Sony, the total supremacy

 

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It’s over. Nintendo bought as much time as it could. The entire gaming world had hold its breath for months, but now everybody has shown his hand. The situation is clear, there is no doubt on the current status of the gaming market : Sony has achieved crushing dominance over its rivals. Nintendo Switch is weak, its line-up even more so and its so-called partners are doing nothing but lip-service. How did we get to that, and where are we going?

To find some answers, let’s first have a look to Famitsu’s top 100 chart, published in a recent issue. How can Switch seem so feeble when top ten rankings show Nintendo owning Japan? It’s very trivial : developers and publishers, unlike journalists don’t simply look at top ten. So let’s borrow their point of view and observe the top 50 (49 actually because of the title line) of combined SKUs. As usual, the sources are GAF, Vgchartz’s digital sales thread and Dengeki’s weekly rankings.

The first thing to notice besides the (deserved) domination of the superb Pokemon Sun&Moon, is that Sony now has a majority of games here : 29 PSV/PS3/PS4 games against 20 on 3DS/WiiU. If you look in detail, you’ll also notice that 9 out of 20 games on Nintendo systems are from Nintendo itself, whereas there’s only one first party game (Uncharted 4) in the Playstation best-sellers. Third parties have therefore a lot more business opportunities on PSVita or PS4 (knowing that PS3 is almost phased out). Another parameter of growing importance : the digital purchase rate is quite higher on Playstation platforms, around 10% (22% for The Division!). Digital reduces variable costs and improves the margin. Publishers love that.

Japanese publishers came to be wary of the 3DS/WiiU audience, hungry for kiddy games which is rarely what 3rd party developers want to do. A major part of the 3DS/WiiU best-sellers is aimed at children (but also at adults in the case of Pokemon) so Japanese 3rd parties naturally prefer addressing and older and more core audience, and that audience plays on Playstation. Best proof of that is Level-5 : hugely successful on 3DS with Yôkai Watch, the company didn’t go as far as announcing Ni no Kuni Revenant Kingdom for Nintendo Switch. As a side-note, observe that both Dragon Quest Heroes II and Dragon Quest Builders sold more than Dragon Quest Monster Joker 3 : Nintendo consoles are no longer the home of SquareEnix’s famous series.

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So what happened on 1/13? Everyone was hoping/expecting Nintendo to turn the tides with a flurry of powerful exclusives. That failed to happen, and it’s the direct consequence of what we’ve seen above. Big games are still pretty far away : Xenoblade 2 (splendid character design this time around) gets a vague 2017 and Fire Emblem Warriors looks like development has barely started (EDIT : it’s confirmed for fall, so things are looking up slightly). The launch line-up is downright ridiculous : besides Zelda Breath of the Wild and 1 2 Switch, some party game looking like the despicable Wii Sports, all games are ports from PS4. Nintendo has lost the initiative, they’re completely out of the race.

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The third party part of the conference is ice cold. Atlus quickly mentions a new Shin Megami Tensei project for Switch, but also confirms a 3DS one, just in case… As a consequence, the exciting Project ReFantasy must be for PS4. Many wondered what Nippon Ichi Software (whose clients have been Playstation players for years of not decades) could do on Switch, and the publisher answered by saying they were providing «serious» support. It so happens that the only thing NIS has in store for Switch is a Disgaea 5 port, that is to say their biggest commercial failure. Switch is not getting NIS’s brand new games The Witch and the 100 Knights 2 (PS4) or Exile Election(‘PS4/PSVita). Far from being serious in its support, NIS actually seriously makes a fool of Nintendo.

SquareEnix has more in the works. Dragon Quest XI for Switch is briefly talked about, and Dragon Quest Heroes I&II are confirmed as launch games. Then comes Octopath Traveler, a 2D JRPG very much like Grand Kingdom and made by the developer of Bravely Default (which confirms the latter as deceased). However, nowhere in the Famitsu article it is mentioned to be exclusive. A PS4 or PSVita port could come quickly. No other JRPG is scheduled for Switch, and that won’t come as a surprise if you look at the chart. In the top 50, major 3DS JRPGs (Shin Megami Tensei IV Final, Etrian Odyssey) are flattened by numerous competitors on Playstation platforms, including the disappointing Star Ocean 5 and the discreet World of Final Fantasy. The big names of JRPGs sell better on Playstation and 2016 showed that again : Persona 5 beats the series’ record and Tales of Berseria is more or less flat compared to Tales of Zestiria.

