How Final Fantasy XVI respects the series’ past and embraces the future

Developing a new numbered Final Fantasy game is a balancing act. Players have expectations of what they’ll encounter but still crave elements that change up and build upon established series traditions. But even those have to start somewhere: many elements commonly associated with Final Fantasy as a whole–Chocobos, Moogles, summons, and beloved job classes and abilities–were, at one point, completely alien to the series. Finding a delicate balance between tradition and innovation is always challenging, especially so with Final Fantasy XVI, the first numbered game in the long-running series to fully eschew menu-driven battles in favor of real-time combat. 

From Active Time Battle to fighting in real-time

Elements of action gameplay have evolved in Final Fantasy over time, beginning with the implementation of the “Active Time Battle” system in Final Fantasy IV. This upped the pressure on players by forcing them to respond quickly and consider the order in which enemies and allies would be able to act. Waffling on crucial decisions could prove costly, as foes would continue their onslaught no matter how long it took you to input your commands. (If you want to check out the genesis of Active Time Battle, you can play the Final Fantasy IV-VI Pixel Remasters now available on PlayStation.)

Final Fantasy IV (left) and Final Fantasy XII (right) 

Active Time Battle would serve as the mechanical basis for most numbered Final Fantasy games going forward, with the positioning-driven open-field combat of Final Fantasy XII and the dynamic, on-the-fly role-swapping battles of the Final Fantasy XIII saga building on many of the concepts ATB solidified. Final Fantasy XV moved many of the typical menu commands to face buttons, shifting combat in a decidedly action-focused direction. 

Final Fantasy XV (left) and Final Fantasy VII Remake (right) 

Even with this gradual evolution, many modern Final Fantasy games, notably the Final Fantasy VII Remake series, still use some hybrid of menu- and action-driven gameplay. FFXVI going full-on action-RPG surprised many hardcore fans, who wondered how this may impact the “essence” of Final Fantasy. To talk about developing FFXVI to evolve the franchise while satisfying existing fans, we sat down with producer Naoki Yoshida and director Hiroshi Takai to dive deeper into their process. 

Action and drama make for great stories

Yoshida’s love for Final Fantasy blossomed from the very beginning of the series. “Final Fantasy I was an important gaming experience for me,” he says. “I bought it on launch day, and I remember how confused I was when I booted it up and there was no title screen. Then you leave town and cross the bridge, and up comes the Final Fantasy logo! I was blown away that a video game could feel so cinematic, and that’s what I wanted to recapture with this new game—the feeling that you’re playing the leading role in an epic movie.” 

“So yes, I grew up on turn-based RPGs, and they still have a special place in my heart,” he remarks. 

“We decided to go with real-time combat in FFXVI for two main reasons. The first is simply that most of the members of our development team are gamers, and recently, most of us have been into action games. The controller-gripping combat in those games really makes you want to pour hours into them. The other reason is that, in today’s market, going with an action combat system that anyone can get to grips with quickly and easily was our best way of appealing to the largest audience.

“By interweaving the real-time action with a fantastical story, we believed that we could create a game that was still Final Fantasy at heart. And, of course, when we say we want to appeal to the largest audience possible, that includes stalwart fans of turn-based games and those who aren’t the greatest at action games, too. We’ve put systems in place so that anyone of any skill level can enjoy the game just as much as a seasoned action gamer—maybe even more.”

Soul of Final Fantasy

Yoshida, a veteran producer who helmed the universally praised reboot of Final Fantasy XIV, also recognizes the expectations that come with the Final Fantasy name. “Making things different for the sake of it is the easy option,” he says. “For me, the key elements to an FF game are the cinematic presentation, the gripping story, and the battle system that underpins it all–not to mention the cutting-edge graphics and evocative soundscape. The combination of all those things, plus the fact that the world, story, and characters change with each installment, makes it feel like a series that is always breaking new boundaries. As Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of the series, once said, ‘Final Fantasy is what the director at the time thinks is best.’”