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Astrolabe Mailbag: Shannara vs. Landover, the Final Fantasy XVI demo, video game adaptations of books, and more!
Also, Sci-Fantasy, updates on my fiction projects, and Chocobo Racing
Welcome to the first Astrolabe mailbag! I opened the floor to readers, and y’all delivered with some great questions. Let me know in the comments if you enjoy this feature, and hopefully we can do more of them in the future.
Onward to questions!
Q. Actually wanted your thoughts on the FFXVI demo. I downloaded it, but haven't jumped in yet. I kind of hated XV so I'm really interested in the demo to see if they fixed the problems I had with it. Did the demo meet your expectations?
It didn’t just meet my expectations, it blew them away. Like a lot of longtime Final Fantasy fans, I was concerned by the prerelease marketing around the game and its reimagining as a third-person action game with combat modelled after Devil May Cry. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good action game—I recently played and adored NieR: Automata and God of War (2018)—but that’s not what I’ve ever expected or wanted out of Final Fantasy. The demo, which features the first two hours of the game, impressed me with its resonant, high tension story, instantly memorable characters, and atmospheric setting. More importantly, though, the new combat system is sharp. Like razor sharp. If you’re going to make a dramatic change, you’ve gotta be top of class, and Final Fantasy XVI succeeds tremendously. The basic combat featured in the opening act is fun, but the game really shines when you dive into the unlockable combat-focused demo and see Clive equipped with more magic and abilities. Square Enix called their shot and hit the upper deck.
While the combat was impressive, the thing I walked away most impressed with was the storytelling. It’s been a long time since Final Fantasy had a great story in a single player game (2006’s Final Fantasy XII, I’d reckon), but I have high hopes now that Final Fantasy XIV god-saviour Naoki Yoshida has rectified a lot of what went wrong with the storytelling in Final Fantasy XIII and XV. Gone are XIII’s million Proper Nouns that you need to read an encyclopedia to understand, and the story actually happens on screen, unlike Final Fantasy XV. If XVI delivers a game with S-tier combat and a satisfying narrative experience across 40+ hours? We’re talking a GOTY candidate in a year with Tears of the Kingdom and Diablo IV.
(It’s probably worth mentioning I’m an ardent Final Fantasy XV apologist, so take my opinions well salted.)
Q. You must choose: Shannara or Magic Kingdom of Landover? Bonus question: favorite Shannara subseries?
So, Shannara is the formative text in my life. Nothing has influenced and motivated me as much as the wonder I experienced discovering Terry Brooks’s Four Lands as an adolescent, and his ongoing support, generosity, and kindness has been a blessing in my life.
I have major love for the Magic Kingdom of Landover books, though. Their humorous take on fairy tale-esque fantasy was a ray of sunshine during a time when fantasy novels turned to earth tones, grey morality, and low magic after the success of A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law, and similar series. I also appreciate that its novels are more-or-less standalone.
But Shannara is the series that made me fall in love with fantasy, and a part of me still lives in the Four Lands—especially the earlier novels. It was the perfect mix of recognizable tropes, creative magic, and a unique take on multi-generational storytelling in a fantasy world that evolved and changed as technology was (re)introduced. Some of the later books and sub-series were disappointing, but it remains a fun, engaging series that centres personal growth and adventure above all else.
As for my favourite subseries? My absolute favourite book in the series is The Elfstones of Shannara, which I re-read for Tor.com a number of years ago, but it’s a standalone, and I think it’s a stretch to consider the first three books even a loosely connected sub-series. In terms of complete sub-series, I love The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara for taking so many of Brooks’s tried-and-true building blocks and subverting/challenging them in interesting ways, and being the first major fantasy I read that explored how technology changes traditional fantasy worlds. I also love The Dark Legacy of Shannara for essentially being a direct sequel to The Elfstones of Shannara, and once again revisiting some of Brooks’s favourite tropes from a new angle.
Q. What SFF books are you reading right now and how’s your own work of fiction going? Secondly, considering the state of publishing, would you consider traditional route or self-publishing these days?
Let’s bite these off one-by-one!
SFF Books: I’m currently in the middle of Molly McGhee’s Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind and it’s a marvel! Funny, deep, razor-sharp takedown of late stage capitalism with one of my favourite protagonists I’ve met in a long time. I also recently finished up Travis Baldree’s Bookshops & Bonedust, the follow-up to Legends & Lattes, and it’s also a tremendously fun and likeable read.
