I'll make you a deal on this top ten list. Ready? I'm going to include one of my personal favorite games even though it didn't receive a lot of critical acclaim primarily because I like it (and because, on a more unbiased front, I think a decent case can be made for its quality and significance), and in exchange I'll also include a game that received pretty universal acclaim that I personally can't stand. Sound fair? Alright, let's move on – the first game in this trade is the first game in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, Dirge of Cerberus.
On a personal note, I like Dirge of Cerberus because it stars one of my favorite gaming characters of all time, a character that I never felt got a fair treatment in the original game due to his optional nature. More significantly, though, Dirge of Cerberus was the major-console game release in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. Released almost ten years after the original game, Dirge of Cerberus had the deck stacked against it: Final Fantasy VII had gone on to become the most popular video game of all time by many estimates, and developing a sequel after that much build-up and anticipation was a daunting task. Dirge of Cerberus did not meet great acclaim upon release, considered by some to be subpar for its genre and others to be a confusing departure from actual Final Fantasy VII lore and canon. Despite the criticisms though, considering the challenges faced in development (of which I've only detailed a small portion), Dirge of Cerberus remains one of Square-Enix's successes.
The PlayStation 2 was the fourth console generation for which Square (now Square-Enix) developed their flagship series, and they broke with an established formula in a modest way. Previously, Square had released three Final Fantasy games for each console generation (I, II and III for NES; IV, V, and VI for SNES; VII, VIII, and IX for PlayStation), but the release of Final Fantasy XI as a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG changed things a bit. Although the game was released for the PlayStation 2, it attracted a different type of audience with a different overall structure, thus robbing the fanbase in some ways of a third traditional RPG. That meant also that the time between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII marked the longest period of time in which no new main-series single-player Square RPG was released. With all that said, the anticipation for Final Fantasy XII ran high.
Final Fantasy XII presented the series with one of its most radical departures in structure and style. Although the plot still centered around a band of adventurers traveling the world to save it (as any good RPG plot does), the battle system departed radically from earlier more traditional RPGs. Heavily influenced by Square's previous foray into MMORPGs with Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII worked with an active battle system leveraging many established MMORPG concepts, including agro and character roles. A gambit system was introduced as well to mimic the MMORPG structure in a single-player environment, an innovation that was preserved in some way in Final Fantasy XIII.
The first direct sequel to 2002's runaway hit Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II was, as far as I know, the first major-console release in one of Square's most prominent series after the Square-Enix merger (Final Fantasy XII, the first Final Fantasy game after the merger, came a year later). In many ways, however, the deck was stacked against Kingdom Hearts II in the same way that it was stacked against Dirge of Cerberus. Kingdom Hearts was in some ways a surprise hit; in retrospect it seems a foregone conclusion that the game would succeed, but at the time of its release, the relatively bizarre concept was risky. With the success of the original game, though, Kingdom Hearts II faced the delicate challenge of attempting to recapture the balance that made the original so popular.
In the end, though, the game was a rousing success, receiving numerous awards and Game of the Year consideration. It did not quite match its predecessor's reception, but it still receives credit as one of the best RPGs ever made. Perhaps even more notably, Kingdom Hearts II went a long way toward maturing the franchise; with the original game, it was impossible to be too serious while still starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, but with the sequel, a degree of maturity and lore was necessary in order to keep the game universe interesting and expandable. Kingdom Hearts II introduced many of the most notable plot elements that have driven the franchise to this day.
One might think that the merger between Square and Enix would reduce the company's reliance on its most popular franchise for success; however, whereas my list on Square itself featured five Final Fantasy games, by my judgment six of the newer company's best games are in that main franchise. Two of these come from the off-shoot Compilation of Final Fantasy VII sub-series, with Crisis Core the second one listed here.
I'm not going to lie, I didn't actually care for Crisis Core (it's not the previously-mentioned popular game that I hate, though). To me, it was a textbook example of Square-Enix's obsession with creating new content rather than exploring existing content – but if you want to hear more of my opinion on Crisis Core, my review is sitting there waiting for you. What I can say to the game's credit is that as much as the deck was stacked against Dirge of Cerberus, it was stacked against Crisis Core even more. The game was tasked with retelling one of the most iconic stories in all of video game history, a flashback sequence that has become one of the most memorable scenes of all time, in an all-new medium with modern graphics. While the new technology might seem like a benefit, oftentimes it can be a drawback; the older art style allowed a level of charm and suspension of disbelief that modern consoles do not have, and thus the task facing the game was difficult from the start. It still could have been done better, of course, but the battle system and other elements were solid enough to make Crisis Core one of Square-Enix's best.
