The X Button
Zero Missions

by Todd Ciolek,
This week's X Button falls on April Fool's Day, but I resolve not to spring any unpleasant lies upon you. In fact, I don't think any jokes this year will surpass one of the more compelling hoaxes in a long time: Super Turbo Atomic Mega Rabbit. It's impressive enough that someone animated the intro and opening moments of a cartoon that never was, while adding VHS degradation and static. Yet this artist or artists unknown also concocted a YouTube channel, message board comments, an animation cel, and even an eBay auction for a lunchbox and thermos set. That's a lot of work. And hey, maybe the show is real in some unproduced-pilot sense, and we'll all feel cynical for doubting it.

That said, the game industry won't run short on less elaborate gags. As I write this, it's already the first of April in Japan, so plenty of companies there put together their obligatory silliness. You'll see a run-down in our news section, and my favorites so far are Capcom's canine-themed Ace Attorney game and Taito's amazingly small game console. The former is halfway plausible, given the heritage of shows like Sherlock Hound (and those “Canine Witness” banner ads I see sometimes), and Capcom spent some time on it. Taito's game system is just plain cute, and it reminds me of the clever April Fool's pranks that Irem used to pull…before they gave up on video games. It's good to see that some companies haven't.

Oh, and Microsoft bought Final Fantasy, Nintendo made a Mario game where they're all naked, and Sony announced that The Last Guardian is now a kart-racer based on the classic sci-fi film The Last Starfighter. Happy April 1st, everyone!

NEWS

FINAL FANTASY XV IS ALL ABOUT MEN, PERHAPS WOMEN IF THEY'RE QUIET
Let's see what the controversy radar picks up this week! Ah, it's Final Fantasy XV and director Hajime Tabata's explanation for the game's all-male playable cast of Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. He maintains that an absence of playable women is “more approachable for players” and that the group of heroes embodies a “boys will be boys” overtone that would fracture should a woman be part of their little road trip. As he clarified later in Famitsu, it's possible that a female character will join the team as a guest, just to throw some of that feminized oil onto the manful fire.

This disappoints those hoping for a more traditional Final Fantasy lineup, which means at least three female characters (often falling into the categories of Cute Girl, Serious Mystery Woman, and Sweet Heroine). For a good while, Final Fantasy rosters were predominantly male, but recent games shifted things to an equal ratio; Final Fantasy XII and XIII have three men and three women in the party, and the recent Type-0 has pretty much the same split. Yet it's apparent that Final Fantasy XV aims to change a few traditions, so the player's party doesn't extend too far beyond the four leads. And that's a step backward.

Now, some allege that Final Fantasy XV doesn't care about women playing it, but I think the exact opposite is true. Square obviously wants its cast of attractive male heroes to appeal to the women and girls who make up a lot of Final Fantasy's demographic, and for this the staff thinks they don't need actual playable female characters in the game. There's a strong precedent for such pandering, of course. How many dating sims aimed at women are really about their heroines? The Japanese game market plays to female consumers with lineups of appealing, romance-ready guys, and Final Fantasy XV covers that base just as thoroughly as the latest anime season's crop of "fujoshi" series.

Final Fantasy XV leaves out players who want female party members, but the game might address its women in other ways. Stella Nox Fleuret, the presumed heroine, still appears prominently, and it may be that much of Noctis' story concerns her. Final Fantasy XV could focus on how men perceive women, after all. Catherine, that richly weird puzzle-action fever dream from Atlus, concerned itself with such an idea, and the resulting game wasn't sexist so much as it was grimly honest about the warped and ragged views men can have. But I don't think we're in for that sort of story with Final Fantasy XV.

And who might the guest character be? Stella's a likely suspect, as are the mysterious (and possibly identical) Lunafreya Nox Fleuret and a black-haired woman who doesn't have a name as far as I can tell. Then there's the newly introduced mechanic, Cindy. She's technically not the mandatory Cid of the game (that's her grandfather), but she'll serve the role of recurring technician for the party.

