Review – Sol Trigger

The Sol Trigger demo that appeared on the Japanese PSN in September had revealed quite a potential for this game. Potential that was no illusion.

ImageEpoch certainly didn’t fail on the graphics : character modeling is insanely good and animation is unrivaled on the system. It’s smooth, lively and facial rendering is unbelievable. Make no mistake : after Sol Trigger, all existing handheld RPGs can be stacked in museums. The character design was what drew my interest first, and I must say I am extremely pleased with it (probably one of my favorites of the year). Even the bad guys are so classy that you’d actually wish you wouldn’t have to fight them. You will like some more than others, but every character contribute to the bigger picture and to a unique and complete world. The same cannot be said about the level design though. Dark and varying little, they’re not fun to progress into. Music is far better, but it takes several hours to hear really inspired compositions.

The storyline is also pretty solid. A tribe known as the People of the Light have been oppressed and used as a source of energy by fellow humans for centuries, but some of them have decided to resist the tyranny. You play as Farel, the young leader of the group of rebels who call themselves the Soul Triggers, in reference to the Soul energy the People of Light inherits from generations. To stop the exploitation of their companions they plan a series of sabotages. The plot never falls into Manicheism : it’s not about good and evil but the decline of a society torn by its own survival and ethical problems that come with it. In a shonen style very like Xenoblade, the narrative deliver suspense, turnabouts and breathtaking sequences.

The interest is again boosted by the fact that the story is divided in two distinct parts (of 15h each). Just after the most important scene (when you traditionally have all the answers), the game STOPS. In utter bewilderment, you realize that the game gives you characters that have (apparently) no connection with the first ones. You progressively come to know the «truth» that the game had been hiding. The new characters are an excellent surprise and I must say I was delighted. Of are 3 different endings, I didn’t get the one I wanted, and believe me I will replay this.

I must point out that Sol Trigger has a strange sense of logic time to time : save points in dungeons can teleport yourself to your base to replenish your HP/SOL, but no one worries about HQ being connected to enemy command centers! There are things like that are a little puzzling, but it doesn’t dampen the experience.

Let’s talk about gameplay. Unexpectedly, Sol Trigger chooses a first person view in battle, just like good old Dragon Quest. Disappointed at first not to see my characters, I must admit this view puts the player right into the action. My worries flew away when saw the extremely stylish and extensively used skills, during which you I could admire the superb modeling. Every time you use a skill, its level goes up, and the game leaves you use which degree of power/efficiency you see fit : 120%, 140%, etc. until an apocalyptic overcharge. The game is not that hard overall (especially the second part), but some areas or boss fight really made me sweat. Let’s point out that there are no sidequests, only the main story in a very corridor-like fashion, which is too bad.

ImageEpoch wanted to make the last great RPG of the PSP, they might actually have made the greatest…

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My favorites games of 2012 (GoTY 2012)

Rules reminder : I’m picking from the games I’ve played in 2012, even if they were released in 2011 or if they’re yet to be announced in the West.

Best action game

Liberation Maiden (3DS)

I’ve always wanted to experience the action scenes from Evangelion in video game. With Liberation Maiden, no need to search further. This shoot’em up is a nearly exact transcript of the legendary anime. True, not the same scenario, not the same characters, a rather short story, but the spirit of Evangelion is here : the ferocious aliens, the awesome sound, the non-stop action. All those priceless things you can get for only 8 euros.

Runner-up : Senran Kagura Burst (3DS)

Best shooter

Call of Duty – Black Ops II (PS3)

Although Call of Duty did poorly with Modern Warfare 3, Treyarch made the wise choices to turn the situation over. An innovating campaign and a reborn quality multiplayer make Black Ops II the king this year.

Runner-up : Call of Duty – Black Ops Declassified (PSVita)

Best fighting game

Kasumi Ayane

Dead or Alive 5 (PS3)

Dead or Alive 5 deals a powerful blow to a competition mostly asleep at the wheel. At last effort is rewarded and improvisation useless. The gameplay is complex, even too complex, but the competition is sane and the noobs have been driven away. Graphically outsanting, with high value and a flurry of adorable characters, DOA5 takes the crown, and for a long time.

Runner-up : none

Best strategy game

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

Like every time, it’s hard to resist to Fire Emblem once you have it whithin your reach. The clever gameplay is further enhanced by the support system and the unit management has some amazing surprises. CG scenes are beautiful and the art direction the best to date.

Runner-up : none

Best puzzle game

Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney (3DS)

True, PlvsAA won’t melt your brain like past episodes did. But its breathtaking story and lovable characters make up for the lesser difficulty settings.

