Here's my favorite Final Fantasy VII Remake story: Tetsuya Nomura didn't even know he was directing it until well into pre-production.
As Nomura tells it, it wasn't until he saw an internal company presentation with his name attached as director that he realized he was in charge.
"So I called up [Yoshinori Kitase] and said, 'It says that I'm the director for some reason.' To which he replied, 'Of course it does,'" Nomura told Famitsu two years ago, shortly after the announcement of Final Fantasy VII Remake.
What does it say when your director doesn't even know he's in charge until the project has already started? Perhaps it offers some insight into why, two years after its explosive reveal at E3 2015, Final Fantasy VII Remake feels further away than ever.
The litany of bad news started coming in last week. First, Square Enix announced that they were staffing up for production, suggesting that there was still a great deal of work to be done. Then they announced that it wouldn't be out until "FY 2018 and beyond." And now Square Enix is taking the project back in-house after initially handing a chunk of it off to CyberConnect2, a reputable studio that was set to do much of the heavy lifting on Final Fantasy VII Remake's development.
Based on Square Enix's track record to this point, it appears that Final Fantasy VII Remake is well on its way to following the path of Kingdom Hearts 3 and Final Fantasy Versus XIII. And as anyone who has followed RPGs knows, that's a very bad path to follow.
This troubling trend of games being announced but heavily delayed goes as far back as 2004. In the wake of Final Fantasy XII's rocky development, Final Fantasy XIII was shifted over to the PlayStation 3, ultimately taking four years to be released. Its lengthy development was chalked up to any number of factors: the development of the Final Fantasy VII Technical Demo taking resources from FFXIII, the desire to build a new engine from scratch, the difficult transition to a new generation of consoles. It wound up being the worst of both worlds for Square Enix, as it was both trapped in development hell and rushed through a relatively short production schedule.
Final Fantasy Versus XIII's development proved even more fraught. After being announced alongside Final Fantasy XIII, it remained out of sight for years, only occasionally popping up for a brief update. When Hajime Tabata later took on the project as it was being rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, he called it "more of an idea than an actual game."
"Because the game itself was incomplete, there really wasn't a whole lot brought over, if I'm speaking honestly. It's pretty difficult to compare apples and oranges in this case," Tabata told us. "You have something that was incomplete and never really fully formed. [Versus] was more an idea than an actual game, whereas what we've created here [with Final Fantasy XV] is a complete, finished product."
Tabata was eventually able to shepherd Final Fantasy XV to full release, but there's still one game that has yet to see the light of day: Kingdom Hearts 3.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has been famously missing in action since its original announcement at E3 2013. Even Nomura complained that it was announced too quickly. "Since the release of Kingdom Hearts II, I believe that many fans were feeling impatient due to our continuous releases of spin-off titles, so we decided to announce it at the same time as Final Fantasy XV. However, looking at the current development status, I think we may have announced it a little too early."
Since then we've received new info in dribs and drabs: a trailer here, a teaser there. Earlier this year, Square Enix released Kingdom Hearts 2.8, which functioned mostly as a tech demo and a teaser trailer for Kingdom Hearts 3. Still, Kingdom Hearts 3 won't be out until at least 2018.
And now we have Final Fantasy VII Remake, another project seemingly destined for a never-ending development cycle.
That it's been two years and Final Fantasy VII Remake has barely seen the light of day is troubling to say the least. Even more troubling is that it's ostensibly an episodic game, and we're nowhere close to seeing Episode 1.
So what in the world is going on over at Square Enix?
Cynicism or Hope for Final Fantasy VII?
When the Final Fantasy VII Remake was first shown two years ago, I remember thinking when Nomura was listed as director, "Oh no, this game is never getting done." That thought was based in part on his recent track record, and in part on the various stories that have circulated around the industry over the years.
Indeed, Nomura apparently had a strained relationship with CyberConnect2, complaining that their work on the trailer for the remake needed to be "more in the Square Enix style." One way or another, Nomura always seems to be at the center of Square Enix's development troubles.
The truth of the matter is that I don't have a lot of faith in Square Enix's old-guard leadership after a decade of misfires. That's why relative newcomers like Final Fantasy XV's Hajime Tabata and Final Fantasy XIV's Naoki Yoshida have been such a breath of fresh air: they've actually managed to get things done. As I said in my review last year, actually finishing and shipping Final Fantasy XV makes him a miracle worker in my mind.
So while it's always dangerous to assign too much of the credit (or the blame) to any one developer, decent project management can work wonders. And based on recent evidence, Final Fantasy VII Remake doesn't have that.
That has left me feeling unfortunately cynical about Final Fantasy VII Remake's prospects. I was warned that it almost certainly wasn't going to be out until 2018 at the earliest, but I had hoped that Episode 1 at least would be out in time for the 20th anniversary. Now I see that I was being too optimistic, as tends to happen with games that I'm excited to play.
If there's any reason to be hopeful, it's that Square Enix is seemingly serious about rolling up their sleeves and actually getting to work now. To that end, they've brought in Naoki Hamaguchi to serve as a development lead. Hamaguchi is best-known for his work in the high pressure mobile space, where he led development on Mobius Final Fantasy. His background is more programming than creative development, so there's a decent chance that his main task will be to keep everything on schedule.
"I've taken over the development side of the Final Fantasy VII Remake," he said on a recent Mobius Final Fantasy stream. "Up until now, development has progressed by receiving external collaboration, but from here on out, with production and quality in mind, we’re shifting to our in-house organization. This company decision was made wanting to control quality as well as keeping the schedule stable."
Hopefully he will follow in the footsteps of Yoshida and Tabata in the Getting Things Done department. We'll see.
But in the short-term, any hope that Square Enix managed to turn over a new leaf with the successful reboot of Final Fantasy XIV and the release of Final Fantasy XV appears to have been dashed for now. This is old-school Square Enix through and through.
And we're right back to where we started.