Did you know that Square Enix released a retro-inspired beat ’em up based on Final Fantasy XV in 2016?
Even hardcore Final Fantasy fans might not remember the forgotten game well nowadays, but it’s quite the hidden gem. Titled A King’s Tale: Final Fantasy XV, the unlikely spinoff game was released as a pre-order bonus with Final Fantasy XV. It follows King Regis as he tells Noctis a bedtime story about defeating Ultros, a monstrous crystal thief causing daemons to spawn all over Insomnia and Duscae. In practice, it’s a side-scrolling beat ’em up that pays homage to the classic brawlers while implementing Final Fantasy magic, enemies, and more.
Though A King’s Tale only lasts an hour and doesn’t have co-op, it’s a polished and exhilarating experience that Final Fantasy fans shouldn’t forget. It was a pleasant surprise to find this deep within my backlog ahead of the fifth anniversary of its stand-alone release, but its existence also raised many questions.
How did this project come to be? Why is it so polished? And why aren’t more short but sweet games like this used to excite fans for notable game releases? I spoke to Cord Smith, executive producer and creative director on the project, to learn its history and how this forgotten Final Fantasy spinoff connects with everything from Dead Island to Masters of the Universe to Stranger Things.
At its heart, this is a story about an ambitious marketing agency that created a new kind of game through a multi-studio effort on a tight budget. And it all starts with Dead Island 2.
In the mid-2010s, Smith worked at a creative agency called Platform. This agency would often produce screenshots and trailers used in the marketing of video games. Around the time Dead Island 2 was in development and set to release, Smith and other people involved with channel marketing at the company pondered whether it could make a retro game that marketing could use to sell a notable game.
Smith asserted that it was possible, but thought it had to be done the right way to avoid producing a bad game. He found game development and animation partners to craft a small but satisfying retro game that could tie into the then soon-to-be-released Dead Island 2.
While his pitch had a high budget, Dead Island 2 developer Deep Silver and Platform accepted it. Smith and his partners now had to build something that wasn’t done much before and hasn’t been done much since. “Sure, it was a promotional game, but we were putting it on console, and we were treating it like a real game project,” Smith tells Digital Trends.
When designing it, Smith and his development partners didn’t have a playable build of Dead Island 2. They got a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of what that game was supposed to be and additional information to draw from. The result of this effort was Dead Island: Retro Revenge, an on-rails beat ’em up set within the Dead Island universe.
“I love taking someone else’s IP and doing something that respects it and honors what they’re doing. but surprises them by where we can take it in spite of our limitations,” Smith explains. Ultimately, Deep Silver and Smith were thrilled with how Retro Revenge turned out. But there was a problem: Dead Island 2 was never released.
“Dead Island 2 did not make it to release, but Dead Island: Retro Revenge did, so they put it in a collection,” he explains. “That was a shame as we didn’t get to see it reach what we built it for. It never got to be the pre-order promotional thing that we wanted.”
“Sure, it was a promotional game, but we were putting it on console, and we were treating it like a real game project.”
While Retro Revenge ultimately had a messy launch because of the eternally delayed Dead Island 2’s development, it made a lasting impression on Square Enix, with whom Platform also worked. Square Enix ended up asking Platform if it could achieve what they wanted to do with Retro Revenge: A full retro game that could be used as a promotional pre-order tie-in.
That idea was approved and eventually became A King’s Tale: Final Fantasy XV. As Smith plainly put it: “A King’s Tale probably would never have happened had we not done the Dead Island project first.” Now, Smith and his development partners had to figure out how to put this game together.
A King’s Tale was developed by a coalition featuring Platform, Empty Clip Studios, Mirum Studio, Joe Rothenberg Animation, and Powerhouse Animation, the core teams that made Retro Revenge possible by working together remotely. Now, they had to agree on what their Final Fantasy XV tie-in should be, with Square Enix requesting a brawler that wasn’t on-rails.
“Initially, we weren’t sure with the time and budget that we could,” Smith explains. “We looked at other ways we could attack it, like a small RPG experience or a 16-bit road trip type of adventure. But ultimately, everyone really wanted a brawler, and [Square Enix] got behind that idea. For us, it was like, ‘Alright, we’ll double down. There isn’t the time we had for Retro Revenge, but we’re going to make a bigger and better game.’”
Smith estimated that A King’s Tale came together in around nine months, an impressive feat for a full-featured, if short, retro beat ’em up. Thankfully, the pre-existing relationships between all of the studios and passion for working on a Final Fantasy project made the process smoother than it could have been.
“Everybody hit the ground running,” Smith said. “Powerhouse started delivering designs overnight, and Empty Clip was on it, and they were like ‘yeah, we can do this.’ Then, we just compounded system on systems as we prototyped.”
When it comes to gameplay, the developers drew from three sources: Classic beat ’em ups like Double Dragon, Final Fantasy XV, and the Batman: Arkham games. Some iconography was borrowed from the classic beat ’em ups, like the health drops sometimes being a turkey leg with a simple three-frame animation that normally wouldn’t work in a Final Fantasy game.
“Had we thought about that we only had nine months to do this, maybe we wouldn’t have done any of this crazy stuff.”
While those classic gameplay elements and iconography were the base, the developers understood that the rhythmic feel of Arkham’s combat would make combat flow a lot better. Players can quickly teleport to enemies, call on companions that can do additional damage, and use magic. It’s a fast-paced beat ’em that’s surprisingly deep and satisfying for a game made in just nine months.
“Had we thought about that we only had nine months to do this, maybe we wouldn’t have done any of this crazy stuff,” Smith theorizes. “But the project would’ve been boring if we weren’t. We also said that if we weren’t innovating and making something new, then why are we doing it?”
