Despite consistent internet yelling to the contrary since the moment it launched, PlayStation Vita is alive (and well, depending on how you look at it) in 2016. We’ve had a varied year (as always) ranging from tiny indie platformers to JRPG’s with hundreds of hours worth of content and so much in between alongside a smattering of new titles already announced for the upcoming year.
Yet with the announcement of Nintendo’s Switch, the doom-saying has returned again and for once, I believe it actually has merit. Switch feels like a more fully realized vision of a Vita + PlayStation TV; a handheld that has the potential to play home console quality games (support pending). Combined with Vita’s aging mobile hardware as it reaches 5 years on the market (which has already caused multiple devs to ‘give up’ due to the effort involved in porting) and the increasing scarcity of Vita hardware in the west, it may signal the final stand of Sony’s beloved handheld.
In light of the above, I wanted to take this time to write an article to highlight what an amazing 2016 Vita has had and what great stuff we’ve still got to look forward to in 2017. Whether Switch takes off or not and despite Sony’s best efforts to kill it, Vita still has an impressive lineup of titles that’ll be sure to bring hours of gaming fun to anyone willing to give them the chance.
Highlights of 2016 – the last of the western third-party support?
For me, one of the biggest surprises of this year was that we finally saw the releases of a number of long-rumored titles on Vita from major western publishers. Chief among these was Assassin’s Creed Chronicles from Ubisoft, a 2D entry in their major stealth franchise that had previously debuted on PS4 & XB1. The port wasn’t without its problems, but it provided a great dose of stealth action on the go.
2016 also gave us two ports from 2K Games in the form of Civilization Revolution 2 Plus and XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus. Both were clearly using mobile games as their base, but still remained entries from home console franchises that clearly pleased fans who bought Vita on that promise so many years ago. Of particular note was that XCOM finally released, nearly two years after it was initially spotted in a UK retailer listing (sadly, the title landed as a digital-only release in spite of this).
WB games continued on their LEGO assault in 2016 and we saw a further two entries this year that represented the closest we’ve had to console quality from the franchise since LEGO Batman on the PSP way back in 2008. LEGO Marvel’s Avenger’s provided a fully open-world Manhattan to explore, a first for the franchise on Vita, while LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens condensed all the key features of the console release to handheld including blaster battles and space combat.
Finally, Gio Corsi’s Third Party Productions team continued to work with external studios to bring their classic titles to Vita – we were treated to a remastered version of Day of the Tentacle from Double Fine Games; SNK’s classic fighting games Garou: Mark of the Wolves and The Last Blade 2 made the leap across and Square-Enix Montreal’s Lara Croft Go released just in time for PlayStation Experience 2016.
Highlights of 2016 – the rise and stall of localizations?
If there’s one type of company – more than anything else – that has supported Vita throughout its life in the west, it’s localization houses. From Atlus to NIS America and everyone in between, we were provided with a tonne of different games (and a slew of physical releases to boot) that ensured no Vita went without new content for long.
Support was varied – we got titles from massive publishers such as Bandai Namco (Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth; One Piece Burning Blood; Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization) and Square Enix (Adventures of Mana; Dragon Quest Builders; World of Final Fantasy) right through to smaller, fan-driven teams such as Aksys Games (Aegis of Earth; Exist Archive; Shiren the Wanderer) and PQube (Root Letter; Steins;Gate 0; Valkyrie Drive).
Personally, I think 2016 was a year full of surprise localization announcements in the west and the biggest perpetrator of this was Bandai Namco. From them, we got an Asterisk War game; two God Eater titles as well as Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. Force. And that’s not even counting the physical releases of Gundam Breaker 3 and SD Gundam G Generation Genesis that released only in Asia. Clearly there was a shift in corporate strategy for the company in recent years and I applaud them for that.
But they weren’t the only company to contribute to the string of surprise announcements – Spike Chunsoft self-published their first title in the west as Mystery Chronicle: One Way Heroics came over while Aksys both funded the development of and published the final title in the Zero Escape trilogy – Zero Time Dilemma.
However, 2016 wasn’t without issues in localizations and a recurring theme begun this year. While we’d seen it briefly before in titles like Dynasty Warriors Gundam Reborn and One Piece Pirate Warriors 2, 2016 saw a number of titles localized for other platforms which skipped Vita entirely despite releasing there in Japan. The two major ones were I am Setsuna from Square-Enix and Nights of Azure from Koei-Tecmo, although we also saw the new Nobunaga’s Ambition game skipped, definitely causing disappointment among the platform’s fanbase.
Highlights of 2016 – the (limited) indie onslaught?
Since around 2013, Vita proved itself to be a worthy console for independent developers to release their self-published games on. 2016 continued this trend and we saw some blindingly good titles released – the year kicked off with a bang thanks to Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty and Volume and only continued from there.
Games like Attractio; Axiom Verge; Darkest Dungeon; Neon Chrome; Risk of Rain and Steamworld Heist made their way across from other platforms, while we were treated to timed exclusive releases of games such as Laser Disco Defenders and Severed as well as long-delayed titles such as SwapQuest.
It was also a year of surprise releases – a common theme for 2016. Games such as Claire: Extended Edition; Dungeon Punks and Wanted Corp arrived without much of an indication they were coming out prior to release, making for an interesting year full of classics many fans didn’t even know they wanted.
What marked 2016 among indies more than anything else, however, is the advent of limited releases through the guys at Limited Run Games. An initiative set up by Mighty Rabbit Studios, the team begun printing small physical runs of classic indie games (and Japanese titles) in 2015, but this year saw the idea really take off with numerous titles released throughout the months. Classics such as Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath; Soldner X-2 & Thomas Was Alone were put to cartridge for gamers to keep for many years to come to preserve their favourite titles.
