Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Japanese Story-Telling: the Strange and the Meaningful

A videogame debate I've long cemented my own views on is "Story Vs Gameplay." The debate here is where how much story is appropriate for a game, and whether or not there is a line where story gets in the way of a more streamlined and active gameplay experience. There are solid points on each side, but my own conclusion is this; I don't play videogames for the story, and I don't play videogames for the cinematics; I play videogames for the gameplay. While I can appreciate a gripping plot and unique roster of characters as much as anyone else, it is not why I play videogames; for those things, that is why I read literature.
As much of what I write about on this blog is rather strictly Japanese-based, I feel it's thematic to make a literature list exclusive to Japanese authors. I don't mean to say that Japanese authors are "more" than Western authors or anything like that, but from the books I've read by Japanese authors there certainly is an artistic-separation in comparison to Western authors, no different than as in videogames. Even though literature, which obliges a goal of expressing something universally human, the way these stories do so I felt was just a bit different than from what I've typically read. Rather, that it was a bit Japanese from what I've normally read, and because of so was just a little bit more perplexing and, at times, a little more meaningful also.

The Stories of Ibis - Hiroshi Yamamoto
Translated by Takami Nieda
To say The Stories of Ibis is a retelling of Issac Asimov's I, Robot wouldn't be doing the story justice, but in earnest The Stories of Ibis is exactly that. Rather though, where the two stories differ is on the degree of importance they place onto science-fiction, and humanity. With I, Robot, the core focus of the several short-stories was on revealing the overall growth of artificial-intelligence, how it begun as a purely mechanical series of operations but then evolved into a rapid-fire cognitive-processor that, through logic, hastily surpassed human intelligence. In I, Robot, the focus of the stories was presenting a rational prospect of how a man-made creation can surpass man itself.
Stories of Ibis does this also; the short-stories depicting the growth and rise of A.I. are told by a superior combat-robot to a young boy in a post-apocalyptic world where robots run not only the earth, but have expanded into the galaxy also. That said, what separates Ibis from I, Robot is that the stories are not so much about fixing a problem with an earlier robotic form (and thereby constructing a superior being), but expressing how human beings can cherish and rely on an artificial being no different than on a real-life person. What Ibis does in its short-stories is present an imperfect robot interacting with imperfect human-beings; each story climaxes not by "fixing" the early robotic-entity, but by sharing how human understanding and concern can also be the same as an artificial being's. In I, Robot, the overall conclusion is that robots probably would be better off without humans, but because they are built with the "Three Laws" that prevent them from harming humans they must instead create a life reasonable alongside humanity. In Ibis though, the conclusion is again that human-beings are, indeed, inferior to a logic-based species, but instead of being subjected to living alongside humans, the artificial-intelligence fosters and develops a reason why human-beings, in their imperfectness, are a significant, and beautiful, creature, one that is worth supporting, maintaining, and even learning from in their flawed pursuit of goodness.

Brave Story - Miyuke Miyabe 
Translated by Alexander O. Smith
Miyuke Miyabe is a writer with a diverse scope of works. While primarily a Mystery/Crime Thriller author (several of these works have been translated also; highly recommend All She Was Worth!), Miyabe has also expanded into Children's Fantasy. Beyond the phenomenal novelization of the videogame "Ico" in Ico: Castle of Mist, Miyabe also wrote Brave Story, a novel which won several awards, received an anime film-adaptation, and even went on to receive three different videogames adaptations and extensions ("Brave Story: New Traveler" (PSP) was localized in English).
So what is Brave Story? Outside of being an absolutely mammoth novel, Brave Story is a bizarrely dark, but immensely inspiring, fantasy-adventure that follows not the typical style of Fantasy literature as mastered by J.R. Tolkein, but the style found in retro Role-Playing games such as the classic "Final Fantasy" and "Tales" games. Without spoiling anything, the journey begins with fifth grader Wataru Mitani discovering that there are several very real, very mature problems in his parent's life, and that their issues are going to soon bring consequences irreparable and permanent amongst both themselves and Wataru. In a frantic attempt to prevent disaster, Wataru eventually finds himself in a fantastical world called Vision, a place rife with animalistic-persons, monsters whose innards are filled with gold, and a series of quests that ultimately bring Wataru closer to finding the Goddess, the person who can restore the equilibrium in his real life.
Brave Story is nothing short from an epic. At over a thousand pages, Brave Story's conclusion brings into focus highly prominent philosophies and arguments that span across destiny, good and evil, child-rearing, and much more. While an intimidating novel in size, the journey of Brave Story is one equally compelling and rewarding for the attention required in undertaking it, and holds significance for both young and adult readers alike.

