Final Fantasy 16 is taking itself very seriously indeed. It has loads of blood, monsters, and perhaps worst of all – authentic British accents. Each new trailer and screenshot has teased a grim glimpse into its fictional world of gods and kingdoms, wearing its medieval fantasy influences on its sleeve while taking clear inspiration from Game of Thrones and The Witcher 3. Like much contemporary fantasy, there’s just something edgy about it.
The winds are changing, but some aren’t happy about this overly dour approach to a once lighthearted franchise. Final Fantasy is all about chocobos, cute girls, aeons, and having a grand old time with an ensemble cast. But even with that, Square Enix has never shied away from telling dark, consequential stories with heavy characters and even heavier themes. This new, more blunt direction was only a matter of time.
Final Fantasy 7 was the first game I ever played, and it opens with an eco-terrorist group bombing a nuclear reactor to send a message to those who are using it to destroy the planet. Innocent workers and civilians are killed in the act, but this sacrifice is deemed necessary in order to enable progress. From the opening seconds, this is a story about our questionable future and what might happen if we allow capitalistic powers to take full control. It was even more striking in the 2020 remake, even if the coming narrative leaves this initial message behind in favour of anime melodrama. But the central theme remains – our planet is a living thing, and it will forever be our responsibility to take care of it.
Most games in the series carry a fundamental message at their core, expecting us to read between the lines and empathise with its characters instead of just passively going along for the ride. The games are all the better for it, in spite of their willingness to briefly leave the serious stuff behind for a cheeky game of cards or to catch some frogs in the local swamp. When push comes to shove, it is all killer and no filler, with Final Fantasy 16 an extension of that ethos. It rings especially true after Final Fantasy 14’s success and how it not only reflects on the series’ history but seeks to sell very serious, very involved stories that centre on the player character’s myriad trials and tribulations.
Naoki Yoshida is directly involved in the next main entry, so of course he is going to translate his past successes into a single player landscape for the first time. If anything, I think this change in character and tone is something the series has been in dire need of. Even Final Fantasy 7 Remake, with its serious subject matter and characters, often slipped a bit too far into campiness and allowed its dramatic moments to suffer as a consequence. Midgar has space for levity in its universe, and Square Enix is right to play on that quality to avoid a perpetual stream of dystopian misery. It’s a hard balance to strike though, and doesn’t get it right often. Final Fantasy 16 is an evolution of that, and a justified one.
Ever since its reveal ahead of the PS5 launch, Final Fantasy 16 has been wrought with Western influences and a weight of thematic circumstance it has only doubled down on since. We haven’t really seen much of its open world, nor what we can expect to do in our downtime when our dead little brother doesn’t need avenging or Clive isn’t being all grumpy and brooding. That isn’t to say there won’t be room for a more lighthearted stance on your adventure, it only needs to feel like it belongs in the world instead of leaning into tired tropes and archetypes purely because it calls a certain series home. Grow beyond that, work in the usual elements we associated with Final Fantasy, but from a more developed perspective.
Chocobos are already confirmed to be a thing – even if one gets murdered in the latest trailer, so who’s to say that other such staples can’t be reinvented. This is seen best in the cast of familiar gods found in so much of the footage thus far. Ifrit, Shiva, Bahamut, Odin, and all the other gods are often whittled down to special moves capable of dealing massive damage, but Final Fantasy 16 seems to depict them as unstoppable behemoths that can reshape continents with their power. Entire wars are fought against them or in pursuit of their capabilities, kingdoms struggling to bring them under control or decipher where exactly they came from in the first place.
Like FF14 before it, these beings are capable of destroying whole planets, and their majesty should never be underestimated. Yoshida is clearly reinforcing that perspective here, and wants to tell a more grounded and personal tale that might end up with us saving the world eventually, but the main focus sits on a small cast of characters who beyond slaying evil monsters and saving kingdoms, just want to keep those they love save amidst the chaos.
For decades now, Final Fantasy has carried a number of familiar terms and ideas into each new entry, but seldom are they folded into the narrative or subverted in ways we haven’t seen before, almost like Square Enix is much too afraid of rocking the boat and leaving its established identity behind. Naoki Yoshida has been given the trust to carry that torch and change things, and both he, the series, and us as players deserve such an evolution.
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