Square-Enix: The Dream is Dead

Christ on a cracker.

Oh, Square. I don’t even know anymore.

You guys were given all the time in the world. All the development resources, all the A-list talent, all the designers, illustrators, artists and programmers you could ever want at your disposal, and what have you turned out in the last decade?

A game so bad it wrecked the reputation of the Final Fantasy brand – considered the unassailable bastion of Japanese RPGs. The pissing away of a pedigree so valuable that merchandise of any sort commanding the iconography from games they made decades ago still demands premium prices. Once respected industry leaders and the pride of Japan, Square-Enix have become a joke to their once-loyal fans worldwide. These same fans have long since moved onto other things, like jobs and families and lives of their own.

The last decade in video game development – the seventh generation of video game console hardware – will be remembered for a game industry grown bloated, arrogant, and fat, giving rise to the worst kind of business practices. But I will remember it for the death of Japanese video game development, and the snubbing of an established truth that I had long since proclaimed as gospel: that Japan made the best video games in the world. I will remember it for the loss of faith I had in Square to make games of any sort.

It wasn’t like there was no opportunity elsewhere, or that there hadn’t been good games made outside of Japan. The video game revolution was the computer revolution, after all, and that had a well-documented history in America. But I also knew that America had torpedoed its own fledgling game industry through a combination of corporate mismanagement, greed, and oversight. Japan – actually, Nintendo – had come in almost overnight and saved video games, proving that they weren’t a passing fad designed to ebb and flow with the times but a completely new form of media.

And Nintendo were able to do this because their games were just better than everyone else’s. This set the stage for the prevailing knowledge regarding video games, something so simple that it’s taken for granted without an in-depth understanding of what it actually means. Just make better games. Just make better games, and you will succeed. The market had a true meritocracy. It had spoken; shovelware was out, and quality was in. Mario didn’t succeed because people suddenly decided they liked fat Italian plumbers getting high off mushrooms, Mario succeeded because he had better games.

Square-Enix gained the sterling reputation they had in the 90s and early 2000s because their games were just better than everyone else’s. Even their flagship series – Final Fantasy – was so named with the expectation that the failure of the game would mean the demise of the company, and therefore there was no reason to put every effort into making the games as good as humanly possible.

Pictured: PC RPGs in a nutshell

It may be difficult to accept for people who cry and stamp their feet and scream about how Baldur’s Gate, with its imposing menus and range of roleplaying options, was way better than the stripped-down RPGs Square-Enix was peddling on the limited consoles. The market spoke and the industry listened. For a game to ship with the Squaresoft logo meant something. It meant fantastic production values, polish second to none, rock-solid gameplay, lengthy bang-for-buck value, superior craftsmanship, lavish amounts of detail and a commitment to the user experience. The company wasn’t perfect, but financially, they were very close. Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold. The market eagerly drank from the trough, and Japan responded in kind, throwing out a slew of competitors and rival titles to a consumer market hungry for more Final Fantasy.

As the wait times between each numbered title in the series grew progressively longer, we were told to be patient. Quality took time, we all knew. And Square was the finest JRPG company in Japan. They were the best of the best. An ill-fated venture into CG features didn’t go well, and people began to wonder about the state of things at Square-Enix.The trailer for FF13 dropped, and we all sung the company’s praises once more, with its promise of evolved, lightning-fast gameplay and a world filled of visually arresting things that would be a pleasure to explore. We even forgave the company’s admittedly stupid announcement that FF13 was to be a multimedia project with the name ‘Fabula Nova Crystallis’.

Then FF13 dropped. My heart broke.

From postmortem interviews discussing the difficult production of the game, it’s no wonder that the title turned out the way it did. Development told of delays upon delays with no direction or leadership, a lot of ideas and technical ability but no real focus. Fabula Nova Crystallis, as Square-Enix would have us believe, wasn’t doomed yet – there were still two more games in the series! One of which didn’t get localized (until very recently), something that would have been utterly unthinkable for a game with ‘Final Fantasy’ in its title, and the other of which got repurposed into Final Fantasy XV.

There’s an incredibly depressing little television commercial that aired on Japanese TV to coincide with the launch of FF13. It shows a teacher, quietly informing his class of pupils that he will be taking some time off from work, because his wait is finally over. The commercial was perfect. It encapsulated perfectly the feelings of the aging fanbase towards Square – we had been more than patient. We waited.

In my darker moments I wonder if that man was a paid actor or whether he had volunteered for this ad as a fan wanting to express his genuine feelings. If he was the latter, I hope he didn’t commit suicide upon playing FF13 and realizing he spent the last ten years waiting for an abomination.