Welcome to the NHK - Tatsuhiko Takimoto
Translated by Lindsey Akashi
If you're familiar with "Tragic Individual" novels such as The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, there's a similar story here in Welcome to the NHK. That said, NHK is straight-up crazy, and is a downright delight to read.
The story follows Satou, a hikikomori (Japanese term for "shut-in," or Agoraphobe) who has strictly given up on becoming a meaningful human-being. At the age of twenty-two he has spent the last four years of his life holed up in his studio-apartment, living off an allowance by his parents and spending it on drugs, alcohol and pornography to get through each day. As a college dropout without any skills or ambition, Satou is truly living up the negative connotations prescribed a hikikomori, and is in some bizarre way seemingly proud of it despite his constant wallowing of being such a person.
The plot kicks-off with a letter from Satou's mother stating that, in a month, his allowance is to be cut-off. In a desperate attempt to become a functional human-being, Satou manages to leave his apartment and go looking for a job, where he is then judged and acquired by a mysterious teenage girl named Misaki. Seeing through Satou, she gauges him a "worthless hikikomori" and decides to enlist him into a strange program of her own called "Escaping the Hikikomori Lifestyle." Essentially, the story follows a see-saw pattern where Satou attempts to trick Misaki into believing he is a "creator," someone professional and artistic, and Misaki gradually releases why it is exactly she is helping so pathetic a human-being.
It's a challenging story to create a synopsis over, but really this story is just hilarious, sad, and inspiring throughout, frequently all at the same time also. With its focus being on rather depressing realities of sex, disappointment, and angst, Welcome to the NHK tells a uncomfortably raw tale that returns to light the question of why "bad things" even exist, and why so many of us are tortured by things we've no control over.

Dark Water - Koji Suzuki 
Translated by Glynne Walley
You may not know it, but you're probably familiar with Koji Suzuki. This is the man who wrote the original Ringu novel, which was later made into the hugely successful horror film that placed Japanese Yurei ghosts into the Hollywood spotlight. As "The Ring" movie was terrific, so also is the original novel it is based upon; but, instead of targeting that, I'd rather mention Suzuki's lesser acclaimed short-story collection.
Dark Water is a short-story collection that inserts a same two elements throughout each of it's several stories; dark water, and ghosts. Every story orbits around this basis of water and spirit, and while it makes the gruesome stories somewhat predictable it also instills an oddly compelling layer of suspense. As these short-stories are indeed Horror, the moment water is mentioned you know that something bizarre, probably violent, and from beyond the grave is nearby, and exactly who and why the spirit exists is the thrilling mystery unraveled in each story.
While it's traditional for short-story collections to uphold a certain theme, I've never encountered one so determinedly unified. While at first I was rather confused and judgmental of the consistent two elements, by the end of the collection I was highly impressed; seeing how a sole two consistencies can create so many extensively independent tales from one another was almost as much a treat as the terrifying stories themselves.

