Square Enix gives us more of the same with Tomb Raider and Dragon Quest

On May 15, Square Enix gathered journalists together in Santa Monica to show off the newest entries in two of their biggest franchises: Tomb Raider and Dragon Quest.

After introductions by creative leads from both teams, they showed off the games with elaborate demos. Both impressed; these are AAA titles after all, and brand new entries in two of the most successful franchises in gaming. Both titles looked beautiful despite being months away from release, showcasing the newest tech with breathtaking visual flair and creativity. Square Enix’s hype machine was running at full force, eager to show off the coolest new features from their newest money makers, and they certainly succeeded at hype and spectacle.

But it seemed like there was something missing among all the polish and marketing lingo: a willingness to take any meaningful risk.

The same, but better

It was hard not to feel as though Square Enix was playing it very safe with these two titles.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age in particular looked about as close to a classic JRPG as you can possibly get; fairly typical anime protagonists caught up in whirlwind of evil empires, amnesiacs, and a world threatening power, with a standard turn based battle system. The addition of an open world is welcome, though hardly revolutionary, and the expected graphical upgrade is likewise par for the course.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with classic JRPG tropes, there’s a reason they've lived on for the past three decades and likely will continue to, but the lack of any sort of experimentation is a little troubling. This is essentially a modern retread of the very concepts Dragon Quest pioneered when it was first released on the NES more than thirty years ago. From what we’ve seen of the Japanese version that was released last year, there’s not a lot to set it apart from other JRPGs other than the now familiar Akira Toriyama style characters. This isn’t to say it’s not an excellent JRPG, just not a particularly revolutionary one.

Japanese games have a history of experimentation, though Dragon Quest has always been comfortable sticking with what has worked in the past. Even Final Fantasy, Square’s one time competitor to Dragon Quest, has taken substantial gameplay risks with the the eighth and twelfth entries in their long running franchise. Dragon Quest has been more hesitant to take any real risks, and that’s a choice they’re clearly sticking with in their eleventh entry.

While this seems to have satiated die-hard Dragon Quest fans based on Japanese reviews, they are losing a potential audience of players looking for more unconventional JRPGs like Persona that tackle new ideas and gameplay styles in in addition to traditional RPG tropes.

Shadow of Past Tomb Raiders

And that brings us to Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

Both the Tomb Raider reboot, and 2014’s excellent Rise of The Tomb Raider were critical and financial successes, going so far as to inspire a reboot of the cinematic franchise. They are widely considered very good games, though not necessarily genre defying.

The attempt to reinvigorate Lara’s character by showing her ascend from a naive young woman to the Raider of Tombs we’ve come to know was mostly successful. Even though the writing and storytelling was weak at times, the emphasis on level design, entertaining gameplay and gorgeous visuals firmly cemented the new Tomb Raider series as a forerunner of the modern action-adventure genre.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks to continue that tradition by giving us more. More action, more splendid visuals, more grit, more harrowing set pieces, and more Lara.

It certainly pushed the envelope in terms of visuals and creative world building. It’s still fun and polished, still endlessly entertaining, but there is a distinct lack of newness. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the third entry in the franchise, for better or worse, and though there’s no reason to believe it won't be fun, it’s a little troubling to see how similar it is to the titles that came before.

Tomb Raider could benefit greatly from a calculated risk to reinvigorate the franchise. An interesting way to to do that would be to reassess the narrative framework and subvert expectations.

For example; there doesn’t appear to be any real effort to explain why we’re still supposed to pretend Lara is the hero after murdering literally hundreds of faceless people in the name of vengeance. Imagine a Tomb Raider game where a face is put to that mercenary. A game where you struggle to get the job done so you can feed your family, while a sociopathic hunter slowly murders your co-workers one by one in the darkness of the jungle. Some subversion of the violent hero trope in this vein would be a welcome change, not just in this franchise, but in the industry as a whole.

From what we've seen so far, Shadow of the Tomb Raider will not be reinventing what made the past titles work. This is unfortunate for a franchise that initially tried to take risks by grounding Lara in a more realistic world, only to have her end up as yet another super powered killing machine like so many video game “protagonists” before her.

Resting on what works

I have little doubt both of these games will be fun, compelling experiences, and perhaps it comes off as entitled to expect more than just more of the same. After all, if the same is fun, what’s the harm?

It’s not my intention to disparage either title, or the team of creative and talented people who helped to create them, it’s more a concern with the state of the industry as a whole. As in the film industry, there appears to be a risk adversity that might be a sign of detrimental creative stagnation. Square Enix is playing it very safe with two of their biggest titles, eschewing new IPs and experiences in favor of what they know works. Square is by no means alone in this, (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you) but that sense of playing it safe was very apparent at Square Enix’s Pre-E3 Judges Day.

I’m very much looking forward to both titles, and though I’ll await final judgement until that day, I bet I’ll have a huge smile on my face when I do. I love both of these franchises, but I’m concerned the lack of innovation will result in them being eclipsed by other franchises they themselves may have inspired.

It’s time to try something new Square Enix. We’ll still love you, even if you make something you don’t know we’ll like.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is scheduled for a September 14 release on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age will be available in North America on September 4 for PS4 and PC.