Rundown (6/06-6/12) E3 2021: The Sweet Summer Treat Nat Can’t Eat

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Wherein I discuss the first burgeoning birthings of E3 2021!

In case it is not obvious, I typically do not play video games without the expressed purpose of reviewing them. Every game I play is a game I review or otherwise cover on Nigma Box, and if one were to perform a casual glance of the Game Review section of the site, they would see that I have published 9 reviews so far in 2021, which is not a lot. For comparison’s sake, I published around two game reviews a month in 2020, and 3 game reviews a month in 2019.

Why was there such a decline? Well, the main reason is rather simple. I started a new job where I work more hours and make more money. More work means less time to play video games, and if I don’t play games, then I cannot review them. Because time is limited, I have been prioritizing my most popular game reviews, TSF visual novel reviews. Which I have been prioritizing so much that I have not played a traditional console-style game since February 2020.

This shift has ultimately led me to become less interested in the games industry for fairly obvious reasons, and as such, I cannot help but feel a tad… awkward when embarking on the self-imposed task of covering or otherwise summarizing the events of E3 2021. Because the event truly is not for someone like me, someone who mostly plays visual novels… and also Dragalia Lost.

There is definitely an argument to be made that there is no reason for me to follow gaming news or summarize/analyze stories of interest in my usual level of detail. However, in doing this for 8 years, in writing these (mostly) weekly segments about the goings on in the games industry, I have developed a love of the process. The act of going through my news feeds, finding stories of interest, and writing about them. 

I think it has made me a better writer, more analytical, and… I just think it’s fun. It’s nice to have a place where I can sophomorically ramble about a subject of interest before talking about video games for a couple thousand words. It’s satisfying to finalize these posts every Saturday morning. And while I am dispassionate about a lot of the games industry, I still love it nevertheless.

Video games are pretty much the one thing that remained a part of my life for 20 years. I have been dedicatedly following the industry for half of my life. And even if I were to stop playing them outright, I enjoy the thought and concept of video games enough that I think I would still check out the industry. Just so I can see how things progress, and continue following the eternally developing story of the medium, as it is a narrative I have become deeply invested in.

This level of investment is the reason why I am always happy when early June rolls around and E3 is leering around the corner. Because it is where the industry shows its stuff. Because it is both a season finale and preview of things yet to come. And because there is a palpable and enticing energy around the industry that is rarely as concentrated outside of Nintendo Directs, which are more of a momentary blip as opposed to a days-long roast.

However, I also have a strong love for a certain subset of video games that agree or adhere to my bizarre and eclectic tastes and or preferences. And the latest title to positively nail my preferences is a little game by the name of Palworld. Palworld is an open world survival and craft ‘em up where you play as a humanoid character whose job is poaching, hunting, capturing and overall enslaving creatures known as Pals. Adorable anime critters with their own unique powers and properties that are used to construct buildings, provide utilities, or aid the player as they hunt for bigger game to kill, imprison, or capture for sale on the underground market.

It is a buck wild idea that just about any edgy teenager who has ever been into Pokémon has flirted with at some point, and not only is some small-time developer actually making it happen, but it looks… shockingly good. 

While the game has a pretty standard cel-shaded anime look to it, the world is vast, colorful, and has a variety of unique biomes. The creature designs look like they were commissioned by people with experience making Fakémon and end results range from cute to cool to majestic. You can pet your little slave animal buddies. You can fuse Pals into new species like in Shin Megami Tensei. There is destructible terrain because I guess the dev team are a bunch of wizards. And the game’s core gameplay is predominantly driven by third-person gunplay, which is so delightful in how it contrasts everything else. Hell, your little Pals can even take up guns or eat bullets for you, and… that is just wonderful. I never knew I wanted discount Electabuzz to act as cover for me in a third-person shooter, but now I do! 

