Square Enix's Japanese headquarters, the giant and wonderfully-named Shinjuku Bunka Quint Building, set in among scores of similarly giant buildings in the busy Shibuya district of Tokyo, almost apologetically creeps up on me as I make my way towards it from our nearby hotel base. If I hadn't known where I was going, or who I was about to see, I would never had known that some of the most successful, and loved, games in the history of electronic entertainment had been conceived and constructed within this hallowed metal and steel behemoth. Craning my neck, I see a sign at the top of the beast - PFIZER. That's right, the drug company. No mention of Square, Enix, or Square Enix, anywhere.
Inside, people to and fro as they empty out of lifts and pass by a reception desk and security guard more bothered about keeping up appearances than preventing any kind of threat. There is no card swipe system in place, no verbal or visual check. I walk in, casually, and make my way to a lift without interacting with anyone or anything, and no-one bats an eyelid.
The 12th floor is my destination. There, I'm greeted by two impossibly attractive Japanese receptionists whose English not only puts my Japanese to shame, but summons Ifrit down from upon high to burn it into oblivion. On the wall is a giant, framed picture of the Final Fantasy XI world map. The couch is adorned with Slime cushions. Games are laid out along the wall - more Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles than I can absorb in one glance. Discs, platinum, gold and triple platinum, aren't framed and hung arrogantly, but confidently, safe in the knowledge that Square Enix has perhaps the most impressive portfolio of games of any RPG specialist in the world. In a small enclave built into the waiting room wall sit figurines, the kind you pay good money for in Akihabara shops 20 minutes that way on the Yamanote line. Magazines from all over the world scream Square Enix classics from busy front covers. I am in role-playing heaven.
Which is exactly where Square Enix hopes to transport its fans to with its inbound RPG The Last Remnant, a brand new IP that will be the company's first to be released simultaneously in Japan, the US and Europe. Not only that, but it's been described by president Yoichi Wada as "the cornerstone" of Square Enix's worldwide strategy. It's also being released on the Xbox 360 first as part of Square Enix's three-pronged RPG partnership with Microsoft that includes Infinite Undiscovery (already out) and Star Ocean: The Last Hope (out next year), a relationship that has already helped the console somewhat surprisingly outsell the PS3 in Japan for six weeks earlier in the year. Pressure indeed.
As I wait, Square Enix's behind closed doors Tokyo Game Show 08 trailer is shown to me on a non-HD television via a Japanese PS2. As I watch brand new clips of Final Fantasy XIII, Advent Children: Complete and Fabula Nova Crystallis, all in low definition, I ponder the heavyweights I'm about to quiz. The Last Remnant team is made up of some of the most experienced, and well known game makers Square Enix has on its payroll. Director Hiroshi Takai designed the battles in Legend of Mana and the Romancing SaGa trilogy and co-directed PS2 launch title The Bouncer. Art producer Yusuke Naora's long list of credits include Final Fantasy VII, VIII, X, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus, among many others. Battle planner Kazutoyo Maehiro was responsible for the love it or hate it Final Fantasy XII battle system. Add to this Nobuyuki Ueda (producer), Masato Yagi (event planner) and Kazuhiro Kataoka (map planner), who have all worked on high profile SE titles down the years, and you've got an all-star cast in charge of one of the company's most important, perhaps even most important, title of 2008.
I enter the interview room and the six game makers, barely visible through a thick cigarette smoke haze, sit in a horseshoe facing a solitary chair. I introduce myself, bow, and take my seat, as do two translators, two public relations staff and a young man who seems to serve no other purpose than to smile throughout the entire interview. I thank the team for taking the time to talk to me. More bowing. More pleasantries. Then, as I'm about to unleash my first question, I'm told that all talk of the PS3 and PC versions of the game are off-limits. This interview is going to be very interesting indeed...
VideoGamer.com: What was the inspiration behind the Remnants and the storyline?
Takai-san: When we first started up the project we got the entire staff together and we started thinking about and just kicking around ideas for the feel of the world. We thought of having some sort of huge landmark type things, and so after thinking about those we thought how can we add this and make this integral to the game, so that's how we came up with the concept of the Remnants. It really was the entire staff working together to put that in.
VideoGamer.com: The main characters, the King, his generals and Rush Sykes, what was the inspiration behind them?
Takai-san: After building the game world, we first had age and sex and position to start with. We got inspiration from various materials and added more details to the characters, so it was again, teamwork.
