SinoAlice has much of what you’d expect from a game from Yoko Taro, the acclaimed director best known for his work on Nier: Automata. It’s dark and introspective, with a story that pulls you in unexpected directions. This time around, he’s turned his attention to the worlds of fairytales; SinoAlice takes place in a setting simply called the “Library,” where storybook characters like Alice and Little Red Riding Hood become sword-wielding warriors fighting off waves of monsters in an attempt to revive their “author.” In typical deprecating fashion, Taro says he was drawn to these characters for a very simple reason.
“It’s because the copyright has expired and there’s no cost,” he tells The Verge. “I researched on Wikipedia. What a convenient world we live in.”
Taro served as creative director on the game, which is billed as a collaboration between Square Enix and Pokelabo, a small Japanese mobile game studio. While SinoAlice actually launched back in 2017 in Japan, it’s launching globally today as a free-to-play title on both Android and iOS. In some ways, it’s typical mobile fare: you have to play regularly to unlock a huge range of characters and gear, while engaging in relatively simple real-time battles and dealing with things like premium currencies and daily check-ins.
What makes the game unique, though, is its tone, which is due in large part to Taro’s writing, as well as elaborate character designs by artist Jino and a gripping soundtrack from Nier composer Keiichi Okabe. Each of the characters is defined by a specific theme — Alice represents “bondage,” for instance, while Sleeping Beauty is “languor” — and has their own multi-chapter story narrative arc to play through. The weapons even have their own lore that you can slowly uncover, much like in Nier.
According to Taro, the universal familiarity of these storybook characters made the writing process easier in a way. “Everyone knows the story for famous characters, so it’s convenient that I don’t have to explain the backstory every time,” he says. “It’s a hassle to explain why Red Riding Hood is wearing a hood, for example.” But that doesn’t mean the process was straightforward.
“It’s not difficult to make the characters unique,” Taro adds. “If you just give Alice and Cinderella four eyes and make them spit out venomous projectile vomit, it’d be something new. What’s difficult is retaining the feeling of both freshness and marketability. It’s so difficult that I had all but given up on SinoAlice. I honestly feel like I didn’t care anymore.”
Deep stories aren’t exactly common in the free-to-play mobile space, where games are typically seen as time wasters. (“Worry not,” Taro jokes, “the story can be skipped with just one tap!”) But it’s arguably the main appeal of SinoAlice. I’ve been playing for the last few days, and while I’ve found the core gameplay largely monotonous, I’ve been pushing forward in order to see what happens next. Even the tutorial text is pithy and entertaining; at one point the marionette guide characters joke that a dragon you encounter is “totally unbalanced.”
According to producer Shogo Maeda from Pokelabo, one of the things the team learned after SinoAlice launched in Japan is that storytelling outside of the game, on platforms like YouTube and social networks, is a very important tool. “Mobile games are growing into a more comprehensive form of online entertainment,” he says.
It’s far from guaranteed that SinoAlice will be as popular worldwide as it has been in Japan, but early signs are positive. Square Enix says more than 2 million players preregistered for the game in the lead-up to launch. It’s yet another example of Taro’s growing celebrity. Ever since Nier: Automata became a cult hit, the publicity-shy director, who wears an unsettling moon mask in public, has been in demand. In addition to working on this mobile game, he also helped create a new quest line for Final Fantasy XIV. It’s a balancing act that’s been tricky to pull off.
“I was behind on all the deadlines and everyone was mad at me from all different directions,” Taro says. “It was beyond imagination.”