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  • A Look Back at Atlus’ Support for the PlayStation Vita

    November 25th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    This is the seventh entry in a series of articles looking at the output of a number of Vita-supporting companies, from launch through to the present day. I’ll be examining the games they released, how well they sold (if there's sufficient data), how well they ran in the case of ports, and will take a brief look at games which perhaps should have come to the console, either in the west or in general.

    This is the second article in this series where I look at a company with a dual-role. Atlus is known for creating a number of interesting JRPGs with its Shin Megami Tensei series, while the localization house Atlus USA exists to bring not only Atlus' internal titles to the west, but interesting looking games from other developers. Compared to its PSP output, Atlus has been much quieter on Vita, yet the titles it has released have almost universally been fantastic, making them an interesting part of the Vita’s ecosystem.


    Launch & 2012 – An Awful Year or an Amazing Year?

    During Vita’s first year on the market, Atlus released just a single game on the console, which would normally cause me to berate such a company in these articles, but in this case I have to make an exception as the game in question is regularly ranked as the best title in the handheld’s library.

    That title is, of course, Persona 4 Golden. An expanded port of the critically acclaimed PS2 title Persona 4. The game introduced new social links, characters, cutscenes, and story elements, making it a fantastic improvement over an already brilliant JRPG. Released in Japan in June (providing a nice relief from the mid-summer software lull) and in North America in November (providing a nice holiday present for anyone looking for a meaty game on their new console), the game proved to be a massive critical triumph (currently the highest-rated Metacritic game on Vita), as well as a surprise sales success – opening to 137k sales in Japan and providing a spike in hardware sales. It went on to ship more than 700k copies worldwide by the end of 2013, putting it in the upper tier of Vita sales, which was notably higher than previous Persona games too, showing the IP fit in well with the audience on the handheld.

    However, that was all Atlus had available for Vita during 2012. Given its late-in-life support for PSP, which included a range of titles from Growlanser to Gungnir, this was pretty disappointing, but compared with the early days in the lifespan of Sony’s previous handheld it wasn’t a massive surprise, as Atlus only managed to push out two late ports in 2005 for PSP.

    Among titles that it would have made sense to bring to Vita was Persona 4 Arena, the Arc System Works fighting game spin-off to its beloved RPG – the tie-in potential with Vita’s audience was right there, making it a bizarre omission. The company also brought its remake of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment to PSP in 2012 following a remake of Innocent Sin in 2011, which would have been another fantastic fit to cash-in on Persona 4 Golden‘s success and the PSP’s dwindling popularity, but it never happened.

    Still, given the outstanding quality of Persona 4 Golden it was hard to hold these omissions against the company, but what was a shame is that things didn’t improve drastically during 2013 despite the game’s sales success.


    2013 – A Vanilla Showing

    As with 2012, Atlus released just one game for Vita in 2013 (which was a title from a partner studio, not even an internally-developed one) but, as with 2012, it was an absolute gem which seemed to be a massive success on the handheld.

    This was Dragon’s Crown from famed Japanese developer Vanillaware, responsible for the cult SEGA Saturn classic Princess Crown, which this new game acted as a spiritual successor to. Featuring gorgeous 2D hand-drawn art as well as some deep RPG systems and co-operative online play, the game resonated well with the handheld’s audience, selling more than 940k copies worldwide within a year of release (combined with the PS3 version). It would mark the beginning of a fantastic love affair between Vanillaware and the Vita that also saw the release of Muramasa Rebirth in 2013 under a different publisher (Marvelous).