After the Quake - Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
Haruki Murakami is a highly famous writer whose novels are actually more warmly received in the west than they are in Japan. Called the "Japanese Kafka," Murakami's stories nestle closely to Surrealism, and unwind into rather sentimental, artful conclusions that usually express either Nihilism, or just plain misery of being a human-being. While The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood are the more famous of Murakami's works, like Dark Water above I'd rather mention one of Murakami's short-story collections; the range of character and creativity that exists in each story is of such magnitude that I have never come across a short-story collection I admire more.
after the quake's stories each take place within a distant proximity of the Kobe earthquake in Japan of 1995, a tragic event that took more than 6,000 lives and decimated hundreds of Kobe homes and offices. Despite each character not being directly affected from the earthquake, by being distant witness' to the scope of the destruction there tears open a hole in each character's own heart or values. Most of the stories don't appear to have any resolution at their conclusion, or even reveal what exactly it is that distorts each character. It's in the prose, though, that there exists a profound, suffocating sadness, and following the chain of somber events and words each character enacts while floating inside of the minimal and depressing tone there is formulated a strangely coherent understanding. It isn't so much about recognizing "why" things are awful, or what can be done to fix them, but rather that misery is as solid a reality as being successful; that all things are transitory, and how hope and belief is often no more than a futile delusional.
Attempting to condense any of the short-stories into brief examples of what makes them so significant would sincerely do them injustice; what I will say is that, the next time you're at the bookstore, grab this collection and read through the short story "all god's children can dance." Just trust this distant blogger; you won't be disappointed.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Genkai Totsuki Monster Monpiece - Review (Vita)

There's only a slim assortment of import-genres that I'd say are typically impossible for those without knowing Japanese, which are RPG's, Visual Novels, and Card games. Each of these genres tend to focus on script-based interaction, and when you don't know the language that it is written in you're typically left scrambling around in the dark.
Fortunately, Monster Monpiece (Monmon), a Vita-exclusive card game from Compile Heart, comes through with a decisively simple gameplay structure that not only welcomes those who haven't any knowledge of Japanese, but also offers a highly streamlined menu and evolution system that allows import-gamers full capability of experiencing everything the game has to offer. While I'll reference more on this in the "Language Barrier" segment at the bottom of this review, I still want to point this out; Monmon is one of the most basic card games I have ever played, but it is in no way or shape "lesser" because of it. Rather, what Monmon lacks in complexity of rules and card-types it makes up for with it's aggression-focused gameplay. No matter that the board itself is without variable, Monmon is strictly a Heads-On battle that consistently envelops the player match after match, and delivers one of the most satisfying Vita titles to date, budget-title though it may be.
Most important to any card-game is the type of cards available. For Monmon this boils down to a simple three; Offensive, Buffers, and Healers. Buffers and healers are active only by being positioned directly behind another card (they will either boost the attack power, or heal the forward card every turn so long as they've MP), while offensive cards are mostly static beyond their individual stats of HP and Attack power (ATK). Several cards have various additional abilities also, such as Haste (allows them to move the turn they are played), Counter-Attack, and Drain (allows card to absorb partial HP/MP from card being attacked). Some cards are also endowed with one-time skills that are activated when the card is placed on the 7x3 playing-field. Usually, skills will bestow additional HP, MP, or Attack bonuses on cards in the same row (horizontally and/or vertically) as the card being placed. Both skills and abilities can be easily checked in-match, before playing any cards.
As for how the game plays out, it's quite simple. Every turn, either your's or your opponents, you cards will move forward one spot. If an enemy is in the way then the card will attack, removing from the opponents HP equivalent to your card's ATK (note: once played, your card cannot move into a grid above or below; they can only move straight). Navigate one of your card's all the way to the opponents end and you'll attack their fortress, knocking away 1 of their player HP. Knock out all of their HP and the battle is yours.
As for ways to boost cards beyond healers/buffers is to absorb the same card-breed into another (Dragon, Beast, Nature, Undead, etc), which then additions the HP, MP and ATK of the absorbed card into the other. There aren't many breeds though amongst the three card-types, and so ideally one will build their deck with as few breeds as possible, allowing for maximum potential of absorption when in those tricky spots.
Mana is a large portion of what creates strategy in Monmon. Each turn grants 3 mana points, which are then used to play cards. Each card has its own mana cost, and while the more basic cards sit between 2 and 3 mana, the more powerful cards can cost much more to play. Ways to build up mana are few: there is the option to simply "pass" a turn without playing anything, but there is also the possibility that, by playing a card, you may play it on one of the grid-tiles that randomly bestows additional mana benefits. These random tile-benefits will affect most matches in significant ways, as after the early stages of Monmon mana will become the defining feature of whether a match is won or lost. Unfortunately though, the random tile-benefits rarely grant more than a single additional mana: to heavily boosts one's mana stock-pile, and to be able to play more powerful cards, the player will need an assortment of cards that have skills that instantly addition 3 mana when the card is played and/or defeated, and it is here that Monmon reveals a downright bad design-structure.
Right in the beginning of the game you'll receive much stronger cards that have a 5 and 6 mana cost. You'll be tempted to use them, but truly there is no way you can justify doing so. As Monmon is a strictly offensive card-game, choosing to pass anymore than 3 turns in a match to build up mana is essentially signing your own death-warrant. You need to keep playing cards and butting heads with your opponent, as otherwise you will quickly be over-run. As mentioned above, random tile-benefits are, outside of being totally random, also not much of a benefit to your stockpile. Rather, the cards with mana-boosting abilities once played/lost are genuinely the only way to build up a more significant pool of mana, and it's here that the game utterly fails. While the computer will have cards with these abilities early in the game, you won't have access to them until the very end of the lengthy single-player campaign. Furthermore, you can't purchase these cards from the in-game shop, as they are only available in random winnings from matches against the computer. You are wholly restricted to playing with the utmost lowest of mana-cost cards until after you have beaten the single-player game as it is borderline impossible to play with higher-cost cards without having an assortment of mana-boost ability cards in your deck, and it's a total shame. While the game is still fun in its aggressive style of gameplay, this is also a cardgame, one that boasts highly unique cards and breeds and consistently tempts you with them--- but you cannot play them until the several hour campaign is at its conclusion.