But the most embarrassing moment is when Toshihiro Nagoshi comes on stage. The director of Yakuza games faces the public, speaks a couple of gentle words on Switch and, probably too busy counting the hefty profits made from Yakuza 6 in Asia, goes back without any confirmation he’s working on Switch at all. Suda 51, columnist extraordinaire at Dengeki, doesn’t really ease the worries : Let it Die’s creator shows a random artwork of No More Heroes while speaking some strange monologue. All this sets the eerie impression that nothing is ready, that maybe nothing is really decided for Switch. Capcom, Nintendo’s most faithful ally, is a no-show. What happens to Monster Hunter 5 and Great Ace Attorney 2? Will Switch even get them? KoeiTecmo, besides working closely with Nintendo on Fire Emblem Warriors, has Nobunaga’s Ambition Power up kit and Romance of the 3 Kingdoms Power up kit (it weakest software) for Switch. Games like Ni-Ô, Dynasty Warriors 9, Blue Reflection, Musô Stars and Nights of Azure 2 stay as Playstation exclusives. Skittish Japanese publishers are actually avoiding Nintendo as much as possible, and it’s a complete disaster for Switch : as it is now, it wouldn’t even take one customer from Vita.

The West is the biggest question mark and a huge stake for Switch. Bethesda confirms Skyrim Switch, but the game is far from ready despite being out for PS4 and XboxOne. Comes Electronic Arts, whose representative looked like at a burial : FIFA Switch is announced, but we won’t see anything of it. Despite its continuous praise for Switch, Ubisoft is not at the event Still, it has some oldies to port on Switch : Rayman Legends (remember, that WiiU exclusive), Just Dance and Steep. Pathetic is the word, Nintendo’s new system is going to be smashed into pieces on Western markets.

Nintendo mentions more than 80 titles in development for Switch, BandaiNamco promised a Tales of at some point… Sure. Crysis 3, Ghost Recon Online and Alien Colonial Marines were to be released on WiiU too. Such titles had seen their development stopped the second their publishers realized the audience didn’t fit. At least this time, Ubisoft doesn’t go as far as announcing Ghost Recon Wildlands for Switch : history shows that it would have little success on that platform, provided it could run on it. You also have to consider the issue of a new console that is coming right in the middle of a generation, which had never happened before. How should developers react? They’re already working on install bases of dozens of millions systems where the business is flourishing. Why would they make extra effort, let alone exclusives for an underpowered system that has zero install base? From a third party point of view, it’s just money thrown by the window.

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Switch’s other problem is itself. The open world (although we’re not sure of that yet) in Super Mario Odyssey is ugly and full of aliasing. It looks terrible compared to Watchdogs, a nearly three-year old PS4 game, and it so happens that precise tech specs have not been made public. Surely are they as bad as the leak published by Digital Foundry. We can now be certain that the most ambitious PS4 games cannot be be ported on Switch : forget Battlefield, Read Dead Redemption or Mass Effect Andromeda. The share button exists, but the official site already tells us that some games will block the feature. Anyone who’s tried to save a screenshot in Pokemon Sun&Moon knows how much you can trust Nintendo on that subject. The manufacturer also indicates that game «generally» won’t be region-locked. I translate that by « some games will be region-locked and you won’t be able to play them on your EU system ». So in fact region free doesn’t really exist and all this looks like a mere PR stunt. The most striking point is the total lack of trophies : why would today’s gamers even want to play their games without a centralized achievement system?

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But Nintendo might actually be targeting another audience with Switch. The conference, for most part, was focusing on Switch’s biggest innovation : playing without screen. Switch players will be invited to face each other in party games in which the screen is accessory. Table tennis, Rock/Paper/Scissors game, boxing… Switch aims at local communities rather than at solo players. In the same way, Splatoon players will be able to gather anytime, anywhere to face each other in multiplayer. In other words, Nintendo is asking casual gamers to open their wallets again to avoid facing Sony directly. Future will tell if this audience embraces the concept and if it’s large enough to make a difference. Nintendo still believes in the miraculous game/idea that sells loads of system, but nothing proves that can still happen. Rare exceptions aside, whole librairies of games sell systems, and nothing else.

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What about Microsoft then? The American recently made the brilliant decision to cancel its most hyped exclusive. From that, it’s clear that Redmond’s firm lost its will to fight : they timidly recommend Sea of Thieves and Halo Wars 2 in replacement. At best Microsoft can cling to the second place and do business in Sony’s shadow.

