The X Button Roundup Sides
by Todd Ciolek,
It's cute enough in its premise: a young woman suddenly soars around a carnival just as Kat does in Gravity Rush, and she learns to enjoy it by the end of the commercial's sixteen seconds. Still, it's a little too logical in its gimmick. Gravity Rush is a game about flying, so somebody flies in the commercial.
It doesn't really rank in the tradition of Japanese commercials with bizarre, unrelated concepts and memorable mascots, such as the Sega Saturn's series of Segata Sanshiro adventures, that Legend of Zelda dance number, or the quaint PC Engine spot where paper-thin golems peel themselves off the wall and marvel at a new game system. It doesn't even get as over-the-top as that Tactics Ogre spot where a kid turns a subway car into a bloodbath.
Nor does the commercial delve into that other hallmark of great Japanese ads: elaborate, indulgent props and set design. I always think of the notable promo that dressed supermodel Cindy Crawford in fantasy armor and animated a stop-motion rabbit dragon just to shill Pocari Sweat soda, but video-game commercials can go just as far. My favorite is Sega's Phantasy Star IV spot, because I love the fact that somehow made a life-size version of Rika's huge mecha-arm, as shown in the game's box art, just so it could appear on TV for a few seconds. I hope some crazy collector has it now.
SMASH BROS. BORROWS BAYONETTA AND CORRIN
This week's Nintendo Direct was short but heavy, since it dealt with the latest Super Smash Bros. characters. Nintendo could announce a new Metroid and I doubt it would stir as much discussion as the new spots on the Super Smash Bros. roster. That's doubly true for these announcements: Bayonetta from Platinum's excellent action game and Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney.
Wait, my mistake. The latest Super Smash Bros. additions are Bayonetta's title witch and Corrin from Fire Emblem Fates. Corrin is the player's avatar during the game and sides either with an adoptive family of the kingdom of Nohr or birth parents in the Hoshido clan. Both male and female variants will appear in the game, just like Robin from Fire Emblem: Awakening. I also appreciate Nintendo solidifying the avatar's name before Fates releases in North America. That way I won't mistakenly name my avatar Pissley or Toddina.
Bayonetta looks like a sharp addition to the cast, since her games loaded her with ridiculous attacks involving firearms, spells, and her own hair. Nintendo also dropped the news that Final Fantasy VII's Cloud, previously unveiled for the game, is available this very week. The next round of outfits includes Geno from Super Mario RPG, Ashley from Wario Ware, Gil from Tower of Druaga, Tails and Knuckles from those Sonic games that all the kids like, a Chocobo Hat, bionic armor, and Takamaru from The Mysterious Murasame Castle. They'll be out alongside Bayonetta and Corrin in February, and producer Masahiro Sakurai says that this will be the last character DLC. Which means Nintendo will just make a completely new game for the NX.
SUMMON NIGHT 5 KEEPS PSP FLAMES ALIVE
It's always nice to see game systems survive well beyond their alleged retirement. Fan-made games are one thing, but there's nothing like an actual company releasing retail games for a system now counted among the dead. This is nothing new for Victor Ireland, since his previous publishing label, Working Designs, stuck with systems like the Sega CD and Sega Saturn well after others jumped ship. Now Ireland's Gaijinworks label has Summon Night 5 for the PSP, and it's not just a digital release. On top of downloading it from the PSN, you can get Summon Night 5 in a PSP case with special-edition extras, provided you reserved a copy or planned to buy one from a reseller.
This late PSP release is also the first case of a central Summon Night game making its way to North America. We saw two Summon Night: Swordcraft Story action-RPGs on the Game Boy Advance (edit: and Twin Age on the DS), but the numbered Summon Nights are strategic RPGs. Summon Night 5 follows that idea as summoners find their way through the mysterious Otherworlds, with different paths and social occasions arising with each combination of recruited characters. To that end the localized game adds a heap of extra save slots, though Gaijinworks had to leave out voiceovers and the two protagonists' bonus costumes. But perhaps we'll get English voice acting if Gaijinworks continues their PSP resuscitation.
KOJIMA AND KONAMI ARE FINALLY THROUGH
Well, it's about time. For months on end, rumors flew about Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear series, leaving Konami. These entwined with reports of Konami shutting down development of many popular games and reducing former game staffers to janitorial work. But Kojima will not be mopping floors or wiping down the pec decks at Konami's health clubs, thank you. As of December 15, he's done with Konami and will take his personal studio, Kojima Productions, to new places.
