REVIEW: Final Fantasy 16 takes wild swings but stays true to its roots
Final Fantasy 16 was one of the reviews that got lost in the shuffle thanks to a series of delays, including a packed Summer and a COVID stint that all but wiped out the VGG staff for most of August. We played this game closer to launch and acknowledge some potential changes.
Final Fantasy is a series whose history betrays it. Whose fandom keeps it in a place where nothing ever reaches satisfaction. Right alongside the likes of Pokémon and Sonic, no matter what a franchise like Final Fantasy does moving forward, fans will either lament that they are changing the series too much, that they're straying from their roots... or if they stick to the formula, that they've stagnated.
Final Fantasy 16 has landed itself in the former discourse instead of the latter. “Is it still Final Fantasy? Is it still an RPG?” With somewhere around 109 games under the Final Fantasy label, we are more than open to the team experimenting with a series that’s tried a little bit of everything at this point. And for all the think pieces, personal essays, and spicy Twitter threads, the only thing on our mind is the simplest question. “Is it good?”
I won't spoil the ending, but know this: Final Fantasy 16 made me more excited than any mainline release has in decades.
Just the Facts
Developer: Square Enix (Creative Business Unit 3)
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): PlayStation 5
Release Date: June 22, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
Final Fantasy 16 is a change of pace in more ways than one, starting with the internal team chosen to take the helm this time around: Square Enix's Creative Business Unit 3. Known for their work on Final Fantasy's MMO releases — Final Fantasy 11 and 14 — and the Dragon Quest Builders series, this was a surprising move but an earned one. All you hear about the critically acclaimed MMORPG with a free trial up to level 60 (you have heard of it, haven't you?) is that it has some of the best storytelling in the series, the music and combat are among the best in the genre, and its creators are some of the most passionate in the field.
That alone gives you more than enough reason to consider Final Fantasy 16 the start of something new for the series, and maybe in its own way, a reinvention of the series on the level of the jump to 3D between Final Fantasy 6 and 7. By ditching series conventions left and right, Final Fantasy 16 makes it clear that Square's not afraid to try new things to reinvigorate the series. One look at the setting, the game's M for Mature rating, and the pure action-RPG setup of its gameplay, and one thing should be running through your head: "This ain't your gramma's Final Fantasy."
Final Fantasy 16 slaps you in the face with all that newness from the jump with an opening sequence full of blood, F-bombs, and gameplay sequences that feel more at home in something like Uncharted than Final Fantasy. When the game calms down, we get introduced to our hero and set out on our journey.
In Final Fantasy 16, players control Clive Rosfield, the eldest son of the Archduke of Rosaria and the chosen protector of his little brother Joshua Rosfield. Joshua is born as the Dominant of Fire, a human blessed with magical ability and chosen to host an "Eikon," a gigantic magical elemental beast that provides protection for a political region and its people. These are the game's equivalent to summons and the source of all magical power in the world.
Joshua is a bit of an exception to the norm, though. Most people born into the world of Valisthea with magical ability are branded at birth and placed into servitude. They use their magic to accomplish simple tasks for their lords, stoking the flames of fireplaces or providing water for a town's wells. It's one of the first examples of the stark darkness and shocking maturity of FF16's narrative.
As a result, Final Fantasy 16 fans have drawn comparisons to Game of Thrones for that darkness and the story's focus on royal political machinations. Truth be told, I never really bought into the HBO series and I actually found that the game's dark political storyline hearkened back to some classic Final Fantasy stories. Murdered leaders, sudden land-grabs backed by surprise nations teaming up together, all led and anchored by some of the most villain-ass villains you could imagine.
The only difference with Final Fantasy 16 is that it shows the darkness that past games would have hidden in the margins. Instead of walking through an empty village on fire, being told that an enemy army had wiped out the entire town, you witness the brutality firsthand and see the bodies strung up in the square. You watch political rivals cut each other down in a climactic battle. Those impacts hit even harder when you see them up close.
Note: Skip to below the bold quote to avoid some story spoilers for the game's opening hour.
Clive's story starts with tragedy, as political opponents to his father's empire stage a coup to essentially wipe out the Rosarian empire in one fell sweep. His brother and father die, and he's imprisoned and forced into military servitude as a Bearer. This tragedy and all the things that echo from it set up who Clive is when we as the players take control. You constantly feel the effects of this life-defining moment throughout his arc.