Runner-up : If I were in a sealed room with a girl I would… (3DS)

Best RPG

Atelier Meruru (PS3)

Atelier Meruru (PS3)

Atelier Totori made history imho, and only logical that its sequel would take the title if it lives up to it. Actually, Atelier Meruru does even better in music, gameplay, management, battles, character design… Seldom did I feel such self-fulfillment with one game.

Runner-up : Tales of Xillia (PS3)

Best Music

Project Diva f (PSVita)

Project Diva f (PSVita)

Let’s get this straight : it’s gonna be hard for any game to compete here as long as Hatsune Miku is in the place. Not when brilliant composers like the vocaloid god Wowaka delivers such goodness as Unhappy Refrain.

Runner-up : Project Diva Extend (PSP)

Best game no one bought

たっち,しょー Love Application (PS3)

Love Application literally crashed in Japanese charts. The audience for dating sim has never been that high so it might have been OK. Anyway, the amount value and fun crammed is this game is more than worth the few thousands yens.

Runner-up : Hyperdimension Neptune Victory

Best game you might never play

Ace Attorney Investigations 2 (DS)

The title I chose last year in this category, Final Fantasy Type-0, still hasn’t made it west. Released in Japan last year, Ace Attorney Investigations 2 probably won’t be luckier and might well end up being the only title in the series to skip the west too. A real shame when you think it’s the most brilliant Ace Attorney so far.

Runner-up : Shining Blade (PSP)

Most disappointing

SoulCalibur V (PS3)

An abysmal campaign and a dismal multiplayer. That’s all I could think of this 5th iteration of a series had enjoyed so much. Everything that made the glory of the past ones, including characters and gameplay, has been reshuffled for the worst as armies of noobs increasingly took the power.

Runner-up : Ciel no Sourge (PSVita)

Most innovating

Gravity Daze (PSVita)

Gravity Daze (PSVita)

Mastering gravity. That’s what Gravity Daze is about. This game achieve the outstanding performance of having a unique, exhilarating and yet simple gameplay. Add to that an art direction that is one of the best this year, and you have the ultimate must-have on PSVita.

Runner-up : The Unfinished Swann (PS3)

Best graphics

Tales of Xillia (PS3)

A small step for the PS3, but a giant leap for the Tales of series. Tales of Graces F, which wasn’t exactly ugly, is merely a sketch of what awaits you in Tales of Xillia. Never had the anime style been so detailed, seldom could you enjoy such a flurry of colors and light.

Runner-up : Gravity Daze (PSVita)

 Game of the year

Atelier Meruru (PS3)

Can the Atelier series win for the second year in a row? YES! You do have one of the finest management-strategy-RPG ever. Characters, battles, music, side-quests, everything is as good as it can get. With games like these, there are no such things as eating or sleeping : Atelier Meruru nurtures your soul to delight.

 Project Diva f (PSVita)

 Tales of Xillia (PS3)

 Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

SquareEnix is looking for the ultimate Final Fantasy fan, but what for?

EDIT : a movement called Operation Suzaku has risen to ask for Type-0 localization. JOIN NOW!

I’m shocked when I see the gigantic buzz around Square Enix’s new contest, in which they propose tho award the title of «Super Final Fantasy fan».

Let’s rewind to the beginning of the story. Final Fantasy Type-0, outstanding title that achieved outstanding sales in Japan, has been denied to us westerners for unknown reasons. Final Fantasy VersusXIII, highly anticipated by those who wait for the renewal of the series, has been slipped under the rug. Lightning Returns, which is due to conclude the Lightning saga in a most impressive way, hasn’t shown even a screenshot. Final Fantasy X HD triggers nothing but embarrassment from SquareEnix officials. The Luminous Engine, supposed to welcome the first next-gen Final Fantasy, has just disappeared in the shadow of Unreal Engine 4. Mr. SquareEnix, the super-fan of Final Fantasy right now, HE MUST BE REALLY DEPRESSED!

Weird timing to celebrate the series… Final Fantasy has never been so down the hill! This is the 25th birthday, you say? Cool, but I don’t think I’ll be in party mood when I see nothing but Hitman Absolution under the Christmas Tree. Maybe Agent 47 will have a chocobo disguise for the occasion?

Super-fans won’t be fooled by this : it’s a lame placeholder to avoid that the super-fans definitely move to super JRPG publishers like NamcoBandai or NIS America. A pathetic and cynical attempt to divert them from the awful truth that they have been left behind to make space for new demographics of action games fans, who enjoy the senseless violence of Sleeping Dogs.

