. Konami rejected it. Yet if Kojima wanted to make it now, I'm sure someone would let him.
BREATH OF FIRE 6 DOESN'T LOOK SO BAD, I GUESS
Breath of Fire is not Capcom's brightest series, but even its lamer outings had their strengths. Usually those strengths took the forms of shapeshifting dragon-heroes and imaginatively designed animal-people, all realized through Capcom's typically excellent sprite design. In fact, the fifth Breath of Fire game, Dragon Quarter, experimented with series standards in a replayable, subterranean quest. Not enough people noticed, and Capcom's been stingy toward Breath of Fire since then. It's had an artbook, a portable adaptation or two, and a new smartphone outing officially labeled Breath of Fire 6: Guardians of the White Dragon.
Fans were understandably irked when the next major Breath of Fire emerged as a smartphone deal, and they're not much happier now that Capcom's shown off the game. I won't say it looks awful. It just looks like a lot of smartphone RPGs. Breath of Fire's style pokes through here and there, however. In defending a village called Dragneel, players engage in side-view battles and transmute into dragons when the D-Trance Mode takes effect.
In other ways, Breath of Fire 6 watches for modern RPG cues. Characters can change classes to adopt new battle skills, costumes and five-player online modes await, and a social-media hub appears in the game's main village. The cast pairs regular humans with some beast-folk, but that's a far cry from the snake magicians and frog princes of previous Breath of Fire games. Oh well.
VALKYRIE DRIVE LEAVES LITTLE DOUBT ABOUT WHAT IT IS
Fate compels me to write about any game with “Valkyrie” in the title, be it the esteemed Valkyrie Profile or that phony all-naked Valkyrie Wilde game cooked up by PSM for a long-distant April Fool's issue. Now I face Valkyrie Drive, a multimedia project devised by Marvelous Entertainment. One might say it's about women battling for survival on artificially crafted islands, but the more honest among us will say that it's about anime heroines cuddling up and kissing each other. Their outfits are scant, their battles are flashy, and said combat often involves one buxom heroine turning into a weapon for another buxom heroine to wield in battle.
The three-part project spans an anime series called Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid, complete with its occasionally creepy trailer, plus two games. One is a free-to-play social title called Valkyrie Drive: Siren, and the other is a more elaborate action piece called Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni (there's a pun, I think). Headed to the Vita, Valkyrie Drive Bhikkhuni is a melee brawler where affectionate protagonists Rinka Kagurazaka and Ranka Kagurazaka (for the time being, let's assume they're unrelated friends who just happen to have the same hair color and last name) fight off hordes of enemies by boosting their “synchro rate.” Perfectly innocent, no doubt. As evidenced by the above, this is the work of much the same crew that devised the Senran Kagura series of brawlers and bouncing-breast conveyances. Senran mastermind Kenichiro Takaki is credited as “enormous breasts producer” on Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni.
It's possible that Valkyrie Drive isn't the most distasteful Valkyrie-related game ever made. I'll have to check my records. For now, though, I must point out that nothing shown so far connects to the idea of Norse goddesses plucking the bravest of slain warriors. At most, there's some angel-wing imagery to be seen. Yet I will say this much for Valkyrie Drive: there's no mistaking what it is. You'd expect that from Marvelous, a company that puts together surprisingly professional joke videos about games and breasts.
GRAVITY RUSH REMASTERED
Here's a better opportunity than usual for everyone to laugh at me. Last week I talked up Gravity Rush as the best thing on the PlayStation Vita, and I stopped just short of sticking out my tongue and taunting Vita non-owners because they couldn't play it. I'm glad I took the high road, because the next day a Korean ratings board leaked out an entry for Gravity Rush Remastered on the PlayStation 4.
Ratings board slips usually hold true, and I like the idea of a refurbished Gravity Rush on the PlayStation 4. That said, the news may prepare Gravity Rush 2 as a cross-platform release shared by the PS4 and Vita—or perhaps even a PlayStation 4 exclusive. I wouldn't put it past Sony at this point.
INTERVIEW: DANGANRONPA'S KAZUTAKA KODAKA
The visual novel may never know the same success in America that it routinely enjoys in Japan, but that hasn't held back Danganronpa. The original game lurked as a cult favorite in North America even when it was an unlocalized PSP title, and last year brought new success after NIS America released the original Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and its sequel, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye, Despair. It's not without good cause, either. The games take the cliché of oddball teenagers gathered together and tormented by a mysterious lunatic—in this case, a two-faced bear named Monokuma—and twist it into unexpected shapes. Danganronpa becomes a whirl of mini-games and mysteries, where unassuming heroes snipe alibis like Duck Hunt birds and every stereotype hides a deeper, darker character.
