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Chapter Plays

by Todd Ciolek,
You might've missed me during last week's E3 nonsense, when I came down with food poisoning. Fortunately, I wasn't at E3, so I just rode out the extravaganza by watching trailers and making feeble Twitter posts from my bed. While my whole recovey was uncomfortable, I took some dim relief in just sitting back and taking in E3 as a spectator for a change.

But what happened at E3, anyway? Sony and Square had great news, but Nintendo pretty much stole the whole thing by turning President and CEO Satoru Iwata, Nintendo of America President and COO Reggie Fils-Aime, and legendary producer Shigeru Miyamoto into Muppets. Then it turned them into Starfox Muppets. It was great.

In terms of what made me happy, however, The Last Guardian's trailer ranks high—second-highest, in fact. The game was a notorious no-show at many previous E3 displays, and it went through many travails since its 2009 announcement. It changed developers, saw director Fumito Ueda quit Sony and stay on as a contractor, and switched from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation 4. But the game endures, even if little new material showed up in the new trailer. It's still about a kid and a huge griffon finding their way through shaky castle remnants and breezy cliffsides.

And it still looks fantastic. Ueda's Ico built a masterfully subtle game from a simple fairy-tale castle escape, while Shadow of the Colossus used the same sense of restraint in a vein of revealing, inventive battles against huge creatures. The Last Guardian mixes the two ideas: players control the young protagonist, and the griffon, Trico, obeys commands about as well as a giant puppy would. So levels must be navigated and puzzles solved with Trico's giant form and beastly behaviors in mind. For one thing, Trico seems to hate the strange mobiles that decorate their surroundings.

Ico has a wonderful moment where Yorda, a captive princess, leaps across a gap to reach Ico, the horned boy who's freed her. She falls short, and the player, as Ico, has to pull her up in a blur of wan limbs and utter panic. It's the only time a video game every made me pull the actual controller, as though yanking it high into the air would give Ico and Yorda new leverage. The Last Guardian's trailer has a moment where its kid hero jumps from a crumbling stone nodule toward Trico, who nips out for its master…and misses. Twice. The kid plummets past, only to grab onto the griffon's tail. I almost wish the trailer hadn't shown this scene, because I'd want to discover it through gameplay. But I'm glad it's in there, because it shows that, after years of delays, Ueda still knows what he's doing.

And my favorite part of E3 2015? Well…


Nier really isn't the sort of game that gets sequels. It's a marvelous creation, of course, and its mixture of genre-shifting gameplay and unique narrative made it a cult sequel. It does things with its story that wouldn't work in any medium but video games, and for that I expect it to go down as one of the decade's best titles. But it's a remarkably complete story. If you see all of the endings, you're left with nothing else to do—the last possible conclusion erases your save file. That doesn't leave things wide open for any follow-ups.

Yet a follow-up is what Square Enix has in mind. Nier New Project brings back many names from the first Nier and its uglier cousin, the Drakengard series. Director-writer Taro Yoko returns to weave his twisted torments upon the player, and producer Yosuke Saito and composer Keiichi Okabe also rejoin for the new Nier. The character art comes from Akihiko Yoshida (Final Fantasy XII, Tactics, Bravely Default), and the design work falls to Metal Gear Rising: Revegeance's Takahisa Taura and others at Platinum Games. The only name unseen so far is writer Sawako Natori, who was part of every Drakengard and Nier to date.

Saito and Yoko are quick to point out that Nier New Project takes place well after the original game and won't directly link to its story. However, creepy-faced mutant child Emil reportedly appears somewhere (he'd better, since Yoko wore an Emil mask at E3), as does one other character of shocking, undisclosed identity. But the game's heroine, seen briefly in the trailer, isn't related to any previously seen characters. The same presumably goes for the boy glimpsed in a similar light, and the game's third, yet unrevealed, playable character. Of course, that could be misdirection from the ever-playful Yoko, who vows that the game will have a happy ending. His sort of happy ending, anyway.

