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Babylon's Fall and the trials of live service: PlatinumGames and Square Enix on their latest hack and slash

"From the very start, Babylon’s Fall would include the elements of high fantasy, hack and slash, and live service.”

The Ziggurat is an imposing presence in the lakeside hub town of Babylon’s Fall, its broad, horizon-spanning arches giving away nothing about the kind of fantastical beasts and secrets you’ll find inside. Based on the Tower Of Babel, the mythological birthplace of all the world’s languages, it’s perhaps ironic that Square Enix and PlatinumGames’ latest hack and slash started life with its own kind of miscommunication. When it was first unveiled at E3 2018, it looked like PlatinumGames were doubling down on all the good stuff they’d delivered just a year earlier with Nier: Automata, giving us another high-octane, single player action game with a dizzying array of weapons and over the top soundtrack, all wrapped up in an enticing layer of gothic high fantasy as players fight their way skyward.

A long silence then followed, release dates slipped again and again, and its single follow-up trailer during one of Sony's 2019 State Of Play broadcasts remained as inscrutable as its iconic Ziggurat. It wasn’t until E3 2021 that the game’s true nature was finally revealed. Rather than being a solo adventure, Platinum and Square declared that not only would Babylon’s Fall be a primarily online multiplayer game, but that it was also going to be a live service game in the vein of Destiny and The Division. It was surprising, to say the least, but when I put the question to the PlatinumGames and Square Enix’s joint development team, Square Enix producer Junichi Ehara tells me that this was far from a sudden change of heart on their part: “From the very start of the project, it was decided that Babylon’s Fall would include the elements of high fantasy, hack-and-slash, and live service.”

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Indeed, the reason why the game went quiet for three years was partly because PlatinumGames were still figuring out the ins and outs of making a good live service game. There may be plenty of multiplayer games in the studio’s back catalogue, but Babylon’s Fall is the first one to fall under the “games as a service” model – and that required a complete rethink on how they approached game development as a whole, says co-director Kenji Saito.

Four heavily armoured warriors from Babylon's Fall
A real ring to it
If you’re wondering about how the game’s look and feel came about, it was Square Enix who originally got in touch with PlatintumGames and asked them to create a high fantasy setting for them. “When we began work on development, there was a lot of dark fantasy around,” says Ehara. “That’s still true of the current market. I thought that being able to play in a world that felt more like Lord Of The Rings would make the game stand out.”

“There were a lot of things that we needed to think up and test out,” he says. “And it’s true that this process did take some time.” Previously, Saito said the team would “throw in everything” they came up with during development. “That was pretty much the approach at PlatinumGames,” he continues, “but when working on a live service game, I believe the fundamental way you think about the game changes. What do we need to include to make sure that players can play for the long term? What do players want? These are the kinds of questions that arise.”

While Saito and his team set about trying to answer those questions, publisher Square Enix did their best to keep the game out of the limelight. “While PlatinumGames were experimenting with things, we stopped promoting the game,” Ehara admits, “which meant that there was a longer than expected period of time during which players were under the false impression that it would be a single player game. Looking back, this is something we could have handled better.”

A woman stands in a medieval market town in Babylon's Fall

Even with the games as a service confusion cleared up, though, Babylon’s Fall still hasn’t had the easiest road toward release. A number of closed betas followed that E3 2021 announcement, and nearly all were met with a lukewarm response from would-be players. Ed and I took part in the closed beta just before Christmas, and while PlatinumGames’ signature eye for action was well and truly present, both of us came away wondering just how compelling it would be over repeated visits to the same jumble of streets and cloisters of the Ziggurat’s interior. You’ll be able to read more of Ed’s launch impressions shortly, but so far, I’m not sure its battle arena-corridor-battle arena-corridor structure is going to be quite enough to draw players away from a certain other online fantasy ARPG that came out just last week.

To his credit, Saito has been quite upfront about the struggles the studio’s faced in bringing the game to fruition. In Square Enix’s own developer interview for Babylon’s Fall 2021 re-reveal, he talked about how his earliest impression of the game was that it was going to be “development on hard mode”, and when I asked him specifically about what felt so daunting about the game in those early days, he replied that it all stems back to working in an unfamiliar genre.

An archer prepares to fire at a large swordsman in Babylon's Fall

“Babylon’s Fall is very different from previous games developed by PlatinumGames and their style, from the way we needed to think about development of the game, to the format the game would take after release, to the game’s structure,” Saito explains. “When I made that comment, I was thinking about all these challenges we would face and how we would approach that process – and thinking that it seemed quite a lot!”

