Tokyo Game Show 2015 is now underway, and this year's show seems likely to present a broader and more interesting range of titles than any in recent memory. We've seen some lean years lately, though there's reason now to hope those days are at an end.
And as the nation's developers return to the business of making appealing-yet-economical console titles, we may have an unlikely hero to thank for keeping their lights on through the lean times: Bandai Namco.
While it's easy to disparage the company's heavy reliance on licensed properties — their annual release lineup of late has generally amounted to Dark Souls, the latest Tales RPG, and tons of anime games — those games sell quite well, especially to younger gamers hooked on the properties involved. An interesting side effect of these releases has been to keep the lights on for a number of mid-sized veteran Japanese developers; Bandai Namco's upcoming release list reads like a best-of list consisting of once-beloved yet largely forgotten studios from the PlayStation 2 era. Unexpectedly, Bandai Namco has become a sort of gathering point for these companies, and their work on franchises like Gundam and Saint Seiya has undoubtedly helped them keep the lights on when the going otherwise gets rough.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Song
Known for: A-Train, Aquanaut's Holiday
Oddball masters of quirk Artdink are probably best known for their PS1-era insanity like aimless caveman sim Tail of the Sun and obsessive train sims like A-Train, but in recent years they've taken to pinch-hitting on more mainstream properties. Though I suppose a faux-MMO based on an anime property would be considered niche for anyone, for Artdink Sword Art Online: Hollow Song comes off as downright mundane. It bears a strong resemblance in concept to Bandai Namco's own .hack series, a single-player RPG set in a fake MMORPG, though it uses more contemporary fake MMO conventions than its spiritual predecessor.
Project X Zone 2
Known for: Baten Kaitos, Xenoblade Chronicles
Like the original Project X Zone (that's "Cross Zone"), the upcoming sequel (due Feb. 16) comes to us from RPG specialists Monolith, who also have the considerably more ambitious Xenoblade Chronicles X on the horizon. But perhaps that's not fair to this insane crossover RPG, which at least appears to be an earnest attempt to acquit the series after the dreadfully shallow first entry. It's flashier, yes, but also (based on a brief hands-on) somewhat deeper as well... and given the superficiality of the original, any depth is a relief.
Unsurprisingly, Project X Zone 2 throws in even more characters and franchises from the Bandai Namco, Sega, and Capcom stables to partake in ridiculous strategy battles with one another. New this time around are deep-cut characters like Captain Commando, June Lin from Star Gladiator, Darkstalkers' B.B. Hood, and former Japanese Sega commercial personality Segata Sanshiro — yes, they acquired the rights to a real person's likeness before Sonic the Hedgehog. But you kind of expect nothing less from a series this offbeat, you know?
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4
Known for: .hack, Solatorobo, Asura's Wrath
CyberConnect2 tends to be all over the place; I love them for the whimsical Little Tale Bronx games (e.g. Solatorobo), but their specialty has been brawlers... especially Naruto brawlers. The upcoming Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 wasn't present to play at Bandai Namco's Tokyo Game Show event, and I don't have a clue as to what separates its from the previous Ninja Storms. But based on experience, Naruto fanatics will eat it up with gusto.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth
Known for: Wild Arms, Chaos Rings
We may never see another Wild Arms game, but Media.Vision isn't out of the RPG game yet; their next creation will be an attempt to bring the Digimon franchise back to the U.S. market after a surprisingly lengthy hiatus. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth feels perfectly fitting for a franchise whose heyday was the late '90s and shortly after, cobbling together ideas and even story beats from other properties of the era. Your Digimon-training protagonist here becomes partially digitized and gains the ability to slip between the real and virtual worlds at will (like The Matrix, or Mega Man Battle Network)... and despite character designs by DURARA! and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor illustrator Suzuhita Yasuda, the most obvious anime inspiration I saw in the English-language demo at TGS came from Neon Genesis Evangelion. When the main character gets zapped into semi-virtual form, a sports car comes zooming up to him, spinning as it brakes, and a door flings open to reveal a beautiful woman in revealing clothes as the driver — shameless plagiarism of Misato's famous entrance in the first episode of Eva. But it feels totally appropriate for a series not so subtly built in the image of Pokémon, and in any case Media.Vision's take on the property looks pretty substantial... though when "catchin 'em all" means gathering up only 200+ digital monsters versus Pokémon's 700-odd critters, clearly this franchise has some ground to make up.
