Special Feature: 2016 is the Year Japanese Games Rose from Development Hell

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By now, it’s no secret that many Japanese developers started struggling with the arrival of HD consoles during the last generation of systems. They initially figured they could abide by their usual development methods, by either creating their own engines for use during most of the gen, or — good lord — creating multiple engines for multiple games. But they quickly discovered this wouldn’t work, and while a few eventually came to grips with consoles with their own engines or through using middleware, others were seemingly absent throughout the entire gen. That, or they drifted to handhelds, where they could dodge the entire ordeal by making games with lower development costs.

This phenomenon hit four specific games hard, to the point that they were in development for either a noteworthy portion of the last console gen, or throughout the entire life of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Fortuitously, they’re all releasing this year.

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Final Fantasy XV (aka Final Fantasy Versus XIII)|PlayStation 4, Xbox One|September 30th, 2016 November 29th, 2016

Final Fantasy XV needs no introduction, especially if you’ve followed or read stories of its development woes — including my posts on its announcement anniversaries. It started life as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, confirmed simultaneously with Final Fantasy XIII for PlayStation 3 at E3 2006, which was given the “Versus” name due to its gameplay concepts going against those established in the latter title. But who knew it would be in development for quite this long? It’s made FFXIII’s own schedule slippage look tame in comparison, to the point that most fans don’t even remember that. We saw startlingly little of it during its early development period, but heard plenty of stories regarding director and character designer Tetsuya Nomura’s overly ambitious ideas hindering its completion.

Fast forward to 2016, and the game as it exists today has received drastic changes. Credit for that goes to director Hajime Tabata, who previously directed Final Fantasy Type-0 and The 3rd Birthday before taking this project over from Nomura. Of course, it also received a facelift in production values thanks to moving from PS3 to PS4 and XB1. Plenty of concepts and story content changed during its development cycle, but the new team did its job in actually completing the title, despite some skepticism leveled at its gameplay and demos. We’ll see if all its changes were for the better soon, along with whether the replacement in director was worth it.

Meanwhile, Nomura and most of the Versus XIII team members have since moved to Final Fantasy VII Remake, whose development hopefully progresses smoother. We haven’t seen it since December last year, but hopefully it makes an appearance at some event within the next four months.

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The Last Guardian|PlayStation 4|October 25th, 2016 December 6th, 2016

There were always signs that The Last Guardian was going to suffer development woes from the moment it was unveiled at E3 2009. For one, Team Ico was a small outfit of only around 30 staffers when it started development, and taking on the task of making a big-budget AAA title with that size a team was bound to be arduous. Additionally, Sony Computer Entertainment of Japan had received a thorough gutting of staff and resources during the last console gen, which significantly reduced its overall output. But like FFXV above, it’s still a surprise to see how it’s been in development for so long. It was an unfortunate fate for a title whose concept was as intriguing as this team’s previous titles from various early trailers.

After going dark for years, it was finally unveiled again at E3 2015, where Sony admitted the former PS3-exclusive had to be moved to PS4 due to the former’s inability to run it efficiently. This means all those old trailers were deceptive, but it’s good that they didn’t cancel it, especially after its situation appeared dire when director Fumito Ueda departed the company at the end of 2011. The title appears to invoke the spirit of Team Ico’s previous games, and we’ll finally have the chance to see if it lives up to them when it releases in late-October.

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Nioh|PlayStation 4|Late 2016 February 9th, 2017 (So much for that title, huh?)

Nioh’s development hasn’t been quite as dramatic as the previous titles mentioned in this post, but it’s still a peculiar tale. It was originally announced in 2004 by Koei, well before their merger with Tecmo, as an action title planned for release near the PS3’s launch. But it was delayed until 2006 shortly before it seemed like it would make its release date, though all that was seen of the game was a CG trailer. Following this, Koei — later Koei Tecmo — entered radio silence for the game, though wouldn’t say it was cancelled. It was confirmed in 2010 that Team Ninja had taken over development, who continued to reaffirm its status as a title that wasn’t vaporware until its reveal at Tokyo Game Show last year.

Though its gameplay concepts changed over the years, with the current version resembling one of From Software’s Souls titles crossed with Ninja Gaiden-like mechanics, it’s story concepts haven’t. It still features William Adams (a Caucasian man in 17th-century Japan based on a real figure) as the protagonist, though his redesign incidentally makes him look like Geralt from the Witcher titles. Here’s hoping they show off the old PS3 version after this one releases.

It’s yet to receive a definitive release date, but after playing the Alpha demo in mid-spring, I’m confident it will release soon. Meanwhile, the Beta demo session will begin on August 23rd, which will show how its mechanics have been modified after taking feedback from the Alpha, and the features the final version will contain.

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Persona 5|PlayStation 4, PlayStation3|September 15th,2016 (Japan), February 14th, 2017 (America & Europe)

Atlus’ Persona 5 isn’t as grievous an example as the aforementioned titles, but it’s still been in development for longer than even most pessimists expected. It started shortly after the Persona team released Catherine in Japan in February 2011, a game intended to prepare them for development of an HD console RPG. But it nonetheless appears they underestimated how difficult a task that would be, an issue further exacerbated by their choice to make their own customized engine. This led to the game not being officially announced until the end of 2013, done so with no in-game footage or artwork assets. Worse, gameplay wasn’t shown until February 2015, nearly four years after it was confirmed to be in development.

There have also been a few public delays. It was originally due for release by the end of 2014, but was subsequently pushed back until the end of 2015, and again until summer 2016. Fortunately, when they set that last release timeframe, they meant it.

Persona 5 will release in Japan on September 15th, a little over a month from now, meaning it will be releasing over eight years after Persona 4. Of course, that means we’re now seeing plenty of gameplay through Atlus’ advertising efforts. Seeing the game in motion also shows why it spent so long in development, as in terms of production values, it’s a significant upgrade compared to any previous efforts from this company. But from the way things are looking, it could have been worth the long wait.

Unfortunately, America and (now) Europe will have to wait until February 14th, so us English-speakers will have our own fun in dodging spoilers from those playing the Japanese version. Hopefully it won’t be too hard, though it won’t be easy to avoid those pesky YouTube recommendations if you’ve watched a bunch of videos related to it.

Games that enter development hell tend to be haphazardly assembled and slightly archaic in design by the time they release, but I hope that’s not the case for any of these titles — especially FFXV and TLG. We’ll find out when they all release this fall, barring any further delays.

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