After a long silence, online audiences of Sony's June 2022 State of Play were finally treated to an auspicious finale: a trailer drop for the wildly anticipated Final Fantasy XVI.
It is a beautiful trailer that presents a gritty, harsh world unlike most, if not all, of the previous mainline games. Producer Naoki Yoshida even had a small forward where he called attention to the real world's troubled state and hoped that producing a high fantasy escape might bring respite to players experiencing difficult times.
For years now Naoki Yoshida has been the beating heart of the Final Fantasy XIV online world, and seeing him at the helm of his second mainline game is a fantastic evolution of his career to witness from the sidelines. In wishing him and the development team over at Creative Business Unit 3 the best in the coming year until release, let's take a look at the new trailer and break down the roots of the Final Fantasy series history and why this entry is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious and schismatic entries yet.
To old school fans of the franchise - in this case, those that have played through the original I-VI - the newest entry might feel like a betrayal of franchise history format. A quick browse of Reddit will reveal many a naysayer against the newest releases in the Final Fantasy mainline series. Once the departure from turn-based combat was initiated by FFXII and completed by 2016's quietly well-received but clamorously divisive Final Fantasy XV, there was widespread mourning for the could-have-been. The studio faces accusations that it was straying from a proven formula to embrace a modern change and was "selling out" to the western action-RPG crowd.
There is a loyalty to precedents set by a franchise, and the Final Fantasy series is no stranger to paying homage to its past, with games featuring some of the same-named characters and creatures time after time in each new setting. It was, at the onset, a turn-based system, and has since evolved according to the edict of its creators and the pulse of the global gaming culture.
My onset was Final Fantasy XII, and eventually, thanks to commercial associations in Kingdom Hearts, I found my way to VII and VIII as well. My nostalgia for the series is fully for its tumultuous teenage years when X, XII, and XIII were colorful, fully animated, angst-filled reflections of love, power, and responsibility that I watched rather than played. Back then as a young teen, Final Fantasy I - VI were relics I wasn't all that interested in having to experience, which complicates why I find Final Fantasy XVI's focus on change such a fascinating divergence. It ruptures traditions that I only know of by second-hand association, in understanding the patrimony of the core history of the games. Having completed the original FFVII and dabbled with VIII, X, and VI, I understand why these games are so nostalgic and also why I'm so excited for FFXVI.
Narrative-focused games like Final Fantasy require a high degree of artistic polish. There are characters, landscapes, and enemies to create and develop. Considering the technological leaps being made in developer kits, the crisp presentation of more visceral, detailed worlds is inarguably vital. Gone are the block-headed sprites of days past, gone are the half-imagined worlds built piecemeal in our heads by the lack of detailing available in-game.
What we are doing is essentially playing movies, and with that change of basic structure comes a need to prioritize different idealizations of structure and world-building. Final Fantasy XVI could have veered back to traditional turn-based gameplay as Dragon Quest has always done, but instead, it went in the complete opposite direction, going so far as to hire Capcom veteran and action-game maestro Ryota Suzuki as combat designer, a detail that was confirmed in Playstation's blog post about the "Dominance" trailer debut from the State of Play event.
Earlier in the year and prior to the confirmation of Suzuki's involvement with the game, Dualshocker's Iyane Agossah interviewed him regarding his work at Square Enix on its then-unnamed AAA title. The combat design veteran sums up an attitude that seems to be representative of the current focus of studios like Square Enix:
“I may be exaggerating, but nowadays many believe that Command RPG itself is old-fashioned. These games are called JRPGs outside Japan, and older players will play them, but the younger generation, raised playing GTA and FPS games, aren’t used to Command based battles systems. They feel weird seeing a system where the enemies and allies will simply stand as they wait for commands. Square Enix still deem RPGs as important though. We plan to make games for those who enjoyed our works until now, and for the younger players who are more used to Action games.”
