Square Enix is looking to bring back the magic and spectacle of mainline Final Fantasy games with the release of Final Fantasy XVI. Now, the question is: does it manage to do that or does this one fall on its big Eikon ass? I can unequivocally say that not only is Final Fantasy XVI one of the best games of the year, but it’s one of the best Final Fantasy game in ages.
A Game of Thrones
Those about to dive into this Final Fantasy XVI review, don’t fret about spoilers, as I won’t be discussing anything about the game’s narrative outside of the early plot, something already revealed by the demo and studio leading to release. Got that? Good.
Set in the fictional world of Valisthea, the story of FFXVI starts off with the player as a member of the Imperial Army. You’re what’s called a “Branded” — a marked person (the tattoo on your cheek) that’s owned by someone (be it a person or an entity, in this case, the army). Things go awry; there’s a flashback where it’s shown how you, the son of the Archduke of Rosaria, are now in the predicament you’re in that leads to the start of the game.
It’s hard to talk about the game’s story without spoiling things (though most of the early plot twists are predictable enough), but I can say is, this is a much darker Final Fantasy than its predecessor, not just in its visuals but in its themes as well. There’s no teenage romance here, but rather, it’s about revenge, realization, and redemption, as the story threads between the state of the world, discussing politics, as well as a number of taboo subjects such as slavery, mass killings, and so much more. It’s definitely a more mature Final Fantasy game compared to what we’ve seen from the franchise, and it’s all the better for it.
Square Enix has mentioned that Game of Thrones inspired them regarding the art style and dialogue, and it shows. The characters and how they behave wouldn’t look out of place in the hit HBO TV series. Their design, while sometimes over the top, is a lot more grounded compared to past Final Fantasy games. There are lighter moments sprinkled in, but expect the story to be told in a very serious tone.
Backing this story up is a full-on voiced-over cast. While some dialogue is a bit cringe-y (something we’ve learned to expect from a Final Fantasy game), for the most part, they work superbly. Everyone speaks with such compassion and a range of emotions that it’s believable. Nothing is truly out of place in this world, as the narrative dives deep, tackling themes you wouldn’t expect to see out of a Final Fantasy game.
As for the world itself, first and foremost: Final Fantasy XVI is NOT an open-world game. To be fair, it was never advertised as such, and if you’re heading into this expecting an open-world adventure like The Witcher 3, where you can go anywhere at any time, you’ll be very disappointed. The thing is, though, FFXVI is a Final Fantasy game through and through. Depending on who you ask, that’ll mean different things, but for me, that means the story and characters take center stage.
Instead of being open-world, we get a tightly woven narrative, engaging characters, a linear gameplay world that knows where it wants to take you and when, and lots (and by lots, I mean loads!) of cutscenes. If you remember the Final Fantasy games of before, then this is pretty much that but with modern gaming mechanics. Mind, that’s not a complaint, as not every action RPG needs to be an open world. On the contrary, this one feels more focused as a whole because the dev team clearly knew what it wanted to do from the start.
A big emphasis is put on world-building, as immediately the game throws cutscene after cutscene, all filled with exposition, detailing the world’s background, as well as the things to come. It can get pretty cutscene heavy at times, to the point of being a bit overwhelming. Though if you do find that to be the case, there’s a new mechanic known as the Active Time Lore, which you can bring up that’ll help you follow the story better. This is an excellent addition to the franchise, and one I hope other games follow suit. Basically, you can pause the game at any time, open the Active Time Lore and read up on topics relevant to the scene at hand. You can, of course, check it later again, but it is a nice way to make sure people are able to follow what’s happening and to whom.
However, for those who are fans of the TV series Game of Thrones (which I am) I found these deep dives into the game’s world to be quite enjoyable. All the characters that inhabit the world feel perfectly crafted, as if they were born to fill the role they serve. A purpose of existing in an imaginary world. I’ve grown quite attached to all the characters I met along the journey, and frankly, the narrative approach reminds me of Game of Thrones, minus the disappointing parts.
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There’s also a plethora of sidequests you can undertake, which are all highlighted by the NPCs that issue them, though I will point out that I did find this to be the weaker side of the game. Not in terms of the story that they have to offer. They’re short and sweet, which is nice, but the actual objectives aren’t so different from one another and mostly consist of going from point A to B and then back to A. But at the very least, you can enjoy the story content they have to offer, some of which can be even darker than the main plot itself.
