How Final Fantasy 16 embraces change to push the series legacy forward

We spoke with Square Enix's Kazutoyo Maehiro, Ryota Suzuki, and Masayoshi Soken about the making of FF16 and its place in the franchise's long history.

Square Enix

Final Fantasy has ventured across many different fantasy worlds, introduced dozens of memorable characters, and graced gaming with some of its greatest moments across more than three decades. Final Fantasy 16 is promising to take the series to new places, whether it's through its darker story, its new approach to combat, or its additions to a rich catalog of epic video game music. Square Enix has prepared an entry to the long-running franchise unlike any other, yet it's something that seeks to honor its legacy and ultimately add to its growing legend.

To learn more about the making of Final Fantasy 16 and to help kick off E7 and the Summer of Doing Our Jobs, Shacknews was presented with the opportunity to speak with Creative Director and Scenario Writer Kazutoyo Maehiro, Battle Director Ryota Suzuki, and Composer Masayoshi Soken. We asked about the making of the game's story, its lead character Clive Rosfield, the development of the real-time action combat formula, the massive Eikons, and much more. By the end, we look back at the changes to Final Fantasy, ponder the future, and ultimately ask, "What is Final Fantasy?"

(Answers were provided via translator. Be forewarned that minor spoilers for Final Fantasy 16 lie ahead.)

Clive fighting larger enemies in Final Fantasy 16

Source: Square Enix

Shacknews: I want to start with something lighthearted. How did you enjoy your experience at Sunday's Final Fantasy 16 Pre-Launch Celebration event? What was it like to step in front of a crowd of Final Fantasy players, both old and new?

Masayoshi Soken, Composer: [We were] finally able to get the demo in the hands of the players and finally able to take a breath... I think.

Ryota Suzuki, Battle Director: Same thing! I'm finally able to talk about the demo and get that out the door. But to see players actually taking up the game and playing it in their own hands and seeing the reactions in person, that was really exciting for me. Also, to talk about the [Eikon Power Showcase] panel, I get very nervous up on stage. And so having all that pressure of having to play that battle on stage was a little bit, you know, it made me a little bit nervous, but I got through it!

Kazutoyo Maehiro, Creative Director and Scenario Writer: We were told there were probably about a thousand people that came to the event, and there was a lot of energy. Everyone is really, really excited for Final Fantasy 16, and we were able to show our excitement for the project as well, so that was really fun.

Shacknews: Maehiro-san, now that players are starting to experience the story through the Final Fantasy 16 demo, in your own words, how would you describe Clive and his character? How would you say he compares with other lead characters in the Final Fantasy series?

Maehiro: If we're just looking at Clive, Clive is a very serious character. Clive has this sense of passion and resolve. He's trying so hard just to survive. And I think that's a little bit different from the Final Fantasy heroes of the past. Before even thinking about saving the world or saving the realm, he's more about just trying to survive. We can say he's a little bit more relatable in that sense because he's just like us.

Shacknews: Suzuki-san, this is a Final Fantasy game unlike any other. It's the first to use real-time combat. What was the greatest challenge in designing real-time combat for a series that to this point has been recognized more for traditional RPG battles?

Suzuki: When, early on, deciding that we were going to go down that route of having a game that was full real-time action, we had to first look at our series users, those people that had grown up with Final Fantasy games that were turn-based, and we wanted to create something that they were going to be able to enjoy, that they were going to be able to have fun with, so they could enjoy both the action and the story.

[When] you look at Final Fantasy, why do people like Final Fantasy? What do they expect from their Final Fantasy? It's that story, and we wanted to create this story where people are engaged. But also, because it's an action game, we wanted something where they weren't going to be putting that controller down, where they're going to be engaged with the game during the story and during the battle and not want to put that controller down.

The other thing is that we wanted again to create something that was accessible because we knew that a lot of our players were not going to be that used to action games. A lot of those legacy players are not going to be comfortable with action games, and we wanted to create a system that was going to be accessible and enjoyable for them as well. So, it started off with us having to research. People who aren't good at [action] games, why aren't they good at action games, and finding out the reasons behind that first.

We could have gone down this road where the game starts the battle and then has a system where there's an auto-battle, so all you need to do is put down the controller and let the game play out, then when the battle's done, you pick up the controller and return to the story. We could have done something like that, but the game is real-time action, and one of our main things that we wanted to do, like I said before, was that we didn't want to have the players put the controller down. We wanted to create this sense that action games are fun, that you shouldn't be able to put the controller down. Creating a system that had sort of an auto-battle system in it was something that we decided early on that we weren't going to do.

