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 With the decreasing interest of third parties, the lack of originality of first party games, the outdated hardware and Miitomo’s short-timed success, the manufacturer is running out of options.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.

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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.

Most anticipated games for 2016

Genei Ibun Roku #FE (WiiU)

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Well I’m not waiting for it any more since I’m playing it right now but I was really curious about this mix between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, which turned out to be a girl game like we have loads of them on PSVita. Cute girls, swimsuits, turn-based tactial battle, vocaloid music… Everything’s green as far as I’m concerned.

Gakusen Toshi Asterisk Gôka Kenran (PSVita)

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The Gakusen Toshi Asterisk anime has been a rather good pick, especially in terms of cast with mostly interesting characters. Hence my anticipation for the Vita game which will include combat between all the characters and a choice-based dating sim.

Kan Colle kai (PSVita)

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If it ever sees the light of the day, Kan Colle Vita is highly interesting to me because it could become the spiritual successor to Intelligent Systems’ long lost Advance Wars. You play as an admiral sent to defend territorial waters against the mysterious Fleet of the Abyss. Your units are ships represented by… girls.

Hero Must Die (PSVita)

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Rather discreet title form Nippon Ichi Software so far, Hero Must Die is a classic and very original JRPG which starts just after the hero has defeated the final boss (!). The hero is in bad shape and has only a few days left to quell the remaining conflicts. He will meet several buddies who will take up from him. The player will thus learn progressively what happened as the hero’s burial gets close.

Atelier Shallie Plus (PSVita)

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More than the previous Vita ports, Atelier Shallie Plus will be the definitive edition of Atelier Shallie. Although paying full price to cover up THEIR mistakes is a pain in the a**, how not to be curious about the real conclusion of the Dusk trilogy? Logy and Ayesha make a triumphant comeback in a revamped adventure, less naïve and with more solid character events.

SummonNight 6 Lost Borders (PSVita/PS4)

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That will be my first time playing SummonNight, essentially because the girl has a cool sniper rifle. So actually I can’t tell you more, since I know next to nothing about the series. I’ll discover everything on release, which is for the best I think.

Pokemon Tournament (WiiU)

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Although it includes very unexpected fighters like Suicune, Pokemon Tournament should have no problem becoming the most interesting home console entry since Gamecube’s Colosseum. BandaiNamco, who co-develops the game, has proven talent in the field and the graphics look absolutely gorgeous.

The Division (PS4)

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Ubisoft’s new game has had some valuable trailers and gameplay sequences let imagine an interesting western action-RPG. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic New York, it’s a struggle for survival in a devastated city in which you’ll have to shoot you way through. Being a cooperative title with high-end graphics and a mysterious setting, I can’t wait to check it out.

Project Diva X (PSVita/PS4)

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Project Mirai being dead and buried, Sega gets back to the Hastune Miku’s main series on PSVita next March, and on PS4 in Autumn. Adding to a new original tracklist and loads of new outfits, a quest mode will give some fresh air to the gameplay with dialogs between the characters and objectives to meet.

Star Ocean 5 (PS4)

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Being a big Star Ocean fan, no way I can miss this long-awaited 5th episode. Not especially impressed by the TGS demo or the characters in general, I’ll be more curious about story-telling and gameplay, that always have been strong in the series.

SAO Hollow Realization (PSVita/PS4)

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Here’s a one I’m not too impatient about given Lost Song having been a terrible experience. Sword Art Online Hollow Realization returns to Aincrad, which I suspect is a way to milk the SAO without taking too much risk. I was personally expecting a Phantom Bullet game… Let’s see if the new original story set in Sword Art Origin (as they call it) will avoid repeating Lost Song’s mistakes. The game has already made definite progress on th graphic side, so why not?

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst (PS4)

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Faith jumps into the next generation and comes to a vast and neat world which should revolutionize the original experience : numerous ways to reach the objectives and maybe random side-quests on the roofs. The IP also said farewell to arms so as to underline the free run orientation.