Yes, this was the highlight of E3 for me. Nier's only real problem might've been the combat, and I didn't even mind it. Platinum has a well-deserved reputation for excellent action games, so they're a perfect puzzle-piece fit for the game. And I can't wait to see just what Yoko will devise. After Drakengard 3's extra-nasty final challenge, I imagine the new Nier will demand that players mail off their severed little finger to obtain a passcode for the game's true ending—which then makes your game console catch fire.

Oh, and Square Enix also showed off that Final Fantasy VII remake that fans demanded for a good while. It's about time—if any Final Fantasy should be remodeled from a technical standpoint, it's Final Fantasy VII. The game arrived just when designers were only starting to get 3-D right, and its look is a wildly incongruous mix of semi-realistic proportions and noseless Popeye-armed marionettes. Director Tetsuya Nomura says that the remake will stick to the original game's character lineup and frequent humor of the original, but the introductory trailer looks pretty somber. And why do the Shinra corporate soldiers look like Call of Duty extras? At least the ill-received Dirge of Cerberus kept everything futuristic in style.

Where were you on June 23, 1991? You probably weren't buying the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, unless you were remarkably on the ball in a era that didn't observe release dates all that firmly. But Sega hasn't forgotten that particular date, and they'll remember it with a slight delay on June 25. That's when Sonic Runners appears on iOS and Android smartphones tablets.

Sonic Runners already appeared in Japan and Canada months ago, which undercuts the celebration somewhat. Yet it's not a bad game as free-to-play titles go, and its simple mechanics recall the older Sonic games and a time when Sonic wasn't smooching human princesses and fumbling through glitch cutscenes and attracting all sorts of Internet weirdoes. And perhaps that's the best we can expect from a Sonic game today.

I really enjoy older games, but I don't collect them like I once did. I used to trek through flea markets for NES cartridges, trawl eBay for obscure PC-FX games, and basically pick up any title or system that might interest me. I stopped all of that years ago. It was partly due to my desire to cut down on the material blockage in my life, but greed motivated me just as much. See, retro games have exploded in price over the past few years, especially when it comes to Nintendo stuff. People pay exorbitant sums for common games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and the original Nintendo 64 release of Super Smash Bros. So why shouldn't GameStop join the rush?

Surprisingly, GameStop's prices aren't particularly insane when compared to the going eBay rates. No, GameStop wants only modestly ridiculous amounts. In a fair world, no one should pay fifty bucks for Contra III or twenty bucks for Duck Tales (especially not with a messed-up label), but you'll pay just about as much on eBay. Other games sit higher; you can get Illusion of Gaia for under twenty if you're halfway patient on eBay, but GameStop wants thirty. Of course, that's just a fact of the retro-game bubble: people will pay for it. Fifteen years ago you could trudge through a flea market and find vendors stocking entire bricklike walls of NES games and selling them at two dollars a cartridge. Those days are long gone.


Status: Almost Funded
Platforms: Windows
Ends: Thursday, June 25

Perception isn't the only recent adventure game with a blind protagonist. Tiger & Squid's Beyond Eyes follows a sightless girl through a world that appears as she touches it, and the Kickstarted Blindside lets players navigate entirely by sound. Perception puts a more pressing spin on it, however, as it dumps its heroine in a haunted house that she's forced to navigate through echolocation. As Cassie wanders a vacant mansion in rural Massachusetts, the sounds she makes let the player see outlines of her surroundings. Of course, making noise also runs the risk of alerting something that the Kickstarter describes only as a “Presence.”

The staff behind Perception counts Bioshock and Deep Space among their games, but I can't see the blue-frame scenery without thinking of Square Enix's Murdered: Soul Suspect and its similarly ghostlike palette. The actual gameplay reminds me more of Fatal Frame or Clock Tower, however, since Cassie is limited in her weapons and largely at the mercy of her environment. The developers also let her visit the haunted home in previous eras, and she'll contend with that horror-movie cliché of evil dolls. The dialogue in the trailer also leans a little too much on Cassie's sarcastic narration, but I blame the lingering influence of Joss Whedon for that.

