Square Enix has been in some deep trouble this generation. Their games on the consoles and PC have all, without exception, sucked, and they have actually been able to drive once revered franchises like Final Fantasy into the ground with poor releases like Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIV, a feat that many thought only Activision was capable of.
They’ve been milking their franchises to the highest degree possible, with there being a new Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy spin off or remake announced every second month. Indeed, it is perhaps a worrying sign that some of Square Enix’s best games in the last few years have all been remakes or sometimes even direct ports from older consoles to the newer ones.
Indeed, the only franchise that has escaped unscathed from this turmoil has been Dragon Quest, which seems to be moving from strength strength, particularly upon the unexpectedly successful worldwide release of the Nintendo DS exclusive Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Sky. Apart from Dragon Quest, however, every other franchise has been subject to being stripped to absolute irrelevance.
The fact that all of Square Enix’s successful ventures this gen come on handhelds- whether they be remakes like Final Fantasy IV, ports like Chrono Trigger, spin offs like Crisis Core or the Dragon Quest franchise this generation- tells us loads about the underlying issue. You see, it appears that Square Enix is unable to handle the pressures and the costs of HD development, and that they have stretched themselves too thin, resulting in a diluted standard of quality overall.
This trend is very worrying, and is indicative of the decline of the Japanese gaming industry (barring Nintendo, of course) in general. With Square Enix, the problem is compounded, partly because of their prestige as a company, and partly because all their upcoming releases- all of them installments in revered franchises, all of them on home consoles- are languishing in development hell.
Can Square Enix do anything right now? How do they get out of the trap they’ve dug themselves?
The game that is perhaps singularly representative of all of Square Enix’s woes is Final Fantasy XIII- a long, long time in development, released to general disdain, with the company itself blaming the expenditures of HD development for everything that went wrong with the game. One notable criticism that was leveled at the game was that it was too restrictive, its level design too land, its combat system too confused, that the game, to surmise, was too much like a poorly made uninspired first person shooter in RPG guise.
It is perhaps slightly ironic then, that the one game that looks like it might actually be a good Square Enix game for a change, something refreshing that isn’t a rehash of the same tired old IPs for the umpteenth time, is also a shooter. Specifically, it is a third person shooter named MindJack, a game that, by Square’s own admission, should have released last October, but a game that in typical Square fashion, was delayed, and one that we know nothing about.
What little we do know about MindJack sounds particularly interesting, however- for instance, we know that the third person shooter is set in 2031 AD, in a dark future where all governments of the world have fallen, and a shadowy organization, with the ability to hack into any computer, machine, or even minds, and control them directly, has taken over. Whereas the basic premise might sound like the typical shooter plot in a new garb, there are some genuine new plot additions here that might turn out great if Square Enix handles them properly- specifically, the game, centered around the ability to hack into any object or mind and taking full control of it, sounds like a surreal mish mash of Transformers and Inception, and raises some exciting new possibilities, at least from the perspective of the game’s plot.
Do you realize the main potential issue with the game yet? The plotline is refreshing enough to be genuinely exciting- but whatever we see of the gameplay is worryingly generic, although fast paced (I’ll give them that). It seems to lack the strategic cover mechanics of Gears of War, or the platforming that mixes things up in Uncharted, or the many gimmicks that made Vanquish so refreshing last year. Indeed, the little gameplay footage included in the trailer looks like a sped up video of Resident Evil 5 set in a futuristic dystopia instead of Africa.
And the second potential issue could be the artstyle… dear Lord, the artstyle. Square Enix’s games have always had a general Japanese look and aesthetic to them, and more power to them for that, but they’ve become so exaggerated as of late that the artstyle has almost degenerated into caricaturing Japanese obsession with anime and manga.
Fortunately, MindJack isn’t half as bad- it’s certainly miles better than Final Fantasy XIII, and seems to have a more ‘neutral’ look than most other Square Enix titles. Still, the entire design sensibility of the game looks oddly Japanese, and again, while there is nothing particularly wrong with that, we do hope that Square’s insistence on not moving away from their visual sensibilities does not indicate that they will also not move away from their development sensibilities, the very sensibilities that have brought Square Enix so much trouble this generation.