Deus Ex Mankind Divided (PS4)

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Last game of the 2016 western trio, Deus Ex Mankind Divided benefits from the good (and deserved) reception of Human Revolution, which still remains the best western game of last gen to me. Let’s expect an equally deep and meaningful story, a great atmosphere like the previous ones had, and let’s hope the action-oriented scenes shown were just PR.

No Man’s Sky (PS4)

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I’ve talked about it a lot, No Man’s Sky challenge is to make space exploration great again, with true and varied discoveries, a deep game system and innovative interactions. That’s a lot to take up at once, but if it succeeds, it will mark its time.

Gran Turismo Sport (PS4)

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I don’t play racing games that much anymore, but I’ll have to save some time for the new Gran Turismo, the one and only car game I need, since it’s the most beautiful and stylish. And I remember my younger days…

Persona 5 (PS4)

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The TGS trailer of Persona 5 was stunning, I re-watched it countless times. Style, atmosphere, scenario, battles, exploration, characters, side activities… Atlus’s next hit seems to do everything perfectly. The summer will be hot.

Ace Attorney 6 (3DS)

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Phoenix Wright’s vacation will be short. The famous attorney objects back in a new adventure taking place a remote country where attorneys don’t exist, reason being that justice uses… divination! Bringing back associate attorneys Apollo and Athena, Ace Attorney will also introduce a new female rival.

NieR Automata (PS4)

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NiER Automata’s case is simple : it’s developed by Platinum Games, directed by SquareEnix’s elite, so it definitely must become the action GoTY. The whole concept of an android heroine is appealing, the world at large seems to be thought with care… All that remains is playing it actually, and maybe we can finally say good riddance to the dark witch and her unacceptable infidelities.

Final Fantasy XV (PS4)

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That’s another game I wait for without real hype. Final Fantasy XV wasted time in 2015, and the excitement of the re-announcement is long gone. All we have learned in a little more than one year is that there will be chocobos, xylomids, fishing and a lot of work to actually transform what was in the demo in a major JRPG. No sight of a damn city, nothing! It’s clear that FFXV needs a lot more fantasy in its communication.

Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

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Flattening FFXV in terms of charisma, Final Fantasy VII Remake seems to approach at high speed given how advanced was the video shown at Playstation Experience. The Kingdom Hearts-style hybrid gameplay seems to fit and the characters have perfectly re-created for the PS4. Episodic? Why not? Such is the value of a legend.

Tales of Berseria (PS4)

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Last year I was in a wait and wee approach towards Tales of Zestiria, but it ended up being my second-favorite game of 2015. So I’ll just do the same and wait peacefully for Tales of Berseria and its heroine Velvet whose background seems dark and beastly.

Gravity Daze 2 (PS4)

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That was not the system I expected to play it on, but it can’t be helped I guess. Gravity Daze 2 on PS4 should revolutionize anti-gravity with an incomparable level of details, multiple interactions and a possible multiplayer mode, which would be super cool.

Valkyria Azure Revolution (PS4)

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I’m not sure it will be released in 2016, I wouldn’t even bet on it but… I FU** CRAVE FOR IT! Reborn from the ashes thanks to Steam (thank you, PC players!), the Valkyria IP slips further on its RPG side but doesn’t lose the military campaign and the anime style. That said, the character design is strangely close to Valkyrie Profile, I recon. One thing is sure : Selveria is here and alive, her legacy being transferred in another character called Brunhildr.

I’m also waiting for Legend of Heroes Sen no Kiseki III (PSVita/PS4), Ace Combat 7 (PS4), Dragon Quest Heroes II (PSVita/PS4), Bullet Girls 2 (PSVita), Saga Scarlet Grace (PSVita), Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 (PSVita/PS4), Ni no Kuni Revenant Kingdom (PS4), God Wars (PSVita/PS4).

Hum… I suppose the keyword for 2016 will ne “lack of sleep”

Review – Xenoblade Chronicles X

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The day of judgment is finally coming. After the great Xenoblade on Wii (to some the best JRPG of the PS3 era), many started to believe that the JRPG genre belonged to Nintendo. But with the withdrawal from the WiiU of all the main JRPG publishers, nothing remains but Monolith Software’s champion to defend the title.

