2020 Year in Review

This year’s been real one. I spent a lot of time playing games this year to take my mind off real events, not that they weren’t important to grapple with, but to give brain a breather. Moments to pause, wipe the slate clean, and regroup. A lavish splash of comfort in what’s otherwise been a very hostile landscape to navigate through — and for that I feel lucky and privileged to enjoy that comfort when I can.

Of course, it was a big year for Square Enix. Big hitters like Final Fantasy VII Remake and Marvel’s Avengers, as well as plenty of other mid-range titles were peppered throughout the year. It felt important to recap and collect some of my thoughts about the games Square Enix released or announced amidst the everything of everything… Before we move on to what 2021 may bring.

So without further ado, here’s my look back at 2020…

The Final Fantasy VII Remake Becomes Real

The run-up to Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s launch felt like a march through a minefield, due in part to datamined assets from the game’s demo that revealed key scenes, including the game’s entire script, making the internet a dangerous place for anyone wanting to go in unspoiled or unaware of the remake’s changes. The COVID-19 pandemic also began to ramp up internationally in March and April, and with brick-and-mortar retailers on shaky ground, many wondered if the distribution chains would hold up given the uncertainly. Yet, release it did, with five million shipped units worldwide as of August 2020.

In the months that led up to release, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the city of Midgar, dirty, downtrodden, and class-stratified would be represented in a 3D space with HD graphics. How would this compare to my experience playing the original game, the one cemented in my mind’s eye for the past 23 years?

Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake

In hindsight, these questions seem less and less important as I feel the original and Remake seem to stand aside one another, complementary, rather than revisionary as is often the case with other such attempts. I think is due in part to several factors, one of which is the larger scope of the Midgar chapter. While only taking a few hours to complete in the original, Midgar is expanded to a 40-hour scenario. At some points this works to the game’s detriment, with dungeons that feel a bit longer than necessary and so on, but nothing I felt greatly diminished the overall experience outside of a given moment.

Despite this, my brain soaked it all in, for these were the missing pieces and connective tissue of the Final Fantasy VII world that had only existed in my imagination for so long, and I admit that there’s a joy in experiencing this that no first-timer would. Though this is a Midgar realized in high-fidelity graphics for the current age, the dingy, dismal visage of the original’s cityscape hasn’t dulled, and when viewing them side by side, presents a fascinating glimpse into how, generations later, the team would revisit one of the series most memorable locations. It’s an incredible insight into what elements of the original its creators valued over others — or what .

Aside from the visual presentation of the game, the game expands its characters and the relationships between them. Avalanche members Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie are notable in this regard, but it’s really the main cast that captured my interest — specifically how they are depicted outside of their relationship to Cloud. Barret and Tifa’s friction involving Avalanche’s goals, Tifa and Aerith’s blossoming friendship — it hits the same notes as a previously unexplored version of Midgar or an enchanting new arrangement of a familiar song. I hope the future entries push further in this direction, which may be a challenging ask since we have about half of the playable cast in tow, but given the events that transpire later on, it would be fascinating to see them fleshed out from a perspective that isn’t centering Cloud.

The Remake concludes divisively, and in a way that departs from the original that some may not have expected or perhaps liked, especially from a purist’s perspective. However, as someone mulling over the height of the Midgar plate and its effect on the environmental storytelling, I felt I needed to leave that behind and journey into what is now the unknown — to find the unexplored geometry that its creators are intent on revealing — and I’m absolutely here for it.

You can watch our playthrough of the entire game below:

Kingdom Hearts: A Series in Transition

Kingdom Hearts III‘s ReMind DLC kicked the year off early. Set during the final chapter of the game, it offers an alternate, yet more definitive ending of the game. In customary Kingdom Hearts fashion, it sprinkles in teases for what’s coming next, which, seems very much like the Final Fantasy Versus XIII project in all but name. It’s a curious road director Tetsuya Nomura wants to walk down, yet as with many future events in the series, he has hidden behind a curtain of ambiguity with drawstrings just beyond our reach.

Review: Kingdom Hearts III ReMind

While the story of series villian Xehanort, which has tendrils reaching back to the first Kingdom Hearts title, seems to have drawn its conclusion, this year’s titles give him a last hurrah. In Kingdom Hearts Dark Road, a stand-alone expansion to the Kindgom Hearts χ smartphone game, he is the game’s protagonist, and its story follow his path to that villainhood while laying plans for expanding the series world even more.

Such is the case with Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory, a rhythm-action game in the vein of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy that features the music selected from the Kingdom Hearts series. However, things are a bit different here. The field is in 3D and buttons and actions are designed in a way that more closely resemble a Kingdom Hearts combat system. It works well and can be quite addictive once you get going, but I would have liked to see more RPG elements sprinkled in like Curtain Call, even if it’s largely inconsequential window dressing.

