Allowing players to once again take to the skies above the fictional world of Strangereal, Ace Combat 7 is the first numbered sequel for the franchise in ten years. Returning to produce from Project Aces is Franchise Producer Kazutoki Kono, responsible for fan favorites Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War.
We were given the opportunity for a hands-on preview event prior to PlayStation Experience with a short mission utilizing the PlayStation VR headset. The following day we were able to have a chat with Kono-san to discuss developing Ace Combat 7 and his time with the franchise.
DualShockers: Are you planning to support PS4 Pro, and if yes in which way?
Kazutoki Kono: The short answer is yes, we do intend to create a different experience on PS4 Pro. However, we haven’t fully optimized that yet. So how we can tax the new hardware with PS4 Pro is still up for grabs. We still don’t know what it’ll look like, but we do intend to do something.
DualShockers: Does supporting PlayStation VR and PlayStation 4 Pro change the development pipeline considerably?
KK: This is the first one we are developing in Unreal Engine 4, and that actually enables us to kind of shift our pipeline and focus on development and the experience on each platform. Whether it is the flat screen experience or the PS4 Pro or VR, allocating resources to that became a lot easier due to the capability of the engine. The engine has mechanisms in place that streamline that process.
DualShockers: Is it a challenge to achieve the best visual quality on the PlayStation 4 while also including support for the PlayStation VR that requires the game to run at a higher framerate and render for both eyes?
KK: You raise an interesting question with the VR versus flat experience. The core direction that we wanted to achieve is the same. A hundred kilometers by a hundred kilometers space in which we allow players to immerse themselves into. But the sort of restrictions are slightly different. In the case of VR we do have to lock it at 60 frames per second. Therefore the other elements have to fall into place with that one variable fixed. Whereas with the flat 1080p experience the focus is more on the details because it enables us to just worry about a flat screen as opposed to worrying about rendering two images at the same time, which does really restrict what you’re doing.
So in the case of Ace Combat 7 we actually developed the main campaign and the VR experience almost separately, kind of on their own islands.
DualShockers: With hindsight how do you judge the decision to abandon the fictional world of Strangereal for the real world in Ace Combat Assault Horizon; and what determined the choice to go back to the Strangereal in Ace Combat 7?
KK: Unlike Assault Horizon, as far as numbered titles go, it’s been ten years since the last one has been released, Ace Combat 6. I wanted to keep in mind the fictional world that has been established through the previous numbered games, that the fans fell in love with, because it is a sort of flagship representative version of all that Ace Combat should be.
At the same time, what the fictional world allows us to do, is to have – you might have seen it in the trailer – this orbital elevator, as well as cutting-edge weapons that wouldn’t really exist in the space of reality.
So it is a very “accommodating” world, so to speak. But it allows us to do it with a sort of sense of reality, it’s not completely out there to the point that it doesn’t seem at all realistic. It’s a balance with fiction with experimental weapons and massive airship carriers.
DualShockers: Will Ace Combat 7 have a defined voiced protagonist like William Bishop from Assault Horizon or will it go back to faceless protagonist like in Ace Combat 4 and 5?
KK: The protagonist is going to be more in line with the 4 and 5 iterations of Ace Combat, which is a faceless, very neutral, pilot. As an ace pilot for the air force, you are immersed in this world so you don’t have some weird family background, or children, or lovers anywhere. It is a neutral canvas upon which you can immerse yourself, and there isn’t even an avatar that represents what this character looks like.
DualShockers: Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies is one of my favorite games. The dual narrative in 4 was Mobius One slowly becoming more and more of a fearsome force and the enemy radio chatter reacting to that. And the cut scenes told the tragic story of the kid losing his parents and having to live under the oppression of the war itself. So I was curious if 7 will have a similar tone or if you’re going for something a bit different?
KK: I would definitely say that it has a similar tone to 4 and 5, because the person who is working on the script is Katabuchi-san, who wrote the script for 4 and 5. Of course, there are going to be different perspectives that we’ll explore in the cutscenes, so we have got backstories of the different parties at play in this fictional world. And we also take a look at the theme of war in general, kind of taking a step back and examining what that means. That doesn’t mean to say the players interaction is rife with the world. And as you said, there is a lot of radio chatter that goes on and more information is exchanged that helps progress the narrative. If you’ve liked 4 and 5, than 7 is definitely up that alley.
The cutscenes in 7, to give you a little more insight into that. It is taking the same war, the same event that is occurring. So its one truth yet from different vantage points appears differently according to how that person wants to see this event and how they believe the event took place. A lot of cutscenes are an examination of different perspectives and different vantage points of different peoples values. You really have this huge thematic clash of different perspectives all converging on one point.
DualShockers: What do you think it is about Ace Combat 4 and 5 that fans have appreciated so much?
KK: Ace Combat 4 and 5 was a tag team between myself and Katabuchi-san in terms of narrative and themes that we discuss in the story. If you liked 4 and 5, I could say you’re probably going to like 7, but ad for the reason why, I can only say is that you might like the two of us working together. There’s no other explanation because that is the only exclusive data that I can extract from those two particular games. I’m pretty sure that you’ll love this one too, if you liked 4 and 5.
