Welcome to the worst of all worlds!
While Yoko Taro is most often cited as a game director and a writer behind the Nier and Drakengard series, he also frequently involves himself in smaller more supplemental projects, writing short stories, novels, plays, and even worked on a few other service games like Monster X Dragon and Demon’s Score. Across all of these smaller more supplemental projects, the biggest and most prolific one is SINoALICE, a mobile gacha RPG that originally released on June 6, 2017, as a Japan-exclusive that was originally set to be brought to the west by Nexon in 2019, only for those plans to fall through, thus leading developer Pokelabo to localize the game themselves.
Considering how the developers went to such lengths to bring the title over to the west, translating it into an additional six languages, and Yoko Taro’s talent as a writer and storyteller, I was looking forward to at least dipping my toes in SINoALICE after it launched on July 1st, 2020. And after 3 days with the game and over 12 hours logged into it, I realized I made a mistake somewhere down the line.
Platforms: iOS(Reviewed), Android
Publishers: Square Enix and Pokelabo
SINoALICE takes place in a world known as the Library, a convergence point that draws out the worst from fictitious worlds, twisting and reinterpreting their protagonists into something that exemplifies their worst traits and casts them aside in a land blighted by nightmares where one must kill to survive. This corrupted and deprived realm is populated by none other than various fairy tale protagonists, all of whom have gained awareness outside of the works they were originally created in and confined to, and have resolved themselves to embarking through these badlands in pursuit of a promised wish that would allow them to revive their deceased authors for their own purposes. Whether it be salvation, guidance, revenge, or the opportunity to indulge in their vices once more.
The game sets the stage for a prolonged deconstruction of these pure simplistic characters as they are both internally and externally twisted into something far from the light and saccharine hues they are typically painted in, all with that signature Yoko Taro dark and edgy flair. Unfortunately, that is not what is delivered here. Instead, SINoALICE’s story is told through these brief and vague monologues and fragmented musings from the characters, which preface each story chapter. All of which are written in an exaggerated semi-poetic manner that, while commendable as pieces of prose, do precious little to establish or explain much of anything about the world or what the characters are actually doing.
It is a vague approach to storytelling that I understand certain people enjoy, just look at the fervor surrounding the lore of games as narratively obtuse as Dark Souls, but I personally cannot stand it. I like my stories to be clear and direct, and as a fiction writer, I simply cannot understand the logic behind this approach. Why build a world when you are not going to describe it to the reader? Why build these characters and not delve deeper into their backgrounds? Why would anyone craft a story-driven game like this and do the story such a disservice by breaking it into individual sentences that are divided up between comparably small instances of gameplay?
Despite being so confused by what was going on and frustrated by how this story was paced, I still tried to power through the main story, making it over 50% of the way through the first arc and going through nearly 200 individual story missions. However, as the story went on, as the fragments continued to come in without anything solid or cohesive enough to constitute a full minute of reading time, I simply began to lose interest in whatever tale was supposedly being told.
The characters, while compelling conceptually, lack the platform needed to truly shine with prolonged social interactions. The world is not properly established or reinforced through visuals beyond recycled backdrops for gameplay segments. And the story requires one to pay very close attention to the pretentiously written world synopsis it flashes them with at the start of the game. But I will say that the framing device for all of this, conveyed using the dapper yet unnerving puppet children Parrah and Noya, are wonderful little anecdotes that are emblematic of exactly what I was expecting and wanted of the story, something whimsical yet disturbing. It honestly makes me wish the story was about them, or that they played a bigger role in general.
