When you take the controls of Shinsekai Into the Depths, you’re not sure what’s going on or where to go. You’re an underwater explorer in an astronaut-like suit crisscrossing an aquatic world that’s deceptively empty and elusively appealing. It doesn’t take long before you run into a massive worm-like creature with giant pincers that are more than ready to poke a hole in your peaceful little journey of exploration.
Shinsekai is a Japanese word that means both “deep ocean” and “new world,” says Peter Fabiano, a producer at Capcom, in an interview at CNET’s San Francisco headquarters a few days before he’d take the stage at.
As he introduced Shinsekai Into the Depths, Fabiano told the crowd at the Apple event, “We set out to build a beautiful yet treacherous underwater world. The world above is covered in ice. You have no choice but to search the ocean below. This is humanity’s last survivor.”
That brand of mystery is at the heart of Shinsekai, and it makes for a game that is unique among the puzzle-solvers and tap-and-slide action games that have made mobile gaming so popular on iPhone and iPad, and that dominate . Apple Arcade launches on Thursday and offers a subscription to 100 games for $4.99 (£4.99, AU$7.99) a month.
Shinsekai Into the Depths is much more like the console games you find on PlayStation and Xbox. It has a rich storyline with five to seven hours of gameplay to solve the mystery, and it has complex controls that demand the coordination of multiple buttons and joysticks on a game controller or thumb-and-finger presses on the virtual pad on the screen of an iOS device.
I got the opportunity to play Shinsekai Into the Depths at an Apple Arcade demo session on the Apple campus the day after the Apple event. While most of the other Arcade games were pretty self-evident to play, Fabiano and team walked me through Shinsekai’s controls and the concept of the game, putting me on the fast track to learning the game in a way that most players won’t get. And that’s OK, because clearly a big part of the fun is meant to be the trial-and-error exploration to solve the game’s ultimate mystery.
“This game doesn’t really have that much text or audio. It’s telling a story of the last survivor. Humanity is pretty much vanquished. And you just keep going deeper and deeper down,” says Fabiano. “It really is a story of discovery. Hopefully, it’ll be a story not only of discovery of the character, but also making you think a little bit more about yourself, and what is it like to be alone and travel and discover all of these new things — discover the wonders of the world. And maybe as you get to the bottom and things become more apparent as to what’s going on, you start to think about what does this mean for you.”
Indie game inside a big studio
Capcom has been making games since the late 1970s, back when an arcade was a space in a mall that housed a bunch of giant, colorful boxes that you fed coins to play. Capcom’s name is even a nod to that world, since it’s a mashup of “Capsule Computers” — the name the company used to refer to those arcade machines that it manufactured in such large quantities.
In recent decades, Capcom has become one of the biggest names in the video game industry with a string of multimillion dollar game franchises, including some that are so popular they’ve spun off tie-ins with movies and TV shows. It’s best known for series such as Resident Evil and Street Fighter and has been a cornerstone developer for PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo systems.
So, getting Capcom to develop for Arcade was a big win for Apple.
“We always knew that Apple had a really strong attention to detail and quality,” says Fabiano. “And, we knew that they were going to compile[for Arcade].”
The Capcom team had already started work on Shinsekai Into the Depths before Apple came calling. It was a small team of three people that got it started. It would eventually scale up to 30 people working on it, but that was still nowhere near the 500-600 people that work on signature console games.
“We treated it as our own indie game, internally,” says Fabiano.
“Capcom is known for its action games, but we wanted to take even that in a different direction, and have a new approach,” he says. “[Shinsekai Into the Depths is] more about being pensive and thoughtful — and having those action elements but also making the world feel really authentic. So we really took a lot of detail and care into bringing out what an underwater world would be like.”
For the game’s visuals, the team was inspired by the bright colors and style elements of children’s picture books — even though the game’s deep storylines and complex controls are aimed more at young adult audiences (and older). The other influence on the visual design of Shinsekai was the fact that the game’s art director is also a sculptor and loves the little plastic models that are popular in Japan — and so he used those to craft extra touches into the underwater world and its landscapes.
Another example of Capcom’s attention to detail was how the team approached the underwater sound design for the game.
“We had it recorded first and then played it via speakers underwater. And then we re-recorded it,” Fabiano says.
“We definitely want people to wear headphones so they can get the full experience. They’ll be more immersed in the world because they’ll have the music and the sound effects.”
With the attention paid to the soundtrack and sound design, Shinsekai Into the Depths is cut from the same cloth as recent gaming hits in the App Store such as Alto’s Odyssey and Apple Arcade featured titles like Sayonara Wild Hearts.
That’s good company and it’s one of the things that could set up Shinsekai Into the Depths to be one of the most popular early games on Apple Arcade.
Discovering humanity’s fate
At its core, Shinsekai Into the Depths is a classic journey story. But as with all video games, you step into the story and become the protagonist rather than passively reading or watching what happens, as is the case in other forms of storytelling and entertainment.
One of the most compelling parts of Shinsekai is the mystery.
“The world above is covered in ice. You don’t really know what’s going on, and you’re forced to search the ocean below,” says Fabiano. “It really is a story of discovery, and trying to figure out what’s happened to humanity, and discover a little about yourself as well.”
The story naturally plugs into themes of classic aquatic science fiction, going all the way back to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in the 1870s.
“As you go deeper into this world, there’s so much that becomes more apparent,” says Fabiano, cryptically.
While the game is meant to explore and solve, Fabiano offers a few tips for players as they search for resources and make their way through the game. There are a lot of things to discover and you might miss some of them, so take your time. You’re going to need to get to certain areas to advance, and you’re going to have to unlock some areas. Your primary companion is your little drone, so pay attention to the stuff it brings you.
“Don’t just approach this as a simple action game,” says Fabiano. “We want you to be really thoughtful and careful as you play the game.”
Don’t be afraid to connect a controller. When I did most of my testing of Shinsekai, it was with a game controller connected to an iPad. With the release of iOS 13, iPadOS and the new tvOS later this week, you’ll also be able to connect a PS4 or Xbox controller to an iPad or Apple TV. For iPhones and iPads that don’t have the latest software, you can connect a controller. Similar to games like Fortnite, there are also on-screen controls that work in lieu of a game controller.
“We were able to accommodate the controls on the iPhone quite well,” says Fabiano. “It works well with a controller or with the virtual pad.”
In general, the controls for Shinsekai are certainly more advanced and more complex than any of the dozen or so Apple Arcade games I tried. But that’s a natural part of Capcom trying to “achieve console quality” for its first Apple Arcade title.
During his on-stage demo at the Apple event, Fabiano said, “Shinsekai’s controls are simple, yet mastering shooting while thrusting will challenge even the most seasoned gamer. The underwater physics and the creature’s unpredictable attacks make battle both challenging and a blast.”
Nevertheless, Capcom has largely achieved its goal of bringing a console-like game to people of all ages and seamlessly across multiple devices on Arcade. It’s also appealing that the game itself is so story-driven and has deeper themes embedded for those who enjoy plumbing those depths.
Fabiano says, “The goal of the game, of course like any game, is to reach the final destination. But, it’s not simply that. It’s more about figuring out how you need to traverse and move forward to get to where you need to go — and coming to terms with what that means when you reach the endpoint.”