Impressions – Life is Strange

Life is Strange marks the comeback of DONTNOD, the prodigious French studio behind Remember Me. The latter not having sold as expected, the developer went through tough times and was searching for a publisher for their next project. After having been turned down several times because many companies didn’t want a heroine, SquareEnix stepped in to market this narrative game, which reminds us of Beyond.

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If I had to describe Life is Strange, I would say that it is a westernized visual novel mixed with a puzzle game. It’s gonna be a game in five episodes, so what we’ll be examining today on PS4 is only the introduction of that. You play as a young girl called Max (I guess it must have become a girl’s name at some point) who’s back in her native town in Oregon to study photography. Unfortunately, fishy events are taking place in the Empire town of Arcadia and Max also starts to have strange visions.

What seduced me in Life is Strange is the eerie and mysterious atmosphere that contrasts with the somewhat classic school life featured. The campus is like haunted after that some girl called Rachel Amber went missing. Everywhere but nowhere at the same time, she is a key-person you want to know more about. Even without a confirmed crime, every person around you seems suspect : it’s like Criminal Minds, except that you’re in charge. Max, shy and lacking self-confidence, has an interesting personality that echoes a certain number of issues of today’s world. Like Remember Me, which offered a unique and complex universe, Life is Strange deserves kudos for having very original settings and features (photography being the first of them) unlike many of the generic AAA those past few months.

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In Life is Strange, you’ll have to make choices, an the game direction knows how to make them particularly serious. At numerous occasions, the actions you take will affect your future, near or distant. Some are more important than others of course, but the game will put pressure on you regardless, because Max never stops wondering if she took the right decision. That said, the consequences within this episode weren’t as important as I expected : when doing a 2nd walkthrough making the opposite choices, the main events stayed more or less the same (for example, I expected the event at the parking lot to change completely). I’d say there’s some potential yet to be confirmed in that department, which we’ll know quickly since your actions today have an impact on future episodes.

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In terms of puzzles also, Life is Strange starts slowly : there are few of them and they’re not so elaborated. In fact, this first episode is more a matter of observation and searching, which fits RPG addicts like me. In particular, trophies are all about snapping rare shots in the different environments. That was very addictive as it involved small choices, but it’s kinda disappointing not to have trophies linked to important choices.

Similar to Remember Me, puzzles and challenges in Life is Strange involve going back in time, and Max gets that supernatural power at the very start of the game. But it’s only valid on a few minutes, impossible to go back in 2012 to prevent the exclusivity of Bayonetta 2 for example. Max is not affected by those travels in time and can thus go back and use information earned in the present. The system allows you to perform numerous small thing, but nothing big yet, save that it adds some sense of grandeur to the story.

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Graphically speaking, DONTNOD’s game clearly lacks polish as models would make it appear as an early PS3 game. It clearly looks far less good than Remember Me, and I do reckon the developers didn’t have the freedom to go as far as they wanted to in that department. That said, Life is Strange has a lot of other decisive qualities, notably atmosphere and originality that make it stand out compared to today’s bland western offer.

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Hideo Baba says there’s still a “possibility” for Tales of Vesperia on PS3

Maybe, maybe not… that’s all the producer of the Tales of series has to answer to the rightful concerns of Gematsu regarding the PS3 version of Tales of Vesperia, still blocked in Japan’s customs. The question asked at New York’s Comic-con was clear though : “Can you, at least, officially shut down a possible localization for Tales of Vesperia on PlayStation 3? There may still be fans holding back importing”. Although it would be high time to be honest with people whom they’re asking money from through Tales of Graces F and Tales of Xillia, Namco keeps telling lies and sham.

It’s been three years since Tales of Vesperia was released everywhere on Xbox360, and in Japan on PS3. I would rather think the producer has a precise idea on what to do with his game. But we still can’t get a clear answer. The publisher is unable to take responsibility for the original sin they commited when they sold us fans for a few bucks. Baba-san again says they lacked workforce to localize, but this argument, already used during Japan Expo (Paris, France) is pathetic : any company that has growth opportunies hires to ensure the expansion of it business.