This is all so promising that I looked into the developer behind it, Pocket Pair Inc., and I learned that they previously showed off their talent for developing open world action games with 2020’s Craftopia. An early access title that, based on the positive Steam reviews and a bomb-ass trailer from last year, looks to be doing pretty much everything I like to see from an open world action game. And if the developers previously made something like Craftopia, then they should be able to transfer the same technology and skillset to making Palworld something remarkable. Palworld is currently pegged for a 2022 debut on PC via Steam, and no other platforms were announced, as the game will likely go the early access route. But once it’s done, I will try to check it out, because this was basically 14-year-old Natalie’s dream game.

However, Palworld was not the only dope Japanese indie game to pop up this past week, as there were titles like iii: Revolving Wonderland (gotta love Japanese game naming conventions). iii: Revolving Wonderland is one of those ‘meta’ RPGs the likes of which have become popular in the underground Japanese gaming scene since the likes of Moon in 1997, and based on the trailer and scattering of screenshots that came with this release, the game is just delightfully bizarre.

The game is set in a seemingly utopian world that is so many levels deep that it is not even really trying to hide the fact that something warped is going on underneath its rice-paper-like surface. The art style takes cues from Square Enix’s HD-2D line-up, but it’s somehow even more stylized and exaggerated, positively drowning its world in gaudy effects, giving the game an almost dreamlike quality. Combat looks to be this wild and bombastic sensory overload with a rhythmic core. And despite being such a niche and weird game, it seems both robust and polished. Though, in my mind, everything with full Japanese voice acting has at least a good amount of money behind it. iii: Revolving Wonderland is currently slated for a 2022, or 2023, release on Steam.

Hopping from Japan and to China, back in 2019, I reviewed The Vagrant, a gorgeously illustrated side-scrolling action RPG from developer O.T.K Games. I had some fairly minor grievances with the title but ultimately found it to be an enjoyable little action game and an extremely impressive feat for such a small developer. I, unfortunately, forgot about the game over the past year and a half but was recently reminded of it, and the developer, when I spotted an article about their next game, the irresponsible schoolgirl simulator, Detained: Too Good For School

The game follows two different flavors of dope schoolgirls who get framed by the man for drug trafficking. After a year of probation, the two pair up to find those who framed them by getting familiar with the city, hustling for cash, and beating the crap out of anybody who stands in their way. It’s a fairly simple premise, but everything about the game is positively gushing with flair and quality. 

The combat looks deeper and more visually stimulating than The Vagrant, the art has taken a huge leap forward with more robust animations, highly stylized humanoid character designs, and is moving beyond a single 2D plane, as the game is technically set in a 3D world. It is a massive leap forward for the developers, and what’s there is definitely impressive enough for me to warrant backing the title on its upcoming Kickstarter campaign

Moving away from small fries to the big boys of gamindustri, Microsoft is continuing its prolonged developmental roadmap for Xbox Game Pass. But after expanding it into an in-development streaming service that you can enjoy on your phone, what else can Microsoft realistically do to expand the service? The answer they came up with was to include Game Pass support in modern televisions and develop a standalone set-top box, so that you don’t even need to own an Xbox to enjoy and make use of Xbox Game Pass. Which sounds great… until you remember the core reason why gaming streaming services never really took off.

The North American telecom industry is a wretched monopolistic cesspit where ISPs are given little in the way of meaningful governance and are allowed to divvy up the country as they please. While I would love to see a governmental overhaul of ISPs and the infrastructure they have been neglecting, I know that is not going to happen. The diametrically opposed, hang or maim, two-party political system of the United States makes it hard for anything of this scale to get past, and that will not change. 

At least not until the world enters a state of climate crisis, nations become overrun with refugees, and humanity enters an era where either socialist progressive policies are passed at a rapid pace, or things veer right and only get worse as the ruling class finds a way to market genocide as the dopest shit. Which really shouldn’t be too hard. Americans love genocide, and while they like to think they’re better, Canadians and Europeans love genocide too, just to a lesser extent. 

Moving on, E3 more or less began early thanks to Summer Games Fest… which I actually did not realize was happening until the showcase was already halfway over. But upon picking up the pieces there were only three announcements that stuck out to me, so let’s go over those.

First off, Dotemu have gradually gone from a republisher of NeoGeo ROMs into one of the most prolific developers in the retro-revival scene, taking on the risk of managing and promoting games for rights holders. Between established successes like Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and Streets of Rage 4, and promising upcoming projects like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge and Windjammers 2, they seem to really know what they’re doing. 

