At E3 2016 last month the games industry showed a lot of franchises that were heading in new directions. Final Fantasy is going open world and more action-oriented with Final Fantasy XV. God of War is done hyping the never-ending depths of Kratos’ id. Instead, it wants to know how will Kratos functions now that he is a dad. Resident Evil 7 looks nothing like recent games in the series. Instead Capcom is opting for a first-person nightmare with zombie rednecks as the bad guys rather than the Umbrella Corporation. The new Prey does not look like it is related at all to the old one. And our Game of E3, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild seems to have followed the predictions of my article from May. It truly evolves Zelda into a modern open-world game.
Updating franchises is always a dangerous gamble, but one that has paid off more and more recently. In order for a game franchise to remain relevant, it must update itself and offer new types of experiences for its fans. Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot added humanity and removed the exploitation elements to save the ailing franchise. But reboots can also return to old game styles and update them for modern tastes and technology. Doom, after decades of struggles, once again rules the first-person shooter genre thanks to its recent return to its roots in 2016’s DOOM. Ratchet & Clank pulled a similar trick just a month earlier with its quasi-remake.
With reboots in mind, there are quite a few game franchises that are currently struggling. Some of the most popular games around missed E3 2016 almost entirely. Maybe we could help them out. Here are four tired game franchises that really need a new direction:
2016 will be the first year since 2008 to not see a major Assassin’s Creed release. Ubisoft once had an interesting series of historical action games. Unfortunately, it became an annual assembly line of increasingly bland titles. The creators hid a desperate cry for help in a self-parody four years ago. Remember the metajoke in Assassin’s Creed IV of the present-day character suffering in a modern tech company job making terrible games? Probably closer to reality than anybody wanted to admit. By Assassin’s Creed: Unity the series had abandoned the numbering system and with it any pretensions that its story was ever going to reach an ending. After exhausting the fans and critics, the break we are getting this year is probably a smart move on Ubisoft’s part. But where will the series go after this sabbatical?
Ubisoft needs to stop designing these games by committee. Assassin’s Creed has the problem of trying to please every person at once. These games have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at gamers to keep them entertained in their historical stabbing jungle gyms. We’ve had tower defense-style missions, clicker-style trade missions, GTA-style racing with horses, and pirate ships. All this fluff means that the core of the games suffers. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag was a great deal of fun to play, but its story missions were an endless series of tailing/stealth levels. These were never close to being fun. Worse, the stories seem to bend over backward to try to cram in dozens of historical cameos. Ubisoft has to make it all fit into a greater series narrative of Assassin vs Templar that just isn’t going anywhere.
Remove the excess fluff and try to focus on a single gameplay mechanic, Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed, based on the titles, seems to be a game mainly about assassinating people. However, assassinations in the series have turned into standard affairs of easy parkour and three button combat. Maybe get rid of the extra stuff and make killing fun again. Tighten the stories, tighten the gameplay, and actually take advantage of the historical backgrounds to radically experiment with the formula. The Assassin’s Creed games will never reach their potential as long as the adventures in the Crusades play almost identical to the adventures in Victorian London. The time travel elements are weirdly never explored in gameplay other than interruptions. Perhaps a Nintendo-style two world system could beef them up and make them somewhat relevant again?
The Batman Arkham games were some of the best superhero gameplay ever put on a disc. Rocksteady mastered the ultimate Batman fantasy with Arkham Asylum. This game was a perfect combination of everything fans loved from the comics, films, and cartoons. The developers built the Arkham games on the concept of giving players the most fun parts of being Batman. They locked the Caped Crusader into a prison with all his greatest enemies and let the player beat the crime out of them all.
Unfortunately, by Arkham Knight, the series had also run out of ideas of what to do. This was now the third game in a row to put Batman in an isolated city with nobody to interact with but the superstitious and cowardly dregs of Gotham. Arkham Knight’s biggest innovation on the formula was adding the Batmobile. However, putting another tool in the player’s arsenal with which to beat up criminals does not address the underlying issue that all players can do is beat up criminals. The half-hearted additions of captured civilians and pre-scripted detective sequences did not add much variety in the gameplay. Even while most of the Dark Knight’s extended Bat-family make token appearances, Arkham Knight treated them as nuisances that distracted from the cool part, Batman himself.
