It's about time tri-Ace had another hit. The studio scored a big fat 9/10 with Valkyrie Profile 2 but that was nearly two years ago. Neither Infinite Undiscovery nor Star Ocean: The Last Hope impressed our reviewers, despite the fact one of them was Simon Parkin - a man who likes JRPGs so much the first dance at his wedding will be Aeris' death music.
Now tri-Ace is changing tack and changing publishers. Sayonara, Square Enix; to be this good takes SEGA, or so the studio reckons these days. According to producer Jun Yoshino, the decision to switch wasn't made for purely financial reasons.
"Because tri-Ace has worked on a lot of RPGs over the years they wanted something fresh to work with," he says, speaking at a SEGA press event in London. "Also when they began this project they didn't just want to limit themselves to the Japanese market. They were looking for a different angle of approach."
In other words, tri-Ace wanted to ensure Resonance of Fate would appeal to audiences around the world - and felt that SEGA could help make this happen. "We have really long discussions as to what a Western audience would look for in an RPG game," says Yoshino.
"Obviously we still need to keep it very Japanese, but [SEGA and tri-Ace] sat down and went through a lot of things which a Western audience find frustrating. We tried to get rid of as much as we could of that without losing the feel of a JPRG. We're pretty confident we've done as much as we can to keep that balance between the two styles."
At first glance Resonance of Fate certainly looks like a JRPG. It's set in "neither the future nor the past", according to Yoshino; "It's got a modern-day feel to it but there are still fantasy and sci-fi elements." The emphasis is definitely on steampunk rather than dungeons and dragons.
The gameworld has an industrial, mechanical look, and is painted with a palette of steel greys and rusty browns. Characters run along corroded walkways, past brick walls and underneath iron girders as neon signs flash in the background. Everywhere you look there are spinning cogs and clicking gears, which Yoshino explains are part of a huge, clock-like machine that runs the world. The machine was originally designed to clear pollution from the air but a community has since sprung up and built a tower around it.
The higher up the tower you go, the higher the society you'll find there. Right at the top are the two most powerful members of the population, the only two who are aware the machine is running the whole show. Then come the elite, further down are the working class and right at the bottom are the slums, complete with scary monsters.
To demonstrate how it all works Yoshino switches from the game environment to the world map. Instead of being top-down, the view is side-on; you can see each layer of the world and how it's positioned around the central tower. Each layer is comprised of different-coloured hexagons. Grey hexagons denote areas of the map which have yet to be unlocked. To open them up, you must collect white hexagonal map fragments from enemies you have defeated. You can then slot them in on the world map and unlock new areas in whatever order you please.
Other hexagons are brightly coloured and can only be unlocked with map fragments of the right colour and shape. These are harder to find, and can usually only be obtained by defeating bosses or completing critical missions.
Yoshino takes us back to the regular gameworld now and introduces us to the game's three playable characters - a girl called Reanbell, a man in tight jeans called Zephyr and their leader, Vashyron. They are all mercenaries or, to give them their official title, Hunters. "They take on missions given to them by the aristocracy or upper class, like delivering packages," says Yoshino. Sort of like steampunk Ocado van drivers, then.
The Hunters share an apartment which is handily located next to the Abel City Guild Building. This is where you go to pick up new quests, via a noticeboard which provides info about each mission and details of which NPC you must talk to. Head back outside and you'll find the NPC waiting patiently, complete with a big exclamation mark hovering over their head. Main missions will be allocated automatically but as you'd expect, there are plenty of optional side quests if you're thirsty for extra XP.
Combat will often take place during missions but there are random encounters to deal with too. Yep, you might have thought they'd died out around about the same time as Blazin' Squad and the Queen Mother, but tri-Ace has seen fit to bring them back for Resonance of Fate. "It's about keeping within the structure of the JRPG," says Yoshino. "The random encounters are not as frequent as in traditional RPGs, but they're still there. The idea is to give you a sense of the immense size of the gameworld."
Western movies such as The Matrix and Equilibrium have been important influences on the combat system, according to Yoshino. "There's a lot of gunplay-slash-martial-arts, a lot of bullet-dodging," he says. "The team wanted to play on that partly because they want to appeal to Western audiences more. But also because it's different - not many people make RPGs with firearms in, especially JRPGs.
"This isn't your typical fantasy RPG where you use magic and swords and things like that," he continues. "The characters are equipped with guns and they can also use throwing weapons like grenades and Molotov cocktails. All the weapons are modern weapons."
In the demo we're watching, Zephyr packs a pair of machine guns while his colleagues carry pistols. The machine guns enable him to cause "scratch damage", which means he can take a lot of health off enemies very quickly. However, they'll recover from scratch damage over time. So the other characters need to step in and cause "action damage" with their pistols. This makes the scratch damage permanent and in many cases will finish enemies off. The point is, you need to think strategically about who is equipped with which weapon and the order in which they attack.
"The combat is not really turn-based," says Yoshino. "If you're familiar with one of our previous titles, Valkyrie - whenever you move, the enemy can move. You're also limited as to how much you can move. You can't just run around freely without thinking about it as you will run out of action points. When that happens, you will stop moving."
Best to keep an eye on your action points then, and on the amount of energy you've stored up for your special attack. Once this is charged a dotted line will appear in front of your character, You can move it around the screen to determine which enemy you want to attack, and where your character will end up when the attack is over.
So combat isn't about controlling characters' movements directly, it's about making decisions with regard to timing and positioning. This means you get to sit back and watch those Matrix-inspired acrobatic feats as your character dives and spins through the air, firing off a hail of bullets in glorious slow-mo. It's certainly more cinematic and impressive than a man in a pointy hat making lightning come out of a stick.
The only problem is the nagging feeling you've seen it all before. And you have, if you've ever seen The Matrix or Equilibrium, or played Max Payne or Stranglehold, or had anything to do with popular culture at all in the last ten years. The inclusion of elements such as random encounters and hexagonal world maps don't do much to help matters, and the steampunk theme isn't exactly original.
But according to Yoshino the game is only 70 per cent complete, and who knows what tricks tri-Ace has up its sleeve. Recent form aside, it's important to remember the studio has produced some of the greatest JPRGs ever. Perhaps SEGA's influence will help tri-Ace make a return to form. And who knows, perhaps Simon Parkin will end up skipping round the dancefloor to the theme from Resonance of Fate.