The X Button - Expert Ease

by Todd Ciolek,
Xenoblade Chronicles X is the sort of game meant for special-edition packaging. It's a gobsmackingly huge journey across an alien world where the player finds towering creatures, massive robots, and a generous fusion of anime sci-fi commonalities from Asimov's time to the modern era. So Nintendo assembled a collector's edition that supports the core game, in stylish Wii U colors, with a heavy artbook, a small art print, and a USB drive containing ten cuts from the game's soundtrack. Oh, and you get a handsome outer box and a less handsome tray to hold them.

The artbook stands as the best piece of the package. It's a thick tome of Xenoblade Chronicles X production materials, and it covers everything from the surroundings of the human colonists' New Los Angeles (right down to the stairwell layouts) to the planet's native animals and alien races. The illustrations are excellent for the most part, though Lin's eyes are creepy, perhaps in homage to Momo from Xenosaga. It's a grand improvement on the anemic pamphlet that came with Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, but said pamphlet was a free pre-order goodie. You're paying for it this time around.

Too bad the art print isn't as impressive. It's a nice illustration, showing the player's apparent avatar and the supporting cast against a backdrop of monsters and half-buried technological ruins. Yet it doesn't give the characters much detail, and the image is the size of a novelty postcard. I can't image what people would do with it, apart from sticking it on the wall and admiring it from about three inches away.

Artbooks and postcards hardly justify an extra thirty dollars, so Nintendo added a USB drive shaped like the sleep chambers in Xenoblade Chronicles X. It's also shaped like the Zohar Modifier from Xenosaga and even a little like the Zohar engine from Xenogears, though without the insidious glowing eye. It looks cheap at a glance, but it's made of solid metal and glows blue when inserted.

That's where the problems start. In a desperate attempt to keep people from sharing or stealing these ten music tracks, the USB drive plays the songs only in a propriety display program. What's more, the drive contains a bug that takes over and blocks a Windows-based computer's Y or Z drive, according to a number of users. This may not happen to every user, but it's a ridiculous, embarrassing misstep by Nintendo or whatever music label demanded this program. A ten-song USB drive is no different than the soundtracks that publishers regularly bundle with their special-edition games, and their attempts to curb piracy just annoy consumers and, in this case, force them to revert their computer drives. And all of this just to keep ten music tracks from leaking online.

Is the special edition worth ninety dollars? I don't think so. The artbook is great, the print is nice but useless, and the USB drive is neat in concept. Compared to other bundles, however, the Xenoblade Chronicles X bundle seems stiff and wan. The typical NISA America or Tales RPG boxset adds some figures or trinkets to go along with the standard soundtrack and artbook, even if they sometimes add more than thirty bucks to the price. It's too bad Nintendo didn't have more fun with Xenoblade and toss in a robot model kit or a plush keychain of Tatsu, the adorably annoying alien fuzzball sidekick. At least those wouldn't screw with your computer.

NEWS

LEYNOS REMAKE FINALLY APPROACHES
Masaya's Assault Suit Leynos was a pioneer in its own time. It wasn't the first game to tackle Gundam-style space warfare, but it captured the atmosphere of orbital robot battles, colony raids, and desperate pilot chatter rather well for a Sega Genesis game—and it actually came to North America as Target Earth. The Assault Suits series isn't an apex predator of the game industry, but it lives on in mecha-action games like Gigantic Army, Armed Seven, and Gunhound EX. In fact, Masaya was apparently impressed enough with Gunhound EX that they recruited the developer, Dracue Software, for an Assault Suit Leynos remake on the PlayStation 4.

Dracue's Assault Suit Leynos follows the original strikingly close, even using the same English text crawl to introduce a war between an army of banished space rogues and the Earth forces. It also remains a side-scrolling shooter, albeit one now dressed in modern graphics, additional weapons, and the panicked voices of co-pilots and navigators. It doesn't look bad, but Dracue put a glossy finish on the many battle mecha. It's a little jarring for the larger machines and missile platforms, as though the whole thing is a stiffer robot version of a Vanillaware game.

Assault Suit Leynos went through several delays since its announcement last year, and you'll find two demos if you brave the Japanese PlayStation Network. The full game is out December 23 in Japan, though no one's mentioned an international release. I won't lie; Assault Suits Valken (Cybernator in the West) is my favorite piece of the Assault Suit(s) series. Yet it saw a remake on the PlayStation 2, and it didn't turn out so well. Leynos should have a turn now.

