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EVEN CASUAL observers know better than to undervalue the degree of affection those with a predisposed bent towards tactical role-playing games have for the Disgaea series. Certainly, it benefited from, and contributed to, the rapid rise in popularity of the Sony PlayStation 2 en route to being the best selling videogame console of all time. It took Japan by storm with the debuting Disgaea: House of Darkness in January 2003, and the title’s localization, commissioned to Atlus for the United States and Koei for Europe and hitting store shelves seven months later, proved such a critical and commercial success that Nippon Ichi Software saw fit to establish a permanent presence in California by the end of the year.
DEVELOPER Numantian Games’ They Are Billions is one of Steam’s Early Access success stories. Despite its humble beginnings, it has managed to make a name for itself in a genre that many consider long dormant. Presenting a mix of city-building, tower-defense and real-time-strategy elements in a post-apocalyptic setting, it pits a budding human colony against innumerable hordes of the undead in the late 22nd century. Its gameplay forces the last bastions of the human race to build and develop a base of operations on which they survive, and then thrive, against a seemingly never-ending tide of flesh-tearing, brain-eating zombies.
Takayuki Nakamura is in his early thirties. He’s between jobs in Tokyo, and a scheduled house renovation compels him to do some cleaning. As he rummages through things in storage, he comes across a set of letters dating back 15 years. He recalls putting out an ad in a magazine for a pen pal, and then getting a response all the way from Shimane Prefecture. His subsequent back and forth with Aya Fumino was what enabled him to survive senior year in high school, he notes. And, across the miles, he believed he found love. Unfortunately, his 10th letter wound up unanswered, and it was all that became of their long-distance friendship. Or so he thought.
JUST TO be clear from the outset: RICO stands on solid ground. As the acronym for “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations,” it speaks to the procedurally generated action it offers, requiring the disposal of armed enemies with literal do-or-die persuasions. Gamers take on the role of a member of a special operations force charged with dismantling extremely entrenched criminal groups. Random missions need to be completed in the process, but the overriding objective in invariably involves getting any and all lowlife scums to meet their maker one room at a time.
DRAGON STAR VARNIR is far from a typical Japanese role-playing game. In fact, it’s anything but run of the mill, eschewing the notion that demand for releases in the genre is fueled by entertaining gameplay and not depth of narrative. For Compile Heart, in particular, it represents a striking departure from the norm; instead of going for yet another Hyperdimension Neptunia offering that would have been gobbled up by a solid base of loyal fans, anyway, the Tokyo-based developer saw fit to churn out an entirely original intellectual property that calls to mind the dark and gruesome undertones of the early works of the Brothers Grimm.
THE Atelier series has churned out a game just about every single year since 1997, and with reason. Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg, its first offering, wound up being a critical and commercial hit, in the process serving as a solid foundation. And, creditably, developer Gust has taken nothing for granted since then; improvements that serve to strengthen the brand have come with every succeeding release. And, in this regard, Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland lives up to billing; it’s an excellent Japanese role-playing game that meets fans’ expectations in delivering a healthy blend of combat, exploration, and creativity, with a light-hearted story weaving all the elements together.
UNLESS GAMERS have been living under a rock all this time, they would most definitely be familiar with the Senran Kagura series. The arrival of the Nintendo 3DS handheld console at the turn of the decade gave Marvelous the impetus it needed to bring Senran Kagura: Skirting Shadows and Senran Kagura Burst to the attention of those on the lookout for actioners featuring no small measure of fanservice. The newly formed Japan-based publisher, out to make an impact as an offshoot of the merger of industry players Marvelous Entertainment, Livewire, and AQ Interactive, felt it had in its hands a solid franchise featuring appealing characters, deep and unpredictable gameplay, and nuanced storylines designed to transcend platforms.
DESPITE having taken off only at the turn of the decade and coming up with zero output in 2016, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series has managed to churn out a whopping 17 titles to date. The bounty is both a testament to the popularity of the franchise and the sheer inventiveness of developer Compile Heart and publisher Idea Factory. And it isn’t as if they’re simply out to satisfy the cravings of a captive market across platforms and media. To the contrary, their prolificacy is a reflection of their creativity and ensuing willingness to test the boundaries of their constituencies.
CONSIDERING the significant interest generated by Sniper Elite V2 on the Nintendo Wii U and the lack of tactical shooters on the console’s successor, it was no surprise to find Rebellion Developments bringing the game’s remastered iteration to the Switch. Perhaps it would have done so regardless of circumstance; after all, the reboot-cum-sequel of 2005’s Sniper Elite remains the most popular title in the series. Announced in 2011, it was slated for release only on the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3. However, clamor from quarters seemingly left out by the limited offering led the developer to look beyond its partnership with 505 Games and publish by itself a version for the personal computer soon after.
