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I Spent The First Two Weeks Of 2023 Playing Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier Before It Was Sent To Pasture

What Exactly Was Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier?

On January 11th, 2023, Square-Enix shut down Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier. That date marked a game with a lifespan South of two years and spoke volumes on the sometimes shaky foundation of the mobile game market. It also came as a surprise considering Square's mobile division is, on no uncertain terms, the company's golden goose. Square-Enix's reliance on the mobile market to keep their fortunes bright while their other AAA console games struggle is nothing new to those following the company. If I were to ask you to name the biggest moneymaker for them in the last ten years, discounting subscription fees, which game would come to mind? It could be Final Fantasy XIV and its many expansion packs, even after you disqualify subs. Possibly it could be Final Fantasy VII Remake and its insane attach rate to the PlayStation ecosystem. Or what about Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, a game we know makes millions every quarter? All of these are decent answers, but they're wrong. The answer is Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire, which has since made over half a billion dollars. That game is also still going strong and drawing millions every month. Despite what First Soldier may suggest, Square-Enix knows how to make a mobile game with a lifespan greater than that of a common fruit fly.

To see a branch of Square-Enix miss the mark after showing they have their finger on the pulse of the mobile market is, and was, wild. A mobile battle royale game? That should make money, right? Well, that's where things get spicy because the finer details about the game are not what they seem on paper. Foremost, Square-Enix's internal mobile team was one of two working on the game. Ateam Inc, a well-known name in the world of Japanese mobile games, was a co-developer of First Soldier. Likewise, Square-Enix cited an "inability to deliver their intended experience" as the reason for the shutdown. That might sound awkward or odd to some, but it's not an entirely novel justification from Square-Enix for a sudden mobile game closedown. When I returned to my blog about every Final Fantasy VII mobile game, I remembered this was the same reason Square-Enix issued for shutting down Final Fantasy VII: G-Bike only a handful of days after it launched.

The few CG cutscenes that were in this game were incredibly impressive even if they destroyed my phone's battery.
The few CG cutscenes that were in this game were incredibly impressive even if they destroyed my phone's battery.

You might have noticed how I spent most of my time painting a picture of the events surrounding and following First Soldier's closing rather than talking about the game itself. The reason is simple: the game is the least exciting part of this story. Players take control of a SOLDIER candidate in a unique Shinra program, where they battle it out against 75 other candidates to become a full member of SOLDIER. The game's story was set 30 years before the events of OG Final Fantasy VII and existed in the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" timeline, or original non-Remake timeline. The game's story structure echoed that of Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII in that it spans monthly windows of time or seasons. If you started the game months after its release, you could not play its introduction or opening chapters. That last note was a rude awakening, even if I understand that's a standard story structure in the mobile and free-to-play realm. However, so many of Square's current mobile games employ grid or map-based movement (i.e., Dissidia: Final Fantasy Opera Omnia), allowing you to experience every part of the game's story regardless of your adoption date. I would have much preferred that to what they did in First Soldier.

For a game like Fortnite, having timed seasons is a good design decision. However, with First Soldier trying to paint broad vinegar strokes of ancillary worldbuilding for an established IP, having its story utilize this format is downright awkward. For example, the game's first season ran from November 2021 to February 2022. This first episode framed the game's world, introduced a handful of named characters, and themed itself to Moogles as they exist in the realm of Final Fantasy VII. If you joined the game AFTER that end date, the game permanently transitioned to a new season where many chapter one characters are still plunking around in the world, but this time without any proper introductions. However, expecting an in-depth narrative from a battle royale game? What am I thinking?! If the game provides a fun shooty-shoot action experience, all can be forgiven, right?

The Game Was Awkward To Play And Never Made Sense As A Mobile-Only Title

Just look at this UI/UX. It's insane. Also, notice how close the shoot/attack button is to where you use the digital analog sticks.
Just look at this UI/UX. It's insane. Also, notice how close the shoot/attack button is to where you use the digital analog sticks.