Even though this is a Final Fantasy game, which comes with the expectations of the story going off the rails at some point, it’s somehow still believable in the realm that, maybe, could exist. You have all these characters who are struggling with their own internal conflict; Clive, who has to make these tough choices and then deal with the aftermath of it. The world he lives in isn’t all sunshine, despite being born in royalty. There are subjects that FFXVI surprisingly tackles in a well-respected manner. But they’re still shocking to see and a bit taboo, especially for a video game.
I think it’s a bit refreshing because, again, it makes the world of FFXVI feel believable. This game wants you to understand that life isn’t pretty, and you can’t always be the hero that can save everyone. There are moments where you’ll be filled with joy and excitement, while in others, you feel hopeless as you witness unjust cruelty that can only be ignored because the consequences would be far worse due to the politics of the world.
This matures the Final Fantasy series in a lot of ways, but don’t think everything is gloom and doom, as the narrative does balance out the wacky and more humorous side of the franchise. In fact, there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the campaign, as well as moments of sadness, relief, anger, excitement, and other emotions.
It’s a very different approach to the story than what many are used to, but I’ll reiterate once more, it still feels like a Final Fantasy game at its core. I say this even knowing that the combat is vastly different than what we’ve seen in the franchise thus far.
Come to Me, Ifrit!
On the combat side of things, if it wasn’t clear from all the trailers, gameplay videos, and demo, FFXVI is very much a full action-RPG in the vein of the Devil May Cry franchise and, to some extent, the classic God of War games. A big shift, though, one that the franchise has been slowly inching towards over the last decade.
Like many hack-and-slashes, FFXVI starts out slow, with Clive having access to a few basic attacks and combos. These mostly consist of mashing square (slashes) and triangle (magic) that alternate during combat. There’s some variation here and there, with more available to unlock, but don’t go in expecting the combo system to be that deep with some provided cheat sheet to tell you how many times you need to press the X button to perform an X combo attack.
Instead, most of the combat and combos are focused on the Eikon abilities. Eikons are essentially the game’s summons. However, unlike past Final Fantasies, Eikons aren’t one-offs where you call them to the battlefield to deal massive damage. Clive is capable of harnessing a small faction of their powers, and gaining new combat abilities, which all run on cooldowns.
You’ll unlock several of them throughout the campaign, with only three Eikons being equipable at any given time. Each one grants the players two of their abilities, activated by holding down R2 and pressing either square or triangle. Swapping between the three is seamless, as all you need to do is press L2 to switch to the next one.
It’s a simple system — one that feels geared towards offering accessibility. Not a bad thing, mind you, but I should also point out that it’s not an indication of shallow gameplay. Far from it, in fact, as once you begin unlocking (and upgrading) more and more Eikons and abilities, you’ll soon start to realize just how deep and insane the combat can get.
Alongside the Eikon abilities, you’re rewarded with a dedicated non-cooldown move associated with each Eikons’ ability. One example is the Phoenix’s Blessing, which teleports Clive directly next to a targeted enemy at pressing a button. Switching between Eikons will also mean you’ll be switching the specific non-cooldown ability along with it. So instead of Phoenix’s Blessing, the Garuda (Wind) Eikons ability will have you pulling in enemies (or slamming foes down once they’re staggered enough), which you can combo seamlessly.
This means that even if your attack of slashing 4x is relatively basic in nature, you’re combo-ing this non-stop with Eikons’ powers, your ability, and so on. Add in your dodges and your friendly companion getting in on the mix, and combat becomes not only deep but also fun and quite a spectacle to see. I do not doubt that gamers who are infinitely more skilled than I am will be able to pull off “sick” combos by mixing Eikons’ powers and abilities.
Final Fantasy XVI’s combat, much like the game’s skill trees, is very straightforward in nature. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t engrossing and fun. It’s a huge departure from past Final Fantasy games, as it shies away from any variations of the active time battle, though I very warmly welcome these changes and hope the series continues to expand upon it.
Though if you aren’t a fan of the hack-and-slash genre and just want to play without breaking a sweat to experience the story, there are a few gear items designed to make the game “easier” and more accessible. Some rings provide automated actions, such as dodging and healing, amongst other things. They’re there if you really need them, but they come with the sacrifice of using up a gear slot.
There’s equip-able gear that can benefit you in a number of ways, such as an increase in strength or lowering cooldowns of certain Eikons’ abilities. It’s Final Fantasy, so don’t expect much of a loot fest of any sort.
It’s in line with past Final Fantasy games. Not terrible, but it could use more variety. I will say that given all the abilities you can unlock and how much gear seems specific to them, I would have at least liked to see more gear slots. As much as I liked having shorter cooldowns, it was hard to justify using a piece of gear that did that for only one ability versus another that raised overall stats. Though perhaps those ability-specific ones would have been better off as ability upgrades.
