Fortress is the codename of a cancelled action role-playing game that was being developed by Grin. Information about the project began circulating just after the Swedish developer filed for bankruptcy and closed down on August 12, 2009. Founders Bo and Ulf Andersson stated Grin's closure was due to an "unbearable cashflow situation."
As a final farewell posted on the studio's website, the brothers mentioned "an unreleased masterpiece" they were unable to finish. A week later, a former employee outed the project, and referenced an "unreleased Final Fantasy project" on his LinkedIn profile.
The Final Fantasy series has always been owned and developed by Square Enix, and every game in the franchise has been developed exclusively by Square's Japanese studios. Even the mobile spin-off games have been developed internally or in collaboration with other Japanese game developers. It was unheard of for Square to give its most famous franchise to a Western developer.
Months after Grin's closure, details about this Western-developed Final Fantasy title. It would have been the second spin-off of Final Fantasy XII, the first being the 2007 DS game Revenant Wings by small Japanese studio Think & Feel. Grin's title was codenamed Fortress and was to be an action role-playing game centered on the titular structure. Some sources reported that Fortress began as a completely different game and only became a Final Fantasy title after Square's involvement, and that it was Square's lack of funding for the project that caused Grin to cancel the game and shut down altogether.
But the question remains how did this all happen, and what Fortress could've been if it were finished and was the first Western-developed Final Fantasy game.
Background and Development
Grin was paid a visit by Square Enix in the second half of 2008, and the former was one year into development of Bionic Commando, a reboot of the eponymous franchise. According to Ulf Andersson, who spoke with GameSpot (where the majority of this information is coming from) at length about Grin, Bionic Commando was quite far into development when Square visited the company, and the game greatly impressed Square.
After the visit, Square invited Grin to pitch a new title based on one of its IPs, an obscure card game known as Lords of Vermilion. Whether other studios received the same invitation pitch is unknown. Ulf Andersson was given the task of writing the pitch, and after sending it to Square, he was invited to present his ideas in person. Prepared to run down his pitch for Square Enix's IP in front of the board of directors for the company, he was surprised when Square revealed it had other ideas for Grin instead.
Square decided to give Andersson and his team at Grin Final Fantasy. But it wouldn't be just any Final Fantasy game; Square tasked Grin with making a spin-off for FInal Fantasy XII.
It's understandable why Square wanted another Final Fantasy XII title. The game garnered universal acclaim from both Japanese and Western critics and sold 5.2 million copies worldwide (1.7 million copies were shipped in Japan during its launch week alone). Its sequel, Revenant Wings on DS, sold a million copies just a year after release.
When Square contacted Grin, Final Fantasy was loved by many worldwide, but other high-grossing franchises such as Dragon Quest were still selling poorly in the West. Square was interested in seeing if a Western studio's take on one of its core franchises could be the key to achieving unanimous success internationally.
"It was a test," Andersson told GameSpot. "Square's problem was trying to understand the Western market. They wanted to see how we did."
In early 2009, Grin began development of Fortress. The project was going to be an action RPG with a Scandinavian art style. The developer created an entirely new area of Ivalice, the world in which Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as their sequels and spin-offs including Vagrant Story, were set. Buildings and characters were to have an ancient Viking-esque design, with the landscapes being of exotic environments. Players would explore grassy meadows, snow-covered mountains, and vast, dusty deserts. The game would be groundbreaking for the studio, whose pedigree includes racing games and PC ports of shooters such as Ballistics and both Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter titles.
One source, another former Grin employee, described the game as strictly following Nordic aesthetics, with deep, dark forests resembling the works of fantasy illustrator John Bauer, and the inhabitants were reminiscent of fantasy ideals of Vikings.
Several sources who had prior connections to Grin (all of whom asked to not be named) stated that Fortress never began as a Final Fantasy game. Andersson himself claimed the idea of a game taking place entirely in one location was on his development bucket list, and he used this idea as a springboard for his pitch at Square. Grin was excited about taking on Final Fantasy - up until that time, no Western developer, not even Square Enix's international subsidiaries, had developed a game in the popular JPRG franchise.
"We didn’t want to reinvent or remake too much of Final Fantasy XII, but create a fresh piece," Andersson stated. “If we were to make a straight Final Fantasy, I don’t see the point in us making it. It would be better if Square just kept on making those themselves.”
Cancellation and Aftermath
According to several sources, a few months into development in spring 2009, Grin was told by Square that the art style had to be altered. The Nordic aesthetic was to be completely changed, and more noticeable influences from the franchise had to be implemented. Fortress wasn't set in a representation of Ivalice that would feel familiar to players; however, this was Grin's idea, to make a new part of the world players could discover.
Several more sources claimed the design overhauled required to do this was very large, significantly disrupting development. Many assets had to be redone and entire environments were completely scrapped.
The team developing Fortress soon grew as Grin shuffled its ranks, assigning more people to work on the project. At this time the majority of the studio was working on Fortress, with only a handful of developers working other projects. According to Andersson, Grin was, at this time, completely reliant on Fortress and the funding from Square Enix. There were no other large projects in the pipeline and no other money being earned. In 2009 alone, which would be the studio's last year in operation, Grin released three negatively-received action games - the aforementioned Bionic Commando and movie tie-in games Wanted: Weapons of Fate and Terminator Salvation.
Spring became summer, and according to some sources, Grin didn't receive any negative feedback on the project. However, the Nordic art style, which the team was reluctant to scrap, was still negatively received by Square. They were told that it wasn't Final Fantasy XII enough, and that it didn't look like Ivalice. Nevertheless, Grin continued to work on the title, dedicated to creating a fresh and new product, something they believed fans of the series would love.
