Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Opinion Fest 2009: Most Improved

Well, now that the bad is out of the way, let's take a look at what was good about 2009. It was a much leaner year for most people, and the gaming industry is no exception. Consequently, a lot of smaller games have managed to take home bigger prizes this year than if they had competed in past years.

This year I have started a new award: Most Improved. This award goes to a game that manages to improve itself over its forerunner(s) in any given series. Obviously, a game coming from a long line of garbage is going to have an easier time improving than a series of highly-acclaimed titles, but I really think it's important to let developers know when they've had the ability and foresight to fix their own mistakes.

Honorable Mention: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon - Atlus - PlayStation 2

Though not enough to place in the top, Devil Summoner 2 tweaks the formula to the demands of fans everywhere, producing a title that is definitely an improvement. Whether or not it is enough improvement to make the Devil Summoner franchise as relevant as some of Atlus' other series remains to be seen, but the effort is certainly there.

3rd: Star Ocean: The Last Hope - tri-Ace, Square Enix - Xbox 360

Star Ocean 4 is really what Star Ocean 3 should have been. Though it still fails to live up to SO2 - maintained as still the best game in the series - SO4 proves that tri-Ace is humble enough to recognize fans' displeasure with SO3, and make the necessary corrections. Improved combat, related story, and a coherent ending really do go a long way. The loss of actual character recruitment and meaningful Private Actions, however, keep the game from acheiving its full potential.

2nd: Magna Carta II - Softmax, Namco Bandai - Xbox 360

Magna Carta: Tears of Blood, Korean developer Softmax's first game to find its way out of Korea, had high-end graphics, a beautiful soundtrack, and an involving plot. It's downfall was its game-breakingly awful battle system, which managed to alienate nearly everyone but the most committed (and possibly masochistic) RPG fan.

Magna Carta II, though not exactly the second game in the series, has the same commitment to high production values that graced previous installments, but this time goes out of its way to provide a more accessible experience. The final result is a game that not only blows its predecessor out of the water, but also nearly single-handedly establishes the Magna Carta series as top tier franchise.

1st: Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes - Capybara, Ubisoft - Nintendo DS

Quick, name the last installment of Might & Magic! No looking at GameFAQs for help!

Don't worry about it if you don't know off the top of your head. Might & Magic, though perhaps among the oldest of Western RPG franchises, has fallen into relative obscurity, and certainly lost relevancy with the majority of gamers. Enter Clash of Heroes, an anime-ish puzzle-RPG for the DS, and a possible new direction for the series.

Clash of Heroes drops any pretense of being gritty, hardcore, or any of those other forgetfully common themes in modern gaming, and goes for charming, fun, and likeable instead. The result is a highly accessible, highly addictive title that not only drags the Might & Magic name out of the gutter, but also opens up the series to new fans everywhere. Though a rare sentiment from me, please accept the following, Ubisoft: "Good job!"

Opinion Fest 2009: Vaporware Award

This year was considerably better than last in terms of vaporware. Even if a game doesn't have a release date, there is at least actual gameplay footage and an estimated release to go along with it.

The only notable exception is (still) Square Enix's Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Same screenshots. Same footage. Same release date: NONE.

Apparently we'll be playing it someday after Final Fantasy XIV. (And, I suspect, sometime after Final Fantasy XV too.)

But, this is all old news, so other than F
FvXIII, nothing else even competes.

Opinion Fest 2009: Most Overrated

There is always a lot of confusion surrounding this particular award, so let me come out right up front a clarify this: Just because a game receives the Most Overrated award does not mean I think it is a bad game!

The Most Overrated award, instead, goes to RPGs that, for better or for worse, have received far more than their fair share of the spotlight this year. The games may be good, and worth your time, especially if you love the developer/genre/series, etc. However, even in this pathetic year, there have been enough all-around good games that have received less than half the attention these spotlight hogs have.

The following RPGs have received way more attention than they deserve this year.

3rd: Borderlands - Gearbox, 2K - PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

Though Borderlands didn't receive perfect ratings all across the board, it has demanded a lot of press attention. Don't get me wrong, Borderlands combines a very interesting mix of first-person shooting with addictive RPG elements like leveling up, equipment upgrading, and even a hint of story. But at the end of the day, it is still a shooter with heavy RPG elements. There are still better FPSes, and still better RPGs in every area. The internet should not be as obsessed with this game as it is.

