Final Fantasy XVI breaks traditions, expectations, and the standards of the video game industry
Final Fantasy XVI is an experience that no PlayStation 5 player should ignore, as it sets the bar astronomically high for the entirety of the industry in this and future generations.
The Final Fantasy franchise is undoubtedly legendary. With over 36 years of history and many more games than just what its mainline series would have you believe, Square Enix has gone through countless iterations on the original formula. So when the company revealed that Final Fantasy XVI would make a sharp turn into the action genre, fans were justifiably shocked.
There have always been certain traditions that the franchise maintains with each game. Magic crystals, warriors of light that set off to save the world. Classic monster designs that have stood the test of time over many consoles, technologies, and art styles. At the core of it all, many believe that it’s the RPG systems that made the franchise, but we’re far from the days of turn-based battles. The team at Creative Business Unit III, led by producer Naoki Yoshida and director Hiroshi Takai, has brought the series to a bright and radically different new era. And we absolutely love it.
A Fantasy darker than any other
First on the list of changes is a deliciously dark and mature story like few other titles in the series have dared to show. As you might have seen from the many trailers for the game released since its reveal two years ago, in Final Fantasy XVI you’ll witness the story of Clive Rosfield, a man hellbent on revenge against those who wronged him and robbed him of his family.
Firstborn of a powerful Duke, and sworn to protect his little brother who has inherited the powers of Phoenix, the Eikon of Fire, he and his loved ones ended up betrayed and decimated, victims of political conflict. The story unfolds over three different stages of Clive’s journey, from his teens to his late-20s, all the way to his mid-30s, spanning every corner of the world of Vlisthea. Blessed with the magical powers of the Eikons, you’ll guide him to face off against his enemies, encounter new allies, and eventually unfold a plot so epic that we simply cannot bear to spoil here.
As mentioned in the weeks leading to the game’s release, it was revealed that the developers took inspiration from the works of George R.R. Martin, author of the novels that would be the basis for the Game of Thrones show on HBO. This is undeniable from the moment the game starts, as while you do have a much more grandiose form of magic on display with creatures and otherworldly beings being as commonplace as water, the tone of the game keeps itself grounded thanks to a heavy foundation of lore that is surprisingly realistic for its world. It is a realm of political turmoil, with kingdoms and empires fighting over each others’ resources, lying, backstabbing each other, and always plotting a way to come on top.
For the first time in the history of the series, Final Fantasy has dared to deal with topics like sexuality, explicit death, slavery of an entire demographic of people, abuse (both physical and mental), and more. Gone are the days of veiled references to death and sex, instead being displayed at the forefront as a normal part of life. And it all works thanks to the way it is utilized, not as shock and morbid curiosity, but as a show of understanding that life in Valisthea is as dark and raw as it can be magical and awe-inspiring.
It is as if at every moment of the game, there was an understanding that the player is fully immersed in the world and willing to find out more. It’s a kind of respect toward’s the audience’s intelligence that trusts them to follow along with the story without needing to get coddled or protected by constant over-explanation of concepts, events, or characters breaking the flow of a cutscene to dump exposition about the world. Instead, the plot moves forward, and the developers have added many tools to help people keep pace.
The “Active Time Lore” system, as it’s called in-game, allows you to bring up relevant information about what is happening or being mentioned at any given moment. Need a refresher on a character mentioned during a discussion? Hold the touchpad and bring up some notes. Did you stop playing for a few days and forgot where you are? There are reminders of your objective, the last few things you’ve done, and the region you’re in on Clive’s journal. And if you want to dive deep into the lore of the world, see a full timeline of events, or learn about its supernatural forces, deities, heroes, and more, there’s the Thousand Tomes back at the main hub of the game.
But do not confuse all of these player comforts for crutches: the story is perfectly easy to follow even if you don’t care to read pages of lore. But you can do so if you wish to immerse yourself, and we highly recommend that you do. After all, everything in the game is soaking with information should you want to take it in, from item descriptions that tell small stories to political events that change governments as you play. It’s an open invitation to join a living, breathing universe.
Float like a Moogle, sting like a Cactuar
Even if you had the greatest story ever when talking about games you’ve got to remember that gameplay is the key. So with the developers leaning hard on real-time action and a skill-based combat system, how do you differentiate it from previous games? You get the experts.