As with the Japanese games, however, with good news comes bad news and 2016 was particularly prominent in terms of cancellations. The year started badly with Energy Hook; Never Alone and Not a Hero having their Vita versions canned. Most notable among cancellations were two Kickstarter titles – Hyper Light Drifter and Moon Hunters, both of which cited technical difficulties despite having reach their Vita funding goals during the campaign. Similarly Mighty No. 9’s release came and went on other platforms without mention of a Vita version, despite raising nearly $4m towards development.
Thoughts on 2017 – the continued prominence of localizations
As we head into the new year, one thing is for certain – Japanese games aren’t going to stop coming over. We’ve already got a sea of announcements scheduled for release in the early months of the year – notable are Atelier Shallie Plus, the final entry in the Dusk trilogy; Caligula, the Persona-esque dungeon crawler from FuRyu; DanganRonpa V3: Killing Harmony, the latest in the popular murder-mystery series; Tokyo Xanadu, Falcom’s well-received new IP and Valkyria: Azure Revolution, SEGA’s re-imagining of the popular tactical RPG.
There is, of course, so much more than this – Idea Factory have Hakuouki and Mary Skelter planned; Koei Tecmo are hitting the platform hard with Atelier Firis; Berserk; Dynasty Warriors Godseekers and Toukiden 2 throughout the year and XSEED have Akiba’s Beat and Fate/Extella lined up. Aksys and NIS America are also going all in – the former have 4 otome titles alongside Nonary Games while the latter have two Touhou games; A Rose in the Twilight; Cladun; God Wars; Operation Babel and The Longest Five Minutes planned.
We’re also seeing new publishers entering the Vita fray, even at this late stage in the game. Gaijinworks are bringing the long-running Summon Night series to the west with Summon Night 6, while Sekai Project are finally committing to the platform with multiple titles including Fault Milestone One and Narcissu.
And all of the above isn’t counting rumored titles (Chaos;Child; Demon Gaze 2) or incredibly likely titles (Accel World vs. Sword Art Online; Ys VIII).
Thoughts on 2017 – expect more Vita versions skipped and fewer Japanese games released domestically
In spite of the platform proving itself to be a suitable home for so many Japanese franchises, in 2016 we saw an increase in Vita versions being skipped (opting instead for PS4/PC) and that trend appears to be continuing into 2017. We’ve already got two games lined up for this – Digimon World: Next Order and Dragon Quest Heroes II, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see further titles do this.
Particularly disappointing is Digimon – a game made specifically for Vita in Japan, that has somehow managed to skip the platform altogether for western release, something I previously would’ve thought impossible. It makes things like SaGa: Scarlet Grace – a game previously trademarked for western release – suddenly an un-certainty, and titles such as Nights of Azure 2 even less likely.
Similarly, I would expect fewer Japanese announcements in general as devs transition over fully to PS4 and/or Switch. We’ve already seen this from previously Vita-heavy companies – Falcom have ditched Vita for Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III while Marvelous have moved on to PS4-only for Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash, while neither have anything else planned for 2017. A number of loyal companies are still on board, but I’d only expect these to dwindle with time.
Thoughts on 2017 – a winding down of indie releases
When Sony first shifted the Vita towards being an indie-focused machine, I thought for sure that was the way to give it a long life regardless of sales as independent developers typically have more modest sales projections. While that was likely true, my oversight was that indie devs typically have fewer resources so need the hardware to be as powerful as possible to make development easier and Vita is sadly lacking in this regard, needing lots of optimization. This has meant a sea of poorer ports that we’d hoped for in recent months with issues such as longer loading times and poor framerates, but even more cancellations.
Things are undoubtedly still going to be released on the platform – notably games like Cosmic Star Heroine; Fallen Legion; Salt & Sanctuary and Xenoraid have been keen to show off their Vita versions, but I’d expect further cancellations of games which previously committed to coming to the platform – most recently, racing game DriveDriveDrive has put its Vita development on hiatus.
There’s also the tricky issue of getting engines to run on Vita – famously Unity, the build-once-export-anywhere engine which does support Vita, has caused major problems to developers who aren’t willing to optimize and has led to some poor-quality work like Corpse Party: Blood Drive or Paranautical Activity, both with major framerate issues. Notably, Bloodstained is still supposedly coming to Vita, but as a game which runs on Unreal Engine 4 which doesn’t support the platform, this may be a problem.
Thoughts on 2017 – expect surprises
If there’s one thing I would say about 2017, it’s to expect to be surprised. What we know right now is far from all we’ll be getting for the full year even if Switch hits the ground running, and I’d expect the majority of Japanese supporters to be on board with Vita for at least another year. If every previous year of Vita’s life has shown me only one thing, it’s that you never know what we’ll be getting in terms of games picked by localization houses; and 2016 in particular showed me that indie games can appear out of the blue to blow you away.
I would say that you shouldn’t expect anything on the caliber of Assassin’s Creed or XCOM to appear, but even as Gio Corsi showed us at PSX – there’s still plenty of time to be surprised by fun games like Windjammers or Ys Origin having shock announcements.
I wouldn’t say for a second that Vita is a healthy platform heading into 2017 if you’re a fan of AAA, western-developed titles, but that hasn’t been true for a number of years. I’d expect to continue to be disappointed by the odd Vita version being skipped for localization; or the odd indie being cancelled, but for the most part the console has a full line up of varied, interesting games. If you’ve liked what has been on offer from around 2014 onwards, then I have no doubt that Vita’s upcoming year will be another blinding one full of fun stuff to play.
Whether this continues into 2018 is anyone’s guess but for now, I’m more happy with this platform than I’ve ever been thanks to a sensational backlog full of memorable titles and even more compelling stuff on the horizon.