Top 5 Tuesday: Square Enix RPGs (Post-Merger)

Last week Square Enix teased us with the first gameplay trailer for Kingdom Hearts III as well as some new footage from the third and supposedly final entry in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, Lightning Returns. I’m not exactly counting the days till both releases, but at least neither is a HD remake or cell phone port. Bravo, Square.

Square’s sudden relevance left me pondering whether or not I could do a Top 5 Tuesday based solely on RPGs released AFTER Squaresoft and Enix’s merger in 2003. Let me put it this way: We barely dodged our first ever Top 4 Tuesday. I’m not crazy about today’s #5. I probably should play The World Ends With You so I can revise this list. Until then…

5. Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)

aur

KHII gave us what we wanted in the original: a Final Fantasy ally.

I shouldn’t have to go into detail on this one. It’s essentially a copy-paste job of the original with new levels and a couple new moves (most notably the Parry move that Square borrowed from Zelda: The Wind Waker). Though admittedly fun, nothing about KHII struck me as fresh or groundbreaking.

As for highlights: teaming up with Auron and Jack Sparrow. Lowlights: that dreadful Little Mermaid musical level.

4. Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

f13

It’s hard to focus on the storyline once the gang starts focusing on Cocoon.

I actually thought FF13 was a step in the right direction, and, no, this isn’t a lead-in to a “Hallway Fantasy” joke. Sure, the game is linear, but at least it steered the series away from the direction FF12 sent it in.

FF13 returned the series to traditional Active-Time Battles while throwing in the twists of paradigm shifts. Much like how FFX enabled swapping out party members mid-battle to exploit enemy weaknesses, FF13 let players switch the party’s character classes on the fly. Dealing with a tough boss? Start with a Sabatuer/Synergist/Medic group to weaken the enemy and bolster your guys. Then swap for Ravager/Commando/Ravager to rip into the beast. All at once, it played nothing like FF12 and tweaked the classic formula of hitting Attack Attack Attack and mixing in the occasional spell.

The battle system was good enough to keep me going, even when the storyline collapsed toward the end. I actually liked Lightning, Sazh, and Snow until maybe the midway point. The first half of the game was much more personal on a character-to-character level. Then everything veered off into protecting Cocoon, saving the world, and other trite developments.

3. Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (PS2)

Underrated masterpiece alert! For whatever reason, nobody cares about Valkyrie Profile 2. Even fans of the original don’t give a shit. VP2 faded into obscurity almost from the moment it released. Total shame.

For those of you completely unfamiliar with the series, the Valkyrie Profile games put you in the role of a Valkyrie who traverses a conflict-ravaged earth in search of wayward souls to send to Valhalla. What’s cool is you can hang onto some of these souls and keep them as party members, or you can ship them off to the god Odin for bonuses.

What distinguishes VP from other J-RPGs is sidescrolling dungeons and towns (why the hell don’t other RPGs do this?) and a unique battle system that assigns each character to one of the four face buttons. In other words, tap X and your X-character will attack; immediately after, you can follow up with your Circle, Square, and Triangle-characters. It makes for some wild timing combos, and if you nail the right chemistry you can set up for some massive special attacks. As an upgrade from the original (at least in my opinion), VP2 put the battles on a full 3D plain where your 4-man party could dash around ganging up enemies one-by-one. Throw in a phenomenal fight theme, some challenging bosses, and a wild villain, and you’ve got yourself the most underrated Square game of the past decade.

2. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (PS2)

so3

Battles may look chaotic and mindless, but SO3’s combat requires timing and patience.

I have a bad habit of thinking of Star Ocean 3 as the poor man’s Tales of Symphonia. They’re both stellar RPGs that I happened to buy on the same day; they both have enthralling battle systems; and both have decent storylines and a couple awesome characters. The difference is that Tales has more charm and polish than SO3. Other than that, they’re neck-and-neck.

Star Ocean 3 is a mammoth. Reaching the credits screen ran me around 70 hours, and while the storyline wasn’t Xenogears, it had a few compelling sci-fi spurts. I even liked this one particular late-game plot twist that appalled most fans. Hey, one man’s plot-breaker is another man’s compulsion to keep playing.

