Loyalty to No Man (But a Company on the Other Hand…)

I have this compulsion to do whatever I can to support “the little guy”. Not in some noble “I supported Rudy before it was cool” sort of way, my efforts are a bit more…absurd.

While the net worth of a company like Atlus, XSeed and Aksys may be more than I make from a decade’s worth of work, I can’t help but see them as this little fish in a big, dirty, scummy pond. I put this idea in my head that every game may be their last, that if I don’t buy it day one and extol its virtues I could be held responsible for their downfall. And when these companies are the only few willing to publish the Japanese games I crave, another day with XSeed in the world is a blessed one.
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Trail Blaz’r: An Interview With Mike Engler of Aksys Games

Mike Engler’s humility surprises me. Not that anyone deserves an inflated ego, mind you. It’s just that as an editor, he’s been behind the localization of some of my favourite games. With a resume that lists works such as Retro Game Challenge and Muramasa Rebirth, it’s a wonder he could show any worry over the quality of his work.

But for Mike, a self confessed Localization Drone (as well as Text Monkey, and Text Magician), Aksys Games’ upcoming visual novel, XBlaze Code: Embryo, is a far cry from the projects he’s handled before. Not that he’s unprepared; Mike has had his hands in the BlazBlue series of fighting games, a world that XBlaze serves as a prequel to. Set 150 years before the BlazBlue games, players take on the role of Touya Kagari, a high school sophomore whose adventure unravels some of the greater mysteries of the BlazBlue universe. Even those unfamiliar with BB will enjoy this tale of multiple factions seeking out the power that created the universe. XBlaze is announced to release this Summer for the PS3 and Vita.

I got the opportunity to speak with Mike about XBlaze Code: Embryo, as well as some of his past work.

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It’s great seeing Aksys continuing to release visual novel games with XBlaze Code: Embryo. Other publishers are joining in on the fun, so I’d like to know what you feel sets XBlaze apart from games like Virtue’s Last Reward and Danganronpa?

Mike Engler: Probably the biggest thing is that, unlike Dangan and VLR, which I’d consider adventure games, XBlaze is more of a pure visual novel. While there is a certain level of player interaction in XBlaze, it is far more subtle, with the results of the player’s choices not always immediately apparent until they get further into the story.

Another difference between XBlaze and its ADV compatriots is the presentation of the story scenes. They tend to be far more dynamic and play out more like an animated feature; with multiple camera angles used to give a sense of movement.

I have to add that all three games mentioned are worth playing, so grab them all for a couple of months’ worth of entertainment.

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The 2013 Stickies (My Favourite Games Of The Year)

What a year.

When major gaming sites are able to open their eyes and realize that a portable game can be Game of the Year, you just know it’s been a great time for handhelds.

Below you’ll find my 10 Favourite Handheld Games of the Year, a list that was super tough to nail down. Cuts had to be made, friendships torn apart, lives lost, but I do it for you. You’re a great person, and you deserve to know what games are good enough to exist in your cartridge slot.

After this top ten, you can click through to witness the work of a madman. I crafted several more for you, just to insure every great game got its due. This top ten is admittedly light on Vita content for example, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t ten amazing Vita games! So click through for my ten favourite Vita, 3DS, Home Console, and Download games.

10. Fire Emblem Awakening – Nintendo / Intelligent Systems – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

I really didn’t expect to give a damn about Fire Emblem: Awakening. At one point, I damned it as one of Nintendo’s least interesting franchises. It’s not its SRPG trappings either, I’ve rather enjoyed titles like Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor and Advance Wars. It’s the fantasy, the high fantasy. It’s just never spoke to me, prompting me to skip over this Lord of the Rings so many enjoyed.

But how wrong I was. Not sure you’ll remember, but a weird snafu caused some Canadian retailers to sell the game nearly a week early. What you also may not now is that I’m a weak, weak man.

I’ll give credit to 8-4 Ltd. and their terrific localization for making this type of fiction bearable. While wizards and dragons aren’t my cup of tea, those that don’t take them too seriously certainly have my attention.

9. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate – Capcom – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

Despite my praise for Soul Sacrifice as the anti-Monster Hunter, my heart still belongs to this bundle of joy.

I adore how calculated it is. The devil is in the details, and if there’s one thing Japanese developers have over everyone else, it’s minutiae. Every encounter with the game’s many beasts is a game of of observation, watching for its tells. It’s rare to just hammer on a foe, you have to seize your openings and retreat just as quickly.

It plays like a toybox, goofing around with everything available only to settle on that one weapon that suits you perfectly. The Monster Hunter series is about finding the perfect experience, learning and exploiting the tiniest details along the way. It’s not about immediate thrills, Monster Hunter’s concern is earning them.

