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Square Enix: The Good, The Bad, and the “What?!”

Let's look into the current state of Square Enix, a company that seems chaotic in its current form, to work out what's happened to them. They have suffered some dizzying highs, terrifying lows, and creamy middles over the past few years, being capable of releasing marvelous titles and then releasing a "Worst Game of the year" nominee without skipping a beat.

Square Enix The Good, The Bad, and the "What?!"

The AAA industry in general seems somewhat unstable right now. Multiple large projects from AAA publishers have failed miserably. Microsoft’s record-breaking deal to buy Activision Blizzard has left people openly speculating over who will be next to be bought. But of all the big AAA publishers, the one that most gives off the feeling of pure chaos is Square Enix. Ironic given the fact that Square just released Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin last year, a game that spawned endless internet memes about its protagonist and him saying that he’s going to kill Chaos fifty billion times.

Square Enix has done some amazing things, some horrendous things, and some things that make me question what is going on in the executives’ heads. Watching their antics over the past few years has been interesting if nothing else. They give off an air of nothing being off the table. They could become even more gigantic than they are now, or they could be sold off to Sony in five years’ time. Anything is possible with them.

The Good

Square Enix is still good at what they’re supposed to be good at, making and selling video games. They’ve been having a bumper crop of great games released over the past few years. Nier Automata graced the world with a thought-provoking story of the nature of humanity, and also 2B’s booty patootie. Live A Live and Trials of Mana (or Seiken Densetsu 3 as English fans have known it as for the longest time) got remakes and finally escaped the hell of Japanese exclusivity. And after an endless wave of spinoffs, mobile games, and other assorted nonsense, Kingdom Hearts III finally launched. It only took 14 years after the release of Kingdom Hearts II. All of these games were very warmly received and will be remembered fondly for years to come.

Another thing that Square Enix is great with is being extremely generous when it comes to supporting its legacy IP. Most publishers are perfectly happy to rest on three or four staple franchises and leave the rest to rot. Sega and Capcom in particular come to mind when it comes to this, for the vast majority of their titles, the most they can hope for is compilation releases. Square Enix, on the other hand, is reviving their legacy franchises like it’s going out of style. Star Ocean, Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Valkyrie Profile, and the aforementioned Live A Live all got sequels or remakes last year, a feat I could see no other publisher pulling off, and one that I commend Square Enix for.

The Bad

Remember when I said most of Square Enix’s recent games have been good? This is where the exceptions come in. It’s practically inevitable that most publishers will release an absolute stinker every now and then. Not just a disappointing game, but a “Worst Game of the Year” candidate, a title that will be remembered with dishonor and shame for decades to come. Square Enix, on the other hand, releases one every year nowadays it seems.

2018 brought unto us The Quiet Man, one of the rare modern games that actually uses live-action footage to tell its story. Said story is a nigh-incomprehensible mess all due to a blatant marketing gimmick. The main character is deaf, so all of the game’s audio is totally muted, and the game makes little if any effort to compensate for it. The Quiet Man‘s failure led to the death of its developer, Human Head Studios. They would later be resurrected as Roundhouse Studios under Bethesda

Not one to be outdone, just three months later in early 2019, Left Alive made its exceptionally inglorious debut. Left Alive is perhaps best known for what it desperately wants to be instead of what it is. What it is is an ill-conceived Front Mission spinoff that largely abandoned the series trademark Wanzers and focuses on boots-on-the-ground stealth action. What it wants to be, as is immediately obvious from the box art, is Metal Gear Solid. Left Alive marked an abrupt shift to stealth gameplay, largely bereft of the hot Wanzer on Wanzer action that defined the series up to that point. Games have definitely made abrupt genre shifts work before, but Left Alive absolutely was not one of them.

In 2020, the main branch of Square Enix was busy releasing the inexplicable Final Fantasy VII Remake. It was up to Square Enix Europe to take the reigns for their annual kusoge with Marvel’s Avengers. Insomniac’s Spider-Man was a monstrous hit, and thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel’s characters were more embedded in the collective public’s mind than ever before. An Avengers game should have been a slam dunk. Why wasn’t it? It was a single-player adventure game awkwardly rammed into a live service mold, like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It was widely criticized for having poor loot and hamfisted live service mechanics when it shouldn’t have had those mechanics in the first place. And just a few days prior, it was announced that all development had stopped on the title and it was to be put in maintenance mode. Such a shame.

Square Enix’s main branch came back with a vengeance in 2021, now not content to simply stink up major franchises. They also sank the careers of one of gaming’s signature creators as well. From Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, creators of Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights into Dreams came Balan Wonderworld. Balan Wonderworld greeted the gaming industry with a graceful bow, before sliding off stage in the manner of the game’s infamous “Box Fox” transformation. Balan Wonderworld was eviscerated by critics for having half-baked and dysfunctional mechanics, and rampant technical issues. It also had a nonexistent story because the actual plot was buried in a novel that you had to pay an extra 10 dollars for. Yuji Naka would leave Square Enix not long after. He’d sue them by blaming them for Balan Wonderworld‘s failure and then get arrested for insider trading. It’s amazing how far he fell.