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Xenoblade Chronicles X starts pretty well because it immediately raise the stakes (mankind’s future is in your hand after Earth has been destroyed by unknown forces) and gives large freedom and possibilities of gameplay after a few hours. As pioneers, you’ll have to survive and take advantage of the planet on which your gigantic ship (which also happens to carry an entire city, New Los Angeles) has made an emergency landing, called Mira. You quickly come come to be familiar with the very diversified fauna : the monsters’ level go from 5 to 50, their size from 30cm to approximately one of NLA’s district. No doubt, the progression margin is immense and you’re here for a while.

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Much to your delight, you have 13 classes that you’ll unlock progressively. Every class lets you equip a firearm and and CQC weapon. The enhancement system of weaponry and armory is quite rich as you can either improve their statistics directly or attach external modules giving extra skills or bonuses. All this goes through military engineering firms, which you unlock during the story or by completing side-quests. Each company develops its own design and models, and you’ll have to provide them resources if you want further innovations. The game will also have you choose between some “unions” (explorer, Doll pilot, hunter, etc.) but this particular aspect didn’t change the gameplay or my progression in any way. You’ll receive a salary regardless, in the form of several items to choose from, some being extremely helpful in tough fights.

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Graphically speaking, Xenoblade Chronicles X is uneven. The city isn’t really appealing (noticeable clipping, aliasing, late textures and failed collisions are rife), nor it is very large. Its only point is to list the various quests you’ll have to complete on the field. NLA is divided in several districts (industrial, commercial, etc) rather empty, except for the “Blade” part (from the name of your military organization) which benefits from a much better design. The character modeling is at least 10 years late : the main characters reminds us of the early PS3 era, and NPCs are even worse. Facial animations are non-existant and gestures are stiff. This is not next-gen at all.

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That said, you just have to peek outside to see it, because this is where Monolith’s title displays its true self. The nature is beautiful, the fauna is astonishingly lively and the lush flora clearly impress. But beyond that, it is the scale of planet Mira that gives the wow effect : five continents, each one immense and with its own theme and wildlife. Every change of environment is a magical moment. Every plain, every valley, every mountain path has its little surprise, good or bad, architectural or living, which are wonders for the player. The weather effect are no less amazing : should it be the thunderous storms of the Forgotten Continent, the meteor showers of the Continent of the Black Steel, or especially the snowstorms of the Continent of the White Tree, so thick that the player has to stop or return to base, everything is splendid. The general design of Xenoblade Chronicles X is also of fine quality. The weapons and the technology in general (particularly some very classy sniper rifles) gives a unique feel of a whole new and coherent universe, not to mention the sense of grandeur given to the landscape.

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Let’s go into actual gameplay. Xenoblade Chronicles X has a rather shabby user interface with a flurry of menu screens in which character font is blatantly too tiny : maybe it will be OK in western alphabet, but believe me, reading difficult kanjis in font size 7 is quite a hassle.Skills description is not very clear and there is no tutorial to help you. You therefore have to build your character a bit empirically due to the lack of structure in the battle system. The gamepad is inconvenient in real-time gameplay, mainly because the buttons are too small and too far from each other. I had a hard time going through some battles, notably because of not so responsive targeting and an ill-designed item menu. On the other hand, navigating on the world map is perfectly thought as you always have all the information and all the destinations available with little browsing to do.

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As good explorers, you’ll work to subdue the (hostile) environment around you, starting with its resources. Millanium is used for a bunch of things : deliver it to NPCs, make R&D progress or refuel your Dolls. For this, you’ll need to reach certain places a set a drill. This is the big pleasure of Xenoblade Chronicles X, as the hilly landscape provide a exhilarating exploration like it never had been before. There is often the need for crazy diversions or climbing to reach your goal. Xenoblade stays the absolute master of exploration, far surpassing Final Fantasy XV Duscae in terms of level design. Once your drills are set, you’ll need to manage them. There are various types of plugs you can use to change your output : extraction plugs to maximize production, search plugs to improve profitability and stock plugs to get a higher ceiling. Up to you to define your current priorities, but do not forget some drills provide high-value minerals. Aside of that, you can loot certain items on the field by using field skills. Those capacities you have to upgrade regularly allow to interact with some elements here and there : mechanical knowledge allows you to take scraps from abandoned vehicles, biology makes you able to harvest from unkown plants, etc. It does keep you busy, but it’s still very average looting.

