While the bulk of my recent time with Final Fantasy 16 was spent in a combat-heavy demo, as this represented the brunt of what the team said they wanted to focus on to begin with, I also got the opportunity to pick the brains of some of the game’s key developers. As part of a lengthy roundtable interview with a few other journalists, I was able speak to Naoki Yoshida (FF16’s producer), Hiroshi Takai (FF16’s main director), Ryota Suzuki (FF16’s combat director), and Michael-Christopher Koji Fox (FF16’s localization director) and unpack various other aspects of the game, like lead character Clive Rosefield, his motivations for revenge and the wider world around him, and rethinking Final Fantasy’s approach to combat, which helped me wrap my head around an FF title that feels jarringly distinct, if promising, next to the rest of it’s lineage.
Clive, for example, is a more tragic protagonist than usual, even if the trope is a familiar one in the series. He’s hellbent on revenge for his younger brother Joshua, and unlike other protagonists whose tragic backstories tend to unfold over time and in the background, we will get to experience his firsthand. “When you start Final Fantasy 16, you’ll start with Clive in his twenties and you’ll play just a little bit, and then you will have this flashback where he goes back in time to and, and remembers, when he was in his teens,” Yoshida explained. “It’s not just a flashback that you watch…It’s about a two to three hour long section of the game where you go back and see Clive in his teens…You see him with his loving brother and his gentle father and his strict mother, and you see what happens exactly.” It’s a different approach, clearly meant to bring players more fully into Clive’s decades-long journey and one that, by my measure, realizes it needs to approach its theme of an intense and personal revenge from a place of empathy. It’s such an important part to onboarding players to the game that, according to Yoshida, we’ll only hit the game’s title screen after we’ve gotten through this prologue.
However, while revenge has thus far played a big part in motivating Clive—and has informed much of the marketing of the game to this point—the team were clear that Clive only begins in this place. “While Clive is driven by revenge at that first point in the game, it’s through his journey and meeting a lot of different people that he learns to open up a little bit and he starts changing this for you. For example, we mentioned his relationship with Cid: he meets up with Cid, and Cid pretty much helps Clive open his eyes to the rest of the world,” Yoshida shared. Following Clive for decades then becomes a very intentional conceit for the team, who say that this allowed for Clive to more naturally grow from a person fixed on revenge to someone who is receptive to the larger issues around him and uses his own cause as fuel to aid others. Clive’s eyes opening up to the world around him will take him down from his position on the royal guard of the Duchy of Rosaria and place him alongside the people who have to sort through the refuse of FF16’s conflict. As Takai put it, “You will have the nobles, you have the people in power, but then you also have the regular people in the towns. You have the downtrodden and those that have been oppressed as well…These people that don’t know if they can rise up or maybe never even thought about rising up, but then helping them see the world as [Clive] is seeing the world.”
Valisthea is after all a complex series of nations, each with their own goals and methods of ascertaining them. It’s a realm being ripped asunder as a result of “losing its aether,” which causes it to collapse in on itself, turning to war over these mothercrystals, which various nations have and the team has likened to oil fields. At one point near the end of our interview, Yoshida sheepishly copped to being influenced by Game of Thrones (more the books, rather than the show), a fact pretty plainly evident in the breakdown of Valisthea and its various governments and ruling families. The premise of each of these ruling bodies having their own deities they can summon as weapons of mass destruction mirrors a similar plot line that runs through much of the early stretch of Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn, a parallel drawn by Yoshida, who himself has ushered the once-troubled MMO since its relaunch. Yoshida, reflecting on the moral complexities of the Cold War-ish setting FF16 starts in, told us, “I like a fantasy story that feels like it’s real…There are bad things in the world, but it’s because there are bad things that there are good things. And because there are good things that there are bad things; Those things both feed off each other. And rather than just focusing on one and ignoring the other, we want to see the whole picture because that is what makes it feel real. And so I want that in my story.”