I don't like her so far, and that's not just because the latest English-language trailer gives her a corny Southern-fried accent. As far as video-game grease monkeys go, she lacks the mercenary candor of Dr. Naomi from No More Heroes or the earnest charm of Licca Kusunoki from Gods Eater Burst. Final Fantasy XV may have some female-fan boxes checked, but it needs to work on catering to the connoisseur of supportive mechanics.

GET YOUR FREE GURUMIN NOW
One of last year's best promotions came from the Steam Greenlight page for Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure, a Falcom action-RPG first released in Japan back around 2004. Mastiff offered a free download to everyone who signed up for the game's community and voted for a Steam release. That was mighty generous, and Mastiff isn't welshing on the deal. If you were part of the Gurumin voting public, you can nab your free game right now.

If you missed out on the offer, Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure is still worth the ten (well, nine) bucks that Mastiff wants now. It's an enjoyable action-RPG about a girl befriending monsters, and it has an exceptional charm atop its typically sturdy Falcom design. The PC version is a slight improvement on the PSP port that Mastiff localized in 2007, and the Steam port seems to run well. Today's mercurial price drops and Steam sales may leave us wary of paying more than pocket change for a game, but Gurumin demands more attention than that.

TYRANO BUILDER BRINGS IDEAS, BIZARRE FANTASIES TO VISUAL-NOVEL LIFE
Visual novels may seem easier to make than your average first-person shooter or RPG, and that's technically true. Yet they still take a lot of work. TyranoBuilder, a new visual-novel creator, isn't without its complexities, but it's a very helpful tool for crafting stories, creating branches, and putting together the flow of a visual novel. Any nonsense you imagine can become a real game! See?

TyranoBuilder won't do all of the work for you, of course. You'll need to supply character art, dialogue, and anything but the most basic backgrounds (that's why I pilfered the above princess from Terra Battle). Once you learn the program and create your own drawings, however, it's easy to assemble something with a convincing style. Even if you barely get your cyborg protagonist to the scene where she finds the ancient turtle-fueled dream engines of Hammurabi, you'll be blaming your own creative lulls instead of the tools at hand.

IMPORT ROUNDUP: MARCH

ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM: THE GREAT SIEGE OF TEACHER KORO!!
Developer: Bandai Namco Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
A.k.a.: Assassination Classroom: Koro-Sensei Dai Houimou

I can't find any record of Yusei Matsui deliberately conceiving Assassination Classroom as prime material for video games, but let's be honest: it works out perfectly. As the latest Shonen Jump breakout, Assassination Classroom pits a gaggle of delinquents against a new teacher who just happens to be a yellow, tentacled alien capable of destroying the world. In their attempts at xenocide, the students adopt personalized methods of murder and employ group tactics. That's a video game waiting to happen.

Assassination Classroom: The Great Siege of Teacher Koro isn't quite as ambitious as its manga origins suggest, but it fits its premise into the notch of a semi-strategic action game. Players control big-headed versions of the Class 3-E misfits plus their own customized avatars, switching between them in elaborate attempts to pin down the smiley-faced alien teacher. He's susceptible to everything from hot springs to dirty magazines, but Koro proves a wily target and has a variety of attacks straight from the manga and anime series. Players can also control Koro in another mode, maneuvering him through student patrols and crossfire like a big yellow Solid Snake—one that makes children dizzy instead of snapping their necks, that is.

Import Barrier: That dratted 3DS is still region-locked, though the game itself isn't so hard to understand.

Domestic Release: Not likely. Assassination Classroom's manga and anime incarnations are gaining ground here, but the 3DS game isn't likely to join them. The idea of armed students murdering their teacher is bound for parental outcry if Assassination Classroom hits it big, anyway.

Classic Connections: There aren't too many callbacks in the 3DS game, but you'll see Koro in J-Stars Victory VS alongside many older manga characters. It'll be out in North America later this year, too.

DIGIMON STORY: CYBER SLEUTH
Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PlayStation Vita
A.k.a.: The Redemption of DigimonOtis

Last year's Digimon: All-Star Rumble might have comforted Digimon fans and Twitter celebrities, but it's a lone game compared to the numerous Digimon titles that Bandai Namco's left in Japan. In fact, the Digimon Story sub-line started up in 2010, and it hasn't shown much of itself in North America. Cyber Sleuth is the latest Digimon Story title. It seems very familiar, and not just to Digimon loyalists.