EVEN FOR hardcore gamers, visual novels are an acquired taste. By their very definition, they focus more on story as opposed to gameplay, and rely on visceral reaction rather than physical feedback to produce a unique brand of entertainment those digesting them would have to willingly partake of. In this regard, they’re on one end of the gaming spectrum that has pure action on the other. In an overwhelming number of cases, their interactivity is limited to inputs at certain points, representing choices in crossroads to pursue storylines as seen fit.
EVERY ONCE in a while, gamers are struck by the stunning simplicity of a new release. With myriad titles vying for their attention and seeking to rise above the din by striving to outshout the competition, they find themselves appreciating the modulated approach of an astutely positioned title. Such has been the reception generated by Lapis x Labyrinth, which hit store shelves in Japan (as Lapis Re Abyss) late last year and which just made its way to the West. Even official Nintendo sites for United States and United Kingdom constituencies yield little by way of information. “Help a struggling town recover from bankruptcy in an age of dwindling adventuring,” they intone. “Plunge into the mysterious Labyrinth while collecting more loot than you can ever imagine.”
FLIGHT SIMULATORS don’t normally appeal to the masses, so it’s a testament to the quality of the Ace Combat series that it has managed to earn a multitude of fans all the same. It certainly had modest beginnings; Air Combat, its very first release, found shelf space in 1995 shortly after the Sony PlayStation was introduced and left much to be desired. Publisher Namco strove for realism, but wound up making compromises, particularly in graphics, to speed up play, resulting in what not a few quarters noted as an unpolished presentation. Still, there were more than enough positive elements for the pioneer to plant the seeds for long-lasting success.
IT HAS been 16 years since Atlus thought to release Revelations: Persona on the Sony PlayStation. Expectations were modest then, with the title taking on many of the features of the Megami Tensei franchise from which it drew inspiration. Regardless of outlook, however, it wound up being a sleeper hit, in the process building an extremely loyal fan base and jump-starting a series with immense crossover appeal. For all its humble beginnings, it spawned an intellectual property giant. Boasting of memorable characters, killer soundtracks, and storylines that transcend genres, it now carries a name synonymous to great gaming — a veritable seal of quality that ensures unparalleled entertainment value.
NOT COINCIDENTALLY, Shin Nihon Kikaku (SNK) picked up steam around the time the video game industry rose in popularity. As the tumultuous ’70s gave way to the optimistic ’80s, gaming arcades and home-console versions of popular titles reached critical mass. And, in the face of rapid growth, the developing, publishing, and manufacturing company was determined not just to take advantage of the boom, but to ensure its sustainability through constant innovation. Soon enough, it became a major player in the coin-operated business, and it astutely leveraged its experience to penetrate the expanding home market.
BELIEVE it or not, the Fate series originates from a visual novel that has never been officially released in the West. Despite the absence of a licensed English translation, however, Fate/stay night became immensely popular, and fast; in fact, so captivated were eroge audiences by its spectacular storyline that it spawned a franchise boasting of intellectual properties in various media. In the last decade and a half, publisher Type-Moon has gone on to produce titles collectively generating 10 figures — yes, 10 figures — in revenues.
WHEN Just Cause 4 was announced at E3 2018, Square Enix foresaw a quick turnaround time. In fact, Avalanche Studios was tasked to oversee a June-December affair, no mean feat given the weight of expectations accompanying the projected release of the latest title in the action-adventure franchise. Still, confidence accompanied the development, spurred in no small measure by upgrades to the Apex game engine; most significantly, the souped-up version of the software environment figured to enable the in-game portrayal of extreme weather effects. Needless to say, the feature was right in line with the over-the-top predilections of the decade-old series.
Projections were extremely high when Capcom first put DMC: Devil May Cry on store shelves in early 2013. It had been five years since the release of Devil May Cry 4, and not a few quarters saw the ensuing absence as a rejuvenating factor for the franchise that was, by then, so ubiquitous as to be in other media. For all its popularity, its last video game property failed to meet sales expectations, giving rise to the sentiment that it was getting stale. In response, the Japanese publisher went for a reboot and, in order to ensure freshness, tapped British developer Ninja Theory to steer the enterprise to a new direction.
INDIA doesn’t have much of a history with popular computer games, unlike the US or Japan. But now one of the industry’s kill-or-be-killed titles has become a smash hit — and the backlash from the country’s traditionalists is ferocious.
