PlatinumGames has unveiled World of Demons, an action game that pits samurai versus yokai in what looks very much like a spiritual successor to Ōkami, leaning as it does on traditional Japanese folklore and mythology and featuring artwork that's heavy on parchment textures and drawn with thick, tangibly inked lines.
Oh, and another thing. It's a free-to-play mobile game that's being published by partner DeNA.
If that last little caveat comes as a bit of a disappointment, know this: World of Demons looks and plays every inch the PlatinumGames action experience, its combat encounters complete with combos, counters and cancels. And, despite the touchscreen, it plays like an extremely good example of the type of action PlatinumGames has built its name upon - as you might expect given it's from the director of Anarchy Reigns and designer of The Wonderful 101.
"Historically we've been a console-specific developer, but we want to focus on any type of game on any type of system, regardless of whether it's a console or not," PlatinumGames' co-founder and executive director Atsushi Inaba explains at the launch event for World of Demons in Osaka's Umeda Sky Building. "Our company mission is just to create great feeling action games with full originality - and we think this project fits that."
"That philosophy is what made me excited to work with Platinum," says Andrew Szymanski, DeNA's producer on World of Demons and a man who also brings console experience to the team, having previously worked at Team Ninja and Capcom. "They're platform-agnostic, and they'd treat this as how to get the best possible action game on a mobile device. I'm trying to challenge people's preconceived notions of what's possible with a mobile game. People, especially in the west, say, well you can't do that - but I think Platinum has risen to the occasion quite exceptionally."
After a couple of hours spent playing World of Demons, I can attest to that. This is a much more effective distillation of an existing brand of play than DeNA's more recent work with Nintendo on Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing; instead, think more along the lines of Super Mario Run, with a little automation helping smooth out the lack of traditional controls. It runs a little deeper than that, in practice, affording you complete 360 degree control over your character in small, closed-off arenas with your attacks automated once you're in range.
It's about positioning, then, but there's more; you have access to helper yokai, each on cooldown and accessible on the bottom right of the screen, and all of which tie into an elemental weapon triangle. And, when it comes to defending, with a swipe of the screen you can dodge incoming attacks; time it perfectly and you're granted a special finisher, enabled by performing a quick gesture on the touchscreen, marked out in thick and scruffy ink.
If that sounds familiar, well it all very much is. The dodge is lifted from every other Platinum action game, that finisher a direct lift from the team's previous work at Clover Studios with Ōkami - and, of course, the setting and painterly execution makes those lines between the two games all the thicker. The score from Hiroshi Yamaguchi - who previously composed Ōkami's soundtrack - only makes it all that bit more explicit.
"I know it's easy to tie this together with Ōkami, in a spiritual way," Inaba says of the similarities. "But the start of this project, it was just the co-creators wanting to create a cool, traditional Japanese kind of game. Obviously with my history you can see some Ōkami essence in there - but I never told people I wanted it to be more Ōkami! It's just a coincidence."
World of Demons certainly delves deeper in certain areas, informed as it is by Toriyama Sekien's encyclopedia of yokai, a chronicle which began in 1776. Yokai, in case you're not familiar with them, are supernatural monsters that appear frequently in Japanese folklore, and World of Demons has pulled together a characterful bunch, each complete with its own lore - translated and adapted for the game by Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda, the team behind the only official translation of Sekien's work. There's ushi-oni, the melancholy-looking yokai who's looking out for his terrifying wife, or shirime, who stares out at the player through the eye in its arsehole. "We didn't do motion capture for this one," quips modelling artist Muneyuki Kotegawa as we tour PlatinumGames' shopfloor.
And those yokai - of which there will be over 80 in the initial release of World of Demons - tie neatly into the free-to-play mechanics. They're recruitable and trainable - you can pit them against other players' yokai in an asynchronous multiplayer mode - and obtainable in a summons system that's powered by microtransactions. It's simple and upfront, at least, and DeNA does want to offer options for players who are more used to the traditional business model that PlatinumGames' output has employed.
"Nothing's behind a paywall - that's something that was very important for us," says Szymanski. "We also wanted to give people different ways to interact with the game - not only in playing it, but also in terms of the payment model. We have the summons - those are done using in-game currency, and that can be earned.
"One of the key things with action games is it's all about how good you are. There is customisation and levelling up. The better player you are, the more quickly you get rewards. We wanted to give people different ways to interact. The summons is very straightforward mechanic. But we didn't want it to end there - we also have the beckoning system, which is a single one-time purchase.
"There are various tiers of it, and it's a one time payment that gives you a permanent buff. There's going to be people out there who want to get every single yokai that's available, and for them all to be max level - there are options for those players. There are others who'll want to spend a certain amount of money over the course of the game - so we have these permanent purchase options available so they can get drops a little faster, in a way that's very visible."
Will the more traditional audience PlatinumGames' output invites take to a model and platform that's typically anathema to them? It's a big hurdle - perhaps too big, you feel, for what's already a hardcore audience - but you can't fault DeNA and PlatinumGames for trying. And you've got to admire them for succeeding in making the underlying game, against all odds, feel like authentic Platinum. World of Demons is coming to iOS this summer, and at the very least it's going to cost you nothing to find out whether or not it works.
This article is based on a press trip to PlatinumGames' studios in Osaka. DeNA covered travel and accommodation costs.