First off, First Soldier had weird compatibility issues across the board on iOS and Android. When the game launched, people with new mobile phones couldn't get the game to run, and many others experienced crashing issues for the entire game's lifespan. Similarly, the game was a taxing application when it did work. I ran the game on my Galaxy A32 5G, which is by no means the best phone on the market. However, it has a decent battery, but you wouldn't know that if you attempted to use First Soldier on it. After about twenty-five minutes of playtime, it went from 85% to 32% on its battery. Even when I plugged a USB-C cord into it while playing the application, its highly detailed cinematics and intense multiplayer processes sometimes outspent the additional battery charge. Oh, and speaking of the multiplayer, lord have mercy on your soul if you tried to play the game while on your mobile data. I ran a test on the first of the month in which I disabled my phone's Wi-Fi while playing the game. After five online matches, I was inches from the halfway point to my 30G data cap. As such, with it being highly impractical to play without Wi-Fi, its ability to function as a "true" mobile game was seriously compromised. The game was a hog in every regard and did not feel or work like a typical mobile game.

But how did the game feel to play? For one thing, it used digital analog sticks, which I think are the bane of every mobile game. Worse, they decided to put your weapon's fire button next to one of your movement sticks. I cannot even begin to list the times when I was attempting to get the jump on another player and fucked up because, as I was going for a stealth kill, I prematurely tapped the fire button. After all, the real estate on your phone screen was incredibly cramped. This problem was a real annoyance considering a whole third of the game's playable character or job classes were stealth-based. Entire character types that the game encouraged you to explore never felt good and butted up against this single design quibble. Imagine spending real money on this game and thinking you got an excellent Thief, only to struggle with using them because the placement of the UI and UX was so unmistakably awful. And yet, I continued playing it because at no point did I feel like I wasn't having fun.

The Final Fantasy connection was weak at time, but still there and visually impressive.
The Final Fantasy connection was weak at time, but still there and visually impressive.

The core concept of the game was, and remains, sound. I'm not going to lie; it was a lot of fun to play on the rare occasions when I could get into a match with a full 75 players. Sure, it was utterly mindless, but I eventually got a handle on the arcade shooting and combat and ended up enjoying it. I don't know for sure, but I suspect the game would auto-fill missing slots with bots, which meant you had plenty of opportunities to get some nominal EXP regardless of whether you took the top prize. The game would start your first handful of matches with bots to allow you to figure things out, and that was a godsend. The game allowed you to play it with or without an auto-aim feature essential for the shoot-based jobs I enjoyed most. Likewise, while it was unmistakable that the best jobs were locked behind loot boxes, the game's starting ones covered most of its bases and gave you an idea of where you might want to go with your player character. The EXP progression wasn't the worst I had seen in a mobile game, and there were avenues for you to gain resources without paying money, though the process was significantly shorter should you decide to send the game five or more dollars. And even in the game's final hours, I felt a pretty active community was playing it. In every match I experienced, I saw more than five players running around decked in impeccable garbs that obviously cost fat wads of cash. Despite its short lifespan, this game had people who genuinely enjoyed playing it. This irrefutable fact makes Square-Enix's suggestion they closed the game due to it never delivering a satisfying experience all the more suspect.

However, there's been a narrative furthered by those that ended up enjoying the game that it would have been better served on the PC and that a PC release could have "saved" the game. While some of you might scoff at that notion, there is a weird precedent of Square-Enix mobile games eventually coming out as "Free to Play" on Steam. Mobius Final Fantasy saw a massive influx of new players when it came to Steam before shutting its doors in 2020. Also, with Epic and Steam already hosting a smattering of Free to Play battle royale or loot box shooters that are far more exploitative or nefarious about squeezing money from their player base, First Soldier would have been in good company. Almost every fiddly issue I had with the game would have disappeared if I were playing it with a mouse and keyboard setup. Therefore, I suggest that Square considered a PC port after the game's highly problematic mobile launch but scrapped it after mulling over other extenuating circumstances plaguing First Soldier. With the studio bosting one of the most capable mobile divisions in the industry and a game with decent ideas, it's clear something else caused them to pull the plug. Otherwise, Square-Enix walked away from a stable moneymaker. Say what you will about the company's current state, but they don't wilfully walk away from free money.

The Story Was A Companion Piece To A Still Unreleased And Perpetually Delayed Game

Author's Note: This section of this blog has mild to moderate spoilers related to Final Fantasy VII Remake. All other areas of this blog are spoiler free.

Let's go back in time to when the internet freaked out about stuff like this.
Let's go back in time to when the internet freaked out about stuff like this.