Through his journey, Clive eventually finds himself joining a revolutionary force that is looking to liberate all bearers and put an end to their forced servitude. Though his singular focus remains revenge, Clive is finally able to rebuild his family through the bonds he makes with these people. The story from here becomes a mix of Clive helping these folks and slowly building toward his revenge.
Final Fantasy 16 shows the darkness that past games would have hidden in the margins.
It's a decades-spanning story that isn't afraid to take monumental swings — and it does so regularly, much to my surprise. Just when you settle into a rhythm, things completely change. Stakes reset. And the story's focus shifts completely. It makes for a narrative defined by big, bombastic moments, one that sacrifices some of the nuance in some of its characters and interesting storylines (like an environmental plot about overconsumption of the planet's natural magicks that eventually falls away) for the sake of shock and awe.
It works for the most part, but I wish the balance tilted a bit more in favor of nuance. With a story as long as FF16's, clocking in anywhere between 70-80 hours, you'd expect it has plenty of time to be able to pull that off. But its focus is clearly elsewhere.
As a result of that focus on spectacle, it's the quieter moments that surprised me. The moments spent back at the hideaway, an ever-evolving hub that Clive returns to after every mission that really starts to feel like home by the end. The side quests that gave deeper character arcs to NPCs that other games would ignore. Thanks to some strong writing and surprising performances from nameless characters, these smaller moments made an impact.
The pacing of those side quests could have used tinkering, though. The game offers a slow-drip feed of them throughout the first few acts, then dumps a metric ton of them as you finally find yourself barreling toward the end. It mirrors the pace of the overall story that delivers so much, so fast in its opening hours, before slowing to a crawl and delivering its story's conclusion across a bloated final act.
Cloud, get out of the way. There's a new Clive in town.
Clive is more than our usual angsty purpose-seeking Final Fantasy protagonist. His emotions are strong, he cries with regularity, and he allows himself to struggle. Amidst all the political machinations, the grandiose chess pieces being moved against the war table, and the effect of magic on the world, Clive's story of revenge remains the focus above all else. And the reason it works as effectively as it does is in no small part thanks to voice actor Ben Starr.
His performance is so emotionally wrought, constantly wavering between the deep pain and simmering rage that Clive holds inside. When he cries, when he screams out for his fallen brother, you feel it all. It's delivered with a conviction that has you buy in completely. Starr's performance is one I'll hold in my heart for quite some time and one that pushes Clive up the list of my favorite Final Fantasy protagonists.
And his co-stars keep pace, filling out Clive's growing family with incredible performances. This game's Cid is brought to life by Ralph Ineson, whose gravelly voice gave him the appropriate gravitas to lead a liberation movement, but whose innate charisma made him so lovable. Speaking of lovable, Christopher York brings so much energy and optimism into his performance as Gav, the revolution's best scout. Charlotte McBurney as Jill Warrick plays a role of calm assurance that Clive can lean on, yet has the range to lay bare a broiling rage as powerful as Starr's.
I could go on all day.
While Final Fantasy 16 ditches the traditional party system, giving you control of Clive only and swapping out members willy-nilly without your choosing, the game delivers the kinds of strong bonds you'd expect regardless. Clive's actions impact an entire base full of people that you return to regularly. You often see the implications of his work on them. You see them celebrate or mourn alongside him. It may be Clive's story, but it is the party's — or more appropriately, Clive's family's — story too.
To no one's surprise, story is pretty important to me when it comes to Final Fantasy. It's what makes the series so special to me, considering that Final Fantasy 8 first showed me the true potential of gaming as an art form. And Final Fantasy 16 takes bold steps with its narrative that pay off better than I could have expected.
But Final Fantasy 16 takes another big swing with its gameplay, offering something the the series hasn't seen up until now: High-octane action gameplay.
Slashing never felt so good
While simple at first, Final Fantasy 16's combat system is an amalgamation of all the hit action games of years past. It's got the hard-hitting fluidity of God of War, the combo-based shenanigans of Devil May Cry, and the focus on well-timed dodges of the all-popular Souls-likes out there. Even if you're incapable of pulling off frame-perfect cancels or seeing through the matrix to understand the exact chain of attacks needed to pull off ridiculous combos, the combat allows you to feel like a hero.
Your main combat focus is on building up your enemy's stagger meter, which fills as you attack before eventually stunning the enemy and making them more vulnerable. Once you do that, you can really chew up their health bars. Rinse and repeat that process and even the beefiest monsters and enemies fall.
