The May 2012 MCM Expo (or London Comic Con, as the organisers seem intent on rebranding it lately) has come and gone, so I thought I should get some thoughts down before I forget it all.

I attended on the Sunday, and there were only a few things I wanted to do – I mostly go for the atmosphere, you see; it’s a day out, with lots to see and I always feel like queuing for stuff is time better spent exploring the hall.

Unfortunately, I was unable to do two of the things that I really wanted to…

Meet Ali Hillis
The actress behind the voices of Final Fantasy XIII/XIII-2‘s Lightning, Mass Effect‘s Liara T’Soni and many others was scheduled to appear at the Summer Expo, and I had intended to get her signature on my FFXIII-2 Limited Edition box, to nicely compliment my signed XIII LE.

Unfortunately, due to personal reasons she had to postpone her appearance until the October show, so I’ll try again then. Given that Raphael Sbarge (voice of Mass Effect‘s Kaidan Alenko and KotOR‘s Carth Onasi) was also at the show, I could have taken one of my three Mass Effect LEs to cover both bases. Hindsight, and all that.

To make up for Ms Hillis’ non-appearance, Kimberly Brooks (Mass Effect‘s Ashley Williams) and Nick Boulton (Hawke in Dragon Age 2, Major Coats in Mass Effect 3) were drafted in to give free signings. I spoke to the lovely Kimberley Brooks for a few minutes about subjects such as voice acting in general (“It’s so much fun!”, she told me), the UK videogame scene, and Irish accents, and got a glossy, signed pic of Ash. I can’t stress enough how genuinely lovely she was to talk to, and it was a pleasure to meet her.

Play Theatrhythm

I had also hoped to get my hands on Square-Enix’s Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. I knew Square-Enix would be represented at the Expo, but had no idea of the games that would be on display. I had hoped Theatrhythm would be playable, considering its release date is pretty close, and it was! But, unfortunately for me, it was crowded all day.

The picture above was taken less than five minutes before the show closed. And it was still being played. Now, as I said before, I hate to queue at the Expo – there’s a lot to see, and only a finite amount of time to get around it all. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m frothing at the mouth for this title, being as I’m a huge fan of Final Fantasy and the series’ music (and I’m also quite partial to the odd rhythm-action game), so it was a little disappointing not to get a few minutes with the game. Still, it’ll be in my hands in about six weeks, and there were other things that would cheer me up…

Bamco saves the day!
I knew Namco-Bandai would be present at the Expo, so I had hoped to see Tales of Graces f on display. Before the weekend, Bamco had announced, via their Facebook page, that they would be presenting the jRPG on the GameSpot stage, and giving out double sided Tales of Graces f/Ni No Kuni posters… on the Saturday. I was disappointed, seeing as I had tickets for the following day, but hoped there would be at least some presence there. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the schedule in my program to find a “Tales of Graces f presentation” on the GameSpot stage at 4pm!

The GameSpot stage in all its glory!

The presentation was hosted by Namco-Bandai’s Hollie Bennett, while her colleague (whose name I unfortunately cannot remember!) played the game. But first, we were treated to Graces’ intro movie.

Our presenters chose to start right at the beginning of the game, giving us an idea of what we’ll be doing when we first fire it up, rather than showing out-of-context moments from further on in the story and risking spoilers. We saw the main character, Asbel Lhant (who begins the game as a cock-sure eleven-year-old) arguing with his younger brother Hubert about exploring Lhant Hill – a place they aren’t supposed to go, but which young Asbel is keen to explore. We were treated to some world-map exploration, battling and animated cutscenes in our short demo, and I have to say, the game looks gorgeous, proving that good art-design and heaps of character can trump technical ability. It often looks like a cartoon, especially in engine-driven cutscenes, such is the vibrancy of the colours and the cleanliness of the visuals on display.

You’ll have to excuse the blurriness – digital zoom sucks!