Now, a bad, or at least badly told, story is by no means a death knell for a game of this sort, and could be redeemed by its gameplay systems… but it really isn’t. The gameplay of SINoALICE, like most games of its genre, is a mixture of a lot of menu navigation, resource management, and bare-bones RPG gameplay that gets complex later on. A deluge of terms, light tutorials, and easy battles that can be auto-ed through greet the player as they begin, and the game does not do a particularly great job at selling its mechanics during this early game. At the most base level, SINoALICE involves a party of 1 player-controlled character and 4 AI-controlled characters as they fend off nightmares from the other side of the screen. The player spends SP to use pre-equipped weapons and their associated skills against enemies while adhering to both a weapon hierarchy and a red-blue-green elemental triangle, neither of which the game directly references in the tutorial
It makes for a very passive combat system that I went through without encountering any real barriers that were not strictly based on numbers, and if there was any real strategy above using the right color or weapon on the right enemy, it wasn’t made clear to me. Yes, I know that every piece of gear has oodles of stats and effects associated with them, but combat never felt deliberate or focused enough for me to really care about the myriad sub-mechanics this game presumably has under the hood. No matter what the player does, their inputs will be limited to choosing 1 of 5 weapons to use on up to 3 enemies and to summon 1 to 5 nightmares to give their team an advantage, and they will only be in control of 1 character in a party of 5.
The menus that surround progression are also at least somewhat contentious, involving a lot of combining of weapons, armor, and nightmares, upgrading weapons, armors, and nightmares, and equipping your characters and character classes with weapons, armor, and nightmares. All of which necessitates that the player go out and farm resources when they are available to be farmed, and maintain their stamina and stamina recovery methods to ensure they can maintain their farming cycle and achieve the next step in their pursuit for more power. While this description could be applied to any number of mobile gacha RPGs, including ones I am quite fond of, there is something especially transparent and hollow about SINoALICE’s implementation of this familiar game flow.
Everything feels like it takes more clicks than it should, merging items together is a laborious process, the upgrade materials to evolve even low-rank gear can be hard to come by, and equipment slots are so plentiful that most pieces of equipment lack any meaningful value. Every character can equip up to 20 weapons, 5 pieces of armor, 5 nightmares, 20 sub-weapons, 5 pieces of sub-armor, 5 sub-nightmares, so the effect of getting an SR or legendary weapon does not mean much in the grand scheme of things, and in battle, it just means you can perform one very effective attack a single time.
Nothing really means anything. Making numbers go up does not feel good. And there is so much stuff, so many avenues to increase power, and so few clear benefits, that I ceased to care about anything after a while, especially the waifus. While I do like the cast of characters presented in SINoALICE, for they are a bunch of psychotic ladies with chips on their shoulders and penchant for hyper-violence, I honestly did not see much of a difference between their playstyles. Every character, or rather every class, has access to their own pool of usable weapons and serves a role in a party, healing, support, and DPS, but the core gameplay remains the same between all of them.
I did not care who I was playing as because all I had to do to get through a battle was to match colors, use a summon if I felt like it, and wait for combat to play out, with almost every battle wrapping up in the span of a single slow minute. I would say that this limited my desire to roll, summon, or pull for new characters, but in SINoALICE, you don’t necessarily get new characters by summoning. Instead, summoning grants the player with weapons of different types, elements, and qualities that sometimes unlock new character classes. This is also the only way to reliably get weapons, and you need a lot of weapons to play this game optimally.
Players are supposed to summon a lot to get a lot of weapons, use the excess to make the best weapons better, and perpetuate the cycle while crawling up the ladder of content and getting more summon materials. As a progression system, it certainly works… but at no time did I ever want for something. I never wanted a particular weapon, I never cared for any of their effects, I just wanted more, because I could always use more, and even if I received regular common weapons, that still meant I had more and could fill out the weapon slots with something that made numbers go up and would deal damage in combat.
Or in other words, summoning is good because it gets players new weapons and more power, but because characters are so rarely obtained through summoning, and lack a mechanical incentive, the game lacks a “waifu incentive”. New characters, or rather new character classes, lack any obvious mechanical incentive that would make me want them, as the entire game can quite feasibly be cleared using the base classes that everybody gets by playing through the story. And while the game does have some killer character alt designs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10), it loses something by having so few true characters to speak of. I actually think the event crossover characters from Code Geass, Nier, and Drakengard are among the most enticing and immediately appealing characters in this game’s line-up, and a lot of that has to do with how they are different, and part of me wanted them simply because they were different. Because they’re not the same freebie lady, but with a cooler hat.
