Fame is certainly not getting to Square Enix’s head. That’s not to say that the company hasn’t always been popular, but you don’t secure exclusive rights to work on Marvel games without adding an extra bit of swagger in your steps. I recently praised the company for making all the right moves over the last few years in regards to setting itself up as a premiere developer of western AAA titles and finding a balance to still work on the classic kind of games we saw from the company in the 90s.
And to think we have Bravely Default to thank for all of that.
It might have only sold a million copies worldwide, but with each passing year, the little “Nintendo 3DS game that could” is becoming the company’s defining game of the decade. That’s really saying something in the face of the blockbuster success of Final Fantasy XV, but on the Japanese side of the big pond, no game has done more for to inspire the company to get back to its roots and not only make classically stylized JRPGs but also original ones.
With all due respect to Final Fantasy XV, it sort of represents the big-headed Square Enix that the company is desperately trying to leave behind but can’t seem to thanks to the continued interference of Final Fantasy VII Remake. It’s the Square Enix that ran amok with DVD space in the PlayStation 2 days and got a little too big for its britches in the previous console generation, announcing heaps of Final Fantasy XIII games and not fully delivering on any of them. Final Fantasy XV and both Final Fantasy XIII sequels might have taught the company how to adopt modern day development cycles, but it was an outsourced project to a promising, fledgling company that showed us all how to love the company again.
Bravely Default came out of nowhere. Rumor has it that Square Enix didn’t even want to localize it until Fire Emblem: Awakening and Etrian Odyssey IV gave a glimpse into the hidden potential of the handheld JRPG crowd, and even then, it turned to Nintendo to handle the risk and publish it. As the two companies plugged away at making this retro throwback a hit, something struck many of us as “off” about this title. It looked like Final Fantasy, but indeed… it was an original title.
Prior to its North American release in 2014, the last original Japanese title to get international recognition from Square Enix was the 2007 game The World Ends With You. That’s seven years with no fresh IP from its Japanese studios seeing the light of day in North America.
Nintendo did such a fabulous job on the localization as well. It took what was a tiring little JRPG and turned it into something truly great. It allowed for the game to speed up time, so battles would not feel like a slog, and the voice acting and translations were top of the line, some of the absolute best that the genre had seen in a while. And that soundtrack… my goodness, I don’t think I’ve heard anything that beautiful in the last ten, maybe twenty years!
This praise burst through from enthusiastic critics, and gamers were convinced to respond with a purchase. 1 million copies later, Square Enix issued a full-on apology for overlooking the JRPG audience in North America and promised to do better.
And this is a promise it has fullfilled on, much more so than with Fabula Crystallis Novella.
Since Bravely Default launched, not only have we seen the mega blockbusters on the home consoles, we’ve also seen plenty of niche hits from the company too. The Square Enix prior to the success of Bravely Default might not have given NieR: Automata a chance, but here we are with a release date less than a month away. This was after the critical drubbing that its sister-series Drakengard 3 got back in 2014. No matter, this is the new and risky Square Enix, the one that’s not afraid of following up on a critical flop.
NieR: Automata looks like a much better game than Drakengard 3, and Square Enix has both developed it and published it with a new level of confidence, practically guaranteeing that it would succeed in a year that is already showing tough competition.
However, the true, lasting success of Bravely Default is showing Square Enix that there is still a demand for original franchises. After going five years between The World Ends With You and it, Square Enix is already stirring its brain and has been involved with three original projects over the last two years. Not only is it making original franchises on traditional consoles again, it is forming entirely new studios to helm them!
The best and most high profile of these attempts was the creation of Tokyo RPG Factory and its JRPG I Am Setsuna, another throwback to the olden days of JRPGs. This one, unlike Bravely Default, was clearly made on a shoestring budget and had to deliver double fold on the heart to make up for its technical shortcomings. I did just that, finding an audience who loved its endearing presentation and deceptively deep combat.
While not a financial hit, the JRPG audience came through and propped it up on a pedestal, and Square Enix responded with a new studio and two new franchises.
First is the one I’m most excited for. Project Octopath Traveler stole my heart when Square Enix showed it off on during the Nintendo Switch’s reveal video earlier in January. I’ll be daydreaming about this title until I see more or finally play it.
We also have today’s announcement of “Project Prelude Run,” and it is following many of the same steps that I Am Setsuna took. Square Enix creates a new studio, begins hiring with the promise of creating a JRPG, and then leaves us in waiting mode, wondering what it could be working on this time. If it’s a success, maybe we get more new games!
Hopefully, this cycle becomes a trend for the company, one which leads to wholly new and exciting adventures. Two new IPs from Square Enix, and to think half a decade ago we couldn’t even get one! These new games don’t necessarily have to be like games from the 90s to be successful, but Square Enix’s creative spirit does. Remember, that was an era when the company was being its most brazen, sinking massive funding into games like Xenogears, Vagrant Story, and Parasite Eve, games that lacked name recognition and games that other publishers wouldn’t even consider taking risks on nowadays.
But, as Bravely Default proved, if you ring in the classic JRPGs, its audience will follow. Square Enix has a whole new goldmine it is sitting on, and it took a handheld game that barely even made it stateside to light it all up.
And we still need SaGa: Scarlet Grace.The JRPG faithful and I won’t forget it exists, Square Enix!