Naora-san: We knew that Rush was the hero and so the order coming down from the planners basically was to make him a normal kid, a really accessible sort of guy. So when I was designing him I tried not to make anything too weird or wacky but definitely someone you would be able to say 'oh this is the hero', sort of an iconic character. So then the characters around him, they had more specialised things to act as supports both visually and within the story.
VideoGamer.com: The Last Remnant is the first Square Enix game to use the Unreal Engine. Why did you decide to use it?
Takai-san: We were trying to make use of a small team, and to utilise the resources that we had we decided that we should use the middleware as much as possible and using the options that we had, and we were trying to do some experiments with other game engines as well, but in the end we concluded that UE3 would be the most valuable middleware for this title. Because we were in the transition period from older generation consoles to new consoles such as 360 and PS3, we figured out that the UE3 will have the ability to combat going from one platform to another quite easily.
VideoGamer.com: The game has been designed to appeal to a Western audience. What exactly about the game means it will appeal to a Western audience?
Naora-san: Visually we aimed towards both the West and the East. It was definitely a global aim there. Our motion capture was done by foreign actors. You might notice a definite difference seeing the characters move around but in general we wanted to make something that everyone around the world could accept and see and think, 'oh OK, that could be me, if I was Rush'.
VideoGamer.com: I've been told The Conqueror has been designed to appeal to Western gamers. What is it about his design that means he will appeal to Western gamers?
Naora-san: When I was designing The Conqueror I was mainly thinking about going for a dark anti-hero type, someone darker than you usually see in our games. I wasn't necessarily aiming for a specific, 'oh I need to do this and this and this to make this appeal to Westerners', but in general I really wanted to get somebody who was older, someone who looks very strong and powerful and someone who would appeal more to males. It was also somebody that I wanted to draw, so that helped. One of the really neat things I think about The Conqueror is his eyes, you aren't exactly completely certain where he's looking at because he could be looking at everything or something. He has a strong presence and a lot of power so that was one of the things I wanted to aim for when designing the character. I hope that people, not just Japanese people but people around the world, see what I was trying to do and love him.
VideoGamer.com: The battle system is quite unique. There are a lot of units on screen at the same time and it doesn't feel like a typical Square Enix RPG. What was the inspiration behind the battle system?
Maehiro-san: I've never created a typical Square Enix RPG since I've been here. I was always doing something original. For Final Fantasy XII I created a system, but I wanted to revolutionise the system. Also, I've got old and I'm too busy pressing commands for FFXII! My fingers don't move as fast as they used to! So I wanted to give users the time to choose the tactics and select so it becomes a turn based commanding system.
VideoGamer.com: The battle system doesn't allow you to give specific commands to your units but more general commands to the leader of your Unions. Are you concerned that some fans might feel that they won't have enough control over what's happening during the battles?
Maehiro-san: It's really one of those things where as you play the game you really get used to it. When you start out it might be a little bit like, 'oooh I don't know!', but once you actually get your hands on the game it won't be such a big deal. As you go through you can see what your different units can do, when you put them together into unions and you see what your different unions can do you'll really think of that union as a single unit.
VideoGamer.com: How does the art style and overall look of the game differ from Square Enix past, present and future?
Naora-san: Once we decided that we wanted to use UE3 we figured we wanted to go for a realistic art style versus other games which tend to be more cartooney or whatever. So we really focused on making stuff more photo realistic or realistic within the world and developed things in that direction. Our artists really stepped up to the plate and came up with some really good stuff and we were able to do a lot with the engine and making things look the way we wanted them too.
VideoGamer.com: Square Enix role playing games are very popular all over the world. What are the defining characteristics of a Square Enix role playing game?
Kataoka-san: It's a really good and difficult question to answer! Basically we make the type of games that we want to play. We make games about what's interesting to us and it's not that we don't ever think about what other people would want but we don't just think, 'well yes, if we just...', it's not that technical, and say 'well if we make a game that has this and this then this market will like it'. We aren't really doing that, we're just doing what we think would be fun and we hope that other people think it's fun and it seems that other people do so it's good.
It's not about there's a grammar for Square Enix RPGs and we create a game based on that grammar but rather we have a really free and big environment in which we're asked to create what we love, so probably all of us have a sense as a user while being creators.
VideoGamer.com: Do you listen to fan feedback and incorporate that into game design?
