Final Fantasy XVI Review
A bombastic new direction that's held back by its past
The Final Fantasy series carries a huge legacy for a lot of players. It's one of the most well-known JRPG franchises out there, and many players consider some of its earlier entries to be the best of all time. But like any famous brand, the developers felt it needed to evolve and change – as did God of War and Assassin's Creed in recent years. But when you're starting off as a stat-focused JRPG, the way to evolve is to become more action oriented and less about the numbers. Final Fantasy XVI continues on a path set out by its predecessor seven years ago, and the result is a game that's not able to break away from its legacy and expectations.
Final Fantasy XVI is set in the fictional medieval-themed world of Valisthea, where the land draws its power from a few magical shards called Mothercrystals, which provide aether energy that's used for both combat and manufacturing. Players assume the role of Clive Rosfield, the son of the king of Rosaria, one of the kingdoms in this land. He is passed on to be the next ruler of the kingdom after his younger brother Joshua becomes the Dominant of Phoenix, and so instead Clive becomes his brother's protector. Dominants are near-mythological chosen few who are able to wield grand magical powers and also become humongous god-like creatures called Eikons, among other benefits. Clive is also a Bearer, meaning he has magic abilities without the need for the crystals' energy; people like him are cruelly branded with face marks and often discriminated against in this society.
One night, the kingdom is betrayed by the queen and Clive's mother, Anabella; a grand battle breaks out, as Joshua is killed by another Dominant, and Clive is enslaved as a soldier in the army of a rival kingdom. 13 years later, as the kingdoms grow increasingly hostile to each other, Clive is accidentally reunited with a childhood friend Jill, which helps him finally decide to break free from the army and venture out on his own, still in search of the Dominant who killed Joshua. They come across a man named Cid, who runs a hideout for Bearers and Dominants that do not wish to be abused or used as tools by the kingdoms of the land. In their search for Joshua's killer, they cross paths with Benedikta, who is also a powerful Dominant. Clive eventually emerges victorious, but in doing so he realizes that he himself is also a fire Eikon named Ifrit, and his brother's death may have been his own doing.
But as one subplot potentially concludes, new ones spring up. The kingdoms of the land begin to wage war against one another, as Cid and Clive realize that the Mothercrystals are actually slowly killing the world, and set out to destroy them. The rest of the game continues to follow a few of these major plotlines, which involve Clive venturing through every corner of the land. As you might expect, pretty much all key characters turn out to be Dominants with the power to become Eikons, which leads to grand scale showdowns. Final Fantasy XVI has a lengthy narrative, but as usual it's not necessary to have played the previous entries in the franchise in order to get into this standalone story.
The adventure is enjoyable for the most part. On the positive side, the medieval setting is very well utilized, with the mix of magic and sorcery, everyone having a British accent, and using thematically appropriate words. There are even some voice actors from Game of Thrones, which makes the inspiration for the game fairly obvious, complete with politically intriguing plotlines. Sure, eventually everything turns to the aspects of Gods and different dimensions, but it's not a focal point until the final hours. This is also the first mainline game in the series to get an M-rating, and again it utilizes it surprisingly effectively. The adult language can be hit-or-miss, but the mature content of some of the story scenes is quite well done. There are some undoubtedly great moments during the action, too, like the battles between giant Eikons, civil wars that break out within kingdoms, and so on. There is definitely some excellent storytelling going on during the game's highlight moments. And despite being a Final Fantasy game, the typical JRPG melodrama is kept in check, and there are a few story moments that impress because they are rarely seen in Western games, which again only elevate the narrative further.
Unfortunately, the story is stuck in the mud of the game's shoddy pacing. The highlights are spread out fairly evenly across the game's 30 hour run time, which is fine because you can't always be going from one set piece to the next. The problem is that everything in-between turns out to be so incredibly dull and meandering, that it threatens to put you to sleep. The reasons for this are numerous, and on their own are not necessarily the killing blow, but in combination with each other they really slow the pace down to a crawl. One big reason is the overabundance of cutscenes - for well over a third of the total run time.
