One of the biggest surprises of the Sony PS5 event was the reveal of a new main-line Final Fantasy game, the 16th in the series (more like the 36th if you count all the sequels and spinoffs and Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus). Fans of the series are excited, and some online noted that the trailer seems to signal a move away from the futuristic themes of recent single-player Final Fantasys and a return to the “fantasy” part of Final Fantasy.
The most common comparison I saw people making was to Final Fantasy IX, which is regarded by many as the last true fantasy title. The newest game, Final Fantasy XVI — with its swords and shields, and army of chocobo riders — looks to evoke some of that. But when I look at the trailer, I get more of the vibe of Final Fantasy’s other oft-forgotten fantasy themed game: XII’s world of Ivalice.
Final Fantasy IX is a game players adore. After the serious VII and the dour (though beloved in my heart) VIII, FFIX was a return to the franchise’s source. In his Final Fantasy retrospective Jason Schreier described IX as “coming home for Thanksgiving. You’d visit familiar haunts and hang out with old friends.” IX has a cast of colourful (literally) and memorable characters. There’s the monkey-tailed Zidane, the childish but sweet Eiko, and the glorious Vivi, who is on many fans’ short list for the best character across all games for all time.
By contrast, I don’t think FFXII got a fair deal when it was released in 2006. Many players didn’t like the character progression of the licence board, they really didn’t like the main character, Vaan, nor the story’s geopolitical intrigues, which at least appeared to be a departure from the series’ trope of “quirky band of misfits saves the world.’” (Even though the game still ended up being “quirky band of misfits saves the world”). Final Fantasy XII also had the great misfortune of following one of the masterpieces in the series, FFX. It just could not measure up, though 2017’s remaster, The Zodiac Age, did much to rehab XII’s image. XII had a more serious tone than IX, a heavier plot, darker colours, and characters that were more complicated than quirky. XVI’s trailer hints at a lot of those same qualities.
XVI also looks grittier than both IX and XII. In a series that’s frequently violent, it’s nice to see it seemingly embrace that violence in a way that directly confronts the player rather than obfuscating it in metaphor, off-screen action, or bloodless displays. All Fantasies Final flirt with mature themes. VIII had child soldiers, while X’s world centered on a religion that mandated human sacrifice. But these games handled those themes lightly. Nobody in VIII ever calls Squall and his merry band of SeeDs “child soldiers,” and the only people in X’s Spira who speak up about human sacrifice are the Al Bhed, a culture of tech users in a technophobic world who show up late in the game and are almost wiped out. (Genocide is another common Final Fantasy theme that is never called what it is.) In other words, Final Fantasy is a very sanitised series. XVI hints at something messier or at least bloodier. In the trailer, there’s a scene where a soldier’s head is cut off and the spray of the blood hits a child in the face. There’s also a scene where it appears the summon (or eidolon if ya nasty) Ifrit tears someone apart to the point where you can hear the squelching of torn flesh and the spray of blood. The Final Fantasy games, while always violent, have never embraced the spectacle of violence like XVI seems to.
It will be at least 2021 until we can see for ourselves where this new Final Fantasy will take us. While I do see more XII in it than XI, I do hope, whichever game it draws its inspiration from, I hope the developers will consider letting IX’s card game Tetra Master make its triumphant return.