DualShockers: Do you have a rough idea how long the campaign will be in Ace Combat 7?
KK: In terms of actual gameplay hours we’re still making a lot of adjustments to how the campaign is going to unfold. In terms of the number of missions it will be very comparable to the previous numbered titles in the series. And as we know from our previous collaborations with Katabuchi-san, we have a pretty good idea on how many missions it takes to tell a really great story.
DualShockers: Is there any chance that, with all these remakes being announced, maybe you can go back and remake Ace Combat 4 and 5 for the PlayStation 4?
KK: In terms of remakes, I’m very thankful that there are a lot of fans and voices saying “Hey, we want to experience the story again.” Should the chance present itself, I would certainly like to examine it, but there are a lot of tricky issues that we took on with the past wars, thematically, so it would be a very tricky thing to navigate.
But if the chance presents itself, then I would like to explore it, absolutely.
DualShockers: As you said, it has been quite some time since Ace Combat 6, the last numbered title came out about ten years ago. Are you happy to be returning to the fictional world you guys created with the previous entries?
KK: Here is a little bit of story behind how the narrative of Ace Combat 7 developed: I really felt from the inception of this project that this was the only way to use the fictional world we established. And going back to our collaboration, Katabuchi-san and myself, he was actually making a movie at the time. He was extremely busy. I approached him and I said, “Hey I know you might be too busy, but do you have anyone else you would recommend who might be able to do what you do for this project?” At which point he responded, “Well if its going to be you working on this, then I don’t see any other combination other than myself writing it.” That gave me the courage to really step forward and say we can take this world and really elaborate on it and tell a story in it which I think is deserving of a numbered title.
DualShockers: Is the soundtrack also going to be done by the same composer?
KK: Yes, Kobayashi Keiki-san. He was invaluable in the past compositions for the soundtracks of the world, and in Ace Combat 7 he will be making a return. It is really the dream team. I think right now as we speak he is in Japan recording with an orchestra.
DualShockers: Do you feel that someone who has not played any of the past Ace Combat titles could jump into Ace Combat 7 and still enjoy it?
KK: It does take place in the same world, but we have developed the story in such a way that we ease people into the information and different relationships and political powers of the world. I think even if you don’t have experience playing the past numbered titles you will be able to understand the story. That doesn’t mean that if you do understand the world there might not be some extra information you will be able to extract and enjoy through playing Ace Combat 7. It is not by any means unfriendly or unwelcoming to people who are experiencing the franchise for the first time. And because we are integrating VR for the first time, I think a lot of people are going to jump on it because of that. That is another reason why we have a lot of different ways people can interface with the world of Ace Combat but not feel alienated because they haven’t experienced previous versions.
DualShockers: Were you excited to work with VR? Was that something you were looking forward to once you discovered that PlayStation was doing their own VR headset and potentially wanted you to incorporate that into Ace Combat 7?
KK: In terms of VR, when I asked the development team if they wanted to fly jets in VR and be immersed, it was a unanimous yes from everyone. In terms of direction it was almost a given that this would be the natural evolution of how you would experience and immerse yourself in this world that has vast skies.
What this really allows you to do is, as an ace pilot, you get to experience it. That is always at the core of what Ace Combat is about. Virtual reality really gives you that illusion, it tricks your brain really, that you are inside this jet, and the level of immersion is unparalleled to any past experiences you do through a screen interface.
DualShockers: I’m curious about the scenario created for Ace Combat 4 and how you developed that narrative, what influenced it and how was it drafted?
KK: At the very beginning of our concept for Ace Combat 4, we wanted two different perspectives. to tell the same narrative through two different viewpoints. At which point we needed, between Mobius One and Yellow 13, something to link these two.
There are various points at which they intersect throughout the narrative but we need one axis upon which they can both convey each others thoughts, and that would be the kid. That was the original concept of how we wanted to develop the narrative.
DualShockers: Ace Combat 5 switches that because its more about the group that eventually becomes the Razgriz. I am curious if Ace Combat 7 will have the dialogue choices that was in Ace Combat 5 or if you are going to keep it as a true silent protagonist?
KK: If you were to choose between Ace Combat 4 and 5 I would say the narrative progression is much more like 4. We don’t have a system that enables dialogue selections.
However what we do have is multiple perspectives, not just the pilot and the opposing lead antagonist. It is not really a game of teamwork, but the protagonist is one of many perspectives that witness a single event and each person formulates their own perspective on it. That is what drives the narrative and the different values and themes that will clash.
DualShockers: In Ace Combat 7 what is the conflict that serves the narrative?
KK: We didn’t accurately consider real world current events or politics as elements to the story because we have established this fictional world over the past several installations of the game. Which is why each fictional country has established financial and economic power in this world.
What becomes a really important element of Ace Combat 7 is the orbital elevator [final name to be determined], this massive structure that extends to the heavens. Of course there are going to be several countries that have different philosophies, stances, and political backing, and different fingers in the pie related to this massive structure. It is the point at which everything converges upon.
Because you know so much about the world, I can say this and you’ll understand: Erusea and Osea, they are going to go to war. And what sparks this war is going to be centered around this orbital elevator structure.
DualShockers: Where is the orbital elevator located?
KK: It is going to be on an island south-west of the Usea continent.