I wouldn't say that this error ruins Monmon though. Again, this game is a ton of fun, and while the single-player unfortunately limits itself with this absurd design-structure, afterwards, when playing online and battling players for their cards and Evolution Keys (more on this below), you'll quickly forget that dull hump in the single-player. Not to mention that Monmon as a whole is thoughtfully put together. While all of the cards are extremely well-drawn and inspiring to gaze over, the game-world itself is equally exciting. The characters are all fully-voiced and thoughtfully animated, the overworld you travel on is streamlined and charming, and the shop, gallery, and card-building tools are accessible and swift to use. Everything inside of Monmon is built with the intention not to be spectacular or glamorous, but functional. Monmon wants you to keep playing, and doesn't attempt to rope you in with unnecessary or excessive designs and tools. It's as videogame as it gets, and because of so is highly refreshing.
Specifically though, I still need to mention the evolution system in Monmon, which is much more famous than the card game itself. In Monmon, your cards can be evolved twice into a higher form (although it isn't always reasonable to do this, as higher-forms usually install a higher mana-cost as well), and the way you evolve your cards is by--- well, masturbating your Vita and then "evolving" your cards into lesser-clothed forms.

It's a rather ridiculous set-up, but quite a lot of fun if your into ecchi content. No less, what concerned me most with this is whether or not my wrist was going to end up hurting as there are dozens of independent cards in Monmon, each with their own two-tiers of evolution. Fortunately though, I can say this isn't the case. While in the beginning of the game you may be giving your Vita a rather bountiful assortment of tug-jobs, once your deck is established you really needn't go playing handyman until you come across an assortment of new cards you want to evolve and check out. Furthermore, evolving cards has a cost-system independent of the game's monetary system (used exclusively for buying card packs and items), and while it is lenient with how much you receive after each battle it is not enough for someone to go evolving every card they own right away (not that you'd want to do that: again, evolutions aren't always for the best).
Mentioned above were "Evolution Keys." These are rather self-explanatory; some of the more rare and powerful cards cannot be evolved unless you own the necessary colored-keys to unlock the evolution. These keys are randomly earned throughout the single-player, but primarily they are earned by battling other players online. By playing certain matches you can choose to gamble your keys: win the match and you'll earn the key your opponent gambled. Lose though, and your key is lost. While losing all your keys would forbid you from gambling for them online, you can earn more by playing random-matches against the computer in single-player. But exactly how long it will be until you earn another key varies.
It's unfortunate that Monmon cripples it's self in the one-player, and while this currently does not matter so much as there is still a rather active online-community, once that ends it's going to be challenging to recommend Monmon to those without a local player to battle with. The one-player is still satisfying on it's own though, becoming a chore only in its last quarter, and even though Monmon is a card-game it is still enjoyable even if you are only playing against the computer. Because the gameplay is action-focused it feels almost like you're playing an action-rpg rather than a card-game, creating a new dimension where card-games genuinely can be exciting even when played on your own. Tie that in with an enthralling art-direction, ease of operation, and plethora of unlockable cards, Monmon stands tall as one of the Vita's most unique and engaging titles, offering players plenty of content to keep both themselves, and the community, active for a long time.