2022’s Babylon’s Fall probably hurt most of all. It was from Platinum Games and Square Enix, the same team responsible for the universally beloved Nier Automata. But Babylon’s Fall received as much of an inverse reaction as one could get, launching with just above 1000 concurrent players on Steam, and only dwindling from there. Headlines were made just two months after release as the game dropped to a pathetic one concurrent player on Steam. Square Enix would later announce the game’s complete shutdown to be carried out this coming February. Babylon’s Fall would end up being playable for less than a year. Even Battleborn did better, and that’s a game only known nowadays as being a punchline for failed live services. How does one do worse than Battleborn

Regular standalone games aren’t the only things they’re making though, they’re also involved in various live service games. In addition to Babylon’s Fall, they’ve also released Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier: a Final Fantasy battle royale that nobody wanted, Chocobo GP: a solid racing game undermined by an overwhelmingly aggressive pricing scheme, and Bravely Default: Brilliant Lights: a game I hadn’t heard of until Square Enix said they were killing it, and I love Bravely Default. All of these games launched, all were heavily monetized, and all died in around a year. It was a massive shame for all of their fans.

In the immortal words of Adam Jensen, "I never asked for this".

In the immortal words of Adam Jensen, “I never asked for this”.

The “What?!”

Square Enix makes lots of good games and lots of bad games. However, they’re also involved in something arguably worse than any one game. Something intangible, something of the non-fungible variety. In late 2022, Square Enix was teasing a project called Symbiogenesis, and light on details, fans began to speculate. People’s eyes became starry-eyed, as they assumed the project had something to do with Parasite Eve, which made sense.

Square Enix is extremely generous when it comes to legacy IP revivals, and Parasite Eve is long overdue for some form of revival. Parasite Eve doubly deserves one considering that survival horror revivals are popular now thanks to Capcom’s wildly successful Resident Evil remakes. Symbiogenesis is also a term borrowed from the cellular science on which the story of Parasite Eve is based. The stars aligned for Aya Brea to make her triumphant return, but Square Enix had other, more idiotic plans. 

Not only was it not Parasite Eve, which was bad enough on its own, but it was something far worse, an NFT-based collectible art project, due out Spring of 2023. The fan reaction to being served non-fungible garbage instead of Parasite Eve was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. Square Enix was compared to Shinra, the environmentally destructive megacorp from Final Fantasy VII, one of the most prominent and critically acclaimed games associated with them. Final Fantasy VII was also the origin of one particularly famous viral image widely associated with NFT criticism.

Truer words were never spoken. Original image courtesy of @Foone on Twitter.

Truer words were never spoken. Original image courtesy of @Foone on Twitter.

Square Enix seems like the last mainstream AAA publisher to really be aggressively pushing NFTs. Others, like Ubisoft, did make various attempts at NFT projects, but most seem to have long abandoned them. Hard to say whether the abandonment was to do with low adoption, near-unanimous hatred among their fanbases, or the unhealthiness of the NFT space in general.

Non-Fungible Tokens and Cryptocurrencies in general are exceptionally unstable. The conversation about NFTs and Crypto has been dominated by volatility and vulnerability to hackers and scammers. Few embody the volatility of Crypto and NFTs better than Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and CEO of major crypto exchange FTX. Sam went from a billionaire philanthropist to a bankrupt fraudster who may spend the rest of his life behind bars, basically overnight.

The only thing worse than Square Enix investing in NFTs is what they sold in order to push NFTs forward. In May of 2022, Square Enix announced that it had sold Crystal Dynamics, Eidos, and their back catalogs of over 50 intellectual properties to Embracer Group. They sold Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, Legacy of Kain, and more, all for the paltry sum of $300 million. I argue that Tomb Raider and Deus Ex alone are worth $300 million. Selling all that for so little was foolish. They valued JPEGs more than they did some of the most iconic and beloved franchises in gaming history. If that’s not a sign of pure chaos then I don’t know what is.

Other notable IP that Square Enix offloaded include Thief, Fighting Force, and Gex. How could they sell Gex?

Other notable IP that Square Enix offloaded include Thief, Fighting Force, and Gex. How could they sell Gex?

The Future

Despite how negative this piece has sounded, I do not dislike Square Enix at all. In fact, I love them. When they’re firing on all cylinders, they can make wonderful things that no other publisher is capable of. It’s just that they keep making such absurd decisions and getting in the news for all the wrong reasons. I want them to succeed, I want them to focus on what they’re great at, making awe-inspiring JRPGs. I want them to avoid dealing with trashy mobile games and sinking into the NFT quagmire. They’ve been making amazing RPGs for over three decades, and they still have the chops to do so. I hope this piece inspires them to take a good long look at themselves and see what works for them. And also inspires them to do another Parasite Eve game. That would be nice too.

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