How Project Phoenix hopes to disrupt the JRPG genre – Interview

Monday, 9 September 2013 10:55 GMT By Dave Cook

Project Phoenix is the new tactical RPG from Creative Intelligence Arts. VG247’s Dave Cook learns more about the studio’s blend of Eastern and Western philosophies, as well as Nobou Uematsu’s involvement.

Project Phoenix

Developed by Creative Intelligence Arts, Project Phoenix is a squad-based, tactical JRPG in development for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4 and PS Vita.

It’s a team spread across Eastern and Western territories, whose members have worked on many Final Fantasy games, Skyrim, Valkyria Chronicles, Halo 4 and more.

The game was successfully funded on Kickstarter and at the time of writing it has made $826,075 of its $100,000 goal.

Final Fantasy composer Nobou Uematsu is also lending his songwriting talents to Project Phoenix.

We’ve seen a wave of Kickstarter success stories out of Japan recently. Just last week Keiji Inafune managed to raise over a million dollars for his Mega Man successor Mighty No. 9 in under two days, and before that we saw indie RPG Project Phoenix raise $826,075 when all it needed was $100,000 to succeed.

The latter is serious business. Project Phoenix is a triple-a, tactical, squad-based JRPG developed by new studio Creative Intelligence Arts. It’s a team of talented developers from both the East and West that boasts a combined work history spanning Skyrim, Valkyria Chronicles, L.A. Noire, Diablo 3, Halo 4 and Crysis 3, as well as the Final Fantasy series at large.

Stewarded by director and producer Hiroaki Yura, the game blends JRPG sensibilities with StarCraft-inspired RTS combat that results in an intriguing hybrid. I recently managed to speak with Yura over email and I opened by asking him for some background on the project, given the scale of its global development.

“The concept came from myself,” he replied. “I’ve always been a fan of JRPGs and those smaller team missions from Warcraft and StarCraft and wanted to put these elements together, but in a way that made sense. Our key goals are to make a JRPG that has a combat system that made sense. To me, a JRPG is a game with the primary focus on the story.

“And from the story, the gameplay and the rest of the elements revolves around. We needed to find a gameplay which suited small combat handled by a band of adventurers similar to the Lord of the Rings. Your primary mission isn’t to win the war by destroying the oponent’s army, but to win enough battles with your group to win the war… although our story isn’t really about “war” as such.

“We want the player to feel a unified experience of the world of Azuregard and feel that they belong and be part of the world through natural adaptation of what you do with your band. Our major aim is to basically balance out the best skills, designs, and ideas from the west and the east and put it all together to create this project. Japanese aesthetic, with Western functionality as we like to call it. We want fantasy to be believable.”

The world of Azuregard is under siege from orcish clans that have started to march on the realms of men, and amid the chaos, noble paladin Marcus Stern happens upon amnesic angel Ruffles. The chance meeting sparks a quest to aid the war effort, along with elven princess Sylrianah, and battlemage Zarum the Lost. While it could be argued that Yura’s plot veers closely to JRPG staples – the amnesic hero, a small band of warriors saving the world and so on – he explained that using the Unity engine, his team wants to challenge preconceptions of the genre at each step, starting with combat.

“We felt that the turn based combat was old”, Yura explained. “We wanted a combat system that felt natural for the players and with a long history of varied game mechanics, we decided to take a different approach to how most of us looked at the JRPG genre. The gameplay needed to be more streamlined and felt natural in many ways for players to meld into the world, and having unnecessary and unnatural command input times or turns. We understand that the genre feels OK to have a turn based combat system but since many of us are comprised of artistic creators, we want to push this as much as we can.”

With that in mind, Creative Intelligence Arts is bringing terrain into combat. For example, Sylrianah’s role as path-finder allows her to sense enemies through walls and see further to help players plan their attack, rather than rushing in blindly. Elevated positions can also help players get the drop on enemies, bridges can be destroyed to block attack routes or send monsters tumbling and so on. The caveat is that the enemy can use these same tactics again players on higher difficulty tiers. Yura recently explained in this dev diary that the AI can be utterly ruthless.

Yura shed some light on how combat in Project Phoenix will feel in practical terms, “The battle will be similar to those small team missions with StarCraft and Warcraft. There are several differences. First, you get to customise and level your characters like any JRPG. Second, we have a focus on squad based combat – not individual micromanagement – although you are technically capable of using one character in a squad to control him or her alone. Third, the characters will receive experience and increase levels if they survive the battle, receive loot and so on. I won’t go through all of the differences, it may just take me forever.

“To control, it’s a simple point and click to move, the attack commands will be similar to a usual RTS. However, there will be stances in which your squad can choose from, basically a command which orders your character to act in a certain way like being aggressive, defensive or stealthy. In the end, dependant on what mission, you will set you squad’s battle stance, figure out the best way to divide your men into squads and how you can manipulate the terrain to succeed in your mission.”

This desire to move away from turn-based JRPG staples isn’t exclusive to Project Phoenix, as recent Western release Tales of Xillia featured real-time combat to name just one example, while previous games like Valkyria Chronicles – while turn-based – added new spins to the old format. I asked Yura what his combining of Eastern and Westen talent has brought to the table from a design philosophy.

“In my opinion, a good balanced mix of the West and the East will create the ultimate JRPG. OK, maybe not the ultimate, but will definitely lead towards the ultimate JRPG,” he stated. “I believe Japanese devs have a lot to learn from the West and should shed the old ways of doing things in favour of a more efficient ways of developing and logical designs. The tone will be a little darker than your usual Japanese RPG but that’s OK, I think we need to have a balance of dark and bright. How would you know what’s bright when you never know darkness?”

I followed up by asking Yura for his views on the general state of the JRPG genre today, to which he replied, “I believe there isn’t much fun in the gameplay and the grand stock fantasy stories are too intimidating for companies to develop because it has been done well before. I believe we need a shake up and new ideas, maybe new ideas juxtaposed with an old theme?

“The way I structured the development is already new, and I think it already is leaving it’s mark, like for Yoko Enoki, the scenario writer to work with an English editor Bill Benfield, or for our Japanese art team led by Gontaro, who is trained in NYC to work with Steffan Unger, a German modeller predominantly known for Halo 4.”

This melting pot of cultures, influences, aspirations, experiences and talent has resulted in an intriguing concept. The marrying of RTS combat and JRPG sensibilities may sound like an easy fit on paper, but given the crowd-funded nature of Project Phoenix, Yura and his team have to ensure that the end product is worthy of its backer’s coin. Based on what’s been said and shown so far, I’m already inclined to believe it can be done with gusto.

But there’s still that little matter of Final Fantasy composer Nobou Uematsu. “Myself and Nobuo go way back,” Yura concluded, “maybe nine years ago when I started the-then fledgling Eminence Symphony Orchestra on the last day of him as the staff at Square Enix. Since we knew each other, it was a simple matter of asking him if he’d be interested in working on our project together. We’re still trying to figure out a way to really wow the world with a great soundtrack.”

Project Phoenix is due to launch on PC, Mac, Linux mid-2015. It is also in development for PS4 and PS Vita.