Square Enix wasted a console generation, but it’s not too late for redemption

For Japanese RPG veterans Square Enix, this console generation has been utterly divisive. To use a word as noncommittal as "divisive" feels like I’m selling the legendary developer short, but it’s absolutely true. Final Fantasy XIII was a hold-your-hand romp through a confusing plot with unlikable characters. Final Fantasy XIII-2 gave players more creative reign but saddled them with a plot one reviewer called "borderline insulting." While the studio trudges onward with yet another installment in this ham-fisted narrative arc, a vocal majority of Square fans young and old cry out for change.

Between false hopes raised, never-ending development cycles, and frustrating silences, this is not the Square we once knew.

This is not the Square that redefined and popularized an entire genre with a single release. This is not the Square that pumped out dozens of classic PlayStation RPGs year after year. This is not the Square that took creative risks during the PS2’s heyday, but backed every experiment with rock-solid gameplay and storytelling. No, today’s Square Enix is almost unrecognizable; a facade of "excellence" that only masks ignorance. Where is Kingdom Hearts III? Where is Final Fantasy Versus XIII? Where is Final Fantasy X HD, revealed at Tokyo Game Show 2011 and given nary a word since?

For these reasons and more, I can’t help but feel that Square Enix development has effectively wasted a console generation. (The same probably shouldn’t be said for the publishing arm, which has scored relative hits like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot.) The last six years have only served to transform my opinion of the studio from adoration to disdain. But it’s not too late. I firmly believe that the forthcoming generation of consoles – set to begin on February 20, with the PlayStation 4’s reveal – presents Square’s best chance for redemption.

It all starts with a back-to-basics approach that puts consumer needs ahead of Square’s experimental desires. I’m all for new ideas, but Square needs to actively listen to the vocal majority and understand exactly why many gamers couldn’t get behind the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. Was it the ultra-linear environments of XIII? The non-sensical, deus ex machina-ridden plot of XIII-2? Everyone has different tastes, but unearthing a consensus on what went wrong with these releases shouldn’t be difficult.

Of course, lessons learned mean nothing without the proper application. Square wowed us at E3 2012 with the gorgeous Agni’s Philosophy tech demo, so why not start with the demo’s environments and atmosphere as artistic building blocks for Final Fantasy XV? A neo-medieval world of courts, lords, poverty, and fugitives both hearkens back to simpler (better) times and presents an opportunity for critique of modern class systems and wealth distribution. Ambitious? Sure! Preachy? Perhaps. Either way, it’s loads simpler than the fal’Cie nonsense of XIII and its obtuse sequel, which gave us worlds that were anything BUT likable or relatable.

Rumors abound that the oft-delayed Final Fantasy Versus XIII is actually being rebranded for release on PlayStation 4. At this point, I’m all for it. Just knowing that Square has a plan for this game is comforting, and what little we’ve seen of Versus’ modern setting and Kingdom Hearts-inspired gameplay looks promising. There’s another good reason for Versus to get on the development fast track – much of the original team behind Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II are committed to the project. While recent handheld entries have admittedly been quite good, it’s flabbergasting that this insanely popular series effectively skipped a console generation and hasn’t received a proper console sequel in seven years.

These last seven years have left me pining for more than Kingdom Hearts III, though. Maybe E3 2006’s Final Fantasy VII tech demo doomed Square Enix to infamy, but I’d be remiss to not mention the positive impact that revisiting past franchise titles could have on the company’s fortunes (and profits). It’s simple – fans demand it, and a business should strive to meet such passionate consumer desire. Nostalgic gamers are somewhat divided on which entries deserve a remake, but I don’t think Square could go wrong by tossing VI through IX into a hat and blindly picking one. However, remake development is contingent on Square actually finishing Final Fantasy X HD, a Cross-Save remaster promised for both PS3 and PS Vita.

Seriously, it’s been 18 months. Where the hell is this game?

The buck must stop with PS4, and the PlayStation Meeting on February 20 is an ideal venue for Square to give PlayStation die-hards a glimpse of their role-playing future. It’s not hard to express how my confidence in the legendary developer could be restored. Imagine, if you will: Sony has unveiled the PS4. We are told to prepare to witness the next generation of video games. Epic electronic music bursts forth as a sizzle reel of game footage makes our jaws drop. Uncharted 4. Deus Ex. Killzone. And, in the mix of it all, Final Fantasy XV. Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth. Kingdom Hearts III.

It’s a long shot, but I dare you to tell me the thought doesn’t have your heart racing.

PSU will bring you more PS4 coverage (and Square Enix impressions) than anyone else in the coming days, months, and years. For now, let me know what you think of my Square Enix woes in the comments below. Are my ideas for redemption on the mark? What would it take for YOU to be a fan again?