I am aware that by making these sweeping statements I am ignoring a lot of the mechanical minutiae that I am not far enough along with the game to truly understand. However, based on what I played, I neither cared nor wanted to learn more about this game’s mechanics because it’s simply not fun. Or at least that’s what I thought before I learned about the colosseum battles.
Like many mobile games, SINoALICE features social features allowing players to communicate with each other and encouraging them to form teams, alliances, or in this case guilds. Guilds can message each other freely and pair up to tackle content easily, but their main objective is a daily battle against another guild, involving 15 players battling against another 15 players for 20 minutes at a predetermined time.
It is an outlandish commitment for any game to force onto players and one that I, for the sake of this review, tried once… but then I was kicked out of my original guild for some reason, started my own, did not accumulate any members, and wound up entering a 1 on 1 battle against another player. I tapped the screen a lot, my numbers were higher than my opponent, and I won. Then the game told me to do this again tomorrow, and I responded by closing out of the app, placing my thumb on the SINoALICE game icon, and deleting it off my phone. Because not only is the core gameplay as droll as dishwater, it’s also demanding as hell.
Now is the point in the review where I talk about how, even if I do not like the game part of this game, at least the people behind the art and sound were on point, and… yeah, they did an amazing job. The character art is gorgeous in its composition and stunning in its detail. While the soundtrack is an extension of the work previously done by composer Keiichi Okabe in Neir and Nier Automata, two of the greatest and most powerful scores in gaming history. I would highly recommend checking both of these out via the provided links on your own time, as they are what truly shines about SINoALICE, but they are unfortunately the only truly good things I have to say about its presentation overall.
You see, the majority of the game is not spent looking at this detailed character art or letting the soundtrack billow and grow in the background as one plays. Instead, most of what one sees during combat sequences are ragdoll representations of the characters performing canned animation cycles as they slowly attack and are attacked by enemies. It is not necessarily visually captivating, I don’t think it’s cute, and while the ragdoll character sprites themselves are quite detailed, they are so small that such details go unnoticed on phone screens. But more than that is how this all feels so… unnecessary, as the only parts of the screen that the player should be looking at are the very bottom and ate the health bars of the characters. Everything else is visual fluff aside from the numbers and icons, and all relevant information is conveyed through their lower fifths.
Combat sequences also typically only last a minute, meaning that you will only hear a snippet of tracks rather than the whole thing, which gets very repetitive, very fast. Instead, the best place to really enjoy the OST is in the menus connecting combat to everything else, which are rendered in a dull paper beige and wooden sepia that, while fully functional and clear, they lack a certain degree of personality and come across as a touch uninspired because of that. They also could be streamlined a tad more, as I routinely felt like I needed to perform one more click than I should have for more deliberate actions like upgrading and merging equipment.
I have enough experience with mobile games like this to know that I should not judge them prematurely, but with SINoALICE, I honestly could not bear to get over the introductory hump. What endears someone to a service-type game like this, a recurring title that becomes part of one’s routine, is a mixture of a narrative one can become invested in, compelling gameplay mechanics, an appealing aesthetic, and a way of facilitating a social relationship around the game by mingling with other players either directly or indirectly. And despite its numerous efforts to hit these marks, SINoALICE does not really succeed at any of them.
The breadcrumb storytelling makes it hard to be invested in the story due to how loosely things are explained. The gameplay does a poor job of selling itself as anything more a tedious number grinder, failing to illustrate whatever strategy and depth the game may have. The art and music are better enjoyed outside of the game itself. And its attempt at retaining users with co-op and PVP content involves guilt-tripping them into participating in a daily raid group.
Its core ideas, concept, and general presentation all hint at what could be a better game, but instead, this is the final product that was released, updated, and polished over the duration of over 3 years. Something I could only tolerate for about 3 days before whatever passion or interest I had with SINoALICE as a game faded away into nothingness. Because despite having an all-star team of leads and an experienced developer at the helm, what they delivered was somehow the worst of all worlds.