Reeling from pandemic production issues — and, perhaps, a gradual shift toward more sustainable working practices — the video game industry is well into a product drought. After a barren summer, we are facing a meager release schedule through fall and toward the end of the year, with few of the major titles and platform exclusives that usually adorn the season. By all accounts, late 2022 is a quiet time for video games.
But nobody told Square Enix.
The venerable Japanese publisher has a stacked release schedule. Between mid-September and mid-December it is releasing no less than nine games — and as many as 12, if you count the PC version of Triangle Strategy, the Life Is Strange Arcadia Bay Collection on Switch, and the strange mobile compendium-remake-thing Final Fantasy 7 Ever Crisis, which is supposed to go into beta testing this year.
There are no massive releases in this lineup, but quite a few remakes and reissues, as well as some lesser spinoffs and genre experiments. But you couldn’t call it modest, either; there’s ambition and breadth here, as well as daunting, exhaustive length — most of these games offer some kind of variation on a JRPG template, and are not shy of slow buildups or sprawling run times.
Together, the games paint a picture of a publisher letting go of its attempt to be a global monolith, following the sale of its Western studios and properties such as Deus Ex and Tomb Raider to Embracer Group, and embracing its Japanese identity as it rides a wave of anime popularity and a groundswell of JRPG content on Switch and Steam. Not long ago, many of these games would never have made it to the West at all, let alone see day-and-date global releases.
At a recent event in London, adorned with fake cherry trees and a counter dispensing Japanese snacks, Square Enix made this lineup available to play, with a couple of exceptions: a deep-cut remaster of Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song and a more hotly anticipated remake of a classic tactical RPG, Tactics Ogre: Reborn. Despite JRPGs being uniquely unsuited to sampling in half-hour demos on a show floor, I tried out most of them. This is what I found.
The DioField Chronicle
Perhaps the most interesting genre experiment Square Enix had to show, The DioField Chronicle takes the traditional tactical RPG format exemplified by Tactics Ogre and removes the movement grid and the turn-based action, leaving a game that plays more like a single-player League of Legends or a slimmer, hero-focused real-time strategy game. It’s busy in a good way, but the storytelling is staid and the mission hub appears to have been made on a shoestring budget. I previewed it in more detail from the demo last month.
The DioField Chronicle is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Probably the most immediately enjoyable game in demo form, Valkyrie Elysium is a loose successor to the Valkyrie Profile series — loose because it turns the Norse mythology-inspired yarn from a hybrid platformer-RPG into an action-RPG with the emphasis firmly on fluid, Bayonetta-style action. The name of the game is keeping your valkyrie’s combo strings going while summoning einherjar — spirits of dead warriors waiting for Ragnarok — to assist you and exploit enemies’ elemental weaknesses. It’s a sparse production full of empty landscapes, but it plays well where it counts.
Valkyrie Elysium will be released Sept. 29 on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, with a Windows PC version following on Nov. 11.
Nier: Automata – The End of YoRHa Edition
Undoubtedly the best game in this glut of releases, but also the best-known quantity, is this Switch release of Yoko Taro and Platinum’s 2017 cult hit. Just having the game in portable form is a joy, and this edition leans hard into the game’s fan following with exclusive costumes and a completist approach to content.
Nier: Automata – The End of YoRHa Edition will be released Oct. 6 on Nintendo Switch.
Star Ocean: The Divine Force
Less of a reboot than Valkyrie Elysium, the sixth Star Ocean game exists on a continuum with all its predecessors — and shares the same developer, tri-Ace. It continues the sci-fi RPG series’ steady drift into action territory, with large, open environments to explore and a lot of elevation to boot. There’s a gimmick, and a pretty good one: DUMA, a hovering droid that assists all four party members by bringing an aerial dimension to both exploration and combat. “Blindside” surprise attacks and DUMA-powered Vanguard Assaults bring an intriguing emphasis on positioning to the combat. The game is also handsome enough, but don’t look too hard at the characters’ immobile PS3-era faces, or listen too hard to the nonsense dialogue (“That’s just semiomancy!”)
