Compared to more recent entries, Final Fantasy XVI was a complete revelation. After the promotional disaster that was Final Fantasy XIII and the woefully incomplete Final Fantasy XV, the latest game, also known as FFXVI or FF16, both had a difficult job but a low bar to clear: it could not afford to be a bad game or the Final Fantasy franchise would be in severe danger of losing all credibility, but it wouldn’t take much to be compared favorably to more recent entries.
By most accounts, FF16 succeeded. It is a rare, modern AAA game that does not suffer from significant bugs at launch. The gameplay, music, and graphics are all top-notch - with the graphics and music being arguably the best we’ve seen in any game from the past several years. Multiple characters are quickly becoming beloved icons to stand with Cloud, Terra, and others throughout Final Fantasy history.
It was, of course, not without its flaws. Even at an early stage of development, it was mired in controversy thanks to the decision to exclude black people entirely with the specious argument that they needed to adhere to “historical accuracy” since the game had a quasi-Middles Ages European setting. I could go on and on about how the game is set in a world similar to but definitely not that historical setting and the fact that massive Kaiju fights are certainly not historically accurate, But others have already written extensively about how problematic this is.
Less talked about because it was less obvious before the game came out, but nearly as problematic, is the way the game treats many of its female characters. Some of you are rolling your eyes right now. But I have been thinking about this game a lot since I completed the main story - I’m in the middle of a New Game + playthrough, lest you think I’m done playing it entirely - and I’ve realized that if the game had taken more care with its female characters it could have easily improved some aspects of the plot - which many people have noted is a bit lackluster for various reasons.
I know that this article says it’s the first part, but I write that because this cannot and should not be the end of fixing the game’s treatment of some groups of characters. I don’t know if I’ll write any other parts, but it seemed important to indicate that this would only be the first step on the journey. SPOILERS FOLLOW as I will outline how the game could have improved the way it wrote its first villain, Benedikta Harman, to change very little of the major plot points but greatly improve the overall experience. It just so happens that doing so gives her more agency and depth as well.
If you haven’t played the game, I recommend doing so before reading this because attempting to explain all of the elements in detail would expand the size of this at least five-fold. Thus, I will be writing as if you are already familiar with all of the elements of the stories and characters described.
Benedikta could have been a much larger asset
From the moment she was introduced on screen, I was fascinated by the femme fatale with the anime haircut. She’s obviously physically attractive, but her face is animated with an energy that draws you in, and her accent - apparently some sort of Nordic style - made my ears tingle with pleasure.
Unfortunately, her time is cut short as she keeps getting in between our protagonist, Clive, and his goal - the alleged fire dominant. Eventually, he defeats her in combat, accidentally stealing her powers as the wind dominant, and the fire dominant simultaneously escapes her custody and she is forced to retreat. This is, unfortunately, where her story in the game ends. In a nod to the sometimes abrupt deaths in Game of Thrones, from which this game borrows heavily for themes, her team is murdered by a group of bandits and she flashes back to a time when she was being abused and another character, Cid, saved her from them, before losing control and transforming into Garuda, her magical Kaiju form, and then dies in the first of the game’s massive Kaiju battles when she accidentally gets between Clive and his prey once again.
Her role in the story goes on for another beat, however, as someone ships her head in a box to Hugo, the earth dominant. He was in love with her and takes the news of her death and dismemberment of her corpse very poorly indeed.
Were I handed the game script and asked to punch it up while changing as little of the story beats and set pieces as possible, the first change I would make would be to remove the bandits from the story entirely. The thing about Game of Thrones that a lot of people seem to misunderstand is that while the deaths are sometimes shocking, they’re almost always extremely logical. The most infamous of those character deaths is Eddard “Ned” Stark, who is executed at the end of the first season despite having acted as the primary, “good” protagonist throughout the story to that point. However, the story is making a point that his inflexibility, due to his honor, made him a target. The man who betrays him makes this point himself by first warning Ned to trust no one and then reminding him after the betrayal of that warning.