GRAVITY RUSH 2 TAKES SHAPE, REQUESTS
I resent the insinuations that I use any excuse to put Gravity Rush in this column. I only do so when there's vital news about the game's remastering and its sequel. For example, Sony announced that Gravity Rush 2 might have Halloween costumes!

In truth, Sony streamed gameplay from Gravity Rush 2 a few days after their Playstation Experience 2015 (more on that later), and they revealed a lot about the game. It takes place a few months after the first Gravity Rush, with an anime film covering the gap between the two titles. The sequel takes place in a floating city with architecture and culture inspired by East Asian and South American sights, as opposed to the more Moebius-ish European look of the original, and the new city is about two-and-a-half times larger. It retains a lot of what made the original so fascinating, including the made-up patois spoken by the characters. I do like fictional languages. Maybe someday people will speak Gravitese like they do Klingon.

Gravity-warping heroine Kat can fly and dash and dive just like she did in the first game, with three different fighting styles now at her disposal, and the player can take photos of just about anything in the game. Sony even alluded to an alternate reality similar to what we saw in the first game, though the gameplay exhibition didn't get into that. One of the bigger questions about the game concerns Raven, a snootier gravity-wielder at times cast as Kat's rival. She'll accompany Kat into some battles during Gravity Rush 2, mirroring the player's attacks. Sony stopped short of saying that you can control Raven directly, and instead they gave a noncommittal “we're aware of fan requests” answer. Which means you'll get to play as Raven in Gravity Rush 3.

Gravity Rush 2 has no firm release date just yet, though the original game's Remastered form is out for the PlayStation 4 in Japan right now. The special edition has Kat and Dusty toys by Figma, plus a few postcards, and it looks to retail for at least $150, judging by the Amazon Japan listings. The U.S. version is coming February 2, minus the special-edition trinkets. C'mon, Sony. At least put some postcards inside the case.

INDIVISIBLE REACHES ITS GOAL AND THEN SOME
LabZero's Indivisible didn't have it easy. The game looked gorgeous in its pitch and playable demo, with beautiful animation and gameplay that felt like a faster-paced Valkyrie Profile. But it also required $1.5 million to get made, and the Indiegogo contributions dragged for a while. After an extension, however, Indivisible made it, raising just under $1.9 million.

The campaign introduced dozens of characters for heroine Ajna to recruit, and it threw in a bevy of guest characters from other games. My favorite is, of course, Shantae, but you'll also see the Shovel Knight, Calibretto from the new Battle Chasers game, and Red from Transistor. So LabZero will make Indivisible, and the world will have one more game that's a lot like Valkyrie Profile. And I'll be a little happier.

SPECIAL: PLAYSTATION EXPERIENCE 2015

Sony's recent PlayStation Experience may not have satisfied everyone. I'm sure someone out there still hopes for Motor Toon Grand Prix 3 or a follow-up to Skyblazer. Yet there were plenty of announcements, ranging from far-off blockbusters to games available this week, and it was a pretty impressive showing all around.

FINAL FANTASY VII REFASHIONED
One of the biggest attention-grabbers at PlayStation Experience was predictably, Square Enix's Final Fantasy VII remake, now officially called…uh, Final Fantasy VII Remake. New information emerged along with a new trailer. Final Fantasy VII Remake will come in multiple entries, according to producer Yoshinori Kitase, and each installment will be the length of a “full-sized game.”

The trailer seems to back the multi-part approach, as it dwells on recreating the original Final Fantasy VII's initial story arc in the slums of the city of Midgar. We see our pale, dispassionate hero Cloud commit industrial terrorism alongside the members of the resistance group Avalanche, and it's all rendered in flashy modern Square Enix fashion. The voice acting's also in effect, and it's mostly decent (that sounds like Beau Billingslea returning to voice Barrett). The only exception is poor Wedge, who sounds like a hillbilly teenager on the cusp of puberty. Oh well, I'm sure he'll live a long and fruitful life, just like the other Wedges in Final Fantasy games

The trailer also shows off Final Fantasy VII's battles, which Square describes as an active-time setup where players can switch freely between three characters. That sounds promising, and I have to admit that the trailer's rainy streets and sunless neighborhoods ably evoke the original Final Fantasy VII's grimy vision, forged years before we grew sick of the word “steampunk.” Kitase and the game's staff, including the happy folks of CyberConnect2, also sound intent on keeping the game true to its original story—including that now-classic scene of Cloud crossdressing to infiltrate a mafia don's mansion.