Miracles exist, but Nintendo Switch will need a really big one to avoid critical failure after that poor reveal conference. Sony has now more than 50 exclusives and welcomes all the commercially huge multiplatform games that Switch won’t have. Sony succeeded in taking market shares while building a win-win situation with 3rd parties, something that Nintendo is unable to do. The Kyoto-based company hence ends up totally isolated and powerless to compete. The concept of an hybrid system is really attractive, Xenoblade 2 looks awesome but Switch won’t achieve much without a strong library of games. And as a matter of fact, Nintendo has no real ally at the moment. As it is, it can just satisfy Nintendo loyalists and casual gamers not yet addicted to Super Mario Run. What is at stake for the Big N now is whether it can keep its “big” for long or if it become a regular publisher, light years behind a leader even more hegemonic than in the PS2 era.

Nintendo Switch, the impossible trade-off

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Let’s say it again, Nintendo is going through a key period in its history. WiiU has died as the biggest failure of the company and 3DS is welcoming less and less games. 3rd parties abandon ship and those still aboard are slowly drowning in vast quantities of unsold 3DS games, the public being increasingly less dedicated. Eyes are thus now focused on Nintendo Switch, the Big N’s new and revolutionary concept. Having a home console and a handheld in the same piece of hardware indeed seems to be a major trump card. The whole world is holding its breath as January 13th approaches.

In this rather tense atmosphere, people jump even at the slightest piece of rumor. So when Eurogamer quotes the hardware specialists of Digital Foundry, internet forums begin to shake. Eurogamer’s article is not at the rumor level : figures are extremely precise and the analysis quite relevant, Digital Foundry’s video as guarantee. Those people are ultra-famous among hardware circles and they can’t afford to provide information out of thin air. The bad news for Nintendo loyalists is that the first tidbits aren’t exactly delightful.

Switch’s CPU lets people down. When the rumor of a Tegra chip surfaced some months ago, many were hoping that Tegra X2, well above the now mediocre X1, would be the objective given the 2017 launch. Nothing of the sort, Eurogamer confirming that the architecture is inspired by Tegra X1, the CPU being a ARM Cortex A57 running at 1GHz, whereas PS4 is around 1,6GHz and XboxOne 1,75GHz. A bit below then, but not a major flow.

It’s the GPU that will be the bottleneck factor, because of the hybrid stance of the machine. Switch’s GPU runs at 768MHz, quite lower than Nvidia Shield TV which runs PS3 games with mixed success, when docked. The GPU is thus a nerved version of the X1, which doesn’t make us optimistic about how the games will look like. And with only 256 shaders compared to 1152 in the case of PS4, overall graphical performance fails to reach 400 Gflops, while PS4 pulls out 1,8 Tflops. Definitely not in the same league as PS4, let alone PS4 Pro. But the big problem occurs when you leave home, Nintendo being driven to painful trade-off in order to keep decent battery life and prevent heating. The Switch undocked, GPU clock speed is halved to 307MHz, that is to say a mere 157 Gflops. The very concept of hybrid is risky and here’s the snag : how will developers deal with a GPU that runs at different speed depending on the situation? Will they embrace the full capabilities, even at the risk of seeing framerate collapse when the tablet leaves the dock, or will they just play it safe and lower their ambitions? This looks like to be a much more serious problem than the use of the Gamepad. Even assuming it can work like a PS4 Pro patch like Eurogamer seems to suggest, how can that work out? The game would have to un-patch itself every time the console leaves the dock…

Raw memory bandwith definitely won’t help : with 25GB/s to read 4GB of RAM, Nintendo Switch is light years behind PS4 which reads is 8GB of GDDR5 (the finest RAM available) at 176GB/s. Safe to say at this stage that you’re probably not going to see high-end games like Battlefield 1 on Switch. EA’s blockbuster wouldn’t even fit in any of the standard game cartridges for Switch… As for PS4 first party masterpieces like Uncharted 4 or The Last of Us Part Two, such level of quality is unthinkable on Switch as it is now. The open world of Zelda Breath of the Wild look dumb next to Final Fantasy XV, which doesn’t even have its PS4 Pro patch yet. When we talk about a home console experience to bring everywhere with you, it’s certainly not the quality and ambition we know on PS4, to which players around the world have become used to. On GAF and pretty much everywhere else, gamers are crestfallen.