Once the overarching vision was clear, there was the matter of working with and getting everything approved by Square Enix. The developers chose the prequel bedtime story narrative so that they would have a lot of freedom in their design choices and could bring in enemies from classic Final Fantasy games in addition to what was in Final Fantasy XV.
Square Enix provided a gigantic glossary of every Final Fantasy monster that the developers could use. From there, the teams chose which monsters and characters to approve, made pixel art, and sent it back to Japan for approval. While Smith thought this approval process would be a “nightmare” because they messed with Square Enix’s creation, it actually went smoothly.
“Powerhouse had done such high-quality work, and [Square Enix] were fans of Retro Revenge’s quality, so when we’d send designs, they’d come back approved with very few changes,” he remembers. “We weren’t slowed down by a terrible approval process, which can happen when you’re dealing with any licensed property.”
Square Enix’s support also gave them access to the publisher’s production pipeline, from playtesting to final submission approval. Surprisingly, the developers did not have access to an early Final Fantasy XV build, only the alpha of a demo to have reference material for monsters like the Behemoth.
They did have information on the story and expanded universe content like the movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, but they never got to play the entire game early. “I think if we had gone the route of making a 16-bit road trip or something that was trying to redo a piece of the game, we might have needed more visibility on it,” Smith explained. “Honestly, even if we had access, I don’t think we would’ve even had time to play it.”
The developers made A King’s Tale without much micromanagement from Square Enix, which made the team confident passionate. The only real downside was the short time frame they had to develop the game. It was ultimately released in November 2016 as a pre-order bonus at GameStop in North America.
The developers were pleased that A King’s Tale got the attention and coverage that a beat ’em up from a small studio is not always guaranteed, which was thanks to its Final Fantasy XV connection. Even though it was made in a short time frame and technically just existed to promote another game, A King’s Tale has an undeniable charm because the developers cared.
“Yes, you can use it promotionally. Yes, it’s a pre-order incentive. But we’re not approaching it like that because to a lot of people, that cheapens what we’re building,” Smith described. “We were building you a retro Final Fantasy game, right? We’re building a game. That made the whole team feel good. It wasn’t like we were making an ad for something.”
One feature Smith wishes they could have implemented was co-op, even if it was relegated to the combat-focused Dream Battles players can access after beating the main story. He also wishes that some creature behaviors were a bit more robust and creative and there were more elaborate visual effects, but doesn’t have any ill will toward this project. Due to the game’s short development time, these tweaks were just not feasible.
“When you come fresh out of a project, you have everything you were fighting for that you had to compromise on,” Smith explains. “But then I played it like a year later and was like, ‘Oh my god, this game is really good.’ It’s so much better than I remember because I was so obsessed with the stuff we didn’t touch that I wanted to be better that I lost track of all the things that did work right.”
A King’s Tale would eventually get a stand-alone release on March 1, 2017, which you can still get for free on PS4 and Xbox One. The animators at Powerhouse have gone on to animate fantastic shows for Netflix like Castlevania and Masters of the Universe: Revelation.
“We’re building a game. That made the whole team feel good. It wasn’t like we were making an ad for something.”
Empty Clip Studios went on to make more retro-inspired tie-ins like Streets of Kamurocho and NHL 94 Rewind. Meanwhile, Platform continued to create marketing materials for Square Enix games, and Smith moved away from LA and formed the developer Inevitable Studios. A King’s Tale is now in the rearview mirror, even if Smith and his development partners would have wanted to do it again.
“Our hope was that maybe we’d get another chance at Final Fantasy to go and redo this and really swing for the fences,” Smith explains. “You never know, maybe that will come another time. I’d certainly jump at the chance to do another one.”
The circumstances of A King’s Tale’s development and release were atypical, and Smith highlighted how its creation differed from a standard game development project.
“It’s a weird situation to do it as a project for retail as a marketing arm,” he admits. “It’s a different sort of pressure than just releasing a game as an indie developer because you’re under a system that most people don’t develop games under. I considered us fortunate that we were partnered with people that got it and respected us and supported us.”
“No one wants a cheap, watered-down version of a game they love or anticipated loving.”
In the end, developers got special Super Nintendo cartridges based on A King’s Tale and went on their separate ways to various projects. A King’s Tale feels so unique that it’s somewhat surprising that this isn’t a more common practice within the industry. Smith has some ideas why.
“If you think about it in terms of a publishing structure, you’ve got marketing, PR, channel marketing, sales all working together,” he explains. “They’re all at arm’s length to development, but most of them have no experience in development. So even if they want to do it, they might not know how to do it or who to go to.”
Smith had enough development experience to spearhead Retro Revenge and A King’s Tale and bring together studios he could rely on during development. Other developers and their marketing departments might not have the ability to do that or be equipped to go through the arduous process of organizing and finding the right teams even if they wanted to. Publishers also need to trust everyone involved if they are outsourcing the project.
“They have to give you a lot of faith because it isn’t cheap,” he asserted. “If you do it cheaply, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot. No one wants a cheap, watered-down version of a game they love or anticipated loving. I think our approach to it was the right one, and I felt at the time that it could’ve translated to other things.”
In particular, Smith recounted pitching a Stranger Things project to Netflix after they finished A King’s Tale. That never came to fruition, though, and Smith ended up leaving for Compulsion Games. While A King’s Tale seemed like it could’ve started a trend, it didn’t, and now remains one of the oddest AAA franchise spinoffs ever.
The passion of its developers revealed a new type of game that could serve to bolster the best and brightest titles out there. But that passion is also so hard to replicate that we might never get a promotional spinoff title as tightly designed as A King’s Tale again.