Once touted as King of the JRPG, the name Square Enix doesn’t carry as much clout as it used to. In terms of quality, the Final Fantasy series has been on the decline lately with XIII being a hand-holding linear affair and XIV being a complete failure in the MMO realm. Let’s not forget the most recent spin-offs with Crystal Chronicles, Dissidia & Chocobo’s Dungeon. While not completely terrible, non of them can be held in the same regard as the numbered entries to the series and without the Final Fantasy name they probably wouldn’t have sold nearly as well.
Outside of the Final Fantasy franchise, Square Enix is probably best known for collaborating with Disney to create the Kingdom Hearts series. Like Silent Hill, Kingdom Hearts has an extremely loyal fanbase that will eat up whatever is thrown their way and rain down thunder to anyone who opposes them. It’s been almost 10 years since an original Kingdom Hearts title appeared on a console and the latest entry for the 3DS, 3D: Dream Drop Distance, received mixed-to-positive reviews based on the new “drop system” and the overall plot. Still though, the future of Kingdom Hearts looks a bit brighter than Final Fantasy due to its proven record to be successful on portable systems.
Square Enix is definitely the “big dog” when it comes to the JRPG market, but with the declining appeal of the Final Fantasy franchise, is it time for another developer to swoop in and carry the torch? Who would that even be?
My number one choice would have to be Atlus. The Shin Megami Tensei series spans a large collective of games and even though it took a bit for the Persona series to take off here in North America, Persona 3 and 4 were touted as some of the best games for the PS2. Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga built a cult following and Devil Survivor is doing great in the portable market. The only SMT release that was greeted with mixed reviews is Strange Journey for the Nintendo DS in 2010 and even that has an 80/100 Metacritic score. Popularity for the Persona series has skyrocketed and Atlus took note to finally release the missing half of Persona 2, Innocent Sin, for the Sony PSP in 2011. They even worked hard with Arc System Works to cross over to the 2D fighting realm with Persona 4: Arena which not only completely embraces everything that a fighting fan would want in a game, but appeases the role-playing crowd as well with an in-depth storyline spanning multiple hours.
Next in line would have to be Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) and their developer partnership with Gust, although they cater to a niche crowd with their strategy RPG focus. They’re best known for the Disgaea series but have released their fair share of other titles in the Phantom Brave, Hyperdimension Neptunia & Atelier universe here in North America. They’ve even branched off in to the handheld market with additional releases for Disgaea, Phantom Brave and the side-scrolling Prinny titles. While some of their titles don’t always receive the highest review scores, SRPG fans depend on NIS & Gust to develop quality games year after year. Granted the SRPG market isn’t exactly the target audience of Square Enix, but you can’t deny the impact NIS & Gust have made on the JRPG genre in recent years.
There are a few other developers like tri-Ace, From Software and, most recently, Capcom, that are fighting the good fight to keep JRPGs from falling in to another state of mediocrity. From Software did an amazing job with Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls & 3D Dot Game Heroes while Capcom just released one of the best Japanese-developed RPGs in recent memory, Dragon’s Dogma. tri-Ace is the developer behind the Star Ocean franchise and a majority of their games are met with mixed reviews, such as Infinite Undiscovery, Final Fantasy XIII-2 & Resonance of Fate. Star Ocean is another series with a loyal fanbase but it never really picks up enough steam here in North America to really be a contender for the Final Fantasy slot.
Now this is all just personal opinion and I might have even overlooked some other JRPG developers like Natsume (the Harvest Moon, River King & Rune Factory series) and Namco Tales Studio (since their releases in NA are few and far between), but I’m really just hoping Square Enix gets their ducks in a row and keeps the Final Fantasy series afloat instead of plunging to the ground like the Ruby Weapon. There is a new generation of gamers out there that missed the glory days of Squaresoft and in this day and age, western developers are making a killing in the RPG market with The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Fallout & Borderlands because they know what the players want and understand that we’re not all anime fans that want to control an androgynous protagonist of questionable sex. We want freedom of choice and consequences for our actions, more interactive combat, a story geared toward adults and more say in how our characters develop as not only a wizard or a fighter, but as a human being. I miss the good ol’ days of JRPGs being great, but unfortunately without Square Enix to lead the way with the Final Fantasy series, it’s up to someone else to step forward and say “Hey, assholes! Check this out!” and turn the gaming world’s attention back to Japan. If it’s not Square Enix, then who?
*this blog was cross-posted to my blog over on Destructoid’s community server.