Actually, it’s the philosophy behind the architecture of the Switch that should interrogate us. If Sony has made the PS4 Pro and if Microsoft is so keen on building an even more capable Scorpio, it’s because developers are eager for more power, not less. Developers want to push back the limits, to go even deeper in their art so as to leave a trace in the history of gaming. Do you imagine them wasting their time downscaling their formidable 3D engines for the small bunch of folks who will actually bother quiting his beloved Zelda or Mario?

People might be raising eyebrows at the tiny 32GB hard disk, disk space is heavy and costly. Larger space would hurt the handheld side of the device and its launch price. It’s probably not even important, since most of the data will be on cartridges with no need to install internally. Let’s not forget that you’ll likely be able to add cheap and hefty SD cards if you need more space. Nothing to fuss about, then.

Given the weak specs, many observers are now calling for a 199€ pricepoint. Let’s stop right here. New3DS XL currently retails for 179€, so there is absolutely zero chance that Switch, being a whole new concept and better tech, would cost only 20€ more! 299€ is definitely what you can expect on shelves next March, or maybe 249€ if you’re really lucky and if 3DS family gets a cut at the same time. Still, the problem remains that PS4 now trades for 259€.

Switch therefore takes the risk of being an awkward compromise meeting no sufficient demand : it’s not powerful enough for core gamers who might not find the AAA games they like (or not at the same quality level) and it might be too expensive for the mainstream public now fed by Super Mario Run and lured by much cheaper 3DS which still gets support. The only thing that could make the difference is handheld capability, because it’s surely gonna be a very good one. But here again, the potential market is unsure. PSVita failed to achieve market penetration in the West for a reason : people there don’t feel the need to play during travel, and there’s no reason that this would magically change when Switch hits stores.

Nintendo’s next system would then only have one kind of audience left : veteran gamers still seduced by handheld gaming, that is to say PSVita owners and Nintendo’s core audience. To few clients to drive Switch to success, all the more troublesome that it has to sell twice more since it’s one system for two types of offer. The alarm raised by Digital Foundry means serious worries for Switch’s future. We’ll see on 1/13 if the actual situation is better, or if it’s red alert status in Kyoto.

E3 2016 Nintendo – His last Breath ?

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Pretty much everyone agrees that the Big N is in critical state at the time of E3 2016. Sales are on the wane, Sony is gaining ground quickly in the Japanese market, publishers are turning their back on them and gamers are not listening anymore.

Nintendo’s revenues were down significantly (-8%) in 2015-2016. The 4m Splatoon and the 3.5m Mario Maker were not enough to keep them flat, which speaks a lot on how bad the rest of the line-up did. Xenoblade Chronicles X sold average at best : the “proper JRPG” like they say, with only 140K units sold in Japan and a little more than 200K in the US, didn’t live up to the first Xenoblade, which had made JRPG history. It’s clear that Monolith’s latest title had something unappealing about it, and lacked the necessary qualities to be a long seller. Xenoblade Chronicles X doesn’t play in the same league as Bloodborne or Dark Souls III despite the abnormally high marks it got. There’s hoping those arrogant fools refrain from proclaiming themselves kings of JRPG next time, as they have only a tiny fraction of them. The Yokai didn’t set the West on fire, one trump card lost… WiiU has been steady at its low level (around 3m system shipped), but 3DS shipments are down 22% compared to last year, as well as software. With the decreasing interest of third parties, the lack of originality of first party games, the outdated hardware and Miitomo’s short-timed success, the manufacturer is running out of options.

But in the end, its accounts give some leeway. Profitability is still good, as the operating result went up 33% to 32 billions of yens. Nintendo is still fighting to reduce producing and marketing costs : -15% this year again. The weaker net profit (divided by 2.5) is caused by unfavorable parity between the yen and Western currencies, which caused a loss this time instead of a gain last year. When it comes to its core business, Nintendo undoubtedly succeeds in rationalizing its financial structure. The balance sheet hasn’t changed at all, being still excellent. We do notice that even in difficulty, the manufacturer doesn’t lose any money.

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But saving money is not a long-term solution and of course Nintendo makes plans to improve revenues. It played its last trump card during this E3 by giving a first look of the new Zelda game, called Breath of the Wild. We can come to worry given the disastrous downgrade compared to the technical demo of two years ago. Of what Treehouse showed on Tuesday night, it looks like Assassin’s Creed 1 with cel-shading to hide the poor texturing. The world is absolutely barren and its density is close to Oregon plains… The two mini-dungeons were completed within five minutes : 5 minutes of puzzle every 2 or 3 kilometers, it that the promise of gameplay of a Zelda game? The happy members of Treehouse reach a summit from time to time in order to show the view. Futile effort, the game isn’t displaying anything as good-looking as Xenoblade Chronicles X released a year before. By showing Zelda’s open world next to the one in Watchdogs 2, Nintendo gives the final proof it is lagging five years behind the rest of the industry. If like Aonuma says, the experience is the same on NX, this new Zelda could be its last breath as it won’t compete with the PS4 games of 2017.

