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First Impressions: Star Fox Zero

by Todd Ciolek,
Last week, we heard a little bit about Valkyrie Profile 3. To be specific, we heard about Shuichi Kobayashi, producer of the new Star Ocean, keeping a Valkyrie Profile 3 proposal in his files. That's no real shock, of course. Game companies have plenty of unused pitches handy, and it's not uncommon for us to learn about them either by hearing vague reports or seeing the actual documents. Either way, they're just pipe dreams until work starts on the game. I didn't even remark on the idea of Valkyrie Profile 3, because I didn't think it was major news.

However, I'll mention it now. Things have changed. Someone leaked early art and information about God of War 4, and if it's true, the next in the series will send Kratos, or at least a bushy-bearded facsimile of him, on a journey through Norse mythology.

For those of you still unintroduced to the God of War series, it finds a mercilessly brutal warrior named Kratos killing his way through a pantheon of gods and mythic creatures. God of War games are technically impressive, visually striking, and widely successful.

I hate them.

There aren't many major video game series that I actively loathe. Even when they're not to my liking, I can set them aside without any jolts of animosity. God of War is the exception. It's inane and senseless to the point of tepid self-parody, and it's spread a wretched patina of grunty murdermen and banal bluster over too much of the game industry. I'm not about to defend every game I like as brilliant and subtle, and yet God of War never ceases to annoy me. It's a crass, comically overbearing '90s comic book with a huge budget and PlayStation trophies.

So if there truly is a fourth God of War with Kratos slaughtering the entire Norse collection of deities, demigods, and world-encompassing serpents, we need a Valkyrie Profile to counter it.

We need Valkyrie Profile 3: Hrist, a chronicle of the third and grouchiest Valkyrie sister and her adventures in dutifully harvesting mortal spirits. The Valkyrie Profile games aren't without overbearing moments and odd tweaks of legend (when was Odin ever a half-elf?), but at least a new one would be about more than Hrist ripping a cyclops eye from its bleeding socket.

NEWS

ALCHEMIST READY TO BE MISSED
The news came abruptly: the creators of Gal*Gun declared bankruptcy at the beginning of April. At first I was aghast, because I thought the headlines referred to Inti Creates, which developed Gal*Gun as well as Azure Striker Gunvolt, Mighty No. 9, the Mega Man Zeroes, the ninth and tenth central Mega Man titles, and upcoming projects like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and Shantae: Half-Genie Hero. But no, the news concerned Alchemist, publisher of Gal*Gun and numerous other games.

Alchemist's stock and trade came from visual novels and dating sims, with console versions of Higurashi titles, Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, and Wind: A Breath of Heart among them. They occasionally ventured into action games by publishing ports of GIGA's Baldr Force EXE and Warashi's Triggerheart Exelica, and you might've seen their logo if you imported the Xbox 360 version of 07th Expansion's Ogon Musokyoku.

Alchemist's highlights are few, but they drew attention in recent years with Gal*Gun, a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 shooter that gave a light-gun game a potentially novel idea: the player zaps not terrorists or zombies, but rather lovesick schoolgirls who barrage the game's hero with notes and confessions of crushes. It came down to sleazy imagery all too often, but it was Alchemist's most prominent creation. And now last year's Gal*Gun Double Peace will be the closest thing they have to a big exit.

Alchemist certainly isn't the first Japanese game company to collapse this generation, and I doubt they'll be the last. How can we alleviate the depressing reality of watching established developers go under? I choose morbid humor and a contest. Head over to Twitter and send me your guesses as to which developer will go out of business next. You'll get a small prize if you're right, but I hope this is the kind of contest where no one wins.

MEGA MAN LEGENDS 2 RISES ON THE PLAYSTATION NETWORK
It's best we face facts: Capcom probably won't make Mega Man Legends 3. Keiji Inafune tried to sneak it through years ago, but the game didn't even put a demo on the market before Capcom killed the whole thing. Well, at least Capcom hasn't forgotten the Mega Man Legends games entirely. This Tuesday, Mega Man Legends 2 joined the original and The Misadventures of Tron Bonne spin-off on the PlayStation Network. Unless Capcom is swayed by fans stuffing an online poll, that's all I think we'll see for the Legends games. Get used to moon life, Mega Man.

And that's not so bad. They're all charming and nicely crafted games, and even if they never launched the major new Mega Man media juggernaut they intended, they hold up very well. Some prefer the first Legends and its close-knit island community, but the second has noticeably tighter gameplay, a wide-ranging story, and another dose of light humor that recalls classic adventurous tales and old Tatsunoko cartoons.

They're also relatively cheap. Ten bucks is a little high for a network where PlayStation releases go for about six, but I'm sure we'll see a sale before long. And it sure beats buying them on eBay, where Legends, Legends 2, and Tron Bonne form an unspeakable triumvirate of money vacuums.