Then the question becomes, "How do you create a system where the players that are maybe not good at action games will keep the controllers in their hands?" and figuring out how to keep that combat engaging yet simple enough for them to enjoy. Then, on the other hand, you're going to have the hardcore users, and you want to create a system that's not going to be boring for them, that's going to be just as exciting for them, and figuring out how to balance both of those and create a system that caters to both types of players.

Chaining together attacks in Final Fantasy 16

Source: Square Enix

Shacknews: Soken-san, what was your approach for the soundtrack? Were you inspired by previous Final Fantasy games? Did you take cues from your previous work on Final Fantasy 14? Or, like with the combat and the narrative, did you wish to take Final Fantasy 16 in a new direction?

Soken: For me, when I work on the music of any game, I always put game experience first. That's what the player's going to feel. I'm a gamer myself and I've played all the past Final Fantasy games. I play a lot of Final Fantasy 14. So when I'm approaching this project, it's just natural that I'm going to build off of all of that experience.

But when creating this game, it's Final Fantasy 16, and it's its own entity. I want something to create something that matches Final Fantasy 16 the best. To do that, I pull on all of the experience that I've done up until now, all of my past work. So, not just one project but it's everything I've played up until now is what inspires me. But what is most important is to make something that feels like it really fits Final Fantasy 16, not some other game, and that's what I try to work on the most.

Shacknews: Maehiro-san, previous Final Fantasy games have typically focused on a core group of heroes, even as recently as Final Fantasy 15. Final Fantasy 16's story appears to focus less on a group and more on Clive as an individual. Whether it's his sorrow for the loss of his family, his desire for revenge over his betrayal, or his surprise over finding Jill after the time skip. How do you feel this greater focus on a single character will resonate with players versus a split focus on a core party?

Maehiro: As you said, a lot of the Final Fantasy games in the past have focused on the party, and so there is that sense that if we focus on only Clive that we're tightening the scope of the storytelling. However, because it focuses only on Clive, it means we can go deeper into his story, and get a more detailed look at what drives him and what is inside him.

But that said, this story is not only just about Clive. Clive has all of these encounters, all of these people around him, and we actually explore those characters as well.

Shacknews: Suzuki-san, did the greater narrative focus on Clive helped lead to your approach on combat design? Did that help influence the more cinematic finishes or some of his attacks where he's assisted by his allies? Or would you have taken a similar approach with other characters if given the chance?

Suzuki: If you look at past Final Fantasy games, it has always been about having those party members there, having them fight alongside the hero, having the hero give those party members commands, and having them follow the commands. But, because the narrative focuses on Clive, we wanted the battle also to focus on Clive. You're seeing Clive's story, so you're controlling only Clive. And so, the option to have to control other characters, we decided to just bring that down to only Clive so that we could match that type of narrative.

That said, we have one exception to that, and that exception is Torgal, because Torgal is always with Clive. In that first part of the game, Torgal, as a puppy, is there. When Clive gets older, Torgal is there with Clive. He's always with Clive, and so he's a part of Clive. So it is very natural, even with the narrative, for Clive to be able to give commands to his lifelong partner. By being able to do that in battle, it shows that relationship. It shows the bond that Clive and Torgal have together, and so it fits the story, but it also adds something to the action as well. It raises the ceiling because it's not just Clive doing these actions. By commanding Torgal, you can actually do an extra type of action that you couldn't do by yourself, and it raises that ceiling of the action.

Shacknews: Soken-san, speaking of Clive's personal tragedies, players are taken through a breathtaking range of emotions before that first time skip: the betrayal, the Eikon fight, the tragic outcome of the Eikon fight, and Clive's realization that he failed to protect his brother. How did you approach this particular section from a musical standpoint and capture the gravity of that sequence of big moments?

Soken: For the music in Final Fantasy 16, how we approach this is that we have themes and these consistent melodies that are going to fit not only the different nations but also the different characters. And so we had these specific unique melodies for each of those.