    As with 2012, that was it for Atlus – one extremely successful title and nothing else. What was bizarre about this was that the company was going all-in on the 3DS during this period, showing it was a big fan of the handheld market, but unfortunately that didn’t translate into support for Vita, despite the potential for multi-platform games on both platforms. Among games that were brought to Nintendo’s handheld were multiple Shin Megami Tensei games (Devil Summoner: Soul HackersDevil Survivor Overclocked, and the next mainline entry IV), as well as smaller titles like Code of Princess. While they would’ve needed extra work to get running on Sony’s higher-resolution handheld (as well as adapting from the dual-screen format), I feel it would have been worth it to cash in on the early, dedicated Vita audience that had showed up en masse to buy Persona and Dragon's Crown

    Amusingly, despite the runaway success of both of these games, Atlus would have even less output over the next two years, releasing no games until 2015, although at least Atlus USA picked up the slack during the following year with its own efforts, even if the quality of these games didn’t always work out.


    2014 – Atlus USA to the Rescue!

    Sadly, my write-up about 2014 could quite easily have been blank had Atlus USA not stepped in by both localizing games from developers other than its Japanese arm (which had absolutely nothing lined up for the console), as well as experimenting with publishing some indie games.

    In late 2013, Atlus USA announced that it had picked up Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars for 3DS & Vita, which saw an eventual western release in April of 2014. Despite being a sequel to a PSP-only RPG which released only in Japan, this didn’t deter the company which released a dub for the game as well as physical releases on both platforms. The game itself was only a moderate success in Japan – selling less than its PSP predecessor with 19k on Vita and 5k on 3DS first week, but western sales seemed stronger with 18k on Vita and 13k on 3DS within the first month of sale. Reviews for the game were less than stellar, but overall the choice of localization seemed to be a success.

    In an interesting move, the company also experimented with publishing an independently-developed title on Vita with the release of Rollers of the Realm. The studio had done this previously, with games like Rock of Ages from ACE Team releasing in 2011, but it wasn’t something which happened too often. Rollers was an ambitious project mixing pinball gameplay with RPG mechanics which received a fairly muted reception on Vita, but reviews were more complimentary of the Steam and PS4 versions.

    However, nothing else came from either Atlus USA or its Japanese counterpart during the year. It’s a good idea to provide the background of what was happening to Atlus during this period which may explain the slower output. The studio’s parent company – Index Holdings – filed for bankruptcy in late 2013, with the Atlus brand subsequently being acquired by SEGA in September. This change in ownership might have disrupted the company’s release schedule due to the uncertainty of ownership, despite the fact that the studio seemed to be given full autonomy under SEGA to continue producing games as it had been doing.

    This meant that games such as Persona 4 Arena Ultimax again skipped Vita, despite Persona 4 Golden sales on the handheld going from strength to strength off the back of the release of the anime in Japan. The quirky spin-off Persona Q also managed to release as a 3DS game despite including the cast of the third and fourth Persona titles, both of which are fan-favourites on Vita, but this may have been due to the fact that the game is based on the Etrian Odyssey engine which has never ventured outside of Nintendo’s handhelds.

    After 2014, Atlus’ output on the handheld would step up significantly, with a published game each year alongside multiple localizations. Arguably, Atlus also influenced SEGA to bring more of its niche titles across in the coming years, as well as assisting with the localization of the Valkyria and Yakuza series, which was a great turnaround compared to its earlier, quieter release schedule.


    2015 – Atlus’ Best Vita Year?

    2015 would be the year Atlus finally released numerous games within a 12 month period for Vita, led by the first internally-developed Japanese title since Persona 4 Golden way back in 2012, alongside multiple localization projects including some surprisingly good titles.

    The year kicked off with the studio publishing the Earthbound-inspired RPG project Citizens of Earth as a digital-only game on the handheld. It marked an interesting project for the studio as it was not only another indie pick-up but was a game which originally appeared on Kickstarter and failed to reach its funding goal, meaning the title wouldn’t have happened at all had Atlus not stepped in. The title received mixed reviews from critics, but it was definitely a nice addition to the Vita’s library.

