Game Review

by James Beckett,



Guided by the enigmatic puppets, Parrah and Noya, venture into the world of The Library, where characters from classic fairy tales and literature have been gathered to do battle against beasts called Nightmares. Each of these wayward souls has one goal: "Ressurect" their authors, so that they may be be granted their greatest wish. For Snow White, that desire may take the form of some ultimate form of justice; for twisted minds like Red Riding Hood, it is the chance to pursue an unending tide of carnage and murder; others still, such as Alice and Pinocchio, have more personal goals in mind. Nothing is as it seems in The Library, though, and these before their journeys are done, each of these characters will discover the true price of fullfilling their heart's deepest desires...

When NieR: Automata became my favorite videogame of all time in 2017, I dove headlong into the eccentric director Yoko Taro's weird and wonderful digital multiverse, and I have been a devoted fan ever since. When Square-Enix's SINoALICE finally got its long-delayed worldwide launch courtesy of PokeLabo, I couldn't wait to play it, despite not being terribly familiar with mobile gacha RPGs outside of the scant few hours I spent trying (and failing) to get into Fate/Grand Order. If anything could hook me on the format, I thought, it would be Yoko Taro's particular style and vision, not to mention the gorgeous music of NieR/Drakengard composer Keiichi Okabe. I'm all about the premise, too, which explores some of Taro's familiar pet themes and archetypes: The heroes and heroines of SINoALICE are literally ripped from the pages of various fairy tales and children's' stories, having been summoned to the “Library” to battle monsters called Nightmares so that they might “resurrect” the spirits of their authors and be granted their deepest desires.

SINoALICE's spin is in how it takes the subjects of these oft-sanitized stories and not only drags them back down to their darker and bloodier roots, but also slaps on even more layers of Yoko Taro's unique brand of violent, kinky nihilism on top of it all. Red Riding Hood is a sadist that kills everything and anything for the pure rush of it; Gretel has an unsettlingly affectionate relationship with her brother's rotting corpse; Princess Kaguya is a literal masochist who gets off on being shamed and beaten in battle. Anyone familiar with Taro's other popular titles will be very familiar with what SINoALICE is going for, but I don't blame folks for being put off by this “Hot Topic But Even Darker, Edgier, and Lewder” approach to its world and characters. It's goofy as hell and pretty damned weird, but I appreciate how SINoALICE's visuals and music really commit to this atmosphere. I wish there were more lush Keiichi Okabe tracks than what we have gotten so far in the game, but what is here is pretty great (though it admittedly sounds maybe a bit too derivative of past work done on the NieR/Drakengard OSTs). Likewise, the game embraces the abstract paper-doll look that has shown up in those other games to great effect, especially when the game is running on Performance Mode on high-end devices; on my Galaxy Note 9, SINoALICE looks positively gorgeous with its high-resolution illustrations and buttery smooth frame-rate.

The core mechanics of collecting oodles of weapons, armor, boosters, and so on should be familiar to anyone who has dug deep into the endless cycles of upgrading, combining, breaking down, and evolving gear and characters that similar titles have offered. In addition to the ones available at launch, other classes have been added over time, and new characters too, such as the Little Mermaid, along with A2, 2B, and 9S — the androids from Yoko Taro's own NieR: Automata — and there are more to come. While the different character costumes for these class switches are admittedly neat to behold, the overall roster is still relatively small, so SINoALICE is already starting at a disadvantage for fans who want to collect lots of cool characters instead of an endless supply of weapon and armor sprites.

On the whole, the character and item management sides of SINoALICE's RPG mechanics are merely functional. The battle mechanics are also simple: In order to support whichever class of character you're using, you build a deck of skills and attacks out of the various weapons you've collected, which you cycle through in real-time battles with the tap of a finger, using SP to redraw cards, summon helpful Nightmare allies, and support the other members of your party, which will almost always be NPCs unless you recruit the occasional co-op player. The big issue here is that, outside of simply equipping better gear, the only meaningful strategy in these battles lies in paying attention to the Fire/Water/Air element triangle for enemy weaknesses and selecting the targets of your attacks and buffs. Aside from special milestone battles and the regular rotation of events that players can take part in, each of the hundreds of main story chapters consist of three battles each, and with the overpowered gear I was given right from the start, they only ever lasted a few seconds, and most of them could have been beaten with absolutely no input from me.

Even when SINoALICE did finally does begin to present a challenge in either the higher-level story missions or the multi-player Colosseum battles, the pacing of the combat is just off somehow, and the time you spend managing character and item stats doesn't end up paying off in a satisfying way on the battlefield. The multiplayer is its own weird mess besides, specifically because you can only enter the Colosseum with your guild once a day, and only during a single predetermined half-hour window that you may completely miss out on because of having to do, well, literally anything else during that time. Again and again, SINoALICE ends up hamstrung by strange and tedious design decisions like this.

Though the bare bones mechanics didn't work for me, the experience of playing SINoALICE might have been saved if the narrative and presentation were rock solid; after all, it's conventional wisdom amongst Yoko Taro fans that NieR: Automata was maybe the first time a game he directed was actually fun to play. Sadly, any chance of that happening has been smothered by SINoALICE's agonizingly slow pace and stingy attitude. Instead of using a more traditional visual novel setup to tell the story, the game breaks each of its character paths up into fragments of what are essentially story poems, and while the first or last mission of each chapter will contain a decent amount of context and setup, most give only a line or two of text at a time to parse, and they usually aren't even strictly “relevant” to the plot, just the abstract musings of a character that could have shown up anywhere. This means that you will have to finish literally hundreds of missions just to read each character's introductory scenes, and hundreds more before any of them interact with each other or move the plot along. The more the game starts limiting the amount of time you can play each day without spending real-world money, the more exploitative it comes across. The weapon stories and fragmented character monologues from NieR and Drakengard worked because they supplemented what was already a compelling and fleshed out narrative; they are significantly less fun to explore when they are the only pieces of story holding SINoALICE together, especially when it takes such an obscene amount of time to cover so little ground.

If all of SINoALICE's music, art, and narrative scraps could be extracted into some kind of multi-media coffee table book, I'd probably enjoy it quite a bit, though it would probably still come across like a Greatest Hits collection of work that Taro, Okabe, and others have done before, and done better. The elements that tie SINoALICE together into a fully-fledged game are also its weakest and most frustrating components, and it often ends up feeling more like work than play to get through. Outside of a shiny remake of the original NieR, Yoko Taro's next noteworthy project is NieR Reincarnation, a spinoff title that is also a gacha game. I can only hope it ends up a more compelling product than SINoALICE, but there is more reason now than ever to maybe lower our expectations, just to be safe.

Overall : C+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : C-
Presentation : B

+ Typically strange and dark fairy tale vision courtesy of Yoko Taro, the game looks and sounds gorgeous most of the time
Greedy gacha systems and overly shallow RPG mechanics turn the game into a chore, fractured story is told at an absurdly slow pace, grim and overtly sexual themes can be a little much at times

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