Then it was all about taking those melodies, and then when creating the music for the game, we see where Clive is emotionally in that part of the story. We take a look at this, and then we see what other characters are involved, and then we take and create the music for those cutscenes. From that, we have that seed, which is the melody for that character or for that nation, and then you look at Clive, and you build off of that to match the tone of what's going on.

The thing is, with that first act, there's a lot of cutscenes, and there's a lot going on. From that perspective, you're creating lots of variations of these different things to match that rollercoaster of emotions. That, in a sense, was very difficult.

And this extends not only in the cutscenes but into the battles as well. We wanted to make sure that the emotion of the battles matched the emotions that the characters were feeling. But to do that, it wasn't just deciding on the song and having that play throughout the battle because we understand that the way that players play the battle is going to be different. We wanted it to feel very natural, and so we're working a lot of magic in the background to make sure that no matter who plays the game, you're going to get that similar musical experience. You're not going to have the song just kind of drop out in a weird spot. Everything's going to connect because that accentuates the emotions of that battle. Because of that, it's just meant more work for me and creating more songs.

Shacknews: As long as we're talking about the Eikons, Maehiro-san, how do Eikons play more into Final Fantasy 16 story as it goes on? Should players expect the focus of the story to shift more towards the Eikons themselves as opposed to their Dominants?

Maehiro: We look at the Dominants and the Eikons as they're essentially the same. You have the Dominants as the human form and can transform into the Eikon, so they're actually the same so that focus is going to be on both the Dominant and the Eikon.

The thing is, once a Dominant primes into an Eikon, they don't really speak because they're now giant monsters. And so when you want to have deep conversations, they're going to have to be in their Dominant form.

Shacknews: Suzuki-san, there's so much that Clive can do in battle, especially as players get farther into the game. We were just talking about that demo during the Pre-Launch Celebration and the way you were able to make it feel grand and epic in scale, especially as Clive faces larger enemies and monsters. So what's the challenge in designing Eikon fights to feel more awe-inspiring, considering how powerful Clive can become?

Suzuki: As you mentioned, we saw how powerful Clive can be in his just regular form. When designing Clive and his actions, we started with two things. The first being that Clive is a swordsman. He is gifted in the ability of swordplay. The other thing is that he has been gifted the power of the Phoenix from his brother, and that's what we started from. From there, he learns these abilities through these encounters, and Clive's ability in battle, his strength, comes from those Eikons.

So, yesterday, when you were watching those videos and all of those moments, and you were saying, "Wow, Clive is really strong, Clive is really powerful," all of those moves are those moves that he probably has taken from the Eikon, whether that be a block from Titan or whether that be the wing of Garuda or the talons of Garuda or the wing of the Phoenix, all of that is coming from those Eikons.

Through those moves, the player can see just how special and powerful the Eikons can be by seeing them used through Clive. You're implanting that in the user's mind that every time Clive uses that type of ability, he's great because of the power of the Eikon. So, finally, when Clive does prime into Ifrit, then he can take those things that he's learned, and all of those controls that the player has learned, and we transfer those to the controls of Ifrit. So what Clive has learned in his battles as Clive, he then transfers over into those battles, as Eikon versus Eikon.

When designing these battles with Clive controlling Ifrit and fighting against another Eikon is that we went into it thinking that we wanted to create something that was going to be very memorable, something that's going to be very unique, something that was going to have a lot of ups and downs, something that was going to continue to change and be very dynamic. In that sense, we wanted players to feel like they were on a roller coaster with those ups and downs. We didn't want to create something where it was like, "Okay, you fight a little bit, it's very hard, you die, you try again, you fight some more, you get a little bit further, you die, and you go back," and we didn't want something like that.

We wanted to create this spectacle where you are controlling one of the strongest beings in the world. And, because of that, you are very strong and we wanted to get that across. You're not weak when you're Ifrit. You are strong, and you're attacking this other strong Eikon, and you're clashing, and it's creating something that's pure entertainment. It's going to be entertaining for the players. You look at the numbers when you're attacking an enemy as Clive, those numbers can be smaller, but you're adding way more zeros for that Eikon fight, so it feels way more epic in that sense.

Soken: And then, of course, we have special tracks that are just for the Eikon versus Eikon battles. So, again, it makes it feel very, very special.

Massive Eikon fights in Final Fantasy 16

Source: Square Enix

Shacknews: I'm so happy you mentioned that! You talked about how you have individual melodies that you write for each of the characters. Do you take a similar approach with Eikons, specifically when they fight?

