Changes in most RPGs tend to be minimal, particularly when you think about how closely most RPG fans will watch every little change in their series. But just like any genre over time, there have been some major changes since 'back in the day'. Square Enix is no stranger to changing times, and sticking around in the industry for so long comes with its own advantages.
Knowing when the times are changing, when to adapt to new audiences, and when to push for change is key to running any business. Looking back at their history in the industry it's pretty easy to see that Square is one of the few developers around today that not only has a fine history of challenging the norms, but setting a very high standard for all their competition.
Proof that Square Enix is more or less in command of the JRPG scene is apparent just by looking at a history of the games they've participated in. For better or worse, longstanding series such as Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, Front Mission, and even Dragon Quest have seen some wild changes over the years. Anything from storytelling themes to shifts in the combat, and while other companies are desperately holding on to outdated gameplay elements Square Enix has an impressive reputation for challenging the norms. First and foremost, how combat is handled in an RPG setting.
Fast paced, turn based, or a wild mix of both, combat in Square's RPGs is a perfect way of defining gaming throughout the years. From the very subtle changes in the early Final Fantasy games, to the more extreme gameplay experiments in the most recent ones. Looking through their titles is like experiencing an evolution in gameplay. These key changes, from Kingdom Hearts to Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, aren't just retools and balance tweaks made to create a more stable game. They're solutions, to concerns brought on by a rapidly evolving player base. Perhaps it seems obvious that a game series must adapt and change over time in order to stay successful, and in a way it is. What isn't so obvious is being able to pick out the changes ahead of time, and create a blockbuster game, which is something that Square Enix does with greater frequency than most of their competition.
Not all the time however. Final Fantasy XIII is a fantastic example of a prediction gone wrong, but the attempt was there. The evolution from slower, more methodical combat, to fast paced and cinematic action was an attempt at catering to the modern day generation. It wasn't a bad decision at all; in fact the combat was actually rather enjoyable. However, the game was heavily tied down by another element of the RPG that has changed wildly over the years; storytelling. Being able to draw a gamer into the world itself makes gamers feel like they're accomplishing something and a bad storyline can do the exact opposite. While story has become second fiddle for a lot of modern games, the level of experimentation in Square Enix's titles is quite impressive. Storylines that span across several games and platforms contrast harshly with titles which offer an entire cinematic experience spread out over the course of fifty hours.
It's easy to forget that only ten, fifteen, years ago RPGs all followed the precise same formula. A young boy/girl somehow finds an ancient power/evil and joins forces with friends/family to save the world/girl. Today, the same elements exist, but often times in very different ways. Modern day storytelling in gaming has become as complex as the controls, and as characters like Kaine (Nier) or Lightning do a good job showing how far character development has really come. Female characters that break outside the norm used to be a rarity, but today they are celebrated in some great (and sometimes creepy) ways.
So how exactly is Square Enix changing the modern RPG? Simple, by doing what they've always done best. Challenging the norm, taking risks, and learning from their mistakes. No part of that is particularly groundbreaking in its own right, but it's impossible to imagine what the industry would even look like without Square's participation. The games they've worked on have time and again defined the state of the JRPG, and will continue to influence our expectations for the future. The only disappointing thing about this really, is that their competition isn't trying just as hard to edge them out. Perhaps then we'd see some amazing progress in the industry as a whole. Then again, maybe we're just not ready for it.