For the longest time, if you were looking for innovation in RPGs, Final Fantasy was the series to play. ATB reinvigorated turn-based combat in Final Fantasy IV. The Draw system changed magic and stat growth in Final Fantasy VIII. Gambits allowed you to essentially program your party’s actions in Final Fantasy XII. In a genre often accused of resting on its laurels, Final Fantasy pushed the envelope. Sometimes it was successful, sometimes it wasn’t, but Final Fantasy has never been afraid to be bold and new.
Final Fantasy XVI is certainly bold, but perhaps it isn’t “new.” It borrows, combines, and polishes ideas from previous entries, television, action games, and some of the best RPGs of the last couple of generations to create what is, thankfully, an almost perfect alchemical mix. The result is not only the best single-player Final Fantasy game of all time but one of the best RPGs ever made.
At the core of this mixture is another ingredient Final Fantasy has long been known for: presentation. And it’s not just about the graphics, which, yes, are stunning. The dark, grimy world of Valisthea, the setting for Final Fantasy XVI, is suitably gray and washed out, melding beautifully with the colorful, epically scored set pieces. It’s a combination that doesn’t feel like it would work on paper, but it all makes sense here. The photorealistic movements of the characters, including their facial expressions and the lip-syncing, go a long way in helping with immersion, too. You can choose between “graphics” and “performance” modes to fully tailor your experience and help with this as well. I stuck with performance mode because it still looks great, and didn’t see any significant framerate drops, but I do wish you could turn off motion blur (you can’t… yet).
Regardless of the mode you use, the game looks incredible, but the sound presentation is even more impressive. Those who have played Final Fantasy XIV already know Masayoshi Soken is a masterful composer, and that continues here. I might miss the range he shows in XIV, but here the blend of the moody and melancholic and operatically intense feels more appropriate. His persistent use of “Prelude” and the “Final Fantasy Main Theme” as leitmotifs in pieces that embrace the power of the minor key is beautiful and haunting, too. But it’s the voice acting that really sings. Virtually every line of dialogue, whether it’s a conversation you overhear as you’re walking around, a chat with an NPC during a sidequest, or, of course, the main story, is voice acted; all of the voices are fantastic and help make the world feel lived in and unique and whole. Combine all this with the development team’s understanding of tone and pacing, plus a slick-as-hell UI, and yes, it is recognizably Final Fantasy. Yoshi-P and the developers have shown they know how to cut the fat off of an established genre, focus on what works, and include a ton of personalization and accessibility options to deliver something both intimate and epic.
The excellent presentation only serves to enhance the story of Final Fantasy XVI, and this is where the game wears its inspirations on its sleeve most obviously. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Clive, the protagonist, is a prince of Rosaria who never really gained the approval of Anabella, his mother. She really loves her other kid and Clive’s younger brother Joshua, a Dominant who can transform into the Eikon Phoenix, and is genuinely terrible to everybody else. At least Clive has a very cute wolf puppy named Torgal (cue everyone saying “best boy”: he really is). His father Elwin, the Duke of Rosaria, is a kind man who sees his life cut short because of betrayal. Heck, in the opening we see Joshua and Jill, a ward from another kingdom and Clive’s potential love interest, watch Clive spar. The continent of Valisthea is split into multiple kingdoms, the world is laced with political intrigue, morally ambiguous characters engage in profanity and sex, and it even features huge creatures that turn the tide of war at the drop of a hat. Sure, there’s a lot of Game of Thrones here, and that “feel” continues throughout. Oh, there’s also some Dragon Quest V, a sprinkle of The Witcher 3, a little Final Fantasy VI, and (of course) a whole lot of Final Fantasy XIV.
All of these stories share one important common thread: they’re awesome. Okay, well, two important things. They all understand characters are what make a great story tick. The narrative is indeed more “mature,” the writing is excellent throughout, there are insanely cool set pieces around every corner, and this game gets really dark sometimes. But it’s the people of Valisthea and their struggles and desires and hopes which prevent the game from bending under the weight of its heavy themes. Joshua’s earnest, eager love for his brother makes you want to defend him just as much as Clive does. Cid, the leader of a band of outlaws trying to take down the world order, is sarcastic, funny, but knows exactly how to lift up those around him. And Clive? He’s just fantastic. His arc from a gentle teenager to a raging, self-loathing adult, eventually culminating in an accepting and respected leader, is a familiar but deeply relatable one.