Kojima didn't have to wait long for a partner. He's already allied with Sony Computer Entertainment for his next project, and his Kojima Productions includes talent like artist Yoji Shinkawa (who illustrated Metal Gear and Zone of the Enders) and producer Ken Imaizumi (who worked on Silent Hill and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night before moving to the Metal Gear series). Kojima won't discuss the details of his first project with Sony, though he alludes to making something “more edgy.” I doubt he'll come up with Steel Tech VI: Fusillades of Injustice, starring a grizzled hero named Rugged Rattler, though I wouldn't mind him resurrecting the Zone of the Enders series in some way.
AGATSUMA ENTERTAINMENT SWINGS SHUT
I'd hoped that 2015 would end without yet another publisher or developer going under, but that wasn't the case. Agatsuma Entertainment disbanded as of December 11, and they'll be liquidated by the last day of March 2016.
Agatsuma didn't have a voluminous catalog, but many will remember them for backing the suggestive brawler Code of Princess for the 3DS and bringing three Umihara Kawase games stateside. Sadly, Agatsuma couldn't find financial security with its releases, even as the Umihara Kawase games grew more blatant in their cover-shot pandering (see above). Agatsuma's closing might not doom the Umihara Kawase series of cult-favorite puzzle platformers, though the last game was entitled Sayonara Umihara Kawase anyway. And if you want to grab the games off Steam, I'd do it sooner rather than later.
THE X BUTTON AWARDS 2015
The year brought around bold changes and popular games, and we'll get to those in due time. For now, the X Button will highlight those lesser-known titles and lesser-appreciated events that marked 2015, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.
BEST ASSAULT SUITS DESCENDANT: STEEL STRIDER
The Assaults Suits line may not dominate any major spread of the game industry, but I genuinely think it should. It brought mecha-anime flavor to action games like nothing else did, and it's too bad that it lapsed into routine sequels and a lousy remake of Assault Suits Valken (a.k.a Cybernator), the original version of which is probably the best in the series. Yet things looked up this year. Dracue Software has a modern update of Assault Suit Leynos out in Japan next week, and Steam saw a fine tribute to the line with Steel Strider.
Steel Strider has all the marks of an Assault Suits game: it puts the player inside a powerful battle-mecha (here called a Manned Combat Robot) and unveils side-scrolling levels full of enemy machines and rough terrain. It's highly detailed in its take on mechanized warfare, and the MCR gets a sturdy lineup of miniguns, shotguns, laser swords, grenades, and other weapons, all of which can be swapped out easily. Steel Strider even allows mouse controls for targeting enemies and firing—and that's entirely appropriate, since the game is available on Steam and other PC services. This isn't the first love letter developer Astro Port sent to the Assault Suits games, as you may remember their earlier Gigantic Army. But it's the best so far.
MOST ORIGINAL GAME: THIS STARRY MIDNIGHT WE MAKE
Yes, we have our military shooters. We have our giant-robot strategy games. We have our kart-racing titles starring Garfield. We have our action games about killing monsters and feeding their organs to a cursed woman as she steadily degenerates into a hideous creature herself. But do we have a game about arranging stars in accordance with onmyodo astronomy? Well, we do now. This Starry Midnight We Make is an odd creation from developer Cavy House and localization studio Carpe Fulgur.
The concept sounds dreadfully boring at first: you're Hamomoru Tachibana, a young pastor whose Kyoto vacation leads her to discover star-arranging, here represented by little dots growing and pulsating in a large, mystical basin. Yet there's a lot to those little dots. The stars form clusters and nebulae, and the results have astrological effects on the lives of the locals, whether it's a rude little kid or a struggling Chinese restaurant. While the storyline stays on a single track, there's a lot of depth to making and forming constellations. It's a niche game like no other, and it'll scare off a lot of players. For those who want something unique, though, it's well worth a shot.
BEST INANE CONTROVERSY: ALISHA VS. ROSE
The past year gave rise to many public spats, petty rivalries, and outlandish resentments involving video games in one way or another. Perhaps you were embroiled in arguments about Street Fighter V removing Rainbow Mika's visible butt-slap, or perhaps you had to reassure someone that Nintendo removing a breast-slider option in Xenoblade Chronicles X did not foreshadow government-backed feminist SWAT teams raiding homes at midnight and confiscating all copies of Shadow Hearts Covenant, due to that game's suggestive cover. We must put an end to these struggles and concentrate on the chief video-game contention of 2015: is Rose better than Alisha in Tales of Zestiria?