The leftover assets from the mess of development that was FF13 were scraped off the floor and repackaged into two more retail games, neither of which sold as well as FF13. The game had sold on hype and promise, and anticipation that after years and years of waiting that the resulting gem would have been worth the wait.

It wasn’t.

With the quantum leap forward in hardware, we had been expecting a bigger game. A greater game. A game that would have justified its patently ridiculous development time and the purchase of an overpriced console with no real value in it over the competition. What we got was a smaller game, a runt with a gameplay design document that probably measured no more than five pages. A lengthy corridor, with no real point to exploration. A game that trusted the intelligence of its players so little that the combat system offered automated options.

This didn’t take long.

Money changed hands. The hype train moved on. People believed that the remaining game, Versus 13, would pay off, with veteran designer Tetsuya Nomura at the helm. Nomura was responsible for some of Final Fantasy’s most egregious design sins as well as some of their greatest successes (the risky, experimental venture that became Kingdom Hearts, anyone?). The game was supposed to be a more action-oriented title. It was supposed to play like Kingdom Hearts. It was more ambitious, with the tagline ‘a fantasy based on reality’ – although I took no stock in that, as the entire point of fantasy is to not be reality. The gameplay videos we saw made it look far more involved and an altogether different game from the mess that was FFXIII.

FF Versus 13 was quietly renamed FFXV, as Square-Enix missed the boat once again on the tail end of the seventh generation of video game consoles. Game delayed. Nothing to see here. Please buy another console to get the game you’ve already waited seven years for (and we have so far failed to deliver).

Now, after almost a full decade of waiting, they’ve released a demo of FFXV out into the wild as a pack-in with a HD remaster of a PSP game, and people finally have a chance to put their hands on what took Square this long to make.

Square, from original announcement of FF Versus 13, took nine and a half years to release a demo that I would, in my kinder moments, refer to as half-baked. It will probably take, in my kindest estimation, at least another year before FFXV is sitting on store shelves as a completed product you can buy, put in a console, and play from beginning to end. This would put it at well over ten years in development. Probably more, considering that we started counting the development date from the public announcement of said title (and nobody announces a title publicly without already being deep in development).

For handy reference, here’s a list of things that took less time.

Arab Spring (2010-2012; more if you count current fallout)
Tim Berners-Lee invents the modern internet, or ‘World Wide Web’, by introducing hypertext (2 years)
Manhattan Project (4 years)
Apple’s court case versus Microsoft claiming Windows was a rip-off (4 years)
World War 1 (4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks)
World War 2 (6 years and 1 day)
First Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq fought (1980-1988, 7 years, 10 months, 4 weeks and 1 day)
The Great Recession (8 years and counting)
Construction of the One WTC building on the site of the collapsed World Trade Center building that got hit in 9/11(8 years)
Louis Pasteur goes from germ theory to patenting the pasteurization of milk (1857-1865, 8 years)
American War of Independence (1775-1783, 8 years, 4 months and 15 days)
Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution destroys millennia of Chinese culture (1966-1976, 10 years)
Construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (1998-2008, 10 years)

It says a lot about our capability as human beings that we figured out how to split the atom in four years. Square-Enix has had almost two and a half times that (plus goodness knows how much time they spent on the game before announcement) to produce Final Fantasy 15. And all they had to show for thousands of man-hours and millions in development costs is a fucking demo.

What else can this be but gross incompetence?

It is 2015. And Square-Enix still has not learned – or refuses to learn – that when you claim your game is an action RPG, it needs to at the very least have controls that ask more of the player than a functional adherence to pressing buttons? For some strange reason Square-Enix, after having cracked the action-RPG formula with the Kingdom Hearts series and having refined it over the years, flat out refuse to admit that pressing a button to attack is a good fit for Final Fantasy XV. Despite multiple genres teaching us that yes, we like buttons that do things. We like buttons that offer us control and responsive feedback. We like input and output.

An actual ARPG.

I don’t know anymore. I expect nothing and somehow I’m still let down. I don’t know whether this speaks for what residual, miniscule droplets of faith I still had in Square as a company at the bottom of a very deep and very dry well, or my lack of faith in Square being proved right. Maybe there will be people out there who, after a full decade in development, can convince themselves that this game is (and will be) everything they wanted, with its unbelievably basic ‘hold buttons to attack/defend’ combat system (because apparently timing attacks are for people with reflexes and brain cells), clunky, overlong and excessively detailed animations (that slow combat), and abysmal camera (so close to the character that your situational awareness, crucial in any games that have the word ‘action’ in their GAME GENRE, is shot straight to hell).

All I’m saying is that I could have replicated the experience of playing the FFXV demo by watching Advent Children on a blu-ray player with my finger held down on the Play button on the remote.

And no, the Ramuh summon doesn’t save this.

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