Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger. Franchises and games that evoke specific memories of time and place for me, as well as fond memories of Square Enix – their respective Japanese developers/publishers. I remember that I would spend weeks delving into these games’ secrets, memorable boss battles that could take an hour to conquer, and hugely memorable worlds and characters. The mere announcement that either developer had a new RPG coming down the pike would send me into a frenzy wanting to devour every screenshot, preview, story or whatever morsel would be tossed my way. In fact, I would venture to guess that I’m emphatically not alone in this sentiment.
Nowadays, those same announcements are met with skepticism, wariness and even trepidation. The once revered developers have become almost a punch line, while at the same time nostalgia almost always gives them a pass as we hold on to hope that this next game might just be the one that rights the course and allows them to retake their place atop the RPG mountain.
While Square Enix might not be the JRPG giant they once were, at least out here in the west, they have become one of the most prolific and dependable publishers of western-developed console titles on the market. Since 2010, Square Enix has found critical and commercial success from a steady string of strong western developed games, starting with 2010’s Just Cause 2, the downloadable title Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, and 2011’s sleeper hit Deus Ex: Human Revolution. 2012 saw the release of Activision Blizzard’s cast-off Sleeping Dogs, followed up by Hitman: Absolution and most recently, the Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. These games have all garnered a respectable 84% combined aggregate score from Metacritic. Factor in 2011’s misfire Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days and the average dips down to 73 %. but that’s just a speed bump in an impressive string of critical successes for sure.
Comparatively, Square Enix’s former bread and butter, RPGs, hasn’t faired even remotely as well. Since 2008 (sticking strictly to console and PC releases) Square Enix has released Infinite Undiscovery, The Last Remnant, Final Fantasy XIII, NIER, the mmo Final Fantasy XIV, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 to a combined aggregate score of 55%.
Clearly, Square Enix has had much more success with their Western developed games than with the genre that brought them into gamers’ hearts and minds from the mid 80’s with the release of Final Fantasy for NES. Somewhere along the line, Square Enix has become much more viable as a publisher of western developed games, as their vice-like grip on JRPGs has slipped significantly.
So what happened?
When Final Fantasy VII was released, it blew collective minds. Never before had cinematics so realistic been possible for a console game. It was so awe-inspiring and so enticing that, as of 2010, the game has gone on to sell over 10 million copies. The game exploded and crossed over from popular niche genre into mainstream consciousness. It offered gamers a glimpse into the future of console gaming.
While the successive releases of Final Fantasy games have still remained successful, none have matched the gargantuan success of Final Fantasy VII. During that time graphics, mechanics, and western console game development – as a whole – have gotten exponentially better. With these improvements, RPGs were no longer beholden to turn based combat, random encounters, cartoonish graphics and, quite frankly, Japanese sensibilities in regards to theme, story and humor. Console gamers could get their fix with more adult themes and content, which was provided by franchises like the Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Fallout to name but a few.
While Square Enix could rely on their main franchises, Dragon Quest (which has never achieved the successes of Final Fantasy in the west) and Final Fantasy, their non-marquee titles were proving no longer as dependable as they once were; at least not on this current generation. Wisely, Square Enix purchased Eidos Interactive in 2009 and thus, all of their intellectual properties including Hitman, Deus Ex, and Tomb Raider. The opening salvo of this new western focus came from Eidos Montreal in the form of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game was met with an excellent critical reception as evidenced by their 90% average on metacritic across 100 plus reviews and in a 2011 earnings briefing, Square Enix confirmed that in the time span of the first month of the game’s release, it had sold 2.18 million copies.
Following the success of Deus Ex: Human Revolution – and with a new Hitman and a reboot of Tomb Raider on the horizon -Square Enix also decided to gamble on an Activision Blizzard’s cancelled True Crime sequel. It was originally intended to be True Crime: Hong Kong, but Activision didn’t see the game as a potential contender to the Grand Theft Auto throne, so they scrapped the game when it was close to completion. In August 2011, 6 months after Activision Blizzard cancelled the title, Square Enix bought the publishing rights to the game and re-branded it as Sleeping Dogs. Released in August of 2012, the game received critical praise with an aggregate score of 81% from over 100 reputable sites. The game has received substantial DLC support since it’s release, and had reportedly shipped 1.5 million unites as of September 2012 causing Square Enix to deem it a “stong IP.”
It had been 6 long years before the Hitman series had a new entry when IO Interactive finally released Hitman: Absolution. Though on the lower end of the spectrum – the PS3 review scores managed boost it past 79% to a solid 80% overall – Hitman: Absolution made Square Enix three for three with their western developed titles.
Finally, earlier this month, Sqaure Enix and Crystal Dymanics released the highly anticipated reboot to the long-standing Tomb Raider franchise. Crystal Dynamics’ previous Tomb Raider title, Tomb Raider: Underworld, was released in 2008 – one year prior to Square Enix’s acquisition of Eidos. While the game performed respectably, earning a 76% average review score and selling 1.5 million copies in its first month and a half in the wild, Crystal Dynamics decided it was time for something fresh. In a bold move, they opted to reboot the franchise from the ground up. This meant a complete redesign of the character from the very concept of Lara Croft – her motivations, her character and even her appearance. Square Enix championed the move from day one.
This gamble proved to be a wise one because Tomb Raider was released to positive reviews and an average of 86% (the game scored a 9 out 10 from our very own Alex) and selling over 1 million copies in its first 48 hours. The success of the reboot marked a triumphant return for one of gaming’s most enduring icons, and certainly the most recognizable female hero in video games ever.
Now, at the dusk of the current console generation and the dawn of another, it’s Square Enix’s ground to lose. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Final Fantasy XV is coming sometime in the near future as well, and long-time fans will maintain hope that the iconic publisher’s next great RPG is just around the corner. However, with the recently announced Thief, and inevitable sequels to Deus Ex, Sleeping Dogs, Hitman and Tomb Raider in the coming years, it looks like Square Enix no longer needs to rely on Final Fantasy to remain relevant on consoles for years to come.
EDIT: This editorial was written without knowledge that Square Enix president and representative director, Yoichi Wada has stepped down from his position following “exceptional loss” during the fiscal year which ends on March 31, 2013.
- One Million Playing Tomb Raider Two Days After Launch – Game Informer
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution sells 2.18 million – Eurogamer
- Metacritic: Tomb Raider (series), Final Fantasy (series), Hitman: Absolution, Sleeping Dogs, Just Cause 2, Infinite Undiscovery, NIER, The Last Remnant