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Nintendo had two new games for this E3. Ever Oasis, an uninspired RPG with character design as poor as Codename STEAM (announced in similar circumstances), and Mario Party Star Rush, which is another worthless rehash. No wonder they didn’t do a direct… The rest of the line-up was far from bad, including Dragon Quest VII, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Ace Attorney 6 Spirit of Justice and above all Pokemon Sun/Moon which is going to be a huge success in the holidays. Game Freak’s IP has never weakened in 20 years. As much as those games are interesting and Pokemon strong, they can’t make Nintendo stand out, make the buzz or fill internet forums. The WiiU/3DS news quickly drown in the continuous waves of PS4/PSVita/Xbox games. Without NX, Nintendo is forced to live in the shadows.

The most interesting point of view on NX is Ubisoft’s. The French publisher announced the next Just Dance for NX and stated that Nintendo’s next console “has potential to recapture the Wii audience”. Let’s stop one minute here to fully understand the meaning of this : Ubisoft is porting Just Dance on NX, but doesn’t do the same for Ghost Recon Wildlands, Watchdogs 2 or any other core gamer title. Aside of that, it says NX is perfect for casual gamers. What if NX were a system made specifically for a mainstream audience and Nintendo long-term fans, without even trying to compete with Sony and Microsoft? That would make sense after Emily Rogers’s (famous Nintendo insider) sources said that NX “was closer to an XboxOne than a PS4 in terms of power” and that “it wouldn’t blow away current gen systems”. If true, NX would be nearly immediately blown away by the PS4 Neo and the XboxOne Scorpio, both strengthened versions of the existing systems. Reggie all but confirmed this in a recent interview when saying that Nintendo was focusing on content rather than raw power.

Whatever it may be, the very fact that NX is not at E3 means that nothing is ready yet. No game can be shown : the development might be harder than they thought (Nintendo is currently learning what most publishers have learned those past 10 years or so), the hardware might need some tweaking to be functional or maybe they just lack third party support. The March 2017 release make us think to a financial deadline, as the company would need the launch revenues by the end of the fiscal term, even if they have to rush the games and risk launch hiccups. Impossible to give a clear prediction, Nintendo’s future has never been that foggy.

Review – Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

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Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, like people still like to call it, has been the object of much anticipation in 3 years. Ending up quite different that most people thought when re-announced in April 2015, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE has the difficult task to seduce a reticent audience. Symbol of a sinking line-up as it sld only 30K units at launch in Japan, Atlus’s cross-over couldn’t find its way to success at home. Were the Japanese too hard on this game?

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Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE had the choice between Shin Megami Tensei’s darkness and Fire Emblem’s epicness. Atlus picked neither of them : the general atmosphere of this cross-over is light, extravagant and keeps away from anything serious. The theme of the game partially explains this, since the party members are all part of an idol agency. Tokyo is into trouble, attacked by Mirages, evil ghosts seeking to swallow people’s soul (here called performa). Of course, all your stars have special powers to defend the metropolis : they also act as Mirage Masters, warriors that borrow the power of benevolent Mirages to fight the bad ones. Add the race to stop an ancient demon from rising back, and you have in a nutshell the story of this game, which is rather straight and classic without much refinement.

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True, the game never insists on the story, as it prefers to go into the various aspects of Japan’s pop culture. Singing, concerts, TV shows, cinema, photography of young girls wearing swimsuits (but not in your version, sorry)… nothing has been spared to please the otakus. But in doing this, it is extremely since it successfully captures the life of the young, going as far as including several brilliant Hatsune Miku easter eggs. For example, your mage Kiria turns into some sort of adult Miku when wearing her combat outfit! Besides, there is an extensive side-story about a vocal synthesis soft much like vocaloid, with many clever details about the phenomenon. But because of all those these diversions, the storyline collapses quickly : the chain of events doesn’t make sense, or gets contradictory at times. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is this game that throws a joke about the first kiss just before a major boss fight. Yes, it did that. The game’s narrative is actually just as ridiculous as Xenobalde Chronicles X’s but as Atlus’s title never pretended to be serious to begin with, it doesn’t look as bad as Monolith’s awkward JRPG, which was convinced to tell something epic but failed miserably.