Dark Souls III
Known for: Tenchu, Armored Core, Bloodborne
Of every studio here, From Soft needs the least introduction. They've become a major player thanks to the shocking, but well-deserved, success of the Demon's Souls/Dark Souls/Bloodborne series. There's not much to see at this year's TGS of the studio's next project, Dark Souls III, that we didn't see at E3 a few months ago; the playable demo is almost exactly identical to the build from this spring. The one significant difference (besides some impressive graphical tuning — the game looks great) comes in the form of a new magic system, which seemingly allows any class to fling spells. The TGS demo allowed players to map a set of spells to "up" on the D-pad, giving them the freedom to cycle through multiple magic powers with ease. Well, as much as anything about Dark Souls could be said to be easy.
Where non-mage classes in previous Dark Souls could cast spells with consumable items, Dark Souls III's system appears to be less restrictive. The fighter-class characters in the demo build could fling a number of spells without a hard limit; instead, magic power is metered by a mana pool. While it's hard to say how this will affect the overall diversity of character builds — will mage classes have any real value besides hitting hard with spells? — it certainly opens up new possibilities for melee-based classes. And in the end, Dark Souls reminds us that we're all mortal anyway.
One Piece: Kaizoku Musou 3
Known for: Dynasty Warriors
Omega Force basically does one thing, and they've gotten it down to a formula: Big battles featuring a tiny army of really powerful playable characters against armies consisting of hundreds of dumb, identical drones, punctuated by tough boss encounters and occasional, specific battlefield objectives for variety. By 2020, scientists predict that every Japanese game franchise ever made will have an Omega Force-developed musou spinoff, even franchises that no longer exist or which don't exist yet. The upcoming third musou hack-n-slash based on the One Piece manga and anime is pretty much as you'd expect: Ridiculous, over-the-top, filled with screen-clearing attacks and rubbery limbs, and simultaneously incredibly stupid and addictively fun.
Arc System Works
DragonBall Z Extreme Butoden
Known for: Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, Persona 4 Arena
The latest DragonBall fighting game represents a fairly significant change in several respects. Most of the franchise's recent fighters have been produced by Dimps, but this time around Arc System Works is taking the lead. And for Arc System Works, Extreme Butoden is a change of pace from the usual; the company has built its reputation on fighting games featuring huge, fluidly animated sprites. Extreme Butoden for 3DS may be a fighter, but its sprite work feels unusually modest for an Arc System Works production. What the characters lack in scale and size, however, they more than make up for in sheer numbers; Extreme Butoden includes more than 100 characters drawn from the full expanse of the DragonBall franchise, from Goku's earliest companions (Oolong, Lunch, and even Bulma's father) to a palette-swapped Frieza who apparently figured into the most recent movie. You can also apparently transform into Goku's latest preposterous powered-up incarnation, which is a blue-haired form called SSGSS ("Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan," according to the producers; at an event featuring the announcement of a game called Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue, this goofy nomenclature sounds almost calmingly mundane).
Only a few dozen of Extreme Butoden's extensive cast will be directly playable, though. Most of the cast will serve as support; for example, the producer showed off the game's Ginyu Army, in which only boss guy Ginyu was a controllable and his four squad members would leap in to help out as needed when summoned via touch screen. Still, while the game does lean heavily toward the tedious Dragon Ball Z sequels, the inclusion of so many characters from the series' comical early days makes this probably the closest thing to a DragonBall game for everyone I've ever seen. Admittedly, I haven't paid that much attention, but as a fan of the early manga, Extreme Butoden's lovingly rendered sprite versions of long-forgotten characters has me curious to see what kind of goofy fanservice characters like Chichi and the tournament announcer will produce in combat.
The game also ships with a download code for a classic 16-bit Super Famicom DragonBall game in all region. Bandai Namco's promotional materials refer to this as a "Virtual Console" title, but don't take this to mean Super NES VC support is coming to 3DS any time soon; the company seems to have misappropriated the term.
Saint Seiya: Soldier's Soul
Known for: Sonic the Hedgehog portable games, Dragon Ball: Xenoverse
And finally, the last entry in Bandai Namco's growing rosters of development partners: Dimps. Rather than working on their usual DragonBall fighter, the studio is instead producing an arena fighter based on classic anime Saint Seiya. The last time Namco showed off a Saint Seiya fighter, they apologized to the U.S. press for putting so much emphasis on a franchise with no traction whatsoever in the States; apparently, the anime was huge in Latin America. So while you may not be familiar with the property and will likely find its host of nearly identical warriors clad in golden armor somewhat mystifying, your Brazilian friends can probably fill you in.