Post Script

Why is Square Enix dis­hon­our­ing the essence of so many se­ries?


Since its ac­qui­si­tion of Ei­dos in 2009, Square Enix has be­come the cus­to­dian of sev­eral cher­ished se­ries. So it has gone about re­boot­ing and re­vis­ing them in re­cent years, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. Each new game su­per­fi­cially ap­pears to un­der­stand its lin­eage, but close in­spec­tion re­veals the re­sults of mis­judged tam­per­ing.

At least Ei­dos Mon­treal could share the blame for Deus Ex: Hu­man Revo­lu­tion’s boss bat­tles with a third party, Grip En­ter­tain­ment, but these bot­tle­necks were to­tally out of keep­ing with the nu­anced, choice-based game­play of the rest of the game. Play­ers who had spent five or six hours turn­ing Adam Jensen into a stealthy hack­ing ex­pert sud­denly found them­selves fight­ing a hu­man tank with only a few pil­lars to cower be­hind. These fights were re­worked in the Di­rec­tor’s Cut, but that they made it in sug­gests a lack of qual­ity con­trol that per­vades the pub­lisher’s out­put.

IO had no sem­blance of a scape­goat for Hit­man: Ab­so­lu­tion. In at­tempt­ing to re­fresh its se­ries by draw­ing on pop­u­lar stealth con­tem­po­raries, it only di­luted it – X-ray In­stinct vi­sion, for ex­am­ple, en­cour­aged quick think­ing over plan­ning – erod­ing some of Hit­man’s per­son­al­ity for the sake of broader ap­peal. Last year’s Crys­tal Dy­nam­ics­de­vel­oped Tomb Raider re­boot, mean­while, man­aged to re­tain its own iden­tity thanks to its hero­ine, even if it was built on a list of pop­u­lar ideas. The ob­vi­ous touch­stone is Un­charted, of course, but oth­ers sneak in, such as a Bat­man- style De­tec­tive mode.

Thief, like Hu­man Revo­lu­tion, was de­vel­oped by Ei­dos Mon­treal, al­though it was han­dled by a sep­a­rate team, and in­cludes ex­am­ples of all the above mis­de­meanours: a vi­sion-en­hanc­ing Fo­cus mode, an ill-ad­vised boss fight or two, and jar­ring third­per­son sec­tions that seek a cut of Nathan Drake and Ed­ward Ken­way’s pop­u­lar­ity.

Not that Thief, Deus Ex: Hu­man Revo­lu­tion, Hit­man: Ab­so­lu­tion and Tomb Raider are bad games. None aban­don their se­ries’ tenets to such an ex­tent that they’re dis­fig­ured be­yond recog­ni­tion to fans. Some even im­prove on el­e­ments of their fore­bears – Hu­man Revo­lu­tion’s en­gag­ing yarn, for in­stance, or Thief’s take on The City. But this throt­tling of in­no­va­tion in favour of ap­ing the de­signs of other de­vel­op­ers’ best-sell­ing games is a strat­egy that fun­da­men­tally mis­un­der­stands what made these se­ries so spe­cial in the first place, and only alien­ates the com­mit­ted fans on whom sales per­for­mance re­lies.

Risk aver­sion is hardly un­com­mon, but it’s es­pe­cially preva­lent at Square Enix, and it’s easy to pic­ture the pub­lisher’s ail­ing fis­cal for­tunes as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. That sus­pi­cion is leant weight by Ei­dos Mon­treal founder and for­mer gen­eral man­ager Stephane D’As­tous, who re­signed in July last year.

Prefac­ing his res­ig­na­tion note, he nod­ded to 2012’s fi­nan­cial short­com­ings. He then said: “We [HQ Lon­don and GM Ei­dos Mon­treal] have had grow­ing and di­ver­gent opin­ions on what needed to be done to cor­rect the sit­u­a­tion. The lack of lead­er­ship, lack of courage and the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion were so ev­i­dent that I wasn’t able to con­duct my job cor­rectly. I re­alised that our dif­fer­ences were ir­rec­on­cil­able, and that the best de­ci­sion was un­for­tu­nately to part ways.”

Square Enix boasts a port­fo­lio of some of the world’s most ar­dently fol­lowed se­ries, yet ap­par­ently lacks the con­vic­tion needed to evolve games with­out bor­row­ing from oth­ers. Deus Ex: Hu­man Revo­lu­tion should have pro­vided am­ple proof that there are still play­ers will­ing to in­vest time and ef­fort in com­plex game sys­tems, and who ap­pre­ci­ate me­chan­ics that don’t fall in with the fash­ions of the mo­ment. In­stead, the pub­lisher has con­tin­ued to play it safe in an at­tempt to make ev­ery re­lease a world-beat­ing fis­cal suc­cess. Now it finds it­self with a grow­ing num­ber of se­ries that are play­ing catch-up with the genre lead­ers they once in­spired.

Con­cerns that Fo­cus mode un­der­mines much of what de­fines Thief ap­pear to have been sec­ondary to keep­ing in step with mod­ern games’ vi­sion modes

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