This isn't saying that turn-based battle systems have little viability in the current market: Fire Emblems: Three Houses was a runaway best-seller. The release of Square's own Triangle Strategy, and its Dragon Quest franchise remaining staunchly turn-based speak to the widespread success of tactics-based command systems. But Final Fantasy is clearly pushing as a franchise for relevance in an ever-shifting global gaming landscape, seen in the way Naoki Yoshida discusses the direction of FFXVI's story--and why they had the mocap for the game's lip movements with English language voice actors. FFXVI wants to be an international success.
What Final Fantasy loses in modernization it also gains in innovation. If there's one thing that a game with such a long-running history can capitalize on it's a story and characters with brand appeal. By going back into the historical fantasy setting, FFXVI is seeking to indulge longtime fans with nods to older entries and an appreciation for what made the series beloved in the first place. It seems readily apparent that Naoki Yoshida, and by extension Square Enix itself, understands that Final Fantasy as a brand has decades of fans to appease, each expecting different gameplay experiences based on nostalgic and personal preferences. That is to say: the studio understands frustrations over its legacy or its lack of supposed loyalty to it. This is why FFVII: Remake made such a massive statement about its desire to subvert fan expectations. It was a call to action against a verbatim translation of the past, with the Whispers being a not-so-subtle embodiment of audience expectations.
What Final Fantasy XVI looks to be doing is vaguely similar, except instead of slyly nudging fans with tongue-in-cheek ruminations on posterity, it's very explicitly calling out the series legacy as a whole, even saying in the tagline: "The legacy of the crystals have shaped our history for long enough". While this is definitely a lore-relevant statement presumably regarding the game's Mothercrystals and their blessings of aether to the local populace, it's easy to understand why fans are speculating on XVI's reflection of the legacy it has to uphold. The second trailer focuses even more on this sentiment of breaking from the chains of the past, evinced by the opening line, "in a world ruled by tyranny and turmoil there are those who would fight to take back control of their fate".
In going back to its roots, FFXVI is also looking to plant its own.
Summons in Final Fantasy are a beloved part of nearly every game. We have seen various iterations of summons since their introduction in Final Fantasy III and over the course of the mainline game series, they have enjoyed different functionalities and levels of relevance to story and character. In FFXVI, the focus of the story seems to involve summons whole-heartedly as characters themselves, involving them in massive eikon battles that look visually stunning and brutally vicious.
Another franchise staple, the party system, has either not been showcased yet or is not a part of the game. That, perhaps, is one of the most glaring differences from the other solo mainline entries, though FFXV itself set that precedent by having the player control only Noctis, with members of the party acting largely on their own. They were playable outside of the main scenario in various side stories, but otherwise, the game featured you as Noctis alone.
FFXVI's historical setting and its forthright approach to gritty maturity is likely pushing the envelope into a Mature rating. This would be a first for a mainline entry, and is a step in another direction, allowing the writers the freedom to tell a darker story they may not have been able to in the past. It might seem a bit off-putting, this "grimdark" approach, but at the start of the "Dominance" trailer introduction, Naoki Yoshida is quick to point out that this is a team effort to deliver a game that can deliver us to a place of happiness.
Whether that happiness is direct, or more Greek tragedy in its use of catharsis remains to be seen, but what FFXVI is doing with its story shouldn't frighten longtime fans out of playing. After all, the game seems to deal with the difficult subject matter with relative gravitas and care. Moments of levity are likely less presented in the trailer in order to give a general feel of what's at stake, so we are always seeing a curated version of the game's tone.
If there's anything we can learn about what FFXVI is already trying to tell us it's that expectations can be detrimental to enjoyment and that placing the burden of past experiences on the progeny of a franchise can sometimes see creatives dourly supplicating at the altar of nostalgia. There is certainly something to be said for consistency, and the fear for XVI's direction can be understood, but in a series as storied and surprisingly varied as this one, stagnation is a slow death.
We can only wait with collective bated breath (or lukewarm anticipation) for the game to finally drop for PC and PS5 in the summer of 2023. I know that I will be playing it as soon as I can and that either way it goes I will enjoy every moment I have with it.
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