Status: Funded
Platforms: Windows, PlayStation 4, PS Vita
Ends: Friday, July 3

The makers of Regalia: Of Men and Monarchs don't really need to tell you that they're fans of anime-ish strategic RPGs. It's pretty clear from the game's grid battles, the profusely coiffed characters, and the cute little illustrations that dot the Kickstarter page. It's also light in its premise. Like a lot of fantasy heroes, Kay is the prince of a fallen kingdom. Yet it's stayed fallen, and Kay has to rejuvenate an initially worthless stretch of land while dealing with family debts, meddling compatriots, and the lingering mystery of just what happened to the kingdom in ages past. Regalia mixes in a social system reminiscent of the Persona games or Fire Emblem: Awakening, as Kay's many companions talk amongst themselves and forge friendships at times. The designers have a nice sense of humor about things, even going so far as to note how many of the main characters are blond. It's like Final Fantasy Tactics, but goofy instead of horrific and depressing!

The people behind Regalia also show themselves to be rather amenable to fan input. First glimpses of the game showed basic square grids where players ordered around characters, but the developers have since vowed to switch to something less bland in its geometry. The battles involve a turn-based test of action points and shield points, the latter of which make up for the game's lack of healing spells or curative tinctures. Beyond that, Kay can expand his kingdom one building at a time, all while balancing diplomatic relations with neighboring kingdoms. It's cute and promising, though I wonder if Pixelated Milk is biting off too much by adding voices to the game. The first trailer with acting is…kinda rough.

Status: Funded, Apparently
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows
Ends: Friday, July 27

No Kickstarter got quite as much attention as the drive for Shenmue III. Sony announced it in the middle of their E3 showing, and money poured in rapidly. The game is well past its $2 million goal, and it's a testament to just how much fans want the third chapter in Yu Suzuki's over-ambitious epic.

The original Shenmue was a remarkable creation for its time. It sent a young dope named Ryo Hazuki on a search for his father's killer, but his journey spanned a painstaking rendition of 1986 Japan and Hong Kong. Ryo could wander towns, raise a kitten, buy toys, work odd jobs, race forklifts, and talk to just about anyone. It was a bloated, indulgent thing, and its $47 million budget certainly didn't help Sega, as every Dreamcast owner would've had to buy the game (perhaps twice) to ensure success. I found Shenmue dull once its novelty subsided, but please don't tell that to ardent Shenmue fans. They want to know what happens, and their mania is a game all its own. Is it the tantalizing lure of an unfinished story? Is it the same overinflated nostalgia that surrounds a lot of mediocre Dreamcast titles? Whatever it is, it's filled a Kickstarter faster than just about anything to date.

As Suzuki explains on the Kickstarter, the third Shenmue finds Ryo and the semi-mysterious Shenhua traveling through China, still in search of Lan Di and the Chi You Men mob. The game promises “new fight mechanics” and vaguely alludes to an ending for the saga. That'll take some compact storytelling, as Shenmue's original plot stretches across 16 chapters, and Shenmue III picks up at the sixth. The Kickstarter video shows little beyond Ryo and Shenhua jumping across a stream in the countryside. The scenery improves on past Shenmues, but the voice acting sticks to the stiff readings that we all either mocked or tolerated fifteen years ago. But perhaps that's what the Shenmue acolytes want.

Yet the Kickstarter roused suspicious within moments. It asked only $2 million for a game presumably just as ambitious as the first two Shenmue titles, in which $2 million would budget Ryo for a train ride and a few gashapon toys. Sony is backing the game somewhat, but executives gave contradictory statements about just how much the company is putting into the new Shenmue. Shibuya Productions, a Monaco-based company involved with the project, stated that Sony will provide "various supports," but Suzuki seems to count on the Kickstarter for funds, remarking that it'll be a true open world at the $10 million point. At the very least, the Kickstarter is proof that plenty of people want Shenmue. It just feels manipulative.

