I have written about this subject in my old "blog", but it deserves further discussion, as I'm playing their new Final Fantasy XIII-3 right now.
In the 80's, and especially in the 90's, "Square" (and later "Square Enix") was pretty much a synonym for high-quality JRPG gaming. If a game had that company name attached to it, and especially if the name of the game itself had the words "Final" and "Fantasy" in it (although this wasn't a requirement), you were pretty much guaranteed to get a top-quality thoroughly enjoyable AAA game that not only would be fun to play, but would be certain to receive accolades and recognition.
Games like Final Fantasy 6 (confusingly numbered 3 in its original US release) and Final Fantasy 7 are not only rather universally considered some of the best JRPGs ever made, but some of the best games period. (Any "top 100 best games of all time" list is pretty much guaranteed to have either of them, probably both, and probably on the upper half of it.) In fact, all Final Fantasies from the first to about the tenth or so are considered to be extremely good. (Even the worst of the bunch is still considered top quality.)
The game mechanics and form of storytelling of "classical" JRPGs has been extremely successful, with good games of the genre selling millions of copies. For some reason, however, it seems that Square Enix has tried to diverge from the standard formula and try something a bit different, something new.
There's nothing inherently wrong in trying something new, but unfortunately it seems that this experiment has not been very successful and, for some reason, Square Enix seems to be completely unable to get back on track. It seems like they have permanently become lost in the swamp of experimenting with new forms of "JRPG-like" gameplay, for the detriment of their games.
There seems to be one constant in all of their "experiments": Simplification and removal of many of the key concepts that make a traditional JRPG.
Perhaps one of the first games where they started to deviate from the standard formula is The Last Remnant. There is basically no traditional overworld where you can freely move and explore; there is only a very simplified map where you can move from one checkpoint to the next, with basically no freedom of movement. Likewise cities are much smaller, linear and with significantly less to explore than in traditional JRPGs. (Both of these seem to have become extremely common in most JRPGs, even those of other companies. However, Square Enix seems to have taken this to an extreme.)
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a really odd case worth mentioning. It deviates so much from traditional JRPGs that one could argue that it's not even intended to be one, but instead a spinoff of a rather different genre. (If anything, it resembles more God of War style games than JRPGs.) However, it still deserves mention because rather than being just an independent spinoff in terms of game mechanics, it seems to be that they were experimenting on new mechanics that they could use in their main Final Fantasy series. These include things like complete lack of an overworld and shops (instead the player being able to buy stuff anywhere at any time), and levels consisting almost exclusively of "dungeons". These types of game mechanics seem to have "leaked" to many of their other games as well. (As a game, I found it extremely boring. It was very hard to play through because of lack of interest.)
Dissidia: Final Fantasy also deserves mention, even though it's not a JRPG at all, but instead just a pure fighting game. It deserves mention because of one aspect that seems to also have "leaked" to later games: The complete and total disconnect between the story, the scenery and the gameplay. The story has absolutely nothing to do with the scenery you see on screen, and basically nothing to do with the fighting gameplay. This may be fine for a fighting game like this, but it is certainly not fine when the same thing is done in a main line game.
Then we get the infamous Final Fantasy XIII. Oh, man, where do I even start?
It seems that they removed every single thing that makes a good JRPG a good JRPG. Perhaps the most damning aspect of this game is that it's amazingly linear. You can't even comprehend how mind-bogglingly linear this game is until you play it. This game is more linear than the most linear first-person shooters out there, and this is not an exaggeration. Even the most straightforward brainless FPS game out there is less linear than FF XIII. And the latter is supposed to be an RPG.
A close second is the complete and absolute disconnect between the story and the scenery (does this sound familiar?) Also, the scenery itself is extremely abstract, hard to remember, and doesn't leave any kind of impression. In most JRPGs you can remember places by particular landmarks, particular aspects of the scenery, particular events that happened there, the people that were there, or the like. There's none of this here. (Of course in the end this doesn't really matter. After all, it's not like you will need to return to any previous place. Did I mention how linear this game is? Not only is it astonishingly linear in its level design, it's completely linear in its overall game progress as well.)