But Square continued to be displeased over the art style. Grin maintained it could pull it off by creating a new region of Ivalice. The studio believed the idea of a Nordic-esque area of Ivalice was intriguing, and they desperately tried to make the style work within the universe. Grin argued that the idea could work because Ivalice was already based on real-life Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt and Syria.
Andersson claimed that Grin communicated with Square Enix's headquarters through the latter's London office, sending all content through the European branch for review. He stated there were numerous issues with this method, and wires were often crossed or no answers would come whatsoever.
"I don’t believe in blaming people, but there was a broken process between the UK office of Square Enix, which was merging with Eidos at the time, and it was a bit of a mess," he said. "We were working with them and they were supposed to communicate with the Japanese headquarters, which in my opinion I don’t think they did enough. So all this stuff they wanted to change we changed as much as we could or wanted to, but that drifted further and further away from what we agreed on making with the Japanese studio. So when the Japanese guys saw it, it was completely different, because they weren’t as much a part of the dev process as they should have been."
Some former employees of Grin who worked on the project claimed that several months into development, Square hadn't paid Grin what was agreed upon for the time frame. The studio laid off large amounts of staff from its offices in Barcelona, Gothenburg, and Stockholm, closing down the former two altogether. Some stated that while no overly negative feedback from their work was received, Square still didn't like the game's art direction.
"We did some combat stuff that was okay in the beginning and got feedback from Square UK and had to change it, but we never got to the point where it was fun," Andersson explained. "At the same time we spent two to three months on the gameplay stuff alone. We didn’t really get to develop it much, we did a bunch of story and concept for it, but really never got into any heavy development."
In August 2009, Square Enix told Grin it would no longer be funding Fortress, and dropped support for the project. A week later, with no means of paying its staff, Grin filed for bankruptcy and shut down its sole remaining Stockholm office.
Bo Andersson, co-founder and head alongside his brother Ulf, declined to comment on either Grin or Fortress. But in speaking to Ulf, it seems the story of Grin's closure and Fortress' cancellation was much more complicated than a dispute over art style. Ulf stated that it was likely a business decision, possibly meaning Sqaure Enix examined the project's milestones, determined Grin wouldn't be able to deliver, and decided their investment in Fortress would be lost.
"They didn't truly dump us over the art style," Andersson explained. "The concept guys, they were doing an awesome job. All the stuff they made was really, really cool. I think it’s a shame if they think that at any point they did a bad job. It's sad, because they did a great job, and I don’t think Square thought they did a bad job either. I sat down with a guy [recently] and he had basically talked to someone high up at Square Enix--considering who the guy I am talking about is, it’s probably very true--and he said that the reason they canceled the project is because they were looking at the economics of our studio and said, okay, they only have our project, and they have three times the amount of people, and they aren’t going to survive on the money we gave them. If they don’t sign a new project, they will eat our project and go bankrupt, and we’ve spent tons of cash on Fortress. It’s better to quit early."
When asked about Fortress' cancellation and the reasons behind it, a representative of Square Enix declined to comment.
During his talking with GameSpot, Andersson's tone was nothing but respectful towards Square and his time working on a Final Fantasy game. He feels the accomplishments the project achieved outweigh the drama, and he spoke of his time working on the game and with Square Enix with no negativity. Andersson stated games get cancelled, and this one happened to get a lot of attention because of it's attachment to a popular series.
"It’s not on Square, I would say it’s just how lawyers work. I don’t think Square is an evil company, I think they’re awesome, and in my mind, their reputation should stay intact. I don’t think they made something really bad, I think it’s just how business works. When you have to cancel something, it’s always going to be a bit nasty, and when you hand something over to lawyers it’ll be even nastier. I understand why they canceled. I would have done the same thing."
In the years after Grin's closure, concept art for the game has surfaced in the online portfolios of many former Grin employees. Composer Erik Thunberg released a track for Fortress, titled "Crystal Theme," on his SoundCloud page. A tech demo for the game, as well as an image containing a summary for a game called Valiant Saga, which referenced Final Fantasy XII and several Ivalice locations. The logos of Square Enix and Eidos Montreal were visible, suggesting Eidos Montreal was developing its own Final Fantasy XII spin-off.
The plot summary suggests Valiant Saga would take place 10 years after Final Fantasy XII and focus on the Fortress of Faram, a stronghold located in the Ivalice country of Nabradia. The Queen of Dalmasca, Ashe, hires a "lone mercenary" to vacate the resident of the Fortress, an evil cult leader who wants to use the ancient magic within the structure to destroy Ivalice.
However, at E3 2011, director of Square Enix Motomu Toriyama stated that Fortress "won't be released," adding that it was "suspended." Producer Yoshinori Kitase also added that having a Western studio develop a Final Fantasy game was very much off the table, saying, "Quite honestly, we can't really see it happening."
To this day, no Western studio has developed a Final Fantasy game. In 2013, Square Enix designer Yuji Abe said that a Western studio could one day steward the Final Fantasy franchise, though to date nothing on the subject has been stated since.
"Obviously, Square Enix bought out Eidos a number of years ago, and now we have direct access to American development teams," Abe said at the time. "That's certainly been discussed within the company, the possibility of say, Eidos or maybe someone else to look after or maybe take on the Final Fantasy series."
A spokesperson of Eidos Montreal denied the studio ever worked Fortress, this likely means the game died along with Grin. Andersson, however, sees the game everywhere - specifically in games former Grin employees are now developing.
"I do know that parts of it has seeped into other projects, because everybody from Grin is working on other games," he said. "I can see certain patterns in art, or people tell me they took it from Fortress. It still sort of lives to this day.”