Warrior of Light in trailer for Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers
Image via Square Enix

Square Enix needs to drop out of the AAA race to get back to its golden age

Bring the true fantasy back to RPGs!

Despite its long and distinguished history as the pioneer for fantasy RPGs, Square Enix has gradually lost its footing in the genre given the subpar success of its more recent releases, and now the company has declared a huge rollback on numerous projects. While certainly nothing new in the industry, the root of Square Enix's crisis lies in poor decision-making—specifically, their strange decision to force their greatest concepts into a AAA package.

Recommended Videos

To get back on the right track and find the soul of true RPG craft once more, they need to leave that farce behind.

The beginning of Square Enix and Final Fantasy

Beginning as a much smaller company in the 1980s called "Square," their bold vision for gaming was no less aspirational and full of ingenious ideas that would pay off handsomely from the get-go. While their debut text adventure-style IP The Death Trap was a resounding success, it wasn't until the release of games like Dragon Slayer and especially Sir-Tech's Wizardry series that Square's roadmap was noticeably steering toward a specific direction - RPGs.

In 1987, Square director Hironobu Sakaguchi brought forth a new IP that would begin to redefine what constitutes an RPG and called it Final Fantasy. It introduced eccentric character classes for players to choose from, incorporated a universal magic system, and innovative gameplay mechanics such as turn-based combat. The game injected a new, first-of-its-kind "fantasy" element that molded seamlessly with classic elements already established in the genre, animating them all together into a new formula that would ultimately skyrocket its popularity.

Party fights a Lich in Final Fantasy
Image via Square Enix

The first Final Fantasy game was a resounding success, earning nearly universal acclaim and selling over half a million copies in Japan alone for the Famicom (NES) console. However, it was the game's NES console release soon after in the US that proved what Final Fantasy was truly capable of - connecting RPG fans in two of the industry's biggest player demographics and paving the way for the genre's true debut on the world stage. Not only that, the game single-handedly saved Sakaguchi's career and Square from a looming bankruptcy.

Square finds its footing with fantasy RPG

With that clear sign of good fortune, Square's focus pivoted almost exclusively to the RPG genre and the development of Final Fantasy as both a franchise and a bastion for its endeavors. Other notable classic RPGs such as Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Xenogears would further bolster the company's portfolio and reputation.

All the while, Final Fantasy installments followed in relatively quick succession, often only a year or two apart, and the franchise's success would only continue to grow thanks to the technology of Sony's premier gaming console, the PlayStation.

The introductory cutscene in Xenogears
Image via Squaresoft

The PS1 allowed Square to push its creative boundaries even further, particularly by incorporating new narrative elements into each game to make the Final Fantasy lore deeper and more captivating. This culminated in titles like Final Fantasy 6 and, of course, the iconic Final Fantasy 7, which is still revered decades later for its unparalleled storytelling and character development. (This later earned it several spin-off games, such as the beloved prequel Crisis Core, a canon feature film, and now a budget-breaking remake trilogy.)

The PlayStation 2 helped push things even further with Final Fantasy 10, the installment that bridged the franchise to a more mainstream, global audience with then-unprecedented graphics, modernized turn-based gameplay, and an incredibly emotional story. With near-perfect scores across the board, the game broke all projections and sold over two million units on day one. This newfound tier of success would establish Square as a force to be reckoned with across the industry and as the new standard for the RPG genre.

Yuna performs a ritual in Final Fantasy X
Image via Square Enix

Square's first MMORPG opens more doors

Building off of its new mainstream audience, Square next opted for a bold new avenue in the RPG realm and in 2002 debuted its first MMO title, Final Fantasy XI: Online. Despite taking the plunge into a unique player pool that would become fiercely dominated by Blizzard's World of Warcraft just a couple of years later, the decision to bring the Final Fantasy experience to an online multiplayer platform would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

FF11 brought together the best elements of Final Fantasy and fused it with all the appeal of the MMO genre. While keeping to the lore and classic roots of the franchise, this new type of game proved to be a successful experiment, with subscriber counts consistently climbing in the first few years of its release. It was clear that players enjoyed not only the new social element of Final Fantasy but the real-time gameplay as well.

