When “Best of the Year” time rolls around, we need to go through a lot of games behind-the-scenes to weigh our options. Vigorous debates are held. Occassionally there’s a referendum, followed by name-calling, crying, and (hopefully) cake.
In short, this is a time of year we take very seriously at Gamezebo.
As we began to dig through the possibilities for our Best of 2015 picks though, there was a trend that pretty quickly became apparent: a lot of the games we were talking about were coming from the same company: Square Enix.
That’s not to say they were the only only company that impressed us this year. Both Nitrome and Nexon both deserve a big shout out for what they accomplished on mobile in 2015. But as a company that had a reputation for overpriced mobile ports (which we’ve been quick to defend), and was generally perceived as not “getting” the mobile market, 2015 represented a massive turnaround for Square Enix.
I’d try to explain why, but the highlights speak for themselves:
Dragon Quest V
January 21st. Kicking the year off in a manner that, ok, reinforces the belief that “Square Enix makes pricey ports of old games,” Dragon Quest V reminded us of two other things we’ve come to believe about the company: they’re preserving their older, hard-to-find games for future generations, and they’ve made some of the greatest RPGs of all time.
February 25th. “Strategy” seems to be a dirty word in some circles of the App Store. More often than not when it’s used in relation to mobile card games, we’re left with hollow, meaningless TCG’s about “fusing” and four digit numbers. But something with meat? With characters that all play differently once set in motion, really feeding the “gotta catch’em all” fury that makes for a fantastic mobile game? That was Heavenstrike Rivals, an outstanding CCG about setting combatants loose in different lanes to battle opposing forces with unique behaviors and lane management. And the story’s pretty great, too!
Final Fantasy Record Keeper
March 26th. While technically not a Square Enix release (this one was developed and published by DeNA), Final Fantasy Record Keeper featured a huge cast of characters from past iterations of Square Enix’s seminal RPG series. Not only did it let you mix and match heroes from across different games for the first time, but it derezzed modern heroes to SNES quality sprites, letting players get a good feel for what later FF heroes like Cloud and Tidus might have looked like in the 16-bit era.
Chaos Rings III
May 28th. Oh man, how times have changed. If this were a $60 release on the PS2, you would have lined up at midnight to get it. Instead, Chaos Rings III (technically the fourth in the series) is a mobile RPG with a much more reasonable price tag and a gargantuan amount of content. The gameplay feels a little like an offline version of SEGA’s Phantasy Star Online — and if you’ve ever played PSO, you’ll know that’s a very good thing.
June 4th. This is where things start to get really interesting. Publishers will sometimes try to force an existing franchise into a different genre, and when they do, the results are usually disastrous. Hitman Sniper is a game that bucks this trend. Square Enix seems to have found the secret sauce for transcending genres: focusing on the spirit of the original. In the case of Hitman Sniper, putting a sniper rifle in the hands of Agent 47 just makes sense — and as far as sniper games go, it’s spectacular. Hitman Sniper takes a uniquely minimalist approach, trying to squeeze as much gameplay as it can out of a single map. As it turns out, that’s a lot.
Dragon Quest VI
June 24th. Just because they’re trying some new things this year doesn’t mean Square Enix has given up on their old ways. After the release of Dragon Quest V in January, Dragon Quest VI helped to wrap up the Zenithian trilogy on mobile that began in late 2014. Now the only “classic” Dragon Quest game missing from mobile is Dragon Quest VII. We’re trying to remain cautiously optimistic about its chances.
Final Fantasy VII
August 19th. Considering how smoothly all of Square Enix’s other ports have been handled, we were a little surprised to find a few bumps in the road when what is arguably their biggest game ever finally debuted on mobile. Some design elements, like a clunky user interface and the option to skip random encounters, hold this back from being the definitive edition of a real classic. Still, the promise of putting Final Fantasy VII in your pocket was just too damned tempting for many of us to resist, warts and all.
Final Fantasy Portal App
August 20th. A companion app may seem like a strange thing to highlight in a “Best of the Year” roundup, but the official Final Fantasy Portal App brought the Gamezebo staff something we’d been waiting years for: Triple Triad. And it’s exquisite. A card game that debuted in Final Fantasy VIII, we’ve seen countless clones try to recapture its glory on mobile devices. (There was even a Star Trek one!) None of them can hold a candle to the real deal — and now it’s finally available on the go.
Lara Croft GO
August 26th. The second game in their “GO” series (followed by last year’s Hitman GO), Lara Croft GO was fantastic for the same reason as Hitman Sniper: it understood the spirit of the franchise. Players guide Croft through turn-based puzzles that need to be completed in very specific ways, as she makes her way through ancient ruins to unravel the mystery of the Queen of Venom. How good was Lara Croft GO? Considering Apple named it their iPhone Game of the Year, we’re going to go out on a limb and say “not too shabby.”
Of course, not everything Square Enix published in 2015 was worth celebrating. Farms & Castles was an embarrassing Triple Town copycat that came to the market much too late, Million Arthur was exactly the sort of card game we were lamenting in our praise of Heavenstrike Rivals, and while Lara Croft: Relic Run was a decent endless runner, it failed to do anything remarkable with a formula that’s grown fairly stale.
There were also a handful of potentially great mobile games in Japan that never made their way Stateside; Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ, Mobius Final Fantasy, and a Bravely Default spin-off all left Western gamers wanting.
A few questionable decisions aside though, there’s really no denying that 2015 was an incredibly good year to be a Square Enix fan. Let’s just hope they can keep this momentum going through 2016 — especially with the MMO Final Fantasy XI making its mobile debut.