Final Fantasy is a hallmark series within the gaming sphere, solidified as one of the longest-running RPG franchises in history. Final Fantasy XVI is the next entry that attempts to create a new tone. While its predecessor Final Fantasy XV did have a heavy action-focused combat system, FFXVI attempts to take this up a notch with a more varied combo system that is easy enough for those unsure about the gameplay to pick up. But more importantly, will Creative Business Unit 3 create a narrative as engrossing as its predecessors, allowing Final Fantasy XVI to truly stand on its own legs?
Editor’s Note: This preview was based on a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.
Final Fantasy XVI plays better than it looks, which is probably no surprise to some. As a very avid fan of Devil May Cry and someone who deeply enjoyed Devil May Cry V, there was some expectation for the combat system in Final Fantasy XVI to meet those same standards. While Clive’s set of skills is extremely rudimentary at first, with the power of the Phoenix strengthening his natural prowess with the blade through the use of special attacks, it is enough to introduce those unfamiliar with action-RPGs to the more complex “stance dancing” players will be expected to do some hours later. Switching between Eikon powers keeps the flow of battle natural and adds a level of depth and excitement that left me interested in the kind of combos players will be able to create. That said, all combat is focused around a stagger system, similar to Final Fantasy XIII, which means you will need to build up the stagger bar when attacking enemies and unleash your most powerful combos once an enemy is temporarily stunned. Planning around these burst windows may not be entirely appealing to players, but it’s the system that they will have to work with.
Torgal is also available as a companion in the game, and even on the standard difficulty he felt extremely overpowered. Capable of knocking flying enemies from the air or charging at targeted foes, he would quickly make work of smaller creatures or wild animals set on attacking Clive. He can also heal you, but it’s barely noticeable and you’re better off relying on potions. In an open area segment I was allowed to explore, Jill was available as a temporary companion. She can also heal Clive. Her ice magics felt particularly potent when it came to staggering enemies, whereas Cid, when he was traveling alongside Clive in his journey through a densely packed forest, felt like he did more direct damage to enemies. A part of me wonders if each of these companions will have their own specific utility, making them useful to the player in their own unique ways.
Perhaps one of the most distracting things about combat during the preview session was the QTE segments. The entire border of the screen is filled to the brim with particle effects, which can be distracting. They mostly felt unnecessary and didn’t have the same kind of impact as scripted QTE segments in the Yakuza series, for example, which have clear demonstrations of a character’s strength and play into the overall thematics of the fight itself. Final Fantasy XVI just sort of has them there, and they mostly exist just to have you mash a button to deal increased amounts of damage against an enemy in a flashier, more stylized way. The one Eikon battle I played felt similar as well, mostly in the way that while it was visually interesting, mechanically it felt flat. Perhaps the other Eikon battles will prove more engaging, since this one happened fairly early on in the game itself.
Final Fantasy XVI is also perhaps one of the most gorgeous Final Fantasy titles to date. That probably sounds reductive, as most Final Fantasy games in the past often pushed graphical limits and used stylization to achieve mostly timeless looks—Final Fantasy XII comes to mind, with the original Final Fantasy VII effectively ushering in the era of 3D Japanese RPGs. However, once I got to actually explore a handful of the unique zones in Final Fantasy XVI, it’s clear how much attention to detail went into these select locations and why it benefits from not being a true open world experience. The previously mentioned forest was utterly stunning, with clusters of flies congregating around rotten trees. Once I reached a cliff face that allowed me to look over the horizon, I was stunned at just how gorgeous it actually was. You can see clearly into the distance, the clusters of trees below are fully rendered, and the snow covered mountains some distance away were just beautiful. In that moment it made me realize just how long it had been since I’d played a game that stopped me in my tracks to just take time to view the scenery.
Generally, there is some kind of connective tissue between Final Fantasy titles, either through a recurring character, enemies, or the foundational element of tearing down an empire, or authoritarian power, to create a better society. Final Fantasy XVI does this; it has all of these things. It has Cid, it has dragoons, it has an empire, it has armor sets from Final Fantasy XIV, and it has music with leitmotifs to earlier entries in the series. But from what I played of the story (which was the good first few hours of an otherwise 35-ish hour game), I am somewhat concerned as to how a lot of the themes the game presents—specifically classism—will be discussed further down the line.
While Final Fantasy XVI tries to make itself distinct enough from earlier entries in the series by being more “adult” in the way that character curse and have sex and there’s gore and blood and all of the hallmarks consumers quantify as being mature and worthy of attention, it felt oddly surface level. Like an homage to Western prestige television like Game of Thrones, without the meat of what made Game of Thrones interesting to begin with; which was the tension and drama between houses, and complexly written characters. (The developers have gone on record to say that there are fans of the show on the team, though Localization Direction Michael-Christopher Koji Fox did state that these would be mostly outward similarities, which is probably true.) Final Fantasy XVI could absolutely have this, but what I played leaves me feeling somewhat skeptical, especially concerning several major female characters introduced in the early hours of the game.
There also begs the question, concerning how specific factions are portrayed, of representation. While almost all characters have distinctly Eurocentric features, there is a specific group that are portrayed as oppressive, religious fanatics that wear Middle Eastern headwear and communicate in a non-English subtitled language that definitely raised some concern, for very obvious reasons. While Producer Naoki Yoshida did make comments about the lack of representation we’ve seen thus far in Final Fantasy XVI, this seems like a very specific choice given those previous comments about the absence of Black people or general lack people of color in the game. It left me nervous as to how this will be handled further down the line, as the Final Fantasy series has always had an issue with orientalism in its inclusion and portrayal of SWANA inspired characters and cultures.
Ultimately, Final Fantasy XVI is engaging and does show some promise. While a lot of what I experienced in the narrative feels somewhat half-baked by comparison to the early hours of its predecessors or other more overly politically driven Square Enix RPGs, I am interested to see how Clive’s journey will end. I think this story could be compelling, but I am cautious how it will ultimately choose to handle its female characters from what I have seen. It’s an interesting thing to walk away from something feeling almost inspired, but also conflicted. But maybe that’s the sort of feeling the developers are aiming for, something that will leave you thinking or even wanting to pursue the questions those early hours of the game begs to be answered.
Final Fantasy XVI will release for PlayStation 5 on June 22, 2023.