ASSAULT SUIT LEYNOS COMES WEST, LIKE WE THOUGHT
It comes as small surprise that Dracue Software's Assault Suit Leynos remake is headed to North America and Europe. The developers openly hinted at a Western release when the game emerged in Japan, and it's the sort of enhanced old-school callback that should find a cult following when it shows up on the PlayStation 4 as a digital-only relea…wait, it gets a retail edition, too? An actual, material version of the game that we can hold in our hands and stick on the shelf next to Gravity Rush Remastered?

Now that is a surprise. Assault Suit Leynos is a pretty remake of an old shooter from the Sega Genesis era, and it follows a side-view mecha war that extends from space fleets to planetary skirmishes. In other words, it's as Gundam as a game can get without cutting a check for Sunrise and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Never could I call the Assault Suit(s) games mainstream smashes in North America, even if many have fond memories of Cybernator (a.k.a Assault Suits Valken) on the Super NES. There's an audience for mecha shooters that pair old-fashioned gameplay with slick 2-D appearances, but such games usually stick to digital releases.

So Rising Star Games takes a gamble by releasing Assault Suit Leynos as a physical PlayStation 4 game, complete with a double-sided poster that has the remake's art as well as an illustration from the original 16-bit Assault Suit Leynos (which we saw here as Target Earth). It'll also be on the PlayStation Network and PCs, of course, but I think a retail edition is worth rewarding. Maybe it'll be super-rare twenty years from now!

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: STAR FOX ZERO

By Heidi Kemps

There are some pretty lofty expectations attached to Star Fox Zero. It's the first new game in the franchise in a decade, it's at least partially made by the crew at fan-favorite developer Platinum Games, and it's been teased in numerous ways by Nintendo ever since the Wii U first launched. After some speculation earlier this year that the game might be delayed further into 2016 to touch up the game's controls, Nintendo opted to stick to the original release of April 22 to simultaneous relief and trepidation. It's great that the game is coming out on time (well, sort of –it was already delayed once), but will the controls prove too frustrating for players? After playing a ways into the final game, I'll say "ehhh, probably not."

By now, you've likely heard how the game's motion controls work: similarly to Splatoon, you use the Gamepad's gyroscopic functionality for aiming. While this worked well in the ground-based gameplay of Splatoon, it does feel a little awkward in the aerial dogfights of Star Fox. The good news, however, is that there's an option to enable motion controls for aiming only when you're holding down the ZR button—the aiming reticle will follow your analog movements otherwise. I turned this on immediately and haven't looked back. It's nice to not have to worry about a misplaced controller wobble screwing up a shot unless I really, truly want that extra precision.

What took more getting used to was functionality like U-turns, somersaults, and the internet-beloved barrel rolls being mapped to combinations of analog stick movement. Having to shift two analog sticks to reverse course in an all-range battle is not as intuitive as a simple button press. The cockpit view on the Gamepad works well when it's needed, but generally it's up to you to figure out precisely when you'll need it; some parts of the game are very clearly made to utilize is more than others, like the Corneria boss battle. Overall, it didn't take too long to get that hang of things. Also, the fact that the game starts with a control tutorial the first time you boot it up shows that the developers really want to make sure you get a grasp on things as soon as possible.

Thus far, the game's definitely delivered on the action front. The stages are gorgeous and a thrill to fly through, and there are lots of hidden bits and bobs to find and ways to raise your score. Platinum fans will be happy to know that, yes, this is another one of those games that you'll need to work to master—and you'll certainly feel satisfied when you do. I've noticed an increased emphasis on using vehicles that aren't the standard Arwing; I'd say maybe half of what I've played through is either rail-shooting or all-range mode, while the other half involves the Walker, the Gyrowing, and the Landmaster. Of these craft, the Gyrowing is the only one that's 100% new to the series. It definitely feels strange compared to the other vehicles, like it was transplanted in from a much different, considerably more slow-paced game. While the Walker is a zippy ground craft for fast-paced fights and the Landmaster's a heavy-duty combat vehicle with surprising maneuverability when needed, the Gyrowing has lousy offense, is very slow, and doesn't really have any special maneuvers at all.

What it does have, however, is a tiny, tethered robot that looks suspiciously like our best Robotic Operating Buddy. This little guy, called the Direct-i, can squeeze into small spaces, pick up bombs, act as a seeing eye on the ground (via the Gamepad, of course), and hack into computers by touching them. As you've likely guessed, there are sequences in the game built expressly around the use of this lil' fella. The problem is that whenever he's on the field, all control inputs are sent to him, leaving the already-weak Gyrowing a sitting duck and making it an exercise in frustration to send out Direct-i when there's even the slightest semblance of a threat in the area. Gyrowing sequences are to Star Fox Zero what the Knuckles emerald-collecting bits were to the Sonic Adventure titles: something you merely tolerate and play through so you can eventually get back to the fun parts of action-packed dogfighting.