With the third Danganronpa title, Ultra Despair Girls for the PlayStation Vita, scheduled for Western release later this year, our own Heidi Kemps sat down with series writer Kazutaka Kodaka to discuss the thought process behind the rollercoaster stories and memorable cast.
WARNING: The following contains massive spoilers for the entire Danganronpa series, so read at your own risk. We're serious.
Hello, Kodaka-san. It's a pleasure to meet you. I wanted to start by asking you how Danganronpa was conceived and greenlit at Spike [ed: now Spike-Chunsoft].
Kazutaka Kodaka: At that time, Spike really wasn't creating a lot of original titles. However, the staff wanted to make something we could call our own. We ended up staying late after work making DR, and we presented it to the higher-ups… where it was declined. After about two or three more tries, we finally managed to push it through!
What did you do at Spike previous to Danganronpa?
I did the scenario for a game based on Detective Conan, and various stuff for other licensed properties.
What sort of reservations did the executive higher-ups have about releasing a title like this?
Since the game was originally designed for the PSP, the market on PSP for original visual novel games was seen as very poor. And when we made our demo scene of one of the punishments, the top brass thought it was way, way too cruel!
How did you eventually convince them, then?
The president of Spike was a pretty open-minded guy. He also respected the fact that we worked on it after hours, putting our heart and soul into it. He liked our adventurous spirit. That, and probably the fact that the budget we gave for it wasn't so big. [laughs]
The game didn't sell particularly well at first, but it kind of defied typical sales trends to continue to build momentum on word of mouth. Were you afraid, after that initial week, that the game was a failure?
So we were feeling pretty good, since Famitsu had given DR a platinum award. We were like, “yeah, great!” Then Yahoo News picked up that Nobuyo Oyama, Doraemon's voice actress, was doing Monokuma's voiceover. Everything was going according to plan! Then when the game came out, first week sales were… disappointing, to say the least. But, the truth of the matter is, as long as we'd created a game that we were proud of, we were satisfied. That having been said, our producer was quite worried… [laughs]
Moving into the particulars of developing the game and its story… where did you find the idea of having a teen fashion model be the source of unending despair that consumes the world?
The main concept behind that would be the gap between the outward appearance of the character and what they actually do. I was fascinated by that idea–on the one hand, you have someone really cool and pretty, representing bright pop culture, and on the other there's something cruel, horrific, and terrible. The reason I like that gap is that it allows me, as a writer, to play with the emotions of the player a lot more – you can move them from one extreme to the other.
I had the personal interpretation that it was commentary on celebrity culture, the false image and empty existence of being a celebrity yet wielding power to influence others.
Well, the direct answer to if that was what I was trying to portray is… “no.” [laughs] To go a little more into it… the game's core theme is “hope and despair,” and it's something I wanted players to understand and experience organically, as opposed to beating you over the head with overt messages saying “This is what I'm trying to get across!” But in the end, I'm not too concerned if people picked up on the theme or not as long as they enjoyed the story.
Well, yeah, you can definitely see that theme in other characters, too. Like, you've got Sakura Ogami, who you think is a joke–she's practically Kenshiro in a wig–but she makes a huge sacrifice to bring hope to the other characters. Did you consciously try to spread that theme across all the characters?
You're right, it's absolutely a theme shared by all of the characters. When I write a story, I have to have a theme. Because all of the characters are standing on that theme, they all have to reflect facets of what the theme is.
There's definitely a duality to a lot of the characters. Another character I find particularly interesting is Touko Fukawa, who is both socially awkward fujoshi and serial killer. What inspired you to implement those archetypes into this character?
Originally, I wanted a dark female character as part of the cast. But if the character is too dark, she'll be isolated and won't have good interactions with the rest of the characters. Building on the fujoshi archetype, I feel, is what kept her from being too dark and alienating. But in addition to wanting a dark female character in the cast, I wanted a classic whacked-out killer. If you introduce a character like that early on, though, it doesn't really help the narrative. Eventually, I figured that the best way to gradually introduce that character would be to combine it with Fukawa.
Is it an intentional red herring that said killer doesn't actually kill anyone in the game's context? It wasn't so much to lead the player into thinking that she was the main villain, it was more creating balance within the cast itself. Because the setting is that they're all sealed into this school together, it's really important to keep things fresh and lively. The idea of a character with a dual personality is a good way to have a gear change and keep things fresh.
While we're on the topic of fujoshi… we've got Nagito Komaeda, who seems tailor-made to appeal to that particular crowd.
Well, that wasn't really the intent. I knew I wanted to use the character later on in DR2's story, and I really struggled with how far I was willing to take him. I also knew that if he wasn't likable in some way, it'd be hard to use him effectively in the story.
