Saturday, July 11, 2009

Xseed Games NYC Press Event Impressions

Xseed Games dropped into the NYC area this past Thursday with a small but ridiculously cool lineup of Wii exclusives, one really unique game I can't talk about yet and one superbly insane PSP title that's a must buy no matter what your gaming tastes. With such a fine lineup of quality games, a few editor-types almost overlooked the tasty, never-ending sushi and other fine dishes coming from EN's capable kitchen.

One very cool thing about Xseed is that as a small publisher since 2005 they've always been 100% dedicated to each and every game they release. The company's President, Jun Iwasaki actually plays every game to completion (I can think of only one or two other corporate head-types that do this) and the handful of employees (well, two handfuls if you want to be more exact) work hard on every aspect of the localization process. That attention to detail has produced a small but reliable lineup of niche-oriented games that's garnered Xseed quite a few loyal fans.

Little King's Story was the showcase game at the event and with the July 21 release date right around the corner, the final version is indeed everything it promised to be and more. The Wii-exclusive Simulation/RPG hybrid is not only one of the most stylistically amazing games on any platform, the balance of family-friendly pick up & play controls combined with bits of black comedy make for quite a unique gaming experience. Think Pikmin meets Harvest Moon with a dash of The Sims and you're only about halfway there. The ability to recruit some very lively townspeople for various jobs and watch them eventually age, marry and bear children (that can be used to snag certain rare items) adds even more depth to the gameplay. I'll save the remainder of my glowing commentary for the full review, but I'd definitely recommend snapping this one up as soon as you see it.

Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga was playable in near-complete form and as a big fan of the PSP versions, I was very pleased at how this new installment is turning out. Hardcore VK veterans should be pleased with the improvements and neat surprises the game packs into its depths. Where the PSP versions were party-centric affairs, Marvelous and K2 have crafted a solid, addictive single player level grinder with a MMO-style online co-op mode for two players. Instead of up to five AI companions, here you're limited to yourself and up to two tavern-hired mercenaries in the single player game. If you're a fan of the PSP games upset at losing those five AI buddies, once you actually see gameplay movies of or actually play the Wii game, you'll see that the change makes perfect sense.

Controls are quite easy to pick up. Movement is done with the analog stick, tapping the A button attacks, you pick up items with B, the D-pad selects magic, menus and such. The C button is used for context-sensitive interactions such as climbing or otherwise interacting with certain obstacles in the environment. Once you creat a character, a tutorial level walks you through movement, combat, smashing barrels for items and other basics. The only Wiimote gimmickry comes into play for special attacks, which are done by shaking the controller when a special bar fills up. The dev team's goal was to make gameplay as accessible as possible to players of all skill levels without relying on throwing tons of gesture-based movements into the mix.

Combat now takes place right on the field, making this a true Action/RPG. There's no setting of grid formations or transitions to those small battle areas with limited movement options. There's also no targeting system - you just need to line yourself up with an enemy and hit the attack button. Your AI mercs will automatically attack anything in the vicinity, a good thing in huge areas with multiple paths and blind corners. As in the PSP games, using a bow is done in first-person mode with a tap of the attack button. Since you have a lot more freedom of movement, you'll be able to run away from stronger enemies and re-engage them at your leisure.

In terms of getting around, yes, you still need to hoof it about quite a bit, but there are supposed to be quick transport locations that are unlocked as you discover new towns and other areas. All the character classes and deep customization features from the PSP games are intact and the inventory screen is now icon-based and easier to manage.. Xseed's Product Manager Jimmy Soga says players can expect at least 80-100 hours of gameplay, which means a rather tremendous value in this rather pesky recession we're currently going through.

An all new graphics engine allows for some really impressive vistas and a great draw distance. For a Wii game, it looks quite amazing, especially when you realize that you'll actually be headed to most of those locations off in the distance. The intentionally gloomy color palette and some nice weather effects do an excellent job at setting a bleak tone to the early maps. As some of the enemies and bosses are quite large, the camera angle can be changed manually to allow players to see and attack these bigger baddies' weak points with weapons and magic spells. Although the game was running on a fine HD display, I'm thinking it will look a bit better on a good quality standard def TV (I've kept mine specifically for Wii and PS2 reviews).