2nd: Cross Edge - Compile Heart, NIS America - PlayStation 3

Cross Edge is not a good game. Mediocre is probably a better description. Sure, you've got fanboygasmic crossovers from several different developers and series, but a poorly executed mishmash is still poorly executed, regardless. Perhaps the reason this game got so much gushing is simply indicitive of the PS3 fanboy nature, which demands that any exclusive to the system be heralded as the second coming of its particular genre. Along with that, it's interesting to note the significant drop-off of fanboy love for this game when the Xbox 360 port was announced shortly thereafter.

1st: Demon's Souls - FromSoftware, Atlus - PlayStation 3

A FromSoftware-developed wannabe Western RPG with a nonsensical name, clunky animation, irrelevant story, and brutally punishing difficulty? Why, that sounds like the sure-fire recipe for a disaster! And yet Demon's Souls is the highest acclaimed RPG of the year from nearly every gaming news source I am aware of. Why is a game that has been described as "made for people with OCD" received hundreds of times more praise and attention than other, more complete titles? I have theories about that, mostly relating to PS3 fanboys and the Atlus name attached to it, but I will keep them to myself.

Whatever the cause, though the game may definitely have appeal to certain gamers, and may even be a stellar title within its territory, there is no way that it is as complete or comprehensive as many other titles this year, which you no doubt haven't heard of because the media wants you to know about Demon's Souls instead. That seems very wrong to me on so many levels that I had no choice but to grant this award.

Opinion Fest 2009: Biggest Disappointment

Yes, 2010 is almost upon us, which means it's time for another round of blatant opinions on the year in review, appropriately dubbed Opinion Fest 2009!

As with last year, we're going to get the "bad" awards out of the way first. And with those comes probably the worst of the bad, the Biggest Disappointment award. As you may guess from the name, the Biggest Disappointment award goes to the game, system, event, company, or anything else RPG related that unabashedly peed in our collective cereal this year, usually in spite of high hopes for the contrary.

Let's meet the worst offenders.

3rd: Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica - Gust, NIS America - PlayStation 2
Persona 4 was a good game, but my hopes for the last great PS2 game were riding on the overdue sequel to the obscure sleeper hit Ar Tonelico. With a winning gameplay formula and shamelessly interesting story, Ar Tonelico's sequel should have brought the series into the limelight it so rightly deserved.

Instead, however, we were given a buggy, uninteresting game with amazingly less features than the original and shamefully terrible localization (even for NIS). The game felt like a giant middle finger to anyone who still held faith that small developers could make great games, and that the PS2's extended life was worth it. The sad truth was painful to experience.

2nd: Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled - Studio Archcraft, Graffiti - Nintendo DS
After years upon years of waiting, Studio Archcraft's 16-bit revival was finally upon us. With everything from the graphics to the gameplay drawing on classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, there should have been no way for Black Sigil to do anything but conquer the market.

But with game-breaking bugs, a painfully gimped battle system, and a ludicrous encounter rate, the hoped-for title alienated itself from virtually everyone. Anyone looking for a lesson in how to botch a seemingly bullet-proof formula for success need look no futher than Black Sigil.

1st: 2009 in General

2008 was amazing. Certainly the best year for RPGs since the 7th generation began. With solid titles releasing at least every month, and many modern masterpieces among them, many felt they had died and gone to RPG heaven.

By contrast, 2009 has been an utter dearth, with the precious few RPG releases not even holding a candle to their 2008 counterparts. Though a few notable exceptions stand out, the majority of 2009 should frankly just be forgotten. There haven't been many years this disappointing in a long time, and I personally hope this is the last time I will have to endure such torture.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Divinity II Demo in Time for Christmas

Game news - especially RPG news - tends to slow down around Christmas time. Not hard to believe as its rare for RPGs to be released at all in December (notable exceptions recognized). But publisher dtp has decided to spruce up your holidays with a demo for their upcoming RPG, Divinity II: Ego Draconis (well, it's actually already out in Europe).

As a quick refresher, Divinity II focuses around a young dragon slayer who is inadvertantly granted the powers of a dragon knight - aka, the ability to transform into a dragon - in order to save the kingdom from evil.

The demo dropped yesterday morning on Xbox Live and PC for your downloading pleasure.

Coupled with today's End of Eternity Japanese demo, you might just be able to survive on demos alone until you (hopefully) get some new games for Christmas! ;)

Divinity II: Ego Draconis will be available for PC and Xbox 360 on January 5, 2010 in North America. It is already available in Europe.

RPGs of the Week: Crystal Christmas Edition

Merry Christmas Week and Happy Holidays to all Sword Machine readers!

