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A Requiem for tri-Ace, Cult RPG Developer

Kat, Bob, and Jeremy share their thoughts on tri-Ace's move to mobile.

Analysis by USgamer Team, .

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.

Jeremy Parish Editor-in-Chief

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.

Kat Bailey Senior Editor

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.

Bob Mackey Senior Writer

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.

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Comments 22

  • Avatar for ifyoucan122 #1 ifyoucan122 2 years ago
    The last Star Ocean was certainly flawed. The story is more or less goofy as hell.
    That said, the gameplay was a treat, and the more it resembled Star Trek, the more I loved it.

    That said, I hadn't played Mass Effect series at the time, which does the whole Star Trek thing much better.
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  • Avatar for Ralek #2 Ralek 2 years ago
    Tri-Ace is a gigantic loss to gaming in particular and culture in general. They made some fantastic games, which were never afraid to stay true to their original creative vision even at the cost of alienating some parts of the potential audience. That is something I do highly respect, ironically I think it's also one of the major reasons they are no longer with us (well, who knows maybe they can make "mobile" worthwhile^^).
    A friend recently asked me why I still bothered keeping my PS3 around. The answer was simple and three-fold: Resonance of Fate, Vanquish and Red Dead Redemption! RoF was a blast, flawed, like most Tri-Ace games, but also utterly engrossing once it had it's hooks into you. For each part of it's design that was utterly unoriginal, it had some other part, that felt like a true revelation. The combat was unique and fun, and other parts of the like the weapon-"crafting" (created some crazy schematics :p) and the grid-"unlocking" were equally inspired and just felt fresh.

    They will be missed no doubt ... #Leanne4life!

    @ifyoucan122 I always felt Mass Effect was more like a fusion of Babylon 5 and Firefly than anything Star Trek tbh.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #3 cldmstrsn 2 years ago
    @bobmackey I have to say I really liked The Last Hope. The battle system was addictive as most of their battle systems are and I really enjoyed the characters and graphics and its probably my favorite Star Ocean.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #4 cldmstrsn 2 years ago
    Deleted March 2015 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for Daryoon #5 Daryoon 2 years ago
    "There's just no place in today's high-stakes, high-cost development environment for divisive games"

    And that's just depressing really. We're never going to see another game like FF6 or 7 again, at this rate, because that amount of content would just cost far too much to produce to HD standards. And even the closest thing we've had to a proper Final Fantasy in recent times - Bravely Default - was little more than a NES game with updated graphics and static cut-scenes... And if Square can't handle the current climate, there was little chance any of the smaller players could :S
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #6 Kadrom 2 years ago
    Star Ocean 2 was one of my first PS1 games and I was an unabashed fanboy of tri-Ace ever after. They really seemed to nail it with Resonance of Fate for me (both narratively fresh and a very crunchy battle system) so it's very sad to see them go like this. At least when GungHo bought Grasshopper they still allowed them to continue making mediocre Suda51 games. I wish tri-Ace was given the same autonomy.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #7 pashaveliki 2 years ago
  • Avatar for Austin-C- #8 Austin-C- 2 years ago
    It's a sad day indeed, but like Kat was saying, I really hope they can keep that weird creativity in the mobile scene. Even if we don't see their games in the west, it would put my aching heart at ease.
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #9 kevinbowyer34 2 years ago
    My junior year college roommate introduced me to Star Ocean the 2nd story. I introduced him to Xenogears. I remember playing the SNES Star Ocean on one of the earliest emulated translation offerings. The very first true collectable game I ever bought was Valkyrie Profile, years ago before there was a PSP to host a PSP version. I played it, passed it on to friends with a stern word "Make sure I get that back."

    Silmeria was too complicated for it's own good. For me that is when Tri-Ace start to lose some of it's shine. I still loved the game enough to finish it, and proudly hang the Japanese release poster in my living room. My friend and I still debate Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. The plot twist in that literally turned him off to JRPGs for good. I made it all the way to chibi Lenneth, cried, then read there was a chibi Freya afterwards and congratulated myself on making it as far as I did and put the game away.

