Making the Case for tri-ace: The Last Hope of Integrity and Faithlessness

(Full disclosure: I have not gotten the chance to sit down and play Star Ocean 5 yet, merely watched a ton of LPs about it.  I have played Star Oceans 2 through 4, however.)

The other day, tri-ace came up as a topic of discussion on a forum I visit, and I was forced to face some unfortunate realities about what once might have been my favorite developer.  Creator of the Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile franchises, tri-ace played a large role in my gaming as a child--Star Ocean 2: The Second Story and Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time stick out far more in my memories than any non-Tactics Final Fantasy, so to a preteen/teenaged version of me, tri-ace was more important than Squaresoft.

So when The Last Hope offered some of the most annoying J-RPG stereotyped characters I'd ever wasted my time playing, to say that I was frustrated was putting it mildly.   For Star Ocean 5, I had my hopes high--I couldn't believe the franchise was coming back at all, but I felt confident they would be able to right all the mistakes of 4 and bring the series back to the minor level of prominence it had during the PS1/PS2 era.  I followed the character reveals and videos closely and everything seemed on track, and yet...something happened.   The game came out to barely mediocre reviews; filled with backtracking, a battle system so "reminiscent" of SO3's it was basically a clone, and a far too short main story for a game that already reused only a handful of environments, it seemed as if Star Ocean 5 had killed tri-ace's chances at being a console game developer for good.

But was that a bad thing?  As fans we often decry the loss of every single developer that shutters its doors or turns to the far more profitable mobile world but sometimes its a necessary decision.  Especially lately, as developers continue to pop up that make an already competitive market even moreso.  Let's take a break from talking about tri-ace for a second to look at some other small developers (and one large developer with a "small" game) so you can see what I mean:

PlatinumGames is a mid-tier sized developer that's known for their deep, innovative battle systems and quick turnover times while developing titles on shoestring budgets.  They're a bit mercenary in how they get their funding, so what usually holds them back is a lack of proper development time even in the face of their ability to rapidly complete titles, as seen in their Legend of Korra and TMNT projects.  But most recently, the company released Nier: Automata alongside famed creator Yoko Taro to worldwide critical acclaim and fantastic sales for a project of that size. This was able to happen because they combined a development team known for their superb gameplay with an auteur creator like Taro who was able to provide a world and characters with which players would want to get involved.

Then you have Nihon Falcom, a tiny but venerated studio that's been around for nearly four decades.  Currently known for their Ys and Kiseki series, Falcom doesn't necessarily have great sales worldwide, but they do very well domestically.  Their games aren't graphically impressive (their first PS4 Kiseki looks like a late game PS3 title) and their stories aren't genius, but their worlds and lore just might be the most well-developed in gaming, anywhere.  Pages upon pages of text devoted to their history and relations between different countries, minor and major NPCs that have their own mini-stories that play out while you're in their cities.  They replace the need to dazzle with visuals or do unique innovations with a world that you can lose dozens of hours exploring and learning about.

Finally, there's Bandai-Namco's Tales series.  To be clear, Bandai-Namco is by no means a small company--they're about as big as a Japanese developer can get, in fact.  And the Tales series has basically shifted into being a third pillar of sorts for J-RPGs between Square-Enix's Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.  Still, I don't think many people would say that the budget for Tales titles would rival a Final Fantasy or probably even a DQ.  They're mid-tier, polished fantasy J-RPGs with an anime aesthetic that usually have good battle systems and decent production values.

....Which brings me back to tri-ace, because at this point the Tales franchise have become "Star Ocean, but better".  And that's the developer's problem: there's not a single thing they do that's better than what's already on the market, or even especially different in an appreciable way.  They'd be almost be better off sticking to the decent amount of success they're experiencing on mobile.  But of course you're not here for that, so let's talk about what some backseat developer thinks they can do to save themselves.

I still think Star Ocean is their best bet at standing out as a developer going forward. But it would need to be a full-blown reboot, and preferably as the game people always think of when you say Star Ocean, not what it's always been. Because hearing the name, most people would think: "oh, a J-RPG about exploring space" only to discover that it's a J-RPG that merely talks about space but more often than not ends up set on a planet that's more about high fantasy and magic tropes.  And just like that, all the intrigue of the game is usually taken out.

A reboot of Star Ocean could instead take a hard sci-fi turn. Allow players to traverse the galaxy, see multiple planets and meet dozens of alien races.   Perhaps the game steals liberally from Suikoden, and sets you in a world where you have to deal with the possibility of an interstellar war between multiple factions, and the only thing standing in its way is the crew you assemble from across the stars.   Along those lines, perhaps introduce a spaceship combat system...and have your ships develop more based on how many crew members you've assembled, as well as offering the ability to customize or purchase new ships a la Infinite Space.   Embrace the space opera and science fiction that's always been there but scarcely ever been lived up to.  This is the type of game that literally does not exist in the Japanese console game space, roleplaying or otherwise, and it's exactly the kind of thing that would help tri-ace reassert itself as a developer worth mention in the HD era.

Of course, budget is still an issue but after a solid decade of playing great games that aren't the best lookers, I think RPG fans will be okay if a potentially classic Star Ocean game isn't the prettiest boy/girl at the dance.  If anything, if that allows the game to be more full-featured and well-rounded of an experience, all the better.

Ultimately, what's standing in tri-ace's way is the leadership necessary to carve out a niche of their own in the gaming world.   The console gaming industry is harsh, almost cutthroat in how demanding it can be of developers.   Since most developers can't do one thing at an A+ tier, gamers have come to settle for games that do most or all things at a B+ tier, and that's a tall order if you don't have the size and money behind you to make it happen.  And if you fail, there's usually nothing left for you than to close down.   Which is why as much as I want tri-ace to be as important a console developer as were did in my youth, I'm alright if they enjoy the "easy" money of mobile for awhile until they get there. 


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