The problem is that in the end, that’s more or less all you have to do in the large world of Xenoblade Chronicles X. True, there is a big hunting part due to the diversity of the fauna, but the open world of Monolith’s game is pretty far from delivering the same density of activities as WatchDogs for example. The experience in Xenoblade Chronicles X is hampered by one of WiiU’s issues : the lack of trophies. Once the story is cleared and all the drills under control, raoming dozens of hours killing local species just for personal satisfaction is not very motivating, especially if you’re accustomed to be rewarded by a social system like trophies.

snipe e

The other snag in Xenoblade Chronicles X is combat. The battle system is directly inherited from Xenoblade, but losing the time travel lore at the same time. All that remains is casting skills on after another, which makes it incredibly passive and dull. Worse, in my progression in the class tree, I’ve never had a single healing spell! The only recovery means I’ve had throughout the entire game are the Soul Challenge and Soul Voice. Whazzat? The Challenge materializes in a B icon to tell you to press the corresponding button within a short time. The Voice is a party member asking you to use a certain type of skill (gun skill, physical etc.) immediately. Needless to say, such an unmethodical healing system is nightmarish and prevents you to establish any logical battle plan. If the enemy focuses on your main character, you’re good to restart from the last checkpoint because there’s little you can do to survive, and condition to revive one character are long and difficult to meet. I lost countless times and wasted a considerable amount of time because of that. Fleeing is extremely tricky too as monsters can hunt down for kilometers, and that of course doesn’t help. This game simply needs you to grind your way to the end, without any elaborated features. You can “rent” the avatar of another player via the internet, which makes fighting a bit less annoying, but it’s not like it’s making miracles either. All this nothing more than a sub-par battle system, neither dynamic like the recent Tales of games, nor strategic like Atelier.

doll cb1

Dolls are an excellent feature. Of remarkable design, those mechs aren’t mere war machines but real partners like in Evangelion. A lot of little animations makes you feel close to it : the one by which your main character enters/leaves the cockpit or whn the Doll transforms itself in a flash to switch to vehicle mode. The Doll can be be brought anywhere, even in the middle of the city! While fighting, the game sometimes switches to cockpit mode, which makes it even more immersive. The is quite a wide range of models and the best ones will ask you to save some crazy amount of cash. This effort is necessary, because upgrading is the only way to keep up with the bosses in the last chapters. You can manage the equipment of your mechs as you whish and there are plenty of weapons to choose from. I’d need hours hours to detail all the stuff surrounding Dolls but let me tell you one last anecdote : this feature is so detailed that the Dolls have different driving patterns! Only drawback of your steel companions : they’re surprisingly fragile. In fact, the Dolls doesn’t hold longer than your foot soldier against powerful enemies, which is kind of a letdown. The really annoying thing is that from a certain point, the game will ask you to foot the bill for repairs. Expensive Dolls need an insane amount of money to be fixed and you soon a to give all your savings. And given that you can be OHKO by just stepping on a lvl 50 monster hidden in the sand, it quickly becomes unbearable and you have no choice but to restart the game over and over.

