Square Enix Montreal has had an odd couple of years, but that's to be expected. Viewed through the lens of AAA games production, it is an unusual studio and it has made some unusual games. The Canadian outfit operates as a small offshoot of Japanese mega-corporation Square Enix, but it spends its time focused on simple but polished gems for your phone, rather than the latest AAA blockbuster.
By the team's own admission, it works more like an indie outfit than a big budget studio, but yesterday its latest work, Deus Ex GO, was announced front and centre during Square Enix's pre-E3 livestream.
It's a game that's putting a unique spin on one of Square Enix's biggest franchises. It has got form here though. The company's first game was Hitman GO, a stripped-back version of Square Enix's favourite slapheaded assassin. It's these GO games that the studio is best known for, and the cut-down puzzle versions of your favourite Square Enix franchises are excellent.
Considering licensed mobile spin-offs are usually a bit pants, what is it that Square Enix Montreal is doing so right? Is it a wizard?
Hitman GO's release was originally met with some derision. Hitman was a well regarded franchise much beloved for its depth and openness. The derision quickly turned to appreciation because while Hitman GO doesn't employ the same densely packed simulations of its older console relatives, it's not even trying. The strength of Hitman GO is the way Square Enix Montreal managed to take a lot of what was so special about Hitman and distill it down to one simple element: don't get seen by guards. You still have objectives, you've still got assassinations to carry out, but mostly you just need not to be seen by guards.
Hitman GO is a digitised board game, with Agent 47 a playing piece and the many nodes and walkways you travel between just spaces on this board. Collections of levels take the form of a different board game box, and every character is another playing piece. When killed, enemies are toppled like chess pieces and dropped beside the board. The conceit is a good one, a knowing wink that does a lot to explain the mechanics of the game without having to depict the violence it's known for.
Later levels up the complexity, so you might find yourself armed with a tennis ball to cause a distraction or perhaps even a silenced pistol to do very bad things with, but that sense of simplicity pervades the entire game. While it wasn't for everyone, the attempt to boil Hitman down to a simple puzzle game worked and found itself with plenty of fans.
After a great deal of critical success, Square Enix Montreal takes on another of Square Enix's beloved franchises: Tomb Raider. Lara Croft GO did a similar job of boiling the series to a single idea, in this case "find some bloody treasure". The board game stylings of Hitman GO are, well... GOne –replaced with vibrant landscapes, antagonistic animated creatures and tappable treasures.
The change makes it a little busier visually, but beyond having to tap on the occasional hidden treasure and avoid traps, the games feel very similar – despite many of the mechanics being different. Lara Croft GO's nodes are a little closer together and, the title character isn't quite the cold-blooded killer Hitman's Agent 47 is, so instead of faceless henchmen she's tackling snakes, spiders and other assorted beasties on her travels.
My partner became addicted to Lara Croft GO. It was the first video game she's played and enjoyed since 90s' rap 'em up PaRappa the Rapper. I say this mostly because it's a funny story, but also because it shows that hacking away at big overblown AAA games and presenting their core idea in a polished way can please not just fans, but new players, too: "Come find some treasure," is compelling to new players in a way that "watch Lara get stranded on an island, nearly strangled by a guy and then help her get revenge by murdering a bunch of mercenaries as a malicious cult tries to summon an ancient evil to the island" isn't. Spoilers.
My partner wasn't the only one to catch the bug, Lara Croft GO was named as Apple's 2015 App Store game of the year, and showed that there was a taste for it. We've had developers try to turn their popular franchises into mobile hits, offering an approximation of the full experience (take a bow, Dungeon Keeper) but they have largely failed, either due to unrealistic expectations or a reliance on microtransactions.
The GO series is different. Square Enix is tapping into an ideal approach, and long may they continue. So, who wants Life is Strange GO?