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Scratching That Japanese Itch

The Japanese video game market isn’t what it used to be, and  there are numerous reasons for this but 5 consecutive years of declining video game sales (approx 8% year on year fall) is probably the main reason. The struggling Japanese economy is not going help much either but, on a brighter note, hardware sales weren’t so bad earlier in 2012 due to the release of the Nintendo 3DS and the Playstation Vita, so maybe things will turn around soon.

For this reason, and more, Japanese video game developers and publishers have been trying hard to tweak their game creation formula to appeal to Western audiences as well as their extensive domestic user-base. Are the tweaks working? Well, it depends on how you look at it. From a sales perspective: it’s been hit and miss over the past couple of years. From a ‘is this a good and fun game or not’ perspective: I think most attempts have been pretty damn good.

Being one of the many 30+ year-old gamers who have been playing since near the beginning of video games lifespan, there are some things that I just need once in a while to keep my ‘gaming itch’ calm. That means I need to play games of a particular style and feel to satisfy that ‘itch’ of mine. Don’t get me wrong, I play a bit of everything, but sometimes there’s something that only a Japanese developer can bring to the table, and here’s a few attempts that I think have been pretty damn good – despite their weak adoption in the West.

My Japanese fascination can be blamed upon the fantastic works of Final Fantasy, Metal Gear everything, Team ICO and most of all Capcom; Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and Dino Crisis left me a changed gamer. I could name even more, but I’m sure you get the gist. These titles have left an extremely deep mark on my console gaming core and to this day I cannot for the life of me work out my top 3 all time favourites between the Metal Gear Solid series, ICO/Shadow of the Colossus and everything Devil May Cry.

In 2011 I ploughed my way through Uncharted 3, Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Gears of War 3  (that’s a lot of threes), Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Batman: Arkham City, and despite all that top quality gaming I still needed more when early 2012 rolled around. I needed something extra, something that you can only get from the strangest of things, a Japanese title.

This isn’t down to anything more than preference. As you can see I play those ‘churned-out’ western hits, but sometimes the randomness, subtlety and style found in a Japanese title can satisfy in ways that nothing the West can offer could.

So, in an effort to satisfy that itch, that yearning, for games from the land of the rising sun, I played the heck out of three uniquely different – but strikingly wonderful – games. Each one was developed by different teams, made for a different genre, and yet each held the necessary quality and style that can only come from the mind of a Japanese game developer.

It’s here that I wish to share with you those three games, you may have seen them or played them yourself, you may haven’t. Either way if you’ve got that same itch as me, then you should check these three brilliant titles out.

Developed and published by UTV Ignition, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a hack’n'slash action adventure game that’ll blow your mind. Its unorthodox story based around the book of Enoch, coupled with its beautiful art direction means it carves out a place in your heart rather quickly. For me though, it was the game mechanics that stole my love.

Just like lead game designer takesayu Sawaki says, “Here is the game, here is the challenge, and these are your tools, figure out your way through.” There are no health bars in sight, instead armour informs you of your, and your enemies, condition; there are also only three types of distinct weapon: the Gale, the Veil and the Arch. Each of these weapons change how you fight and how you progress, and boss fights supply a decent amount of challenge for both your fingers and you mind as each one is essentially a puzzle waiting to be solved with the tools you’re given. El Shaddai is easily one of the most ‘out of the box’ titles to grace this console generation.

 

The next game you should really pick up is Capcom’s tale of an incredibly angry god known as Asura. Asura’s Wrath was developed by the folks at CyberConnect 2, who are better known for their anime tie-in games like Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations. It’s here that they develop a straight-up action-packed emotional roller coaster ride for you to experience.

It’s best described as an interactive anime experience rather than an all out brawler as Asura’s Wrath will have you watching some incredible set-pieces dripping with power and intense combat, all the while letting you contribute to the chaos with your controller. An explosive introduction sets you right up for what to expect as Asura is left at the very bottom of the Earth completely stripped of all his godly powers and memory. It’s from here his epic journey of revenge begins – all the while with you driving the action forward and utilising his rage.

If you want to make the game even better you should pick up the three impressive pieces of DLC, that should arguably have been on the disc – but that’s a story for another day. Episode 11.5, 15.5 and Episode Pack: Part IV – which adds four more episodes to play and offers the ‘true’ ending to the journey.

Finally a game that should have been the biggest success for Sega, but instead is one of the most underrated games of 2012 thus far. Sega’s Binary Domain is a thrid-person cover based shooter created by the team behind the popular – but equally underrated in the West - Yakuza series, and is set in a futuristic Tokyo under the threat of a robotic uprising. This really has all the makings of an instant classic and, in my opinion, has one of the best stories in a game this year.

You’ll start out with your team of rather generic squadmates, but when all is said and done you’ll be so heavily involved by them and the ingenious ‘trust mechanic’ that you’ll be begging for more. It isn’t just the story that sucks you in though as the combat is enjoyable and there’s an upgrade system to spend all your experience points on that you’ve earned from ripping your way through I, Robot/Terminator-esque enemies. It’s the picking off of limbs, knocking off of heads and even just the act of smashing through robots that makes this game just so fun to play, and thanks to that aforementioned upgrades system you really see the results of your modifications.

Dare I say it, but the boss fights in Binary Domain are also some of the most satisfying encounters I’ve ever come across in a game – minus a certain monkey-type boss that is. Fights are fun, fast paced, and really test your bullet pouring skills to the max.

It’s unfortunate that those three titles that brightened up my 2012 gaming calendar haven’t gotten the attention they deserved from the public. Each of them was critically acclaimed, and should have sold well, but due to the brunt of bigger Western releases they all flopped at retail. Which does have one blessing for you, as you can now easily snap them all up for the price of a single release. That’s three highly entertaining, multi-genred titles for around £40, and each title has a demo available on Xbox Live and PSN for you to try before you buy.

As usual, let me know in the comments below if you’ve found similar experiences; if you’ve got a gaming itch that can only be scratched in a particular way, or if you’ve played these awesome games and want to sound off about your own experience too.

 

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