FFXVI Might be the Best Final Fantasy Yet
I haven’t even finished my last essay on a Final Fantasy and yet here I am crafting another one about the newest mainline game to be shown during the Playstation 5 showcase. Just shy of four minutes of content and yet here I am, ready to defend this game against its naysayers or perhaps just express my insurmountable excitement for it.
I admittedly was not expecting nor was I ready to see this game, even though speculation of its development has been leaking for a few years, on a Wednesday morning at 10 am. Having just finished (caught up for the first time!) FFXIV, and extensively singing its praises, I find myself beyond impressed and absolutely enthralled with this trailer. But first, to explain why, I want to talk a bit (again, probably) about my first Final Fantasy game. Because I feel like knowing a lot of the same team worked on my favorite Final Fantasy games contributes heavily to the fact that I am very excited for this one.
Outside of a 5-day rental of FFX-2, which I hardly played and was very confused by, my first foray into the franchise was through FFXII. I remember my friend urging me to play it back when I was just starting high school, insisting that I would love it, and me being reluctant because up until then the video games I had grown to love were largely the old platformers of the Gamecube and Playstation era: Spyro, Mario, Jak and Daxter, and Sonic.
This friend never told me what it was about. So I went in blind. I remember getting to play as Reks, a low-ranking solider who ends up following a commander in order to stop some kind of betrayal at a treaty signing. I thought he was the main character. But after a few minutes of getting used to the battle system and wrecking enemy soldiers, I fought my way into the right room and promptly died. I remember gasping when I heard the last words of Reks and realizing he was really dead. There was a sudden transition forward and — boom! — now I was playing as a boy who looked strikingly similar to him. His brother.
Vaan is a pretty…divisive Final Fantasy protagonist, to put it nicely. But I went into this series having heard very little about it outside of it being generally well liked. Even FFVII, which I would say is one of my favorite FFs, I never got the chance to play anywhere close to its release. Likewise my first introduction to that world was through Advent Children, so playing these games and understanding the wider scope of the legacy of the series was something I, at fourteen, formed only on aesthetic alone. After FFXII I finally got into Kingdom Hearts and from there the snowball simply banked downhill.
I was too young to have played anything earlier than FFVII, and even then I would have been barely old enough really understand much of what was going on. Final Fantasy to me wasn’t so much of a legacy gaming series but rather an art style and series of stories that my younger self absolutely adored.
I don’t think, outside of FFXIV or Resident Evil 4 (that one is another story) I spent as much time playing a game as I did FFXII. I obsessively played this game. I was enamored with the world and the politics and the soft style of the cutscenes, the dynamic of the team, and the way that it felt so tremendously epic and sprawling. I wandered into areas I had never seen before, died to bosses I did not know were there, and promptly reassured myself I’d seek them out at a later date when I was much more powerful.
Now let it be known that I am not a side-quester. I am the farthest thing from a gaming completionist and don’t often stray into exploring a world unless I am compelled by story to do so or are otherwise already in love with it (see: FFVII Remake). I chase stories in my fiction. It’s why I have such a hard time with games that set me as a nameless protagonist in a sprawling sandbox world. It’s why I, contrary to every attempt otherwise, could simply not get into Skyrim. I had no connections to the characters. I need a story to follow, a protagonist or set of party members to jostle alongside. I want their stories. More than anything else, I want the world’s story to involve them. (I also really don’t like first person for some reason).
So when I found myself eager to explore all of those nooks and crannies in FFXII in the summers of my adolescence, I was blown away by the absolute majesty of it all. Of the hidden monsters, the beasts lurking in corners of the world that were optional, of these strange places I did not have to visit but so desperately wanted to. In hearing how people experienced the first few Final Fantasy games as children, it sounds strikingly similar to what I went through. I beat FFXII and found room afterwards to further explore the world, to listen to the music and spend time talking to all of the NPCs. I cared about this place.
This was before I learned that FFXII was a marked departure from the earlier games and, if anything, one of the initially least well-received by the fan base upon release. Vaan was panned as a lead character, the battle system was considered far too difficult to learn (among other things), and the story was lacking the colorful cast the previous games had become known for. But I, a new fan, loved every minute of it. I purchased Zodiac Age for the PS4 with the knowledge that I might not be able to repeat my experience, but I could attempt to find new fun in it as an adult (who is, let’s be honest, a far cry from fourteen year old me bullying my way through a story).
FFXII instilled a love for the franchise in me. But after the PS2, I never got into the next generation of games on the PS3 and therefor never experienced the apparently just as dividing FFXIII and all of its sequels. But I knew about them. And I thought they looked nice. Just not…my nice. And when I tried to play FFX I ran into a similar problem — FFXII, Advent Children, and Kingdom Hearts had all shaped what the series meant to me already, for better or worse. I enjoyed FFX, but it was not a story nor a battle style that I would remember fondly. Considering it was widely regarded as one of the best in the franchise, I felt when I first played as if I was missing something important.