Because Monmon is a card-game it would be reasonable to assume this is impossible to play, but this isn't the case. As the review goes over, Monmon is an extremely simple card-game, and getting into the flow of building decks and playing matches requires only the smallest bit of patience. When first played the single-player menus will look extensive, but give them each a minute of exploration and you'll see that they are streamlined and very simple to remember.
Where the LB might be aggressive is in the abilities and skills of cards, the in-game items, and navigating the online menus. Card abilities/skills can be overcome with just paying attention to what the card does when it is played, though, and should only be a transitory uncertainty for those unfamiliar with any Japanese. Items, on the other hand, are a bit more complex; while some of them will have obvious effects like restoring the player's health or boosting a character's attack, others not so much. Items definitely can be overcome with trial-and-error, but I wouldn't even worry about them as items aren't allowed online, and aren't necessary for the single-player either. Online menus also follow the trial-and-error route, although the range of matches, between player, ranked, gambling and tournaments can be rather intimidating. Still, sticking with it should allow most players to overcome it.
I would 100% recommend this game to someone who doesn't know Japanese, so long as they've some patience for figuring out menus.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan - Review (PS3)

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan (Nura) released back in 2011 for the PS3, and is one of those confusing imports in that there is nothing about it that justifies it being an exclusive to the east. The gameplay is somewhat stylized alike the Super Smash Bros games (a universally loved gameplay-formula); the art-direction is slick water-colors roving along classic Japanese "wood-block" prints; and there is just so much stuff to simply do that surely western reviewers would have been praising Nura consistently in that there is just so much variety and replay-value packed into this misleadingly simple-looking party-fighter.
That said, Nura is very Japanese. While I cannot read Japanese there is an all-together evident focus on mythological and feudal Japan, be it by the characters themselves or the levels; in the title, though, is the keyword that may have been the overall reasoning why Nura was never picked up for an English release: Yokai, which are essentially a mammoth assortment of Japanese spirits, demons, monsters, and just about anything supernatural, with most of them being steeped in local legends also. As a big portion of what makes Nura so exciting is managing and selecting a team from the more than 100 yokai available inside the game, something that would have neither intimacy nor meaning to western gamers who don't know anything about yokai, I think that the rationale was that it just wouldn't be a well-received title due to its cultural focus--- which is unfortunate because that is absolutely not true. Personally, I've read only one book about these Japanese monsters (called Yokai Attack!, which is interesting because Matt Alt, one of the writers behind Yokai Attack!, is also responsible for the translated versions of Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan's manga), and, to be perfectly honest, I didn't absorb any of the information after reading it--- that said, even though I had no idea who or what the monsters were in Nura, I was still impressed and inspired by using them, and had a terrific time trying them all out just to see who they were. Despite them being steeped in Japanese cultural myth, I still "liked" them just as much as anyone else could; freakish skeleton monsters two-stories-high tearing up from the ground and slamming the world into earthquakes is something any person can appreciate, I believe.

As mentioned above, Nura has a base that is somewhat similar to the Super Smash Bros style. As a party-stylized fighter, Nura has only two attacks for the player, which are a physical attack like punching/kicking, and a unique attack for each character; this can be shooting giant ice-blocks across the map, setting up explosive traps, or just lunging with a spear. It all depends on the character, and of the 12 available (and two unlockable) there is a highly noticeable degree of variety between them, even if there are only about 10 total attack options each character can do. A smaller scope of options may seem shallow, but the developers made sure to make that lesser assortment more meaningful, and truly it brings out each character in surprisingly lively and more intimate ways when playing as them.
Also akin to Super Smash Bros is the level design, which is basically a series of platforms scattered throughout with the occasional level-designed intrusion, whether it's a tsunami suddenly wiping out the lowest tier or a storm casting javelins of lightning across players' paths. For the most part the levels are mostly compact though, and while the background images can be highly inspiring and filled with wonder, the actual plane that players will be playing on is just a series of tiers that aren't remarkable beyond some few destructible platforms. The levels look gorgeous and are independent visually from one another, but what the player actually interacts with is, unfortunately, about the same throughout them all. That said, each map does have unique placement of "Shima (magic stones)," and it is here that Nura absolutely shatters the idea of it being a Super Smash clone and storms through with a series of exceedingly unique gameplay options.

