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

Thief review

“Thief is far from the disaster that many feared it would be, but it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that Garrett has stumbled in his attempt to gain access to a new generation,” we said in our Thief review.

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 Dynamics-developed 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.

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

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.

“Aping the designs of others developers’ best-selling games fundamentally misunderstands what made these series so special”

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.