It's interesting–a lot of Danganronpa's cast is off-putting at first and reveal themselves to be a lot more nuanced and appealing over time, but Nagito seems gentle and self-deprecating at first only to reveal that he's a complete creep.
I wanted to have a character who was like a genius boy detective who knew what was going on… but instead of using his abilities to help anybody, he uses them to toy with the others. It's a stark contrast to the first game, where everybody kind of works together, so I wanted a character who was very anti-social and not cooperative.
There's a part in Chapter 4 of Danganronpa 2 where you actually play as Nagito for a bit. How did that come about?
Again, it wasn't really anything that was planned out. I really just thought it'd be an interesting portion–how would it turn out to suddenly have the character you're controlling change?
Danganronpa features a lot of characters who embody varying facets of Japanese otaku culture. One I really like is Sonia, who seems to embody the “foreign Japanophile” stereotype. Where did her inspiration stem from?
One of the concepts I really wanted to put into Danganronpa 2 was a princess. I thought it'd be really cool, but eventually, I realized that if she was just a typical princess she'd feel too similar, personality-wise, to Sayaka from the first game. So in order to differentiate her, I decided to give her a foreign background and a weird otaku obsession for old Japanese dramas. Unfortunately, if you look at their face structure, they still do look very similar…hair color aside. [laughs]
Over the course of the games, you see a lot of otaku media archetypes get subverted. Do you look to current otaku culture when you're coming up with some of these concepts?
The characters are reflections, somewhat, of things I myself like. I have a habit of putting those facets of myself into these characters. For example, I love '90s Tarantino movies. I think some of the characters sometimes can come off like they've been ripped straight from those films. At the end of the day, they do reflect my personal interests.
Who would you say is your favorite out of the bunch, then?
All of them! There might be some that happen to… meet their end more quickly, but I love them all equally.
One of the most interesting factoids about the Japanese voice cast is that Nobuyo Oyama, Doraemon's longtime voice actress, does a complete 180 from her cuddly robot cat self and voices Monokuma. How did you convince her to jump onboard?
Ah, well, it started with a joke I made during an office meeting. “We should get Oyama-san!” To my surprise, everyone loved the idea. But then we figured, nah, she's a big and famous voice actress who won't give us the time of day, but on a whim we made an offer. To the entire team's surprise, she accepted. We kinda freaked out when that happened. [laughs]
In regards to the actual physical designs of the characters, what's your process when working with artist Rui Komatsuzaki? Do you write the script and then have him do the character designs, or do you go back and forth building off each other's ideas?
The process, basically speaking, is that I come up with the plot–no actual dialogue, just the basic plot–and give it to Komatsuzaki-san. He then draws up some characters concepts and sends them back to me. By that point, I've probably started writing a bit of dialogue. Based on what I've written so far, I might send the concepts back asking for adjustments. Once I get the adjustments, I'll go back to writing and see what I can implement about the actual character designs into the dialogue. It's a very organic kind of back-and-forth.
Why did you pick Komatsuzaki in particular for the character designs?
Actually, this is Komatsuzaki-san's first “professional” work, so to speak. He worked at Spike at the time, and I saw that he could draw quite well. Even before Danganronpa's concept gelled, I knew I wanted to work together with him.
In terms of the story, is there a particular event or plot point that sticks out to you as really special?
Danganronpa 2, chapter 5…I really like the verdict, and all of the events that come to surround it.
Moving on to the upcoming Ultra Despair Girls, why did you decide to make this an action game instead of a visual novel?
Easy answer! I wanted to make an action game! [laughs]
Were you worried that you didn't have enough experience in the genre to make an action game?
You're right–I don't have much experience making action games, and most of the staff didn't, either. That being said, I felt that if we had a strong story at the game's base, then the rest would follow naturally.
Are you finding that it's difficult to carry the story onwards from this point?
Yeah, I had that feeling originally. After that, however, I realized there were several things we could expand on, and I began thinking “How can I surprise players even further?” Just thinking about that made me really excited, so now it's something I'm not worried about.
When Ultra Despair Girls was first shown at a Japanese press conference, there was a brief hint at a Danganronpa 3. Any news on how that's coming along?
When we originally decided to do Ultra Despair Girls, we originally planned to do it with a different development team. But what wound up happening is that we had almost the exact same team as the first two games. Then we thought, hey, maybe we can do both at the same time! But that didn't quite work out.
When you were approached by NIS to release the games in English, were you worried about the localization and how things might be perceived by Western audiences?
Absolutely! I was quite worried, to the point I assumed that there would never actually be one. As you know, there's a lot of Japanese cultural stuff in there that I assumed would be a barrier to localization. However, when NIS approached us, I was inspired by their confidence in the project.
