Compared to the splendor of Bethesda's press conference, Square Enix's venue was comparatively modest, filling a small ballroom at the JW Marriott. Still, the room was buzzing after what had been a very good outing for Square Enix the previous night. The moment was ripe for a Square Enix victory lap, possibly bringing with it a Dragon Quest VII remake.
Alas, Dragon Quest VII was not forthcoming, but what did appear was in some ways even better. No one would have ever believed that Nier would ever get a sequel. Cavia disappeared long ago, and while Drakengard 3 still managed to get made, it seemed as if Nier would forever be relegated to the status of one-off cult classic. I should have known better, though. Brand recognition trumps all.
Even more unexpected than a sudden Nier sequel is the attachment of Platinum, which instantly raises the project's profile. While Japanese auteur Taro Yoko, creator of Nier and Drakengard, has a refreshing sense of the bizarre and macabre, his games have typically been rough, to put it charitably. That low-fi quality can be charming in films, but in 3D action games, it's usually just a distraction. So it's heartening to see his ideas married with Platinum's excellent production values.
"The request we received was to instill new strength in the Nier franchise by bringing Platinum's unique strength to the project, which is action," said Platinum's Atsushi Inaba. "We're not worried about keeping true to the spirit of the game because Mr. Yoko is on board with us.
Yoko himself gave the project his blessing, taking the stage alongside Inaba wearing one of his typically strange masks. If there's any concern that he is being pushed out, that should put it to rest.
I'll confess that I'm not as big a fan of his work as others, and while I have great respect for Nier's ambition, I've long felt that it was dragged down by its actual gameplay. With Platinum on board, though, my interest has been piqued. Nier's sequel may yet have a chance to be more than a quirky cult classic.
Much of the chatter around Square Enix during this show has surrounded the Final Fantasy VII remake, but it's easy to forget that we've been waiting for a true Kingdom Hearts sequel for close to a decade as well. At their press event, Square Enix showed some new gameplay footage, much to the excitement of the guy sitting in front of me, who seemed on the verge of losing his mind with joy.
I'll admit, I was surprised by how impressive it looked. At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, I've never cared much for Kingdom Hearts, mostly because I'm not a big fan of its comparatively shallow combat and its convoluted story. What Square Enix showed at their press conference gave me pause, though. Not only does Kingdom Hearts III look absolutely gorgeous, it looks like a lot of fun as well.
As I said, combat has always been a sticking point for Kingdom Hearts, mostly focusing on basic hack-and-slash combat and a handful of flashy gimmicks. Much of that is by design, the goal being to cast as wide a net as possible for mainstream audiences. But as a fan of traditional turn-based RPGs, I've never had much time for it.
As expected, not much has changed with Kingdom Hearts III. For better or worse, it is what it is. But Kingdom Hearts III seems much faster than even Kingdom Hearts II, which itself was a very fast-paced action RPG. Nobody is going to mistake it for Bayonetta 2, but as Sora hacked, slashed, and rode what looked like a chariot from Hercules, I felt a sense of exhiliration. No, it's not apt to be very deep, but neither is it apt to be the sort of hack-hack-slash-slash grind that characterized the original game. As action RPGs go, Kingdom Hearts III looks like a sugar rush, hopefully without the accompanying hangover.
It helps that Kingdom Hearts III's graphics look really good. The series has never exactly been ugly, but it hasn't really been cutting edge either. Even back in 2002, I remember feeling like Kingdom Hearts was a significant step down from Final Fantasy X. By comparison, the Kingdom Hearts III trailer I saw was dominated by large vistas and attractive outdoor terrain, alleviating any concern that it might suffer next to the rest of the PlayStation 4's offerings.
In many ways, Kingdom Hearts is back where it belongs. Birth by Sleep and its ilk were nice, but the series suffered at the hands of the limited controls and small screens of dedicated handhelds. This is Square Enix's chance to ditch the gimmicks and deliver a true love letter to both their history and that of Disney. And based on what I saw today, they are well on their way.
Nice as it was to see a Nier sequel and a strong showing for Kingdom Hearts 3, though, the best news of the day might have been the announcement that Square Enix has put together a studio dedicated specifically to RPGs.
Called the Tokyo RPG Factory, their first game will be a new IP called Project Setsuna. No other information was released outside of a single piece of concept art, which was admittedly gorgeous, depicting a woman standing in the middle of a snowy landscape. But the real news wasn't that Tokyo RPG Factory is making a game. It's that they exist at all.
I don't have to tell everyone how rough it's been for Japanese game development over the past few years. There have been plenty of strong releases, Xenoblade Chronicles, Bravely Default, and Persona 4 Golden among them, but the overall quality has taken a nosedive. Hardcore enthusiasts will point to the flood of software from publishers like Idea Factory as a sign of the sub-genre's continued vitality, but I've been dismayed by the budget nature of their production values and their lack of actual depth. JRPGs can do a lot better.
Square Enix's announcement is an encouraging sign that they are still very much behind JRPGs, which is a blessing given their resources and their still formidable pool of talent. Whatever Project Setsuna ends up being, there's a decent chance that it will use the latest console technology, and that it won't be budget release catering to the lowest common demoninator.
With Tokyo RPG Factory, it appears that Square Enix is ready to take a strong leadership role in JRPGs once again, a position that has been mostly filled by Atlus over the past few years. And more importantly, they appear to be devoted to quality. Starting with the release of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and continuing on through Final Fantasy Type-0 HD and Bravely Default, Square Enix has gotten noticeably better at paying attention to the desires of its fans. Tokyo RPG Factory shows that they are willing to be a creative leader as well, with a new generation of IPs set to join classics like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.
More generally, the more developers making Japanese RPGs, the better. In that regard, Tokyo RPG Factory is extremely welcome. We may not be getting our much-desired Dragon Quest VII localization, but this news might be even better. After spending so much time focusing on their past, it seems that Square Enix is finally looking ahead to the future.