For players, scaling the seemingly endless hallways of the Ziggurat will no doubt seem “quite a lot” as well. Alas, I wasn’t able to get an answer about when or if we’ll ever reach the top of Babylon’s Fall’s great tower, but co-director Takahisa Sugiyama assures me that they will be adding new regular ‘seasons’ to the game around once every three months.

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“During the upcoming Season 1, you’ll be able to reach a proper milestone in the Tower Of Babel, but of course, new playable areas and quests will be added at a later date,” he says. Sugiyama remained tight-lipped on what those areas and quests will be, but based on the footage we’ve seen in both its E3 2021 and recently released combat trailers (above), it looks like players be visiting some pretty far out places as they ascend further up the tower. Combined with the game’s unique art style, these could be some of the most striking virtual locations we’ll see this year. Inspired by classic European oil paintings to help heighten its fantasy setting, I was certainly very taken with its painterly brushwork during the closed beta, but Saito says not everyone was quite so enthusiastic about it.

“Opinion [about the art style] was pretty divided at the time of the beta tests,” he says. “It’s true that during the beta tests, the filter had a slightly lower level of polish and leaned more strongly towards an artistic depiction, which meant that screenshots looked better than the game in action. We’ve balanced the game to make it easier to play, incorporating feedback from players in the beta tests and adding new features.”

While Ed will be following up with some more detailed impressions of the final game very soon, the closed beta, at least, certainly had a lot to keep track of during the heat of battle. If parsing all the flashy effects of your own four-strong arsenal of weapons wasn’t enough, try dealing with 16 of them when you’ve got three other co-op pals in tow.

A warrior attacks a big monster with a ghost hammer in Babylon's Fall

“To ensure good visibility for the player, we’ve done things like split the effects into several types, cutting down on them in some situations,” Saito continues. “However, it may be difficult to see everything that’s going on at all times – sometimes you may want to unleash your full power, but you’ll find you should have been paying attention to something else, or there may be times when friend and foe are on top of each other, making it tricky to see things clearly.”

Four heavily armoured warriors from Babylon's Fall
Square Enix and NFTs
One thing players won’t have to worry about is the threat of equipment becoming NFT’d. Despite Square Enix’s president expressing an interest in pursuing blockchain opportunities in their games over the Christmas holidays, Ehara states that “we have no plans to introduce NFTs into Babylon’s Fall,” and that “any content utilising NFTs or the blockchain would be created entirely separately” from the game.

This might sound worrying for PlatinumGames purists who cut their teeth on the precise and highly skill-based combat the studio’s known for, but Saito wants to reassure players that, compared to previous games they’ve made, Babylon’s Fall “feels like it relies more on base abilities and stats, and less on your build and technique. Personally, I think the balancing is quite close to an RPG. It still requires action gameplay, but the most important factor will be the power of your equipment and the enhancements add to that gear.”

And what equipment there is, too. As mentioned above, your Sentinel warrior has not one, but four weapons at their disposal in Babylon’s Fall thanks to the power of the, admittedly bafflingly named, Gideon Coffin. With one in each hand and the remaining two floating behind you like a pair of spectral murder wings, Babylon’s Fall ignores the usual rules around one and two-handed weapons to allow for some truly bonkers combos. Fancy wielding four bows? You got it. Or maybe you’d prefer a bow, axe, sword and a lance? Coming right up. Indeed, with so much variety and flexibility at players’ disposal, I asked Saito whether the team were ever worried that so many weapons would make the game too easy.

A feathered warrior launches a powerful attack at a lanky swordsman in Babylon's Fall

“You may eventually end up with weapons that emerge as your favourites, but as you’re progressing through the game, there will constantly be equipment dropping with new power levels,” he says. “This will force you to change your equipment, creating a new style of build. Rather than being a pain, however, I’d hope that players will think of this as providing new discoveries, and that they’ll change things up for the different types of quest.”

To see if Saito’s gamble has paid off, be sure to keep an eye out for our Babylon’s Fall launch impressions, which we’ll be publishing tomorrow. Despite my reservations, I do still hope Babylon’s Fall finds itself an audience. It may have struggled to find its voice early on, but an endless version of an amped up, co-op Nier: Automata still remains one hell of an elevator pitch in my books. Will it be enough to stand above the roars of Elden Ring and the cacophony of all the other live service games out there, though? Only time will tell.

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