Far East of Eden Ziria: Tales from Distant Jipang
Publisher: Hudson Soft
Developer: Hudson Soft
Release Date: TBA
Around this time last year, when the Xbox 360 was six months away and pre-release hype was at its heaviest, one of Microsoft's big promises for the system was that it would have support from Japanese developers. Specifically, it would have Japanese RPGs. Fans hoped this meant the biggest name Americans can think of for J-RPGs: Final Fantasy. But instead of the Final Fantasy XII port or even a system-exclusive spin-off that 360 fans were hoping for, they got stuck with a port of mildly above-average MMORPG Final Fantasy XI that took hours to install, and offered a fairly stale take on the genre once it had. Hopes sagged, and it seemed Xbox owners would once again be limited to a diet that overwhelmingly consisted of PC ports and other Western-developed titles.
Fans sometimes lose hope far more quickly than they should. Where Square-Enix failed to deliver, smaller Japanese developers who want to deliver next-gen gameplay without being shackled to the grossly overpriced PS3 have communally decided to take a bet on the Xbox 360. One of those developers is Hudson Soft, and it's throwing down with nothing less than a game from the Far East of Eden (a.k.a. Tengyo Makai) series. Considered one of the five great Japanese RPG franchises of the 16-bit era (alongside Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Megami Tensei, and Phantasy Star), Far East of Eden was the first Japanese RPG to incorporate full voice acting and an overtly humorous storyline. It was the brainchild of Ohji Hiroi, the same man who created the wildly successful Sakura Taisen series of games. The 360's remake gives the graphics a 3D makeover, freshens the storyline, and adds in new voiceovers from the original Japanese cast. Best of all, it's headed to the US with an English vocal track.
Far East of Eden: Ziria tells the frankly insane story of how humans once lived peacefully in the Garden of Eden, but one particular group – the Fire Clan – managed to get thrown out. Feeling bitter, the Fire Clan decided to build a paradise of its own to live in (possibly with blackjack and hookers), called Jipang. Inevitably, some jerk named Masakado rose up and decided to try to destroy it. Masakado was defeated, though, and thousands of years passed peacefully in Jipang. Then the game's protagonist, Ziria, finds out that he's a Fire Clan descendent, and that some other jerks are trying to resurrect Masakado. What Ziria has to do next should be obvious to anyone who has played an RPG ever.
What isn't so obvious from this description is the sense of humor a player could find in Far East of Eden. In a lot of ways, this game was Disgaea's direct ancestor. The plot was full of jabs at ancient Japanese myths and misconceptions foreigners were believed to hold about the country. Later games would play up the humor more than fans will see in the remake of Ziria when it becomes available in the US, but the gags still add a lot of the gameplay experience. The original manual goes so far as to claim the game's creator was one P. H. Chada, a Western man who became an expert in all things Asian and intended the games as a faithful representation of what ancient Japan was really like. We can only hope this fiction remains intact in the American manual.
As innovative as a tongue-in-cheek approach to story like this was when the original Ziria came out on CD for the TurboDuo in 1989, in a lot of other respects Ziria was a stereotypical Japanese RPG by the standards of the day. It used the same first-person perspective for combat and top-down perspective for dungeon crawling that was popularized in the original Dragon Quest. Even the graphics and music of the original resembled an NES title far more than what a modern gamer would expect of a game on CD media.
For the remake, this has been freshened into a full 3D combat system, where the camera lets you see all of the members of your party. The original Dragon Quest-like menu interface has become an easier-to-navigate flywheel, somewhat like Grandia III. The overall look and feel of combat is very reminiscent of Dragon Quest VIII, although Far East of Eden's graphics aren't cel-shaded. The move from 2D to the 3D gives a much greater feeling of immersion to the battles, which are usually the low point of any particular Far East of Eden game. Not everything in the game is 3D, though; fully cel-animated cut-scenes that use something like the game's original art-style remain intact in the remake. The animation is newer, however, and clearly benefits from modern anime shading techniques and digital media. This helps keep the anime feel that became Far East of Eden's trademark style stay intact.
One of the oddities of the Far East of Eden remake being a 360 title is that a game renowned for its humorous, cartoon-like look going to a system primarily associated with driving graphics in a more photo-realistic direction. It is easy to feel somewhat disappointed by Far East of Eden's look when you first see it, if you have something like GRAW as your idea of what 360 games should look like. Instead, Far East of Eden is trying to retain the caricatured quality of the original artwork in 3D, opting for relatively simple character models. Some of the texture work is genuinely lacking, given the 360's capabilities, but attack animations feature so many flashy lighting effects and flying objects that you'd never mistake it for anything but the product of a next-gen system.
Right now, Far East of Eden is incredibly early in the localization process, so there's no word on what the English language version will be like. Still, Hudson happily showed off the Japanese version at E3 and made it clear that there would be more Far East of Eden games to come. A remake of Far East of Eden II was promised for the PSP, and a remake of the third game in the series is probably going to be on the way shortly. Hudson hasn't published in the US for quite some time, though they've been an active developer, and it's quite pleasant to see them returning with unique Japanese content for a system as profoundly non-Japanese as the 360. There's probably going to be more to come.