REZ INFINITE GOES ALL OVER
The other highlight of the PlayStation Experience proved to be Rez Infinite. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez remains a cult favorite for its remarkable unison of wireframe visuals and expertly matched music, Mizuguchi's Enhance Games fashioned a new version of the rail-shooter for the PlayStation 4 and, most importantly, optimized it for the PlayStation VR.

Sony's virtual-reality headgear has wanted for a breakout title, and Rez Infinite could very well be it. Of course, Sony's VR unit might not have the customized full-body sensor suit that Sony displayed at PlayStation Experience…but hey, the original Rez had the Trance Vibrator and all of the filthy jokes it could inspire.

NI NO KUNI II GETS SLIGHTLY OLDER
For those who find Rez an alien wirescape and Final Fantasy VII too depressing, Sony offered a PlayStation IV follow-up to Ni no Kuni, the gorgeous but repetitive RPG collaboration between Studio Ghibli and Level-5. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom finds the fox-eared boy king of Ding Dong Dell deposed by a weasel statesman and his mouse guards, and his best allies are a rural tribe and Roland, a besuited man from the modern era. The trailer hits many of the same story beats as the original game (including a maternal figure's valiant demise), though Roland seems an interesting addition. This sort of story usually displaces a child or an adolescent to a mysterious fantasy realm, as the first Ni no Kuni did. Roland, however, seems a grown man who treats his new fairy-tale home with far less fascination. It might be Level-5's attempt at appealing to older players and Western audiences. The game debuted with an English trailer, after all.

One question arises above others: is Studio Ghibli attached to Ni no Kuni Ii: Revenant Kingdom? The trailer and press materials make no mention of the animation studio, even though their involvement was the original game's biggest hook. The Revenant Kingdom characters look like Ghibli creations, and the game keeps character designer Yoshiyuki Momose and composer Joe Hisaishi, both Ghibli contributors. Is Studio Ghibli backing off from both games and feature films? And will Ni no Kuni II go down alongside Like the Clouds, Like the Wind and Jade Cocoon in the ranks of things mistaken for actual Studio Ghibli productions?

YAKUZA 5 IS OUT RIGHT THIS MOMENT
Among the companies at PlayStation Experience, Sega came the closest to immediate gratification by announcing that Yakuza 5 would be available on Tuesday, December 8. Naturally, it's a digital-only release, but now every PlayStation 3 owner can take on the tale of sordid crime and ramen preparation.

Yakuza 5 sees gangster Kazuma Kiryu working as a taxi driver in Fukuoka, though he'll roam five different neighborhoods as he fights off various punks, takes in hostess clubs, catches up on reading history, gets in street-dance battles, runs a ramen shop for some very demanding customers, wages snowball wars, and plays about a dozen different gambling mini-games and Sega-brand arcade attractions. Of course, there's an ongoing story about Kiryu's criminal friends, and his protégée Haruka seems to be mixed up with something even sketchier than the Yakuza: an idol-talent agency.

Sega also confirmed that Yakuza 0, a prequel that follows Kiryu and other characters through the Japanese criminal underworlds 1988, is headed to the PlayStation 4 in North America—and as a physical release as well as a digital one. Europe isn't getting either so far, but Sega could change their mind on that.

STREET FIGHTER PREPARES FOR LAUNCH
Amid all the announcements at PlayStation Experience, Street Fighter V finished up its rosters. As rumors and code extractions suggested, the game's newest original character is F.A.N.G., a lean and floppy-limbed warrior who looks like a cross between Hsien-Ko from Darkstalkers, Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and the shrunken-headed Nazi colonel from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

F.A.N.G. may look silly, but this is a series that includes an electric rubber-armed Russian mutant and a blue ubermensch creature with a yin-yang sphere for a digestive system. One of the game's new bosses, F.A.N.G. appoints himself second-in-command at M. Bison's Shadaloo (Sagat pulled a face turn and left, as you'll recall), and he sports goofy mid-air flapping moves and an elastic style. His most interesting technique poisons his opponent until they strike him. CAPCOM also revealed the first six downloadable characters for Street Fighter V's first year on the market: Alex, Juri, Balrog, Ibuki, Urien, and Guile. I would've preferred another all-new character or two, but Ibuki and Juri were at the top of my list.

