Final Fantasy 16 demonstrates that sometimes an accessibility menu is better
The road to Final Fantasy 16 has begun. After presentations, previews, and a general sense of breathlessness surrounding Square Enix's latest iteration of the Final Fantasy series, an interesting titbit has emerged. Final Fantasy 16 will include a level of accessibility in the form of equipable rings that alter the fundamental gameplay experience.
Square Enix has revealed five of these rings that we're expected to fit into three slots: one that slows incoming attacks, another which removes the need to give commands to an ancillary character, another that ties combos to a single button, and one each for automating dodges - because every game must have dodge rolls now, apparently - and healing.
If these sound like typical accessibility features, that's because they are. Square Enix's intentions behind this system aren't immediately clear. As reported by Game Informer, Noaki Yoshida, the game's producer, suggests the rings about making "something that felt accessible but also customizable so that each player could create something that felt like a difficulty level that matched them," going on to suggest Square Enix had "listened to players that are maybe not as good at doing combos and attacking." (This is spoken through a translator.) "Some players maybe are not as good at dodging as other players." This is the target audience for the rings then, as opposed to being considerations specifically for disabled players.
Regardless, the changes these rings implement are the exact features many disabled players need. Intended or not, this has already become an accessibility issue.
And an issue it is.
It can be tempting to look at unorthodox ways to implement accessibility as being clever. Indeed, innovative solutions to make baseline gameplay as accessible as possible - with accessibility menus to supplement - are needed across the industry. But Final Fantasy 16's touted system is one that unintentionally disadvantages disabled players.
By gating accessibility behind equipable items, the game fundamentally punishes players for asking for help on gameplay the developers appear to understand will be inaccessible for many. The intention may well be for the rings to be unequipped as one gets used to the combat. But as should be very clear by now, developer intent means very little when it comes to accessibility. For those of us who need these features and so must keep the rings equipped throughout our experience, we're being asked to give up other items that may benefit gameplay.
Not least, as five rings need to fit into three slots, only three accessibility features can be accessed at any one time.
This kind of flawed overthinking of accessibility isn't new. Diablo 3 includes unlockable rewards that are, fundamentally, accessibility features and tied to seasonal content. Elsewhere, Paper Mario: The Origami King allowed players to purchase accessibility features with Mario's coins, like navigational assists and extended time on puzzles.
New and helpful accessibility solutions are always welcome and, with Japan's poor track record with accessibility in video games, we can forgive some missteps as Japanese studios take their first faltering moves towards accessibility. But when those missteps actively work against inclusive design, it's hard to ignore.
Rather than accessibility gone wrong, Final Fantasy 16's system feels well-intentioned but ultimately misguided. It feels like an almost accidental step into accessibility when the intention was to satisfy long-term fans rather than disabled players. This is something that developers can avoid by making sure multiple disabled perspectives are included in feedback throughout the development process.
More than anything, it highlights that, while accessibility options aren't the be-all and end-all of accessibility, getting too funky with adding accessibility into the baseline game experience can actually have the opposite effect and make the game less accessible. And, often - as is definitely the case with Final Fantasy 16's frankly ridiculous ring system - just allowing the player to toggle these features on and off in settings is a simpler, and better, solution.