Soken: It kind of depends on how you look at this. We talked a little bit before about how each of the characters has its own melody and the Dominants are the Eikons. The Dominants are our characters, so they're going to have their melodies. And so, for some of those battles, we have taken that core melody and then used it dynamically to create these unique battle tracks.

That said, we also have some very unique battle music as well because Final Fantasy always has their regular battles. You have battles with weaker enemies, so we have a track for that. We have battles with like mini-bosses on the field, so we're going to have a different track for that. We have larger bosses or maybe like the 'S' mobs, you know, those S-ranked Marks for the Hunt, so we have lots of different songs for these as well. And then we have arrangements on those songs depending on the strength of the monster and where you're meeting that monster in battle.

It all comes down to we want to match the music with the story and make sure that it feels like it fits with the story. If the battle that we have is focusing on Ifrit and if Ifrit is Clive, then we're going to have that melody that you recognize from Clive incorporated into that.

Shacknews: Maehiro-san, there's one supporting character specifically that I want to know more about. Tell me more about Cid. What helped inspire the Final Fantasy 16 version of this character? And was there any one specific person or combination of people that you wanted to base him on?

Maehiro: We didn't go out of our way to basically make a carbon copy of any other existing character and make that Cid. But for little things, for example, maybe how the way Cid speaks or the way Cid interacts with Clive, we did get a little bit of inspiration from the Game of Thrones' Bronn.

Shacknews: Suzuki-san, it was interesting to hear during your panel at Sunday's Pre-Launch Celebration that the teams from Platinum Games and the Kingdom Hearts team have been helping with development. Have they had a hand in helping design the combat? Did they help you forge the game's combat style? Did they offer any feedback on to how to help refine it?

Suzuki: We can tell you that the creation of Clive and Clive's action was all done internally in [Creative Business Unit III]. As Battle Director, I was also in full charge of the player actions as well as the base combat design, so that was all me and my team internally. On top of that, for these big battles, we went to Platinum Games, as well as the Kingdom Hearts team, to have them help us create these unique battles. However, we can't tell you which of these big battles that they worked on yet.

The thing is, people who know Platinum Games and the Kingdom Hearts style, when they're playing, they'll be like, "This feels a lot like a Platinum Games battle, or this feels a lot like Kingdom Hearts." And they'll probably be able to guess which parts those teams worked on.

It just comes down to the scope of Final Fantasy 16. We have so much content in so many different types of battles that when creating this lineup of so many different unique battles, trying to do that all internally, it would have taken a lot more time for us to create it. By getting this help, it means we were able to get the game finished and out the door quicker. That was one of the reasons why we approached them, another simply being that there aren't many developers in Japan that can make action games. And so getting these teams, Platinum Games as a company and Kingdom Hearts as a team, who are very good at action games to help us, it makes our game that much better. It just happened to be that Kingdom Hearts 3 had just finished development, and we were making this game; we needed some help, we asked them, had them come on, and it was a great experience.

Shacknews: Soken-san, Square Enix is recognized for some of the greatest video game music in the world. Players think of Dragon Quest. They think of NieR, Octopath Traveler, Kingdom Hearts, Live-A-Live, so many others. Do you ever feel pressure to live up to the lofty standards set by those games or even to the standards that you yourself have set with your past work?

Soken: It's all about that game experience. You can have great music, but if it doesn't fit the game, then people aren't going to remember it. On the other hand, if you have really good music that fits the game, even if the game is kind of bad, it can make a bad game better because you have that music fitting in and it just brings up the total experience.

We're looking at Final Fantasy 16, it's not a bad game. It's a very good game. And so I had to kind of try very hard to live up to that, because the music has to match that. If it doesn't match it, it's going to bring the total experience down, so there's that pressure as well. So I had to try really hard. I mean, it's not that I'm not trying hard on other games, but I had to try extra hard on this one. And so when you look at it, you have this wonderful roller coaster experience and putting music to this is like... for the player, it's like they're watching a 40-hour movie. Having to score a 40-hour movie again was something that was kind of overwhelming.

It just depends on the game. You mentioned Octopath Traveler and Live-A-Live. Each of those approached sound design in a different way, in a way that was going to match that game the best. We did that with Final Fantasy 16, and I think, as a result, we have the best that we can do.