Hollie also mentioned the recently-announced Day One edition (that I commented on on May 17th), and confirmed that it will be the only edition of Tales of Graces f available at launch. So all the more reason to get those pre-orders in, people!

Before the Tales of presentation started, we were told that, time-permitting, we might also see some of Level 5 and Studio Ghibli collaboration Ni No Kuni! This, I most definitely did not expect! Being a massive Ghibli fan, Ni No Kuni has been on my radar since it was first revealed something like four years ago. The opportunity to see it in person was certainly an unexpected treat, and we were shown two separate demos from the game.

Ni No Kuni’s demo select screen, ravaged by digital zoom.

The first demo, First steps in a far-away Kingdom, introduced us to the character of Oliver and his little doll-come-to-life friend, Drippy, who sounded not unlike Rhod Gilbert to me. As her colleague wandered around a beautiful overworld getting into battles, Hollie talked about the localization efforts going into the Western version of the game, pointing out that where characters in the Japanese release had regional accents, the same would be true of our version – hence Drippy’s throaty Welsh accent. In keeping with Ghibli’s dvd efforts, the localization seems to have had a lot of effort poured into it, though only some cutscenes were voiced. Hopefully by the time the game is in our hands, all dialogue will be fully-voiced.

If I thought Tales of Graces f looked like a cartoon, Ni No Kuni was something else; it looked like a Ghibli production through-and-through, especially the beautiful, vibrant overworld. However, as they were ten-minute timed demos (and time on the stage was running short), our hosts decided to jump straight into the next one – a steampunk-y town named Hamelin, and more specifically, to the Palace of the Porcine Prince. As you could expect given the name, Hamelin is populated by a race of Gamorrean guard-like pig people. Our heroes are seen wandering about the place, before buildings suddenly rise from their foundations and begin moving on rails, creating a long corridor with cheering crowds on either side. This then leads to a boss battle against a piggy-themed tank with a special move called the “Gammon Cannon”. Yup, that one will stay with me for some time…

As the Bamco rep attempted to defeat the tank before the timer ran down, we managed to get a better look at the battle system. It seems you can either fight as a party character, or call out a smaller, magic wielding creature (like Oliver’s Drippy) to take action for you. It looked like an ATB-style system, with party members taking action when a timer bar fills, and it appears to be possible to switch members on the fly.

Hollie likened the small creatures to Pokemon, suggesting there would be hundreds to collect in-game, offering up the possibility of a battle system that is both easy to get to grips with, but offers plenty of depth and tactical options. Coupled with Ghibli’s trademark humour and charm, and some utterly gorgeous visuals, Ni No Kuni is definitely looking like something to get excited about, if you aren’t already.

I even managed to nab some of those posters!

Aside from the games, the Expo is also a great place to see cosplayers. I know some people can be down on cosplay, but I think it’s great that people are passionate enough about videogames, anime and other pop-cultural references to do it, and it’s one of the reasons for the fantastic atmosphere the Expo enjoys – everyone is there to celebrate the same things and have a good time, and you’re in a huge hall with hundreds of people that share your interests.

With that said, I felt the cosplay was a little less diverse than usual (though it was my first Sunday Expo; I usually attend on a Saturday, so perhaps that’s why): I must have seen about fifteen Links for example, which I’m sure would please Nintendo. Final Fantasy XIII has been popular among cosplayers at the Expo the last couple of years, and this year was no different, with a couple of Lightnings, Snows and the odd Vanille doing the rounds. FFXIII-2 was also represented, with a few of those versions of Lightning and Serah dotted about. And of course, it wouldn’t be a summer Expo without a Rikku!

There were some unexpected characters in attendance.

Now that the Expo has come and gone, I again find myself in the position of eagerly awaiting the next one in October. With E3 just around the corner, who knows what we’ll be seeing at the ExCel Centre in five months time? One thing’s for sure: I’m getting that Ali Hillis signature!