I'm not sure what North Americans or Europeans consider to be the pinnacle of Western game development, but when it comes to the Japanese things are a little bit different. Some of gaming's finest achievements came from Japan back when the rest of the world was scrambling to catch up, and as a result those developers that made such noteworthy accomplishments back in the day have stuck with us all as being benchmarks of quality within the industry. Nostalgia, first and foremost, is the reason that a developer like Square Enix is held to such a high standard after all these years when everyone else has almost reset their expectations when it comes to modern gaming. Final Fantasy after all has been a staple of RPG design for years now, almost to the point of being an unrealistic standard for any company to meet. It's a problem that not only plagues the western perspective of Japanese game development but internally also creates issues for the developers themselves. How is it possible to pit any one of the more recent Final Fantasy titles against something that's thrown to the top of a pedestal simply for nostalgic reasons? It simply cannot be done.
I feel like these past few years have been a long, hard road for Square Enix as a result, one where with every single game they release we expect more and more from them despite the signs that they really can't deliver. Not because they're incapable, but more because they've lost sight of what it will take to actually produce a quality title. Final Fantasy XIII was a fantastic example of this, the very result of a game developer that listens to its fans far too often in an attempt to please.
The cold hard truth is that gamers really don't know what they want from most titles, outside of a few vague generalities that come with every new title. Square Enix misconstrued fans wanting a more linear, straightforward RPG experience with them wanting no towns and a few dozen high detailed cutscenes because fans were unable to explain that by 'That trailer looks amazing, please give me more of that' they really meant 'That trailer looks amazing, I want to be as involved in the storyline as those characters appear to be.' The first sentence was a vague statement that a response could never satisfy, while the second is the craving for a general experience. So it's really no surprise that there's the pressure to always create something new (much unlike many other mainstream Japanese developers), but at the same time stay true to what fans would somehow like. Sometimes a strategy like that works and the result is Final Fantasy X-2, a title that was met with quite a positive fan reaction by Japanese fans and an almost equal amount of praise by Western reviewers.
Given the last four years of Final Fantasy titles however, it may be time to give Square Enix a much needed break. XIII was a disaster that was followed shortly by an MMO that failed to meet anyones expectations, and riddled between published game releases that failed to meet internal expectations. But blaming what's gone wrong solely on SE's failure to understand its audience seems like the wrong direction, particularly when speaking about a company that's realistically taken quite a few risks when attaching its name alongside many titles that aren't considered to be 'traditional' Japanese titles. Quite the opposite, it feels like they've been taking quite a few risks and stumbling in areas that really should have been mastered a long time ago. In other words, Square Enix has been rushing.
Either that, or they've only made quality titles in the past by pure dumb luck (which I almost hate to believe). This is a point in time where any other developer would stop, rearrange themselves internally, and start all over again. No pushing out older successful titles in an attempt to draw in some desperate revenue, or stalling with game trailers and one sentence snippets of information to keep fans going. Just admit you need more time to work, a break from the fans, and less time spent in the spotlight. If the gaming media can forget about you for a year or so, that would be even better, whatever it takes to get back on the right track and rediscover those roots that made us all love you so very much.
Watching modern-day Square Enix stumble about from game to game is a painful reminder of how far Japanese gaming has fallen in its attempt to 'Westernize' itself, and I just wish they would take the time to look back at what truly made those old school RPGs so much fun. Maybe start off by limiting themselves to making games using only sprites again? Or perhaps start a brand new RPG line before going back to Final Fantasy, that way all of our expectations would be wiped clean. Either way, I just don't really want to hear from them for a long time. Not because they should stop making games, but because everyone needs a vacation now and again. Or perhaps just a long weekend would be good enough; I'll support anything that will help get you back on the right track.