    Atlus USA’s year was also defined by two very smart picks for localization from external studios. The first of these was Lost Dimension in July, a tactical turn-based RPG from FuRyu that was developed by Lancarse, a studio which had collaborated with Atlus on multiple occasions in the past with titles such as Etrian Odyssey and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. Despite being a clearly low-budget effort featuring iffy production values and repeated content, the game was well-received among fans who enjoyed its tactical combat, traitor system, and mechanics (I was definitely among the people who loved it – check out my review here).

    The second localization project for the year was part of a long-running partnership with Japanese developer Aquaplus, responsible for titles such as the fighting game Aquapazza and the strategy-RPG Tears to Tiara II. Atlus grabbed Dungeon Travelers 2, the first-person dungeon-crawling RPG that was widely regarded as among the best in the genre thanks to its challenging difficulty and interesting mechanics. The game caused a minor news storm thanks to its need to be censored for western release and sales are unknown, but given the company continued to work with Aquaplus going forward, signs are good that things turned out well.

    The biggest game of the year for Atlus was by far Persona 4: Dancing All Night, a rhythm game spin-off of Persona 4 Golden featuring a brand new story. Reviews were mixed on its success in transporting the game’s cast into the new setting and the slightly off-rhythm gameplay, but thanks to some brilliant production values and the series’ trademark funky music the game was a sales success – opening to 94k copies in its first week on sale in Japan, with a western release following in September (worldwide sales topped 350k according to VGChartz). The company would go on to announce two more spin-offs in this vein based on Persona 3 and Persona 5, showing that the project as a whole had worked well for them.

    Definitely the busiest year for Atlus on Vita, it’s still a shame that 2015 only saw one internally-developed title from the studio (and a spin-off at that). Thanks to some solid work from Atlus USA the console’s release schedule remained filled for the year.


    2016 – Back to Basics

    Back to the old days of just a single release within the year, 2016 mirrored 2012 in a lot of ways – only one game was released, but it was a stonking title that received rave reviews (and much like Persona 4 Golden, was a remake of a PS2 release).

    That game was Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, a full remake of Vanillaware’s seminal PS2 action-RPG Odin Sphere. Beginning development in 2013 (surely off the back of the success of Dragon’s Crown), the game added a host of additions and refinements to the formula of the original title while keeping the well-received story and visual design in tact. It clearly worked, as the title received a stunning 93 on Metacritic (placing it just one point lower than Persona 4 Golden) and opened to strong sales in Japan, with 95k copies sold across all PlayStation platforms (and 43k on Vita).

    Aside from this, the company released nothing else for Vita in 2016. At this point it wasn’t surprising that Atlus wasn’t developing many games for the handheld – it wasn’t something Atlus had done during the earlier, more successful years of the Vita’s life, so it was unlikely this would change during the twilight years – but it was surprising to see Atlus USA not pick up any games for localization. Thankfully, the team would step up its efforts heading into 2017, providing arguably its best lineup of third-party titles ever, as well as some glimmers of hope for the years beyond that.


    2017 & 2018 – To be Continued!

    2017 saw Atlus USA leverage a number of long-standing third-party partnerships to bring a handful of well-received games to the west on Vita, cementing it as one of the longest-standing supporters of the handheld out there. Amazingly, its Japanese arm also announced plans to release games on the console in 2018 too, showing a level of commitment far beyond a number of its contemporaries.

    The year kicked off in May with the release of Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, the latest fantasy tactical-RPG from Aquaplus and sequel to a PC/PSP game that never saw a western release. This was somewhat of a surprise pick-up due to this being a narrative-heavy series in which we’d missed the previous entry, but thankfully Atlus wasn’t afraid to take that chance, much like it had done with with Conception II years earlier (which thankfully didn’t have the same narrative ties).

