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Tokyo RPG Factory… Sucks.

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By Nelson Schneider - 09/12/21 at 04:21 PM CT

Time flies, it seems, even when we aren’t having fun. It feels like just yesterday when I was so excited about the news filtering through the 2015 Blog-o-Sphere that Square-Enix, the one-time RPG titan of console gaming turned “complete failure,” was opening a new development studio called Tokyo RPG Factory. Somehow, the megaconglomerate of Square-Enix forgot that its two halves had both made their entire reputations by producing (and localizing) extremely high-quality 16-bit RPGs, and had turned to copying ideas from Western game developers (or just buying Western game developers). When an RPG did appear from within the bowels of the merged Square-Enix, it was usually something extremely terrible, like “Final Fantasy 13” or… “Final Fantasy 15.” Thus, when the news broke that Square-Enix was going to renew focus on their defining genre, it was such momentous news that it made the MeltedJoystick Year in Review list of Wins.

The first fruit of Tokyo RPG Factory’s labor appeared the year after the studio came-together: A pseudo-sequel to one of the old Squaresoft’s magna opera, “Chrono Trigger,” dubbed “I Am Setsuna.” Yet, in spite of my personal excitement for it, I found it incredibly easy to avoid spoilers while waiting for it to receive a proper price drop and/or go on sale, simply because no one was actually talking about it in online gaming communities. When Square-Enix finally deigned to put the game on sale for 60% off during the 2021 Steam Summer Sale, I grabbed it and started playing almost immediately… and I can absolutely see why no one is talking about this game 5 years after release, and why its sequel, “Lost Sphear” has “mixed” Steam User Reviews, and why Tokyo RPG Factory’s latest release, a 2019 “Action”/RPG called “Oninaki,” has received exactly zero word-of-mouth praise in the Internet’s RPG-loving circles.

These games all kinda, well, suck. For a studio whose mission statement was to allow volunteers from within Square-Enix’s rigid corporate structure to work on RPG projects that would be modern takes on the story-driven, turn-based RPGs of the Golden Age, Tokyo RPG Factory is, like its parent company, a complete failure. As you can see from my review of “I Am Setsuna,” my impressions of it aren’t exactly rosy. “Lost Sphear” was on my Steam wishlist… but after playing through “I Am Setsuna” and more closely digging into gameplay videos and user reviews… it no longer is. And “Oninaki?” It doesn’t even look mildly interesting at first glance, let alone after digging into videos and previews.

I’m clearly not alone in my disgust and distain for the flavorless wood-pulp equivalent that The Factory has been churning out, year after year. In 2020, Siliconera reported that Tokyo RPG Factory, by itself, reported a net loss of over 150 million yen. That’s ‘only’ $1.4 million, but with an income of only 88 million yen, the company lost nearly twice as much as it earned. These are not the kind of finances that Neo Golden Age RPGs should produce. After all, the original “Final Fantasy” was a last ditch effort by Squaresoft to avoid bankruptcy, and it not only turned a profit, but single-handedly took the company from the brink of collapse to the position of premier RPG developer in the WORLD, which it subsequently lost.

If, as the narrative surrounding the studio seems to indicate, Tokyo RPG Factory was a last-ditch effort to reignite the fires of passion that once powered Squaresoft before its merger with Enix, with life-long Square employees at the helm and freelancers working on the projects because they were intrigued by the concepts, it doesn’t look like anyone at Square-Enix knows what needs to be done to right the ship. And there have definitely been a LOT of flailing attempts to do so at Square-Enix in recent years, with several games trying to capture that original “Final Fantasy” magic with concepts that haven’t evolved beyond 8-bit grinding, like the ‘Bravely Default’ series and the stand-alone “Octopath Traveler,” with many different unsung studios set to the inglorious task, ranging from Silicon Studio to Claytechworks to Acquire.

What Tokyo RPG Factory and all of Square-Enix’s other little homunculus studios are missing is the fact that it was the original, grand-scale stories, replete with melodrama and character development that made the Golden Age RPGs, not grinding for Job Points or min/maxing a party of characters with broken/overpowered skill builds. Anyone who says that their favorite thing about the ‘Final Fantasy’ series is the Job System clearly wasn’t there for the Golden Age, since Squaresoft was wise enough not to localize “Final Fantasy 3” or “Final Fantasy 5” at the time. “Final Fantasy 4,” “Final Fantasy 6,” “Chrono Trigger,” “Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars,” and even non-Squaresoft games like “Earthbound” and “Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals” were primarily narrative-driven experiences, with streamlined, accessible gameplay. Furthermore, these narrative-based games felt fresh and engaging because they didn’t rely on tropes recycled from anime, as nearly all modern Japanese games do, regardless of genre.

Yes, there is absolutely still room in the world of media for Neo Golden Age RPG experiences, but in order to get there, the developers working on such projects need to actually understand what made the Golden Age golden to begin with! Pinning formulaic, recycled plots and character archetypes to excessively grindy and tedious gameplay is NOT the correct path forward, but I really don’t think Tokyo RPG Factory – or, really, any other studio at Square-Enix – will deviate from this course until Square-Enix officially nails the coffin shut.

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