As any fighting game, the point is to defeat your opponent. In Nura, the way this happens is by pushing a gauge (displayed at the bottom) fully to your favor, which is done by knocking out your health-bar-less opponents X amount of times. As expected, there are two special attacks per character in Nura, which become available as you fill up a separate gauge; for Nura, these special-attacks are probably going to be the player's kill-shot most matches. To build up special attacks there is the typical route of just hitting your opponent and being hit by your opponent, but there are also shima scattered throughout each level. Hit them a few times and they become yours; while each one helps boost the speed of your special gauge, collecting all of them ratchets it up considerably. The shima create a totally new playing-field for what would otherwise be a simple party-fighter; as special-attacks are extremely powerful, building up the meter in the fastest way possible is a wise choice. Oftentimes, even when against the computer, the match will not be so much about slamming each other with attacks, but navigating the map in pursuit of claiming stones. Finding yourself dodging your opponent and focusing on stones instead is not a rarity, and pastes a new, enjoyable layer of skill to achieving victory.
Most unique about Nura is how not alone you are. Sure, the match may read as a simple One-Versus-One or Two-Versus-Two, but really it's a Eleven-Versus-Eleven, or Twenty-two-Versus-Twenty-two. Going into a match gives you the option of bringing one or two "assist" characters with you, which is essentially an AI team of the fleshed in-game characters. You control these by "activating" them with either the circle or X button, where their tag-along, ghostly silhouette is suddenly in color and just as much a part of the match as you are. Still, it's a decision that requires some attention; when active, your AI characters can be knocked out and used to enhance the gauge toward your opponent's victory no different than you yourself being knocked out. Furthermore, once activated, your AI companions are not simply "assisting" you; if you run off on the map to find stones they're going to remain assaulting the enemy; whether or not they lose is wholly up to the skill of your AI in contrast to the skill of your opponent. It's a give-and-take engine; while useful, it may equally be destructive, and that dilemma of perhaps speeding along either your victory, or defeat, instills a highly exciting sense of the gameworld existing on its own, and not just at your leisure.

But that would amount to only a three-vs-three, in terms of a one-vs-one match; but there's much more. Rather, that 3-V-3 becomes an eleven-vs-eleven when you take into account the option of bringing in a team of 8 highly unique "yokai," the above-mentioned Japanese monsters. You create your team of yokai in the form of an 8-card deck, and activate them by pointing the right-joystick in the appropriate direction mid-match. The yokai are all extremely variable; one may be a two-foot high kappa who makes a quick, single tackle at the opponent, but others can be an outrageously large bull that storms throughout the entire level cloaked in swirling dark flames, or a vicious tengu who dives claws-out at your opponent repeatedly. Each of the yokai are extremely variable, with some assisting the player, attacking the opponent, or even stalling the victory gauge for a short amount of time. Once activated though, each yokai enters into a cool-down state that varies independently from one another, creating yet another simple, yet highly suspect to craft and consideration, layer of gameplay strategy.
Nura, like other fighters, upholds traditional modes as Story, Score Attack, Training, and Online. Most notable of these is the Challenge mode though, which is a robust assortment of unique challenges that genuinely teach the player to utilize team-members, yokai, shima, and other in-game elements in more exotic and strategic ways. There's well over fifty of these challenges, and lengthen the game in a thoroughly meaningful way, and not just artificially.
Nura is the real-deal; despite appearing as a simple party-fighter it is host to some of the more unique gameplay-elements to ever grace a fighter, and no matter it being based off a manga this is certainly not some pop-culture "cash cow" entry neither. Outside of the level layouts being inspired, everything about Nura has struck the right chords for an independent fighting game; a highly unique and satisfying gameplay system, plentiful replay value, and an eclectic cast of characters that vary greatly from one another but are without advantage/disadvantage. The only hesitancy in picking up Nura is that the online-community is simply non-existent; if you're going to desire playing online than you're going to need to sleuth around the Internet for others to party up with. Still, even without an online community, Nura stands more than firmly on its own, and is absolutely worth being experienced.