The draw with SO3 is its battle system, which is action-oriented without being button-mashy. Thanks to a stamina bar known as the Fury gauge, you can only use your light and heavy attacks so many times before the gauge has to replenish. Run out of Fury and you’re left punchless and vulnerable. Manage it properly and you can destroy enemy shields with heavy smashes or link up combos based on distance from the enemy and strength of the attack. Like Tales of Symphonia, SO3 thrives off fun battles. If only the game had been edited a little better for length…

1. Nier (PS3)

nie

Masterpiece or mess? It boils down to personal taste.

Nier is the best mediocre game I’ve ever played. If that sounds like an odd compliment, understand that Nier is an odd game. It starts with bizarre winter scene between a father and daughter who are hunted down by otherworldly geometric creatures called Shades. Without spoiling, I’ll say that Nier has a touching and thought-provoking story that explores themes of humanity, mortality, sacrifice, family love, and the afterlife. If you appreciate a good mindblow, hang around for the game’s closing sequences. I can promise you your brain will pop like a pricked balloon by the time it’s over.

While Nier’s story is surreal, original, and enthralling, the rest of the game’s components are a mixed bag. The soundtrack and atmosphere are among best of any RPG, while gameplay and combat go lukewarm at times. The combat is fun but not challenging enough: Think Kingdom Hearts with the gimmick of a magical tome that can unleash a variety of spells and abilities. Unfortunately, though, the game’s straightforward enemies and bosses rarely warrant breaking out those spells.

But trust me on this one: don’t take Nier as a sum of its parts. Enjoy it for the experience, which happens to be the best one Square Enix has offered since its inception.

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8 thoughts on “Top 5 Tuesday: Square Enix RPGs (Post-Merger)

  1. So glad to see NIER getting some love. You nailed the two components that make it such an amazing experience: extremely touching story and some of the best gaming music of this generation (and my personal favorite gaming music period). I was hooked by both of these elements from the first scene in the store between the man and his daughter.

    • **NIER SPOILERS**

      The ending scene with Nier and his Shade-self fighting over Yonah is torturous. Once I connected the Shade-Nier to the father in the intro, I was mortified. Easily one of the most emotionally captivating games I’ve played.

      • I agree. The dialogue between the characters and the response of Gestalt Nier is devastating. As a father, I found Gestalt Nier (main character, not the literal Nier from 400 years earlier) to be easy to relate to, even though I know that there are a lot of gamers that were angry that the Replicant version was not localized. I know that there is a lot of debate over which came first (some say that Taro envisioned the younger Nier originally), I just could not see teenage replicant Nier having the same sort of impact. That’s probably why it’s hard for younger gamers to relate to Gestalt version of Nier.

        One of the most heartbreaking parts for me is in ending D, where there is a look on Kaine’s face when Yonah hands her the lunar tear. She asks if she’s crying, and Kaine responds with… “Um. Yeah.. I guess I am. It’s like I just found something special. Something, very special”.

        I swear that there is a shimmer of tears in Kaine’s eyes, and it’s the only time in the game where you see that expression on her face.

        That ending just kills me every time I see it. You’re convinced that Kaine knows that something is missing and she can’t quite place it, then you’re faced with the sad reality that there is no ending E in the game (the Grimoire Nier ending). I don’t know whether to be appreciate the tragedy in the game, or wish that it ended differently.

        Still, one of my favorite endings in a game – ever. I swear that I don’t know how a game that’s critically panned for being “ugly” can be one of the most beautiful games that I’ve ever seen. The art direction is almost deliberately intended to make you feel uncomfortable at first glance, and I think that is the main reason why people had a lot of problems looking past that aspect of the game.

    • I took a pass on FFXIII-2 due to the fact that the demo didn’t impress me enough to commit 40+ hours to it. I keep seeing it on sale for $10 every now and then, so I’ll pounce next time.

      TWEWY has been on my wishlist for a while. If I had a smartphone, I’d look into Chaos Rings (which I honestly hadn’t heard of till now).

  2. I stumbled upon this thread a bit late, and mostly agree that the lower three games are probably among the best that SE has given us post-merger. But I’d like to add something to this as well.

