Two years ago, the launch of Shin Megami Tensei IV set me to contemplating the fondness that Japanese creators — of games, film, comics, books, you name it — have for depicting their nation's largest city being wiped off the map. Not just SMT IV and fellow Atlus RPG Etrian Odyssey, but countless other works from Godzilla to Akira and more.
That trend doesn't look to slow down any time soon. This week at Tokyo Game Show, I saw no less than three role-playing games set in a world where Tokyo clearly has seen the worst of things. They're all rather different takes on the RPG (in fact, one of them may not even turn out to be an RPG at all), but they all look stupendous and I can't wait to play them.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
It is, admittedly, pretty easy to make fun of Vanillaware's 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim for having a title that appears to make oblique references to Neon Genesis Evangelion and Pacific Rim, because its concept looks very much to channel those creations. But it's an affectionate sort of snark, because the game looks nothing less than stunning. So far all we've seen of 13th Sentinel has been a trailer featuring what appears to be in-game artwork and animation, but nothing about how it plays; that's fine for now, because that artwork looks so richly detailed it's hard to be angry that all we've seen of 13 Sentinels has been a boy and a girl walking slowly across the screen, followed by a giant robot slowly walking across the screen.
There's a certain degree of taking things on faith that comes along with 13 Sentinels. As a Vanillaware project, it unsurprisingly makes heavy use of the artwork of George Kamitani, the illustrator behind Odin Sphere and Muramasa. Kamitani can certainly stir up controversy — witness the debate that sprang up over his character designs for 2013's Dragon's Crown — but your feelings on his personal proclivities notwithstanding, his artwork permeates his games and helps set them apart from everything else on the market.
Until now, though, Kamitani has worked almost exclusively in the realm of classical fantasy: Medieval Europe, or Norse legend, ancient Japan, etc. 13 Sentinels breaks from tradition in order to render a near-future version of Tokyo where fighter planes do battle with massive mech suits in the streets. And it demonstrates that Kamitani's style works just as beautifully for urban decay and near-future warfare as it does for battling giant octopi in front of Mt. Fuji. The speed of Sentinel 13, the giant mech suit which the boy and the girl from the trailer presumably command, promises to make for a more ponderous game than the rapid slash-and-hack for which Vanillaware has become know. In other words, it's familiar, yet promises to be refreshingly different.
Localization chances: Practically guaranteed — the last time a Vanillaware/Atlus game didn't come stateside was Princess Crown, for Saturn, nearly 20 years ago.
Post-apocalyptic Japan is a weird choice for the latest entry of Falcom's Xanadu series, but it's probably a sign of the times. The original Xanadu dates back more than 30 years as one of the first-ever action RPGs; in America, most gamers probably know it best for Faxanadu on NES. Faxanadu was a spin-off of the series, but it did a good job of encapsulating the Xanadu spirit, taking place inside a giant tree in which elves and dwarves did endless battle. But this is a Japanese Vita game, and what sells best on that format are games about teens in Tokyo. So, here we have Tokyo Xanadu.
The setting is really the only area in which the game compromises, happily. The first new Xanadu title after a decade of absence (its last new entry having been Xanadu Next on the N-Gage, of all things), this new title nicely demonstrates developer Falcom modern-day approach to action RPGs. If you've played the recent Ys titles, you know what to expect. It's fast-paced, looks great, features a heavy emphasis on combo attacks and evasion, and isn't afraid to get tough on players.
Tokyo Xanadu gives the impression of offering even greater depth than the Ys titles. The TGS demo allowed you to take control of three different combat duos, alternately balanced for strength, defense, or speed. I went with the speed option, which consisted of a petite girl who went to town on bad guys with her fists, and her partner, a slightly effeminate young man who specialized in spear combat. The girl played snappily, responding instantly to commands and ducking and weaving between enemies; the spear-wielder, on the other hand, had much slower wind-up time and mainly came in handy for support, at least in the demo.
A lot of the tricks and features that have appeared in recent Ys releases show up in Tokyo Xanadu as well. Amidst ducking around enemies and evading laser cannons and grenades, my warriors build up various super-meters to allow for more powerful special attacks — at one point I was prompted to execute a screen-clearing super strike with just the brawler, while further into the demo I executed an even more power team attack with both characters.
Falcom has been refining its action-RPG design over the past decade, and it has the genre down to an art. The 15 minutes I spent with Tokyo Xanadu didn't offer any surprises, but it definitely feels like a sort of "next step" for the style we've seen taking form with games like Ys VII and Memories of Celcetta... and unlike the latter title, it clearly has been built from the ground-up for Vita rather than seeing a hasty conversion from PSP, and the result is the fastest, cleanest, best-controlling Falcom games I've seen to date.
Localization chances: Extremely strong — XSEED seems committed to localizing Falcom games, even at the risk of their own well-being. I mean, god bless 'em, they even localized a Falcom PSP game earlier this year.
7th Dragon III: Code VFD
The final and in many ways most enticing of this year's Tokyo trio, the third (actually fourth) chapter of the 7th Dragon series brings the franchise back to a Nintendo handheld, where it began six years ago with what was probably the single best DS RPG that missed out on a localization. The original 7th Dragon was a collaboration between Etrian Odyssey creator Kazuya Niinou and Phantasy Star designer Reiko Kodama, and it was every bit as great (and tough) as you'd expect from a team-up between those superstars. While neither Niinou nor Kodama are actively involved in Code VFD, this sequel feels very much in keeping with the spirit of the original game.
Unlike the previous two titles in this list, a near-future Tokyo setting is in no way out of keeping for 7th Dragon. The original game had a traditional fantasy style, but the PSP follow-ups (7th Dragon 2020 and its sequel) fell squarely into the "heavily armed school kids" style popularized by the likes of Persona. Code VFD appears to combine these ideas into a single world-jumping adventure: It begins in a utopian future world called Eden, but almost immediately your generic protagonist steps into a VR game that whisks him or her to Tokyo Sky Tower amidst an apocalypse. Based on the trailer above, there also seems to be a third setting that resembles the original game's world as well.
7th Dragon has always felt like an attempt to combine the Etrian Odyssey guild concept with a more traditional RPG, and Code VFD certainly looks that way from the outset: You begin the adventure by defining a hero or heroine with any of a dozen or so portraits in one of four different classes. I went with the bruiser Godhand class, but I could easily have been a mage equivalent or even something more esoteric like Agent, who evidently specializes in hacking. Also in the vein of Etrian Odyssey, Code VFD doesn't pull any punches. You enter the Sky Tower simulation solo, fighting mobs that can make fairly short work of you if you get sloppy; thankfully when you fall in combat you can restart that battle from the beginning, but even then I eventually found myself at an impasses when a voice announced the simulation's "safe mode" was being deactivated and a hideously power robot appeared as a random encounter. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't overcome the machine, even with my best attacks (including an extra-strong strike with a preemptive property).
It's tough, but it looks great; the Tokyo Sky Tower simulation territory gave me Shin Megami Tensei IV vibes, while still feeling very much like classic 7th Dragon. I do wonder how heavily the game will be catering to the super hardcore Japanese anime niche; players can choose to have their self-made character's combat cries voiced by something like 40 different voice actors, which is kind of impressive but also a feature unlikely to survive into a prospective localization. Speaking of which....
Localization chances: I'd give it two-to-one in favor of a localization — we've missed out on the first three 7th Dragon games for various reasons, but now that Sega and Atlus are buddies there seems to be a greater likelihood of the latter (who considered bringing over the original DS game) to pick it up.