In the opening act, Clive only has access to one set of "Eikonic" powers: A fiery set of magic abilities bestowed by his brother, offering a mix of hard-hitting, damage-dealing powers and stagger-focused abilities that do things like crowd control. In this early part of the game, the combat can feel a little stale. You'll mainly be looping through the same attacks, dodging when you can, and waiting for your ability's cooldowns to refill so you can cycle through again.
Eventually, Clive can gather up even more of these abilities, up to six at a time. It's here that the combat truly comes alive. As you find the synergies of these elemental abilities, creating combos that not only destroy an enemy's stagger meter but also destroy their health immediately after, it becomes a fun puzzle. You're figuring out how to best wipe out every enemy encounter that awaits you.
It feels good. It makes Clive feel powerful and important, something that RPGs sometimes fail at. It feels like the logical next step after the fight choreography-like combat system of Final Fantasy 15, despite all the belief that 16 completely reinvented the wheel. It certainly is different, but the series has been headed this way for some time now.
But there is a discussion to be had about difficulty.
If you even so much as dabble in side content, you will inevitably be 5-10 levels higher than almost any enemy encounters the main story has waiting. I have to believe they did this to keep the game from feeling like a complete slog. They aimed to keep the side content truly for the side, not making any of it mandatory in order to keep the main story as light as possible — because, let's face it, a lot of people have grown sick of 100-hour story campaigns.
Because you can become slightly overpowered, combat does feel a bit repetitive toward the side content-packed finish line. This makes exploring the semi-open worlds of Valisthea's various regions even less incentivized when the main reason to do so is to... grind levels and gather resources for the game's master weaponry. That all brings us back to why story is so important to the FF16 experience and why it weighs so heavily in our eyes.
Did you love that Titan fight as much as I did?
Rollercoasters are only as good as their highest-intensity moments, and Final Fantasy 16 delivers that through some of the best boss fights I've experienced since the likes of the God of War series on the PS2. Each boss truly feels like the culmination of the chapter. They offer tests of the basic combat through MMO-inspired boss fights and of your reflexes through fascinating bespoke gameplay sequences that really cement these as cinematic masterpieces.
Whether you're flying about and taking shots at an encroaching beast or crawling up the arm of a giant Eikon, hitting well-timed button prompts through beautifully choreographed cutscenes that deliver a fascinating sense of scale to each encounter... these boss fights are something special. Each one of FF16's fights tops the last, constantly upping the ante before a final fight that is as beautiful as it is mechanically enjoyable.
Each one of FF16's fights tops the last, constantly upping the ante before a final fight that is as beautiful as it is mechanically enjoyable.
Square Enix squeezes every bit of juice they can out of the PS5's power. They match the narrative's emotional stakes with brilliantly animated cutscenes and bring to life a world of magical crystals and gigantic Eikons that is simultaneously familiar for all of Final Fantasy's storied history and reimagined alongside all the other major changes FF16 presents.
Flames lick off of Clive's fiery blade with each swing. Colossal attacks from your enemies are telegraphed with brilliant beams of light and then executed with all the particles and visual effects you could ask for. Towns are realized with a lived-in density that feels more alive than any past game has ever pulled off.
Soken's soundtrack never fails to meet those grandiose moments either. What strikes me more than the epic orchestrations that blew my mind during some of the game's biggest moments are the places where the soundtrack treads lightly: Plucked guitars in a safe town, soft piano in a sanguine major key as battles turn in our hero's favor. For a game so full of sorrow and pain, it's the hope in the soundtrack that pulled me forward.
Final Fantasy 16 is as good as it is not because it strays from what has come before it, but because it embraces its roots. Everything the series has done, gameplay-wise, over the last few mainline releases, has all set up for what FF16 pulls off with its fantastic-feeling combat. For all the focus on its maturity and shocking narrative, the things that FF16 does with its impactful story have been present in games all throughout the series. And by letting a team like Creative Business Unit 3 take the reins, the best aspects of Final Fantasy 16 feel like pieces of one of the most beloved games in all of the franchise: Final Fantasy 14.
I won't deny the series is heading in a new direction, but have no fear, the ways in which Final Fantasy 16 succeeds are deeply rooted in the series' greatest traditions.
Video Games Are Good and Final Fantasy 16 is . . . GREAT. (8.5/10)
+ a fascinating new combat system that feels better than anyone could have expected, Clive is one of the best Final Fantasy protagonists of the last decade, the game thrives within the spectacle of its boss fights and grandiose story
- some of the more interesting nuance is sacrificed for the sake of spectacle, some issues with pacing make the final act a slog, might be a little too easy
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