While the story content here is pretty light in comparison to a conventional Kingdom Hearts game, it also plants the seeds of the next stage of the series, heavily hinting we’re about to see more of a world based on the spectre of Versus XIII. Here’s hoping that, wherever we go, Kairi won’t get a raw deal — I think she’s owed her own game at this point.

Review: Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory

Final Fantasy XIV Flourishes In Spite of Pandemic Setbacks

Final Fantasy XIV is the best it’s ever been. The Shadowbringers expansion that released last year was superb and a remarkable effort in weaving a character-driven story that interrogates the role of a hero to unexpected and dramatic effect. It’s some of the strongest writing I’ve seen in the series, and it’s post-launch patches keep up the momentum, culminating in “Reflections of Crystal,” which concludes the arc of Shadowbringers.

After writing the Return to Ivalice scenario for the Stormblood expansion, Yasumi Matsuno has taken on another project in the game. Save the Queen involves the liberation of Bozja, a land currently occupied by the Garlean Empire. Matsuno shared that some ideas he used in this scenario were once planned for a possible Vagrant Story sequel, particularly the ones involving Cid’s memories and Mikoto’s powers. While the scenario has yet to conclude, it’s great to see Matsuno writing for Final Fantasy again.

Read: Exploring the Bozjan Southern Front in Final Fantasy XIV

Additionally, Final Fantasy XIV’s ongoing collaboration with NieR Automata is underway. With Yoko Taro contributing the scenario

As you might imagine, COVID-19 greatly impacted the development of the game, from development to operations teams as Square Enix transitioned its workforce to an at-home environment. Producer and director Naoki Yoshida shared some of the challenges in facilitating this change with fans, and as a result, Patch 5.3 was delayed roughly two months later than originally planned. I’m still stymied that it was a mere two months, given the absolute hell of this year, but it really speaks volumes about the planning and management of the game’s content rollout. Even in “normal” times, the game’s updates have been reliable deployments you can set your watch to. It’s really one of the game’s unsung achievements.

In spite of this setback, players took to the game as a way to stay connected while socially distant. Personally, logging into the game and having different types of content to play with varying levels of interaction was a boon. Final Fantasy XIV has always been my comfort game, but this was the year it became a necessity.

‘Final Fantasy XVI’ is Revealed by Creative Business Unit 3

This year saw the reveal of Final Fantasy XVI, which will be developed by Square Enix’s Creative Business Unit 3, known for Final Fantasy XIV and Dragon Quest Builders 2. In the director’s chair is Hiroshi Takai, who previously worked on Final Fantasy XIV and The Last Remnant, along with Naoki Yoshida, who will producing the title in addition to directing and producing Final Fantasy XIV.

In this entry, it seems the setting will take on a more sword-and-sorcery aesthetic, not dissimilar from Final Fantasy I or Final Fantasy IV. Given that many creatives trace their lineage back to Quest, it’s not hard to see the inspiration from titles like Final Fantasy Tactics or Vagrant Story here. However, this time it’s pared with an action-based style of combat, rather than Active Time Battle or an isometric strategy style. It’s also wild to think that Final Fantasy XVI represents the first new mainline concept since Final Fantasy XIV was first revealed in 2009.

Read: Final Fantasy XVI official website opens; new details on the world, nations and characters

We’ll be getting more information on the world of Valisthea and the cast that inhabit it next year. Fans have been eager to point out parallels to Final Fantasy XIV in its lore, with terms such as “aether” and “eikon” referenced in the debut trailer. That isn’t to imply that these two games are intrinsically connected, in the same way that Final Fantasy IX isn’t connected to the Final Fantasy I universe at mere mention of a “Mt. Gulg.” Though my personal preference is that these worlds stay separate, it’s fun to see what Creative Business Division 3 considers its heirlooms, and if indeed these universes are connected, what may come of it.

Marvel’s Avengers Tough Road Ahead

I check up on Marvel’s Avengers from time to time. Admittedly, I’m not someone that’s well-versed in the Marvel universe. Comics, let alone superhero comics aren’t in my wheelhouse. I’ve seen a handful of the films this game is very much trying to capture the spirit of, which I’d argue it does, even if the cast isn’t voiced by the MCU counterparts. Centering the game’s story around Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel character was a great idea, and felt like a good in for someone like me.

Outside that scenario is where things go a bit upside-down. The activities that await you at the end of the story aren’t really inspired, so there’s not much that tethers you sticking around for more than that. Endgame usually involves daily quests against the same handful of bosses, or repeating gauntlets that feature the same handful of objectives in the hopes of acquiring gear that pumps up the damage but little else.

Read: A look at the ‘Taking AIM’ update in Marvel’s Avengers

Despite that, the combat’s still solid — good, even. The combined teams of Crystal Dynamics, Crystal Northwest, Eidos Montreal, and nixxes have updated the game where no major issues persist. There’s nothing aggressively bad about this game… it’s just a bit lackluster for all the weight it carries. In the latest ‘Taking AIM’ update, the first “big” update following the game’s launch, we see Marvel’s Avengers begin a new scenario that will expand the game in subsequent updates. It’s solid, and Kate Bishop is a fun add, but I think what’s missing is a tentpole for endgame — content that’s specifically robust enough to explore after credits roll.

