I Love Atlus
Independent publishers are something of a rarity these days, what with them generally either going under or being absorbed into one of the big guys, and some are better than others. This is a love letter to one in particular, which has constantly impressed me over the last few years and doesn’t seem to get nearly enough credit.
I’ve steadily built up a library of RPGs from Atlus over the past couple of generations, mainly in the Shin Megami Tensei series, and they’re universally excellent, challenging and fun, and the publisher is one of the best in the world when it comes to quality of its translations. Taking the very Japanese Persona series as an example, they were lovingly translated while keeping the original spirit without being obtrusive (1UP has a good interview on the methodology behind the localisation of Persona 4 here) and given great dubs, which could only really have been improved by the inclusion of the original voiceovers.
Also, special editions, limited editions, whatever you call them, most publishers’ are usually neither. Atlus’s, on the other hand, are frequently both. A soundtrack CD is the least that can be expected, up to lavish art books, guides, slipcases, and the rest. It’s a good reason to be cynical about £10 extra for a tin and download code, and it takes something special from anyone else for me to care any more. Only the late Working Designs was better for its treatment of obscure games.
And given that these editions are actually limited, they’re invariably good investments. The Demon’s Souls Deluxe Edition only came out in October and is already comfortably topping £150 on eBay. And while I might suspect certain studios of holding back copies of their out-of-print games and leaking them onto auction websites when they’re selling for hundreds – I have no evidence to support that accusation, I hasten to add – Atlus isn’t averse to running normal-price reprints of its rarest games. It might disappoint the hawks on eBay, but it’s a nice feeling to get a brand new sealed copy of a rare game like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne or Digital Devil Saga – both superb, by the way – without paying over the odds for them.
The brilliant Demon’s Souls currently has me in thrall – seriously, either import it or hope for a European release – and I’ll be rekindling my relationship with the Persona series now that Persona 3 Portable is confirmed for an English-language bow. I make no secret of the fact that prefer RPGs on a portable system and so that represents my best chance to actually put in the 100-odd hours required to finish it. Port the superior Persona 4 and I’ll be yours forever.
Atlus is part of a rare breed these days, not only as a Japanese company that’s successfully doing its thing on the current generation but as a studio that treats its games and its fans right. How many of those are there? Valve maybe? This is one endangered species that I’d love to keep around.
Revisiting Chrono Trigger
Being neither a new game nor a new port, Chrono Trigger for the DS may be an odd one to talk about, but when I found myself plumbing my backlog for a fix when my 360 popped its clogs a while back, this is one of the unplayed gems that I found myself returning to, even after the big black monster was back.
I adore Chrono Trigger, and have ever since I first played it when it remained the holy grail of what a UK gamer could find only on the import ‘grey market’. Indeed, the DS version, released 14 years after its original release, was the first time it was actually available in PAL territories without braving inflated eBay prices or less legal routes.
I’ve owned and played all three versions, but I’ve never actually finished the game, which made it an even easier choice. Classic RPGs and portable systems just go together in my book – this complementary relationship was how I finally got the Final Fantasy VII monkey off my back – so if I was ever going to do it, this would be it. Throw in the fact that this is the best version of the game – the largely issue-free SNES version lacked the extras and animated scenes of the PSX, while that one suffered from unforgivable slowdown and crippling load times for a SNES port, and this one takes the best from both - and I was set to be a happy, mildly obsessed chap.
First, though, that new translation, because it’s probably the most contentious change. Cleaning up old translations generally gets the thumbs up from me because, let’s face it, most translation work from the 16-bit days could, at best, be described as ‘charming’, but it’s hard to ignore one particular tweak in this one. Some of the changes make sense, like ‘Antiquity’ is a better and more fitting name for the ancient magical realm than ‘Dark Ages’, and taking advantage of the fact that names no longer have to be limited by cartridge space is a no-brainer, but did they really have to drop Frog’s Shakespearean ‘ye olde’ dialect?
Cheesy it may have been, but it was cute and fit the character, and I think it’s a good reason – this is the other reason – why Frog is such a fondly remembered character. Even if it wasn’t in the original Japanese, there are other quirks that didn’t make it in, so staying true to the original wasn’t top of the agenda. It’s no big deal and Frog is still a great character, but he’s lost something.
That’s really my only complaint, though. In short, Chrono Trigger is still one of the best RPGs ever made. It has it all: timelessly beautiful art; a great, multilayered story; memorable characters; a classic – in many ways – soundtrack; no random battles; tons of totally optional side quests that add to the characters… Hell, it popularised if not invented the New Game+ concept and had 14 different endings when most games could barely manage one. They really don’t make them like this any more.
And that’s another unfinished classic RPG off my list. Next stop: Persona 4… maybe.
Some Old-Fashioned Hardcore Gaming
After a year dominated by good games, but games that didn’t really push the envelope any further than the number of guns featured in that particular first-person shooter, I’ve changed things up by having a good time with a couple of recent releases that have really taken me back.