My fiction: It’s been slow lately due to Fight, Magic, Items, and my follow-up non-fiction book that I just delivered to my editor. (More on that soon!) That said, I’ve got major plans to whip my two WIP novels into shape for submission starting this summer. The Rose and Honey Soul—my Dark Souls meets Horizon dark fantasy—just needs a few bits of polish based on editorial feedback from my agent, and then it’s ready for submission. The Thousand Shattered Gods—my big, juicy epic fantasy inspired by JRPGs and Tad Williams—is about 60% finished, and I’m jazzed with where it’s at (and so is my agent!). Very eager to get back to finishing the draft.
I’m also working on two non-fiction book pitches that will appeal to fans of Fight, Magic, Items and my pop history approach to digging into fandoms and videogames. Fingers crossed on those!
Trad pub vs. self pub: They’re both great! I’ve self-published in the past to decent success (and, technically continue to do so with all the work I’m doing on Astrolabe), but at this stage in my career I’m pleased with the path that traditional publishing has for me despite its faults. I had a very, very good experience with the publisher of Fight, Magic, Items, Running Press, and I really appreciate and crave the collaborative aspects of traditional publishing.
Asher J. Baker on Twitter asks:
Q. Indie developers are getting pretty big for their boots nowadays. Are there any the likes of Yuji Horii and Hironobu Sakaguchi you reckon capable of such an epic team up as we saw responsible for Chrono Trigger? (Not just (J)RPGs either)”
We still see major team-ups on projects like Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin on Elden Ring, so the concept of auteurs combining forces to make something great still exists. But it’s also difficult to replicate what happened with Sakaguchi and Horii on Chrono Trigger because the industry has developed so much in the interim—and there’s so much money involved now. Back when they teamed up, they were THE creators (along with the Phantasy Star team, including the late Rieko Kodama), and the field was a lot smaller.
It’s also important to remember that though the Chrono Trigger Dream Team is stacked with recognizable names now (over a dozen members of that team have since gone on to direct their own games), that wasn’t the case in 1995. Nobody knew who Yasunori Mitsuda, Masato Kato, or Tetsuya Takahashi were back then, but it helped launch careers that turned them into household names.
We still have big collaborations nowadays—like Naoki Yoshida, Hiroshi Minagawa, and Masayoshi Soken coing together for Final Fantasy XVI—but the industry is just so much bigger, and the concept of rock star creators like Sakaguchi and Horii has tempered a lot, so it just doesn’t feel quite so significant when it happens.
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Mat Bradley-Tschirgi on Twitter asks:
Q. Do you think Final Fantasy XVI’s new battle system will attract a larger fan base?
Larger? I dunno. New? Certainly.
After playing the demo, I’m convinced Final Fantasy XVI is cooking with heat—despite my reservations of its moving to a full-on action combat system, I was impressed by how great combat feels, and how well they were able to integrate the Final Fantasy oeuvre. So, I think it’s going to appeal to players who love fast-paced action games like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, and NieR: Automata, and bring in a nice crossover audience from that group—especially since combat clips play really nicely on social media. That said, how many of them are going to be turned off by the heavy JRPG aspects? The opening two hours have a LOT of cut scenes, proper nouns, and long periods without combat. And then I wonder how many long time Final Fantasy fans are going to skip it because of the action-based combat in favour of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth—which also has action-based combat, but with a real-time-with-pause feature that replicates the series’s turn-based mechanics.
The people I see discussing Final Fantasy XVI the most are the longtime fans who’re cautiously optimistic due to a) the changes to the combat, and b) Final Fantasy XV being a disaster. After spending a decade+ alienating longtime fans with XIII and XV, rebooting the series in an attempt to branch out into a new audience feels risky to me—especially since the Game of Thrones-style narrative tone might limit its reach with younger audiences. There’s no doubt Final Fantasy XVI will do well (and, as I mentioned above, the demo assuaged all my concerns about the changes to the formula), but will it grow the series’s audience while maintaining the existing fan base and being stuck on a single console? I’m skeptical.
two woopers in a trenchcoat on Twitter asks:
Q. Any recent books that scratch the sci-fantasy itch for you?
I haven’t read a ton of them recently, but I’ve got a bunch of favourites from past years, if you will:
If you’re specifically looking for that JRPG-style sci-fantasy adventure, I highly recommend Ryan Van Loan’s The Sin in the Steel. It’s full of great characters, fun magic, a world that unfurls in interesting ways. It blends a nice mix of fantasy and SF elements (though the SF is only hinted at in the first book), and it’s also just a rip roarin’ fun story that has a lot of interesting things to say with a pace that’ll leave you breathless.
Beyond that, Terry Brooks’s new series, starting with Child of Light, has a nice blend of technologies and magic, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose The Time War rocks, there’re classics like M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City and Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, and, of course, the modern classic Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.
Ruth EJ Booth on Bluesky asks:
Q. If you've played the whole of FFXVI, how do you feel about the upped gore level? Does it serve the story/world/atmosphere?
