Whenever a new Final Fantasy arrives, fans of the role-playing video games that became famous in the 1990s for using the medium to tell deep, epic stories with large, diverse casts hope that this will be the one to make the franchise relevant again.
Entries from the past decade and a half have missed the mark. The most recent installment — Final Fantasy XV, released seven years ago — was a letdown for many, with a disjointed story line and forgettable characters. Even its makers won’t defend it.
Square Enix, the studio behind the 35-year-old franchise, is trying to right some wrongs with the release of Final Fantasy XVI for the PlayStation 5 on June 22. But like those in charge of other aging entertainment properties, such as Star Wars, the studio is walking a precarious tightrope of trying to satisfy the expectations of a dedicated fan base while attracting new audiences.
For Final Fantasy XVI, that means a departure from characteristics that have been fundamental to every game in the main series, including the ability to manage an extensive party of characters and the quirky, whimsical tone.
Now, players will control only one character, adopting the structure of successful role-playing games like The Witcher and God of War. And in the ambition to tell a story that rivals “Game of Thrones,” it is the first installment to be rated “M” for mature because of its gory violence and gratuitous use of obscenities.
Square Enix says the game will pay special attention to the narrative of Clive Rosfield, a prince seeking vengeance after the destruction of his kingdom and the slaying of his brother. Players will follow the new character from adolescence to adulthood to understand his motivations and eventual transformation.
“We wanted to restore the faith in the Final Fantasy series by going back to those roots and putting the focus on the story — and trying to make up for what happened during Final Fantasy XV,” Naoki Yoshida, the producer of Final Fantasy XVI, said through an interpreter in a recent video call.
Final Fantasy XV left embarrassing scars on Square Enix because of its confusing story. Key plot points were left unexplained in part because of the decision to distribute narrative details across an animated movie and an anime series. Some downloadable content that was meant to expand the background of important characters was canceled altogether.
But it remains an open question whether Final Fantasy XVI’s renewed focus on story substance will resonate with gamers.
If Square Enix goes too far in the direction of serving nostalgic fans, it risks creating the perception that Final Fantasy is out of touch with current gaming trends; if it focuses too much on new audiences, it could be scrutinized for abandoning its roots. Trying to please both groups — as it attempted with Final Fantasy XV, which got solid reviews overall because of its high production values — could land it safely somewhere in the middle, the plane of creative mediocrity.
Star Wars viewers saw a similar dynamic play out in the most recent trilogy. Though critics hailed its second episode, “The Last Jedi,” for offering a fresh take on the space opera by suggesting that any average person could be a Jedi, franchise loyalists abhorred it for breaking the sacred canon. In response to the backlash, those violations were reversed in “The Rise of Skywalker,” one of the most harshly reviewed Star Wars movies of all time.
Final Fantasy’s most defining original gameplay feature — the turn-based battle system, where players toggled through a party of characters and selected an action like casting a magic spell on an enemy — was laid to rest more than 15 years ago.
Although some people still prefer that system, Yoshida said, gamers — and he is no exception — had come to expect fast-paced action as consoles became increasingly powerful.
Final Fantasy XVI will also take on a strikingly darker tone than past installments that were more lighthearted and accessible, even to children. The game opens with the invasion of the protagonist’s kingdom and the brutal slaughtering of his family. Yoshida said he took this direction to reflect the harsh climate of our times.
“By showing the bad, it accentuates the good that is out there and makes it feel more real,” he said. “But you know, at its core, Final Fantasy XVI is also a story about love, and it’s a story about hope.”
Yoshida said the decision to focus on one character in Final Fantasy XVI was driven largely by its modern battle design. Players who control Clive must rely on their timing and reflexes to attack and dodge opponents. Adding more characters to the party would have required the player to learn multiple skill sets, which Yoshida said would have made the game too complicated.
Narratives centered on a single character often conform to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, where someone ventures into the unknown, overcomes a crisis and returns transformed. That formula has produced Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter as well as video game heroes like Link in The Legend of Zelda and Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.
Even so, that structure can constrain game designers, said Souvik Mukherjee, an assistant professor of cultural studies who leads research on video games as a storytelling medium at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, India. Because the camera remains largely fixed on the protagonist, other characters the player encounters seem to exist only to aid the hero.
Some games using that approach have found ways to tell compelling stories, said Mukherjee, who pointed to Red Dead Redemption 2’s tale of the gang member Arthur Morgan and his deteriorating relationship with the group’s leader, Dutch van der Linde.
Square Enix, however, could struggle to pull off a similar feat. The stories in some of its biggest hits, like Final Fantasy VI (1994) and Final Fantasy VII (1997, which was rebooted in 2020), were unveiled through the perspectives of multiple characters and intersecting narratives.
The first few hours of Final Fantasy XVI illustrate the game’s efforts to tell a complex story involving multiple kingdoms at war. The game will test whether Clive’s solo journey, where he encounters some allies but is mostly accompanied only by his dog, will be a successful storytelling mechanism for this narrative.
The series has also had a rich history of portraying strong women, such as Final Fantasy X’s Yuna, a summoner determined to banish an evil monster, and Final Fantasy VII’s Tifa Lockhart, a childhood friend who saves that game’s protagonist, Cloud Strife, from a mental breakdown.
The fate of women is another reason Final Fantasy XV bothered fans, said Brianna Wu, a video game developer and a longtime fan of the franchise. The game gave little airtime to the protagonist’s fiancée, Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, before killing her off, and hypersexualized Cindy Aurum, a mechanic who was constantly revealing cleavage.
“As a gamer who loves Final Fantasy for the powerful women, I feel like they’ve really been on the wrong track for a long time from a representation point of view,” she said. “Clive looks interesting, but I’m really waiting to see what they do with their women.”
Yoshida, the Square Enix producer, said Final Fantasy XVI’s story would resonate with gamers across generations. By following Clive from youth to adulthood, he said, the story line will be relatable to younger players just stepping into the real world and older gamers who have seen what the real world is like.
Perhaps more important is whether Clive’s story will turn a fading franchise into the influential game it once was.