Before we jump into the muddy waters of rampant speculation, let's go back to when Square-Enix initially revealed First Soldier to the world. The year is 2021, and the company is riding high thanks to fans and the press still buzzing about Final Fantasy VII Remake. In February, Sony was even hosting a digital presentation, and the teaser for the keynote was some hint of the continuation of VII Remake. The company simply could do no wrong in 2021, and people were begging them to deliver on the slightest hint of what the future had in store. Instead, fans got two mobile games, Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade, and short-haired Sephiroth. First Soldier was one of those mobile games, and the other was Final Fantasy VII: Ever Crisis. I almost wish I could go back to when people were confused about whether Intergrade was a "sequel" because of Square's terrible communication. Watching Square-Enix hem and haw over simple questions about how long the expansion was or how it continued Remake's storyline play in real-time was endlessly hilarious.

Regardless, these mobile games served a vital role for Square-Enix. Both games were advertised as connected to the original Final Fantasy VII continuity or the company's Compilation of Final Fantasy VII initiative. In other words, Square-Enix is currently attempting to do what Disney is doing with the Star Wars continuity. With Star Wars, Disney did not simply throw the entire pre-Disney Expanded Universe, like the Timothy Zahn Thrawn trilogy, into the trash. They instead re-labeled them as part of the "Legends" timeline. To this day, Disney still makes new content set in the Legends continuity, which in no way impacts the Canon continuity of Star Wars content you see in theaters or streaming platforms. Rather than throw away everything associated with the original Final Fantasy VII in the wake of Remake, Square-Enix is making content set in BOTH continuities. We just got Crisis Core –Final Fantasy VII– Reunion, a shot-for-shot remaster of the original Crisis Core, which perfectly proves this point. The remaster wasn't rewritten to work in the new Remake timeline, but its existence does not impact what Square-Enix is doing with Final Fantasy VII Rebirth.

It's time to remember that there should have been TWO FF7 mobile games in 2022!
It's time to remember that there should have been TWO FF7 mobile games in 2022!

In many ways, First Soldier and Ever Crisis were to be olive branches to some fans still salty about Remake pulling the rug from underneath them. Using these games, Square was signaling that the timeline of OG Final Fantasy VII was still alive and doing well. With both games providing players a chance to see what it was like working for Shinra, Square-Enix was also trying to tempt fans of Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII. It was a decent idea, but unfortunately, foiled by one problem: Ever Crisis's development is cursed. Initially slated for late 2022, the game's beta has since moved to a Summer 2023 date, but even that looks fuzzy. We still need to find out the exact details as to why delay after delay has beset the game, but we do know the original team behind it had big plans and had to scale things back considerably as development has chugged. For pity's sake, at one point, Nomura was characterizing the game as " an alternate remake of Final Fantasy VII," and he even indicated that he wanted the character portraits to be 3D-rendered moving portraits. That sounded too good to be true then, and that hunch is proving correct. Likely, after the resounding success of Remake, Kitase and Nomura salivated over an opportunity to revive their Compilation initiative and shot for the stars without thinking about how to make a practical mobile game that doesn't cause your phone to burst into flames.

The impact Ever Crisis's problematic development had on First Soldier is two-fold. First, for a brief period between its release and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, it was the lone game keeping the torch of the Compilation initiative alive. It was doing a piss poor job of it, considering it was a terrible storytelling vehicle, even if the core game was fun. Without Ever Crisis, First Soldier lacked a companion piece to compensate for its lack of storytelling or worldbuilding. Second, the struggles with Ever Crisis likely drew warm bodies away from First Soldier as it is very clearly the favored mobile game son at Square. That left the lion's share of maintenance and future development in the hands of co-developer Ateam Inc., which has traditionally not had the bigger pie-in-the-sky aspirations of Square-Enix when it comes to mobile development. Season three of the game was primarily an Ateam-oriented affair, and sensing the game would never pivot in the direction they wanted, Square-Enix likely decided to pull the plug. That's PROBABLY the "answer," but there's one more possible complication we need to review before we close the books on First Soldier.

You've Now Reached The Part Of This Blog Where We Need To Talk About Yuji Naka

So... let's talk about this guy and insider trading.
So... let's talk about this guy and insider trading.