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Still, that feeble narrative doesn’t really impact the experience, because Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE focuses on its characters first. To fit with Japan’s crazy pop culture, Atlus has created offbeat protagonists, but with a rich background and a developed personality. In short, totally the contrary of its competitor on WiiU. Whichever character you consider, might it be Tsubabsa the naive rookie idol, Kiria the veteran singer who has a soft spot for kawaii stuff, Eli the half-American girl who says “Hollywood” in every sentence, Barry the gaijin dance teacher speaking with an atrocious accent, all have a wacky but deliciously hilarious behaviour.

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The game will go full force on that with a flurry of secondary quests/events that perfectly underline the eccentric charm of the characters, light-years from Xenoblade Chronicles X’s tedious kizuna quests. Not only are those sequences entertaining, but they are also lucrative because you’ll earn powerful skills, musics and cutscenes. The main protagonist Itsuki turns out to be the least charismatic, but it’s normal in a game like this where the secondary characters are the real stars. Poor Itsuki will be given a hard time by Eli and find it difficult to motivate Tsubasa who lacks self-confidence. Characters very opposed in style, but all side stories feel rich and have a nice ending.

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In the same aspect, let’s stress that the Mirages that lend their strength to the heroes are all Fire Emblem characters taken from various episodes. Clearly Intelligent Systems’s series was not forgotten by the developers. Their personalities have been faithfully transcribed, like the Tharja’s sadist tendency. She and Kiria make a fantastic and fun couple!

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But the real problem of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is its world. Far from being as immense as Xenoblade Chronicles X, the Tokyo of this cross-over is only composed of a couple of street, some areas being limited to one single room! Needless to say, there is little to explore with such a minimal surface. NPCs will never ask more than going to the adjacent street to pick something on the pavement. On the other hand, the decoration that changes depending on the various shows your characters are part of is nice.

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Therefore, you’ll spend most of your time in dungeons (Idraspheres as the game calls them). Far-fetched by their architecture, those ones will have think a little to solve some puzzle in order to advance : rooms to enter in a special order, buttons to change the stage layout or the good old platform floating in the sky. Mirages will regularly appear to trigger random fights, but it’s easy to stun them before that and avoid the encounter. In the same idea, you can save anytime even in a dungeon and are able to go back to the agency whenever you like. You can then play at your pace, without stress. In terms of sequence, it’s gonna be always the same thing which is rescuing an NPC whose wind has been highjacked by a Mirage, nothing more. All those dungeons plus the character events make Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE’s adventure fairly long, way more than the 30 hours announced.

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Before entering the fray, you need to be well prepared. For this, the agency has set a space outside the real world where young Chiki (yes, that Chiki, but considerably younger) will offer you various services. You’ll be able to synthesize new weapons provided you looted the needed items, improve the existing ones and later in the game, have your Mirages change class like they would do in Fire Emblem. By acquiring experience with a weapon, characters will learn three types of skills : active skills (magic, physical attack, support spells), passives skills (stats up or tactical advantages) and session skills (see below). There are a lot of these capacities so you’ll end up giving up and some because the slots are limited. Still, the array of possibilities is extremely rich and allows you to build your characters to fit your playstyle and your strategy. That’s were improving the weapons is key, because a skill can be upgraded when you learn it multiple times. Last but not least, Chiki can also synthesize new performas, that often bear capacities crucial to turn the tides in combat.

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Let’s go in the heart of the battle. But first of all, let’s point out the remarkable presentation of the fights : they place like a performance, under giant screens showing the mood of the characters. Once again, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE follows its own original logic with brilliant details. In terms of battle system, Atlus borrows Fire Emblem’s triangle of weapons, as many enemy Mirages are affiliated with a weapon category (or others like Dragon, Amor and Knight). Up to the player to find the right attack to deal maximum damage, this being true for natural elements (fire, lightning, etc) also.

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But the monsters in Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE are seriously tough and can’t be beaten in 1 or 2 blows. Here you use what are called “sessions”. It’s very simple : every time a character strikes in the enemy’s weak spot, allies will also strike just after him without consuming any turn! That mechanic implies that your characters have several session skills, which allow him to act after a certain type of weapon or magic. So, the more our characters progress, more can take part in session and more powerful and long those sessions become. Note that the session can fail if you hit the resistance of an enemy : you must therefore anticipate the effects by checking the session list (which is displayed).

