The lights are on
I’m often asked about Square Enix’s place in the modern RPG market. I feel conflicted on the subject. The fan in me is still excited for the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV, while the logical part of me feels like the company has moved away from what made people fall in love with its games. I think back to the early Mana and Final Fantasy titles and remember being blown away; they had a unique charm that’s been hard to replicate. While Square has struggled to find equilibrium once it merged with Enix, the merger gave the company access to popular series like Dragon Quest and Star Ocean. This should have been a good thing, but Square Enix hasn’t exactly released its best work with any of its popular franchises as of late (we’ll get to that later).
Many fans have echoed the sentiment that Square has lost its way, and some telling words were shed this week from Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda. He admitted the company lost some focus, especially in regards to seeing JRPGs, such as Bravely Default, become successful in regions outside of Japan. Fans campaigned hard for a Bravely Default release in North America. When Square didn’t budge, Nintendo brought it over. The fact that Nintendo stepped in spoke volumes about Square’s confidence in the genre. However, Square obviously had to recheck its priorities when Bravely Default broke the NPD’s top 10 for sales in February, selling 200,000 copies in a span of three weeks. It should have been a no-nonsense, low-cost venture for Square. It also shouldn’t have surprised them that it sold well, considering fans voiced their desire for some time.
None of this should come as a shock: Square’s focus, expectations, and decisions have been head-scratchers lately. The company wanted to appeal to a mass market, so it started targeting the western audience. I have no problem with that, as I enjoyed Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but Square’s expectations for these games shows how out of touch it is with the market. Tomb Raider set franchise records by selling 3.4 million by the end of the first month, which many would consider a successful launch, but it still fell short of Square’s 5-6 million expectations. Between these unrealistic goals and not using the niche, but dedicated JRPG market to its strength, Square Enix hasn’t had the best business plan.
I often wonder if Square even knows what its fans want. Over the years, the company released poor mobile cash-grabs and expensive re-releases of its Final Fantasy series. The Dragon Quest series may have never sold in North America the way it does in Japan, but it’s grown a respectable fanbase here. Yet we’ve heard nothing about plans for Dragon Quest X or Dragon Quest VII 3DS to be localized. The company originally spent all its time focusing on flashy graphics rather than innovation for its MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, causing a disastrous launch, which has since been rectified with A Realm Reborn. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Final Fantasy XIII’s story arc and cast weren’t strong enough to support three games. In fact, the dip in quality is noticeable; Lightning Returns ranges in the mid-to-high 60s on Metacritic. Square also didn’t put its best effort into its early Xbox 360 RPGs, Infinite Undiscovery and The Last Remnant, which failed to make a dent on the market or genre. A shining moment was The World Ends With You – a game that was actually unique and so engaging that I can’t figure out why Square doesn't invest in turning it into a franchise.
That being said, Square still has two big stakes in the RPG market: Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV. Both are taking their sweet time to get to our consoles. At E3, I was delighted to finally hear about both games and at least see trailers, but I immediately tempered my expectations. Square Enix has a lot to prove with both of these titles. First, the developers need to show they can can deliver a quality experience and know what fans want from these series. Secondly, we’re not going to wait forever for either to release. We expected to see both games on the PS3, so seeing them carry into the new generation of systems isn’t exactly ideal; now Square has to show why these games needed such a long development timeline.
Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV are also Square’s chance to show the company still has what it takes and can recapture the classic magic we once felt. These games need to make a statement, especially since the company has already sent mixed messages to fans about its dedication to RPGs. After all, I was shocked (in a good way) to see Square help bring out Drakengard 3. It shows the company still sees something worth pursuing, but when it passes on bringing over games like Bravely Default, it makes you wonder.
I want to believe Square still has what it takes, that it can be the company it once was for RPGs. I’m also hoping it looks into bringing in some new RPG franchises. Truth be told, it’s dangerous to put all its eggs in the baskets labeled “Kingdom Hearts” and “Final Fantasy.” At least some acknowledgement was made that maybe the company needs to refocus and rethink about how it approaches the global market. That’s a start, but Square now has to prove it can rise to the top again.
How do you feel about Square Enix and its place in the RPG market?
For further reading: Check out Joe’s editorial on how Square can save Final Fantasy.
Email the author Kimberley Wallace, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.