Bayonetta was first, and I loved it from the moment it accompanied a drive in a red sports car with Magical Sound Shower on the radio. It’s loaded with references to classic Sega games and revels in the Capcom connection as well – many of the developers worked on Devil May Cry, most notably director Hideki Kamiya – with nods to everything from the obvious Devil May Cry through to Viewtiful Joe and Resident Evil 4. It’s far more entertaining in its homages than something like Matt Hazard, which uses them as an excuse for uninspired design – ironically bad.
It’s also mind-bendingly gorgeous, outrageously silly on occasions, and unashamedly hardcore in its design. Lower difficulty levels make cool-looking combos easy and accessible through button-mashing, but play it on normal or higher and it takes skill without requiring the third hand that certain similar games can do. The combo system in particular is superb, letting you flick between two different weapon loadouts mid-combo and cancel in and out of them as you go, dodging with a tap of the right trigger. It’s less prescriptive and more spectacular than Ninja Gaiden, while also less daunting than Devil May Cry 4.
Essentially, it’s just a lot of fun to play, whether you’re out for a challenge or some classic gameplay of a sort that seems to be in decline. Just don’t play it for the story, because that’s utter bollocks.
I’m not convinced that it’s a 10/10, though. Although there’s nothing that I’d pick out as a glaring flaw, it’s very much standing on the shoulders of giants rather than forging its own path, and I like to think of perfect scores as being reserved for the few games that do the latter.
Demon’s Souls is the other game, and although it’s been out in the US for a few months, I only recently took the opportunity to import it. Its buzz has been hard to ignore and it’s even picked up a few awards along the way, and I’m surprised by how easily it seems to have found an audience considering its difficulty and plain old-fashioned bloody-mindedness. Ganged up on by a couple of basic zombies? Dead. Killed again before you manage to resurrect yourself? Dead. Oh, and you’ve lost all your collected souls as well. Brilliant…
Both games are different sides of the same coin. Bayonetta is brash, loud, and intent on having fun with its audience but also accessible, whereas Demon’s Souls wants to trip you up and is only playable by someone who can play through the frustration. It’s not fun, per se, but it’s a very compelling challenge, and the enjoyment is in getting through it and finally beating that boss who reduced you to a broken pile of bones within seconds of your first meeting.
But regardless of their wildly divergent approaches, I’m just happy to see that games like this – ‘proper’ games, as I’ll hesitantly call them – can still succeed. As much as I love Modern Warfare 2, I like to see games hewn of the bedrock of gaming history still getting out there and doing good business. Hack-and-slash action games and roguelikes – admittedly, Demon’s Souls isn’t quite that bad – were once staples of gaming, and Bayonetta and Demon’s Souls represent their modern equivalents, doing a great job of keeping the old-school flag flying. We should appreciate them for that.
But now, Atlus, how about pulling your finger out and giving Demon’s Souls a European release? This is 2010, not 1995.
My Game of the 2000s: Grand Theft Auto III
As tempting as it is for me to put Shenmue, with its tenuous claim to not be a game of the 90s, on the pedestal again, when I think about it, the game of the decade just gone has to be Rockstar’s generation-defining crime epic. Above Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4, BioShock, Halo, Half-Life 2… Only World of Warcraft comes close to such influence and commercial success, but I’ve never been able to get into that, so I’ll leave the celebrating of that game’s achievements to more interested parties.
Like it or not, GTA III defined gaming in the 2000s, setting the PS2 on the path to a generation of complete dominance in much the same way as one of the 90s’ iconic games, Tomb Raider, had done for its predecessor. It was a revolution, essentially launching its own genre – we still don’t seem to have a universally accepted term for the open-world crime shooting/driving genre – and becoming the talk of workplaces and classrooms all around the world. It also brought terms like ‘emergent gameplay’ out of Edge columns and into a form where anyone could see what it was about. I remember chatting to people about what insanity they’d caused the night before for weeks afterwards, and in my circle a person’s achievements in GTA III almost became small talk, such was its universal popularity.
I still have so many memories about this game. San Andreas is largely lost to my memory in all but the vaguest of terms and I probably wouldn’t pass the Knowledge in Vice City, but I can remember this incarnation of Liberty City like the back of my hand. The sequels have it beaten in every respect on paper, but this one is still my favourite. This is when GTA had that sense of fun that made it famous but before it lost focus in pursuit of scope and bullet points on the box; before it started down that slippery slope of being a bit too focused on its storytelling – this essentially pointed your pleasantly silent protagonist in the right direction and let you go; before it got completely bogged down in imitating Rockstar North’s favourite films.
Were the later games better, though? Maybe you’ve got a shout with Vice City and possibly GTA IV, but this was first, and for the above reasons, it’s my favourite, and it’s undeniably the most influential – the one that started it all. Vice City was like it was made for me as a child of the 80s – well… I was born in the 80s but know that it is the greatest of all decades – and I’m a staunch defender of GTA IV against the baffling backlash that it seems to have had, and yet none of them have captured lightning in a bottle as well as this did. Even though both its PS2 sequels sold more, GTA III is the defining one. When this game came out was the moment that the PS2 generation really started, and as that has to be the console of the 2000s, surely this is that decade’s game?
I’d be interested in anyone else’s opinions and personal picks. Just for God’s sake don’t make me read another top ten of the decade.