The rich characterization is even more impressive when you consider the pacing. Right from the start, Final Fantasy XVI pushes the gas all the way to the floor and doesn’t let up for hours. The opening hours push you from one cutscene to another and are fairly linear, but it works because the stories and the characters are so strong. It does punch the brakes considerably later, giving you large areas to explore, side quests to take on, and plenty of enemies to fight. This all comes at just the right time, though, because after investing you in the world and lore, Valisthea becomes your playground to explore. The “Active Time Lore” feature goes a long way toward achieving this, too. Any time you’re in a cutscene or out in the world, you can hit the touchpad to pull up additional information about the people, events, and places relevant at that moment. It’s never intrusive, and while it’s all important information, there’s little you can’t find in-game. Still, I found myself using it liberally throughout to memorize everything I could about this incredible world and these intriguing characters.
What also keeps the pace feeling brisk in Final Fantasy XVI are the side quests. In the opening hours, they’re fine. Well-written, but mostly fetch quests—not anything to write home about. In the latter portions of the game, though? They’re essential. Most quests come from NPCs in your “Hideout,” or from the people you meet across Valisthea. They encourage you to check back in on a town or help enrich a character’s backstory. While the last 20% of the game can feel a bit empty and not as fleshed out, the side quests flicker brightly. Things like helping Isabella keep her business going, getting Blackthorne to reconcile with his past, or assisting survivors of a war-torn land be true to their faith are all memorable experiences I’ll keep with me for a long time, and they do a lot to help fill any gaps the main narrative presents.
I’ve been lavishing praise on the game so far, and any criticisms I have mostly feel like nitpicks. As I noted, the game loses a little steam in its final 10 hours leading up to the (killer) end sequence, largely due to one relatively weak villain. Additionally, despite the fact that many of the women in Valisthea, including a lot of prominent NPCs, are fully realized and feel like real people, a couple of the leading female characters are thinly developed and far too defined by the men in their lives. My biggest issue is that Final Fantasy XVI is a bit thematically inconsistent. It’s no secret that the game deals with themes of revenge, but I don’t think the developers really knew what they wanted to say about it, and it’s muddled and a little troubling as a result. It’s a relatively minor issue, especially because many other themes the game deals with, like discrimination, community, fate, and personal responsibility are handled excellently, but it’s still worth mentioning.
While I know there will be some dissatisfaction about the story and its tone, most seem to be concerned about the gameplay—especially the combat. I won’t go super in-depth here; Scott already did a fabulous job of talking about the specifics in our hands-on preview, so check that out if you want a full breakdown. But, put simply, Final Fantasy XVI has fully embraced action combat. Luckily, they’ve hired some of the best in the business to work on it, and it’s an absolute blast to play. The baseline combat involves big, flashy combos from Clive while he zips between enemies, mixed in with some magic, timely dodges, and skills acquired from Eikons. Boss fights are tightly designed, too, with interesting mechanics to figure out, providing different ways of dodging their varied attacks, and forcing you to carefully consider when you want to move in for a strike. There are even a few QTE moments tossed in to make things feel more cinematic.
Indeed, Final Fantasy XVI plays a lot like a Platinum-developed RPG (which makes sense given that Platinum assisted with combat), or yes, Devil May Cry. But it comes with some Final Fantasy twists. Often, you’ll have party members in battle. Your loyal friend Torgal is almost always there, and while he’ll auto attack without any inputs, you can prompt him to help with combos. You can’t control the other party members, but honestly I don’t know how that would work with everything else. There’s a skill tree where you can unlock and level up Clive’s abilities—normal and Eikonic. Eventually, you can enter a “Limit Break” form that deals more damage and regenerates some health. Additionally, bosses and mini-bosses have a “Stagger” meter, á la Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy VII Remake. As you pelt the enemy with attacks, their HP goes down, as does their stagger meter. While staggered, the boss can’t move and is also susceptible to increased damage.