Enter Ryota Suzuki, a developer that has worked on titles like Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, Dragon’s Dogma, and Devil May Cry V, who’s been brought in as the combat director for Final Fantasy XVI. And the results of such talent is immediately obvious as soon as you’re in control of Clive: combat is a delight, with tight and responsive controls that can be as simple or as complex as the player wants it, unfolding over the course of the game to give you an almost overwhelming amount of options to create builds based on how you like to play.
While similar in a way to the action of FF XV or FF VII Remake, XVI leaves behind the floaty feeling both of those titles inherited from the Kingdom Hearts games, instead using something more akin to fighting games mixed with hack and slash. The base mechanics of combat have you using your main sword abilities to slash at foes, and it can all be achieved by mashing square. As you sink points into unlocking this main skill set you’ll start getting more options, like charging up your strikes, or performing “magic bursts” by following sword strikes with quick shotgun-like blasts to lengthen your combos. Sooner rather than later, you’ll be lunging in, blasting with magic, closing in the distance with a charge attack to throw an enemy into the air only to follow up with an Eikonic ability that teleports you next to the target, and juggling monsters in the air.
It’s quick, fun, and demands player attention to perform some visually stunning combos that will keep your blood pumping at every moment. And to that, you have to add Eikon skills. You’ll be able to unlock these throughout your journey, expanding your skill trees and opening up even more options for your attacks. From something as simple as changing the element of your basic magic attacks, to the “Eikonic Feats” that fundamentally change your fighting style on the go, these sets of abilities act as stances that you can equip to mix and match styles.
Every single ability builds upon what is already there, stacking over each other to build countless possibilities in combat. You won’t be overwhelmed from the start, instead easing you into getting comfortable with every set of abilities little by little. By the time you feel like you’re hitting the limit of your basic Phoenix kit, you’ll unlock a second, wildly different Eikon that’ll throw a wrench into your controls.
It’s not easy getting used to switching up Eikons on the go, but it is incredibly rewarding. Soon enough you’ll have a third Eikon available, and things really start getting interesting from that point onwards. By the end of the main story, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from, with situational builds prepared in your mind for almost any kind of occasion, and the game expects you to do so. Changing up your skills is as easy as holding down a button, resetting all of your skills to create a different build.
The game is capable of being so complex, that perhaps you may feel as if you actually need more buttons to be able to play “correctly”. As a matter of fact, this is the first time we’ve felt the need to get one of those “pro” controllers with back buttons like the DualEdge. But lacking that, this reviewer reverted his controller grip back to the old and faithful “Dark Souls Claw”, if only for the benefit of being able to press all four face buttons at the same time using an index finger and thumb.
It is a kind of fun that only increases thanks to the sheer amount of creativity that went into designing the many combat scenarios of the game. Listing every monster and enemy would be a Titan-sized effort, so we won’t be going into such spoilery detail, but it should be mentioned that while foes can be approached as simply as with unrelenting attacks, they also have patterns and behaviors that make them different from other types of monster. They each have their own weaknesses and strengths, and as you progress through the game things get harder and harder.
Larger enemies have both a health bar and a stagger bar, which when depleted opens them up to higher damage than usual. So probing targets for their soft spots ends up giving you the knowledge you need to more efficiently stagger them. Some foes can block, and others are accompanied by mages that cure everything, so you have to focus your attention accordingly. Perhaps the arena is quite large, and there are enemies showering your party with projectiles from up high, or as you defeat them, more monsters join the fight.
One of our favorite things about combat is the fact that the developers have taken a page from MMOs (like Final Fantasy XIV), and have added “danger zone” indicators to some of the biggest attacks you’ll see. These hologram-like projections appear on the floor while fighting powerful monsters, or boss encounters, and serve as a warning to get out of the way or suffer heavy damage. Suddenly, you need to juggle reactions to your foe while paying attention to the environment, weaving through grids of attacks as if it were some kind of bullet hell.
It is important to reiterate, however, that all of this complexity and difficulty is optional up to a degree, all in thanks to the developers that have sought to find creative ways of integrating some accessibility for players without muddling down their vision. As has been repeated by the game’s marketing at almost every opportunity, a set of accessories allows for the simplification of everything mentioned above and is customizable to suit every preference.
Setting the bar sky high
As if the story didn’t grip your attention as tight as you grip your controller during gameplay, eyes glued to the screen, Final Fantasy XVI seals the deal with one of the most important things a AAA game can have right now: Presentation. It’s what separates a villain from a supervillain, or in this case, a game from a Game of the Year nominee.