Mass Effect: A Flawed Gem
It’s been a struggle for me to get through Mass Effect, but I recently managed it at my third attempt. One spell on Christmas Day 2007, another attempt in early 2009, and then a final, successful run at it at the end of the year, finishing it at 8pm on the last day of the year. Even though I came away from it eager to play the sequel and with a thirst for more on the game’s universe – I’m reading Mass Effect: Revelation at the moment, which is up there with the Halo novels as great sci-fi literature – I still have some massive reservations about the game.
Generally speaking, it’s a bit of a kludgy mess. Graphically it’s nothing all that special and yet has a poor, frequently awful, frame rate. There’s very little guidance, instead dropping you immediately into one of the game’s more intense action sequences. Item management? Don’t even think about it; I didn’t brave that menu until I was warned about running out of space, at which point I had to scroll down a gigantic list of items that couldn’t be sorted. Dialogue trees work well but are sometimes marred by that frequent gaming pitfall of giving you a ‘choice’ between sweetness and light or pure evil.
The dialogue and writing are very good, but really, would it have killed the characters to move occasionally while speaking? Or even – God forbid – have your party of three break from their V formation when conversing? One thing that entertainment media has known at least since The West Wing is that people standing still and talking is boring to watch, especially when it’s two human characters in an identikit corridor who look vaguely like melting mannequins. Look at Captain Anderson and his perpetual look of mild surprise.
Like I said, I did ultimately come away with a positive impression of the game, just because BioWare created such a good universe here, and from what I’ve heard, Mass Effect 2 is a significant improvement in every area, so I’m very much on board with that one. It just escapes me how such a fundamentally flawed game can get such unanimously superb scores. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to like a game so much and yet had to fight so hard to do so. It’s good, for sure, but full marks? You must be joking.
2009′s Honourable Mentions
For every one that made it, many more didn’t, but some came closer than others…
- F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin – I deliberated whether this or Killzone was more deserving of the final spot for a while, but it was Killzone’s technical advances as well as its fantastic multiplayer that swayed it. Even so, F.E.A.R. 2 impressed me back at the beginning of the year with its intense action and clever storytelling – not so much on the story itself, mind – and it actually had a less intrusive version of that game’s weighty-feeling gameplay, so it deserves at least a little recognition.
- Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City – This was in there right until the end, and it was only the facts that (a) I don’t actually own a copy of this exact game – I downloaded both individual episodes – and (b) I decided that a full game was more worthy than a glorified expansion pack that swayed it. Nonetheless, this is as good as GTA IV – maybe better in the case of the phenomenal Lost and Damned – and gives us more of an adventure in Rockstar’s still-stunning Liberty City. It’s still unparalleled as a gaming environment and it’s going to take something special to top it for me.
- Left 4 Dead 2 – I have no doubt that L4D2 justifies its status as a sequel rather than DLC; I just didn’t get enough chance to play it. Its proximity to Modern Warfare 2 and the perception that a worthy sequel couldn’t be produced in such a short period of time meant that very few of my usual gaming crowd bought it, and Left 4 Dead is something that you can’t completely enjoy with random people on Live. I think that Valve has the game where it wants it, though, and should it follow the game’s release with a steady stream of good content in 2010, I’ll be sure to give it the credit it deserves.
- inFamous – This game suffered by not being Crackdown, which remains one of my favourites of this generation so far. Although it was technically far more impressive, this didn’t have the same sense of fun and took itself far too seriously for the ultimately silly subject matter. I enjoyed it – don’t get me wrong – but bolting more stuff onto an existing simple and perfectly good framework isn’t always a recipe for success. inFamous is still great, though, and I hope that Sucker Punch can build on this foundation, whether it’s in inFamous 2 or a returning Sly Racoon.
- Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Believe it or not, this was actually the first Mario & Luigi game that I’ve been there at the beginning for, which is strange considering how much I’ve loved the previous ones. It kept me going for a good ten hours solid when I was in transit from the States and it’s everything you can expect from the series: the brilliant, self-aware humour and writing; some of the best animation around; and a way of gently ribbing those well-loved characters without taking away from them. It’s still very much new Nintendo, from the same box of games that would have never happened in the NES and SNES era as Smash Bros, and it’s even more insane than its precursors. Imagine all the gags that can come from being inside Bowser – the title is only the beginning, believe me – and they’ll pretty much all be there. Except that, you dirty bugger.
- Trials HD – I deliberated for a long time whether this or Shadow Complex deserved a spot more, and the fact that Trials HD was left out shouldn’t take away from it. I knew it was going to be good when I first stumbled across it on PartnerNet and found that anyone who saw it was instantly enthralled, and so it proved because I still see people playing it today and the developer seems blown away by the reception and the boost in profile that its once-niche PC title has received. Proof that retro gameplay – and the insane difficulty that goes with it – isn’t dead. It just got pretty.
As happens every year, there were plenty of big hitters that I just didn’t get to play – Assassin’s Creed II and Dragon Age: Origins to name two – and that’s unfortunate, because I think that at least some of them would have had a good chance. Maybe if some of them had been delayed until early 2010… Oh…