The story itself is rather boring, nondescript, hard to follow and very unmemorable. It doesn't help that there's a complete disconnect between the story and the places you are in and the details of those places. You'll be lucky if you remember even 10% of the story by the end of the game.
Motomu Toriyama, the director of the development team, responded to criticism about the linearity of the game by saying: "[It] becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story when you're given that much freedom."
Well, if the story would have been compelling and engaging, it would have been not so bad. However, it wasn't. There was nothing "compelling" about the story.
As for other things, there are no towns nor shops you visit, and instead you can buy anything at any time anywhere (again, does this sound familiar?) NPC's are completely inconsequential and add nothing to the game. While fights are visually impressive looking, and the fighting mechanics are by far the most entertaining part of the game, the fighting is nevertheless very simplified. Don't get me wrong; the fighting was not bad, and as said it was the most entertaining part of the game. It's just that it felt somewhat dumbed-down and simplified. The fighting system was the only reason I was able to complete the game (otherwise I would have stopped out of boredom. The game has extremely little to offer.)
Square Enix clearly learned from their mistakes when they made Final Fantasy XIII-2... but unfortunately not much. While the second game is less linear, has a bit more exploration to it (you can, and sometimes even have to, revisit previous places, oooh...) has some actual shops, and some bits here and there that make it resemble a bit more a traditional JRPG, as well as a story that's slightly easier to follow (although not by much), it still has many problems. It succeeded in being entertaining enough for me to play it through, but it was in no way one of the better games I have played. (I would, for example, prefer FF6 any day instead of this.)
Then there's Final Fantasy XIII-3... Which is once again an oddity.
Granted, I have not yet played the game very far, but so far it's looking pretty bad. I have noticed that if a movie fails to be interesting in the first 15 minutes or so, there's an extremely high likelihood that it won't become interesting later. The same goes for games: If a game fails to be interesting and engaging during the first half-hour or so of gameplay, it's extremely unlikely that the situation will change later. And the situation is looking pretty bad with XIII-3, which I have so far played about 5-10 hours or so.
The storyline is scarce, weak and not very engaging, the quests and especially side quests are confusing and annoying, the controls are somewhat bad, the high difficulty curve at the beginning of the game is not balanced at all, the AI of NPCs is pretty horrible (they get stuck, they get in the way eg. in cutscenes, and they behave in all sorts of erratic and unrealistic ways) and there seems to be a time limit, which is extremely annoying. (I do not know what will happen when the time runs out because I have yet not reached that point. It might be that it has no severe consequences and instead it's just part of the gameplay. However, the worst case scenario would be if it's just game over if the time runs out. I do not know if that's the case, but if it is, I will be quitting the game right there. That would be one of the worst possible things they had ever conceived. Even if there are no severe consequences from the time running out, it's still extremely frustrating and annoying.)
The game puts a lot of emphasis in completing as many side quests as possible, yet makes them annoyingly hard to complete. Many side quests, for instance, require you to find a specific item, and no hint whatsoever is given about where that item may be located. Basically you need to run over the entire town talking to NPCs until you find the item. Once you collect everything you need, you have to go back to the NPC that gave you the task... which is extremely hard to do because the game does not show in any way where that NPC was.
Many games of the genre will show the key locations of side quests and such in a minimap. While this might not be extremely realistic, there's a reason why they do that: It's an anti-frustration measure. FF XIII-3 does not have this (or at least I haven't found a way to turn it on.) It's frustrating to try to remember where some NPC was. (While the scenery is significantly less nondescript than in the two previous games, it's still hard to remember.)
I have a strong urge to stop playing this game. I am still giving it a chance, but it's not looking good.
I really wish Square Enix would return to their glory days. If they just made good old JPRGs (even if they are in full 3D), I would give almost anything. And it's not like this is impossible, because other companies are doing it all the time (such as Namco Tales Studio, with their "Tales of..." series.)