That’s where Eikonic abilities become important. These abilities push out massive damage and also build stagger quickly. Throughout the game, Clive absorbs some Eikons’ abilities, allowing him access to special elemental moves. He can knock an enemy into the air with Phoenix’s wings, spin them in the air with one of Garuda’s abilities, and then punch them back into the ground with one of Titan’s abilities, for example. You can mix and match Eikonic abilities, and each one presents a different playstyle. Do you like to stand away and reflect projectiles back at enemies? Throw on Phoenix’s Heatwave. Like to counter with an epic punch? Titan can help there. Are you into air combat? Garuda’s got your back. It is deeply satisfying to play around with the different abilities, figure out what works for you, and strategize how you’re going to manage cooldowns to maximize punishment.
The aspect that really sets Final Fantasy XVI‘s combat apart is the Eikon fights, though. If you’ve played the demo, you have some sense of them, and if you’ve watched Scott’s combat breakdown video, you have even more of a taste. But let me tell you, they don’t even touch the sheer scale, thrills, and insanity of some of the later fights between Eikons. I won’t say much about them because you should experience them for yourself, but none of them feels the same, and they ratchet up the scope each and every time. Even the interspersed cutscenes coupled with the QTEs are amazing; honestly, I was so busy picking my jaw up off the floor during Eikon fights that I welcomed the small break.
If the base combat isn’t your thing, there are a lot of ways to adjust your experience. You can throw on a ring which allows Clive to dodge attacks automatically, or another that slows time before a dodge. If you find that bosses hit a little too hard, and take too long to go down, you can swap to Story Mode at any time to make things a little easier. But if you’re even a little familiar with action games, you probably won’t need them. Herein lies one of my very few criticisms of the game: this game just isn’t very hard. Especially by the end of the game, where you’ve optimized your load-out and figured out your playstyle, you’ll probably blow through just about everything the core game has to offer. Sure, there are other ways to challenge yourself, such as taking on Hunts when you’re underleveled, perfecting old stages in Arcade Mode to achieve that sweet “S” rank, or taking on timed challenges where you can only use one Eikon’s abilities. And after Final Fantasy XVI is over, you can replay the game in “Final Fantasy” mode, which carries over your equipment and abilities, with tougher enemies to match. Here they add in the “Ultimaniac” Arcade Mode (which is indeed very challenging). I’d have liked the ability to make things just a little tougher right from the start, though.
The easy difficulty is made a bit worse by the lack of enemy variety. Besides the main bosses, you’ve seen basically every enemy the game has to offer in the first third. The dragon you fought in the first main level? I hope you really like it, because get ready to fight that thing about a hundred times with only slightly varied move sets. Even the Hunts are usually just souped-up versions of earlier bosses. Eventually, when you see an enemy enough times, you sort of get the hang of it. I can forgive this though because the combat is so fun and frenetic that the satisfaction of ripping through enemies with Clive is still a joy after 70 hours.
After the credits rolled, after I spent so much time in Valisthea, I thought about all of the inspirations and references, and the rich history of Final Fantasy. Interestingly, I think Final Fantasy XVI reminds me most of Final Fantasy VII. Obviously, it’s not because of the story or the characters or the combat. Instead, similarly to VII, XVI is the new benchmark which future Final Fantasy games, and the rest of the genre for that matter, will be measured against. Old folks like me remember how staggering VII‘s cutscenes, story, and characters felt back in 1997, and how invested we were in the twists and turns and emotion of the narrative. VII built upon the foundations of what came before it to create an epic adventure. Final Fantasy XVI does the same, but it pulls from so many more sources, and like VII, it understands how to mix the intimate with the epic.
So, yes, Final Fantasy XVI may not be entirely “new,” but it’s bold in a way Final Fantasy has never been. It’s meticulous, it wants to thrill, and it wants you to feel. All of this combined makes Final Fantasy XVI a new high-water mark for the series, and I don’t expect it will be matched for many entries to come.