I might be an amateur blogger, but I am not a fan of the off chance of Square-Enix or Yuji Naka suing me. Therefore, I would like to issue a slight disclaimer that I am not suggesting Square-Enix as a company engaged in criminal wrongdoing while making and contracting First Soldier. Regarding Yuji Naka, his insider trading indictment is still a current investigation, and both he and his lawyers maintain he is not guilty of the charges made against him by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office. You might be surprised to hear there's a connection between Yuji Naka and First Soldier, considering he doesn't have a formal credit on the game. Still, you can play a humorous game of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" that only requires three moves. Before we play that game, let's firm up some important dates. Square-Enix announced First Soldier would shut down on October 12th, 2022. On November 17th, 2022, Yuji Naka was first charged by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office for violating Japan's laws regarding insider trading. This case stems from him supposedly doing a stock pump and dump while using insider information about the contract for Dragon Quest Tact. Naka was arrested a second time on December 7th, 2022.

That's about a month's separation between the shutdown announcement and Naka's first arrest. However, it's important to note that Naka's initial indictment stemmed from him allegedly buying 10,000 shares of the developer of Dragon Quest Tact, Aiming, before the company's deal with Square-Enix was announced. His second arrest is where the plot thickens. At first, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office did not reveal the specific game or studio connected with his arrest. We now know it is connected to Naka purchasing 144.7 million yen of shares of developer Ateam days before they announced an upcoming contract with Square-Enix. The game at the center of that contract was Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier. Does this mean the game was always meant to be the centerpiece of a pump and dump? No, especially considering Ateam is a studio that has existed since the late 90s. However, when you understand Square-Enix wants nothing to do with Naka, you can get them wanting to cut bait on anything he might have corrupted. That's especially the case when you consider the Tokyo Public Prosecutors have connected his alleged insider trading to no less than two senior Square-Enix staff members. Likely before the charges were made public, Square-Enix caught wind of the situation and conducted a company-wide internal investigation that may have revealed Naka's shadowy involvement with First Soldier. I must admit I can't say that for sure. However, both of the charged Square-Enix employees came from the same Square-Enix mobile division that likely approved First Soldier, and that's not exactly a great look for the company.

Yuji Naka seems like a totally trustworthy person and well-adjusted adult.
Yuji Naka seems like a totally trustworthy person and well-adjusted adult.

Even disregarding the current insider trading situation, it is essential to note that the relationship between Yuji Naka and Square-Enix is "rocky." Naka was initially the leader behind Balan Wonderworld before he left, which is what Square-Enix claims, or Square-Enix fired him, which is Naka's claim. The breakup and subsequent controversy Surrounding Balan is the centerpiece of a multimillion-yen lawsuit between Naka and Square-Enix, wherein the former claims the latter wrongfully terminated them. This lawsuit is how we eventually get to Naka posting a picture of the Nights into Dreams team with Naoto Ohshima's face blacked out. Ohshima was the co-director of Balan as well as the vice president of Arzest Corporation and has continually taken Square-Enix's side in this dispute. Regarding Square-Enix, their side claims they hired Naka to make a retro-styled platformer, but the guy would not stop talking about wanting to make mobile social games. They have even pointed to Naka immediately publishing a free mobile game, Shot2048, a shameless 2048 clone, after he announced he was considering retirement as evidence of their point. Even if Naka's charges came AFTER Square-Enix announced they were closing First Soldier, there's a chance Ateam had to reveal Naka's investment in their company to Square-Enix, which made them squeamish about continuing their partnership.

But where does that leave First Soldier and its presumed short shelf life? Square-Enix wanted to cut bait with anything connected to Yuji Naka and not critical to their portfolio. Dragon Quest Tact has a far more overt connection to Naka, but that thing is well-liked and prints Square-Enix free money monthly. It does not help that First Soldier was always an awkward misfit that did not suit its platform of choice. It did not help that it was NEVER the favored mobile game in a revived Final Fantasy expanded universe initiative. It also did not help Square-Enix was working on the game with a co-developer that disagreed with their highly ambitious storytelling aims. Finally, it did not help that two people in the division that approved its development and contract are being investigated for insider trading. I'm sorry First Soldier fans, but this game never had a chance. It's a goddamn miracle it lasted for more than a month.

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