For fans of the long-running RPG series, Final Fantasy XVI has been a long time coming. Indeed, while a franchise of this size inevitably releases spin-offs, remakes, and other associated media projects, mainline Final Fantasy entries don’t come around all that often. It’s been seven years since the somewhat polarizing Final Fantasy XV launched to a mixed reaction from the fanbase. Many felt that it had deviated a little too far from the series’ traditional RPG roots. This latest outing brought with it a chance to return to more familiar shores.
Somewhat surprisingly though, the opposite happened. The sweeping wholesale changes made in Final Fantasy XVI further remove it from the shackles of history and tradition. For better or worse, it seems that the series’ roots are not exactly developer Square Enix’s primary focus moving forward. The result is an experience that is rich in style and spectacle but will leave longstanding Final Fantasy fans feeling a little left out in the cold.
Developer & Publisher // Square Enix
Platforms // PlayStation 5, PC
MSRP & Release Date //$59.99, Jun 22, 2023
Reviewed On // PlayStation 5
A Brave New World
Final Fantasy XVI introduces the world of Valisthea, and the game’s protagonist, Clive Rosfield, the firstborn son of the Archduke of Rosaria. Clive is sworn to protect his younger brother, Joshua, who is no ordinary young man. Indeed, Joshua is what is known as a Dominant, one who is able to wield the power of an Eikon. Eikons- or Summons as Final Fantasy fans will know them- are huge, mythical creatures of immense power. These beings can be used in battle to quickly overcome armies. These Eikons, like Ifrit and Shiva, will be instantly recognizable to fans of the series. They are wielded by a handful of important figures, or Dominants, across the land of Valisthea. It isn’t long before Clive realizes he, too, has the power to wield Eikons.
Valisthea itself is huge and is set against a complex political backdrop where deceit and treachery loom on all sides, as several families vie for power and control. The heavy influence of Game of Thrones is incredibly evident here. This really helps to lend the story some additional narrative weight. Tragic events quickly sweep Clive up into a deeply personal story that begins as a revenge quest but evolves into something much deeper.
A Story Worth Telling
As far as narratives go, despite some awkward pacing issues, this is a mostly gripping story. There are several jaw-dropping moments sprinkled throughout its roughly 40-hour campaign. The story is clearly the main priority here. This is evident by the sheer number of times control is wrestled from the player in order for another cutscene to take place. Thankfully, the cutscenes do play out well, and the acting all around is top-notch. Those who aren’t keen on story-heavy games though, and are just here for the action, may struggle to feel engaged at times.
Barring a couple of lulls that considerably damage the pacing, the main campaign is a thrill to experience. The same can’t be said for the game’s side missions though, which are borderline monotonous at times. As the campaign trickles on, the side content does become slightly more satisfying, but this is far too little, too late. Players will be forgiven for forgoing the side content long before it actually starts to get interesting.
One area that deserves special praise though is the game’s soundtrack. Composer Masayoshi Soken, whose work on Final Fantasy XIV was equally stellar, manages to perfectly complement the game’s emotional story with some of the most sweeping tracks that the franchise has heard in a long time. The standard battle music is instantly memorable. Hints of previous tracks from the series can be heard sprinkled across much of the game’s soundtrack. Their appearance elicits welcome moments of nostalgia throughout.
Old Dog, New Tricks
Given the current abundance of open-world games on the market, the fact that Final Fantasy XVI is not open-world probably came as a relief to many fans. That being said, there is a strong argument to be made that it’s a little too linear, though. The interconnected maps vary in size. Though none of them particularly stood out or offered much in the way of meaningful detours. They usually serve as corridors between one enemy encounter and the next, or paths between big towns. Valisthea ranges from lush green jungle to dry desert landscape, and it all looks beautiful. Cutting through the impressive visuals, however, players will discover the most alarming issue with Final Fantasy XVI‘s world is the lack of incentive to explore it.
Final Fantasy is a series that prides itself on exploration. Over the years, players’ curiosity to explore these worlds was often rewarded with a hidden dungeon, some rare loot, or in some cases, an unexpected superboss to challenge. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XVI contains almost none of this. Its loot system is completely redundant. The only items to find are money, crafting materials, or potions to heal with. These crafting materials are a good example of the game’s paper-thin RPG mechanics, as they hold almost no significance. The majority of them will remain unused in the player’s inventory for the duration of the game.
There are no hidden dungeons. While FFXVI‘s use of ‘hunts’- creatures for Clive to track down and defeat between main missions- does allow some endgame boss-type creatures, none carry the same gravitas as enemies such as Final Fantasy VII‘s Emerald Weapon, or Final Fantasy X‘s Dark Aeons.