Cyber Sleuth further explores the vast online future imagined by Digimon. It resembles Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars not a little—and it should, since Hosoda directed some bits of Digimon film a while ago. The Digimon vision of cyberspace is a glowing virtual cityscape where cute avatars and conventionally realized citizens roam, but there's a blockier, nastier underbelly to the whole thing. It manifests in the form of Digital Monsters (yes, the Digimon), and the player's avatar is caught between the physical and online worlds after a Digimon-hunting accident. Yet it happens at the right time. The forces behind these Digimon outbreaks are somehow scrambling the real world and the virtual realm (as they always do), and the game's hero or heroine is just perfect for running around and recruiting nice Digimon to put things right.

There's a constrained social-media side to Cyber Sleuth, but the gameplay follows RPG routines. As players gain allies and train Digimon, they wander cyber-tech labyrinths and fight random battles. You'll see a Digilab and a Digifarm for digivolving and digitrainting your digimarketable digicharacters, and the player's monster-carrying capacity expands with experience. It's all kept relatively simple in approach, but the game's impressive backgrounds and underlying mysteries go a little deeper than All-Star Rumble.

Import Barrier: Not so bad if you're willing to miss out on pieces of the plot.

Domestic Release: Bandai Namco has said nothing yet, but they clearly haven't given up on Digimon. Cyber Sleuth is welcoming for new players, though its tilt toward slightly older audiences could trouble some localizers. Designer Suzuhito Yasuda's habit of giving every woman ridiculously jutting breasts might be too much for the frail sensibilities of North American children.

Classic Connections: Familiar Digimon appear alongside new ones, including the ostensible series star Agumon. I always thought it strange that kids preferred Pokemon's electric rat to a game headlined by a baby T-Rex, but that's Nintendo money for you.

YAKUZA ZERO
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PlayStation 3 / PlayStation 4
A.k.a.: Ryu ga Gotoku 0: Chikai no Basho

Yakuza fans often give Sega grief for not localizing enough of the series. As much as we like to blame Sega for everything from the Saturn's American launch to Sonic kissing women beyond his species, Yakuza presents a challenge. Not only are the games heavy on dialogue and Japanese cultural touchstones, but they're far more profuse and profitable in Japan than they could ever be in North America. As with Namco's Tales series, fans have to accept that they're not getting every last piece of Yakuza in English. The best they'll see are localizations of the major Yakuza titles.

Is Yakuza Zero a major title? I think so. It's a prequel, but not a distant throwback like Kenzan. Yakuza Zero unfolds in 1988, at the heart of Japan's opulent, hedonistic economic bubble. While others are enjoying a neon nightlife or taking in the double bill of My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, a young punk named Kazuma Kiryu is in trouble. He's in good with the Doujima crime family, but things take a puzzling turn when an average schmoe is found dead…shortly after Kazuma roughs him up. Meanwhile, a young Goro Majima takes on a contract killing to get back into the underworld, but he suffers one of those attacks of assassin conscience when his target turns out to be a blind woman. So the two men are mixed up with established mobsters, ambitiously wealthy interlopers, and sewer showdowns against motorcycle-riding, pipe-wielding hitmen. Yakuza rivalries are not always subtle.

As usual, the gangster melodrama is only half of a Yakuza game's attraction. When not pushing the plot onwards, the player wanders the elaborate playground of Kamurocho. The usual attractions of hostess clubs (with dateable hostesses), gambling dens, and arcades await, and they're joined by distinctly '80s discos complete with dancing mini-games. Well, they're distinctly '80s for the Japanese economic bubble, anyway. Disco survived a little longer there than it did in the West. Should you despise all things disco, Yakuza Zero rarely wants for know-nothing punks to thrash. A few belligerent, woman-pawing jerks back off at the sight of Kiryu's mug, but most them must learn the hard way.

Import Barrier: Given the copious amounts of voice-driven storyline, there's a lot to miss if you're not up on your Japanese. Importers can watch for the Chinese version next month, as it might just have English subtitles.

