Much like David Bowie, who was likely born of a Mothercrystal himself, Final Fantasy is constantly reimagining itself. Different battle systems, different aesthetics, different worlds, and a whole new story with every entry. Yet, the arrival of Final Fantasy XVI has been divisive among the fan base, with venomous boycotters and scorned devotees threatening to renounce the series altogether, just because it shakes up the classic formula.
And sure—the latest entry breaks tradition in ways that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, I get that. But as a devoted fan I can’t grasp the damnation of a franchise built around reinvention that, even in this particularly bold departure, still carries so much of its enduring DNA.
Here’s why FFXVI’s brave strides from tradition shouldn’t be so polarizing.
Plenty of fans claim that the “Golden Era” of FF is over. For some, the series peaked with FFVI in 1994. For others, the pinnacle took shape in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s with what many fans in my generation refer to as the “big three,” VII, VIII and IX. I also know players who began their journey with FFX and never looked back. The generational divide itself creates a paradox when it comes to what the “Golden Era” actually is—we can’t all be right, but the subjectivity in our individual experiences is perfectly valid.
In addition, golden eras only exist because they are temporary; they always have a shelf life. The success of the “big three” at the dawn of the millennium was not just because they are exceptional games—there are so many other factors from cultural trends (the ‘90s were a weird fever dream) to the popularity of the PlayStation, to even the limitations of the hardware that birthed happy accidents for the series.
There’s also the frequency of release. FFVII, FFVIII and FFIX were all released within a period of just three years. That’s akin to a full development cycle in a non-pandemic world by today’s standards. The consistency ensured hungry fans never had to wait too long for their next meal, and wouldn’t have time to grow out of the fandom either. All of these components built the perfect industry algorithm for Final Fantasy to shine. And shine it did.
The issue arises when that algorithm shifts. Square and its longtime rival Enix merge, FPS and action games surge in popularity, new creative forces come into play with new ideas, and slowly but surely the series declines. I’d argue, however, that perhaps it’s not a decline, but rather a slow evolution. And because of the bitter nostalgia chasers we are, we detest this idea, because it takes us further away from the place we long for. The Final Fantasy “Golden Era” in many fans’ hearts is an impossible space to reclaim now, because time has changed so many things, including us. I cringed a bit trying to play Kingdom Hearts 3 when it was released in 2019. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad game; it means I was 14 when I fell in love with the series, and by 28 I was obviously over Donald and Goofy being my wingmen.
So how do we deal with the realization that, for us, FF peaked many decades ago? Well, we can either spew hate in the eyes of the changed series like a furious Malboro, or lower our keyboard-shaped swords, and refuse to let nostalgia imprison us from enjoying future games. If we simply don’t enjoy them fundamentally, that’s also fine! Take a big dramatic slurp of tea and declare, “I only liked the old ones.” And the old ones - spoiler alert - still exist. No one is taking them away from you. (In fact, you can play the spiffy Pixel Remasters of the first six games in the series right now.) You can stand proudly on the hill that the games were better then, but you don’t need to die on it.
FFXVI will be enjoyed by many, and disliked by plenty more. But don’t let nostalgic resentment be the reason you don’t give this iteration the time of day.
One key reason FFXVI is so despised is because, like its predecessor FFXV, it’s no longer a turn-based RPG. There’s no command menu to input actions to your party—in fact there’s no governable “party” at all. Just Clive, and the fact he’ll occasionally yell at his dog to get involved. Stiil, it plays as a really enjoyable action game akin to 2018’s God of War (I know that’s a lofty comparison but giant bosses, crazy setpieces and the UI layout for Clive’s Eikonic Abilities has defo got a sprinkling of GoW inspiration) or arcade-esque slashers like Devil May Cry (FF16’s combat director previously worked on Devil May Cry 5).