This is the last real week of game releases here in North America for 2009. If you're holding out til the last minute on your Christmas shopping, be advised: it is now the last minute!

Here are the RPGs hitting shelves worldwide this week (December 21 - 26, 2009):

North America
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers – Square Enix – Nintendo Wii
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite – Capcom – PSP

Borderlands – Gearbox, Cyberfront – PC
Eiyuu Densetsu: Sora no Kiseki FC – Falcom – PC
Eiyuu Densetsu: Sora no Kiseki SC – Falcom – PC
Eiyuu Densetsu: Sora no Kiseki the Third – Falcom – PC
Lina no Atelier: Strahl no Renkinjutsushi – Gust – Nintendo DS
Magus Tale Eternity: Sekaiju to Koisuru Mahoutsukai – GN Software – PSP
Ys I & II Chronicles – Falcom – PC
Ys Online: The Call of Solum – Falcom, Key To Play – PC
Zelda no Densetsu: Daichi no Kiteki – Nintendo – Nintendo DS
ZWEI II Plus – Falcom – PC


Japan gets a half-dozen Falcom games for PC, most of which must just be reprints of some kind, because I was pretty sure all of those games were already out, with the exception of Ys Online. They also score some handheld titles like Spirit Tracks and Atelier Lina for DS, and Magus Tale Eternity for PSP. Also, Borderlands gets its first Japanese release on PC.

North America gets Monster Hunter Freedom Unite for PSP, which will likely have a hard time living up to its Japanese fame over here, and Square Enix's Final Fantasy Sports Resort game, which some of you may have already gotten a copy of.

Despite its reportedly extremely short playtime, I'm personally anxious to give Crystal Bearers a shot.

Anything for you this week?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let's Clear Up Some Confusion About NieR

Okay, Cavia is developing an HD action-RPG for Square Enix called NieR, set to release sometime next year. Sounds straight-forward enough, right?

Apparently not, as gamers all over the internet seem to be completely confused as to what's going on with this title. Why are there two versions? They're exclusives but multiplatform? There's a hermaphrodite character? Who's getting what version now? Why does Square Enix hate me? And the list goes on.

So, in a display of goodwill during this festive season, I have taken it upon myself to clear up this mess to the best of my knowledge and sources, which I hope should put your minds at ease.

The Basics
NieR is an action-RPG developed by Cavia (most well-known in the RPG community for their development of the two Drakengard titles on the PS2) created to cater to the interests on Western gamers. It was initially announced as a multiplatform title for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and will be published by Square Enix.

The original concept of the game was that of a father searching for a cure to a mysterious plague that is threatening the life of his daughter.

Two Versions
Several months after the game's initial reveal, Square Enix announced that the game would actually be changed between the 360 and PS3 platforms, and that each version would be exclusive to that platform.

The original concept of the father trying to save his daughter would be titled NieR: Gestalt, and would be an Xbox 360 exclusive. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 3 version was changed to NieR: Replicant, and the hero was changed from a middle-aged buff dude to a younger, more effeminate character. Additionally, the daughter from Gestalt was redefined as the main character's sister.

It was heavily implied that these changes for the PS3 version were made in order to make the game relevant to Japanese gamers, who reportedly were wary of the idea of playing as an older character.

The Confusion
Though these versions were clearly separated between the two platforms in Japan, Square Enix never mentioned their status overseas. Their silence was taken by the majority of gamers to mean that the changes would carry over worldwide.

Some time later, Square Enix came forward to clarify that NieR Replicant would be a Japan-only title, and that everywhere else would receive NieR Gestalt for both 360 and PS3 under the original title of simply 'NieR.'

Gamers everywhere who had their hearts set on playing as the young, effeminate character, were crushed, and interest in the PS3 version of the game plummeted.

Additionally, due to the difference in relationship to the little disease-stricken girl between the two versions, many gamers believed that the storylines for the two games would be significantly different, and some worried that missing Replicant would mean losing out on a different story.

Another point of confusion - on both sides of the pond, no less - was the information that a hermaphrodite would play a significant role in the game. S/he was never fully revealed, and always only got a quick, ambigious shot from an odd angle. Clearly, s/he looked more like a girl than anything else.

When the game was split between the two consoles, the original image of the main character was used to promote the Gestalt version, while an image of this hermaphrodite was used in promos for the Replicant version. This lead some to believe that the hermaphrodite character would be the protagonist of Replicant, and would be removed from Gestalt.

People claiming to be about freedom of sexual expression were outraged, but I personally believe they just wanted to play as the character in the string panties and lace top.