The cutscenes are often self-indulgent and long winded, with dramatic character facial expressions and drawn out dialogue. This happens not only during the story-critical moments, but almost every time – even after you just helped some villager kill a random creature that was harassing his flock. The annoying adventure game trope of recent years, where you walk for ten feet between back-to-back cutscenes, appears frequently throughout FF XVI. A lot of the scenes really needed to be either cut, or just happen in-game; everything from a traversal moment where nothing of note happens, to a building collapsing in front of the group. You can simply put down the controller so many times per hour, it becomes noticeable. The game definitely also suffers from overextended dialogue that needed some serious trimming – especially for the optional content.
Clive will have to travel to new areas of the land, but the experience is copy-pasted across each major chapter. You arrive in a new village or city, talk to a few key NPCs (and sometimes just random villagers), and then help locals with their big problem or two. The various kingdoms include the typical desert, lush green plains, and medieval urban locales. After that you push on to the major conflict or enemy in this area, and then return to the hideout to regroup and do it again in another corner of the world. If you somehow want more (and this again only serves to kill the pacing further), you can pick up optional quests which extend your stay in the area for some repetitive fetch tasks, or combat trials. It seems even the game developers didn't put much faith into the optional quests because a large number of them outright tell you that they don't award any money or experience, with zeros across the board looking downright silly.
FFX VI has a similar problem to Horizon Forbidden West, where every character you meet has a lot to say. But unlike HFW, where the characters at least had a ton of lore or personal background stories to drone on about, the optional FF XVI cutscenes are often just everyday chitchat that does not need to be so lengthy. There are also pauses in play after you complete a quest or an important battle, showing you the confirmation and also slowly revealing the (often underwhelming) rewards. The game even pauses on a screen when you earn a new level and throws up some numbers – even though players have zero control over the stats.
This brings us to the RPG elements, or rather lack thereof. Clive earns experience from combat and story progress, and occasionally levels-up. But this is all done automatically; players don't get to allocate their stat points or anything of the sort. You can choose Clive's equipment – his sword, three pieces of armor, and three necklace slots. The swords have an attack and stun stat, the armor pieces boost your health and defense, and necklaces are largely used for reducing special attack cooldowns. There's really not a lot to it – swords and armor have no special attributes, abilities, or level requirements to worry about between them. Crafting and shopping is equally minimal. New items become available overtime and can be crafted or purchased from a vendor, but it can be hours and hours between getting new equipment that's an actual improvement.
Final Fantasy XVI's gameplay is clearly streamlined towards the action-game design philosophy, which makes the slow pacing of the narrative stand out even more in a game that's clearly trying to be more like 15-hour Devil May Cry and less like a 40-hour JRPG. Consider the complete lack of stat management, no party management (characters just join you as story dictates, and do their own combat), no turn based or tactical combat elements at all, and barely any equipment to worry about. There is no exploration – story levels are extremely linear, and some of the more open standalone locations are still quite limited in size. There are no traversal mechanics, no puzzles and no dialogue choices. It's an interesting trend, given that other action franchises are becoming more like grand RPGs, while this series that started off as a stat-heavy RPG is going the other way – and something that not all hardcore FF fans may appreciate.
All of the above means combat has to carry much of the experience, and the good news is that it is quite flashy and enjoyable. As mentioned, FF XVI has more in common with modern third-person action games than with its past. While Final Fantasy XV was already moving in this direction, the latest entry is an all-out brawler. You've got a single attack and a magic attack buttons, as well as a jump and dodge ability. Putting them together can create some light combos, but the real fun begins when you start using Clive's various Eikon powers. Over the course of the story Clive will be able to absorb powers from others, which unlocks special moves that deal great damage and help with crowd control. Special attacks range from calling down lightning, to grabbing and bringing enemies closer, and calling in incredibly powerful energy beams. Again, as an action-focused game, there is no mana use to worry about; all of the special magic attacks are on simple individual cooldowns. Clive also has a Limit Break meter that fills overtime, and when activated lets you temporarily enter a powerful state to deliver extra damage and recover a little health.
