Over the coming days, weeks, months, and likely years, we are going to watch a whole lot of fighting happen over Final Fantasy XVI. Not in terms of its critical reception; that’s already been established. No, it’s going to be over whether or not the game is sufficiently JRPG to be labeled as part of the Final Fantasy franchise, or whether or not it’s too mature for the series, or where it sits in larger evaluations of Final Fantasy, so on and so forth.
All of these fights are already boring the heck out of me because all of them elide the actual fact of the matter, which is that FFXVI absolutely kicks ass.
This isn’t a full review or anything because we don’t do those. But I think that it’s worth talking about the game especially on an MMO site because FFXVI is an interesting case in that it is produced by someone who also produces and directs one of the most successful MMORPGs on the market right now. And yet while I would definitely say that it is a title that MMORPGs could learn from, that learning has almost nothing to do with the actual moment-to-moment gameplay.
Let’s address one thing right out of the gate: If you are looking at FFXVI as a pure JRPG, you are looking at it wrong. This is not what it pretends to be. It is a hack-and-slash RPG with shades of JRPG elements layered on top of it. Those elements fit comfortably, they do not feel extraneous, and I generally was pleased with how the game was set up all the way through.
Special note should also be paid to the game’s accessibility options. There is a story mode if that’s what you care about most, but otherwise the difficulty adjustments are managed by equipping accessories that are added to your inventory automatically and allow you to tailor your gameplay quite nicely. I really like this facet. If you find yourself stuck on a section and need help with dodging to get through it, you have that help available without cutting down to easier modes. It’s elegant.
Arguably, one of the major elements of JRPG layered atop the gameplay is the story. Far from the bombastic fun of character action games like Devil May Cry, FFXVI is a story more akin to Final Fantasy XIV or Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s a mature story, but it’s mature in the sense that it’s dealing with complex themes and emotions. You’re expected to keep up to date with political movements and machinations, understand some serious topics, and grasp the emotional weight on top of them.
Comparing it to FFXIV is not accidental, since it’s also equally willing to be silly or fantastical or whatever to avoid everything becoming a somber slog. But it’s also not accidental because the game’s producer is Naoki Yoshida, who is well known to FFXIV fans.
To be fair to Yoshida, I must note he is not the game’s director (it’s a bit of a shame that Hiroshi Takai is kind of elided in most discussions about the game). But I think it’s still worth noting because Yoshida is known for his work in the MMO sphere. It would be a reasonable a priori assumption that FFXVI would demonstrate the knowledge he had of how to make an MMORPG work in a single-player form, with an open-world focus and lots of crafting and tons of sidequests and so forth.
But no. That’s not what’s on display here. There are sidequests, but they are pretty small in number. The world consists of a few maps that are pretty expansive but have lots of fast-travel points and tend to be pretty hemmed in for plot reasons. You don’t get to customize Clive’s appearance or his living space. Heck, as of this time there are no firm plans for DLC for the game, which is a pretty sharp change from Final Fantasy XV, which was open-world, had tons of DLC that was required to fill in the story, and so forth.
Of course, also unlike FFXV, this game rules.
In fact, all of those decisions are ultimately good ones. There are not obvious missing areas in the game that are flagged for “later DLC will explore this.” You do not get the sense that Clive’s combat abilities, accessories, and gameplay are being artificially limited so that you’ll be eager to get your hands on the new toys in the DLC. There’s nothing like giving Clive a bland outfit so that you’ll want to drop money on DLC to dress him up in something more memorable or the option to put him in a giant moogle suit just to remove any tension from the story.
And therein lies what I find most interesting. So many of these decisions would be the wrong ones in MMOs, and I know that Naoki Yoshida knows that. He knows that MMOs thrive on a stream of new stuff to do and constant update, that player expression is important and needs to be flexible, and so on. Those decisions are bad decisions in MMOs. But they’re the right decision for a single-player experience that wants to be the best it can be.
Designing a video game is difficult. Decisions that make perfect sense for one game can be entirely the wrong choice for another game, and yet there’s definitely pressure to make your new game like other games that are successful. It’s that sort of design-by-committee without any animating passion that often leads to overwhelmingly compromised experiences, and it would have definitely been possible to make a worse version of FFXVI that adhered more closely to open-world design and so forth. I’m not saying that you see the places where that could have happened, just that it would have been possible.
Instead… FFXVI is not designed like that. It takes only one lesson from MMORPG design and Yoshida’s years of working on one very specific game: make the decisions that are right for this game even if they might be the wrong decisions for another game. It decides to be what it is, wholly, without compromise.
Do I want to see another game exactly like this one? No. But that’s because it wouldn’t be nearly as fun or interesting because what this game is distinctly this game. Oh, sure, there are things I might prefer on a theoretical level (like how I enjoy the presence of Dragoons but wish Clive could actually be a Dragoon, for example), but I appreciate that the game doesn’t try to compromise to be that. Heck, at the core a lot of my criticisms come down to wanting more, and that’s not really a problem.
So, yeah. This game makes me happy. I’m having a lot of fun playing it, even if some of the bosses can be frustrating as heck. And if there’s a lesson to be taken, it’s that lessons should be taken not in mechanical duplication but in understanding the reasons behind the choices being made. Another game with the exact same mechanics could easily be less fun just because it didn’t fit the story or world, but for this game, in this place, it worked.