As for any caveats, the game seems fairly straightforward in its online two-player limitations. It may be the first MMO-style RPG on the console, but I'll need to dig up some info on whether or not (or how quickly) players can jump in and out of games in order to play with multiple friends. There's no single screen co-op or split screen play here, so it looks like the game will absolutely appeal to those who love purely the glorious grind-fest more than those looking for a larger communal experience. Then again, given that there's nothing like this on the Wii, it'll be interesting to see what sort of new players dive into this richly detailed game world. Fans of the PSP versions should absolutely give this a shot, but anyone looking for a great value for their gaming dollar should definitely take a look as well. Currently, there's no set release date other than Fall 2009, so hit up your favorite retailer and pre-order a copy if you haven't already.

Also playable was the surprisingly scary Wii exclusive Ju-on: The Grudge, which Xseed is touting as a "haunted house simulator." Unlike other "survival horror" games where you're loaded for bear and the real scares are more likely to come from control issues and dopey AI partners, developers AQ Interactive and feelplus have created a deliberately paced chiller that's guaranteed to creep out anyone easily frightened. As a huge fan of horror games, what's here did make me jump more than a few times and yes, I did let out a squeak once or twice (much to my embarrassment).

What's great about the game is that you're not some badass super-cop or other heroic lead character. In each level you're put in the shoes of one normal guy or gal trying to live long enough to make it from one end of a level to the next. Playing as different members of the Yamada family, you need to merely guide yourself through different locations armed only with a flashlight (and some very steady nerves). Of course, being cursed by the series' vengeful ghost Kayako tends to make things a wee bit difficult as you slowly make your way through the darkness. And yes, her scary son Toshio pops up from time to time to make your heart pitter-pat even more.

Controls are easy enough for anyone to hop right into things. You use the Wii Remote as your flashlight, pressing the B button moves you forward while A activates doors and other objects. Pressing down on the D-pad makes your avatar walk backward. You're free to roam almost anywhere you like in a level (no on-rails nonsense here), but darkness plays very heavily into the gameplay. Since your cheap flashlight only realistically illuminates a small area, movement is slow and steady, which only adds to the creep-out factor. Given that that flashlight also seems to run on even cheaper dollar store batteries, you'll need to quickly locate extra cells scattered around the levels. Run out of torch juice and it's Game Over, even if you're steps away from the level exit.

Of course, Kayako has a few tricks up her tattered sleeves, such as using her long hair to block off certain doorways or zipping past your field of vision when you least expect it. Like Konami's upcoming Silent Hill: Shattered Dreams, there's no combat at all. However, should Kayako grab you (and trust me, she will grab you), you need to very quickly flick the Wiimote in the direction of arrows that flash on screen or else. These sequences are brief, unpredictable and definitely scary enough to make onlookers at the event hop out of their socks for a second or two. There were only two playable areas open in the build, a warehouse and hospital, but each held specific challenges that needed to be tackled in order to survive.

Visually, the game is solid, featuring realistic lighting effects and nicely detailed environments. Even with a ton of adjusting, the HD setup at EN was pretty darn dark, but in looking at screens and the game trailer online, I'm liking what I see more and more. The sound design here is excellent, what with the eerie music, background fx and Kayoko's chilling groans and other noises. As far as I saw, there wasn't anything resembling gore, however, I'm sure the game will save the bigger scares for the later stages.

There are some mild puzzles (find the key, track down a missing generator part), but based on what I saw, players won't be frustrated by ridiculous Resident Evil-era stuff at all. One really fun (or not, depending on how easily you freak out) element discussed but not shown was the two-player mode. Here, a second controller can be used to introduce totally random fright sequences into the game with the press of a button. This should make for some hilarious YouTube videos (particularly the ones where Player One is beating up on Player Two with that Wiimote after getting the crap scared out of them one too many times).

