When I write, normally it’s because I have a clear and precise point I am trying to prove. This time is a bit different. I honestly don’t have a good answer to this question but it’s one that should be talked about because it seems to be more and more of an issue lately in gaming.
Sequels get a bad rap in most art mediums. Film sequels are rarely better or even as good as their predecessors. Books are fine if the thing is planned as a trilogy from the start but that oftentimes goes awry too. Games have historically been the opposite. Developers learn from the mistakes of their early games and improve/expand them to turn them into something really special. Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, Mega Man, Castlevania, Call of Duty and Final Fantasy are all huge series that are famous not for their original titles but for their sequels. In fact, some of these had rather underwhelming original entries.
This is a rule that has held true through most of gaming history. That is, until recently when companies have started to make sequels that seem to lack everything that made the original special in the first place. I want to take a look at three games in particular: Valkyria Revolution, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and Ni no Kuni 2.
The problem with video game sequels comes when developers don’t know what makes their games unique or interesting. For lack of a better term, they don’t understand the soul of their own game. Look at Valkyria Chronicles.
Valkyria Chronicles, in my opinion, is one of the best games on the Playstation 3. It has a unique blend of tactics mixed with third-person shooter and RPG elements all wrapped up in a non-traditional storyline about an alternate history Poland during WW2. It was a special blend of craziness that never should have worked but it absolutely did. Each battle started with the odds stacked against you but by allowing you to control every aspect of your strategies down to the inch, you were able to see everything come together in spectacular fashion and it felt satisfying knowing that it was your strategy that brought victory. The game had its flaws, for sure, but it was unique enough that what it brought to the table vastly overwhelmed those short-comings.
Then Valkyria Chronicles 2 was announced and they decided that they would make it for the PSP, shrinking every battle in scale to only a few guys on small maps and the storyline would be about a bunch of high school students instead of a personal story about people fighting for their homes in a war they didn’t start. It wasn’t terrible but shrinking everything down made battles hold less impact. Valkyria Chronicles 3 just doubled down on these problems and shrunk the audience along with it by never releasing officially outside of Japan (Fan translators are the real MVPs!)
Finally, after a six year hiatus, we come to Valkyria Revolution. This was Valkyria’s return to home consoles and on a new generation of consoles, it was primed to be the real sequel we wanted all along.
…but it wasn’t. Despite using the Valkyria name, Valkyria Revolution had almost nothing in common with its predecessors. It played more like a musou game (Dynasty Warriors, Dragon Quest Heroes, etc.) than the relatively slow, tactical flow of Valkyria Chronicles. The storyline went full anime, abandoning any real-world comparisons or messages that the original held. Ultimately, it wasn’t the game anyone wanted and now, it seems unlikely the Valkyria name will ever get the revival it deserves.
I’m a latecomer to the Homeworld fanbase and frankly, I’m glad for that. I can’t imagine how rough it must have been to be a Homeworld fan just to feel repeatedly spat on with every passing year. If you don’t know, Homeworld was a real-time strategy (RTS) series that spanned 3 games back in 1999 – 2003. Homeworld, Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeworld 2. While fans will pick and choose their favorites and defend them with their dying breaths, all three games are well regarded in their own way.
Calling Homeworld just an RTS though doesn’t do it justice. Homeworld brought changes to the genre that no game has successfully copied to this day. The game is fought using spaceships and thus, all battles are fought on a 3D plane. You don’t just have to fight on a 2D plane as in Starcraft or Command and Conquer, you have to worry about what’s above and below you as well. On top of this, the campaigns are done in a fascinating way where your units and abilities carry over from one mission into the next. The game never just gives you new stuff so if you do poorly in one mission, you’re going to have to make up for that deficit in the next. Similarly though, if you manage to bulk up before the end of one mission, you may have an easier time on the next.
It can be stressful, yes, and it makes every failure hurt but it also makes the game feel like a real campaign in a way no other RTS has ever gotten close to reaching. So after 13 years, how do you follow up on such a revolutionary cult-classic?
Well, you take away everything I mentioned above that defined Homeworld! Thought the idea of a 3D plane was exciting? Now we set the next game in the desert using mostly land-based vehicles! How about a progressive campaign? That’s too hard for players. Let’s just do things the old way instead.
