It’s never the final fantasy
Square Enix. Who hasn’t heard that name before? From Final Fantasy to Tomb Raider, the publisher owns many of the biggest franchises in gaming. But a comment from Gamemaniac3434 recently got me thinking. Responding to his claim that Square Enix designs are pointlessly complex, I started dumping simple and clean artwork from some of their games… And I realized something. For a company this well known, it’s difficult to pinpoint its identity.
Final Fantasy is huge. These games sell a ton. They’re the subject of a lot of parodies (more like not so final fantasy amirite?), they’re known by casual players and hardcore JRPG fans alike. Yet the formula for these games changes from game to game, making it a challenge to identify a set formula.
The three NES titles all have a similar turn-based RPG core, but the second has players level up stats individually, while the third has a much more versatile class system in contrast with the original. The settings for those games are mostly traditional medieval fare with a couple of robots thrown into the mix.
The move to the SNES changed the battle system to make encounters feel more dynamic. The active time battle system allows characters take an action as soon as their individual meters fill up. Along with this, Final Fantasy IV removes the versatile job system of III, resulting in more unique characters. While the job system returns in Final Fantasy V, its successor charts completely new territory for the franchise.
Character capabilities in Final Fantasy VI are dictated by their summons, and the setting is much more Steampunk than previous entries. This trend continues with Final Fantasy VII, being decidedly darker and more mechanized than previous entries. Reactors, motorcycles, neon signs, oh my! Materia also dictates the abilities of characters, which feels like a logical continuation of Final Fantasy VI.
But Final Fantasy VIII, with its modern setting is another paradigm shift. Then comes Final Fantasy IX, which evokes medieval, cartoony vibe of the early games. Final Fantasy X brings back turn-based combat for the first time since III — and you level up by moving pieces on a board. Final Fantasy XI is an MMO and XII is a single-player MMO where you need to buy a license to wear a hat! XIII delves into high fantasy with terminology far too confusing for my puny brain. Then it’s back to MMO again with XIV!
Looking to the future, Final Fantasy XV is an action RPG with a contemporary setting. And who can forget the tactics games (one of which takes place inside a fictional Final Fantasy!), the rhythm games on 3DS or the action RPG with slots, Final Fantasy VII Crysis Core?
Final Fantasy isn’t much more than a brand at this point. One title has little to do with the last. It’s not a turn-based RPG series. It’s not an action RPG series. It’s not high fantasy, but it’s not Steampunk either. And while a more experienced player might point to the ATB Final Fantasies as “what Final Fantasy is,” there more and more people haven’t had the opportunity to play these titles, since that system hasn’t been used for more than a decade.
What annoys me about Final Fantasy’s lack of identity is Square Enix knows the appeal of its NES and SNES era titles. Dragon Quest follows a traditionalist format, and titles published by Square Enix, like Bravely Default and I Am Setsuna, echo back to the classic Final Fantasies and Chrono Trigger. Yet Square Enix refuses to give classic-style experiences larger budgets, and instead has mired its biggest brand in a perpetual state of experimentation.
Eastern developer, western publisher
“While it’s hard to define Final Fantasy, does that mean Square Enix lacks an identity?”, you ask. “Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, The World Ends With You, Kingdom Hearts, Live a Live… They’re all JRPGs! Square Enix is a JRPG developer!” Well, I guess that’s part of the formula. But the company has also made the board game Fortune Street, Mario Hoops 3-on-3, Parasite Eve, a Snoopy game, Theatrhythm, tower defense games… the list goes on.
So while its better-known games are typically JRPGs, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t branch out to a variety of genres. And when taking its publishing branch into consideration, things get even more blurry. It’s the publisher to some of the largest non-RPG western franchises around, including Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, Hitman, and Kane & Lynch amongst others. The games with Square Enix on the box can be large or small, eastern or western. They can be free browser-based games or expensive phone apps, and everything in between. Square Enix is huge, that’s for certain, but it lacks the identity of other large publishers. Nintendo nintendoes, Capcom capcoms, but Square Enix doesn’t seem to have its own voice. It’s just there, and sometimes good games follow. I guess that’s enough.
Some might say Square’s tendency to keep reinventing itself might show a greater deal of creativity at the cost of a coherent identity — which seems ironic, since Square Enix’s own The World Ends With You has a little story with a heart-warming message: in a world where everyone tries to be different, perhaps sticking to your roots is the better path to take.