CAPCOM also debuted an alternate “hot package” Street Fighter V cover showing Ryu in his bearded mountain-man form and Chun-Li in her slinky evening gown. It's offered just for preorders in the Japanese market, and that's a shame. This is probably the best cover Street Fighter ever had, and the world needs it.

THE KING OF FIGHTERS PREPARES FOR BACKLASH
The King of Fighters XIV is ugly. Its first trailer showed series leads Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami as though they'd sprung from a game somehow entombed at SNK for ten years. The new trailer isn't much more impressive, but there might be something to this new King of Fighters after all. The gameplay seems to be a solid recreation of past 2-D King of Fighters games, and SNK Playmore promises a roster of 50 playable characters.

In fact, the latest trailer suggests that SNK Playmore knows how to bait longtime fans. It unveils King, Billy Kane, Kula, and Ralf as new additions, but the ostentatious shot at the end is reserved for Angel (above), who hasn't been in a proper King of Fighters game since 2002. She's likely the first of many longtime absences to be amended in The King of Fighters XIV, as a 50-character roster means that just about anyone omitted in The King of Fighters XII and XIII can return. We might see Kasumi Todo! And Eiji Kisaragi! And maybe even Alice Chrysler and Moe Habana and G-Mantle and World Heroes characters and Sulia from the Fatal Fury movie! And that, I think, will make a lot of people forgive a game's appearance.

The King of Fighters may be SNK's only surviving series at present, but older Neo Geo games continue to pop up. Sony announced that The Last Blade 2, an excellent Bakumatsu-drama fighter from the original SNK's last days, is headed to the PlayStation 4 and Vita. I only hope it's an uncensored version of the game and not the neutered North American release that removed killing blows and, with them, one entire ending. We're well past the social outcry over Mortal Kombat fatalities, SNK Playmore.

Steam database listings also appeared for several Neo Geo titles: the fantastic two-player puzzle shooter Twinkle Star Sprites, the enjoyable commando action game Shock Troopers, the amazing fighter Garou: Mark of the Wolves, and the largely redundant Metal Slug 2. They'll be released in time, but right now Humble Bundle has a generous package of Neo Geo titles, ranging from Samurai Shodown II to The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match. Only five of them are Steam releases; the rest are pretty much ROMs served up by DotEmu's licensed emulators (which may yet contain some fan-made system bios files). Still, it's a good deal for the Steam titles alone, and you can at least enjoy those ROMs knowing that you paid SNK Playmore a little bit.

PSYCHONAUTS SEES SEQUELS
Many Tim Schafer games don't need sequels. Grim Fandango and Full Throttle wrap up nicely, leaving no thorny plot points or dangerous hooks behind. Psychonauts, on the other hand, pretty much ended with another beginning. Psychic kid Raz had set to rights the problems of the psychic summer camp he attended, but then we found that fellow camper Lili's dad, Grand Head of Psychonauts Truman Zanotto, was kidnapped. That thread dangled for over a decade.

Schafer and Double Fine aim to fix that on two fronts. Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin will tell the story of Raz and his companions trying to rescuing Zanotto, and it'll do that on the PlayStation VR. It's a prelude to the actual Psychonauts 2, which finds Raz discovering new struggles and conspiracies at Psychonauts headquarters. Double Fine's funding it through a Fig campaign, and it's already two-thirds of the way to its $3.3 million goal.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

This December won't slide by without a seasonal video game, thanks to Hatoful Boyfriend. The dating simulator puts pigeons and other birds in the roles of handsome classmates, and they return in Holliday Star. The game follows the original cast through several storylines about Christmas tree thieves, amateur manga, and pigeons driving tanks. There's a reason why, too.

Holiday Star came out in Japan several years ago, but the Steam version, due out next Tuesday, has a new high-definition look and a collector's set with wallpapers and digital books that broaden the backstory. And you could always buy it for the Hatoful Boyfriend fan on your Christmas list. I'm sure grandma will love it.


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


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