At Least Read This Part
Okay, so now you should be up to speed on why everyone is nerdraging against this title. Now here is the actual way everything goes down, and why you shouldn't be as upset as you are.

First of all, the game's protagonist, Nier, is the same person between both Gestalt and Replicant versions. Indeed, the only confirmed differences between the versions are his age (44 and 21, respectively), and his physical appearance. He can still obtain the same weapons and skills, fight in the same manner, have the same personality, and be on the same quest.

Second, the story appears to remain almost identical. Both versions have Nier setting out on a perilous journey to save the young, disease-stricken Yona, and save himself at the same time. The only major difference in the story area is Nier's relationship to Yona. She is his daughter in Gestalt, while she is his sister in Replicant.

the hermaphrodite remains completely unchanged between the two versions. Kaine (pronounced Ky-neh) is Nier's gender-bending partner in both versions, and his/her outfit even remains identical. S/he was never the protagonist of either version, and will not be cut out of either version.

Finally, it should be noted that the game known as NieR Gestalt in Japan is the game that Cavia originally wanted to make, and that NieR Replicant was created for the sole purpose of quelling the "I don't wanna be an old guy!" discontent among Japanese gamers.

Though I agree that Nier's character design is more likeable in Replicant, the fact that the game's original concept will release worldwide is a good sign that there is still room for creativity in the Japanese game development industry, and its nice to see a large publisher like Square Enix take a chance on a developer's vision.

Now, if you are still completely furious that you can't play as the younger, femmier version of Nier, despite the fact that the games will be nearly identical and that the older version is actually the more purist version, then I would advise you to learn Japanese, buy a PS3, and import it.

But never say someone didn't break it down and explain it for you.

NieR will be available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sometime next Spring in Japan, North America, and Europe.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

RPGs of the Week: Final Fantasy XIII Not For You Edition

Christmas is only 10 days away. If you have been holding out for new RPG releases, your days may be numbered.

Check out what RPGs are hitting shelves this week (December 14 - 18, 2009):

North America
EverQuest Underfoot - Sony Online Entertainment - PC

Daikoukai no Jidai Online: El Oriente - Deltin, Koei Tecmo - PC, PlayStation 3
Final Fantasy XIII - Square Enix - PlayStation 3
Ragnarok Online (7th Anniversary Package) - Gravity, E-Frontier - PC
Queen's Blade: Spiral Chaos - Namco Bandai - PSP


Well, uh, Final Fantasy XIII in Japan. I don't know what else to say here. It's a big deal, I've heard. Unless you understand Japanese and have a PS3, I'm afraid you'll have to wait until next year to get yours.

Japan is also getting a NSFW Queen's Blade PSP spinoff RPG, another edition of Koei's sailing MMO on PC and PS3, and yet another reprint of Ragnarok Online (I think we're up to 11 now, or something).

Meanwhile, North America gets another EverQuest expansion. Yay?

As far as I can tell, Europe appears to be sitting this week out.

Really, though. Final Fantasy XIII in Japan. I don't know how anything else on that list stands any chance against it. Whether it will be good or not remains to be seen, but no mistake, it'll be big, ridiculous boxart notwithstanding.

EDIT: Fixed the boxart mix-up. Sources differ on what it is, but this is the image Amazon Japan has. Thanks for everyone who pointed this out.

Sakura Wars Will be Better on PS2, Wii Shafted

If there is one publisher that just can't let the PS2 go, it's NIS America. Oh sure, they have published a few titles on Wii, DS, PSP, and even PS3, but that good old PS2 just seems to maintain a sweet spot in their hearts.

For better or for worse, this has driven NIS to publish a series here in North America that has been often overlooked by others: Sakura Taisen (Sakura Wars).

Sakura Wars: So Long My Love is actually an ancient 2005 Japanese release known as Sakura Taisen 5: Saraba Itoshiki Hito yo (which translates as basically the same thing). Quite why NIS thought that the game is worth releasing 5 years later on a system that has (in my opinion) long outlived its usefulness is beyond me, but here we are.

In an effort to keep the game relevant, NIS has commissioned a Wii port of the title to be released here in North America at the same time as the PS2 version, and we were originally told that the two would be comparable in features.

However, this has proven not to be the case, as NIS has announced that the game will be heavily gimped on Nintendo's console.

