"Oh finally. Anime nonsense. You know this whole 'kid's first gritty fantasy'-shtick was getting rather-" you exclaim twelve hours into Final Fantasy XVI.
I offer the information I'd retrieved through online means:
"No no no, 'akashic' is a real thing."
"Get out of town," you jest.
"I most certainly will not," I merrily play along.
Yes indeed the idea of an amalgamation of all that is intangible seems to be important to some people a hundred years ago and thus the word sneaks into the lore of this game. I know, I know, questioning how some words with a very specific history in our own world exist in a fantasy setting, is a quick and rather dishonest path towards critique. It's just that this word is so unique that I bet more than 99 % of players had never heard of it before the game. It's a little like if our dear protagonist, Clive Rosfield, had accused someone of being a Zionist. Sure, in the world of Valisthea, it could mean an organisation of historically persecuted people that established a land of their own, but are now entrenched in an old conflict where they are both occasionally the victims of horrific terrorism, and sometimes the oppressors of other people. That's not what we would think though, if Clive was to call someone a Zionist. We would think "why is Clive calling that guy a Jew?"
It goes a little deeper, because the only reason to describe someone as Akashic, is if being Akashic is related to the concept from our world. And knowing the meaning of that word, the speaker would be aware of the relationship to the deeper lore of the Valisthea world, which, as the game also establishes, is basically unknown to everyone.
So instead, what they should be saying is: "look, that guy is turning blue and going crazy!"
That aside, the story of Final Fantasy XVI is pretty cool.
Okay enough of that. If you love shonen anime, but wish there was also one with simultaneously obtuse and remarkably childish mechanics, not unlike the most blood pumping version of Cookie Clicker... I might just have a game to prostitute out to you! That's mean. Some people absolutely love all of 16. This text might sound like a long painful screech from a jilted player of games, but I recognise what Final Fantasy XVI does differently: It caters to other people.
There's a whole candy shop of modifiers in XVI to make it easier. Or rather, from the marketing, pre-release information, and enthusiast media, I understood Final Fantasy XVI as being a kind of game where I control a single character in battles against either swarms of chum, or in teeth-grinding one versus one encounters. Yet the modifiers tell a different story. At first, with the understanding I had gained from my previous mass-media indoctrination, I thought of the countless modifiers to say "don't worry about it. Dying happens to guys all the time. It's totally normal. Here, try this amulet of auto-winning," and naturally I scoffed so hard I got a migraine. The game wasn't even talking to me. I didn't know who it was talking to, cause the only battle I lost was my first encounter with the game's meanest, most optional challenge. I did not put on that sissy amulet. I put on my big boy pants.
Yet as I lumbered through the very Xbox 360-esque, sludge-coloured latter half of the game, the absolute monotony of the gameplay finally broke me. Sort of. I did complete every side quest, and every hunt, and of course finished the main story. Oddly, I didn't bother with the challenge-rocks. Finished one, had a good time. It was just at that point in the game that I thought what most people playing that far probably thought: "Fuck. This game is kinda boring." And it's an odd kind of boring, cause I've finished a lot of Japanese Role-Playing Games. Final Fantasy XVI is a shallow game. It's got a lot of good, pleasant combat basics, and a slowly expanding inventory of spells you can mix and match across categories, as long as you earn the currency to entail you to this privilege. Unfortunately for a red-blooded enthusiast for the far eastern notion of role-playing games, such as yours truly, this isn't enough. There aren't enemies requiring ingenious spell combinations, or clever setups for Cross-magic-school spell combinations that reward experimentation. Just a seemingly endless supply of men and beasts to obliterate in comically flashy battles, in the same way over and over again.
Genuine Likers of Final Fantasy XVI seem to value the narrative, characters, and lore. You know, those aspects I was busy telling myself were less important than the gameplay. Gameplay? You know, the gameplay the planners were kind enough to put up virtual, metaphorical billboards about. Billboards in the form of many, many modifiers that told me the game could actually be even easier, wink wink, nudge, nudge. Billboards like the same de-RPG-ification as God of War '18 did, where you're inexplicably asked to replace Sword 1 with Sword 2, and purchase and sell new spells that feel remarkably similar. Apparently I'm a bit thick, because to get their message though, the same group of developers would have had to create an entire, 10-year running MMORPG with the exact same goals of flashy, extremely shallow gameplay, tearfully boring side quests (with the occasional wildly impressive one), and a decent story stretched across far too many hours. Really, being disappointed reveals that I was naïve because Final Fantasy XVI is simply Creative Business Unit III's spiritual sequel to their long-running fantasy chatroom, an absolutely unremarkable and stunningly overvalued rollercoaster ride. The gameplay of the sixteenth entry in this storied series is exactly what the fans of the fourteenth entry love. That is... If they liked Final Fantasy XIV for its gameplay. I doubt that.
It's tempting to skulk off and say "this series isn't for me anymore", but we all know the core of Final Fantasy has always been to change, and to become more accessible, while retaining a thrilling anime story. Final Fantasy XVI is definitely anime. The fact that I understand, but don't appreciate this attempt to make a game for everyone, doesn't mean the next one will go even further down this path. First of all I expect it to be a new MMO, but whatever comes afterwards could be an FPS. I like the trajectory of the 7 remakes, and I can get my pre-FF12 old school combat elsewhere. Now that I think about it, a de-RPG-ified FPS with a huge story and few Japanese gameplay mechanics actually sounds thrilling.
Perhaps I'm a little bitter. I was excited for this game. And look, I know, I'm not entitled to the game I was hoping for. I just wish they would have kept a giant wall between their MMOs and their terminally offline games.
This entire rant could be used as subtitles for one of those Der Untergang videos.
Using RPG or JRPG as a short-hand for "I want some complicated systems to understand and utilise" does a disservice to what Final Fantasy XVI does though. There is something impressive about creating such a massive narrative, and then having the gameplay tied to it so overly simplistic and monotonous. There I go again. It's impossible for me to write that without sounding snarky, but I acknowledge that some people just wanna click cookies until they die. This game is more complicated than that, yet there is a familiarity. Most encounters can be handled by just turning off your brain, and that is definitely relaxing in its own right. The main characters might resist the notion of letting go of the self and joining the mindless whole, but the gameplay asks you to embrace it. In some sense I thought we had arrived at this most-accessible, entirely mindless gameplay with Final Fantasy XII. After all, accusing it of "playing itself" was the go-to criticism at the time of its release. I knew better of course. It let me build a complicated battle plan and asked me to understand status effects, turn orders, meta-progression, and occasionally to jump in and micro-manage, whenever my plan was failing. Clearly we weren't there yet, on the journey towards truly making a Final Fantasy for everyone. In Final Fantasy XVI you dodge and you kill. Describing the barebones metasystem in further detail is giving it too much credit. I don't want to say "and that's a good thing", but for some it probably is.
Writing this has brought me closer to an understanding of Final Fantasy XVI. A chance to respect something that I both loved and hated, but could never really comprehend. Still, if I could get to create a director's cut, I would cut the fluff and just have 10 consecutive levels of just the good stuff, selectable through a single menu as intense as the character-around-swirling inventory-map-skill tree menu right now. Essentially the stage replay mode plus cutscenes. What a breezy, high intensity 14 hours that would be.