Will Shenmue still draw players into its admittedly mundane tale of revenge and mysticism? Possibly. The older games came about before Grand Theft Auto III and its descendants made wide-open worlds commonplace and replete with action more lively than shooting pool with sailors. So Shenmue has a lot to prove.

The Bard's Tale is a staple of early computer RPGs, and I played a good deal of it before my parents got me an NES. Oddly, it never saw a fourth installment—we had a remake with Cary Elwes years ago, but it wasn't an actual The Bard's Tale IV. Well, InXile Entertainment has a fourth official game in the works. It returns to the original's vision of the imperiled town of Skara Brae, though that just makes it look like a typical fantasy-RPG full of ancient sorcerers and yappy goblins. Also, Cary Elwes is nowhere to be heard.

We Happy Few has an elaborate Kickstarter video introducing its world, one of those outwardly happy but violently oppressive societies. It charges the player with escaping an over-medicated English dystopia by blending in, sneaking out, and bashing people with the weapons you find. It's too bad that the game resorts to the Bioshock Infinite habit of offering a weird political commune and then telling the player to kill things. At least there's more subterfuge in We Happy Few.

If you want a dating simulator pared down to its nastiest element, there's Boyfriend Stealer. You play a college dropout who heads to a new school and tries to break up the happy couples there, complete with just-sorta-off anime art. It can't really match modern dating sims, however, since the characters aren't birds or tanks or ceiling fans. And now it's canceled.


Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3
Release Date: June 30
Vita Version: IN July?
MSRP: $39.99

Snort if you must at the idea of yet another BlazBlue expansion, but it's been over a year since the initial BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma. In fighting-game time, that's as long as Star Wars fans waited for the prequels.

BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma Extend continues such traditions by adding a few things to last year's more expansive sequel. The sole new character on the playable roster is one Celica A. Mercury, who's a lot older than she looks. In BlazBlue's rabidly convoluted backstory of ancient weapons and high-tech futurescapes, Celica hung around with protagonist Ragna the Bloodedge during the Dark War and…well, some shenanigans and resurrections later, she's a young woman who fights with the aid of a mecha-doll named Ex Machina: Minerva. It's a copy of the android that accompanies magician Carl Clover, and it helps Celica in much the same way. The other addition to the lineup is Lambda -No.11-, but she already appeared in older games. And I don't have enough space to explain her backstory.

Extend also throws in new storylines for previously introduced characters like Bullet and Kokonoe, plus side-arcs and gag reels for other characters, Celica included. Online play also expands to allow more players in the PlayStation 4 version, and they can even spend BlazBlue money to fashion their own multiplayer rooms. And you'll find little changes to the flashing complexities of BlazBlue's reckless anime-ish combat, including a revised Guard Crush technique. No, it's not a proper BlazBlue sequel, but at least it hasn't kept fans waiting.

Developer: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PS Vita
Release Date: June 30
Unfairly Excluded: City Hunter
MSRP: $59.99

Ah, the crossover fighting game. The only way we ever will see a manga series like Chinyuki -Taro to Yukai na Nakama-tachi- in North America. Its baby-man protagonist Taro Yamada is a hideous obscurity as far as Western comic readers are concerned, but in J-Stars Victory VS+ he's just as important as the headliners of Naruto and One Piece and Fist of the North Star.

J-Stars puts established icons and lesser-knowns alike into a 3-D brawler with spacious levels and ample reasons to pound opponents. Characters form teams of three and clash in the villages and fields of the trans-dimensional Jump World. Their attacks vary from the usual close-range stuff and projectiles to elaborate team-up moves that call up little cutscenes straight off a manga page. It's hardly a balanced fighting game, but that shouldn't stop any fans from getting into it.