Great question, and I've got an entire op-ed written about exactly this topic! I'll let you know when it's available to read. Spoilers: I'm not a big fan based on what I played in the demo.
Kal-el on Discord asks:
Q. What is the most overrated JRPG and why is it Chrono Trigger?
That’s a weird way to spell Final Fantasy X.
Q. Given the whole "GoT but FF" angle on FFXVI, what's one novel or series you'd want to see turned into a videogame? For me, it's Black Leopard, Red Wolf and its sequels. Multi-POV, time-hopping RPG anyone?
To start, Joshua Rivera has a terrific piece about this that likens Marlon James’s fantasy books to playing Baldur’s Gate.
Recently, I finished reading award-winning novelist Marlon James’ latest work, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, precisely because that’s what it offered. In a recent profile, James—who previously made his name in literary fiction with novels like A Brief History of Seven Killings—declared his intent to “geek the fuck out” with an “African Game of Thrones,” to give the kinds of people and folklore that rarely get centered in Western fantasy their due. It rules—partly because it feels a hell of a lot like playing through a Baldur’s Gate game.
So, I think you’re not the only one who’d like to see that happen.
“If you want something that will rock your goddamn world, put Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings next to Suikoden II,” Rivera concludes, pointing the finger at another series that would make an excellent transition to video games.
Personally, I’d love to explore Terry Brooks’s Four Lands in a JRPG, and I think Shannara’s quest-based structure, coming-of-age themes, and fun magic systems would translate well to traditiona JRPG gameplay. The world and characters from Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy would make an incredible adaptation, too, given its unique, sprawling world inspired by the Tibetan steppes. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is another obvious choice.
My number one, though, would be Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It leans heavily into the “magic is dying” trope that drives so many JRPGs, and Simon’s progression from kitchen boy to hero fits the genre perfectly. It has a tremendous cast of side characters who pop in and out of Simon’s life, perfect party companions, and the stakes and scope scale up appropriately to fill 40+ hours of game play. It’s a perfect series.
Tim Akers, Beth Cato, Alexander Darwin, and Nicholas Eames are other names that come to mind when I think of fantasy authors writing books that would adapt into great JRPGs.
Razum? on Discord asks:
Q. Why is Tetra Master a better minigame then Triple Triad?
Q. How do you feel about Final Fantasy games that aren't Final Fantasy games? aka ones that aren't strictly JRPGS?
Great! Change and experimentation was baked into Final Fantasy from the start, so I think it’s the perfect JRPG series to explore other genres. The series has such a strong identity that a game can still feel like Final Fantasy even if it’s a turn-based strategy game like Final Fantasy Tactics, a fighting game like Dissidia Final Fantasy, a roguelike or kart racer like Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon and Chocobo Racing, or a rhythm game like Theatrhythm. They all feel like part of a larger whole.
I like to think of genre labels like “JRPG” less as binary states (something is or isn’t a JRPG) and more like a vibe, a set of inspirations that creators can draw on to help complete their vision. So, on the flip side, I think even as a game like Final Fantasy XVI strays away from many of the series’s traditional gameplay conventions, it’s still very much inspired by JRPGs and Final Fantasy without betraying the spirit of the series.
tokumei 匿名 on Discord asks:
Q. Which jrpg needs a fishing minigame?
I can tell you which JRPG that didn’t need a fishing game: Final Fantasy XV. I platinumed that game, and, man, fuck fishing (and running around in a circle for eight straight hours).
elliot on Discord asks:
Q. There seems to be a general consensus within the JRPG community that something is “missing” in the current state of the genre, whether it’s people pointing to the 16 or the 32-bit eras as the time when we really “had it”. Do you believe there’s some truth to this, and if you do - any comment on what that “thing” we’re missing is?
Hmm. There have certainly been doldrums for the genre over the years, particularly during the transition to the HD era when the genre was few-and-far between on home consoles, and stuck to more traditional formulas on the handhelds. But, even then there were good games. We tend to lionize our early experiences, and I wonder if it’s less that there’s something “wrong” with modern JRPGs, and more that the genre was still new and growing during the 16- and 32-bits eras, which meant each big title was setting new precedents and pushing the fairly limited genre boundaries outward. Now, the genre is so huge, with so many games to look back on, and integrated into so many other non-traditional genres, that it’s harder to make a lasting impact on experienced players. We’re also shaped by the experiences we have in our youth because we don’t have anything to compare them against.
I think we’re entering into a really exciting time for Japanese RPGs, and between Final Fantasy XVI, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Trails into Reverie, Eiyuden Chronicle, Chained Echoes, Sea of Stars, and a million other games, there’s something for everyone right now. The AAA space is exploring how JRPGs can merge with and inspire other genres, and smaller studios and indies are tapping into 16-bit-inspired classic games. It’s exciting.
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