"Everyone may think that I became arrogant because I made a hit and got carried away--I'm upset because I've always been arrogant!"
"You're designing Final Fantasy XIV raids and remaking the original Nier now. What's changed for you since Nier: Automata?" That's a question I sent over to Yoko Taro via email through a PR rep and translator, hoping to get some insight on how his career has evolved since directing one of 2017's best games. And provide insight he did.
"I've always been stubborn, but once Automata became a hit, everyone began to say yes to my stubborn demands. Everyone may think that I became arrogant because I made a hit and got carried away--I'm upset because I've always been arrogant!"
For those unfamiliar, Yoko Taro kind of doesn't give a damn about professional norms in how he presents himself. You'll never catch him in the public eye without his Emil helmet on and you'll recognize his wild but inoffensive eccentricity as distinct from pretty much any other developer in the industry. In many ways, it's an attitude that's spilled into games he's worked on, typically designed with unconventional storytelling, melodrama, and sometimes crude irreverence. And if you're hyped up for the next thing from the creator of the Nier and Drakengard series, well, it actually just launched this week in the West.
It's a mobile RPG for iOS and Android with gacha elements called SinoAlice. It's been out in Japan for three years, but has finally been localized in English and released. Maybe "mobile game" has you doing a double-take, but hear me out: Yoko Taro writes his own dark take on fairy tale characters like Alice (in Wonderland), Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and a whole bunch of others. Several story episodes offer peeks into each character's relationship to their original author and their new dark past that's kind of messed up. Hell, SinoAlice's subtitle is "A Cruel Tale Of Girls Who Must Kill To Live."
In anticipation of the game's launch, I was able to reach out to Yoko-san along with SinoAlice producers Shogo Maeda (Pokelabo) and Yoshinari Fujimoto (Square Enix), while sneaking in a few questions about Nier. Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
"The folks at Pokelabo said, 'We really want to release this globally,'" Fujimoto-san said in reply to why SinoAlice came West after three years. Maeda-san picked it up, saying, "Even before the Japan release, we thought this was a title that could put up a good fight globally in terms of its world-building [while also appealing to] Yoko's fan base. It's been three years, but we still feel the same way."
Both of them also cite the uniqueness of world-building and narrative when asked about what makes the game stand out in a sea of gacha RPGs. They mention that it's "the only game in the world that lets you experience Alice written by Yoko Taro." Maeda-san also added that while the gacha system (think loot boxes for cosmetics and gear) is the same as it is Japan, they've "made some arrangements such as some guaranteed slots, and more likeliness of things you can acquire outside of gacha, compared to the Japanese version."
So if this is an ongoing gacha-style RPG, but with an emphasis on narrative, I had to ask about how deep the story goes--a question that Yoko-san left hanging, telling me, "I think the story will continue for as long as sales continue. Human greed is never-ending, isn't it…" That makes you think.
This isn't the only mobile project he's involved with, as he's also currently working on Nier: Reincarnation, a new canonical story in the series that's a mobile-exclusive. So I asked if and how these two games inform each other. "In SinoAlice, I thought that because mobile games often have no ending, I should prepare one, but SinoAlice shows no sign of ending so I'm feeling troubled," Yoko-san told me. "For Reincarnation, I set it up so the ending will come no matter what after a certain period of time. But I have this lingering feeling that for games that are thought out like that, they'll stop operations immediately…" he concluded, and he's probably just kidding...unless?
In SinoAlice, Nier fans get a two-part crossover event, as a treat--Nier: Automata's content starts on July 16 and Nier: Replicant starts on August 8. In asking about the extent of and work behind the Nier content, Fujimoto-san said, "The Automata collaboration scenario is written by Yoko-san himself, and the Replicant collaboration scenario is written by the scenario team from the Nier project, and supervised by Yoko-san. Both scenarios are original ones that you can only experience in SinoAlice. As for what it consists of... please do try playing it yourself!"
With SinoAlice being an ongoing mobile game, it takes on the live service elements we're starting to see trend across games on other platforms. In asking about the previous partnership and splitting with Nexon prior to release and what it means for the game, Maeda-san clarified, "Both Japan and globally, SinoAlice is published by Pokelabo. We've discussed extensively with Nexon, and we decided to release [the game under] Pokelabo in order to achieve a [level of service] that will satisfy our users, as Pokelabo has a deep understanding of the game."
As for my early impressions, I'm enjoying the simplicity of SinoAlice's combat system, and having the asynchronous multiplayer component where party members are real players' shadows has kept me afloat in battle. I've gotten accustomed to equipping the right gear before going into fights, which have been bite-sized two to three minute chunks where selecting the best weapon and element type to attack with leads to victory (so far). While it's been overwhelming trying to decipher the labyrinthine menus, it's been easy enough to follow the story branches, which thus far have been quite cryptic and melodramatic.
One crucial aspect to the experience: Composer Keiichi Okabe, who's been responsible for tremendous soundtracks including the award-winning music of Nier: Automata, has brought the heat again for SinoAlice. And honestly, these songs could be swapped into Automata and they'd fit right in--the grand sense of scale and drama of SinoAlice's soundtrack is definitely keeping me going.
In trying to get Yoko-san's take on the music and his frequent partnership with Okabe-san, I jokingly asked, "Keiichi Okabe: great composer or greatest composer?" to which he replied, "He is a great and greatest businessman." I don't know what to do with the information, but I'll take it.
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Admittedly, I'm no expert in mobile RPGs, having only played a handful of hours in Fate/Grand Order and Granblue Fantasy. I'm still wrapping my head around how to manage the gear system and trying to understand the drop system. However, what's hooking me here is the dark, mysterious play on old fairy tale characters, their conversion to exceptional anime-inspired designs, and the emphatic orchestral score. And while it's a free-to-play game with gacha elements, I've yet to spend a dollar, but we'll see where that goes.
There's a lot more to unpack in SinoAlice, but if you're into Yoko Taro's brand of storytelling and digestible RPG combat, the game is worth a shot, if only to see the results of his 'stubborn demands.'