CONSIDERING that BlazBlue CentralFiction marks the culmination of an overarching narrative spanning three other releases over a full decade, it’s fair to wonder if Arc System Works and Aksys Games jumped the gun by making it the first title in the series to see appearance on the Nintendo Switch. True, the middle of last year saw BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle hit store shelves and earn a fair share of followers on the hybrid console. Then again, the latter is more an all-star spectacle that features intellectual properties from prominent franchises and makes use of otherwise-foreign premises.
THE Caligula Effect received mixed reviews as it made its way to the Sony PlayStation Vita in June 2016 (and localized on the same platform about a year later), with not a few quarters expressing disappointment on its inability to live up to promise. In part, it suffered from an unfair comparison to iterations from the Persona series; the involvement of publisher Atlus and writer Tadashi Satomi in the intellectual properties gave rise to heightened expectations the new release wasn’t likely to meet. In larger measure, it was bogged down by the depth of its ambition; it put forth novel ideas that could not be executed fully in light of the inadequacies of its host hardware.
CRACKDOWN was released with much fanfare in 2007. It wasn’t merely that Microsoft Game Studios bundled launch copies with multiplayer beta access to hotly anticipated Halo 3. More importantly, it was because the involvement of developer David Jones (the force behind sandbox giant Grand Theft Auto) heightened interest in the open-world action title. And he wasn’t attached just because he so happened to be head of Realtime Worlds; he conceived it and helped shepherd it through a five-year turnaround process that included shifting programming focus from the Xbox to the next-generation Xbox 360.
FROM THE outset, The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince has moved to tread off the beaten path. In a live broadcast early last year announcing, among others, its development, Nippon Ichi Software made sure to highlight its unique plot: It tells the story of a wolf needing to take on human form and pretend to be a princess in order to help a prince it accidentally blinded regain his sight. And, as subsequent public updates have likewise shown, it does so by employing a singularly flat aesthetic; it relies on a hand-drawn art style that emphasizes its Grimm Brothers-storybook tone.
ALREADY IN the process of winding up the development of Tales of the Abyss, Namco Tales Studio first planted the seeds for Tales of Vesperia in the middle of 2005. As the Xbox 360 was then about to be launched, it felt it had its medium of choice. Time and timing certainly helped it make a decision, what with specifications for the PlayStation 3 and the Wii not yet available. And it saw a natural, if productive, marriage with Microsoft, one of convenience but likewise of opportunity: It frequently enlisted the hardware manufacturer’s support in aiming to maximize the processing power of the seventh-generation console en route to the release of the latest entry in the Tales franchise.
THOSE FAMILIAR with Koei Tecmo Games will undoubtedly not be shocked at the release of Warriors Orochi 4, a hack-and-slash video game that combines the Samurai Warriors and Dynasty Warriors franchises and lets them loose in a world of myths and monsters.
SYBERIA 3’s release on the Nintendo Switch caps a long journey that began long before the turn of the decade. Development on the last title in the graphic adventure trilogy coincided with issues beyond the control of Microids designers Benoît Sokal and Lucas Lagravette; from the arrival of new management to contractual negotiations to financial concerns, it found its progress stunted for years. And even after support for its production became official, it saw its expected launch date moved time and again, ostensibly to “bring even more depth to Kate Walker’s new adventure,” Elliot Graciano, the French software brand’s founder and vice-president, noted in late 2016.
PART brawlers, part Japanese dramas, and part open-world experiences, Sega’s Yakuza games have always been a ridiculous but compelling blend of action and adventure. While they initially seem like compilations of conflicted ideas from a fever dream, their interesting, over-the-top antics and enjoyable combat systems are truly anything. Their stories keep you invested, and their atmosphere, taken individually or collectively, is nothing short of engrossing. Yakuza Kiwami 2, a remake of 2006’s Yakuza 2, follows pretty much the same formula. Featuring better graphics and sounds, enhanced gameplay, and new story elements, it does its best to keep the spirit of its source material while tacking on some of its own unique flair.
IT’s a testament to the critical and commercial success of Life is Strange that Dontnod Entertainment had already begun work on a sequel even as its final episode was just being released. When the French developer confirmed the piece of news in January 2016, sales had already reached the three-million mark and physical copies were already making their way to store shelves. Episodic adventure games weren’t new to the industry, and yet it managed to present a choice-driven, coming-of-age narrative that transcended the genre. And, understandably, it wanted to build on its singular achievement.
MOST GAMERS are familiar with the modern dungeon crawler, with the likes of Diablo III, Torchlight II, and Path of Exile proving to be critical and commercial successes. That’s not to say that every release in the category follows the same formula; such notables as Class of Heroes, The Dark Spire, and The Lost Child are superb takes on turn-based exploration and fighting in elaborate milieus. They’re not for everyone, though; while compelling, they generally rely on the slow burn of an interesting story to keep players hooked, and their often-complicated battle systems can be a doozy to navigate through, especially for newcomers to the genre.
