Final Fantasy XVI producer Naoki Yoshida innovates series in new entry


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The Final Fantasy series is a staple in RPG culture that helped standardize tropes that have defined the genre for decades. Though narratively unconnected, each game’s turn-based combat, fantastical worlds and colorful, quirky characters struck similar chords. You could always tell when you were playing a Final Fantasy game.

This brings us to “Final Fantasy XVI.” While the Sony State of Play game trailer showed familiar summons that have become icons in the franchise, it showed little else that felt like players were about to enter a Final Fantasy game. The slower, more methodical turned-based combat system is gone in favor of something that looks ripped straight from Devil May Cry. The fantastical setting is gone too, in favor of a more realistic medieval setting with dark undertones akin to a Souls game.

Working on the project is Naoki Yoshida, a producer first brought on to salvage developer Square Enix’s critically panned venture into the MMORPG genre, “Final Fantasy XIV,” and who is often cited as saving not just “FFXIV,” but potentially the entire franchise . With this latest series entry, he said he’s had to balance fan expectations with innovation.

“When you’re thinking about the future of the Final Fantasy franchise, you have to aim at that generation of players that have never touched a Final Fantasy before,” Yoshida said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Maybe they think the series is too old, too classic. [So you] create something that shows them that this could be an exciting game.

“But I don’t want you to think that I’m abandoning those veterans players and fans of the series, because we’re definitely not. We want to create something that everyone feels is epic.”

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Square Enix has been struggling with an identity crisis with the series for more than a decade. A tumultuous production cycle plagued 2006′s “Final Fantasy XII,” “Final Fantasy XIII’s” pivot to a more action-based combat system polarized fans, and “Final Fantasy XV,” which strayed even further from turn-based combat, featured a convoluted narrative that unfolded across several DLCs, a spinoff beat-em-up style game, an anime miniseries and a movie.

When “FFXIV” initially released in 2010, it was heavily criticized for its lack of content, numerous bugs and server failures. Yoshida, an avid MMORPG fan himself, was brought on to lead a team that would essentially rebuild the game entirely. The result was “FFXIV: A Realm Reborn” in 2013, a much more streamlined experience that fixed bugs and provided rich content that not only spoke to newcomers but longtime fans desperately seeking signs of the franchise they once knew.

Yoshida, now the producer of “FFXVI,” which is set to release in 2023, is incorporating the lessons he’s taken away from “FFXIV” into “FFXVI’s” design philosophy. The combat system of “FFXVI” is a prime example of this: It’s action-oriented, emphasizing flashy combos and read-and-react combat that the Final Fantasy series has been trending toward since “FFXII,” but attempts to incorporate elements longtime fans will recognize.

Fighting won’t be a solo experience, contrary to how it appears in the trailer. The main character, Clive, will be accompanied by several AI-controlled party members who will banter and connect throughout the game, similar to past Final Fantasy games. Yoshida also teases that there will be a “faithful buddy” that Clive can give specific commands to during the combat, despite the majority of player control focusing on Clive.

While specific details of the combat will be revealed at a later date, Yoshida is confident in the direction the system is taking. He believes that Square Enix, now with titles like “Final Fantasy XV,” “Final Fantasy VII Remake” and the Kingdom Hearts series under its belt, finally has the expertise to create a compelling action combat system that players, regardless of their familiarity with the series, will enjoy.

“The Kingdom Hearts team at Square Enix has been especially helpful in contributing to those real-time combat and boss battles,” Yoshida said. “It can be said that the battles in ‘FFXVI’ are in some ways a culmination of the company’s past experiences.”

The team, led by Battle Director Ryota Suzuki, formerly of Capcom, who helped design “Marvel vs. Capcom 2,” “Devil May Cry 5” and “Dragon’s Dogma,” feels similarly confident, according to Yoshida. Issues that plagued previous games in the franchise — around battle animations, combat fluidity and messy UIs — have all been streamlined thanks to Suzuki’s guidance.

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Yoshida also believes that the game’s story — which he says is not going to be a happy tale, and includes a setting, Valisthea, that is much darker than previous entries — will have overarching themes reminiscent of what fans of the series have come to expect .

“One of the main themes that’s explored in ‘Final Fantasy XVI’s’ narrative deals with a clash of ideals. What is right and wrong? Should the people live the life that was chosen for them, or should they have the right to choose the path that they walk?” Yoshida said.

Square Enix made sure that one of the first screens that loads up when playing “Final Fantasy XV” was a message that said the game was “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.” Yoshida believes that “Final Fantasy XVI” will also capitalize on that message.

“Personally, I think all games should be like that,” he said. “You can see the same thing in ‘Final Fantasy XIV.’ So our foundation [for ‘Final Fantasy XVI’] is to build something that’s going to be enjoyable for veteran fans as well as new players.”

Gene Park contributed to this report.


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