Somewhere around the Square-Enix merger, I think Square decided that it needed to start milking its most famous franchise for more money. Several games have followed recently that seem to be cash-grabs, games that they know will sell on the strength of fan service alone. In a testament to Square-Enix as a company, though, these games have still largely been well-executed; it might be true that the inspiration for the endless Final Fantasy compilations and Final Fantasy XIII sequels is extra profit, but the actual games that are created to milk that profit tend to have high production values, even if the design and story decisions are often odd.
Dissidia Final Fantasy is the first major example of one of these inter-game compilations, starring the protagonists and antagonists of several of the franchise's most popular games. With the series falling on harder times starting with the latter half of the PlayStation 2 era, it might have been an attempt to rekindle interest in the franchise as a whole. Nonetheless, Dissidia Final Fantasy went beyond fan service to deliver a very solid fighting game experience for both Final Fantasy fans and fighting game fans alike. Not to be outdone, the game's direct sequel was even better (although only incrementally), featuring a larger cast, a more fleshed-out story, and a more solid overall game experience. Of special note in both was the way they each ported RPG elements into a completely new genre, similar to how the same achievement was executed with Theatrhythm Final Fantasy.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is the sixth game in the Kingdom Hearts series, and the fifth developed by Square-Enix (making all but the first game the product of the newly-united company). To briefly recap, the original was followed by a Game Boy Advance game Chain of Memories (later ported to the PlayStation 2), then the first direct sequel for the PlayStation 2, and then two portable games, coded and 358/2 Days. These games served to continue the maturity that the direct sequel had given the series, shifting the focus to a more united Disney-based world and a cogent backstory, but it was (in my opinion, as always) Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep for the PSP that truly solidified the series and completely that maturation process. In terms of scale and canonical significance, Birth By Sleep is also the closest thing the franchise has to a true Kingdom Hearts III.
A prequel to the original game, Birth By Sleep was successful in shaking off many of the remaining shackles on the franchise from the strange series origin. By shifting the attention to the prequel, the game was able to partially reinvent the tone and atmosphere, moving the focus to the Disney worlds and reducing the reliance on the player's familiarity with Final Fantasy canon. Given the series' ongoing transition into a solid standalone franchise, this shift was critical as it increased the accessibility of the game for fans that lacked experience with Final Fantasy's long series history.
Alright, now I'll make good on my half of that earlier bargain. You let me include a game I enjoyed that wasn't well received, so now I'll include a game that was very well received that I personally couldn't stand. That game is the 2007 Nintendo DS release The World Ends With You. The World Ends With You is one of the new intellectual properties Square-Enix developed in the latest console generation, and it has gone on to become the most acclaimed new property as other released like The 3rd Birthday and The Last Remnant have failed to find a significant following. An iOS port has further increased the popularity of the game, and the game was so well-received that it became one of those rare portable games to actually receive notable attention for Game of the Year in its release year.
An RPG in name only, The World Ends With You is an incredibly unique release in nearly every way possible. The battle system relies on touch controls rather than traditional turn-based combat, and to this day remains one of the most notable Nintendo DS games to truly execute the touch controls in a non-contrived manner. The tone of the game was an enormous departure from any other RPG I've ever seen as well, taking place in a modern setting with a jarring and immersive backstory more akin to modern anime series – an interesting twist considering the visual style of the game is unique as well, with little similarity to anime otherwise. As for my personal opinion of the game… well, once again, my review is sitting there for you to go read.
In an interesting twist on the stateside success Square and Square-Enix have experienced throughout their histories, two of the top three games on this list actually have not yet received an American release. The first among these is Dragon Quest X, whose full name Dragon Quest X: Mezameshi Itsutsu no Shuzoku Online translates to Dragon Quest X: Rise of the Five Tribes Online. For a little backstory, Dragon Quest was Enix's main property before the merger with Square (although the individual games were developed by Chunsoft, Heartbeat, and ArtePiazza). Unlike Final Fantasy, however, Dragon Quest's main appeal remained in Japan, and the game never reached the level of cultural penetration in the United States that Final Fantasy was able to achieve.
