For a five-year stretch at the turn of millennium, the Final Fantasy series released an unprecedented run of indisputable JRPG bangers. Four games in a row – Final Fantasy 7 to Final Fantasy 10 – each its own contained adventure with a bespoke world of a particular aesthetic and vision. Uniting them all was the sheer bombast of their productions, massive disc-spanning epics filled with bleeding edge graphics and sweeping narratives.
They were true event games, something you’d go to a friend’s house just to watch the opening cutscene of. These days though, a mainline Final Fantasy is an event in all the wrong ways: an overwrought and overblown affair that goes on for way too long and just leaves everyone tired and cranky. The upcoming Final Fantasy 16 is perfectly poised to fix all of that.
In their golden age, Final Fantasy games were structured like road movies – grand odysseys where a tight-knit band of characters travel across the globe. This served as a great framework for their stories, allowing for a really compelling balance between battle-focussed caves and narrative-focussed towns. Neither element ever overstayed its welcome, and the natural pull towards the next major chunk of storytelling made these gargantuan games something you’d play through quickly – the characters and their motivations never straying too far from your mind.
Final Fantasy 10 was arguably the pinnacle of this; a formula perfected over three previous games bolstered by inarguably the most significant shift in technology between console generations. FF10 is the truest road movie of the franchise – a linear hike from Point A to Point B through a dazzling range of environments, with a tight focus on the characters at its heart. The pretence at cinema that had been hampered by mute, expressionless polygons were finally realised by the transition to 3D environments, full voice-acting and motion capture. It wasn’t the first game to feature these things, but it did it all with such confidence, technical brilliance and directorial vision that it still remains as a landmark of mainstream videogame storytelling.
Of course, this sort of thing has been the norm for big budget video games for decades now. We’ve moved far beyond anime melodrama, and performance capture can now render something as genuine and mundane as Nathan Drake ignoring his wife during dinner. It’s been a while since Final Fantasy could rely soley on sheer cinematic spectacle as its defining trait. The bloat of budgets and production cycles that started more than 20 years ago when Final Fantasy 7 marketed itself as a blockbuster sci-fi extravaganza has already reached the point of being completely unsustainable. A franchise that used to be able to put out a mainline entry every 18 months now struggles with one a decade. We only got a Final Fantasy 15 when they slapped the number on a spin-off that had already been in development for six years through two directors and two console generations.
When it finally released, it did so accompanied by a feature-length movie, an anime series, and a custom Audi concept car. The sort of money and scatter-shot creative vision involved in the decade-long history of FF15 is almost impossible to comprehend. The game presented itself as a road trip with the lads, but it ended up feeling like the shortest journey in the history of the series.
By embracing a genuine open world, the game was forced to represent its geography honestly – it couldn’t convey a sense of scale by implying off-screen travel via scene transitions and world maps. By having players drive in a big circle between the same locales, picking up meaningless side-quests, any sense of urgency to the narrative was completely deflated. It wasn’t until its closing hours, where it abandoned the open road for a linear trip, that the narrative was able to hit the regular dramatic and emotional highs of the franchise.
An open world is what people have been claiming they want from a Final Fantasy since that first glimpse of the wide expanse of the Calm Lands in FF10. Square Enix finally did it, and despite the game’s many strengths (petrol stations in a fantasy world really is a top-tier vibe), it’s evident that a design like this simply isn’t conducive to the sort of structure that makes a great Final Fantasy adventure.
The absolute best-case scenario is that Final Fantasy 16 is a mostly linear 30-hour-long action game. A truly solid event with a unique tone and well-executed vision that tells a self-contained story well. It needs to prove that Final Fantasy no longer needs to be the absolute biggest thing on the planet. It needs to prove that there’s a possibility for this franchise beyond waiting another 10 years for inscrutable corporate politics to produce another gargantuan cross-media mess. It needs to prove that there’s an acceptable baseline of fidelity, that people would rather see more than one vision realised with the same tech.
The series needs to accept that it can finally stop the infinite chase, to slow down and let the army of creatives behind the scenes actually tell some stories, instead of constantly grinding them into paste to keep up the arms race of bigger worlds and tracier rays.
There’s every possibility that this could be a real turning point. By all accounts, 16 is the first mainline Final Fantasy not to be plagued by reboots, director changes, and skipped generations since Final Fantasy 11 – a game that was released 20 years ago.
The producers have stated that the game won’t be a true open world, acknowledging that doing so would add another decade to the development time. This, of course, upset the sort of gamers that now expect every game to be about running around a gigantic empty field for 300 hours, but it filled me with genuine hope. The developers have stated that the game will only see players visit a limited number of kingdoms in the world, almost as if they’re telling a deliberate story via a linear journey. The sort of thing that these games used to be about.
If FF16 is truly as small and limited as it seems to be – if it really does have a deliberate creative vision guiding it to release within a standard human lifespan – it could be the biggest thing to happen to this series for generations.