It is crazy how much of the Batman character has not been explored in the Arkham games. He is so much more than just a guy who beats up criminals, after all. Batman needs to be pressured to exist in a living world with other people, that means civilians in the sandbox. And with civilians comes consequences. It is now time for an imperfect Batman fantasy. These games need economies of public perception, a sense of limitation and struggle to keep to a moral code, and maybe even a reason to play as Bruce Wayne. Batman needs to interact with his sidekicks, not just lock them in a cupboard.
Rocksteady seems ready to try something new with their next DC property. God bless them. There are hints and rumors of a Superman game. They are also working on a VR experiment set in this universe. But if they want to return to the Batman well, they should try a new direction.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic is a mess. The once proud platforming hedgehog that went toe-to-toe with Mario in the early ‘90s has now spent more years as a joke than as a solid pillar of gaming. The 21st century has not been good for Mr. The Hedgehog. In the last decade, he has appeared in not one but two of the worst AAA games ever made, Sonic 2006 and Sonic Boom. One of the core problems with the Sonic the Hedgehog series is Sega’s inability to find a new focus for the franchise. As of this writing, Sonic is on a quiet vacation. The only games Sega have planned for his 25th anniversary is a 3DS sequel to Boom and Mario & Sonic at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
At this point, Sonic does not need a new direction as much as this franchise should just back-peddle, grab an old direction, and stick with it. Sonic Generations worked. It was a few dozen levels of 2D and 3D platforming combined with a bare-bones story. Sega, of course, threw the baby out with the bathwater, reinvented the wheel, cut off its nose to spite its face – you pick the idiom. Much like how Square Enix has mishandled Final Fantasy, Sega has pushed Sonic from one experiment to another without finding a satisfying way for him to function in 3D. Sonic Generations was replaced by Sonic Lost World, which very badly wanted to be Super Mario Galaxy. And Sonic Lost World was replaced by Sonic Boom, which very badly wanted to be a functioning game.
All players really want out of Sonic is a sense of speed, good platforming, and a fun game. Sonic Generations had all of that. It did not have an obtrusive overworld. It did not have an obtrusive storyline. It did not have six billion playable characters. Mario continues on his happy mustachioed way by sticking with what has worked for him in 3D for two decades now. Those are simple, inventive games that can keep players entertained with every new release. Most Mario characters do not even have dialog. Sonic needs to shut up, give up on the “radical” re-designs, and just make fun games first.
Sonic Generations was not perfect. It had to rely on a lot of Quick Time Events and scripted sequences to simulate 3D running. There is iteration to be done here, improvements to be made. Maybe after a nice long break to make fans miss Sonic again, Sega can come back and win them over with a game that just… works.
Even while fans have waited an eternity for Kingdom Hearts III, Square Enix has already exhausted the Kingdom Hearts formula. While the wait for the next numbered installment has been interminable, Square Enix has released side games on everything from the DS, 3DS, PSP, and mobile. If you’ve been playing along, that means you’ve now visited Agrabah from Aladdin five times, each time using the same Keyblade, shooting the same Fire spell, and fighting the same Jafar. This series remains stuck in 2002 while constantly adding more and more complicated plot points. If you have not played the HD re-releases to catch up you will be hopelessly lost when Kingdom Hearts III comes along.
That is not to say that Kingdom Hearts has not had great gameplay. These have been quality games that have mixed together the cuteness of Disney with the baroque weirdness of Final Fantasy. But the games have also remained generally stuck on a treadmill of similar gameplay since the beginning. Extraneous details like Drive Forms, Summons, Cards, Panel Systems, and Pokemon-esque allies have come and gone. But ultimately Kingdom Hearts still has the same old button mashy combat and floaty jumps. While action RPGs have grown industry-wide to focus on dodging, parries, and real skill, Kingdom Hearts is still a game of flash and glitz. Ultimately the only thing new to Kingdom Hearts III is an unnecessary sheen of modern graphics. What we have seen of the gameplay itself looks like it could have worked on the PlayStation 2.
In 2016 the sheer maddening complexity of the Kingdom Hearts series storyline is doing nobody any favors. Between Heartless, Nobodies, Unversed, Dream Eaters, and who knows what else, the cosmology of this universe is too difficult to follow. Weirdness does not equal good writing – this is a lesson Square Enix in general needs to learn. Kingdom Hearts III needs to complete the now long-overdue arc with Xehanort and try to get the series back to a simpler character-driven place. The Sora, Riku, Kairi friendship has been the emotional center of this series for years. It is unfortunate that it has been lost in the sea of clones, time travel, and nonsense. It would help if the series could also find a place again for its Disney movies other than as filler between all the Organization XIII business.