Dragon Quest X is the first Dragon Quest game to be almost completely developed in-house by Square-Enix (with help from Armor Project, the company headed by the creator of Dragon Quest, Yuji Horii). In many ways, the game is the "Final Fantasy XI" of the Dragon Quest series, the first step into MMORPG territory for an established traditional RPG. Like Final Fantasy XI before it, Dragon Quest X has become a significant hit, successfully bridging the jump to the MMORPG genre. Perhaps most remarkably, the game is available for the Nintendo Wii, a console notoriously adverse to the types of structures necessary for a successful MMORPG. The game also remains more true to its traditional RPG roots than many MMORPGs, retaining an appeal sure to translate to the eventual Wii U re-release and, hopefully, an American localization.
Inarguably one of the most polarizing games released this console generation, Final Fantasy XIII was greeted with all the fanfare and anticipation of any main-series Final Fantasy game (even though the series hadn't had a true killer game in eight years). As the first release for a new console generation, the series had an enormous reputation to live up to: it beget natural comparisons to several of Square's all-time greatest games, including Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy X. Each of those rang in a new console generation, and each of those went on to be regarded as among the greatest games ever created.
With the absence of a revolutionary hardware change akin to the transition from 2D to 3D, though, Square-Enix had to find other ways to make Final Fantasy XIII stand out, and it was the design departures and decisions made here that served to make the game so polarizing. With this new release, Square-Enix pushed all-in on the graphical capabilities of the new system and decided to make the game as cinematic as possible, with everything from the regular world interaction to the battle sequences being rendered as beautifully as a FMV. In order to make that happen, though, they were forced to take control out of the player's hands in many ways with a more scripted and AI-driven battle system, an incredibly linear world layout, and an overall removal of many traditional RPG elements like towns and shops. These decisions were polarizing, but for those that can appreciate Final Fantasy XIII for the unique release it attempts to be, the result is breathtaking.
Released over a year ago for the PSP, Final Fantasy Type-0 has yet to receive an American release. What's more, no definitive answer has been given to the question of when, if ever, the game will be localized to the United States; the most recent word from director Hajime Tabata suggests that there are actually currently no plans to localize the game at all, not even for the PlayStation Vita (potentially due to the console's poor sales in the United States). All that is a shame because, in my opinion, Final Fantasy Type-0 is actually the best game yet released by Square-Enix.
Initially announced by the name Final Fantasy Agito XIII, Type-0 nonetheless retains many of the elements from the Final Fantasy XIII franchise, including the notion of branded l'Cie tasked with a particular Focus to complete. Aside from these shared elements, though, there is little if any actual continuity between Type-0 and Final Fantasy XIII. Instead, the game focuses on an all-new world centering around four battling nations and a class of fourteen selectable characters. The game was released to nearly universal acclaim in 2011, and by many estimates was Square's best-reviewed game since Final Fantasy X. The game seems to strike the balance that Final Fantasy XIII missed, adequately counterbalancing story, gameplay, and graphics. With the solid reception and associated Final Fantasy brand name, Final Fantasy Type-0 is sure to become one of the most hotly-anticipated localization efforts of the near future.
Honorable Mentions: Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Front Mission 4, Mario Hoops 3-on-3, Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy, Code Age Commanders: Tsugu Mono Tsuga Reru Mono, Front Mission 5: Scars of the War, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, Final Fantasy XIII-2, The Last Remnant, The 3rd Birthday.
As sad as it is, since the merger with Enix, Square has not been able to recapture the dominance that it experienced throughout the 1990s. Its recent releases have largely been forgotten, panned, or hotly debated, and while polarizing games are not bad games, they don't quite match a company whose prior reputation had been for developing nearly-universally loved games like Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Final Fantasy X. But while the merger may have hurt the game development portion of the Square-Enix business model, the company as a publisher has never been stronger. In recent years, you might have been surprised to see the company's name on numerous unexpected releases, such as Sleeping Dogs, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Just Cause 2, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. The company is even the Japanese publisher for what will likely be the year's best-selling game, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, as well as all the recent Call of Duty games. With the revenue from the new Final Fantasy games (regardless of how much popularity and critical acclaim they may receive) and the income stream as a recognized and respected publisher, Square-Enix's financial future is certainly secure for the foreseeable future, even if their golden age may already be behind them.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DetroitDJ (11/27/2012)
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