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The Trials and Tribulations of Square Enix

It seems like it was only yesterday that the name SquareEnix, formerly known as SquareSoft, was synonymous with amazing JRPGs. Just uttering their name would be enough to send RPG players into rapture. Here you had this brilliant Japanese game company that had built itself on the back of some of the greatest JRPGs ever to grace the gaming industry.

I still remember vividly the sense of excitement I would feel whenever I would pop-in a game and the logo SquareSoft (or Enix depending on the year) would appear onscreen. Such was their hold on me that I would be 100% confident that I would be transported to a fantastical world full of magic and wonder.

The sense of exhilaration of playing a SquareEnix game from the PS1 and PS2 era still remain quite fresh in my mind. The level of commitment SquareEnix had back in the day was quite spectacular. Their development teams knew what they wanted to achieve.

Even if many of their games were not that good, you couldn’t fault their dedication or their will to innovate. More often than not, they would end up creating something so amazing that those games would make both the critics and the gamers swoon in delight.

SquareEnix initial prominence and sustained success can be attributed to one man, Hironobu Sakaguchi, who in 1986 was contemplating retirement if his last game failed. Named ‘Final Fantasy’ the game shot SquareEnix to instant fame. That franchise which by 2011 would sell 100 million copies worldwide gave players the best of what the genre had to offer.

For the next two decades, no company could even compete with them in both the Eastern and Western game development communities. Their games catered to a wide audience from the hard-core section to gamers who had more than a passing interest in gaming and RPGs.

It will not be an overstatement that it was SquareEnix, who gave wings to systems like the SNES, PS1 and PS2. Their games made an incredible impact on these systems with the help of games like Secret of Mana on the SNES, Final Fantasy 7 on the PS1 or Kingdom Hearts on the PS2.

Whenever anyone discusses these systems, the name of SquareEnix always gets mentioned. However, that was all in the past, as for today SquareEnix is facing its most critical period as its struggling to come with a term with its inadequacies and identity, while at the same time it may not even know that the entire existence of the company and what it stood for is at a massive risk of fading away!

So where did the problem start? Let’s rewind back to E3 2006 shall we? SquareEnix already had an awesome show lined up with Final Fantasy XII leading the bandwagon along with many games. However, what made the attendees quiver with excitement was to see how the company tackles the next generation of gaming.

SquareEnix not only made massive headlines it also showed what it could do with powerful consoles and also chalked out a road map for SquareEnix games in the next generation of consoles. Not one, but two Final Fantasy games, in this case Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Versus XIII were shown in FMV form to a stunned audience.

There was expectation that these games would be out within two to three years, and it was then that the company started its long journey down to earth! Delays upon delays hit Final Fantasy XIII, many of the other games that were in development also started to get pushed back. It was painful to see as they struggled to deal with new, complex and expensive development cycles.

The technical side of things became a mess, but on top of that SquareEnix started to lose its grip on the story narratives and presenting memorable characters. Stories started to become mediocre; the characters become paper thin caricatures; the level of writing became amateurish.

Takes games like The Last Remnant, Star Ocean 4 or Infinite Undiscovery, and you will cringe at how all the aforementioned points started to hurt the games. While the other games were struggling to resonate with JRPG fans, the delays of Final Fantasy XIII were really starting to tell.

During the prime of SquareEnix, Final Fantasy games were the crowning glories, as if to show the world that its games were untouchable especially the Final Fantasy brand. However, for the 13 iteration, it became the joke of the industry.

SquareEnix hadn’t learned from its mistake from the development of Final Fantasy XII and by the time Final Fantasy XIII made it to console; it felt as if the bandwagon had already left.

Although credit should be given where it’s due, the game was quite amazing and the production values were out the park, attaining such a level of awesome visual fidelity even as the company was not that confident with next-generation development speaks volume of the talent that is still present, but for the first time a Final Fantasy game felt irrelevant to the industry.

Had the game been released in 2008-2009 it would have made a huge splash, and it wouldn’t have gotten so much of fan hate as it eventually got. However, by far the biggest debacle during this time period is the development hell of a certain game called Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The game debuted at E3 2006 as well, but since then the developers have BARELY shown the game.

A couple of times a FMV or a game play video was shown in gaming conventions, which would be followed by long stretches of silence. There was even a strong rumor that the game had been canceled altogether, which was debunked by the CEO Yoichi Wada and the company still insists that the game is under development. These are clear signs that things are not going as swimmingly as we thought within the walls of SquareEnix.

The last five years may have been tough for SquareEnix; it still managed to eke out major support for the handheld market. The DS and PSP received a huge array of awesome SquareEnix games that amplified their incredible past and highlighted its recent struggles on the consoles. Dragon Quest IX and Crisis Core leading that charge along with many games were the saving grace for the company!

So where does SquareEnix stand right now? For starters, they have managed to acquire Eidos and now act as a publisher for many high-end Western games in the shape of Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and Hitman.

There aren’t developing a huge number of games either, even its handheld games for the new devices are muted and almost uninspired. And in quite a long time ago Final Fantasy game has skipped an English release (Final Fantasy Type 0) and the company itself has soured in many of its die-hard fans who used revere them.

It’s also distressing to see Yoichi Wada and all the bigwigs of SquareEnix being so calm about these new changes and frankly; it just feels like a blow to the gut. However, when things seem bleak, there rises a savoir and for SquareEnix that savoir may very well be Bravely Default: Flying Fairy for the 3DS!

Bravely Default: Flying Fairy has to be the most ‘Final Fantasy’ type game not to bear that brand name. From character designs, fantastic world, the battle system which uses the best features of turn based mechanics while adding more bells and whistles, a deep Job system, even has a huge world map in the mix!!! It has all the ingredients that used to make SquareEnix games legendary.

If this game doesn’t make the company take stock of where they are heading and brings them back to their ideology that made them so successful, then no game can! It also makes me rest easy, that even if they are struggling to stay on top of their game, they have it inside them the ability to develop a game-like Bravely Default.

If the story and characters avoid the pitfalls that a lot of their console, JRPGS faced in the last five years, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the game will end up being very special indeed. Its Japanese release a week ago was a rousing success as it conquered Japanese weekly charts, and while there is no word of an international release, it may very well be around the corner.

The trials and tribulations of SquareEnix have been very well documented in the last five years and honestly if it weren’t for Bravely Default I would have given up on them completely (barring Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels). It is also very frustrating to see how a company like SquareEnix, which made JRPGS what they are today, devolve into a run-of-the-mill company.

They once used to rule the roost of the JRPG market, now they have allowed Atlus (make no mistake; Atlus is a great game company) to usurp that position. SquareEnix will need to do a lot more if it ever hopes to regain that spot. Now excuse me as I go and replay Chrono Cross..*sigh*!