Maehiro-san: I'm constantly doing it.
VideoGamer.com: What kinds of things have you heard from the fans that you've taken on board?
Maehiro-san: I nearly got beaten up for Final Fantasy XII! And so I got a lot of feedback. For FFXII we got a lot of very polarised feedback. There were people who really really liked the game and there were people who really really did not. I looked at lots of the different things that people were saying and so tried to take that into account, especially for the things that seemed to annoy people, things that players didn't want to be able to touch or things that players did want to be able to adjust, like the equipment limit, so we worked on that. We tried to take all of that sort of thing into account while still staying true to the original vision.
VideoGamer.com: President Yoichi Wada has described The Last Remnant as the cornerstone of Square Enix's worldwide strategy. Does that mean that The Last Remnant is intended to be a long running series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest? Are we likely to see more The Last Remnant games?
Ueda-san: Well for now we've just worked on making this game and tried to make it as best as we could, and so for any continuations we don't have any particular plans quite yet. We're going to see how it does and we'll think about it from there.
VideoGamer.com: Do you play Western role playing games, from BioWare, Bethesda and Lionhead for example? What are the main differences between JRPGs and WRPGs?
Maehiro-san: BioWare makes some pretty interesting games but I don't think they can compare to Japanese RPGs! I think we're better!
Naora-san: We like the games as users but the genre as an RPG is quite vast in the West. So Mass Effect sometimes has third-person shooting and so on. But JRPG is more sticking to the core elements of the role-playing game. Probably the way that the genre is perceived in the West and Japan is very different. Of course I like BioWare and Bethesda games and we get a lot of inspiration from those games.
VideoGamer.com: In The Last Remnant you play an 18-year-old who is searching for his younger sister. We see in a lot of Square Enix role-playing games a similar central character, who is thrust into a conflict and goes through a coming of age story. Did you ever consider trying something completely different to this tried and trusted method?
Yagi-san: We really thought starting off having a teen and having a story where he comes into his own and you help him grow based on the choices that you make, we think that's a pretty universal theme, a pretty eternal story and we did not necessarily go through thinking 'oh let's try to do something completely different', because we feel there's still a lot of ways you can go with this sort of theme. It's not bad! It's tried and true and because there's a lot of potential in that set up we didn't really think we needed to get away from this.
VideoGamer.com: There is a mole-type character who digs for you. Can you tell me about him and what you think about the reaction from the fans to that character?
Takai-san: I love that character! It's not a mole, it's called Mr. Diggs! We're deeply interested in what users say about the character, because there has been a constant discussion about how it should look. Is it to be super cute or is it not so cute? I finally made a decision to balance it.
VideoGamer.com: How is Mr. Diggs incorporated into the gameplay?
Kataoka-san: There is a mark or icons in the map as you walk into a dungeon. When you see the icon you approach that point and press buttons to release Mr. Diggs and he goes out and collects things. There are different things depending on where you are. Usually the things Mr. Diggs will get for you are used for customising your weapons and armour and your equipment. If you're harvesting in the middle of grass then you'll get some sort of a plant, if it's a rock you'll get some sort of ore. There's a lot of different things you can get. As you're playing around make sure you go and try to harvest as much as you can! There are many digging points, around 150.
VideoGamer.com: One of the main criticisms of the game from previews was around the load times. What will they be like in the final version?
Ueda-san: The disc version should be faster.
VideoGamer.com: You'll be able to install the game to the Xbox 360 hard drive. How will that improve the game?
Takai-san: Obviously the loading times will be shorter and you can play faster. And we think that the noise from the drive will be quieter!
VideoGamer.com: Square Enix has in the past been a primarily PlayStation developer, but that's changing. How do you think the PS3 and Xbox 360 compare?
Takai-san: The 360 is an easy platform to make games for. The dev environment and the dev kit and everything they've released, those were really dev friendly, so it was quite a lot of fun to work on the 360 version from a development point of view.
VideoGamer.com: Going forward will Square Enix be making its role-playing games multiplatform? Is it unlikely that there will be any console exclusive games from Square Enix in the future?
Takai-san: If there's something that a particular platform can do that the game really needs to take advantage of that then it may end up being an exclusive title, but otherwise the producers or the development teams don't have a particular favourite platform, so there isn't really anything to stop us from just going multiplatform in the future.
The Last Remnant is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 this Thursday, November 20. A PS3 and PC version is set to follow.