Eikon The View (Alright, Not All Puns are Winners)
Ever since Final Fantasy VII (1997) was released, the Final Fantasy franchise and its fans have had an obsession with graphics. Specifically, the pre-rendered CGI cutscenes, which many can agree have been some of the most beautiful, well-crafted pieces of medium to have ever graced gaming. I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t part of the reason why I’m drawn to the Final Fantasy franchise, as they’ve always blown me away visually, even if it never looks like that in-game.
Of course, technology has seen some major advancements since, and even more over the last few years. Video games have begun moving away from pre-rendered CGI cutscenes and instead opt for them to run fully in-game, in real-time. While this has been an amazing feat. I’ll say I’ve always felt they could never truly match the details, effects, and smoothness of CGI cutscenes. That is until now, as Square Enix manages to match those movie-quality visuals and animations, all in real-time.
Final Fantasy XVI is an absolute spectacle that only keeps getting better visually (as with everything else) as you keep progressing through the campaign. There are loads that I wish I could share, but even if the embargo did allow me to, I still wouldn’t because it’s one of those things you have to experience yourself. Trust me; you’re going to be blown away and left knowing that Final Fantasy XVI is a true next-gen experience on the graphical front.
But hey, we all knew the game would look dead gorgeous in the end. So what about the performance? Well, that depends on what mode you play in, though both seem to experience drops depending on the location. I’m typically an FPS (frames-per-second) person, meaning I prioritize performance over resolution, though in the case of FFXVI, I probably would recommend opting for quality. There are a few reasons, the biggest being that 30fps seems to be maintained consistently, especially after the day one patch. I had some noticeable drops when venturing through the big towns and main hub pre-patch, but after, it seems barely noticeable.
The quality mode also has better image quality (duh) than performance, and I’d say it’s quite a noticeable difference. Performance mode has some screen blurring that I’m not a fan of, though both modes have motion blur that can’t be (yet) disabled.
When I did play in performance mode post-update, I did notice some improvements, but it doesn’t feel quite locked yet. More patches are coming, so hopefully, we’ll get closer to that stable 60fps experience sometimes post-launch.
I will say that regardless of which mode you do play in, I don’t think the dips are detrimental to the overall experience. The dips will mostly be noticeable when you enter big towns that have a large number of NPCs roaming around, but outside of that, during combat and the very intense action scenes that are no doubt pushing the PS5 to its limit, the frame rate felt consistent on quality mode.
And that’s probably the most you’ll have to worry about, as outside of those dips, FFXVI is a very polished experience. In my 40+ hours of playtime for the campaign, I didn’t experience a single bug or crash. That includes graphical and audio bugs, which is rather surprising since those are typically common in many games.
A Fiery Encore
Regardless if FFXVI is your first Final Fantasy game or you’re returning to the series, Square Enix’s latest game in the franchise lives up to the hype. Forget about JRPG’s or how action-RPGs nowadays need an open world, side quests that last for ages, co-op or whatever gimmick. FFXVI just throws all that out of the window and proves a tightly woven narrative-driven game –when built right — can make up for all those.
The minor issues the game has doesn’t detract from the incredible experience Clive & Co. bring to the table. Players will be treated to a compelling tale, stunning visual spectacles, and a fluid and fun combat system. What’s even more impressive is, Square Enix manages to make the franchise “grow up” alongside the players who grew up playing the series. FFXVI deals with more mature themes and manages to make it matter without being overly preachy about it.
Those looking for the series’ return to glory, rejoice! Final Fantasy XVI is that game, and this is one fantasy you’ll want to make sure you’re a part of.
- The story is interesting, and it’s more mature and tackles sensitive issues without dragging too much
- Combat is fast, fluid, and has enough depth to make it addictive
- The visuals are a showcase of the PS5’s power. Truly one of the most next-gen experiences I’ve played.
- The Music – It’s fantastic, some of the best in the franchise, but…
- Side quests are short and can get repetitive from time to time
- Performance could have improved more (though Square Enix did confirm we are getting patches for it specifically)
- Cutscenes Galore – I loved the story, but there are moments where it can be too heavy on the cutscenes — especially when you just finished watching one, walk a few steps, and have another one begin. Why not just have the full cutscene playout?
- The Music – The battle theme is overused. Felt a bit disappointed having to hear it used again during multiple major bosses and story scenes.
Final Fantasy XVI review code was provided by the publisher. You can read MP1st’s review and scoring policy right here.