    Despite the heavy visual-novel focus which often puts off western gamers, reviews were mostly positive, praising strong characters and plot developments, alongside enjoyable combat. In Japan, the game received a sequel a year later entitled Mask of Truth which concluded the story of the trilogy and – thankfully – Atlus also confirmed localization of this title, which released in September of the same year and received similarly positive feedback. Notably, former Atlus social media manager John Hardin explained he had pushed hard for a physical release of both games on Vita, something other similar companies were beginning to drop.

    Sadly, Hardin’s pushing didn’t manage to secure a physical release for the company’s next western Vita game – The Caligula Effect. Released by FuRyu in Japan in 2016, written by Persona series veteran Tadashi Satomi, and developed by Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment alumni Aquria, the title saw a digital-only release for the handheld in May. Reviews for this game were more mixed, with many focusing on the poor execution of elements such as camera angles and performance, but praising the story and character development. Sales figures are unknown, but were likely handicapped by the game’s digital-only status.

    While there’s still time for other localizations to come from Atlus throughout the rest of the year, it seems unlikely at this point and as such Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth may be its last for 2017 – but that’s still a solid year with a number of quality releases. What’s most interesting is that this is normally the point in the article where I say that there’s little support to look forward to in the future from the company as releases dry up, but with Atlus it’s the opposite, as the company recently announced not one but two titles for release in 2018 in Japan (with likely localizations to follow).

    These games are Persona 3: Dancing Moon Night and Persona 5: Dancing Star Night – sequels to 2015’s Persona 4: Dancing All Night. While little information is known about them so far, the company has promised gameplay improvements over the predecessor (including a more coherent story mode), while maintaining the same level of graphical fidelity that was by far the most impressive aspect of P4D. It also marks a level of commitment to the platform far beyond some of the company’s rivals, which is a nice change in pace given the evaporating support seen throughout 2017 from Japanese developers.

    Sadly, there were still missed opportunities during this time even with new games pledged. The well-received DS RPG Radiant Historia released in Japan for 3DS in June 2017, opening to lukewarm sales of 21k, and it was later revealed that the game was originally planned for a release on Vita before development was sidetracked by the Wii-U exclusive Tokyo Mirage Sessions. When the team revisited the project, it was shifted over to 3DS. It's a shame to see this title unable to break out of the DS family of systems, especially since it would likely have been a great match with Vita’s audience.

    Still, this was a small disappointment in some otherwise fantastic late-in-life support for Vita from Atlus. There's hope for even more titles beyond Persona too - it's possible the company may pick up further Aquaplus titles including the Dungeon Travelers 2 sequel (although that may be difficult seeing as the game is Vita-only), or the remake of the very first Utawarerumono, which is landing on PS4 & Vita. It would be some miracle to see these in a physical format in the west, but stranger things have happened.



    Atlus has undoubtedly been a constant presence on Vita – much like it was on PSP – but just like on PSP, this support has been scattered and slower than some of the company's contemporaries. Its localization arm in Atlus USA has been strong and has brought nearly every viable title to the west, based on some useful partnerships with long-standing collaborators, but its Japanese side has been more mixed, bringing a handful of fantastic games but ignoring almost all of its smaller-scale RPGs and dungeon crawlers that seemed to thrive on the 3DS.

    For me, this was a very disappointing decision as RPGs have been the lifeblood of my gaming time on Vita, and although there’s nothing wrong with rhythm games and scrolling platformer/beat ’em ups, they just don’t scratch the same itch. Many of Atlus' 3DS releases would have worked brilliantly on Vita (aside from Etrian Odyssey due to its dual-screen format) and it’s a shame the company didn’t experiment with releases across both platforms, especially while so many of its early Vita games sold so well.

    Still, I don’t think fans can really hold it against Atlus since the company provided the handheld with its highest rated (and most beloved) game in Persona 4 Golden, alongside many hidden gems such as Dragon’s Crown, Lost Dimension, and the Utawarerumono duology. And hopefully, judging by its intentions for 2018, there’s every chance we’ll get more brilliant content from Atlus well into the future too – something that can’t be said for most of its rivals.

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