Should Final Fantasy have action-based combat?

Clive Rosfield, the protagonist of Final Fantasy XVI

We are presumably only a few months away from our next substantial look at Final Fantasy XVI. Questions and theories have mounted in the months since the game’s reveal, but one thing is crystal clear: The game seems to have a decidedly action-based bent to its combat. It’s an exciting proposition for some, but the continuation of an oft-disliked trend for others; is it an evolution for the series? Or a compromise to maintain brand popularity?

The first instance of Square Enix moving (if ever so slightly) towards more action-based design for mainline FF games arguably comes in Final Fantasy XII. Battles are no longer random and taking place in static arenas. Instead, enemies are encountered as the player explores the open fields, and you can even move around while fighting. Combat is still carried out through a series of menu choices, though, and while you can move, there’s no way to avoid area-of-effect attacks and enemies can’t be flanked — targeting is still static, so an action will either hit or “miss” based on a random chance. The gambit system — pre-set actions and routines for all characters in the party — also makes combat highly automated. So while things look much more active and lively, it’s purely cosmetic with the reality potentially being far less engaging. Critics often remark that XII “plays like an MMO”, but something like Final Fantasy XIV can and often does move at a far faster pace, with more direct action taken on the players part and more control. But these things were not explicit goals of FFXII.

With Final Fantasy XIII (note the extra “I”), game director Motomu Toriyama actually set out to have battles on par with the visual fidelity and spectacle of the franchise’ CGI feature film “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children”. More useful than calling the game an outright success or failure in its goal, I see it as another, much more significant half-step towards an action-based future. While battles do appear with a level of visual spectacle unheard of in the series up to this point, they’re still mostly automated (though much less intricately than in XII.) Enemies are encountered in the open field, but battles once again transition to a static battleground, and players can’t directly move characters around at all. The most infamous critique of the game’s combat design is how slowly mechanics are doled out to the player, but there are thrills to be found here if you dig for them. The final hours of XIII’s story (and much of it’s very late/post-game content) can feel like a veritable test of rhythm. Fights become more about managing their tempo than simply overpowering the opposition. You tank, you heal, you buff/debuff, all at the right time, all while consistently dealing damage until victory. It’s too little too late for many, but it is there and demonstrates how adrenaline-boosting the series can be while maintaining its strategic core. Though it hasn’t been just yet, you can see the vision faintly, and Square does anything but let go of it from here on.

Without beating around the bush, Final Fantasy XV felt like one step forward and ten steps back in this regard. All battles happen on the open field, party members work together and communicate with unique lines and animations, and those animations look even better than Advent Children. In terms of raw visual output and fidelity, the series had never looked better. Unfortunately, the combat itself has also never been more shallow. Only the main protagonist Noctis can be controlled. One button is held to attack, another is held to dodge. Enemies can be flanked, but that’s basically the only way they can be uniquely hit. Magic is basically useless and practically non-existent. Summons and tag-team maneuvers only trigger based on specific conditions the player has no real influence over. I think I’ve made my point - and while I understand proponents of XV will argue that the subsequent Royal Edition addresses many of these flaws, it’s the game as it was in those first few months after release that really matters to the series history and design evolution. If the game’s actual aesthetic value beyond the wonderful animations wasn’t so lacking, I would be inclined to call it an apex of style over substance in the medium. I think this all has more to do with a series of extenuating factors that have been well-documented elsewhere though. However, recent releases show that Square seems to finally be putting some cracks in this nut.

It’s almost poetic how close Square comes to accomplishing their goal in the first part of their Final Fantasy VII Remake. Some might even call it an outright success. The action is as beautifully rendered as it ever has been with equally as striking art design and characters that seem to pop out of the screen. It’s a rousing success of style, but of substance as well. VIIR’s combat deftly combines real time action with pausing to select specific actions, switching characters to adapt to different enemies, and an adaptation of the original game’s materia system. It is quite simply fast and fun, but also still requires planning and consideration for whatever challenge the player is facing. It’s honestly a bit of a redemption story for the FFXIII development team, a majority of which worked on both games (Motomu Toriyama is even a co-director of VIIR.) But why exactly was this fourth time the charm? It might be because the game’s battle system design director was Takehito Eguchi, a Monster Hunter alum. Square has always had multiple turn-based design experts; perhaps the solution to their problem here has simply been to look outside the company for experts in more action-oriented gameplay? We know they have their fair share of fans of the genre thanks to a certain ongoing game.

You’ll have noticed I skipped this exact game in my chronology up to this point — not because I mean to discount it, but because I think it’s the most pertinent to mention, actually. Final Fantasy XIV is famous for paying reverence to the series past, but it’s deceptively, surprisingly ambitious in how it pushes the franchise forward. One of those ways is honestly in the combat and particularly the boss fights or “trials”. More than just in how it realizes the classic FF jobs of old for solo play, the party-based content of FFXIV challenges groups to develop and utilize pattern recognition, reflexes, adaptation, and most importantly, coordination. Fights like Ravana and Susano not only resemble the kinds of boss fights found in venerated action game classics like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, fighting them feels like it too, being equally as thrilling. Dodging attacks, mitigating damage, and playing your role well and consistently becomes yet another thrilling sort of dance - the steps changing with every new trial you take on. It’s still not an out-and-out action game, but the spirit presents itself in full force. The game has been running in its current form since 2013 and it becomes more clear with each expansion just how big fans the team are.