But here’s the thing: Final Fantasy, the very spirit of the series, is about so much more than standing patiently on one side of a battlefield waiting to clobber the enemy. Story has always been at its heart; beautiful tales of cinematic melodrama are what makes the series sparkle. The heroes, the romance, the eccentrically camp villains…all vital ingredients. Yes, the turn-based strategy elements were fun as heck; yes, I enjoyed having a party of characters playing various roles; yes, I liked meticulously buying all my potions and ethers in multiples of five because I’m a bit neurotic. But remove that element, and there’s still so much to the Final Fantasy formula that lights my soul up. The music—my god, the music. Hearing the first few notes of Aerith’s theme causes my skin to erupt into gooseflesh. The brilliantly written characters, the sometimes goofy, irreverent dialogue, the wildly ambitious fantasy concepts…
FFXVI has all of the above. In abundance. The kind of twists and turns that make you scream at the TV. It feels very Game of Thrones (not just because many of the characters are “reyt Northern”), and many reviews have highlighted this comparison, effectively comparing the darker, more mature plot elements to fantasy writing royalty. The protagonists complement one another so well, with Cid’s buoyant sarcasm and one-liners bouncing hysterically off Clive’s scowling stoicism, and Jill’s well-timed facial expressions cementing every moment the pair are unnecessarily bickering.
Meanwhile, the villain (no spoilers) is your textbook FF soft-spoken enigma who is both theatrical and terrifying in equal measure. It has the best voice acting in any Final Fantasy to date. The epic choral battle themes pull the combat together so well, especially when you enter the kaiju-esque brawls between Eikons. The Eikons themselves are also unmistakably Final Fantasy—of course they’re this iteration’s answer to summon spells, but the very concept of normal people playing host to angry gods capable of immense destruction is just so on brand.
The lifeblood of Final Fantasy runs in XVI’s veins, and we’re still able to guzzle it up, despite the changes to the format. You might swallow an aspirin or dissolve one in water; it’ll still relieve pain. What you previously loved about FF is still present in this dose, it’s just the method of ingestion that’s different.
And if you’re here to tell me that the ONLY thing you loved about Final Fantasy was the turn-based battles…oh, come on. There’s no way you sat through that many cutscenes and all that dialogue just for the thrill of pressing “Attack.” I prefer turn-based RPGs too. But if I’d refused to give XVI a shot purely on the basis that I missed my beloved ATB gauge, I would have missed out on a fantastic entry.
Games are sentimental things, aren’t they? Much like books, movies and TV shows, when we experience a deep love for a thing, it can often feel like it just belongs to us.
Many Final Fantasy fans will see the direction Square Enix has taken with FFXVI as a chance to push the franchise mainstream, and honestly, why shouldn’t they? Action games are more popular. From a business perspective, it makes sense for the company to try to broaden the appeal of its flagship series. “But those aren’t the games real fans want you to make!” I hear the internet cry. You may be right. But SE recognizes that the aforementioned “Golden Era” is, as we identified earlier, a fleeting creature of impermanence. Evolution is key, and to become resistant to change could also lead to a decline in the franchise, as the traditional formula risks growing old with its audience.
Read More: The 11 Best Final Fantasy Spin-Offs, Ranked
The perks of FFXVI targeting a more mainstream audience are that the series can (hopefully) continue to grow and develop its captivating storytelling for years to come. Though we might feel protective about the good old days (again, that’s the bitter pill of nostalgia for you), we shouldn’t consider it wildly offensive that SE is opening the gates of Final Fantasy to a new generation of players. Reaching a fresh audience could be vital for the series’ survival. I’ve already had so many non-FF mates tell me they might dive in.
Though the gradual transition of the series from a classic turn-based RPG into a more action-focused affair is not entirely out of left field, at least not when you look at the success of Kingdom Hearts in the mid ‘00s, we also don’t know if this is an inescapable destiny for the franchise. The wind’s been blowing this way for some time, but it can always change once again….
Hironobu Sakaguchi famously said, “I don’t think I have what it takes to make a good action game. I think I’m better at telling a story.” So the series was never intended to be an action fest; that’s the product of adaptation. We can still enjoy Square Enix churning out their trademark turn-based bangers in the form of Octopath Traveler too. The format isn’t dead, and I’d love to see SE return to it for an FF title in the future, but I certainly won’t begrudge them for trying something new. Is the hybridized approach to action sometimes flawed? Definitely, as are most of the people you love, I’d wager. Is it still fun? Heck yes. And let’s be honest, it’s not the first time we’ve overlooked a key component of a Final Fantasy game in favor of a great story and gameplay. I’m looking at you, Junction System in FFVIII...
FFXVI might be a bold shift in terms of gameplay, but it captures the series’ trademark magic with such charm and soul. Before you kick it to the curb as an outlier, consider the beauty of reinvention. Square Enix defied their fate and carved a new path, and there is nothing more Final Fantasy than that.