8. Sweet Fuse: At Your Side – Aksys Games / Spike Chunsoft – PSP

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I really shouldn’t have been so surprised by Sweet Fuse. While I was never aware, I had actually been building up to a straight Visual Novel for awhile now. Phoenix Wright, 999, Virtue’s Last Reward; all titles that had been molding me into someone who just adores reading off a 4-inch wide screen. While it loses some of the more ‘gamey’ aspects of those titles, it more than makes up for it with its focus on romance. The story is just terrific, and makes replays just as enjoyable as the first time through. The game finds a perfect tone, expertly blending terror, comedy, and romance without feeling forced or manipulated. Someone set us up the bomb*, and it’s good.

*Please forgive me and continue to read the site despite this reference.

7. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team – Nintendo / AlphaDream – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

I don’t think anyone could understand my excitement when Dream Team was first announced. Occurring only a few months after Paper Mario: Sticker Star’s release, it was something I hadn’t considered to see the light of day for at least a year. But Nintendo decided it had to wash our mouths clean of that stickers gunk as quickly as possible, releasing another stellar entry in the Mario & Luigi series.

I enjoy seeing the progression made in the series, witnessing the improvements made with each entry. Dream Team’s execution of the ‘dual world’ motif is terrific, besting Bowser’s Inside Story. Pi’illo Island and Luigi’s dream world are cohesive, yet still manage to play differently in an effective way. The Pi’illo Island segments represent the M&L formula I love; isometric exploration and battles. While the dream sequences share the 2D sidescrolling seen in Bowser’s Inside Story, it goes much further in distancing itself. Here, Luigi is an all powerful being, able to summon dozens of clones and become part of the environment to assist Mario. It’s super engaging, and in switching between these two playstyles, the game constantly feels fresh.

Oh, and it makes me chuckle.

6. Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies – Capcom – 3DS

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The sign of a good product is when one cares enough to actually ponder just how it’s made. With the Ace Attorney series, I’m constantly blown away by these crazy characters and foolish situations. Do those behind these Turnabouts start off with an ending? Do they create the cast first, or are they just placed within an already constructed story? I’m always questioning the decisions made by the Ace Attorney developers, but what is not up for debate is the quality. While no entry can top the mastery of Trials and Tribulations, Dual Destinies still enthralls me with the plight of Phoenix Wright. It’s funny, clever, and perhaps even more chilling than ever. While its digital release lacks that physicality many crave, it’s as solid as could be.

5. Tearaway – Sony / Media Molecule – Vita

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I never expected much from Tearaway. While I often make the case for game developers to not be judged by their prior works, my lack of enthusiasm for it was based solely on my disinterest in LittleBigPlanet. It wasn’t fair, but that’s the truth. As its release came up, I began to better understand why so many had fallen in love through the reviews that had circulated. When I finally got my hands on it, my heart swelled as Tearaway‘s personality made its impression. Here was a game that made perfect use of the Vita, not with gimmicks, but with ways to better bring its world to life. Games like Populous had been denoted as ‘God Games’, but Tearaway is my definition of the genre. It wasn’t about ordering folks around or acting as ruler, Tearaway wanted me to make a genuine impact on its world. Not through fear or morphing geometry, but by actually being part of the story.

4. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – Nintendo / Next Level Games – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

Another great example of Nintendo at their best, because just what is Luigi’s Mansion? It’s this freaky hodge podge of ideas, held together by a fumbling plumber clad in green. Dark Moon is an example of the perfect Nintendo experience, something different, old, and new, all at the same time.

To Next Level’s credit, they managed to twist and reshape what the GameCube original introduced, and made it their own. Instead of one massive mansion, they divided the game across five distinct areas, each carrying its own theme. Next Level also broke the game up into missions, forcing Luigi to tackle each mansion in bite sized chunks. Their commitment to building a handheld game shone threw, and further proved why they’re Nintendo’s go-to Canadian developer.

Let me also say that the online is a ton of fun, and well worth dipping your toes into. There’s fun to be had in sucking up ghosts as Pink Luigi.

3. Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Nintendo – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

Yet again, another example of Nintendo blowing me away. Unlike Fire Emblem Awakening, I did intend on picking up New Leaf. I’ve always been an Animal Crossing fan, owning three Animal Crossing themed GameCube memory cards through an odd sequence of events. Problem was my disinterest in the Wii entry caused me to think the series’ time in the sun was over. I failed to recognize that A) the games belong on handhelds, and B) New Leaf brings along some significant improvements.

Being mayor isn’t just a job title, you’re responsible for shaping the town. Its future hinges on decisions you’ve made, and it feels wonderful to see the world around you grow and prosper.