With a path clearly laid and set for even bigger aspirations, Square's fateful merger with Enix Corporation in 2003 would determine how well that path would be followed. Soon enough, the company set its sights on ways to modernize Final Fantasy further, for better or worse. Final Fantasy 12 was universally praised for breaking turn-based conventions with its one-of-a-kind gambit system, open-world gameplay, and incredibly rich lore. However, the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy was where Square Enix's golden path truly started to diverge.

Square Enix attempts to modernize Final Fantasy

Promotional art for Final Fantasy 13
Image via Square Enix

Further shattering the traditions of the installments that preceded it, Final Fantasy 13 brought the series into a new and very uncertain age. After a notably rocky development, the game debuted with a very different vibe compared to classic Final Fantasy titles, opting for sleek action sequences, modern weaponry and technology, and the most divisive version of the ATB system yet. Despite receiving favorable reviews for breaking the mold and innovating the series' battle system, the game's reputation would become one of the most mixed in the entire series over time.

Uncertainty about the franchise was soon washed over by the incredible revival of Square Enix's second MMO venture, Final Fantasy 14. The original version of the game was a massive technical failure after its launch in 2010, but producer Naoki Yoshida took the wheel and rebuilt the MMO from the ground up, reintroducing it with the name "A Realm Reborn" in 2013. Relaunching with a revamped, polished, and far more appealing gameplay system for both PC and PlayStation, FF14 was finally set for success (if players were willing to give it another chance, that is).

Final Fantasy XIV proves the franchise is well-suited for MMOs

Promotional trailer footage for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Image via Square Enix

That turned out to be very much the case, as FF14's subscriber count got off to a resoundingly strong start, garnering over half a million in less than two months. However, when its first award-winning expansion, Heavensward, was released two years later, that number ballooned to over five million. With each subsequent expansion, FF14's community continued to grow exponentially, consistently doubling its numbers and proving that Square Enix definitely had a golden goose (or chocobo, rather) on its hands.

Now, with over a decade of acclaimed content under its belt, Final Fantasy 14 sits second only to World of Warcraft in terms of total subscriber count, with over 50 million Warriors of Light across the globe and counting. Ironically, that number was bolstered during the Endwalker expansion by a headline-breaking migration of players from World of Warcraft to the world of Eorzea, many of them looking for a (less toxic) change of scenery. With Dawntrail bringing the game into an entirely new era on every front, FF14's community is only expected to grow further.

Wuk Lamat in trailer for Final Fantasy XIV Dawntrail
Image via Square Enix

This astronomically staggering degree of success has all but turned FF14 into an institution for Square Enix, as well as a bottomless piggy bank of development funds. Naoki Yoshida has become a figurehead for how Final Fantasy is meant to be enjoyed in the modern age, and FF14 encapsulates the best elements of the long-beloved franchise into a worldwide, multi-platform interactive experience that virtually anyone can enjoy—even those who have never played another standalone FF game.

Square Enix falters yet again with Final Fantasy 15 & 16

However, the rest of Square Enix apparently had their own ideas in mind for the direction that Final Fantasy needed to go in, and the company as a whole. While their landmark franchise remained at the forefront, a few surprise titles, such as their 2023 visual novel game Paranormasight, gained significant traction, though mostly within Japan. While still mostly publishing games from other studios, they set their sights instead on bringing Final Fantasy (kicking and screaming) into a new arena it had never really set foot in before: AAA games.

A genre of its own mostly occupied by first-person shooters and too-big-to-fail games like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Fortnite, the Triple-A scene is arguably the most dangerous crowd to venture into. Defined by film-tier budgets and the massive corporations that provide them, such games found their bedrock success by adhering exclusively to mainstream trends and prioritizing the most visually appealing gameplay for a broad audience. Somehow, Square Enix thought this was what Final Fantasy needed to adapt to.