The PS2 version will ship in a premium box complete with an artbook and poster, and will contain two dual-layer DVDs, complete with both English and Japanese voice tracks. The Wii version, by contrast, will receive only a standard case and one single-layer DVD containing only the English voice-overs, though will be priced $10 lower than the superior PS2 version. It should be noted that there is currently only one printing scheduled for this game, and NIS has mentioned that should subsequent printings occur, the PS2 version will be reprinted without the extras mentioned above.

Predictably, NIS has not offered any official statement on why the Wii version is "getting the shaft," as it were, but putting on my educated guessing hat, I would conclude that the Wii port has gone way over budget, and NIS is trying to just get it out the door to minimize further losses. Again, just my speculation.

Sakura Wars: So Long My Love will be available for PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii on March 23, 2010.

So now I have approximately 3 months to decide if I care enough about a 5 year old PS2 game to warrant pre-ordering it. PS2 games are getting harder and harder purchases for me to justify. :/


Friday, December 11, 2009

Namco Bandai Announces Summon Night: Granthese

So, this is slightly old news that you might have missed, but Namco Bandai revealed a week ago that they will be releasing a new Summon Night title for the 'please just let it die, you sick necromancers' PlayStation 2, Summon Night: Granthese.

As usual with Summon Night titles, Granthese will allow players to choose to play as either the male lead, Lost, or the female lead, Millet. However, unlike most Summon Night titles, Granthese is an action-RPG, pitting your chosen hero against foes in real-time 3D. Both heroes fight differently, so choosing your hero is more important than just aesthetic appeal.

Players will be able to summon contracted NPCs to help them fight, including a devil-boy, a sheep-girl, and a walking tree. So nothing too extraordinary, I guess.

Dengeki Online has a full intro to the game, and additional info can be found on the game's official Japanese website.

As an aside, I liked playing PlayStation 2 as much as the next guy, but can't we move on? If developers really can't let go of SD graphics, at least release your games on Wii so we can let the PS2 have the respite it deserves.

Summon Night: Granthese will be available next Spring for PlayStation 2 in Japan.


End of Eternity Japanese Demo Incoming

Dust off your Japanese Xbox Live / PlayStation Network accounts, as Sega and tri-Ace's upcoming multiplatform RPG, End of Eternity (also curiously known in the West as Resonance of Fate, for some unknown reason) will be getting a Japanese demo on December 22, 2009, just in time for Christmas.

For the forgetful, End of Eternity follows three PMF mercenaries, Zephyr, Vashyron, and Reanbell, as they discover the secret behind Earth's last hospitable shelter, the floating mechanical city of Basel.

The demo will reportedly feature a playable scenario original to the demo, and will give players a chance to test out the battle system for themselves.

I haven't done much with my Japanese XBL account since the Magna Carta II demo earlier this year, so I'll be downloading this day one. Also, moar HD RPGs please.

End of Eternity will be available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on January 28, 2010, and sometime next Spring in North America and Europe as Resonance of Fate.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

RPGs of the Week: Choo-Choo Train Edition

No excuses for the blatant lack of updates. I will try harder.

Here are the new RPGs hitting shelves around the world this week (December 7 - 12, 2009).

North America
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks – Nintendo – Nintendo DS

Bleach: Soul Carnival 2 – SCEI – PSP
Eiyuu Densetsu: Sora no Kiseki Set (Super Price Set) – Falcom – PSP
Luminous Arc III: Eyes - imageepoch, Marvelous - Nintendo DS
Tales of Graces – Namco Bandai – Nintendo Wii
X-Edge (Compile Heart Selection) – Compile Heart – PlayStation 3
Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaiki da Or2 (The Best) – Acquire – PSP

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks – Nintendo – Nintendo DS

Japan definitely takes the lead in RPG releases this week with Bleach 2 and Luminous Arc III as new portable titles, and the extreme jealousy-inducing release of Tales of Graces for Wii. Oh, I think there is a sizable dose of budget reprints, too.

North America and Europe will have to make due with Phantom Hourglass +train -boat. That's cool, I guess.

Anything making it into your shopping cart this week?

Atlus Announces Etrian Odyssey III

Another week, another DS RPG announcement. After around 3 years of this, you'd think I'd be used to it.

Anyway, Atlus has announced their latest RPG, the third installment of their neo-retro first-person dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey series. Sekaiju no Meikyuu III (lit. Labrynth of the World Tree III), EOIII doesn't appear to deviate from the formula of the previous installments much, though there are a few editions. For starters, ocean levels are now available, as are a few new character classes, such as Princess, Phalanx, and Pirate.

Sekaiju no Meikyuu III will be available for Nintendo DS on March 4, 2010 in Japan.