Why We Fight
Without a doubt, the biggest change made to Final Fantasy XVI is its combat. Recent entries in the series such as Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake have flirted with the idea of ditching turn-based combat, transitioning to a more real-time style that still maintains some element of the turn-based mechanics. FFXVI goes one step further, completely leaving any remnant of turn-based combat behind, and becoming a fully-fledged action game. Combat plays out like a hack & slash title, reminiscent of the stylistic Devil May Cry series.
Players perform combos by tapping one button and dodging attacks by tapping another. Magic is relegated to the role of projectile attack, used by hitting a single button. Unlike almost every other entry, it costs the player nothing in terms of MP or mana. Magic can be used as frequently as the player likes. The cost of this is magic has nowhere near the impact of previous games. Furthermore, and most disappointingly, spells are not upgradable. Fire will not turn into Fira or Firaga as the game progresses.
Layered on top of these basic attacks are Clive’s Eikon abilities. Though he starts out with only a handful, the player gains access to more Eikons and more abilities as they move through the campaign, which can be rapidly switched between during battle. These abilities have cooldowns in order to prevent the player from spamming them, but this is the only cost. The result is combat that feels incredibly fast, but can verge on button-mashing at times. The poor enemy variety doesn’t help, which in turn, makes standard encounters feel pretty dull.
Boss fights, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Varied, visually stunning, and extremely memorable- especially certain ones that see the player taking control of the Eikon rather than Clive- these encounters are undoubtedly one of the game’s high points. Unfortunately, in another deviation from the norm, whether fighting normal enemies or bosses, playing on the standard difficulty yields almost no challenge. All but a handful of the game’s combat encounters require little or no strategy. The loop of hitting the opponent, using the Eikon abilities after each cooldown, and dodging at the right time never changes. Even dodging is really straightforward thanks to the generous hitboxes.
Not every game needs to be Dark Souls, but Final Fantasy should carry some degree of difficulty, and the game’s disregard for strategy really hurts it. Elemental status effects are non-existent. So despite element spells like Fire existing, they don’t do any extra or less damage to particular enemies. All of Final Fantasy‘s mainstay effects, such as Poison, Sleep, Haste, and Protect are missing as well. This severely limits the player’s ability to influence any given combat encounter. Completion of the game unlocks the more challenging ‘Final Fantasy’ mode. This mode alters the base difficulty and raises the level cap for both Clive and his enemies. However, expecting players to wait for their second playthrough to find some degree of challenge is both unfair and unnecessary.
An Action-RPG Without the RPG
Final Fantasy XVI is advertised as an action-RPG, which is no surprise given the history the series has with this genre. However, spending no more than a couple of hours with it will highlight a distinct lack of meaningful RPG mechanics. Clive levels up by gaining experience points in the normal way, but this feels pretty redundant. The entire upgrade system is built around Clive acquiring new Eikon abilities. However, they do little aside from offering the player more choice in terms of which abilities to equip and use. Most of them are unnecessary and none of them change the way combat works fundamentally. Unlike almost every other entry in the series, there’s little point in trying to become overpowered by grinding enemy encounters for prolonged periods of time, a concept that will feel alien to fans of the franchise.
Another staple of the franchise is the importance of a cohesive party. Games such as Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII place extra emphasis on the strength of the player’s party as a collective. Each member must be selected to complement the others. FFXVI does away with this idea and chooses to focus almost entirely on Clive. Other characters like Cid (who almost steals the show with a tremendous performance) and Jill struggle to wrestle any meaningful time away from the protagonist for their own characters’ development. Clive’s adventure is very much a solo one. He does have his loveable dog Torgel, who can perform some basic attacks. Even when others do help Clive in battle, they are AI controlled. As such, they offer very little in terms of making an impact in the heat of the moment.
When compared to past games in the series, in many ways Final Fantasy XVI falls short. However, it’s important to note that as a stand-alone game, it ticks many of the boxes one would expect from an action title. Those who are new to the franchise will also find a lot to love here. The fast-paced action, the huge, stunning boss fights, and the rich overarching narrative will be enough to keep many at the table. It’s admirable that a franchise is able to constantly reinvent itself for such a prolonged period of time in order to stay relevant.
Square Enix deserves kudos for not being afraid to make such big changes. That being said, for all of its grand spectacle and bombastic Eikon battles, Final Fantasy XVI turns its back on many of the themes and mechanics that brought it to the table in the first place. Whether this decision was right or wrong is debatable. Fans who have grown up with the series are entitled to feel more than a little disappointed though. Ultimately, much of what many love about this series has been mercilessly swept aside in Square Enix’s attempt to attract a bigger audience.