A little more than a week ago, word hit that tri-Ace had been acquired by Nepro Japan with the intention of bolstering their mobile business. The move appears to signal the end of RPG development by tri-Ace, which had in previous years been responsible for cult favorites including Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile. Having been given some time to digest the news, here are a few thoughts from our resident RPG fans.
The news of tri-Ace's death — and make no mistake, their recent acquisition marks the demise of the tri-Ace games you love — saddens me. But it's in the same way that Frank Zappa's death made me sad. Not the heartfelt sorrow of a die-hard fan but rather the intellectual disappointment of a distant admirer.
I'm not a huge fan of tri-Ace's work, but I've always respected them. And they have quite a legacy, having spun out of Wolf Team as part of the same diaspora that gave us Tales Studio. They were outside-the-box creators, never afraid to push the limits of what people expected from game design in order to experiment with big ideas: An insane array of endings, a nonlinear story set against a time limit, an impossibly dense combat system.
The same wildness that defined tri-Ace's output, I think, is also what doomed them to acquisition. The company's projects slowed to a trickle over the past decade, and the past few years have seen them working in a collaborative capacity with other studios, mostly notably helping Square Enix with the Final Fantasy XIII sequels. There's just no place in today's high-stakes, high-cost development environment for divisive games like Resonance of Fate; it's hard to imagine any publisher looking at the potential return on investment on a tri-Ace original project and thinking, "Yes, this seems like a good idea." Offbeat, niche-appeal games like Yakuza 5 and Drakengard 3 have become exceptions rather than the rule they were in the PlayStation 2 era, but those were tri-Ace's forte.
It would be nice to imagine that the studio was purchased in order to produce its dream games under the wing of a mobile publisher, but the press release about the acquisition all but said, "Yeah, we bought them for their technical expertise, not their great ideas." It was probably their understated work on Lightning Returns rather than the possibility of Valkyrie Profile 3 that made tri-Ace such an appealing purchase. In any case, it's hard to imagine the kind of highly involved, deeply technical games that tri-Ace specialized in working on mobile platforms; they were always games that needed the input options and breathing space of consoles in order to properly excel.
You may not have loved tri-Ace, but you have to love the sort of individuality the studio stood for... and that means you can't help but rue their loss. Such a shame.
I've kept an eye on tri-Ace since the days of Valkyrie Profile, which I still count as one of my favorite RPGs of all time. I've always admired the energy with which they've imbued their games, whether Valkyrie Profile, Resonance of Fate, or Lightning Returns (ostensibly a Square Enix game, but really a tri-Ace RPG in disguise).
Star Ocean is perhaps better-known, but Valkyrie Profile and its sequel Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria remain their best RPGs to date—challenging games with subversive design elements that continue to stand out from their peers. They both embody the tri-Ace RPG, piling on system after system and mixing it all with energetic combat. Resonance of Fate, which is one part strategy RPG and one part The Matrix, is another tri-Ace RPG that deserves better than its gotten, if only for scenes like this.
As Bob and Jeremy mention, tri-Ace's acquisition and subsequent move to mobile is unfortunately not all that surprising. They've worked on a handful of original games since releasing Resonance of Fate, including Frontier Gate and Beyond the Labyrinth, but none have made it out of the Asian territories. You could say that the writing was on the wall for tri-Ace, which was the definition of mid-tier developer — a species that has been endangered for a while now.
That said, tri-Ace's move to mobile doesn't necessarily mean that they've given up. If any studio can find a way to thrive in the mobile space without selling out creatively, it's probably tri-Ace, which has never been afraid to go their own way. Barring a major breakout hit, though, this is probably the last North American gamers will hear of one of the more weirdly endearing developers around. More's the pity.
To be honest, it wasn't entirely shocking to see Tri-Ace get gobbled up by a mobile developer, where they'll undoubtedly squander their talent working on one of the three kinds of free-to-play games that bring in the bucks — I'm actually surprised it didn't happen sooner. In the depths of the last console generation's "Are Japanese RPGS dead?" dark ages, Tri-Ace never faltered, though their work could be really uneven. I've never witnessed a single positive thing said about Star Ocean: The Last Hope, for instance, which is why the following year's Resonance of Fate bowled me over--I honestly wasn't expecting such a great RPG from a developer who had seemingly lost their magic somewhere along the way.
I'm no Tri-Ace fanboy, though, and plenty of their RPGs rubbed me the wrong way. I spent a good chunk of my post-undergraduate unemployment bashing my head against Radiata Stories, which kicks off with compelling, Suikoden-like premise, but frustratingly makes so much of its content missable for players without psychic powers. And the plot twist in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time was so unbelievably terrible, it made me stop playing the game entirely. (Look it up — it's a doozy.) Even so, when Tri-Ace was on, they were on, and I always admired them for how dense their game mechanics could be. When I think "Tri-Ace," my brain immediately conjures up images of systems stacked upon systems — 15 years later, and I'm still not entirely sure about how some elements of Valkyrie Profile work.
While Tri-Ace doesn't have an impeccable track record, their move to mobile is especially depressing because they've been putting out some of their best work over the past five years. We have Resonance of Fate, of course, but we can't neglect the two Final Fantasy XIII sequels, which managed to make something worthwhile out of a project that had gone so spectacularly wrong. After some reluctance, I even picked up Lightning Returns (thanks to Jeremy and Kat's recommendation), and while I'm not really invested in the titular character, it grabbed me simply for being so weird — few console developers would take so many risks with an RPG.
Could Tri-Ace have saved themselves? Who knows? Granted, it may have been smarter for them to focus on development with a little less overhead, like Atlus — who will be releasing their second internally developer last-gen console game just as the PS3 hits its ninth birthday. Still, it's hard to say; the rigors of HD development have pushed plenty of Japanese studios out of the market, leaving them with no place to go other than mobile. Even if Tri-Ace never produces anything on the level of their previous work, their reputation will live on through 20 years of RPGs in their distinct style. Not even a Star Ocean-themed Monster Strike clone can take that away from us.