A typical combat encounter (of which there are many) has you facing off against humans, orcs, or wild beasts, who come in melee, ranged, and magic/buffing varieties. You can strike enemies within range and start unleashing your powers – cycling between them as they come off cooldowns. Stringing attacks together can result in some nice looking combos, though that's not the focus of the combat engine as it doesn't offer much extra damage. You can parry attacks or dodge, which momentarily slows down time and lets you get a few free hits in. If needed, healing potions can be used anytime from the D-Pad, as well as other optional consumables that offer temporary passive bonuses in combat. Bigger foes and bosses have a stagger meter, which you will break a few times during the encounter, rendering them helpless for a few moments and letting you deal extra damage.
While fun and relatively easy to execute, the combat of FF XVI does have a repetitiveness problem. All of the action takes place in fairly obvious combat rooms, with the exception of the open-level exploration encounters. It also takes many hours of story progress for Clive to gain a few new abilities that expand his special attack arsenal. Even so, you can only equip three types at a time, but at least rotating between them remains engaging. The mini-boss enemies also needed their health pools reduced, as they take forever to defeat compared to regular fodder. The combat is also not particularly challenging on normal setting – there is an even easier Story setting available, but the harder setting is locked to New Game+. For newcomers to action games, players do get three special necklaces to use from the start, which when equipped will basically dodge and do flashy combos automatically, so you just have to spam the attack button. Still, there are also occasional difficulty spikes; some bosses have an attack that drags you in and instantly kills you, and they can be tough to get through even with all the health potions you carry. Players are not able to swap gear or abilities in battle, so you're forced to load an earlier save if you need to make an adjustments for a boss.
The boss battles introduce some much welcomed variety, as you'll need to be careful with your attacks, dodges, and enjoy the sheer spectacle of these encounters. And when the game decides to turn it up to eleven, we get the ginormous Eikon battles as Clive transforms into Ifrit. These brawls between beasts of inconceivable size (that fans will know as summons from previous games) are impressive not simply due to their scale – many games attempt to replicate the experience - but because of the excellent visuals, choreography, and camera work that truly immerse you into the battle. These encounters only give you a few attacks and some QTEs to execute, helping to focus on the bombastic extravaganza. One odd thing here is that the game insists on flashing largely meaningless big damage numbers. There are health bars to look at, and having random numbers constantly popping up just reduces the cinematic effect of the battle. Still, these are some simply cool encounters that manage to maintain a sense of scale and believability that other games often fail to do.
Eikon battles also showcase some of the game's best visuals, with nice texture work, and great looking special effects. Elsewhere, the title looks good, but it's not exactly pushing the PS5 to its limits. There are two different cutscene tiers – one with carefully and manually rendered animations and lipsync, and the other just quick in-engine scenes with somewhat rough animations that you'd expect from any typical open world RPG game. Similarly, the gameplay visuals can vary in quality, with great special effects but only decent and fairly basic interiors / environments, and reduced framerate enemies on the horizon. And this is while using the 30fps mode; switching to 60fps performance mode results in reduced image quality and the framerate isn't even steady. In battle, the flashy visuals can be detrimental, as it's impossible to tell what is going on at times. At least the loading times are extremely quick – starting up and loading into a level takes under 10 seconds. The orchestral soundtrack is great throughout as well, though some of the music chosen for certain scenes seems like a thematic misfit.
Final Fantasy XVI is an interesting case, and a continuation of the path set by XV and the mainline entries before it. The medieval setting is well utilized, and so is the mature rating; by keeping the melodrama in check and thanks to a strong cast, this is one of the better stories in recent years. Unfortunately the narrative gets stuck in the mud of excessive cutscenes and unrelenting dialogue. The combat is exciting, though it takes hours to get going. With minimal RPG elements, this title would have been so much better if it fully embraced its action foundations, shortened its runtime by ditching side quests, and reducing cutscenes. But at that point, it probably wouldn't be Final Fantasy anymore – Chocobos aside - and the fan reception would have been certainly interesting to see. The end result is an action game with a bit of an identity crisis that can't shake the shackles of its franchise banner.