It wasn’t until the trailer for Versus XIII first came out that I grew newly interested in the franchise itself. I’d run through FFXII, memorized portions of Advent Children, and beaten Kingdom Hearts I and II, but I had never felt like I had any real attachment in the way older fans did. But Versus XIII came out when I was still a teenager, and the much later reveal for FFXV came at a time when I had just moved halfway across the world. I had almost no connections at the time and was longing for something to take me away from my taxing service industry job at one of the most popular restaurants in our exceptionally touristy city.
Needless to say, the lead-up to FFXV was one of the most anticipated moments in my personal gaming history. I took off of work to play it and spent hours shoved away in my studio apartment far from my phone and the world at large just escaping. It was far from a perfect game. But I clicked with its story. It felt like playing FFXII all over again but with a different, more somber form of wonder. I waxed poetic about the story it was trying to tell to that point that I had my parents tell me one day, kindly, to please talk about literally anything else but this game whenever I called them.
FFXV remains one of the best experiences I’ve ever had while playing a game. It felt more movie than game, actually. It really wasn’t the best or most impressive but there was something here that I enjoyed immensely and, broken as it was, it was something that felt weighty and real and absorbing. It wasn’t until I played the more recently released FFXIV patch (5.3) that I saw it again — albeit in a far more positive and rather more lovely light. A rosy sort of reminder that everything was going to be all right.
I’ve already done FFXIV to death, so I’ll just say that I’ve been playing it a long time and leave it at that. I love the game. I love the game because it has one of the greatest stories I’ve ever seen laid out over such a long period of time.
And the team that resurrected FFXIV is the one, largely, that’s working on FFXVI.
The more recent games within the Final Fantasy franchise have appealed to me and me alone (I’m joking, but also…), in that when I talk with longtime fans they are sometimes put off by the shift in style, by the somber characters, the art that pops with less personality (I will admit that) and the stories that seem suddenly so keen to lean towards darker grit. I wasn’t around for the halcyon days of Final Fantasy’s earlier games but I am here now, and as someone who’s been a fan for most of her life at this point, I can say that what FFXVI looks to be attempting can only really be a rebrith of form: to make others feel what you might have with FFI, and what I did with FFXII.
Shadowbringers, which those who don’t play the MMO will miss, is what some consider a return to Final Fantasy’s greatness. It is a stark, reflective story of destruction that discusses the costs of heroism and dangles a character death before you that you are so certain of only for them to (as of 5.3) reconsider it and allow a happy ending instead. And it was well deserved! For a game that leaned so dark it became exceptionally hopeful, which is what, to me, Final Fantasy has always been about.
I know the writer behind Shadowbringers is likely not the one behind FFXVI. In fact, outside of understanding Yoshi-P is at the helm as producer (he’s director and producer for FFXIV) and Ryota Suzuki (Dragon’s Dogma, DMC5) as Battle Director, I know very little of those involved. Considering how much fun Devil May Cry 5 is, though, I feel it’s in good hands. Just different hands than the ones that had shaped the series as a whole. It feels as if the new directions of FFXVI and beyond are going to dismantle their old legacies in favor of creating new ones. And if the trailer for FFXVI is anything to go by, as well as the direction that FFVII: Remake decided to take, I have a good feeling that this will be one of the most game-changing Final Fantasy titles ever.
You’d not be remiss if you thought that FFXVI looked nothing like a Final Fantasy game of old. If anything, it looked more like Game of Thrones ported to a game system. Until Shiva was name-dropped and the old familiar notes of the prelude began to play, I had no real clue what I was looking at. Even seeing the chocobos running on the battlefield only made me pause. This game leans far more into high fantasy in a fashion similar to Game of Thrones and Lord of Rings and even Harry Potter (RIP that legacy, sorry everyone, I know she-who-must-not-be-named stains it). Compared to the bright symphony of costumes and outlandish designs that the older games had, FFXVI feels positively muted.
Which brings me right back to the precise reason that I loved FFXII, FXIV, FFXV, and FFVII:R in the first place (I do love the original FFVII now, although that’s also because it’s hilarious at times): they have a similar feel. Just as surely as batches of the older games did. These are evolutions of a decade-old franchise that has had so many different directors, influencers, and changes that I can’t help but feel it exists outside what it used to be. Hell, even the trailer for FFXVI hints at destroying the legacy of the crystals. FFVII:R was less tongue in cheek with its revelation as less a retelling and more a new story, and FFXVI feels like it wants to rediscover what people came to love about the franchise in the first place. It feels like it wants to do what FFVX attempted to do: become a global sensation (Vivienne Westwood?? Florence and the Machine??), and perhaps break the boundary of the game itself — in the vein of Witcher III and The Last of Us — and create a truly groundbreaking and critical darling. We have FFVII:R to remind us what a mashup of past and present can be, and it was a massively successful launch. Now I want to see what these creators can do when they have the freedom to explore their own direction for the series as fans themselves.
FFXVI feels powerful. It feels like a step not only in the right direction, but in a carefully calculated one, building upon the myriad mistakes of FFXV and lessons learned from FFXIV’s successes to create a mainline game that might just upend all of our expectations and set a new precedent for what it means to be a Final Fantasy fan. Which might, really, be as simple as being willing to go on that journey again. It might be as simple as booting up the game, hearing the prelude and knowing this a new adventure you can experience alongside so many other fans — and that there is still plenty of room for more of us.