The team at Square Enix has bundled the entire package in layers and layers of attention and polish, covering every aspect of the title with a kind of care that hasn’t been seen in the past decade of the industry but by a few outstanding releases. From its animation and visual presentation to its incredible voice acting and epic, heart-pumping soundtrack, and most importantly, to the quick response of the developers when faced with feedback from its community.
Starting with the visual part of the bunch, it’s clear as day that the game has beautiful graphics. But one thing is seeing it in pictures and highly compressed video on the internet, while another is getting your eyes blasted with a big screen. As is usual for new generation titles, FF XVI offers users the option of running on a Graphics oriented visual mode and a Performance mode. The Graphics mode sacrifices frame rate for a larger resolution and visual fidelity, while Performance is the opposite, sacrificing detail for a higher framerate. After trying both we found that the difference in visual fidelity is not as noticeable as one would expect, settling on the latter to enjoy playing at a smoother framerate.
Make no mistake, it does not mean that the game looks bad in Performance mode: it still looks stunning, but instead prioritizes keeping a stable high framerate that makes everything feel incredible while playing, and also helps when trying to chain abilities and combos. At the end of the day it is a personal choice, but rest assured that in over 50 hours of gameplay, we never dipped under 30FPS in either mode, even on the heaviest of scenes. The devs have perfectly optimized the game for PS5.
From a cinematic stance, the multiple directors deserve to be celebrated and rewarded highly. Far from the simple over-the-shoulder conversations with static NPCs, almost every conversation that happens in-game is framed by unique camera angles, pans, and shots of the surrounding environment that amplifies the emotions of the characters. This is not only reserved for big story moments either: it happens in every conversation Clive has, from a small sidequest about gathering soil to a chat with an innkeeper about her regrets. To be honest, it might be wasted on someone like this reviewer, whose cinematic chops don’t go much further than big summer blockbusters, but its still highly appreciated.
This attention to scene dynamism is accompanied by absolutely stellar voice acting. Every main character has a voice behind them that gave it their all at the recording sessions, with dialogue having the correct pacing to it. Never does spoken dialogue feel stunted or artificial, not even in background NPC voice lines, nor does it seem to be isolated voice lines or acting. Characters respond to each other as regular humans would, with a good cadence and humanity in the way they express themselves.
And finally, the glue that not only holds it all together but instead makes it all the better: the unbelievably epic musical score by composer Masayoshi Soken. There is simply no way of explaining how Soken has managed to capture the concept of every character in the game, and somehow converted each of them into themes that interact with each other to create dynamic music that fits at every moment.
From the basic battle theme that seems to reference FF8 with its quick beats, to leitmotifs of boss battles of old mixed with Clive’s theme of “Find the Flame”. Each important boss encounter comes with its own musical accompaniment to set the mood, and it does so with an orchestral style that is difficult to top. The rock and punk experience of the composer almost bleeds through the classical influences of the entire soundtrack, resulting in music that, just like the combat, is fast-paced yet ornamental, with a frenetic rhythm to it all that keeps you on your feet.
No matter how easy or difficult, from a quick skirmish against a pack of wolves to an epic, multi-part fight with a demi-god, the visual spectacle of it all accompanied by Soken’s compositions is like an adrenaline shot straight into your blood flow.
The end of an era, the birth of a shining future
If you’re looking for probably the best thing about FFXVI that will go overlooked by many of the players, it’s the fact that this game will continue to be cared for after launch. Just look at the response the team had to player feedback to the recently released demo. Since it’s release, the devs announced that they would work to implement fixes to the larger problems found in it, including a few frame drops and, most importantly, motion blur settings. Truth is most problems like this are being addressed by the team led by producer Naoki Yoshida, just as they did for years already on Final Fantasy XIV. So we can expect that, as long as they’re allowed to do so, they will continue to pay attention to everyone playing the game.
There is simply no denying that Final Fantasy XVI has arrived to mark a before and after in the AAA industry. From its evolution of a long-established franchise to something completely new and exciting, to the care its devs have had to the most minute aspects of the title, this game squeezes every ounce of performance from the PlayStation 5′s next-gen hardware, optimized and perfected as much as possible to create an astonishing experience.
Final Fantasy XVI officially releases on June 22, 2023 exclusively for PlayStation 5.