Tales of Zestiria tricks longtime fans. In a series not known for bold surprises, Zestiria introduces a spear-wielding princess named Alisha to the hero's group of spiritual beings and empowered humans. After a good many hours of gameplay, Alisha leaves the party. She's replaced by a hardscrabble ex-assassin named Rose, who's very much a counterpoint to the noble-born and noble-minded princess. This threw some Tales fans into a tizzy. Amazon Japan users pelted the game with one-star reviews, people harassed character designer Kosuke Fujishima on Twitter, and many accused Bandai Namco of falsely promoting Alisha as the game's heroine and using her as a hook to sell extra quests. It reached the point where producer Hideo Baba talked to Famitsu and apologized for any misunderstandings.
It all speaks to the intense fondness Tales fans have for certain characters, and they're hardly alone in that. The Japanese game industry is increasingly devoted to packaging specific archetypes for certain fans, whether it's a sarcastic, borderline abusive “tsundere” female character or crowd or an aloof, handsome, and potentially evil lothario. And those fans can get rather testy when something disrupts their fantasy.
In a sense, it might've been a mistake to remove Alisha. Rose is more appealing, but her down-and-dirty methods are an interesting foil to Alisha's primmer approach, and Zestiria lets them hash things out only in a bonus DLC quest. Character interaction is one of the strongest suits of a Tales game, and Zestiria has less potential for amusing skits and backstory with Alisha missing. Yet one can't blame the creators of the Tales series, which is often too safe and routine, for throwing a slight curveball. A lot of fans already have blamed them, though, and it likely ensures that Tales games will be even more predictable in the future.
BEST BUYING FRENZY: DEVIL'S THIRD
This year saw plenty of movie flops, including an inexplicable Peter Pan prequel and a Jem remake so poorly received that its distributor stopped reporting its meager box-office takings. In that light, there's something to be said for a company preparing for a failure, particularly among video games. That's what Nintendo did with Devil's Third.
Tomonobu Itagaki's ridiculous mashup of macho action-game cliches, Devil's Third follows a former Russian military operative, covered in so many tattoos he looks like he's wearing a tabletop doily, as he takes on his old comrades and plays the drums really fast. It saw terrible reviews in Europe (though Japanese players seemed to like it better), and Nintendo of America seemed to view the game as an uncomfortable contractual obligation. Earlier this month it became the company's least-hyped release since Conker's Bad Fur Day. GameStop reportedly had under 500 copies to sell online, and the game was soon out of stock at every retailer who bothered carrying it.
Of course, this turned Devil's Third into a sudden rarity. Scalpers soon wanted over $100 for the game on eBay, and some buyers actually bit. Things cooled down a little, but at this writing Devil's Third may be the most scarce game released to stores this year. Of course, you can download it from Nintendo's eShop for sixty bucks, but there's nothing collectible about that.
Is Devil's Third a terrible game or an amusingly awful cavalcade of nonsense with a robust online mode? At this point, it might not matter.
MOST UNFAIRLY OVERLOOKED GAME: RODEA THE SKY SOLDIER
Rodea the Sky Soldier is two-thirds terrible, in a sense. Yuji Naka and his Prope studio created it as a Wii game where players used the motion controller to guide a robot protagonist through floating islands and mechanized fortresses. Yet the Wii was due to exit by the time Prope handed in the final code for Rodea, and Kadokawa Games let the game sit idle. Eventually it emerged on the Wii U and 3DS with its controls noticeably reworked—and for the worse. The Wii U and 3DS editions of Rodea the Sky Soldier are ungainly and frustrating affairs, using an unreliable targeting reticle to move Rodea. It's like playing Super Mario 64 with a light gun.
Yet the Wii version of Rodea the Sky Soldier is great fun. It finds Naka doing what he does best with action games: stripping the controls down to their minimum and finding a sudden, instinctive enjoyment in them. It's fun enough just to mess around with Rodea's movements as he zips from cliffside to airship to flying-fish enemy, and the game's levels rarely overtax the player. Even Rodea's storyline isn't without its strengths. It's a routine tale of an android hero struggling for identity as he faces an evil empire filled with his old compatriots, but there's some actual comedy in Rodea's chatter with the deluded, effervescent inventor Ion and other allies.