    I’m stating the obvious, but three of the games on this list were not actually even made by SE. Valkyrie Profile 2 and Star Ocean 3 were made by Tri-Ace, and your comment about it being like a poor-man’s Tales of Symphonia is spot-on, considering that the president of Tri-Ace (and several of the other staff members, as well as its composer) were also ex-WolfTeam and were creators of the Tales series (Sakuraba gets around quite a bit on lots of soundtracks). Regardless, this is why the battle systems are so similar.

    It should be noted that S-E brought in Tri-Ace to help on the second FF 13 game. I’ve not played it yet because I’ve had such a tough time stomaching the first game. Honestly, I don’t think that it belongs in a top 5 in spite of its good points.

    I also really liked Infinite Undiscovery, another Tri-Ace game, but it was met with a pretty poor reception. I think that you just need to get past some of the game’s initial hurdles to really enjoy it. Honestly, I don’t quite know why people thought it was so terrible. I would personally place it well above FF XIII on any top 5 list. GameFAQs ratings place them in relative parity though.

    Cavia created Nier, and it’s probably my favorite console game of this generation. yeah, it’s got a lot of problems but it’s also got some of the best writing and most likable characters (if you can get past the initial impressions). It’s a game that is so ugly at first glance but ultimately becomes the most beautiful game as you progress through it.

    But I guess that’s about it. Unless we count remakes and non-RPG games, like Sleeping Dogs, there hasn’t been a whole lot from SE in terms of quality over the years. And that’s crazy, because the company used to produce so many quality titles.

    • Awesome, well-thought-out post. And kudos for the nugget on Tri-Ace’s members being from the Tales gang.

      I too haven’t gotten around to playing FF13-2, but now that I know Tri-Ace had a hand in it, I’m (slightly) more likely to play it. For now, I wish Square would get back to basics with their RPGs: give us a tight plotline that doesn’t descend into over-the-top fantasy nonsense; give us characters that dazzle and don’t get lost in the aforementioned storylines; then, keep this package consistent for about 40 hours, and I’m happy.

      • A few more games here that are worth discussing.

        The Drakengard games have a pretty loyal fanbase. I’ve acquired them recently, since playing Nier multiple times over, but have yet to play them. I’m not sure if they will have the same sort of impact. My PS2 has been getting a lot of replay lately so I intend to give them a play-through as soon as I finish Shadow Hearts.

        I actually don’t own a PS3 yet (I picked up an XBox 360 back in 2007 since the RPG selection was better at the time), but intend to get one before Drakengard 3 gets released. I’ve got it pre-ordered. Just hoping for a PS3 price drop now that the PS4 has been released.

        Star Ocean III, believe it or not, was actually published by Enix in Japan, before the director’s cut made it to the west as a Square-Enix game. By all accounts, it could be considered an Enix title for this reason.

        Star Ocean IV, on the XBox 360, was a fun one. I think that it really was a great game, although it’s not nearly as good as earlier games in the series. I do prefer it to Final Fantasy XIII, but that’s debatable among fans. It does have better general fan reviews. The PS3 “International” version was pretty well-received. I think that it’s another misunderstood Tri-Ace gem, like Infinite Undiscovery. Both games can be enjoyable if you really give them a chance.

        I forgot to mention one other Square-Enix game that I really loved, post-merger. That’s Dragon Quest VIII. Honestly, this is a true stick-to-your roots, no-nonsense RPG and is what most old school Square and Enix fans seem to really want. In all likelihood, it was in development by Level 5 and Enix before the merger occurred. I don’t think that the Squaresoft influence yet had quite corrupted it. Drakengard was actually an Enix / Cavia collaboration as well, pre-merger.

        So I guess there is one thing that I can draw from all of this. I seem to be partial to the “Enix” games that were released post-merger; Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, the Cavia-developed games like Drakengard (which ultimate led to Nier), or Dragon Quest VIII. And I feel that the Square properties have simply failed to have that “magic” that their games had in the 16-32 bit eras. I wish that we could see more new franchises and experimentation, much like we used to see with Square and Enix when they were competitors.

        Square-Enix RPGs of late have a tendency to be better when they are contract developed, where the in-house games seem to have high budgets but are generally lacking in other respects. They seem to excel in other genres. Sleeping Dogs and the new Tomb Raider are pretty good examples of games that Square-Enix has done right, though these games have come out of their Eidos / Crystal Dynamics divisions.

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