In late August of 2000, I begged my mother to drive me to the local Target to pick up a brand new RPG called Valkyrie Profile
. I knew absolutely nothing about tri-Ace at that time, my purchasing decision having been based purely on the previews I had been reading around the Internet. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.
Like all tri-Ace games, it's not without its quirks. The battle system can get a little too repetitive for its own good, and it's debatable whether or not the fact that the "good" ending is so well hidden that most people need a guide to find it. There's no argument that it's unique though, which is a quality that tends to distinguish all tri-Ace RPGs.
From Software and tri-Ace actually have quite a bit in common in that regard. Both studios certainly have their share of detractors, but it's easy to tell their games from the pack. And neither has shied away from the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, embracing the high-definition generation more enthusiastically than pretty much any other Japanese studio their size.
Understanding tri-Ace means looking at one of their earliest games — Tales of Phantasia, which was the first of theTales "mothership” games.It was designed and programmed by Wolf Team, which was then home to many of the developers who would go on to form tri-Ace. It's in the Tales series that tri-Ace's inclination toward action-oriented battle mechanics are first apparent, to be later refined in the original Star Ocean, which was the studio's first proper release.
The details have changed over the years, but tri-Ace has been consistently praised for their battle systems. Even Infinite Undiscovery (which tends to get a lot of flack from critics) managed to have reasonably entertaining combat. It's in the stories and the characters where mileage tends to vary.
In another parallel to the Tales series, tri-Ace has a tendency to make heavy use of character and storytelling tropes that are heavily influenced by anime. That would be fine, but tri-Ace protagonists are rarely interesting, and often annoying. Infinite Undiscovery's Capell immediately comes to mind as a character that I found conspicuously irritating thanks to a lousy attitude and some uneven voice acting.I have no great love for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time's Fayt Leingod or even Valkyrie Profile's Alicia either.
A notable exception is Lenneth Valkyrie, who manages a convincing mixture of authority and pathos in her role as Valhalla's puppet in Valkyrie Profile. Despite being absent for a large part of the sequels, she is the glue that holds that franchise together, and her appearances are always significant. Not surprisingly, Lenneth and her sisters Hrist and Silmeria remain tri-Ace's most consistently popular (and memorable) characters.
Tri-Ace also has a notable amount of trouble with pacing. The opening hours of Infinite Undiscovery, Resonance of Fate and Valkyrie Profile are all extremely slow, a feeling exacerbated by the dense mechanics. This seems to be a particular problem for Resonance of Fate, which has little to no forward momentum over the first hour and basically leaves players to figure things out for themselves.
These quirks have left tri-Ace in a bit of a rut. It feels like they're looking for a surprise crossover hit in the vein of Demon's Souls, but haven't quite found it yet. Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile remain their reliable go-to franchises, with experimentation reserved for one-offs like Radiata Stories. In the meantime, it feels like they're stuck in between Square Enix and Atlus — hardly a giant, but not a scrappy underdog other. They're the definition of the "B" team.
But still, Valkyrie Profile remains one of my favorite PSOne-era RPGs, and that means that I have a certain amount of love for tri-Ace. I've even come around to likingSilmeria, which I initially found disappointing despite the spectacular battle system (see again: Alicia). It's partly because ofSilmeria that I decided to initially give Resonance of Fate a shot, since they share the same director in Takayuki Suguro.
As for where tri-Ace plans to go next, I really can't say. I would dearly love a Valkyrie Profile for the PS3 or Xbox 360, but I'm never certain whether or not that series is dead forever. Barring a surprise hit, tri-Ace has the unenviably task of expanding a steadily shrinking niche.