As such, it is nice to see them continue their solid relationship with SNK by bringing out a new Metal Slug game in the form of a tactical RPG spin-off creatively dubbed Metal Slug Tactics. And based on the trailer… There really is not much to say. It looks to be a standard small-team small-map tactics game, and one with sprite animations that are up to the series’ lofty standards. No release date has been given, and only a PC release has been confirmed, but it is worth noting the developer of this title, Leikir Studio. 

Leikir Studio is an established independent developer with two other games in their catalog, but this is easily the biggest property they have gotten their hands on, and their past works have not showed how much they understand the genre. Meaning it could be a standard tactics spin-off, the kind that was common during the PS2 and PSP era, or it could be… literally anything else. 

Over the past few years, I have been monitoring the steady rise of The Embracer Group, or THQNordic, which has so far done an excellent job of carving out a chunk of the games industry, particularly as a AA publisher willing to take a chance on riskier projects that otherwise would not get the funding in an industry where the gulf between independent productions and AAA productions grows wider and wider.

And during E3 of all times, this homunculus-shaped conglomerate announced that it was birthing a new subsidiary in the form of Prime Matter, a publishing label connected to Koch Media, who owns Deep Silver among many other developers. As part of establishing this new label, several titles that were previously handled by Deep Silver are being moved under Prime Matter, and even more new titles were announced, most of which I never heard of. You can check out the full press release for more details, but there really is not anything to dig into for any of these games, as they were all shown back to back in the announcement trailer without much context or even a good indication of which game was which.

After its announcement during E3 2019, Elden Ring has become something of a meme of a game, where people have been asking if it would be shown at every major gaming event, only to be met with relative silence that has lasted… nearly 2 full years. However, a proper trailer of the title was shown and… it looks almost exactly like what I expected it to be. It is a medieval fantasy action game with armored knights wielding big swords fighting giant and well-designed monsters in a tattered landscape where enemies hit hard, fast, and can only be defeated through pattern recognition and perseverance. 

Or in other words… it’s another Dark Souls as far as I can tell, where the biggest innovations are the introduction of a magical horse friend, horse-based battles, and an open world for horsing around with your horse. And I honestly have zero problems with that as I quite like the Dark Souls series (except for II) and based on this trailer alone, the game has quite a lot going for it. The monster designs are excellent, the story looks to be more direct, the combat has a visible flow and aggressiveness to it, and the game overall is nothing short of gorgeous. Elden Ring will launch for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series, Xbox One, and PC on January 21, 2022, where it will likely go to be part of the pantheon of other Souls titles and earn its place as a renowned classic. 

Doki Doki Literature Club is one of those viral games that have taken off far more than I think anybody, let alone the creator, ever really intended. What began as a cute and polished deconstruction of the dating sim genre steadily took on a life of its own. It inspired people not familiar with visual novels or dating sims to experiment with the genre, and the game was incredibly popular with streamers, who helped the game’s popularity remain strong over the years.. 

I reviewed DDLC in 2017, and while it did not blow me away on a conceptual front, I nevertheless enjoyed, respected, and recommended the title to all who were interested in it, or the visual novel  

Now, the reason I am bringing it up is that developer Dan Salvato announced a remastered and expanded version of the title in the form of Doki Doki Literature Club Plus. A fairly direct update to the original that features higher resolution art assets, a physical edition with assorted tat, additional artwork, and a collection of 6 side stories that follow the four main characters of DDLC as they deal with personal issues and grow as people. Which on its own might be substantial enough to warrant a revisit. 

DDLC+ is coming to PS5, PS4, Xbox Series, Xbox One, Switch, Steam, and Epic Games Store on June 30th, and while I think it is great that this game will have a greater presence going forward, I need to question the developers’ approach to pricing.