With a bit more clarity on the events of FF16, we moved onto the other large manner in which the game has stood apart: its lean into full on action, aided by Suzuki, whose credits include Devil May Cry 5 and Dragon’s Dogma. When I asked about the game’s shift to action reminiscent of western games, I was partially rebuffed by Yoshida, who claimed that while it certainly does appeal to audiences outside of Japan, he’s noticed that younger Japanese players who grew up with action-RPGS are also clamoring for something like FF16. The team broadly spoke about this change in priorities for their core audience, who would rather play something instantly engaging rather than a title that felt slow. “I mean, rather than playing a slow turn-based game, they’d rather go play Apex Legends,” said Yoshida. In order to grow, the game simply needed to be something different. Takai and Suzuki both echoed this, while also noting that they needed to find a healthy balance between something fresh—potentially even challenging—but not alienating. To further motivate the change, Takai noted that his experience with turn-based games offered up a bit of a revelation that made it all the easier to swing in a different direction. “The other thing with turn-based [gameplay] is that I’ve noticed that players in a lot of different regions like different types of turn-based controls. And so when creating a turn-based control, you create it in one way, then you’re going to maybe not please players that want their turn base in a different manner. But when it comes to action, I think that that’s something that’s more general. If you create an action game, you don’t have to create it for one type of group, you’re creating it for the whole world. And so it’s easier to create a great action game that’s appealing to everyone than a turn-based game that’s appealing to everyone.”
Suzuki, for his part, wants that to mean that players at either end of the spectrum of action games can enjoy FF16. Everyone made a great deal of accessibility that wouldn’t come at the cost of challenge or a system that could interest casual and hardcore players alike, hence the presence of the timely accessories in our demo, which are meant to be swapped in and out by players according to their needs. Nonetheless, Suzuki assured that alongside the lowered floor, FF16 “needs to have a high ceiling as well. Something for players that are used to action games, players that are the more hardcore players, but something that would test their abilities and techniques as well.” At one point though, Takai and Yoshida did gently and jokingly rib Suzuki for, at a time during development, having made the game “a little bit too hard,” to the point that no one on the team could get through the Benedikta fight near the end of our demo. Much like Takai, Suzuki sees this installment as an inflection point for the series, where they can appeal to both new and old audiences with something familiar but novel and wants to “show the potential of Final Fantasy 16 to the world” with a bold new direction.
The pivot to action has borne fresh fruit outside of just a new combat system too. Elsewhere in our conversation, Yoshida let slip that after you are done with the story and onto a second playthrough, players will have plenty of side content and new modes to dig into, including an arcade mode, where you “battle for scores and can compete on the world leaderboard.”
Rest assured though, for as different as it sounds, the team isn’t seeking to reinvent the series, just push it in a new direction and see where that takes them. During our gameplay discussion, Yoshida even quickly cut in to clarify that “we [the developers] all love turn-based games” when it seemed to him like the conversation might appear to others as if we were disparaging the genre FF cut its teeth on. He’s also keen to keep the series’ tradition of great stories and “cutting edge graphics” in touch, and of course, it wouldn’t be FF, as he puts it, without “chocobos and moogles.” But when Yoshida spoke to “other Final Fantasy legendary creators” like Hironobu Sakaguchi, who created the series, and Yoshinori Kitase, who has directed countless beloved installments like Final Fantasy 6, 7, and 10, he was told more or less that “Final Fantasy is what the director of that project thinks it should be,” and to disregard the past when seeking influence or direction, which accordingly made it easier to push for what FF16 has ultimately become.
Final Fantasy is changing, just not altogether nor in a way that I think will actually harm it. In fact, leaving both my demo and this interview, I instead felt pretty confident this team at least knows what it wants to do with this game and has the capacity to pull it off. We’ll just have to wait and see if the game, which the team assured will be arriving on June 22 barring any cataclysms, sticks that landing because if it does, it’d represent a huge step in restoring the franchise to its once untouchable status.
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Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.