WHEN producer Souhei Niikawa and principal programmer Yoshitsuna Kobayashi set out to make Disgaea: Hour of Darkness from scratch, they had no idea that it would stand the test of time. True, they were determined to meet the objectives set forth by publisher Nippon Ishi Software; they aimed to come up with a role-playing game that both adhered to popular mechanics and pushed the envelope in terms of execution. Even as they succeeded in doing so, however, they could not have envisioned an outcome that exceeded their highest expectations.
LONGTIME gamers remember Shenmue fondly for what it tried to achieve. The open-world adventure brawler was revolutionary in its ideas, trying its hardest to blend an engaging narrative, extensive exploration sprinkled with minigames of various types, quick time events, and combat sequences. Released back in 1999 as a Sega Dreamcast exclusive, it met with extremely positive praise, but somehow failed to parlay its critical acclaim into commercial appeal.
AT THE TURN of the millennium, SNK Corp. came out with the two-dimensional SNK Gals’ Fighters on the Neo Geo Pocket Color. Designed to be the female version of the hugely successful The King of Fighters series, it was released near the end of the handheld’s life cycle. Needless to say, it was an attempt to boost flagging sales; it tried to widen the user base by making 10 distaff characters from popular licenses its protagonists under proven gameplay mechanics.
LET’S FACE IT. The NBA 2K franchise is a venerable one built on both the intrinsic pull of its source material and the collective talent of its developers. Never has the National Basketball Association (NBA) been more popular, and its already immense global reach -- propped up by outstanding leadership and instantly recognizable marquee names -- continues to grow by the day. Meanwhile, Visual Concepts has turned the otherwise-vicarious experience of appreciating matches at the sport’s highest level into an extremely impressive undertaking.
THERE’S NO QUESTION that the Gundam franchise has become huge to the point of ubiquity. These days, offshoots of animation studio Sunrise’s intellectual property can be found practically anywhere, way beyond the small and big screens and into toy establishments, hobby shops, book and video game stores, and collectors’ corners. It has become so ingrained in popular culture that a 65-foot-tall Unicorn mecha in Odaiba stands as one of Japan’s biggest — literally and figuratively — tourist attractions.
WHEN KADOKAWA GAMES released God Wars: Future Past on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 last year, it put forth a tactical role-playing game awash in Japanese lore. Its story, which began with a Queen’s sacrifice of a daughter to appease the gods and continued with the other daughter striving to find out why, offered a stunning look into the history of the Shinto-steeped Land of the Rising Sun. Parenthetically, the hope that the narrative would pull in and not alienate Western audiences was answered with success on retail shelves.
IT’S NOT HARD to understand why Nihon Falcom and NIS America have moved to port Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana in the Nintendo Switch. Having seen the title generate positive reception upon its release on the PlayStation Vita in 2016, on the PS4 last year, and on the PC earlier this year, they understand its potential to reach a new set of gamers via the hybrid console. Their confidence is not unfounded, and not simply because they carry a lot of weight in the gaming industry. More importantly, their latest contribution to the Ys franchise has been praised as the best yet.
TIM SWEENEY made Fortnite a phenomenon by doing something that sounds crazy: He gave it away. That strategy has made him a billionaire. In an industry...
HAPPY BIRTHDAYS is nothing if not peculiar off the bat. And it wears its strangeness proudly, assured of its capacity to unveil a masterpiece from an empty canvas by handing you the brush. As a truly sweeping god game from the mind of Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, it melds its ambition with seemingly simple presentations; the visuals are colorful, if childlike, and accompanied by soothing keyboard acoustics, but its demands are such that a 20-minute tutorial is required for you to get going, and much longer after to experience comfort and confidence in what you’re doing. Once you get the hang of it, however, the payoff is nothing short of sensational.
TYCOON GAMES aren’t for everyone, but it isn’t hard to understand why they have a loyal following. They’re flashy, and they’re capable of producing a surprising amount of fun and complexity. From Sim City to Zoo Tycoon to Roller Coaster Tycoon, the process of building something from scratch and seeing it thrive and prosper brings about catharsis. And, by the same token, Kalypso Media delivers.
IT’S BY DESIGN that Vanillaware is best known for stylistic two-dimensional action-adventure games. In an industry proliferated with 3D titles, the Japanese developer has made a conscious effort to trod the less-beaten path. And, to its credit, it has had much success in this regard; via a proprietary programming process, it enables its artists to render pixel sprites in such a way as to uniquely project depth. It’s why gamers instantly took to Odin Sphere for the PlayStation 2 in 2007, as well as Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Nintendo Wii in 2009.
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