Domestic Release: Maybe. Sega is busy localizing Yakuza 5 for a release later this year, so Zero's prospects depend on that.

Classic Connections: Once again, Yakuza borrows the best parts of Shenmue and turns players loose in an arcade with some Sega classics. Here you'll find Space Harrier, Hang-On, OutRun, and Fantasy Zone. And you can play them on your Vita.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

ETRIAN MYSTERY DUNGEON
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: April 7
Untapped Dungeon Crossover: Metroid
MSRP: $39.99

Etrian Odyssey was hardly the first game to send players through mazes thick with monsters and mappable tension. The Mysterious Dungeon series did just that decades ago, and it seeped over into games starring Torneko from Dragon Quest, the Chocobo from Final Fantasy, and, of course, a bunch of Pokemon. Etrian Odyssey is simply the latest and perhaps the most suitable. It also shot through the market rather quickly. Atlus announced it in November, brought it to Japan in March, and localized it for an April release.

Etrian Mystery Dungeon begins in the mountain village of Aslarga (please pronounce that as though there are children present), where adventurers gather and depart for the hostile depths of nearby labyrinths. And there's the heart of the game: sprawling subterranean mazes where floors and their hazards are randomly arranged. Enemies pace in time with the player's party, only moving when the protagonists move, and the resulting dance of attacks and defense brings strategy to what looks like a standard Zelda-ish title at an inexperienced glance.

Yet there's more to it. The four-character party includes various Etrian Odyssey classes, from Gunners to Medics to Protectors, plus the new Furai vocation that resembles the lead character from Shiren the Wanderer. No matter the class, most of their attacks wreak uncomfortable maladies on the enemies. Of course, the foes spit out their own nasty status effects, and the strongest ones, being proactive go-getters in a cutthroat corporate monster structure, venture outside of the labyrinths to attack the player's hometown. Can't blame them for going on the offense.

XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3D
Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: New Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: April 10
Reyn Time: Not Internationally Recognized
MSRP: $39.99

The original Wii release of Xenoblade Chronicles defied expectations. It became a critical and cult success in a time when far too many people use “Japanese RPG” as some strange pejorative. Thanks to Nintendo and GameStop's limited run of the game, it also became the rare modern title to command high eBay prices mere months after its release. And it became one of the few RPGs that explores the giant upright carcasses of two strange dueling aliens.

Xenoblade's worlds are, in fact, a pair of bizarre titans frozen in mid-battle, and that lends an engaging sense of breadth to a massive open-world RPG. The player's party may trudge across spacious lands and fight inventively arranged battles, but that lush forest is on the leg of a mysterious ancient giant, and that mountain outcropping leads to an enormous blade thrust into the world-creature's chest. Atop a huge realm and a fast-paced combat system, Xenoblade provides the inevitable story of a young hero granted some mysterious ability that might unravel the world. This hero, named Shulk, gathers friends to help him, he visits curious new realms, and he fights against an insidious robotic empire called the Machina. But it's sewn together with some intriguing science-fiction beats, accomplished British voice acting, and little blobbish Nopon creatures who spout friendly lines like “Howya do?” and “Yes now?” when accosted.

The 3D version of Xenoblade Chronicles is among the first games that work only on Nintendo's New 3DS, as opposed to those New 3DS titles that play just fine on an old system. The New 3DS serves the game with a faster processor and some expanded control options, and it adds a token-collecting mode where players can buy songs or character models. The Shulk Amiibo figure also works with this new version of Xenoblade, allowing players to collect tokens faster. Yes, Xenoblade isn't just a Nintendo title. It's a Nintendo franchise. I hope it'll open the door for 3DS ports of Pandora's Tower and The Last Story.

Also Available:
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin arrives on PC, the PlayStations, and the Xboxes on April 7. It includes the game's three major DLC packs, and the Xbox One, Direct X 11, and PlayStation 4 versions have better looks and six-player online options. It's not a bad jump-in point, and Bandai Namco already has some pre-update DLC out for existing Dark Souls II owners.


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


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