The game is packed with content, seemingly offering an endless supply of furnishings. Its life is extended even further by its online capabilities, allowing me to visit and share my creations with those around the world.

New Leaf is a necessity for any 3DS owner, as its a game that suits a variety of play styles. You’re never pushed in any one direction, you can play with determination or simply take it easy. It exemplifies the idea of an ‘open world’ more than any other game, letting players partake in their own idea of fun.

2. Shin Megami Tensei IV – Atlus – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

I’ve played Shin Megami Tensei IV in ways I had never bothered in other RPGs. What sparked this is SMT IV wants me to care about what I’m doing, a feeling I had never felt imposed on me before.

As opposed to crafting a ton of content that I will likely never see, SMT IV invites me over, promising just rewards for my actions. It says, “Try out my sidequests, they’re genuinely worth a damn.” I don’t think I’ve ever bothered with sidequests; the stories they tell often seem boring, and the demands obtuse and confusing. SMT IV always provides terrific direction, my mission never seems pointless or a simple case of filler.

I guess it’s part of a new wave of JRPGs, ones that learn from the past. It doesn’t damn me for lacking the appropriate skills and knowledge, instead it allows me to manipulate the situation, have it work in my favour. I’ve never so consciously formed a party before, one that is so well rounded. It encourages experimentation, something rare in any genre.

SMT IV shows there’s no danger in appealing to new and old players alike. It’s so well formulated that I really feel comfortable playing how I want to. There may be challenges, but the rewards are so great it’s difficult to turn anything down. SMT IV wants me to enjoy myself, which isn’t something every game can say.

1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – Nintendo – 3DS

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Lest my love for A Link Between Worlds be alleged as nothing more than nostalgia, let me admit that I still have not played through its spiritual/full on predecessor, A Link To The Past. This installment of the Zelda series stands on its own, especially considering its strides to move away from what many have deemed as the ‘Zelda formula’. The strongest shot it takes at that claim is the rental of its key items. But that’s only upon first impression. In fact, allowing players to acquire these items at the time they see fit isn’t all that ground breaking. Players still use the appropriate tools in the appropriate dungeons, just as before. It’s the fallout of that decision that leaves the largest impression. Besides the required item, it becomes a fun task to discover what other items may speed your dungeon deeds along. Having all the items at your disposal puts you in charge of just how you carry out the adventure. It isn’t about following a dotted line, the game is about Link being a hero from the very start. Not having the necessary tools isn’t a hindrance, it’s a only quick broom ride away. The world/s is your oyster, and how you crack it is completely up to you.

If you really want a full breakdown of all my favourite games of the year (home console, download, etc.) then keep on reading!

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A Fascination With Localization: An Interview With Aksys Games’ Ben Bateman

As an editor at Aksys Games, Ben Bateman plays a crucial role in the games you and I play. Were it not for his profession, I’d be bumbling my way through a mountain of kanji, hiragana, and katakana in my efforts to enjoy the latest out of Japan. Bateman manages to take the original material and turn it into something I can understand, and more importantly enjoy. But it’s not as simple as finding the English equivalent of each and every word (which isn’t even possible in many cases), Bateman localizes games in the truest sense of the word. Whether it be the niece of a renowned video game producer, or an AI that speaks in rabbit puns, he takes a title’s script and makes it work best for an English speaking audience. From 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors to Sweet Fuse: At Your Side, Bateman has constantly impressed, and is certainly at the forefront of his craft (you can find his portfolio here).

Ben Bateman took the time to speak with me about Sweet Fuse, Otome in North America, and how the name Akane is not always a reference to 999. If this interview isn’t enough, be sure to follow him on Twitter!

Your work speaks for your experience, but did you ever struggle writing for Saki? She’s a female protagonist, and the game requires a lot of emotional writing. Did you ever need to run some of the dialogue past other women to test its ‘authenticity’?

Ben Bateman (BB): Occasionally I would ask my co-workers if a given bit of text sounded romantic or just dumb, because I’m one of the least romantic people I know, but apart from that, not really. Most people just talk like people, which is a group that includes women.

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Otome Is The Bomb

Guys and gals…I think I’ve been duped.

I thought I had played visual novels before – a genre of games that are much more reading than they are…I don’t know, jumping around killing dudes.

Games like Zero Escape: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Virtue’s Last Reward, Hotel Dusk, and the Ace Attorney series seemed to be examples of the genre to me. I’m sure there are those who’d argue they’re representations of some other book-ish genre, editing Wikipedia entries between our debates.

But maybe they were right all along. Sweet Fuse: At Your Side, released for the PSP early last week, is perhaps the very definition of a visual novel, leaning further away from the ‘game’ side of things than I’m accustomed to.

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