Nura sits somewhere at 80/20 with the language-barrier. There won't be any trouble in playing Nura at its fullest, and while setting up Yokai decks will first appear intimidating it's really a cinch with just some trial-and-error. No; where the language-barrier is prominent is in the mentioned Challenge Mode, and in deciding on which yokai to use in your deck. For challenge mode you're going to be utterly lost; for those wondering, there is almost zero katakana usage, and so unless you can read kanji understanding exactly what the challenge expects from you is going to be little more than a guessing-game. Most of them follow about 5 patterns, but it's still going to be a pain playing it blindly. As for yokai decks, the issue here is that there are over 100 of these monsters, and each of them do an action of their own. Whether a yokai is offensive, or a buffer, or defense, or a stage-variable is not going to be understood until you actually use it. This isn't really an "issue" as experiencing all of the yokai is a treat, but it can be a hindrance for those who want to just build the deck they desire without having to do trial-and-error.
Still; actually playing the game, which is attacks and special-moves and all the yokai fun, is 100% possible without knowing a lick of Japanese.

Import Impossible - The Language Barrier Wins...

I've developed a basic system to writing about imports exclusive to a language I don't understand: if I can play it despite the language, write about it. If I can't, then don't.
That said, it's important to note which games hold firm roots in language-required structures or not, particularly because there's nothing that separates those that do and don't as being desirable. While I've neglected to write about these titles (because I have nothing to say), I'm going to compile a brief list here just to give the basic low-down on those that defeated me.
*Note: I've been learning Japanese on-my-own for about a year collectively (meaning much longer, but that I'm terrible about sticking with it), with breaks between and long gaps of not knowing where or how to continue learning. I wouldn't put my understanding of Japanese even at an Elementary level, and so if you think you're somewhere around an Intermediate range these games might just be more accessible for you. Then again, maybe not.*

7th Dragon 2020-II
This one might seem pretty obvious, seeing as the 7th Dragon series is a hardcore "Job-Class" JRPG. No less, like the rest of the games in this list, despite 7th Dragon 2020-II being, indeed, a hardcore JRPG exclusive to the Japanese language--- I mean, it looks like a downright bad-ass hardcore JRPG exclusive to the Japanese language, and I just had to give it a whirl.
If you're wondering why I chose the sequel to 7th Dragon 2020 instead of the original--- it's because it was cheaper.
Job-Class, 1st-Person JRPG that it is, I was actually able to get into the "swing" of things relatively easy. While I could not comprehend the long-term positives/negatives of the several class types, for the most part I was able to recognize swiftly what it was that separated my Samurai, Destroyer, and Trickster apart from one another, and had no issue discovering what special abilities did overall.
No; the issue with 7th Dragon is one that is the constant complaint throughout this list; a dialogue-based revealing of where you need to go, or maybe how you need to go there, or with what you need to go there with; something that is strictly impossible to understand unless you can read the language. Within the first 2 hours I hit a point in 2020-II that had me doing circles around the relatively large home-base (with lengthy load-times between each floor also, mind you) before finally talking to the right person. For this I was rewarded with an equally uncertain person or place to go and so spent another hour just trying to do that.
Eventually I got to play an entire dungeon, and even fight one of the dragons one would expect from a title called 7th Dragon--- but, the moment I was done and back at home-base, I was again told to go somewhere and just never could find out where that was.
I don't know if it's import-impossible, but this game is an absolute chore if you don't understand Japanese.

Grand Knights History
Borderline have nothing to write about Grand Knights History other than that within the first hour I was totally lost as to where to go or what to do. Combat was typical turn-based goodness, loaded with that Vanillaware animation charm, but without having any direction what-so-ever I was truly up against a wall almost immediately.
I later learned that a large portion of what made this game so great was playing it online. Exactly what you did online I don't know, although it has recently been revealed that the servers for GKH are coming to an end. So while I never have the online-portion a chance, at this point it doesn't matter; personally, I could not get anywhere in the single-player portion, and as there will soon no longer be an online mode, I'd say this game is downright strictly impossible for the non-Japanese-understanding.