In short, again a childish attempt from the publisher to hide the truth in the tricky situation in which it has to withstand to rightful anger of fans but also to promote its future titles to those same fans. Such pitiful guys don’t deserve your money, remember to NEVER buy anything from them outside Tales of and Ni no Kuni.

New details emerge on Tales of Vesperia for PS3

During Japan Expo (held in Paris earlier this month), some fan sites had the occasion to interview staff from NamcoBandai France, and even Hideo Baba himself, the producer of the Tales of series.

Kingdom of Tales (English at the bottom) got some answers from a NamcoBandai Partner rep. It was once more denied that Tales of Vesperia had any kind of exclusivity on Xbox360, but that some Tales of titles specifically developed for Japan make localization “longer” and “more difficult”. Tales of Vesperia on PS3 and Tales of Innocence are clearly of those, so their situation doesn’t improve dramatically. NamcoBandai assure that “they work to release games in the west as soon as possible”, which sounds good for future projects. 

The second interview, of Hideo Baba himself, makes me real mad. He points out that the simultaneous release of Tales of Vesperia for X360 had been «a burden» for the staff and that they therefore decided to «reduce that burden» but keeping the PS3 version in Japan. That means, my dear friends, that we PS3 players who are about to make them incredibly wealthy by buying wagons of Tales of Graces f and Tales of Xillia, are not worthy of their time, while Xbox players got all their care. Secondly, he thus says that the reason WE REAL FANS are not playing Tales of Vesperia lies in the little comfort of people WHO ACCEPTED MONEY TO STAB US IN THE BACK! Damn I would expect those guys to be freakin’ localizing the bloody game or die trying AS WE SPEAK if they want to atone for their treachery.

What to make of all this? Either there’s indeed Xbox exclusivity or they just don’t expect Tales of Vesperia to profit after the xbox version, which again leaves the question : why did Tales of Vesperia release on Xbox first? A shame no one had the idea to ask it… Either way, don’t give A PENNY to those miserly liars : buy all their games USED, except for Tales of.

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.

Did DLCs kill Final Fantasy?

J’accuse SquareEnix. I’m not against DLCs in general (I’m often happy to buy them), but the dreadful organization of the DLC season for Final Fantasy XIII-2 jeopardizes the series at least as much as the polemic over the first Final Fantasy XIII.

First, pricing : 2€ for a costume, 3€ for one boss and 4€ for a short scenario. I might seem okay like that (actually it isn’t), but over several weeks it makes quite a large sum (the prices in yen were even higher). French game websites didn’t stop short of mocking this avalanche of content, making a fool of SquareEnix and the potential buyers. Final Fantasy XIII-2 quickly became the shame of the gaming world, and the increasing number of DLCs accelerated the decline of a of series that had gained so much respect over the years.

If that wasn’t enough, the DLCs themselves were of unequal interest. Some bosses like Gilgamesh or Jihl are nearly impossible to beat, let alone to get in your party, even with maxed characters. 100% drop rate of the characters’ crystals should have been something obvious, but the publisher doesn’t care. When you tease characters, the least you can do is to make sure people can obtain them, especially if you charge people for them! Nothing of the sort for SquareEnix, who seem to forget to notion of costumer support in such situation, leaving deeply unsatisfied gamers with flawed content. Nor can we understand why this season should have lasted 4 months while you can beat the game in 1 or 2 weeks. Costumes, characters and stuff makes no sense if you’ve already finished. I myself stopped playing at one point to wait for the season to end. We did have some nice things though, like the two Lightning, or Ultros’s return.

But what makes me really mad is that errie silence from SquareEnix regarding the series. After winning the jackpot, the publisher seems to ditch the series as if it were a plummeting share. No localization of Type-0, no word on VersusXIII, just… Theathrythm (‘°o°)>! On the other hand, the Japanese (?) company puts every available resource on its western projects : there’s no week without news from Agent 47 or a new trailer of Tomb Raider. SquareEnix killed Final Fantasy with its own hands, and they will ultimately pay for that.