By the way, I wondered why NIS didn't change Monokuma's name–though I think it sounds cute in any language, don't you? And they told me they had considered it but were flatly told “no” by others at the company. Monokuma is Monokuma everywhere!
And finally, to wrap this up, the question we are all wondering about: what is your ultimate skill?
[laughs] Hmmm… I'm not sure if I have one… well, when I was young, I went to an all-boys school for part of junior high and high school. In a way, I feel like some elements of youth were robbed from me, since there were no girls around. But one thing about being in that sort of environment is that you don't have to worry about girls judging you. I developed an ability to come up with dirty jokes and base humor on the spot. Perhaps that's my ultimate skill. [laughs]
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
STORY OF SEASONS
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: March 31
Pre-Order Plushie: Angora Rabbit
At last the Harvest Moon Wars are upon us. Story of Seasons and Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley shall clash in a bloody maelstrom of virtual turnips, prospective spouses, and promotional stuffed alpacas. The squabbles of Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo are petty and tiresome compared to the rivalry between two companies out to make the best cute little farming simulator on the 3DS.
Where did it all begin? Well, last year Natsume lost ownership of the Harvest Moon series, called Bokujo Monogatari in Japan, that'd they'd published here since the days of the Super NES. Marvelous, the keepers of the series, gave the next game to their North American pals at XSEED Games. Natsume still has the rights to the name “Harvest Moon,” however, and they made their own title, Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley. So we have a face-off between Natsume's first original Harvest Moon game and a Harvest Moon game that XSEED had to call Story of Seasons.
The name should not fool anyone, of course. Story of Seasons is a Harvest Moon. The player's customized avatar, male or female, heeds a call for farmers in the pastoral Oak Tree Town. Once there, it's a steady process of planting crops, gathering livestock, expanding a homestead, and eventually getting married. Story of Seasons lets the player craft items and chat with townsfolk, and the local trading system expands to include the preferences of foreign markets. Farmers can also own a shop and arrange safari tours of their animals' environs, sure to grift the city slickers. Atop the regular animals, the game adds an angora rabbit, a deer, a new brown chicken, a camel, a goat, and a Brahman cow. No squids just yet.
Of course, there's a multitude of single men and women to romance. The prospective husbands are the reticent florist Kamil, the rough-edged gardener Nadi, cheerful rival rancher Fritz, regal perfume merchant Klaus, businesslike chef Reager, and polite antique expert Mistel. The possible wives are the awkward botanist Licorice, daring explorer Agate, upbeat meteorologist Lillie, practical nurse Angela, laid-back novelist Iris, and snooty rival rancher Elise. I'll be disappointed if Iris isn't a bitter, alcoholic recluse who ignores even her spouse and children.
How does this compare to Natsume's Harvest Moon 3D: The Lost Valley? Well, the characters in Story of Seasons appear in traditionally illustrated portraits, in contrast to the big-headed polygon models of The Lost Valley. On the other hand, Story of Seasons doesn't look to have The Lost Valley's diggable, stackable farmland. That's what makes the Harvest Moon Wars so interesting—to me, at least. I expect everyone else is more invested in the tense and mounting clash between Blast 'Em Bunnies and Catlateral Damage.
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Platform: PS Vita / PlayStation 4
Release Date: March 31
Historically Accurate: Probably Not
MSRP: $39.99 / $59.99
Was Toukiden an unspoken hit? It wouldn't surprise me. Tecmo Koei's Dynasty Warriors games invariably do well enough over here to get most of their spin-offs and sequels localized, even though I never hear people talk about them nearly as much as they do Kingdom Hearts or Tales or Street Fighter. The fact that we're looking at a sequel, Toukiden” Kiwami, means that someone bought the original.
Toukiden: Kiwami is once again a mob-quest action game in the vein of Monster Hunter. You'll create a character, gather allies, and drag them into battle against creatures ten times your size, but in Toukiden: Kiwami you'll do all of that in a fantasy take on feudal Japan. Here your avatar, a demon-hunter known as a Slayer, searches for the source of a new demonic threat, all while refugees from northern kingdoms swamp the humble Utakata Village. The supporting cast returns from the first game, and so does the story: you'll get the original Toukiden saga if you like, but you can move right to the new Kiwami arc.
Immense beasts provide the main attractions in Toukiden: Kiwami, and multiplayer cooperation seems the best way to take them down. During battle, Slayers can use team-up attacks on monsters, and the repertoire expands into healing spells, taunts, and other benefits. Cross-play is also available, so those using the better-looking PlayStation 4 edition can join up with Vita owners (cross-buy would be nice as well, but let's not single out Tecmo Koei for that). Should you go it alone, four new Slayers are on hand to fill your party ranks, and they fit with the fifteen or so new monsters. You're also free to name your character in reference to a thrash metal band, if you really want to be that obvious.
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