If there was anything I didn’t expect at E3 this year, it was a Final Fantasy action-RPG featuring an angry, grizzled man in his mid 30s wearing a henley tee focused on blood and revenge. As a long-standing fan of the series I would normally be excited for another entry, but nothing in the new trailer for Final Fantasy Origin: Stranger of Paradise looks enticing. It appears to be part of a trend of Final Fantasy moving away from what it’s been and what makes it special in hopes of appealing to a different audience.
Gameplay-wise Final Fantasy Origin seems to be aiming for the slow and deliberate combat of trudgecore games like Dark Souls and Nioh. But what really left me unenthused was the designs of the game world and the characters themselves. The demo and trailer displays a dimly lit castle with various human remains lining the walls and small flames lighting the corners. The all-male cast runs through smashing grittier interpretations of classic characters from the series into blood and crystal.
What’s more off-putting is that this isn’t the first time in recent memory that a Final Fantasy announcement has made me feel this way. The trailer for Final Fantasy XVI shown last year already had me feeling skeptical, and thinking back on recent entries XV and VII Remake makes me realize a lot of the qualities that brought me to love the series have been on course to change for a while now. For many years of my life, Final Fantasy has been a series I loved for not shying away from femininity, nuanced issues surrounding identity, and characters working through trauma together. I wouldn’t say it was some perfect series without it’s problems, but it consistently made attempts to meaningfully engage with those themes in a way that many other games didn’t. Certain Final Fantasy games engage with those themes more than others, but even through smaller moments these themes remain consistent.
Final Fantasy X, and especially its sequel, X-2, embraced and enquired into the dynamics of gender in society. Over the course of X, one of the primary female characters, Yuna, struggles with fairly stereotypical expectations of a woman pressured to save society. She is expected to die for the sake of saving the world, she is almost forcibly married to someone she actively dislikes, and she is kidnapped for the sake of a blitzball match. Yet, she turns her life around as the protagonist of X-2 to explore what life looks like when she lives it for herself, deciding who should remain by her along that journey. Even the ways that Tidus navigates his emotions over the course of the game and struggles to find constructive ways to work through being lost in life pushes against the notion of the unflinchingly strong male protagonist.
Earlier games in the series frequently introduced characters that experimented with their gender identities. In Final Fantasy V, a pirate named Faris joins the party and over the course of the game it is revealed that he is assigned-female-at-birth but was raised as male by pirates. Unfortunately, this topic isn’t handled very well at all, as other male characters overly react to the issue as a shock. Yet it remains that there is some attempt to engage with themes of gender, and that is more interesting than ignoring it in the first place.
Pretty much every title in the series also includes moments for characters to extrapolate and process the trauma that likely encouraged them to travel alongside the party. Final Fantasy IX’s Freya is a painful reminder of this as she is constantly moved by the rage and sorrow of loss over the course of the game. When the player first meets Freya she is searching the world for her lover who mysteriously never returned to her. Then upon finding him, she discovers he has lost all his memories. On top of this, very soon after the Alexandrian kingdom destroys her home city, leaving her to follow the party in hopes of avenging her lost loved ones. Despite this, Freya continues to fight for the hope of a world without the Alexandrian empire and continued compassion for her friends.
Much of these values changed with the last 10 years as directors noted their aim towards rivaling western AAA RPGs in terms of size and tech. Along with this aim, the values of the series began to change as well. Final Fantasy XV saw a long and drawn out development for this very problem of not understanding it’s identity. How can a series that has long devoted time to a diverse series of personal hardships and melodramatics reshape itself into something so different?
In terms of its cast and themes, XV lost almost all its primary female characters for the sake of a cast exclusively made up of boys. In fact the female counterpart to Noctis was reworked from a primary character to a side character that never really fulfilled her role. As for the relationships between the boys, the interpersonal moments remained to an extent but many times they never fully explored the vulnerable pains that may be uncomfortable between bros. Compared to the ways that male characters like Tidus from Final Fantasy X and Hope from Final Fantasy XIII work through their challenges, it feels cut off from its own feelings.
On top of this, much of the emotion that emerged from Final Fantasy resulted in the ambiguity of their technological constraints. Character expressions couldn’t really be seen on the PlayStation 1, but it led to environments and character dialogue creating more meaning for the characters. The development and marketing of Final Fantasy XIII created a messy world that was at times incomprehensible, but allowed for more detailed emotional arcs to take place in the gaps where more world building may have existed.
With the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake, a lot of the original game’s ambiguity became explicit detail or deeper lore. This is not only true of the characters, but also more largely in the world as well. As Grace Benfell has written previously, “The remake completely leaves behind smallness and scale, opting instead for the continuous identification of almost every open world RPG. When Cloud swings off the train, he is not an individual throwing himself against Shinra’s might, but another badass avatar.”
That Stranger of Paradise trailer worried me, but as a fan of the series what’s more worrisome is that it doesn’t look like an anomaly for the future of the series. There was a similar outcry when the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI premiered last September. The fantasy world looked bleak, there were hardly any female or queer looking characters, and angry male characters were put into focus. Together it all hints at a series that could be going through some fundamental thematic and philosophical changes.
Of course, all we’ve seen of these next two Final Fantasy games are trailers. These are reactions to what are essentially advertisements for unfinished products—carefully cultivated sizzle reels focused on selling the games to a specific market. So the final games could wind up being very different. Still, they reflect a different direction that the series already seems to be moving in. To be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the future of Final Fantasy will be a failure. Final Fantasy XV and the VII Remake were still enjoyable for their own unique qualities, but they were also departures from what was expected, and part of a trajectory that has left many longtime fans worried. The future of Final Fantasy may look different than expected, so perhaps it’s time for fans to recalibrate those expectations.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.