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At higher level, you’ll have the possibility to extend the sessions. You need to acquire duo skills which are exclusive to character sidequests. As you can expect, those duo skills are all about singing and performing. They are still extremely powerful, dealing enormous damage and having support effects like healing. The music of the game is highlighted it those duo skills, and feature really good J-pop. The rhythm in Give Me or Black Rain as quite pleasant, and the associated clips beyond greatness (see below). Combat themes have a more dark tone, but are good too, like the fantastic boss battle theme n°2.

You will need to master all that, because this Atlus-made game is far from easy. Although it’s still possible to change the difficulty settings anytime, the normal mode is a formidable challenge : bosses have no mercy, battles necessitate to keep its cool but yet the progression curb is perfect. In other terms, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE brings the joy of a complex and challenging JRPG while keeping adequate balance. Something quite rare nowdays.

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In pure graphics, nothing very impressive in Atlus’s work. The dialog phases look like early PS3 era at best. The city isn’t very pretty, dungeons have simplistic design and damn, NPCs are made of… cardboard! Fortunately, battles are a lot more beautiful, featuring modeling and animation a lot above the rest of the game. They’re full of little funny gestures that make them astonishingly lively. Let’s also point out the numerous additional costumes in-game, although I can’t tell if they survived Nintendo’s censoring frenzy…

Lovable characters, great sense of humor, enjoyable atmosphere, exciting fighting… but tiny world, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is the complete opposite of Xenoblade Chronicles X. While conservative Nintendo fans might be thunderstruck at the sight of its rosy and otaku universe, it’s definitely a solid JRPG with deep mechanics. Maybe not the Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem you were expecting, but what it does, it does it well.

Status quo and social rift on the Japanese gaming market in 2015

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2015 is now behind us and it’s time to draw a picture of the market. Lots of figures have leaked from GAF and I spent quite a lot of time compiling data to achieve a top 100 chart of games released in 2015 in Japan, all format combined + digital sales. I also used to data of this post (which goes well beyond 100) and Dengeki’s weekly rankings, taking the most recent figure when available.

First thing that draws the attention is that on 100 games, there 50 on Playstation systems, and 50 on Nintendo systems. Draw? No, the victory again goes the Kyoto-based firm, which dominates the top 10, has all the million sellers and boasts evergreen 2014 titles. But the point of this is to assess to social state of the Japanese market. If you look carefully, 60% or so of the games on Nintendo systems mainly address kids ad the mainstream public whereas very few Playstation games do. Furthermore, 60% of the 50 best selling games on Nintendo’s side were from 3rd party publishers, to be compared with 94% for Sony who just released Bloodborne, The Order 1886 and Nathan Drake Collection as first party games. Given that two of them are rather low in rank, I can say that Sony didn’t hinder its partners’ business this year. The success of western titles keeps growing : Call of Duty is up 33% in 2015, Fallout 4 and Star Wars Battlefront have already topped 200K units sold. Also, I must stress that there are only 4 3DS 3rd games in the top 30, whereas the Playstation ecosystem has 13. Besides the exceptions Monster Hunter, Yôkai Watch and Dragon Quest, the interest of Nintendo platforms from a third party point of view is further diminishing.

But the most striking thing comes when you actually cross those two parameters : in the top 30, there are only two games designed for older gamers, Monster Hunter X and Dragon Quest VIII, two IPs that would sell on any platform given the high level of fidelity and awareness. This means that for 3rd parties, aiming for the care gamers’ market on WiiU or 3DS is a strategic mistake. They better have to focus on Playstation systems to get the best return, and many (all of them actually) are fully aware of that, even those who earn fortunes thanks to the 3DS : Level-5 develops Ni no Kuni Revenant Kingdom on PS4 and SquareEnix has 13 projects going on PSVita/PS4, but only 2 on 3DS. More than ever, 3rd parties must side with Sony if they want to achieve their goal : make money.

The big question being : how many games are being developed for NX? 2015 has been fairly bad for core gamers’ titles on 3DS and WiiU, underperforming titles are rife. Xenoblade Chronicles X ends up below Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, and is crushed by competing RPGs like Tales of Zestiria, Sword Art Online Lost Song and Bloodborne. Worse still, the ambitious open-world is outpaced by Tokyo Xanadu, Falcom’s modest Vita-exclusive Action-RPG. Takahashi can do nothing but admit its failure at home. Other much awaited JRPG, Bravely Second doesn’t even match the first week sales of Bravely Default. I was saying before, it could never catch up with Battlefield Hardline, that poor mod of Battlefield 4, in sales. The so-called «successor of Final Fantasy» is in shambles. While Nintendo or Level-5 make monstruous amounts of bucks, established IPs fail to sell as expected : Ace Combat Assault Legacy +, Kenka Banchô, Atelier Rorona, Langrisser Re:Incarnation, Project X Zone 2 et Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem can’t avoid the flop. Nearly every indicator points to less implication of 3rd parties with the Big N. But it remains true that if Sony completely withdraws from the portable market in 2017, the market share of its opponent should rise considerably and 3rd would likely immediately come back. Until then, the situation is as such.