Akiba Strip

Akiba Strip was probably the biggest bummer for me. Right away the game is loaded with lengthy dialogues and all sorts of "exclaimed" and "tell me more" expressions. Afterwards I was finally allowed to do a little bit of running around Akihabara, aggressively stripping school-girls and armed policemen alike, but it was unfortunately a bit shallow. I wanted to progress; I wanted to strip the important, more materialized characters (you understand, yes?) that would naturally come with the main-plot.
And that's where it slammed me right to the friggin' ground. Finding the location of the first key-point was a challenge in itself (nothing on the map; no "where to go" hints), but afterwards I was totally, completely lost about what to do. I talked to everyone in the city, went in every store--- but nothing.
Actually, about three months ago, I was able to find out what to do next by using Yahoo Answers. Turns out you had to wear a friggin' bear costume and then talk to a certain somebody--- this, quite simply, was something I would never have understood to do, and from what I understand the rest of the game is loaded with quirky and bizarre situations just like this.

Senritsu no Stratus
Again, this was another title that stumped me due to "place of interest" being inserted somewhere or another in the dialogue between important characters. Honestly though, I didn't give this game anywhere near as much a chance as I did 7th Dragon 2020-II, because by the time I got around to playing this I was getting rather fed up of my persistence on buying RPG's in a language I didn't understand.
I had fun with what I was able to play with Senritsu no Stratus; it's an action RPG that runs on a 2.5d plane akin to most brawlers. While the backgrounds are somewhat bland there was a good assortment of color and activity with the individual models themselves, and special attacks, which incite an on-screen anime face-portrait, were pretty exciting to witness also. For the PSP, this is one of those rare action RPG's that are a genuine product--- but, again, it is an RPG, and one that expects you to understand the language as the overall theme and progression is decidedly mature and sophisticated.
It might be okay to import, but again; you are 100% going to end up lost at some point, aimlessly going places and talking to NPC's--- it's just not worth it, because any game that is designed in such a way is probably focused on telling a quality story alongside the gameplay. Missing so crucial an element in a title such as this turns the gameplay experience, however fun, unfortunately shallow.

Conception: Ore no Kodomo o Unde Kure!!
Simply by looking at the cover of this game there is a readily apparent reality that this is based heavily off of characters. As the main character is a young man, and all of the side-characters are girls, and that the game is titled Conception, I think it's obvious that this game is, indeed, a dating sim (of sorts) wrapped around a highly unique JRPG system. For anyone who has not seen a dating-sim in action, it goes like this:
Dialogue-Dialogue-Dialogue-Make Dialogue Decision-Much, much, much more dialogue.
This might seem like an obvious "No-No" for any non-Japanese-understanding gamers mildly intelligent, but unfortunately I am not quite that. Rather, I was really impressed by the combat of Conception, which has you going into this alternate world with your theoretical children from the girls you've dated/slept with, and battling monsters inside of a 4-sided circle, where you can warp around and flank/surprise enemies with your plentiful gang of children. It reminded me a lot of The Last Remnant, a flawed game that I was still crazily impressed by, and so I allowed that totally unreasonable similarity blind me into buying this.
But, to be totally honest, I barely even played Conception before selling it. For those interested in the combat there is a demo available, and from it you can take a guess as to whether or not you "get" it. By using a dictionary I was able to grasp the tutorial's key-components, but what really put this game off for me is exactly what I said in the first paragraph; the game is all about maintaining and establishing relationships with girls of the several zodiac signs, and while there is the possibility of doing this correctly by simple trial-and-error--- I mean, it just wasn't "fun" for me. I have no idea if the story is enthralling or not, but I certainly wanted to experience it rather than just guess.
Conception is equally based off of dialogue-immersion as it is gameplay, I suppose. If you don't know Japanese, than you're going to be missing out on 80% of the game. Even though it might be playable without knowing Japanese, I just don't believe it's worth it.