I think there’s still a good opportunity for Marvel’s Avengers to bounce back, and I think rolling out additional characters for free will be useful for attracting the unsure, but whether it can be more than that depends on what else is offered.

You can watch our full playthrough of Marvel’s Avengers below:

Other Remakes and Remasters were a mixed bag

One of 2020’s pleasant surprises is how good the Trials of Mana remake is. Following Adventures of Mana and Secret of Mana‘s underwhelming adaptations, Trials of Mana eschews the smartphone platform in favoring honing a more console-style action-RPG experience, and it works well.

Review: Trials of Mana

Square Enix and xeen rework the original game’s combat into a 3D space, and by keeping that in the forefront while adapting the game’s various elements around that 3D space, the effort feels faithful to the original while being entertaining in its own merits. It feels very much like a PS2 action RPG in the vein of the first Kingdom Hearts or Rogue Galaxy, but with a few modern trappings such as a analog stick lock-on.

Hiroki Kikuta returns to compose and he manages to update the soundtrack with modern sounds that well replace the tone and instrumentation of the Super Famicom’s sound chip. Overall it’s an adaptation that’s really worth checking out.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition, however, struggled to adapt it’s couch co-operative experience into an online format. Yes, it works — and yes, it’s enjoyable by it’s own merits, but it really lacks the spirit of the original by limiting the multiplayer experience solely to dungeons. However, if you’re coming to this with no experience of the original game, you’ll probably have a better time than I did.

I wrestled a lot with this in my review where the developers likely had to make some tough decisions in how this game would work. However, if such effort was going into adapting the game for an online environment, then it would have been nice to see some other changes too, like taking command selection off of the triggers and opting for a more comfortable combat system. I think it’s vastly important that Square Enix’s old games find homes outside of consoles that are no longer easily accessible (looking at you, My Life as a King) so that they can reach more people and live on in some way, but for such a cherished title, I hoped that Square Enix had found a better tack than they what the ended up using.

We also had the opportunity to look at Dragon Quest XI S Echoes of an Elusive Age -Definitive Edition- in Erren’s review, as well as my review of the recently-released Collection of SaGa Final Fantasy Legend.

You can watch our full playthrough of Trials of Mana below.

The Coming Year…

2021 is mere hours away (or right now for you quick ones), and there’s a lot to look forward to in the next year. Let’s take a look, shall we?

  • Outriders
    Square Enix, People Can Fly
    February 2, 2021 April 1, 2021 PC, PS4, PS5, XBO, XSX

    A class-based third-person shooter mixed with loot and dynamic difficulty scaling, Outriders places you, an “Altered” with superhuman powers, against the unforgiving planet of Enoch. The game has all of its content built in at launch and doesn’t fit into a “games as a service” model.

  • Bravely Default II
    Square Enix
    February 26, 2021 Switch

    Taking place in a brand-new world and with a brand-new cast of characters, Bravely Default II features the same job system from the original and features a new visual style. Composer Revo returns to score the game.

  • Balan Wonderworld
    Square Enix, Arzest
    March 26, 2021 PC, PS4, PS5, XBO, XSX, Switch

    Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights into Dreams creator Yuji Naka teams up with Square Enix for a new 3D platformer that features a costume-change mechanic that bestows special abilities. Leo and Emma are whisked away from their troubled lives by the mysterious Balan to the “Wonderworld” where memories and objects from the real world meld in unexpected ways.

  • NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
    Square Enix, Toylogic
    April 23, 2021 PC, PS4, XBO

    A remake of 2010’s NieR Replicant, the story follows a young man in the distant future who is seeking to save his sister from a mysterious illness. Multiple areas of the game are being revised, including combat, with input from Platinum Inc., who developed 2017’s NieR Automata.

  • NEO: The World Ends with You
    Square Enix
    Summer 2021PS4, Switch

    A long-awaited, long-teased sequel to 2007’s The World Ends with You arrives in 2021. New characters Rindo, Fret, Nagi, and Tsugumi join the deadly Reapers’ Game in an version of Shibuya displaced from the real world. Combat and exploration is now in 3D environments.

  • SaGa Frontier Remastered
    Square Enix
    Summer 2021 • PC (Steam), PS4, Switch, iOS, Android

    SaGa never dies. SaGa Frontier Remastered, based on the 1997 PlayStation game, features an updated HD presentation, new story content, and adds Fuse as a playable protagonist. A high-speed function has been added to battles.

About the Author

Tony Garsow Tony joined Nova Crystallis in 2015, and has spent more than a decade writing in the Final Fantasy community. He also contributes to the Nova Crystallis Twitch and YouTube channels, where you can watch select gameplay highlights, previews, and streams.