Takashi Shimizu, director of the original Ju-on films consulted on the game's development and it certainly shows in the methodical pace of the movement and the well-placed shocks the game throws at you. While super-jaded gamers immune to the idea of weaponless gaming might scoff at the game, it's definitely a pick for anyone who likes goosebumps popping up left and right when they least expect it. The constant level of tension makes for quite a ride and as a party game, I can see this getting played to death by fans of the movies and horror games in general. The game is set for an October release (I'm guessing around Halloween), so absolutely look into this if it's up your alley.

The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces looks to be a real winner for arcade flight combat fans or anyone looking for a top-quality flying game for the Wii. Developed by Namco/Bandai and Project Aces (the folks behind the Ace Combat series), the game looks and plays beautifully. There's an interesting retro-futurist plot that has something to do with corporate sponsored wars becoming a new form of entertainment and your character, “Lynx” trying to uncover some big secrets behind it all. The game has a few gorgeously animated cut-scenes and in-game sequences that spelled out a few plot points, but the game is still in the localization process, meaning all the text and menus were still in Japanese.

Using the Nunchuck as a flight control stick and the Wii Remote as a throttle, the game excellently simulates actual flight mechanics. It only takes about a minute to get comfortable with the controls, but the game isn't a cakewalk by any means. One nifty feature is the ability to pull off a number of special flight maneuvers that allow you roll away from danger and shoot down planes with style. Here, the camera quickly breaks away from the cockpit or behind the plane view to a brief cinematic angle as your plane spins, flips or rolls and fires away. It's quite cool-looking yet doesn't feel intrusive at all, particularly when you're sending multiple enemies down in flames before zipping back to your selected viewpoint.

All the planes I saw looked excellent and most seemed to be based on popular WWII era and beyond propeller beauties. As you're zipping about the fairly large maps, the impressive skies, terrain mapping and draw distance really stand out. There will be solo missions, squad-based missions that have you teamed up with friendly AI fighters, bombers and more, but the game is strictly a single player experience. While this may be a buzz-kill for those who crave multiplayer dogfighting action, there's no reason to bypass the game at all since the Wii is starving for a great arcade-style flight sim such as this.

On the PSP front, Lunar: Silver Star Harmony was MIA, which was mildly disappointing, but the demo version of the upcoming Half-Minute Hero more than made up for it with its absolutely awesome, hilariously rapid-fire take on classic 8-bit RPGs. Marvelous Entertainment and Opus have teamed up to create a game even folks who hate RPGs can love. Here, you get a mere thirty seconds to get to a map's evil overlord or some other big, big boss and beat it to a pulp. The fun comes from figuring out how to utilize your time wisely while fighting super quick random battles in order to earn gold and level up your avatar. Time stops when you enter a town and you can reset the clock back to 30 thanks to the gold-happy Time Goddess who craves your cash for her own shopping purposes.

Gameplay is a mash-up of classic RPG, tsuguroku, and blazing fast mini-game button mashing that will initially have your head spinning. Death is at first a frequent friend until you figure out stuff such as avoiding forested areas with brutal baddies, reloading the game clock, using handy clues from villagers about certain weapons or tactics and more. Everyone who tried out the game at the event had a huge grin on their faces and I overheard more than a few variations on “Even though I don't normally play RPGs, I really like this game,” which is always a good thing when some editor-type expands his or her gaming horizons. With 120 stages (at least 15 hours of gameplay), up to four players (via ad hoc) and a great rockin' metal soundtrack, this could be one of the best PSP games of 2009, hands-down.

The one game I can't talk about yet is a VERY cool RPG (a top-secret DS title) that's unique in at least one element in what it brings to the genre, but you'll have to keep your eyes peeled for more info once the embargo is lifted. While the games shown at the event were exciting, it would have been nice to see a few more upcoming (and still early in the localization process) exclusives such as Arc Rise Fantasia (Wii), Fragile: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (Wii) or even Ragnarök Online (DS), but the company needs to save some surprises for the next event, right? Nevertheless, one thing is certain: each game on display was a winner and most should appeal to those gamers who crave a bit of third-party variety in their libraries.

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