However, there is no such theming or foreshadowing for Benedikta’s death here. However, by allowing her to survive we can do some foreshadowing for plot elements that come later and could have used more of it. First, rather than losing control and transforming into Garuda after Clive steals a portion of her power, I would have her make the choice to completely the transition as a result of having lost fights against Clive in every other form up to this point. Then, Clive would steal her powers following their massive Kaiju battle and she would flee at that point. Finally, instead of having the scene where random bandits quickly and easily eliminate her team of highly skilled and trusted infiltrators, spies, warriors, and assassins, I would have a scene where her right-hand man tells her that they must retreat back to Waloed and King Barnabas. She, for her part, would realize that her failure here would almost certainly result in her death due to the ruthlessness of Barnabas and choose instead to flee to the Republic of Dhalmekia where Hugo, the man who loves her but whom she has been manipulating for Barnabas, holds a great deal of power.
This conflict could result in the abrupt death of her right-hand man which will cement her as ruthless herself while foreshadowing the ruthlessness of Barnabas later. Hugo is still incentivized to cause trouble with Cid and Clive - she’ll want revenge and eventually know that her mission was always to bring Clive back to Barnabas rather than the other fire dominant she had captured. It would also clean up a plot hole that is never resolved in the original story: who sent Hugo Benedikta’s head in a box and why? He assumes it's Cid, but Cid very clearly has some sort of affection for her and no reason to pick a fight with Hugo so it couldn’t have been him. But the plot point is never addressed again.
Another thing the writers attempted to borrow from Game of Thrones is the idea of powerful people manipulating each other in a complex political fight. Unfortunately, since almost all of the manipulation comes from one person against a few others while the remaining players kind of fart around making obvious, brute-force moves, it doesn’t really work. By allowing Benedikta to exert political will against Hugo instead of leaving him to his own devices, the politics become more complex and more interesting even while all of the results end up being the same.
Next, I would completely remove the character of Sleipnir Harbard. He’s a character that has no interesting background, less characterization, and comes out of nowhere and leads only to strange plot questions which are never answered. His first introduction - kidnapping Hugo following his defeat by Clive in Rosaria, is easily replaced by a still-conniving Benedikta doing the exact same thing. Following Hugo’s defeat in Dhalmekia and Waloed’s invasion of Kanver, she would choose to go to Kanver and see if she could find a way to make herself useful to Barnabas and preserve herself. While searching for a solution to her dilemma she could face Clive again in Sleipnir’s stead - claiming to have discovered new strength within herself she could battle Clive using the same mechanics Sleipnir used in that fight but with wind-magic themed effects instead of the darkness-themed effects that Sleipnir used. If the devs were desperate to include a reference to Gungnir in this fight still, she could claim to have been given it by Barnabas before her mission started or to have stolen it before confronting Clive again.
Once she is defeated, Barnabas could arrive on the scene much as he did before. After Clive and co flee, upon seeing a dying Benedikta, she would beg for her life, and he would agree to save her before giving a speech about how he had hoped she’d have sacrificed her will of her own volition by now before ripping it from her and turning her Akashic. This could result in her achieving the ability to create wind clones of herself to replicate the second, final fight with Sleipnir that originally occurred. It would justify the lack of other powers in use during that fight as well as continue the foreshadowing already present in Kanver that Barnabas has more influence over the Akashic than he should be able to and that turning people Akashic is something he can do and thinks is a good idea. It also, again, reinforces his ruthlessness as well as foreshadows how he and his own master view everyone around them merely as tools to be used and then disposed of.
It is unfortunate that, in the future, I expect most people will forget Benedikta even existed as part of this game when, with a couple of small changes leading to more screen time, she could have become a classic Final Fantasy villain up there with Seymour, Kefka, and other. Making these small changes to the game’s story and her role in it would eliminate multiple plot holes, strengthen the game's themes as well as its ties to Game of Thrones, and give the audience more time with a character I think most of us were enjoying quite a bit before her abrupt death