Shacknews: I want to open this one up to all of you. Final Fantasy 16 stands out greatly from previous entries in the series. Do you feel that this is the new standard for numbered Final Fantasy games going forward, or do you expect the formula to change again when Final Fantasy 17 eventually comes?

Maehiro: Personally, I believe that it will probably change again. I don't think it will become a standard. I think what we did on 16 worked because it was 16. As you know, Final Fantasy is different every single time. It just depends on who's making it. And I think that really defines the series. Moving forward, I would believe Final Fantasy 17 to be something completely different. And that's okay.

Suzuki: I feel the same. Taking how we created Final Fantasy 16 and trying to do the same thing on Final Fantasy 17 is probably something that would be impossible for that team. That said, creating a Final Fantasy, it's like you always have to look back at what came before and then use that as a base to create your game. That's what we did on Final Fantasy 16. We looked at what came before and created Final Fantasy 16.

We think that whoever makes Final Fantasy 17 is going to do the same thing. Maybe they will look at some of the things we did on Final Fantasy 16 and use maybe use those ideas and expand on them. But I don't think that they will just take what we did in 16 and copy it, because that's not the way Final Fantasy is made. It's about the creators looking at where we are, what the technology is, and creating the best thing that they can for that period in time.

Soken: I also can't believe that it's not going to be absolutely different from Final Fantasy 16. For most numbered games in a series, they're going to take that technology that they used in the past game, adapt it a little bit, and use that in the new game. But for Final Fantasy 16, you had a series that was turn-based and you had music that was created for a turn-based system. By changing that to an action-type game, now you can't use, at least on the sound side, what you used before for those turn-based games. You have to create something new.

That said, we still have that base technology that we try to incorporate on a lot of projects because it's something that is more basic in that sense, whether it be like the real-time environmental system that creates the sounds in the environment or our auto-SFX system, having the sound effects play automatically depending on proximity, things like these type of systems that we have in the background. Those are things that we can carry over.

You have this sound engine that we try to incorporate in a lot of our projects, just like you have graphics engines that you can incorporate on the projects. The thing is, you don't know if you're going to be able to incorporate that into a project until you create that project. And then, a lot of times, it's just like, "Okay, this is not going to work here. We're going to have to start over." It just depends on the project.

This is something that's usually only okay because it's Square Enix. Any other company, it's like, "No, you have to use what we have! Stop making new things!"

Suzuki: At my previous company, they would have never allowed something like this. You know, you have to use what came before and not just create something new. And so it's completely different.

Shacknews: My last question, this is open to all of you. How do you define Final Fantasy? What is Final Fantasy to you?

Soken: For me, Final Fantasy is all about the challenge. It's a series that challenges itself and the status quo. It's a title where everyone puts their all into it, and they do the best they can.

Suzuki: For me, Final Fantasy is the game where I learned to love RPGs.

Since I was a child, I've always enjoyed action games. I've always played action games. Sometimes I had the opportunity to go over to my friend's house, and he'd say, "Hey, you need to play this RPG." And I would play it and be like, "Eh, you know, whatever." But then when I first borrowed Final Fantasy and I played Final Fantasy for the first time, that was the game showed me how interesting a role-playing game could be. I remember that first time I played Final Fantasy, even now, and that affects me.

Maehiro: This is something I hadn't ever really thought about until now. Finally finishing Final Fantasy 16 and, you know, we're right here before launch, finally getting asked these questions, and having to think about it, looking back on what Final Fantasy is to me. For me, it's the reason I became a game developer. It's the reason why I joined Square Enix. And so, for me, Final Fantasy is my life.

Final Fantasy 16 will release exclusively on PlayStation 5 on June 22. A free demo of the game's opening moments is available now, so players can get started today and take their save data to the full game when it releases next week.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
  • reply
    June 15, 2023 8:00 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, How Final Fantasy 16 embraces change to push the series legacy forward

    • reply
      June 15, 2023 10:04 AM

      Really loved the demo by the end of it. I haven't loved the recent FF's so I almost wrote this off. It's also slow to start but the story and combat end up improving ten fold by the end of the demo (and extra mission past that).

      • reply
        June 15, 2023 10:54 AM

        yea, in my head final fantasy is a turn based jrpg so I was pretty skeptical going in. I don't love the hybrid action rpg feeling of ff15\ff7r, but now that they've embraced this as a full on action game with rpg elements I kind of love it.

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