While I still have a fair ways to dig into the game—I haven't found any of the alternate paths yet, and I'm still trying to find reliable ways to up my scores on the earlier levels—I can say that I've had a good time with Star Fox Zero. Yes, the Gyrowing feels like a bit of a "we must use that gamepad functionality!" misstep, but everything else is the fun, challenging shooter action we've come to love from the series' most memorable installments.

Also, I must admit that I'm morbidly amused by Slippy's defeated "You too, huh, Fox?" when you shoot his craft by mistake. He knows the world hates him, and yet he persists, like the Charlie Brown of the Star Fox universe. At least your dad still loves you, Slippy.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

BRAVELY SECOND: END LAYER
Developer: Silicon Studio
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: April 15
Mrgrgr: Yes
MSRP: $39.99 / $69.99 (collector's edition)

I commended Square Enix for not giving Bravely Default a title like Final Fantasy ReVivify or something. True, Bravely Default sprang from the same ground as Final Fantasy. From the crystal-centric plot to the goofball heroes and villains, it felt very much like an early 1990s Final Fantasy broadened with 3-D graphics, more elaborate storytelling, full voice acting, and the other amenities of a modern RPG. Yet it stood on its own when all was said and done.

The original Bravely Default sent four heroes on world-spanning quest wherein nations clashed over crystal energy and a seemingly irrelevant sidekick hid a surprisingly mean plot twist. Set over two years down the road, Bravely Second: End Layer reunites the companions, or at least three of them. Stubborn, contrary, crystal-headed Agnes Oblige is now the distant archpriestess of a new faith, soft-spoken village kid Tiz Arrior is trapped insensate within a pressure tank, and knight commander Edea Lee…well, she's still cocksure and prone to saying “Mrgrgr” when riled. Tiz and Edea meet up with two newcomers: Orthodoxy bodyguard Yew Geneolgia is out to save Agnes, and French-spouting warrior Magnolia Arch actually comes from the moon. Yeah, the moon always figured strongly into those old Final Fantasies.

Bravely Second revisits the first game's initially simple yet layered battle system. Combat follows turns, but the player can opt to either save a turn by defending or use extra turns that subsequently put a character out of the battle flow, plus an option that effectively stops enemies for a short while. The game also has a gallery of jobs to grant characters extra abilities, complete with costume changes. Square Enix and Nintendo made some of those outfits less revealing (and changed a Native American class to a cowboy). That said, the localizers haven't abandoned suggestive details entirely. There are monsters called the Ba'al, and Magnolia comes from a warrior cadre called the Ba'al Busters.

DARK SOULS III
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / Windows
Release Date: April 12
Mrgrgr: No
MSRP: $59.99

Does Bravely Second seem too cuddly, with its big-headed heroes and Frenchisms and little costumes and Mrgrgrs? Well, you could head over to Dark Souls III and survive for a solid fifteen minutes before some monstrous lizard-shadow knight butchers you. Of course, you can emit a personal "Mrgrgr" when that happens.

Dark Souls III seizes its hero or heroine, crafted by the player, and forces them into a city where a mysterious power aims to resurrect the Lord of Cinder. Even without some ancient evil revived, the realm is a bleak and vicious place where revenant warriors prowl corridors and malformed cultists bow before strange altars, often in prelude to some enormous crab or ice-spined horror bursting forth and attacking you.

Many revere the Dark Souls games because they're exceptionally hard, but those same fans also thrive on the slow-building sense of exploration and the many secrets lurking in the decay of dungeons and city streets. It's all very down to earth in its combat, as players are best off fighting cautiously and using their surroundings to their advantage. And there's lot to use. The environments of Dark Souls III are grimly detailed and reward those poke around cellars and walls and cathedral wreckage, even if that reward is a fierce battle. From Software enhanced the character classes (the archers especially), allowed for faster item-using, and boosted a player's weapons to over twenty categories and some two hundred specific types. That's all handy when plumbing the depths of methodically assembled ruins and surviving what you'll encounter there.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
You might've noticed Code of Princess back in 2012 because it starred a royal blonde swordswoman in highly scant chainmail, but I hope you also noticed it because of the artwork by Kinu Nishimura and staff from Treasure's excellent brawler Guardian Heroes. Code of Princess didn't quite live up to that legacy, but it's a decent enough game that might benefit from visiting a more robust system than the 3DS. That what it'll do next week with a Steam version. It has all the online modes of the handheld original and the same cast of varied fantasy characters to control, ranging from a zombie shaman to mace-hefting nun. Here's hoping it amends the slowdown that bothered the 3DS release.


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


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