Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda are two of the most legendary franchises in gaming. Both have been the wellspring for not just one, but several classic titles that defined the industry for years. However, both series have experienced something of a downward trend over the past ten years for relatively similar reasons. Final Fantasy and Zelda have both been accused of becoming increasingly linear and restrictive, drifting further and further away from their franchise roots. Recent entries have attempted a revitalization, a rethinking of what matters to the franchise core, but while Breath of the Wild excels at redefining a new course, Final Fantasy XV falters at establishing a cohesive identity.
One of the biggest selling points of Final Fantasy XV is its massive open world that players are free to explore. The problem with the game’s version of open world design is that it doesn’t really engage you the way that it should. It kind of feels like you’re drifting through it rather than actually experiencing it. Games like The Witcher 3, Mass Effect, and Breath of the Wild fill their universes with fascinating stories that make you believe in the fantasy. Even if some quests in those games are grind oriented, they don’t feel that way because the world context is so well developed. Final Fantasy XV’s world, by contrast, feels very much like a grind.
The compulsion to perform menial side quests in the open world results in almost all tension being sapped from the main story. None of the citizens seem to know or care about the war between Insomnia and Niflheim and, as a result, the player has no reason to care either. There is an intense dissonance between the relative simplicity of existence in the open world and the high stakes, mystical struggle between good and evil surrounding it. It feels like they’re happening in two different universes.
This problem rears its head most obviously in the game’s second half when the open world is completely ditched in favor of linear, story focused missions. You can return to the overworld whenever you like, but the game’s tone takes a dramatic shift. While it’s easy to care about the characters you’ve spent hours roadtripping with (perhaps FFXV’s best achievement), the lack of prior exposition and world-building makes it very difficult to know why events in this second half are unfolding the way they are or why they matter.
The fact of the matter is that Final Fantasy XV doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Square Enix wanted to provide an open world focused game while simultaneously presenting the fantasy-opera drama the series is known for. While these identities don’t necessarily have to be in conflict with one another, the way they are presented in game significantly hurts player ability to buy into the fantasy.
In contrast to this, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild knows exactly what it wants to be. It is entirely about discovering the fantasy world. While the conceit of some side quests could be considered just as simple and “banal” as those in Final Fantasy XV, they never feel that way. This is because every character feels consistent within the universe. Their personalities are big and some of their requests are downright foolish, but this never breaks the tone established by the rest of the game.
Similarly, while exploring the world of Eos in FFXV would often result in a sense of distance from the main story, interacting with Hyrule always feels relevant to the game’s purpose. The actions you take go towards facilitating goodness and fostering hope in a world that is shrouded in darkness. Freeing an imprisoned god of ice is not exactly pertinent to helping you stop Ganon, but doing so does makes it feel like your actions are restoring a sense of order to the Hyrule rather than just procrastinating and racing chocobos.
The core thing that Square Enix can learn from Nintendo is not necessarily how to make an open world, but the value of knowing a game’s identity and crafting every piece of it to facilitate the emergence of it. That might mean an even more open world for Final Fantasy XVI, but I would like to caution fans of the series before clamoring for this. There’s nothing inherently bad about linear game design, and it might be that Final Fantasy’s cataclysmic drama is better served with more structure. Breath of the Wild was able to return the Zelda series to the forefront of gaming because it executed the singular vision at the series’ core to perfection.
In truth Final Fantasy XV is a very good game, a step in the right direction with an undoubtedly cool, if shallow world, fun characters, and deep combat. However, if the series is to truly recapture its legendary status, Square Enix needs to figure out a better way to manifest the core identity of the series.