Special Feature: The Rise and Fall of Imageepoch

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Imageepoch’s had serious potential to become a formidable competitor as a game developer and publisher, and it was a shame to see them venture down a path to ruin.

There were months of warning signs in the form of staff departures and their latest title being in limbo, but Imageepoch ended up stealthily fading from existence at the end of March. “Stealthily” meaning it happened in a way only a small Japanese developer and/or publisher could get away with, by not providing an official notice announcing their shuttering. We found out when their main websites went down on April 1st, a date marking…no, not April Fools’ Day, but the beginning of a new fiscal year for Japanese companies.

It’s a pity, because it feels like it was only yesterday when they embarked on the ambitious but potentially arduous road of self-publishing, though it occurred in November 2010. The company started as a developer who worked on titles for other publishers, responsible for works that garnered a good reception from fans like The 7th Dragon, Arc Rise Fantasia, and Last Ranker, developed for Sega, Marvelous Entertainment, and Capcom, respectively.

Arc Rise Fantasia
Arc Rise Fantasia

It feels like we never got to know the “good” side of Imageepoch, given the three games listed. The 7th Dragon and Last Ranker were never released outside of Japan, and Arc Rise Fantasia received a poor localization courtesy of the also-defunct Ignition Entertainment. 7th Dragon, at least, received a fan translation last year.

Of course, during that time, they also made merely adequate strategy/RPGs with the Luminous Arc titles and super-skeevy Criminal Girls. Nevertheless, they sold well enough to establish a small, dedicated audience for their titles, enough that venturing into self-publishing seemed like a good idea at one point.

Imageepoch wanted to make their entry in a big way, launching a campaign that made the grandiose claim of potentially saving the Japanese RPG market, a genre that fell far from its popularity height during the SNES, PSOne, and PS2 days. It was one of the silliest things I’d ever seen, especially with the cheesy English voiceover they used in their video. No one believed they would live up to this, but they set expectations high, and fans of the genre still reeling from its fall from grace were expecting some enjoyable products similar to their previous output.

That all came crashing down when people saw the quality of those games.

Their first self-published title was Final Promise Story, an RPG for PSP mostly played in first-person. Despite having promise (pun not entirely intended), it garnered mediocre reviews and sales in Japan, and never left its home country. Black Rock Shooter, their second title that was released worldwide, was solid (as, well, a rock), but was nothing spectacular. Not a good first showing for a company that made such lofty promises. People knew they were capable of good things, so faith in the company remained.

Then along came a title that sent them figuratively crashing into the ground with the hardest thud that could possibly be made: Time and Eternity.

Time and Eternity
Time and Eternity

Simply put, there isn’t much worthwhile about the game. It looked OK from the still screenshots, though the inconsistency between the 2D animation and 3D backdrops was present even then. Seeing the game in motion really put how ugly it looked into perspective. It also came with a story that doesn’t do much littered with player choices that make little difference, and featured some of the worst music the usually-great Yuzo Koshiro has ever composed. It garnered low critical reviews and sold poorly in every territory it released in, and was runner-up for “Kusoge of the Year 2012” (translator’s note: “kusoge” means “shit game”) on Japanese bulletin board 2ch. It tarnished Imageepoch’s reputation forever, enough for them to be never taken seriously again. For a company that claimed it would save the genre, this was the ultimate irony.

It’s worth noting that Time and Eternity wasn’t one of Imageepoch’s self-published titles. Bandai Namco handled publishing, promotion, and distribution, though they suffered no setbacks from it.

Imageepoch had a difficult time selling their games after that one. It didn’t help that it competed with their own self-published title released for PSP around that time in Sol Trigger, which also put up underwhelming sales. Both Fate/Extra CCC and The 7th Dragon 2020-II performed well enough for publishers Marvelous and Sega, but not enough to help the developer after the two titles that released before them.

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But following those last two, they had a difficult time finding more work with publishers, which coincided with the PSP’s fade from relevance in Japan. The only jobs they could obtain were working on Criminal Girls Invitation and Toushin Toshi Girls Gift for Vita and 3DS, respectively. The former was an upgraded port of the PSP game with an added chapter and new features, while the latter was a remake of an eroge title with the porn stripped out. Their other work involved titles where they merely provided minimal support, like Yoshi’s New Island and Super Sonico in Production, though Arzest and Nitroplus handled the bulk of the work for both.

Around that time, rumors spread saying the company could no longer afford to have two development teams working in tandem, reducing their internal staff to one. That was only a rumor, sure, but it was frighteningly accurate given their output described in the previous paragraph — enough that it was likely a staffer who leaked the information anonymously.

Director and producer Kazuya Niinou, who served as director for the aforementioned 7th Dragon and Last Ranker (and director of the first Trauma Center and Etrian Odyssey installments at Atlus before that), departed the company. He currently works at Square Enix as assistant director for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Something was brewing at the company, news its fans wouldn’t want to hear — the few that remained.

It had been a while since the last one, but the company finally confirmed their next self-published venture in Stella Glow for 3DS in November last year. They carefully teased it without showing the game, but confirmed a winter 2015 release time frame. That meant it wouldn’t take long for them to show it.

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But months passed, and both the game and developer went silent. Stella Glow finally resurfaced in mid-March, albeit with Sega assuming publishing duties. Sega handled distribution for all of their self-published games, but had to convince them to pick this title up. Rumor has it that the game’s been done for a while, but Imageepoch couldn’t afford to publish it. During this time, the company was getting ready to close their doors, an event also evinced with their games being removed from Japanese PlayStation Network. Once again, those rumors make sense given everything that’s happened.

(Also, if you’re worried about Stella Glow’s localization chances, it turns out Atlus USA will be bringing it over.)

We knew they were in bad shape, but the biggest sign that the curtain has closed ton their existence appeared when their websites went down on April 1st, a little under two months before their 10th anniversary. This escalated further when reports circulated saying founder and CEO Ryoei Mikage was missing. It’s likely he isn’t missing in the traditional sense, since there have been no reports that his family or friends have filed a Missing Persons claim with Japan’s authorities. Instead, his “missing” is likely a way for him to go into hiding, because it’s possible he owes people money. Let’s just hope some of those “people” aren’t affiliated with the yakuza, or he could really be missing soon.

They never came close to living up to their promises of reviving and redefining “JRPG,” but kudos to Imageepoch for at least giving it in a shot in an increasingly volatile market for core-aimed gaming titles. Things could have gone better if they were capable of maintaining consistent quality in their titles, but it’s too late for that now. It’s a sad fate, as given how the Japanese gaming industry is today, it would be impossible for another company to embark on a self-publishing venture like they did.

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