For those fans, the big attraction is the character lineup. So we'll get to it. J-Stars Victory VS+ features Korosensei from Assassination Classroom, Arale from Dr. Slump, Ichigo and Aizen from Bleach, Tatsumi and Baby Beel from Beelzebub, the title hero from Bobobo-bo Bo-Bobo, the aforementioned Taro Yamada from Chinyuki, Kenshiro and Raoh from Fist of the North Star, Gintoki from Gintama, Nube from Hell Teacher Nube, Gon and Killua from Hunter X Hunter, Jonathan and Joseph from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Kankichi from KochiKame, Medaka from Medaka Box, Sawada from Reborn!, Kenshin and Shishio from Rurouni Kenshin, Saiki from Saiki Kusuo no Psi-nan, Pegasus from Saint Seiya, Momotaro from Sakigake!! Otokojuku, Luckyman from Tottemo! Luckyman, and Toriko and Zebra from Toriko. The game favors certain series both in the storyline and character selection, of course. Dragon Ball contributes Goku, Vegeta, and Frieza. Naruto throws in Naruto, Sasuke, and Madara. One Piece offers Luffy, Ace, Boa, and Akainu. Oh, and Yu Yu Hakusho gets Yusuke, Hiei, and Toguro on the roster.

The supporting characters go even further into Shonen Jump manga archives, including Rukia from Bleach, Shoyo from Haikyu!!, Misogi from Medaka Box, Testuya from Kuroko's Basketball, Allen from D.Gray-man, Kagura and Sadaharu from Gintama, Chitoge Kirisaki from Nisekoi, Neuro from Neuro, Heihachi from Sakigake!! Otokojuku, Lala from To Love-Ru, Jaguar from Pyu to Fuku! Jaguar, Hisoka from Hunter X Hunter, and the trio of Bossun, Himeko, and Switch from Sket Dance. Yes, that's a lot to sort through, but I'm sure that at least one manga reader's purchase depends on whether or not Pyu to Fuku! Jaguar gets representation.

Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: June 30
Missing: Nisa
MSRP: $39.99

One could argue that earlier Re;Birth games were necessary parts of the Neptunia series. They refashioned the first two Neptunia titles into playable affairs, provided that one can stomach the Neptunia mixture of ultra-twee superheroines recycling in-jokes about video games. Re:Birth 3, however, is a remake of Hyperdimension Neptunia V, which was a technically standard RPG in the first place. Of course, some argue that the Neptunia series itself isn't necessary—not when Sega Hard Girls tells the same sort of retrogame jokes with less pandering repetition. But that's a debate for another time.

If you're going to play the third proper Neptunia game, Re:Birth 3 seems the version to get. It adds more customizable attacks to the battle system, it expands the Stella dungeon side attractions, and it lets player change the landscape of the world itself. Much of the underlying game remains unchanged, though. It's still the tale of a world that personifies game companies and consoles as kingdoms and their patron goddesses, respectively. Our heroine is the bratty Neptune, who's capable of changing into a sleeker, more serious techno-deity that symbolizes Sega's never-made Neptunia console. In Re;Birth 3, she's sent back to the 1980s and encounters everything from a Sega Genesis dominatrix to a ditzy incarnation of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx. Along the way, the battles play out in fields where characters can move around within circular ranges and attack however they like. It's a little smoother than the PlayStation 3 title, and this remake adds a few more character cameos, including the simultaneous appearances of 5pb and MAGES. And for a series built on cutesy game-company gags, that means something.

Gust's Ar nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star arrived on the PlayStation 3 last year, and NIS America and Tecmo Koei deliver an enhanced Vita port next week. It's a science fiction RPG closely related to Gust's Ar Tonelico series. The digital version is available widely, but NIS America has a limited physical edition with a bunch of extras. Buy twelve just in case they become super-rare in 2027.

The Legend of Kay is a modest action-adventure game from the PlayStation 2 era, and it returns in an HD version on the PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, and Wii U. If you want a game full of animal-people, here's your best bet this month.

If you need something this week, Tecmo Koei's Toukiden Kiwami shows up on Steam this Friday. It's a Monster Hunter clone, yes, but it's dressed up in medieval-Japanese fantasy and some strikingly designed creatures. That, and you won't find many deliberate Monster Hunter imitators on Steam.

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

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