Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Defied Expectations

Around the time Sqaure merged with Enix in 2003, HironobuSakaguchi left his legacy at Square and formed Mistwalker Studios in 2004. The man is noted as the creator of “Final Fantasy” and had his hand in producing every entry up until his departure from Square. For better or worse, I feel the series hasn’t been the same since and because of that I’ve kept a close eye on Mistwalker Studios hoping to see it produce a next generation RPG that really speaks to me like the old Square titles did.

Blue Dragon is a fun, light-hearted role-playing game that has all the elements I’d been missing. In particular, it has an well defined job/class system of which I'm a big fan.  However, its plot doesn’t quite grip me with intrigue, twists and turns that I'd expect from the creators of "Final Fantasy" and Chrono Trigger. The story is very straightforward with few-to-no surprises, but the game mechanics are very enjoyable if you like those older RPGs. Blue Dragon left me feeling that Mistwalker was off to a good start as a company, but I was still searching for something more fulfilling in the story department. Blue Dragon since became a franchise with several sequels which all garner the same response from me: very fun gameplay, but lacking in story. 

That's a "Blue Bat" with arms, not the eponymous Blue Dragon, just so we're clear.
When Mistwalker Studios released Lost Odyssey in 2008, I had found exactly what I was looking for in a role-playing game. I consider it to be one of the closest titles to a traditional "Final Fantasy" since the turn of the century. Blue Dragon received higher praise from critics oddly enough, but if you love a story like I do and the "old-school" traditional role-playing mechanics with next generation graphics, this game should really get your attention as it grabbed mine. If the plot of the game isn't enough story for you, it also comes packaged with unlockable short stories which detail the past exploits of the near-immortal protagonist as he struggles to remember his past. The game is set in a Magic-Industrial Revolution era, which is reminiscent of the overall theme in Final Fantasy VI. I consider Lost Odyssey along side Tales of Vesperia to be the best role-playing games released on X-Box 360.

scene from Lost Odyssey
Sometime after playing Lost Odyssey, I noticed there wasn’t a lot of buzz about Mistwalker Studios anymore and so I went to investigate. Their next game which I had been anticipating, Cry On, had been canceled and North America had been passed up for a DS title they released called ASH:Archaic Sealed Heart. Both of these pieces of information upset me, but it was ASH that was perhaps more troubling. It felt like the 1990s era Squaresoft days where some truly fantastic titles simply weren’t being localized in the US due to whatever system drives companies to make these types of financial decisions. I was worried that future games that I would truly enjoy weren’t going to be released here because they had been deemed unprofitable in the Western market, perhaps due to the “traditional” styles that I enjoy most of all. 

 Flash this fear forward to 2010 when I first caught wind of the title The Last Story. You may notice right away that the title itself seems like an allusion to “Final Fantasy.” This is an action role-playing game with stealth and strategy elements, and was one of the most anticipated releases for Nintendo’s Wii console at the time. It was released in Japan in January of 2011 and all I could do was sit and wait for an announcement of when it would be localized and released in North America. That wait, however, proved to be long and painful. The game was translated into English and localized for Europe and Australia, but no release came for North America. Needless to say, I was pretty upset. This game had the potential to re-justify owning a Wii, a console with whom I’d had a shaky relationship. I looked to Google to help me find more information about when or why this game wasn’t being released in the US and if possible what I’d need to be able to play a European version. It was then I discovered “Operation Rainfall.” 

scene from The Last Story
“Operation Rainfall” was a fan-run campaign to persuade Nintendo of America to localize and distribute three best-selling (in Japan/Europe) role-playing video games for the Wii. The list includes Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower. I wasn't even aware of the other two titles at the time, but once I looked them up, I was astounded they weren't being localized here. These were top sellers in Japan, and all being translated into English and localized for Europe/Australia. That EU/AUS get localized Japanese games before North America is almost unheard of, but that Nintendo didn't even have plans to release in NA was even more baffling. At the time, I’d never heard of anything like “Operation Rainfall” before and if there had been any other internet organizations to get games localized and released, I’d certainly never heard of them nor of their success. However, “Operation Rainfall” appears to be working!
I’m pleased to find out and announce that Xenoblade Chronicles will be released April 6, 2012. The Last Story is following that with a June 19, 2012 release. Because it’s unusual that games get released in Europe (and more so Australia) before they are released in the US/Canada, I have to think that the amount of fan support and online petitioning has actually worked in this scenario. It appears that the amount of pressure and interest in these games has encouraged Nintendo and XSeed to publish and distribute Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story respectively. There is still no news on Pandora’s Tower in North America, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a release date announced in the near future. To show my support for the titles and “Operation Rainfall,” I’ve already made my pre-orders for these games last week, and encourage anyone else interested in some quality role-playing games for their Wii to do the same. If you aren’t about to rush out and pick them up on their launch dates, I’ll be sure to let you know how these games are shortly after I get my hands on them.

scene from Xenoblade Chronicles
I know the narrative tone of this post isn't conveying much emotion, but this is a big deal for me. I'm extremely excited to hear that these games are coming to the US this year. Xenoblade Chronicles is loosely connected to Xenogears which is one of my favorite Playstation (1) games, with a soundtrack from Yoko Shimamura (Kingdom Hearts) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Xenogears). The Last Story is hopefully going to fit right in with my "Final Fantasy" family, with its soundtrack done by Nobuo Uematsu ("Final Fantasy"). Though The Last Story is action-oriented rather than turn-based battles, I still have high hopes for it. These are some big names in gaming and I couldn't wait to rush out and pre-order these games. Pandora's Tower is not quite on that level, but if it sees a release date, I'll be supporting it as well because I really applaud "Operation Rainfall" in their effort to bring these games to my living room. I trust Pandora's Tower will be just as well received, though it doesn't quite have the lineage behind it for me personally. 

I'm very excited. It should be a fun few months.

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