For PS4, PS5, and Switch, a physical copy of DDLC+ can be purchased for $30, where it comes with a lot of goodies that hardcore fans might appreciate. But the digital copy on all platforms appears to cost $15, which is a bit… steep. The original game was a freeware title, so the way I view this, players are paying $15 for the side stories, some additional music, and bonus artwork. I don’t blame Salvato for trying to make money off of this title, but for $15 I would expect full voice acting for all the characters or something of the sort. 

Now then, so far this Rundown was merely PRE3 stuff, but after all the build up and hype, it is time to get to the real E3 stuff with none other than… Ubisoft. Yes, Ubisoft, that global games publisher with a prolonged history of protecting and promoting known abusers who, after being caught red-handed, tried to silence these issues with a removal of certain key staff members. They also claimed that they would implement sweeping changes to address these issues, but reports from back in May indicate that these changes did not accomplish much, if anything. Or in other words, Ubisoft is a scuzzbucket of a publisher, but they’re also one of the biggest third parties in the games industry, and put out high quality and girthy titles on a regular basis. So the core of the games industry does not really care if they have some corpses in their closet.

There was also the whole Elite Squad kerfuffle, where Ubisoft was working on a game that presented political movements like Black Lives Matter as a front for an anti-American terrorist movement meant to destroy the country from within. …Yeah, Ubisoft freaking sucks, so I’m going to try and make this segment on their E3 2021 presence and Ubisoft Forward event short and bitter.

The first bit of news that broke actually came from a leaked Nintendo eShop page, which announced Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. Yes, a sequel to 2017’s Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, which was well-received and sold well, making this news not all that surprising. The title centers around the titular Sparks, these hybrid Rabbids and Luma creatures, who send Mario, Luigi, and Peach and the Rabbid cosplayers on an intergalactic adventure where they need to fend off against an appropriately cosmic threat, and are immersed in far more interesting and diverse locations than anything seen from a Mario spin-off title since… Super Paper Mario, probably. 

Based on the gameplay snippets shown, it appears to follow the same core of the original, but ditches the grid-based system for something a bit looser and features a strong focus on using the Sparks to turn the tide of battle, likely functioning as a sort of super move. People liked the first one, this looks like a direct iteration, and it is currently slated to hit the Switch in 2022. 

As for the rest of the show… It was about what I expected. They talked a bit too long about their upcoming titles, which are the usual fluff of military shooters and Assassin’s Creed. And the most remarkable game from this show, aside from their crossover sequel, was probably Riders Republic.

Riders Republic is an open world multiplayer extreme sports racing game, and it looked fairly impressive all things considered, with elegantly designed courses, a surprising amount of vehicular variety, and even a points-based trick mode a la Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. However, I cannot help but look at the game as a mere extension of what Ubisoft was trying to do with titles like Steep and The Crew and create a non-combat oriented open world game. Which, while admirable, is something that really has not stuck and I’m not sure it will here, especially with Reiders Republic’s corporate-branded attempts at ‘quirkiness.’

Oh, and they also showed a CG trailer for the sequel to 2009’s James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game, dubbed Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Which was… surprising as Avatar 2 has been in development hell for about a decade and 2009’s James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game was not a major success for the publisher. But at least it means that Ubisoft has an opportunity to make an alien open world, which is a heckuva lot more interesting than a realistic open world. …Also, looking over the trailer description, this is apparently a first-person game which is… bizarre for me to imagine. When the gimmick of your game is playing as an acrobatic inhuman creature, a giant blue cat person, why would you ever prefer a first-person mode over a third-person mode? People are gonna want to see that bony furry booty!

Devolver Digital also offered a fourth installment in their surreal annual comedy skit livestream series that doubles as an E3 press conference, because they threw in a few game trailers for good measure. All of which looked rather good, but none of them particularly stood out to me as something I am especially interested in. And for the sketches themselves… they were funny, but I think this installment lacked the same focus or comedic core as prior entries. The core joke was how subscription services are complicated and garbage. And the final punchline was an NFT joke which… really demonstrates why you cannot really do cinematic topical humor during the era of the internet. Because while NFTs were big when the script was written, they faded into irrelevance after a few months.

That’s it for today, but the annual E3 Rundown coverage will continue tomorrow!

Header image from Sankaku Renai: Love Triangle Trouble.

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