Rodea is a little messy around the edges, as are all of Naka's attempts at 3-D gameplay. Yet it's highly enjoyable in a manner that's rare today. Rodea's quest hearkens back to the time when 3-D action games with cute, light tones or goofy anime aesthetics roosted on every major game system, and it proves that we left those days a little too hastily.
Unfortunately, the Wii version of Rodea the Sky Soldier is easy to miss. It's available only as a first-run bonus with the Wii U release of the game, and many will balk at paying full price for a Wii game in this day and age. Yet it's worth braving the mediocrity of the Wii U version and ignoring the 3DS one to try out Rodea the Sky Soldier.
Yakuza 5 risks getting lost in the holiday chaos, as Sega slipped it out as a surprise. For those who pry it from the PlayStation Network, it's another engaging romp through a gangster's life of backstabbing, turf wars, taxi-driving, historical studies, arcade games, and just about anything else you'd want to do in the Japanese crime world.
Darius Burst Chronicle Saviors is a similarly high-priced PSN download, but it's a remarkably full package. The central game is a strong entry in the Darius line of challenging side-view shooting and hostile robotic marine life, and it's backed by extra modes, remixes, and over 3000 levels in total.
The worst title of 2015 may be plastered on htoL#NQ: The Firefly Diary, but it's an interesting little game beyond the insufferable syntax. It follows an antlered, minimally aware girl through a ruinous backdrop, and she slowly pieces together what created the wrecked machines and hostile shadow-creatures that surround her. The gameplay is slow and rooted in trial and error, which I imagine will push away many players in the opening hours. Stick it out, though, and you might enjoy what you find.
Lastly, I should point out that Tim Schafer's Broken Age: Part 2 came out at the start of 2015. Some didn't notice it, and some preferred to forget about it after playing. Part One stood among my favorite games from last year, and the conclusion…well, it wasn't what I'd hoped for. Yet it still has Schafer's talent for charming setups and engaging, laid-back dialogue, and for that I'd recommend seeing it through to the end.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
THE LEGEND OF HEROES: TRAILS OF COLD STEEL
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: PlayStation 3 / PS Vita
Release Date: December 22
Best Name: Jusis Albarea
MSRP: $39.99 / $49.99 (Lionheart edition)
Something isn't right here. We're seeing two games from Falcom's voluminous The Legend of Heroes line in North America within months of each other, and these are titles notoriously text-heavy and demanding in localization time. How can XSEED give us Trails of Cold Steel and the second chapter of Trails in the Sky in so short a span? What will we complain about now?
Trails of Cold Steel is very recent as localized Falcom games go. Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter dates back to 2007 and spent a good while in the translation boiler, but Cold Steel arrived in Japan a little over two years ago. It's a modern RPG built for the Vita, and it shows in the game's 3-D environments and character models. It has an amazing soundtrack, too, but just about every Falcom game this side of Tombs & Treasure has that.
Falcom's built an interconnected world for the Trails chunk of The Legend of Heroes, but no prior knowledge is necessary for Cold Steel. It's set at the prestigious Thors Military Academy in the Erebonian Empire, which dictates a rigid divide between commoners and privileged bourgeoisie. Yet the students of Class VII mix the two camps: sword-wielding Rean Schwarver is the stepson of the rulers of Ymir and archer Alisa Reinford comes from a powerful industrial family, but spearman Gaius Worzel is a highland bumpkin allowed into the academy by some influential official. With nine students in total, the class operates as a special-missions military unit, like a less pretentious version of the Final Fantasy Type-0 crew. And they're guided by instructor Sara Valestin, who goes on hard-drinking hunts for eligible bachelors. She'd better get married soon, lest she rot at the ripe old age of 25.
The battles of Trails of Cold Steel drop the characters into 3-D fields where they can roam and attack with their varied weapons and elaborately animated special abilities. Players manage the party through an active-time meter, and it's possible to knock enemies out of their turns. It's also possible to see and strike enemies before a battle initiates, and that's always appreciated among those of us who grew up on merciless random battles.
XSEED seems intent on keeping up a feed of Legend of Heroes titles. Trails of Cold Steel II is headed here as well, and the company still has the rights to Trails in the Sky: Third Chapter. Of course, they've skipped the Trails of Zero and Trails of Azure games for now, so you can complain about those if you must.
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