And that brings us back to FFXVI - a game being made in the same development division of Square as XIV. Both the MMO and XVI share a producer in Naoki “Yoshi-P” Yoshida, while XVI’s director Hiroshi Takai assisted in the direction of A Realm Reborn as well as having a long history with the franchise and working at Square in general. The most interesting hire though might just be one Ryota Suzuki, another Capcom alum. Suzuki was a lead designer on Dragon’s Dogma and one of several that worked on Devil May Cry 5. Surely enough, we can see moves that appear to be lifted directly from the move sets of Dante and Nero in the first trailer for XVI, some of XIV’s observable inspiration here made tangible. It’s a concern for people and understandably so.

Devil May Cry is notorious for its difficulty, and difficulty is a staple of the genre (and as an aside, Dragon’s Dogma is no slouch either.) It would be an exaggeration to say FF is infamous for its difficulty in any similar way. Even certain elements like Sephiroth feel as though they’ve been played up in the decades since the original release of their respective games to be more insurmountable challenges than they were in reality. By the same token though, you can’t exactly sleep walk through the games either. FF is challenging. The games take clever thinking, an understanding of their skill systems and occasionally even some ingenuity to get the most out of the entries featuring job systems. As lacking in immediate thrills as they are, those menus represent a very accessible gateway to players. If you can get a drink out of a soda machine, you can play a Final Fantasy; the challenge is, for the most part, in the thinking. Action games emphasize reactivity, reflexes, memorizing and imputing commands very quickly while maintaining situational and spatial awareness. This is the divide between these genres, but the strategy is a commonality they share. Planning, adaptation, ingenuity; these are fundamental values all of these games share, and certain adjustments and concessions can be made to accommodate one audience in the space of another.

By the same token that Square has worked to make FF a little more exciting and engaging from minute to minute, PlatinumGames implements an “auto-mode” feature into all of their games, opening them up to every skill level. Their feeling is that anyone who plays is entitled to enjoy themselves, start at the very ground floor and hopefully improve, should they want to. DMC has adopted the same auto feature in its past few entries, and I find it very difficult to believe FFXVI won’t implement something similar.

So does the series trajectory have to be this way? If it wasn’t clear already, I’m personally all for it. I enjoy both genres in equal measure, and I have every confidence that the XVI team, in particular, is probably doing some of the best work of their careers. I’m enthusiastic, to say the least, but I won’t deny the direction has been divisive and the results thus far have mostly been mixed.

The design of every game I’ve mentioned here is varied enough that I think you would be hard-pressed to argue Square is purely being cynical in this approach. But when Dragon Quest XI (another incredible game in its own right) takes two years to sell six million copies and FFVIIR clears most of that in five months, the financial imperative must be acknowledged. Action-based games sell better and significantly so. Obviously, not so much that Dragon Quest (or even Persona) is suffering in any noticeable way, but those games are also observably cheaper to produce than any AAA Final Fantasy. Could Square spend less on the games? Always, but they’re more likely to keep pushing what they can achieve in the most expensive elements of game development (graphics, animations, etc.) and there’s realistically not a ton the audience can do to discourage that. So what now?

A small anecdote I’ve told more than a few times is when I got to go the release date reveal event of Final Fantasy XV. It was almost a little surreal, honestly. They talked about the game, marketing collaborations (including a sweepstakes where you could win a car) and then of course they revealed the games release date (which was overly optimistic and got pushed, but I digress.) For as much this was supposed to be a hype/marketing event for fans, there was an undercurrent of a sort of desperation to it. They reiterated that XV would be a game “for fans and newcomers alike”, but it felt more like the series desperately trying to be Hip and Cool, trying to win over anyone who normally wouldn’t look at an FF twice. Like the kids I went to grade school with who wouldn’t play FF expressly because it was turn-based and “slow.”

I don’t get that lack of confidence from the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI. Nor did I get it from FFVIIR and certainly not from Final Fantasy XIV, and not because their action elements are better executed (or seem to be, in the case of XVI). What I see when I look at these games is a series being stewarded by developers who (for the most part) understand now that, yes, the series must evolve to survive and thrive. But no, it doesn’t need to sacrifice it’s whole identity or bend over backwards to appease a segment of the gaming audience that is uninterested beyond surmountable reason. A year ago, I never would’ve believed I would be as invested in Final Fantasy XIV particularly as I am now, on a daily basis. I always liked it aesthetically, I figured I could at least play through some of the story if I committed, but the staying power was a question. It’s something I couldn’t be further away from now.

When I think about how we each define this series — its soul or essence or what have you — I think it’s something we all define differently on some level but find commonality in. And because the definition is so varied, there’s potential in those variations we can’t see until we open ourselves to them. Final Fantasy is not a turn-based game, an action game, a console game, an MMO — its all of these things and things we have yet to imagine still.⬜

Special thanks to Andrea Shearon for being generous enough to edit this piece. You can (and should) follow her on twitter @Maajora.

Love 💟 • Peace ☮️ • (He/Him) • "I can't believe you're not verified." - @Xzyliac, 2017