Rin

In terms of characters, again Monolith’s work is unbalanced. 13 year-old (!) Lyn is quite good in her moe/kawaii role, her voice actress Mariya Ise (who also voice Riko from Aria the Scarlet Ammo) has the right tone to make her funny. But you won’t enjoy that because Nintendo isn’t bringing the original dubbing. Beyond that, no character stands out, even Elma is quite shallow until the very end. The others have almost no screentime, let alone a convincing showing, but the game had a surprise…

Celica b

The character unlocking order is exceptionally silly. I got this wonderfully charming little lady, called Celica (yes, like the Toyota) after almost 80h! A good character like should be the first to join the party, not the last!!!!!! And if she weren’t under-leveled, it would have been cool too…

dragon

Let’s finish by the tricky topic of narration. You can forget all that you’ve experienced in Xenoblade Wii : the epic quest, the heart-braking moments, the separation etc. it’s not for this time. It’s a shame because the base scenario had the potential to make a great story had it been better told. The first thing is that here you create your own character. Although the character creation system isn’t as detailed as in Samurai Warriors 4 for example (kinda lacks some types of hair & faces), it takes a very good initiative in offering numerous voices sorted by voice actor/actress and personality (tsundere, ojôsama, etc. but here again you’ll only have unrefined English voices in the western version). This choice of the developer does impact the narration, as your character is mute in dialog phases, like in Tales of Xillia 2. But while Ludger was, despite his silence, an emotive and expressive character, the main character of Xenoblade Chronicles X has absolutely no facial expression! From Xenoblade to Xenoblade Chronicles X, you trade the valorous Shulk for an soulless avatar which makes your adventure a bit impersonal, which might disappoint many.

Elma

Last point, the main story is divided in chapters that you select as if they were sidequests, with often very strict unlocking conditions to have you grind for hours. The vast majority of those are weak events with little coherence and antagonists aren’t introduced or developed jackshit. On the other hand, some side-quests have interesting mini-stories that would have been welcomed in the main one. The player is actually in the middle of an erratic story with bits of scenario here and there which never takes the form of a proper narrative. There’s a lot too much artificial grinding doing quests in which dialogs feel far too long for what is said, and always revolve around hunting and finding items. We’re far, very far from the inventive quests of Lighting Returns for example. The humor is so lame that Xenoblade Chronicles X rehashes the same joke at every chapter. The excellent soundtrack do live up the mood with astonishing electro-country or other more classic but appealing melodies, but remains oddly used during the game : the game tends to overuse epic music even in bland dialog, which feels strange to say the least.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a large RPG but not so much a great one. Exhilarating and fascinating in its wild nature, it is much less so in others aspects. I wonder if Monolith Software, too busy to build the immense world, has forgotten the elements that make the historical RPG. The mediocre battles, the casino healing system and the upside down story weight much on the general experience. Basically, Xenoblade Chronicles X is the same as Final Fantasy XIII, but reversed : one is story-driven, without a world to explore, the other is world-driven, without anything interesting to tell. In both cases, a good RPG with definite qualities, but not one of the great. Because a safari, however beautiful it may be, cannot pretend to be a great JRPG.

E3 2015 Nintendo – Showing a good look but a miserable outlook

FE if1

For some, Nintendo was the clear victor of E3 2014. Let’s join their parallel world for a moment and admit that fact. What did they make of this “victory”?

In 2014-2015, the manufacturer regains profits. More important, the operating result is positive, thing they had been pursuing for long to ease the shareholders’ doubts. Cash & cash equivalents are on the rise too, and inventories are cut. A dream-like situation by the look of it.

But in more details, it’s not that simple. The revenues are down 4% and Nintendo is forced to compensate by cutting costs like mad : cost of sales and general expenses have been axed 15% in just one year! Furthermore, foreign exchange gains amount to 34 billion yens, which makes up for 80% of the total profits. We can thus conclude the Bank of Japan and its quantitative easing, more than Smash, Mario Kart 8 or amiibos, allowed Nintendo to achieve such good results.

Because commercial results are nothing to boast about. WiiU barely reached its miserable 3.3 million objective (5 times less than PS4), proof that its always acclaimed line-up is nothing at all. 3DS fails to meet objectives again this year, even the revised ones set to 8 millions. New3DS did no miracle, the hype deflated quickly after every hardcore fan got his new collection item. This new version showed very little actual benefit for the player and is mainly bought for show, especially with shiny faceplates on it. It’s quite obvious that New3DS was just a way to buy some time until the definitive collapse of the 3DS ecosystem, facing saturation and lifeless audience.