Anyway, this contest is a waste a time. The Ultimate fan of Final Fantasy, it’s me, and all those you learned Japanese because they foresaw the fateful day when SquareEnix would deny them a game from the series. This terrible day has come with Final Fantasy Type-0, the ONLY Final Fantasy that hasn’t come to us.The day when SquareEnix wiped 25 years of great gaming history, just to make a little more money.

The irresistible rise of Hatsune Miku

What do bikes, music, windows and social networking have in common? No, it’s not Johnny Hallyday, but almost. It’s someone who does the same job, but who doesn’t exist. She’s a singer who has by thousands of of fans, but who earn nothing. A star revered by many, but accessible to everyone. People often consider Hatsune Miku like some random anime character created long ago to excite geeks, but that’s wrong. At the very beginning, Hastune Miku is just that :

WTFH? On August 31th 2007, Crypton Media, a Sapporo-based company specialized in music software marketed a singing synthesizer application based on Yamaha’s VOCALOID 2 (Yamaha manufactures bikes but also musical instruments). Crypton calls it Hatsune Miku (初音未来), literally «first sound of the future». To differentiate its product, the firm asks brilliant illustrator KEI do design a female persona to put on the cover. Boom. A that time, this kind of software was regarded as a success if it was selling 1000 units a year. In something like 2 weeks, Hatsune Miku was already around 3000 and 4000. But that was just the beginning…

There is in Japan a very popular video-sharing website called Niko Niko Doga. On August 31th, the site started to be flown with thousands of songs created by anonymous users who wanted to share their work, further accelerating the popularity of what was becoming a phenomenon. Crypton doesn’t limit the use of its characters as long as the user doesn’t intend to profit. The maker pushes the social particularity of its product, even turning down anime adaptation proposals with which TV studios were rushing in September 2007! The rules are clear : everyone can have its own vision of the character.

Hachune Miku, one of the characters created by fans

Within a year or so, as the amount of content was growing relentlessly, the problem of digital rights starting to become a pressing matter, because any user could re-use the work of another. Unscrupulous karaoke owners began to list several songs for their own business with little regard on who created it at first. Following a wide referendum, it was decided that users could patent the songs they put together in their attic. The patent system requires the applicant to establish a contract with both Crypton (for the profitable use of the trademark) and a label such as Sony Music, Enterbrain, 5pb, etc. 

Thus appears a gigantic parallel economy revolving around social networking. If you type Hatsune Miku on Itunes, you can browse through more than 1600 results. ONE THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED! To compare, «Madonna» as an artist brings only 625 results. KEI, Miku’s official illustrator, has started a comic series which he takes the precaution to call «unofficial», to avoid going against to social principle. Concerts have been organized in Japan, Asia or the US with Miku appearing in an 3D holographic model. Adding to several partnerships with racing teams or spatial projects, a popular video game series called Project Diva launched in 2009. Published by Sega, those are rhythm games for PSP using the most popular songs (with prior approval and collaboration of the original creators) and even costumes created here and there. Each episode sells between 300’000 and 400’000 hard copies, to which add the digital sales. With 30-40 songs per game, SEGA can make new ones for the next 50 years! In 2012, the series is back with a new game tailored for PSVita. Look at this awesomeness :

When you come to think about it, Hatsune Miku is the perfect guy (girl) for the job : she doesn’t take drugs, never goes on strike, doesn’t need vacations, never tries evade taxes, doesn’t fear paparazzis and above all, SHE DOESN’T AGE! Hatsune Miku is just starting an official presence in the West, in several exhibits around anime/manga and by a recently made internet portal where you can find tons of clips and related content. Here’s a stunning example of what people can pull off :

Source : the Japanese wiki about Hatsune Miku and the related rights. And believe me that was one hard read! Took me 3 hours to fully understand. I’ve never seen such difficult Japanese since Natsume Soseki.

Does the crisis affect the video games market?

Notice : this article is a translation from the French version of this blog, references may be in French or based on French figures.

For several months now, I’ve been reading articles reporting sluggish sales in the video games market, which would be reason enough to call it a crisis. Those so-called journalists never stop short of writing bullshit when it comes to selling their papers. They really should analyze the figures before commmenting.