Noctis in trailer for Final Fantasy 15
Image via Square Enix

This creative clash manifested in the development of Final Fantasy 15, which struggled for years and years to get off the ground and ended up as a tragically unfinished product upon release in 2016. Committing to an absolutely massive open-world setting that FF13 tried and ultimately failed to do, FF15 bit off way more than it could or should have chewed. The result was an underwhelming and empty world to explore, despite its scale, and the game was only held up by the main protagonist, Noctis, and his storyline, which was about as tragic as the game itself.

Despite promises to the contrary, Square Enix arguably repeated this blunderous mistake again with Final Fantasy 16, which opted for a more medieval aesthetic while still striving to create a gigantic open-world setting with more compelling characters and storyline. However, FF16 still fell far short of expectations, and once again fans pointed mostly to its empty husk of a world. Despite being beautiful on the surface, Valisthea's kingdoms left little to be desired. This exact same problem was also reflected in Forspoken (another Square Enix title), as our review of the game explains.

Clive and Jill in trailer for Final Fantasy 16
Image via Square Enix

Final Fantasy thrives on maximalism

This revealed the overall issue with Square Enix trying to push Final Fantasy from one genre into another, or trying to blend it in a way that simply doesn't work. As evidenced by the latest installments in the franchise, at the expense of hyper-modern aesthetics, the series is in danger of losing what made it so magical and beloved to begin with - maximalism.

Final Fantasy has always prided itself on filling its games to the brim with lush storytelling, compelling characters everywhere you turn, vibrantly unique environments, an extensive archive of fascinating creatures and menacing beasts, and so much more. If you take all of that away and leave nothing but the main character's story, then it's difficult to even accurately call it a Final Fantasy game at that point.

Ironically, the Final Fantasy 7 remake trilogy has done well to correct many of the previously mentioned mistakes and so far has provided a much more interactive open world despite sticking to a linear approach with the story. However, despite the supposed hype, the sales for Square Enix's biggest project to date still haven't met expectations, which has left the company in a rather uncertain position.

Cloud and Sephiroth in demo of Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth
Image via Square Enix

Square Enix must find its way back to the soul of RPGs

Perhaps finally realizing that fixing what wasn't broken to begin with wasn't the best idea, Square Enix hit the proverbial emergency button on the wall, announcing in April's earnings report that they were canceling an undisclosed number of game projects. Despite the financial loss, the plan is apparently to "be more selective and focused" about what games will get pushed through the company pipeline which, among other things, may very well mean that Final Fantasy will (hopefully) return to its roots. While further pricey remakes of Final Fantasy classics may be off the table, at least once the FF7 trilogy is complete, the Dragon Quest 3 remake is apparently still on the docket.

While crafting up its new development roadmap for the future, I genuinely hope Square Enix finds its way back to what made its company so distinguished in the first place and rediscovers that unique magick that's given us some of the best fantasy-themed RPGs of all time, including an outstandingly successful MMO.

If Final Fantasy 14 is meant to be anything at all, it's at least a social interactive representation of Square Enix's greatest achievements, embraced by millions of fans around the world. Truly, if there's one thing Square Enix can do that too few other companies care to, it's listen to its community.

Be sure to check out all of our guides and news for everything Final Fantasy at Pro Game Guides, such as how Yoshi-P wants to put old pixel Final Fantasy games in FFXIV & how he'd do it.

Pro Game Guides is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy
Image of Stephanie Watel
Stephanie Watel
Stephanie Watel is a freelance writer for Pro Game Guides. Stephanie has been with the site for a few months, and in the games media industry for about a year. Stephanie typically covers the latest news and a variety of gaming guides for the site, and loves gardening and being the bird lady of the neighborhood. She has a BA in Writing from Pace University in NY.

Write A Comment

Square Enix needs to drop out of the AAA race to get back to its golden age

Comments are on moderation and will be approved in a timely manner. Please read the following rules before commenting:

  • All comments must be on topic and add something of substance to the post
  • No swearing or inappropriate words
  • No asking or begging for anything free
  • Do not attempt to start a poll in the comments
  • Comments in all CAPS will be removed
  • We reserve the right to remove a comment for any reason
  • Do not impersonate a staff member or influencer

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.