While the West has long forgotten the specter of casual gaming, the iron curtain has fallen once more on Japan, divided between family-friendly systems continuously running Yôkai Watch or Splatoon, and gaming vets preferring mature titles like Yakuza, Tales of, Metal Gear Solid or God Eater. This divide is not absolute as both demographics can meet for games like Fire Emblem Fates or Monster Hunter X, but the trend is now crystal-clear : 80% of the games being developed right now in Japan are either for PS4 or PSVita.

Is the console wars over?

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In Les Pensées, French philosopher Pascal defines Boredom as man’s great misery. To fill this void within him, the human being deploys a vast array of distractions : sports, picking up girls, gaming and, war. From Pascal’s point of view, the latter is still a distraction on the scale of mankind. But long after Pascal, mankind does realize that war brings only more misery. Then it came up with another kind of war : the console wars, the only world conflict fought 24h/24h without any casuality.

We need to re-define the reasons of the console wars (except the fact the human are liable the compete with each other). I think it’s mostly the invasion or threat directed towards natural domains. For example, the temporary exclusivity of Star Ocean The Last Hope or Tales of Vesperia on X360 ravaged the previous generation and had dramatic consequences on XboxOne’s performance in Japan. Similarly to the invasion of a physical territory, “defenders” won’t stop fighting until the enemy isn’t annihilated.

Is such a thing still possible today? The latest “war effort” form Microsoft, the temporary exclusivity of Rise of the Tomb Raider, is a huge failure. It is likely that we won’t see a similar initiative before long, and that we are entering a new phase, a cold war based on communication, partnership and natural exclusives. No one asks for Halo on PS4 or Uncharted on XboxOne, nor do people want to play Tales of Berseria on a Microsoft system. The offer of games is perfectly rationalized. Besides, as gamers get older, they tend to be able to own several systems.

In Japan, the situation has evolved in the same way. By observing the recent Japanese best sellers charts, we see that offer are more and more segmented between 3DS/WiiU that are mainly focused on kids and the mainstream public, and PS4/PSVita which receive the majority of core gamer titles. There of course are exceptions like Monster Hunter, but this is a solid trend now. Despite its heavy presence in media, Genei Ibun Roku #FE (aka Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem) flopped at home, selling a mere 24’000 copies at launch. This example alone confirms the above-mentioned trend. In 2016, the situation of the market is even clearer : 3DS barely has half a dozen third party exclusives for core gamers besides mainstream/kiddy games like Yôkai Watch 3, all the other (sixty or so) are Playstation exclusives. Needless to say, WiiU has none. Games are therefore developed on adequate systems, for the right audiences. Developers can work serenely, publishers profit, everyone wins.

Which leaves one big question mark : NX. Might Nintendo’s new system(s) rekindle the console wars? Let’s consider the 3 different options. If NX is a home console, it will have quite a hard time competing with PS4 and XboxOne, and eventually bound to become a secondary system. The reality is that PS4 headstart is immense in terms of price (Sony already has leeway to drop the price temporarily), functionalities, technology (Playstation VR) and above all : games. PS4 has the largest array of exclusives since PS2 and odds of developers taking risks on NX is low.

If NX is portable, the problem is not the same but the conclusion is. If we consider that a portable NX takes off during 2017 (most likely scenario), there probably won’t be a Sony handheld competing. Everyone will be on the same “side”, so no conflict. In case of two simultaneous systems (I’d bet on that one), Nintendo can be a lot more dangerous and aggressive, so the flames of war might engulf the industry again. That said, common development would mean games visually inferior to PS4 exclusives.

I think we are for now, if not the console peace, at least in a console armistice. It might be eternal, or short-lived, depending on what Nintendo is planning for 2016-2017. True, some will say their first party games are better than those of the others, but there are good manufacturer games everywhere all that makes no sense. Some will still declare the games of other as worthless, but there is no time to waste when progress is at hand. Without reason to fight, we might as well fight boredom by enjoying our games.