Les Echos, a French economic newspaper, goes wild when home console sales in France are down 20% year on year in 2012 (software sales are down 10%). But what Les Echos fails to mention is that Nintendo alone bears most of the decline. From the data I took from Vgchartz, we can see that yoy PS3 is down by only 11%, X360 falls 23% and Wii plummet by 48%. PS3 software sales are flat +1%, X360 software grows by 3% and Wii games sales collapses by 38%. So the overall decline is nothing more than the burst of the casual bubble that allowed rapid growth in 2007 (Gamasutra says +41%) and in 2008 (+23%). During the PS2 era, home console sold slightly over 200 million units. In this generation, which won’t be over before 2014 at best, we already have a 230-million install base. We can’t say the same for every economic segment : car manufacturers are cutting jobs despite public bailouts and consumer electronics declines 5-10% in one quarter. Not to mention the press, which loses every year so many advertisers and readers that many papers go bust. In short, it’s the folks who have to survive on rutabagas that write that kind of nonsense. I can understand their frustration, but they really should mind their own business rather than spelling doom on others. The Wii-collapse is the rightful punishment of Nintendo’s short-term policy that consists only in luring gullible but volatile casual gamers, while the hardcore gamer segment of the industry still flourish despite the lesser number of releases. Furthermore, reports show that accessory sales are up 23%, mainly thanks to Kinect and Move. Direct extension of PS3 and X360 hardware, those ones cannot be left out of the market as a whole. Finally, it’s interesting to notice that the Japanese market grew in 2011, after several years of decline.

Handhelds are also down in France (-14%), the responsibility lying in PSVita this time because it doesn’t offset the decline in PSP sales. 3DS makes up for the free-fall in DS sales, but cannot alone bear the weight of a decaying segment that is no longer fit for today’s commuters. Smartphones are cannibalizing the market at an astonishing pace : they have now 57% market share in the US, while DS and PSP had 80% only two years before. Even in Japan, where handhelds rule, smartphone software sales are up 200%. In France, 14 million people play on their mobile devices as far as this year, and 35% of them purchased a game. In fact, no need for figures to understand that : just ride any metro line with a PSVita in your hands, and you will find yourself alone in the middle of people playing freecell or Angrybirds. But why do we oppose smartphones and handhelds when talking sales volumes, and compare when considering market share? Isn’t a 2D mario comparable to Fruit Ninja? It’s now common among pulishers to develop Iphone versions of their biggest Ips (ex. SquareEnix and Final Fantasy) even if it means delaying traditional home console projects (ex. SquareEnix and Final Fantasy). Smartphones and handhelds belong to the same market in which casual gamers migrate to smartphones. In the end, the mobile market keeps growing.

The whole panic around the decline of boxed games sales is also hilarious. Many actors within the industry are worried, but it’s just because they don’t know how the digital transition goes. There is no proper tracking of digital games sales, even NPD said they would eventually look into the matter. Some figures can nevertheless be found here and there : OVUM, a market research firm, estimates at 17% the annual growth for non-physical games. Steam reported 100% growth in 2011, the general percentage of digital games sold has shot up 50%, not to mention the Iphone boom I was talking about above. DLC should also be taken into account, since it’s not charity. PSN was already growing by 40% in 2010, and no doubt download-only games like Journey or Limbo do help maintain that momentum. Of course, manufacturers are aware of this. Sony didn’t design PSVita at random : most of the recent PSP games like Shining Blade, Final Fantasy Type-0 or the upcoming Sol Trigger are compatible and playable on Vita. Rather than having to carry their old PSP, Japanese Vita owners are more comfortable using Sony’s cloud and cramming all their games into the new system.

Calling those figures a crisis is exaggerated : far from a downturn, the current situation of the gaming market reflects the high mobility of the mainstream public and the rise of new distribution channels and increasingly varied forms of gaming. Generally speaking, it just illustrates that capitalism is a constant renewal, as it’s been in our economies for the past six decades.

1st half 2012 – software sales analysis

Half a year has passed. Time to see what happens on the economic side of the gaming world.

Worldwide top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Diablo III (PC)

  2. Mass Effect 3 (X360)

  3. Pokémon B/W2 (DS)

  4. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

  5. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3)

  6. Ghost Recon Future Soldier (X360)

  7. Max Payne (X360)

  8. Resident Evil Operation Racoon City (PS3)

  9. One Piece Pirate Warriors (PS3)

  10. Mass Effect 3 (PS3)

You can see the full top 100 on Vgchartz. Games released in 2011 remainded praticularely vivid as few 2012 games managed to steal the spotlight : in the top 20 games, only 6 were released in 2012, being Mario Party 9, Mass Effect 3, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Ghost Recon, Pokemon B/W 2 and Diablo 3. The rest of the top 20 is composed of long sellers such as Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 or evergreen casual games. I can’t deny that Mass Effect significantly overtook Final Fantasy as a leading RPG IP (if Mass Effect is still and RPG, that is). Mass Effect 3 beats Final Fantasy XIII-2 by 2 to 1 in the West and still sells more even if Japan is taken into account. FFXIII-2 nevertheless outpaces ME3 on PS3 and outsells its 360 counterpart by 2.5 to 1, proving that the audiences of the two systems are very different. FFXIII-2 on PS3 is also showing some legs : it has been staying between the 40th and the 60th rank for several weeks now. There are several DS/3DS games, but only one Vita game which is Uncharted. Two Japan-only games cracked into the top 10, showing that the Japanese market is far from dead.