Star Ocean: The Divine Force will be released Oct. 27 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Unlike the subtle blend of styles of something like The DioField Chronicle, Harvestella takes the no-brainer, Frankenstein’s monster approach to genre mashup: What if we just bolted these two things together? Harvestella is a farming life sim at home and an action-RPG abroad, with the two strains of game linked in obvious but satisfying ways (head out to monster-infested fields to farm materials to make equipment for your farm, and so on.) Visually, it’s surprisingly lush, and narratively, it’s surprisingly dense. In Harvestella’s world, the natural cycle of the four seasons is interrupted by a time of death known as Quietus, caused by dust from the Seaslight, a huge, fronded crystal that dominates the landscape. Artificial beings known as Omen are also involved, somehow. The protagonist is an amnesiac caught in the middle of it all.
Harvestella doesn’t seem to be a very sophisticated example of either genre, but it just works — the two flavors go together like salt and caramel. It seems like a good bet to stand out among the current wave of farming sims.
Harvestella will be released Nov. 4 on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC.
Dragon Quest Treasures
I’m a little reluctant to pass judgment on a shortish demo of a lite JRPG that is obviously taking pains to introduce itself slowly to young players — but Dragon Quest Treasures does not seem to be up to the standard of Dragon Quest 11 (to which it is an ostensible prequel, about the childhoods of Erik and Mia) or the very charming Dragon Quest Builders and its sequel. Developed by outsourcing specialist Tose, it comes across as a leaden and charmless attempt to conjure a colorful, all-ages, treasure-hunting adventure out of the margins of Dragon Quest lore. It suffers the worst examples of symptoms that, to varying degrees, affected all the games here: reams of expository text, jarring transitions between story and gameplay, and a stuttering lack of momentum. Maybe it gets better later on?
Dragon Quest Treasures will be released Dec. 9 on Nintendo Switch.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 Reunion
With its Final Fantasy branding and, judging by its slick presentation, relatively lavish budget, this is probably Square Enix’s biggest bet of the season. But it’s also one of the oddest. As a remake of a 2007 PlayStation Portable game — a prequel to Final Fantasy 7 from the perspective of a SOLDIER operative — it varnishes its humble origins with slick graphics, handsome character models and full voice acting. But structurally, it can’t disguise those origins at all. It’s still a narrow, scripted action-RPG set in tightly constrained environments; there’s a fadeout and a jump to a battle arena every time you enter combat, and the pre-rendered video sequences are noticeably lo-fi. In those senses, it’s very dated. But in the context of 2007, the combat itself was ahead of its time — at least within the Final Fantasy series, in the way it puts the player in immediate command of so many iconic spells and abilities in a free-flowing and well-sorted action game. It’s the past and future of Final Fantasy in one contradictory package.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 Reunion will be released Dec. 13 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.
Such an extraordinary pileup of releases from one publisher might just be a scheduling accident. It might be a publisher reasserting and redefining its identity after selling off its Western arm. Or it might, in the same circumstances, be evidence of Square Enix padding its global schedule with what would once have been niche, Japan-only products, now that it has nothing else to offer.
None of it is as consequential for the future of Square Enix as big 2023 releases like Forspoken and Final Fantasy 16 will be. But it does show a publisher doing something that many rivals, especially Western rivals, are not doing at the moment. Rereleasing and remastering past hits to keep brands alive is not unusual, but making so many small bets — as opposed to one or two giant ones — certainly is. Square Enix is giving both external and internal development teams modest budgets for a wide range of different purposes, such as experimentation and creation of original new properties (Harvestella and DioField), brand extension (Dragon Quest Treasures), maintenance of long-running mid-tier series (Star Ocean) or reinvigoration of dormant ones (Valkyrie Elysium).
It’s no surprise that the original experiments here are the most engaging games off the bat, but the bigger picture is one of a publisher that’s willing to keep small but ardent fan bases happy. The lesson from the slow-burn success of Capcom’s Monster Hunter and Sega’s Like a Dragon (aka Yakuza) is that this can pay off handsomely in the long term. And in the short term? At least, thanks to Square Enix, we’ve got something to play this winter.