No More Joyrides

A controversial Final Fantasy XVI feature marks a welcome return to form

Sometimes the destination is more important than the journey.

Square Enix

“The legacy of the Crystals has shaped our history for long enough.” That line, spoken in the first Final Fantasy XVI trailer back in 2020, was a real attention-grabbed. The more we learn about the next mainline entry in the beloved series, it seems increasingly likely that it doubles as meta-commentary on Square Enix’s ambitions for the game. Square Enix and producer Naoki Yoshida have said again and again that Final Fantasy XVI represents a different take on the beloved series than we’ve ever seen before. Yoshida revealed surprising news about how the game approaches exploration recently, and it could be as much of a throwback as it is an innovation.

Yoshida told IGN in a recent interview that Final Fantasy XVI is doing away with the open-world exploration as we saw in Final Fantasy XV. Given how divisive Final Fantasy XV is, it’s not too shocking that its successor isn’t keen on emulating it, but it still bucks a wider industry trend. Final Fantasy XVI draws a lot from Western games, which are particularly reliant on open worlds, so it would have been natural to assume the next Final Fantasy would follow that example.

While it won’t feature open-world game design, Yoshida says the Final Fantasy XVI development team is looking to AAA open-world games for inspiration. That could make the game an interesting hybrid, incorporating some design ideas but not borrowing their structure.

Final Fantasy XIV looks like it will continue the series tradition of gorgeous cities.Square Enix

The team’s reasoning, according to Yoshida, is that ditching the open world will help Final Fantasy XVI achieve “a truly ‘global’ scale.”

Rather than exploring one massive map, players will travel to enclosed areas representing major points of interest. In the end, the effect might not be much different from an open world anyway. RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition feature multiple large maps, each big enough to host its own open-world game, but they’re not actually connected to one another. That allows a game to cover a lot of geographically separate locations without having to build connections between all of them. Final Fantasy XVI could take a similar route, though likely with smaller maps than those in Dragon Age.

Doing away with the open-world structure may feel like a hard pivot, but the trend it’s veering away from only came to Final Fantasy for its latest installment. Not including the critically acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, the last mainline game in the series before XV was heavily criticized for being too linear. Final Fantasy XV’s open-world can be seen as reactionary to that complaint, albeit one that wasn’t received much better. And so, the pendulum may be swinging even further in the opposite direction.

Final Fantasy XVI’s story may shine through better without open-world fluff.Square Enix

Before that, Final Fantasy games were structured in a way that sounds an awful lot like how Yoshida describes Final Fantasy XVI. Especially in the early parts of games like Final Fantasy VII through X, you tend to get shuttled from place to place without having to play through every step of the journey. Generally, your movement is restricted at the start to just a few locations, with true freedom only coming later in the game, usually aided by a spectacularly ornate airship. Even then, any sense of a connected world in Final Fantasy is a thin illusion.

Traveling between towns in most Final Fantasy games means navigating a stripped-down overworld, a largely featureless plain seen from afar where there’s not much to do but fight wild animals who insist on attacking armed adventurers.

What the games deliver isn’t actually freedom or open exploration; It’s a sense of distance implied by a change in scale. Your bird’s-eye view of the world makes it look like an enormous map, even if it takes less time to travel between cities than it does to walk from one side of a small town to the other. The joy of discovery in Final Fantasy doesn’t come from the need to hike to each new location. It comes from the wild variety in its settings, the thrill of setting foot for the first time in a city built into a tree’s branches or a new side of a city you thought you knew.

A few unique locations like this are worth more than any open world.Square Enix

We don’t even know whether Final Fantasy XVI will have a traversable world map yet. The action-oriented Final Fantasy Origin: Stranger in Paradise did away with that convention, which is one of many, many things that didn’t go over well about it. So much about Final Fantasy XVI’s messaging so far focuses on how it breaks with tradition, and cutting the overworld map seems like a reasonable if risky change.

It’s also worth asking what open worlds add to RPGs in the first place. Some games use them to great effect, like The Witcher 3, making you feel like the roaming mercenary you are, with no real place to call home. But there are at least as many examples of open worlds that feel dull and lifeless, little more than opportunities to scrounge for crafting materials. Be honest: How much time do you spend enjoying your freedom in the wilderness of Skyrim or Fallout once fast travel is an option?

An open-world Final Fantasy could definitely work. Some people (who aren’t me) say Final Fantasy XV already did. But when you think about your favorite moments from the series, they probably didn’t happen on the overworld map. I doubt many people would argue that any existing game in the series would be improved if it were an open-world game, either. Final Fantasy has always been a series that plays by its own rules and breaks them just as often. If its developers can focus more on the stories and characters that make the series special by sacrificing an open world, I’ll take Final Fantasy XIII’s maligned corridors any day.

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