I’ve been trying for years now to give Square-Enix second, third and fourth chances.
But as this seventh hardware generation goes into its twilight and we get ready to say goodbye to the Xbox 360 and PS3, I feel like maybe I should also do the same for Square-Enix.
As Squaresoft, they brought a lot of amazement and even happiness into my life. There was a time when seeing the name Squaresoft on a new game, particularly a Final Fantasy game, meant that whatever I was about to put into my machine was going to raise the bar. Playing an FF game meant engaging characters, a strategic turn-based combat system, a world full of interesting locales and lore, and possibly a pulled heart string or two on the way to trouncing the multi-stage final boss. Final Fantasy established certain expectations, and then proceeded to meet them for many years, first on the NES, SNES and finally the PS1 and PS2. For four console generations, Square, like Activision, saw a demand from a certain audience and was more than willing to meet the demands of that audience.
And then something weird happened.
As we moved into the 360/PS3/Wii era, we finally got a full taste of Final Fantasy in a post-Sakaguchi age, with its original creator now helming Mistwalker and creating games exclusively for the Xbox 360. The corny—but incredibly sincere and heartfelt—melodrama of FF characters was replaced by a more sullen, emo sensibility. Simpler tales of good versus evil accented by themes of industry, parenthood or even environmentalism were replaced by byzantine plots about free will versus destiny in elaborate pantheons. The memorable, archetypal characters became fashion models with one note angst-ridden complexes to obsess morosely over through the entirety of the game.
The fans have, in general, reacted unfavorably to this, but Square-Enix doesn’t seem to care.
Perhaps they don’t need to at this point. Square-Enix as a publisher has done some surprisingly good things. They saved Sleeping Dogs from a premature death at the hands of Activision, have made the Deus Ex property feel new and relevant again, and are set to do the same for Tomb Raider in just a few months. They are actually playing quite an intelligent and savvy game of business when it comes to their western properties and studios. And it’s maybe it’s precisely because their Western projects give gamers what they ask for that their celebrated Final Fantasy—and even Kingdom Hearts—titles don’t have to.
As Kevin Smith infamously said in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back via Ben Affleck, “You gotta’ do the safe picture, then you can do the art picture.”
Perhaps Square-Enix no longer views Final Fantasy as something for the fans, but rather, the personal artistic project of their directorial staff. In the same way that Kingdom Hearts has gradually moved away from its simple Disney roots to a complex, branching story of labyrinthine proportions, Final Fantasy has been moving further and further away from the things people originally loved about it to something that feels like a big budget experiment for the project leads. The fans who’ve been with the franchise for years may not like the taking away of towns, the ludicrous fashion design on display or the appalling lack of characterization, but clearly someone in charge does. And that someone doesn’t care if it loses fans, because all the money is being made on the Western games nowadays.
In the same way, Final Fantasy XIV is clearly a gigantic failure, but again, perhaps Square-Enix doesn’t care. Final Fantasy is their “art picture.” They publish games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution in order to finance the FF titles as they see fit without having to worry about profit. And why should they care about fans howling that Square-Enix no longer gives them what they want in a JRPG when Atlus does? What does it say about how much the landscape of JRPGs has changed when the best game in years is an expansion of a PS2 classic? Even Ni No Kuni is shaping up at this point to be much more solid release than the likes of FFXIII and FFXIII-2, and with the announcement of Lightning Returns it looks like Square-Enix has committed itself to a path of further alienating its fans with a stubborn insistence on ignoring every single thing they know they want. Fans want to see a new Kingdom Hearts, they want to see Final Fantasy Versus XIII finally release, and they want to see Final Fantasy XV finally go into development, and of course they want an HD reboot Final Fantasy VII which would be a monster commercial hit. Square-Enix refuses to do any of these things.
And maybe we just have to accept that. Maybe we just have to admit that Final Fantasy no longer belongs to us. It belongs to Tetsuya Nomura and whatever zipper-laden, asymmetrical fashion nightmare he’s going to inflict on the next game. Maybe Square-Enix has decided “We gave you that Western crap that’s exactly what you want. Final Fantasy is for US. It’s our ART, not your game.”
And if that’s really the case, is it so bad?
I know a lot of JRPG fans that are eagerly awaiting any kind of new about Persona 5. I don’t know anyone anymore that is really invested or enthusiastic about Final Fantasy XV. Whatever that game is going to be, they already know it’s not being made for them.