By all accounts, Deserts of Kharak is a great RTS but the problem is, it isn’t a Homeworld game. It has literally nothing that made Homeworld special in the first place. They could have called the game just Deserts of Kharak and nobody would have suspected a thing. This is a sequel that should never have existed.
And that brings me to Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom. This is a game that isn’t out yet so I can’t say for sure what it is like or how the game feels but from all the information that has come out, I question how or why this is a Ni no Kuni game.
Let’s start with a simple question, if you remember Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch back on the PS3, what do you think of? Maybe you remember the distinctive art style of Studio Ghibli who partnered with Level-5 for the game. Maybe you remember the cool battle system that crossed the monster capture elements of Pokemon with the real-time excitement of the Tales series. Or how about the touching, personal story of a young kid who just wants to bring his Mom back? Ni no Kuni had a lot of elements come together to make it something special.
Ni no Kuni 2 is getting rid of those things.
Studio Ghibli is not returning for the sequel and it shows. There isn’t anything wrong with the art style that Level-5 has adopted but it lacks the immediate charm that Studio Ghibli brings to the table. It just feels a bit more generic which is disappointing. More problematic though, is that the battle system is removing the Pokemon element completely. That’s right, there won’t be any monster capturing in Ni no Kuni 2 which is the part of the game I wanted to see developed the most from the original. With just a few tweaks, this could have been the matured Pokemon game I always wanted. Instead, they’re dumping it entirely. Finally, the plot will be about a kid thrust into the role of king who has to discover what that really means and how to be a good leader. It’s not a bad premise for an RPG and it could wind up being fantastic but it doesn’t feel nearly as personal as the original did and I worry that it will wind up feeling as generic as the art style.
In fact, the game feels like it’s falling further and further into one of its influences, Tales of the Abyss, another RPG that used a real-time battle system, had a cel-shaded graphical style and had a story about a kid who became a monarch against his wishes and had to learn how to be a good ruler.
So what does all this mean? Am I saying that sequels have to maintain the same elements and just develop upon the foundations already set by past entries? No, that’s not really it. There are plenty of games that deviated drastically from their predecessors and benefited greatly for it, or at least gained their own identity. Chrono Cross is one of my favorite games of all time and yet it is almost nothing like it’s predecessor, Chrono Trigger. In fact, it feels more like a sequel to Suikoden than Chrono Trigger and many people do hold that against it. Final Fantasy is also a franchise that has built its entire identity on constantly changing mechanics, worlds and stories. It wasn’t until the 10th main-line entry that they made a direct sequel to one of their games and whatever you may think of Final Fantasy X-2, you can’t accuse Square-Enix of playing it safe by copying Final Fantasy X, that’s for sure.
After all that, I have to come to the conclusion that I don’t know, for certain, what makes the perfect sequel. If I did, I imagine I’d be a lot richer, that’s for sure, but I don’t. There are a lot of factors that must come into play when determining what changes to make for a sequel. Is this element something that should be upgraded or changed completely? Is this something that fans define the series by? Is this mechanic still interesting and fun to play? Which characters, if any, would fans want to see return that won’t just be reduced to fan service?
Ultimately, I think that companies need to have respect for their brands. Don’t just stick a name on something to help it sell more copies. Valkyria Revolution had no right to be a Valkyria game and would have been just fine, maybe even better, without the Valkyria name. They need to not be afraid to make new IPs out of new ideas rather than shoehorn those ideas into an existing franchise. On the other hand, game developers need to not think of their franchises like their own personal playthings that they can do with as they please, which is what allegedly happened to Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Finally, fans need to speak up about what’s important to them. I’m not talking the great internet hate mob we have all become but to really think things through and evaluate new ideas. Don’t be afraid of change but look at it with a healthy air of skepticism and speak up when things don’t add up. Don’t yell and scream on Twitter like a 5-year old not getting their way, rationally work through what problems you have with the direction a game is headed and see if you can come up with alternative solutions. If game developers learn to trust us to not rally against them like a zombie horde and we learn to not become that horde they already think we are, maybe that communication can help prevent these franchise casualties in the future.