Why Square Enix’s Team Asano is One of the Best Developers of This Era
The JRPG is a genre with popularity that has endured the decades as the video game industry has moved forward. Staples such as Final Fantasy, Pokemon, Dragon Quest, and Persona have helped shape the parameters that define what a Japanese Role-Playing Game is. But as the industry molds and changes, new developers and game series help steer the genre in different directions. One of the developers spearheading change is Square Enix’s Team Asano, the developers of Octopath Traveler, Bravely Default 2, and the upcoming Triangle Strategy.
While it may not surprise anyone that a developer associated with Square Enix is pushing change in the JRPG genre, the aspects of development in which Team Asano are ushering such change is what’s important. The most noticeable aspect is the team’s distinct art style, thanks to their HD-2D engine. Their games like Octopath Traveler are reminiscent of SNES-style JRPGs, but instead of 16-bit 2D pixel art, Octopath Traveler uses 2D character models with 3D structures and environments. This may sound confusing, but the result is gorgeous—and with the announcement of Triangle Strategy, it looks like they’re going to utilize this art direction.
When gamers first got their hands on Octopath Traveler and saw how well the pixel-art works in 3D environments, they started to dream of what other franchises would benefit from using such a direction. While it seemed like a far-off fantasy, it wouldn’t be a dream for long, as a remake of Dragon Quest III was announced using the same HD-2D graphics as Octopath. Square Enix sees the potential of this art direction and how they can remake their older titles that would cost less than completely reinventing them in a 3D space.
There are plenty of other titles that would be perfect for this new coat of paint; Final Fantasy I – VI, Chrono Trigger, the Secret of Mana series. SNES-style JRPGs are becoming a subgenre in itself, so the market is there. This, mixed with Square Enix’s healthy grab bag of franchises, puts them in a good position. The sky is the limit here, and Team Asano & Square Enix are flying high.
Admittedly, it can be easy to get lost in the splendor of the worlds Team Asano creates, but they know they don’t get it right the first time, which is where their development process really shines. In their last three games, Octopath Traveler, Bravely Default 2, and Triangle Strategy, demos were released months, if not over a year, before release. It gives skeptical players a chance to try out the game for themselves, but at the end of each demo, Team Asano also allows players to provide feedback for gameplay changes that they want. Octopath Traveler had over 40,000 players fill out the feedback survey, and changes such as player movement speed, lighting, and gameplay balances were implemented in the final product.
There are thousands upon thousands of decisions that go into game development and direction. It can be easy to forget simple things like adding a run button or comparing a character’s weapons and armor to something you might buy in a shop. The Bravely Default 2 demo was criticized for being too hard, which players knew meant that the game would involve a lot of grinding, something fans either love or absolutely hate. Giving such feedback gives a sense of community, letting players know that they’re an active member of development along with being a fan.
Team Asano’s ideology seems to be innovation from genre staples of the past. Bravely Default is a series that takes major inspiration from Final Fantasy III & Final Fantasy V (two games that came to the west much later than their Japanese releases). There isn’t a lack of games inspired by old-school Final Fantasy, but the series itself has moved far from its Dungeons and Dragons-influenced gameplay.
Bravely Default 2 not only uses said inspirations, but it builds upon them greatly. The game’s story, for instance, is a call back to Final Fantasy‘s four heroes of light that have become so prevalent in the series that it’s cliche at this point. But Bravely Default does more with the story and adds its lore and established characters with their own personality to make the journey more colorful. The warriors of light in Final Fantasy are silent, have no established character motivation, and no matter of relationship between the four of them. In Bravely Default 2, the warriors of light have big, if sometimes silly, personalities who all play off one another. It may seem simple, but it’s an improvement that can really alter the premise of a simple story. It may not be a genre, but they innovated an old-school type of storytelling and world-building.
Another genre that Team Asano is not only innovating on but bringing back to the limelight, in general, is tactical RPGs, a genre that was popularized thanks to Final Fantasy Tactics back on the PlayStation 1. The genre has mostly been kept alive thanks to passionate indie developers with games like Into the Breach, Mercenary Chronicles, and Banner Saga.
But Square Enix is taking another crack at it with Triangle Strategy, a tactical RPG that builds upon the foundation of Final Fantasy Tactics by using the same art style and engine as Octopath Traveler. Triangle Strategy boasts an epic political drama, game-changing choices that will change the entire outcome of the story, and striking visuals and voice acting. After playing the demo twice and making different choices, the outcome of the story was indeed different. It seems we have another classic on our hands.
So why does this matter so much? Well, it’s a huge gamble, and Square Enix willing to take another stab at this genre could mean well for the future of the Final Fantasy Tactics series, which hasn’t seen a mainline entry in well over a decade. Team Asano knows they’ve struck gold with the HD-2D look, and they’re running with it. But once again, their trend of taking feedback and applying it to the game’s final build is present, with a massive list of changes after their first demo released.
One significant aspect that Octopath Traveler was criticized for was that the plot wasn’t great or cohesive. It featured eight separate stories that ran beside each other but never intersected, which felt very disjointed at times. Just from the demo of Triangle Strategy alone, it’s hard not to get sucked into its political storyline while having your heart being pulled in multiple directions thanks to the choice-based gameplay. Actively watching a developer learn from its mistakes and give players what they want is a fantastic way to build a loyal fanbase and provide a sense of transparency (mainly thanks to the demo feedback) that most developers don’t even consider.
There’s a lot of momentum building with this team, and it just goes to show that you don’t have to develop hyper-realistic 3D games with ungodly budgets and development cycles to create something people love and will get behind.
Game development is incredibly hard. It’s time-consuming, and so many decisions go on behind the scenes that players don’t even know about. Every release can be a gamble, especially in the JRPG genre. But Team Asano has been killing it with this era of games, and their willingness to build upon genre pillars, as well as make good on transparency and the desire to receive feedback before game release via demos—along with utilizing the beautiful HD-2D style that they have become known for and is now spreading to other well-known franchises—has made them one of the best developers in the industry, and their practices should be praised.