Amiibos are a success, but maybe not the kind of success the company had hoped for. Without convincing gameplay features, those overpriced physical DLCs are a joy for collectors but nothing interesting for the mainstream audience. Nintendo probably wanted to imitate Skylanders’s success to make WiiU take off, but the figures tell another story. Consequently, Nintendo has no choice but to become a toy maker and come up with new amiibos all the time to take advantage of the collectors’ passion and of course the big margin behind it. Nintendo creates shortages of some amiibos on purpose to keep the buzz going, even if it means screwing consumers that are unable to find the one they want at normal price. Again recently I was asking for a Lukina amiibo for Fire Emblem Fates, on what I was told that they could get me one from Germany for 3 times the base price.

So this year, the Kyoto-based firm made some kind of transition towards a economic model closer to the Gamecube era : a less lavish marketing, end of the all-out casual business and a better dialog with its core audience. A good recipe for what appeared to be a new start.

But did the manufacturer really change? This E3 casts doubt on Nintendo’s ability to renew itself, because what they showed was beyond pathetic. The Digital Event, which serves as a conference, kicks off with StarFox Zero, a shoot’em up profiled like a low-end GameCube game, with apathetic action and basic modeling. As they clearly wanted to blow up their IP live, they also shared the horrible photoshopped boxart. Disaster is looming. Then goes The Legend of Zelda TriForce Heroes, a generic coop’ puzzle game light years away from the epic Zelda WiiU shown last year, the lack of which rousing anger here and there. Still nothing compared to Metroid Prime Federation Force, a 3DS shooter so hideous that it immediately triggered a petition calling for its cancellation. A first in gaming history… To make it even worse, Nintendo spends a long time explaining their fantastic collaboration with the Skylanders franchise to make… more amiibos!

FE idol a

Relief comes with Fire Emblem Fates, which despite looking like a sub-PSOne game will certainly have many qualities to offer. Out in Japan since late April, Xenoblade Chronicles X doesn’t impress much anymore as conflicting reports question its overall interest. Fire Emblem X Shin Megami Tensei (pictured above) is the big surprise. Not because it’s just been rebranded Genei Ibun Roku #FE, name that would drive any Japanese linguist into despair, but because it transformed into an idol game with a flurry of J-pop music and dating at every corner. Perfect for me of course, but conservative Nintendo fans are thunderstruck. By the way, the game doesn’t look like it’s able to display NPCs

Here show up Paper Mario X Mario&Luigi crossover, Yoshi’s Wolly World, a 3DS port of Hyrule Warriors no one asked for, a WiiU version of Mario Tennis, final confirmation that brainstorming sessions don’t happen anymore in Kyoto. At least, every possible rehash will have been done until WiiU is discontinued, which is obviously coming fast. Mario Maker is shown during a long time, much too long given the desperate need of anything spectacular to save the day. No such thing will happen. The video ends with Miyamoto discussing with another old dude about the joy of making 8-bits stages. Seriously I don’t expect anyone to be particularly interested in making 8-bits stages. Long-term fans will boycott this software because it will remind them of this horrible conference. Casual gamers barely clear 3 or 4 stages in a average mario game, so I doubt they’ll go through the hassle of creating them. That leaves the big trump card in Nintendo’s hand : Yôkai Watch, fairly capable of boosting the 3DS again in the West.

An awfully-paced video, presented by puppets that provoke bursts of laugther every time I think of them, given how the idiocy of the thing contrasts with the enormous expectations in a show like E3. With such a poor performance, Nintendo admits that they can’t keep up with the big publishers and that they are incapable of producing ambitious games like Fallout 4, Deus Ex Mankind Divided, The Division or many other state-of-the-art productions on the showfloor. Their poor excuse for a line-up is going to be mowed down by PS4/X1 games. The manufacturer failed to address gamers efficiently and lost all the goodwill they had been building for a year. They have made themselves irrelevant for the year to come, or maybe is it just the first signs of a total collapse.