    I barely played an hour of Valkyrie Profile DS before I traded the game back in. My own stab at a next gen game of theirs was Star Ocean 4, the re-released edition. My tastes have turned more to handheld RPGs; easier to see the end with a full time job and other hobbies.

    Maybe if a large publisher had taken them in as a 2nd party; ala Nintendo and Monolith Soft. It's easy to see an alternate history of Monolith Soft where they got gobbled up by a mobile monster instead and Tri-Ace put out ValkyrieBlade for the Wii as a 2nd party.

    I'll miss you, Valkyrie Profile 3: Hrist.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    tri-Ace was always a PC developer who never made a game FOR PC. So many systems, that inexplicable web of side activities and quests, the fascination with sci-fi, the valued usage of Sakuraba's sophisticated prog leanings...in a better world, we'd have this...in a better world.
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  • Avatar for mr-faramir #11 mr-faramir 2 years ago
    this article scared me! what will happen to Vanillaware and Spike Chunsoft then???

    damn... :(Edited March 2015 by mr-faramir
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  • Avatar for sakicfan84 #12 sakicfan84 2 years ago
    Goodbye tri-Ace. I can't imagine that I'll ever be playing another one of their games again. With how poorly the app stores are set-up and curated, the odds of me noticing a game from an actual good developer are very slim. I really wonder how much the average developer is actually making on their mobile games, because it seems damned near impossible to get noticed.Edited March 2015 by sakicfan84
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  • Avatar for MonkeyDSomething #13 MonkeyDSomething 2 years ago
    I looked up the plot twist that Bob was talking about.

    That's so unbelievably stupid that it loops right back around to being genius again. As someone who has virtually no investment in the Star Ocean universe, I legitimately want to play that through to see if any part of it works.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #14 JohnnyBarnstorm 2 years ago
    Every time I hear the name Tri-Ace I think back to one of the legitimately worst games of last generation, Infinite Undiscovery. Looking back through their catalogue of games they haven't really worked on anything I've loved. My boyfriend loves Star Ocean for the 360, but I can't get over the creepy doll models. Oh yeah, he really dug Resonance of Fate. I guess I need to try that Valkyrie Profile before coming to any final opinions, though.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #15 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    @bobmackey This reminds me that I've been meaning to pick up Resonance of Fate...
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #16 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    @bobmackey This reminds me that I've been meaning to pick up Resonance of Fate...
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #17 Lord-Bob-Bree 2 years ago
    @MonkeyDSomething Honestly, I don't think the game messes up with the twist, but rather the big section in the middle that has nothing to do with the rest of the game.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #18 pdubb 2 years ago
    "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.)" - Bob Mackey

    I can't wait until the Tri-Ace tablet RPG where the maib characters find out they are really just characters in a crappy F2P game.
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  • Avatar for ifyoucan122 #19 ifyoucan122 2 years ago
    @MonkeyDSomething I've played the other 3 games but I'm also legitimately curious if this actually works or not.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #20 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    @MonkeyDSomething

    That game had much worse, more intricate problems than that. It's just that the plot twist is easier to explain quickly.
    @JohnnyBarnstorm

    VP is on a whole nother level narratively than the rest of their fare, as if it was from a completely different developer, almost. I'd love to have an interview from someone in t-A on why this is.
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  • Avatar for sallokin #21 sallokin 2 years ago
    Let's be real, we're not going to miss any Tri-Ace narratives, but wow if it isn't a sad moment for crazy, experimental game mechanics and battle systems.

    I'm honestly not surprised they were snapped up, but I would have placed SE in the role of snapper upper given their history of work. Curious to see who stays on and who spins off into another studio (a la tri-crescendo). It's hard to keep up with where these Wolf Team guys are nowadays.
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  • Avatar for daysofstatic65 #22 daysofstatic65 2 years ago
    I was quite fond of Radiata Stories and Resonance of Fate. Both were exceptional RPGs, in spite of their flaws.
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  • Avatar for SOUP32 #23 SOUP32 2 years ago
    Looks like they're not dead after all.
    Officially developing Star Ocean 5 for PS3 and PS4
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