USA top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Mass Effect 3 (X360)

  2. Diablo III (PC)

  3. Ghost Recon Future Soldier (X360)

  4. MLB 12 : The Show (PS3)

  5. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3)

  6. Max Payne (X360)

  7. Kingdom of Alamur Reckoning (X360)

  8. Kinect Star Wars (X360)

  9. Twisted Metal (PS3)

  10. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

You can see the full top 100 on Vgchartz. Here again 2012 games fail to perform well : 6 out of 20 were released this year. JRPGs are struggling as Tales of Graces f only managed 193K so far and the much awaited Xenoblade stalls at 260K. Those are really horrible figures. I hope they still profit so that it doesn’t deter publishers for future localizations. At least, ToGf must have met Namco’s expectations since the translation of Tales of Xillia is already in the works. The casual audience still heavily dominates the Nintendo platforms : there’s no Resident Evil Revelations or Metal Gear 3D in sight.

Europe top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Diablo III (PC)

  2. Mass Effect 3 (X360)

  3. FIFA Street (PS3)

  4. FIFA Street (X360)

  5. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

  6. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3)

  7. Max Payne (PS3)

  8. Max Payne (X360)

  9. Mass Effect 3 (PS3)

  10. Kinect Star Wars (X360)

Again, only 6 out of the top 20 games were released in 2012. There are two funny things in this European chart :

  • Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is the only figthing game in the 100, neither SoulCalibur V nor Street Fighter X Tekken manged to chart. Those series are declining at breackneck pace, which logically calls for new contenders.

  • PSVita put up quite a fight for it places three games in the top 100 (Uncharted, Rayman Origins and FIFA Soccer). Uncharted shots up at rank 38th, beating all the recent 3DS games.

Japan top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Pokémon B/W 2 (DS)

  2. One Piece Pirate Warriors (PS3)

  3. Dragon Quest Monsters : Terry’s Wonderland (3DS)

  4. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

  5. Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

  6. Resident Evil Operation Racoon City (PS3)

  7. Dai-2-Ji Super Robot Taisen Z Saisei-hen (PSP)

  8. Pokémon Nobunaga’s Ambition (DS)

  9. Kingdom Hearts 3D (3DS)

  10. Kid Icarus Uprising (3DS)

3DS dominated this first half of the year in Japan. It sells to most games despite its developping install base. Generally speaking, handhelds are still big in Japan, where even a slowing PSVita has 6 games in the top. PSP games keep reaching good figures, which in reality are even better since Vgchartz doesn’t track digital sales (and those ones have surged since Vita released). PS3 confirms its position as the top home console : it flattens Wii 3 to 1 and X360 20 to 1. On the software side, PS3 sells nearly 6 million games when Wii barely manages 2 mllion. Xbox software was non existent as usual as no game charted. This time, most of the top games are from 2012 (16 out of 20, most probably 17 or 18 with the digital sales), which suggest both a wider game offer and a more quickly renewed demand than in the West. In short, the Japanese are more active gamers than westerners. Other noticable fact, Modern Warfare 3 outsold Zelda Skyward Sword at home. Japanese gamers seem increasingly interested in western gaming (Skyrim and Battlefield 3 also make it in the top 100), even if it means ditching well-established series like Zelda.

So, what’s next in 2012? Or more precisely WHO’s next? Yes, Nintendo is next to fall. It failed to convince gamers with 3DS outside of Japan (see next post), its Wii business is collapsing like and sandcastle and its WiiU line-up is close to nothingness. WiiU is the first ever system to be released at the end of the generation it indents to compete into, which means it will face cheaper competitors with comparable specs and far richer game libraries. PS3 and X360 have gained the gamers’ faith and respect while Wii only brought frustration, defiance and anger. The former will have countless exclusives such as Hitman Absolution, Tomb raider, Dead or Alive 5, Persona 4 Arena, Medal of Honor Warfighter, Dishonored, Halo 4, The Last of Us, Crysis 3 just to name a few. WiiU will have to battle with super-late ports and TANK! TANK! TANK! If Nintendo cannot prevent casual gamers from shifting to Kinect, web browser games or cheap Iphone games, WiiU will be discontinued as soon as 2013.