What’s A King To A God? What’s A God To A Non-Believer?

HIGH A near-perfect blend of action gameplay and dark storytelling.

LOW Messy and problematic narrative bits early on.

WTF Man, was it hard to not spoil certain boss fights.

I’m by no means an expert on the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy VII Remake are the only two I’ve put any significant time into, while most of my knowledge of the worlds and characters comes from the Kingdom Hearts franchise. In more ways than one, I felt like I was in over my head reviewing the 16th mainline entry in this historic role-playing series. There’s a sense of pedigree to it that I don’t think I’ve tackled before, and I was worried that I didn’t have what it took to cover a title like this. 

Then, after about a dozen hours or so, I hit a point in Final Fantasy XVI’s story that shook those fears off of me. Without spoiling too much, the core characters learn some shocking news about their longstanding beliefs. Their status quo changes and everyone is looking for logic in what they’ve been taught to believe.

In a weird and meta sense, this felt like FFXVI’s producer, Naoki Yoshida, and directors Hiroshi Takai and Kazutoyo Maehiro’s way of conveying the idea that fans can let go and accept whatever changes were being made to the established formula. In a way, this series has always been an ever-evolving one — every entry has a new twist or revised concept, so the clear-cut definition of what a “Final Fantasy” is has consistently been up in the air. 

Final Fantasy XVI is an action-role-playing game (RPG) set in the continents of Valisthea. Players control Clive Rosfield, the firstborn son of a ruling-class family who is sworn to protect his younger brother, Joshua. After he witnesses the destruction of his kingdom and is forced into slavery, he sets out on a journey for revenge against those who have harmed him.

Right off the bat, the darker nature of the story contrasts with most of the Final Fantasy canon, featuring plenty of blood, strong language, sexual content, and a dark tone. Many of the early story elements are even a bit messy and problematic, like its handling of the slavery storyline, and many of the ways women are written. The script is pulpy and ugly in a medieval sort of way, and it might (understandably) make some people uncomfortable. There is clearly room for improvement here, but Clive’s journey was still one full of emotional gut punches I wasn’t ready for. 

As the story progresses, it becomes a more complex tale of fractured politics, war, the nature of violence and what it means to wield power. It also manages to be a found family tale, letting players experience moments of earnest hope throughout the carnage of its main plot.

This is a huge game that can be a bit overwhelming to jump into since so much new information and lore is constantly being presented. The early hours lost me a bit, as the developers frontloaded as much as possible — I was locked in, but had some trouble keeping up with names and locations. Thankfully, FFXVI has a solution for that with its Active Time Lore feature.

Basically, if I paused during a cutscene, I would be presented with character and location info of everyone/everything currently on screen or important to my current progress. It’s similar to something like Amazon Prime’s X-Ray Mode, which allows viewers to instantly know who’s on-screen at any given moment. It’s an incredible way to refresh players on every detail and a feature that should be implemented in all major RPGs.

Cutscene direction and English voice acting are top-notch, with every character fully formed. Lead voice actor Ben Starr shines, showing plenty of range in almost every scene. Jumping between moments of pure anguish and quiet reflection, he makes Clive feel real. Veteran actor Ralph Ineson also deserves praise for his role as this game’s incarnation of Cid (a recurring name throughout Final Fantasy) as a cool, calm, and collected leader of a band of rogues willing to take on the political factions of Valisthea. Other great characters shuffle in as well, notably Clive’s childhood friend Jill and his pet wolf Torgal, who both play integral parts. 

The new combat system in XVI is arguably the biggest change from past entries, as Square sought talent from other genres to develop it. Most notably, Ryota Suzuki (Devil May Cry 5) is the combat designer and it shows, as melee takes the form of real-time action battles. 

Ditching the mix of action- or menu-based gameplay from the preceding Final Fantasy VII Remake, the new formula is a sublime dance of sword-based attacks, careful dodging, and projectile magic. It’s easy to see the Devil May Cry DNA with its focus on combos, complete with a meter that rewards players who dodge precisely with a slowdown effect similar to “Witch Time” in Bayonetta.

Also new are the Eikon abilities.  Rather than simply summoning classic Final Fantasy monsters to aid him in battle, Clive can harness their abilities in real time with skills mapped to face buttons, and in conjunction with the right trigger.

The earliest players unlock is the Phoenix, allowing for fire-based attacks such as a shield of fireballs that repels enemies, or a fiery wing that slashes surrounding foes. The over-the-top sense of power is a huge rush that makes fighting addictive, and this is supported by a variety of enemies ranging from rabid animals to grotesque monsters and human soldiers. Different enemy types require different strategies, however, as button mashing won’t get Clive far.

A few bosses also make their way into the story, with each one providing an epic sense of scale and making use of Clive’s evolving abilities, almost playing out like epic kaiju battles in terms of gameplay and spectacle.

Our hero is occasionally joined by AI companions, though the most consistent is Torgal. This powered-up wolf can be directly commanded to attack and heal, but it’s worth mentioning that FFXVI lacks a traditional party system like most Final Fantasies. In fact, Clive is the only character that players can upgrade, which is a bold change that works well. 

Overall, I found the combat to be exceptional, which is good as there’s a lot of it. Rather than padding out story missions with useless filler like stealth, tailing, or puzzle missions, the developers focus on what works and stay close to the principles followed by hack-and-slash titles and brawlers. It also helps that there are plenty of accessibility options (in the form of rings) that assist with combat. One lets Clive automatically dodge, and another will automatically use potions with others available as well. These rings are a great tool to help RPG fans who might not be accustomed to these kinds of action games, though their use is optional.

While longtime fans might feel that it strays from tradition, FFXVI is a fast-paced action RPG with exceptional production values and a phenomenal combat system, and not only does it reach similar heights as the best in that genre, but for me it surpasses them completely. In a game series full of experimentation with mixed results, streamlining the combat into something that is both mechanically engaging while providing plenty of visual flair — it all pays off immensely.

It’s been a while since I’ve truly felt blown away by a big-budget videogame. In the third year of the current console generation, we’ve had some excellent stuff come out, but few notables that might be seen as defining titles in the medium. Final Fantasy XVI feels like that once-in-a-generation game. A dream team of designers, artists, and producers came together to forge a brave new path not only for the Final Fantasy series, but for action games in general. While debates on what makes the series special will continue, there’s no question that this one is setting a new standard for RPGs. 

Rating: 9 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published and developed by Square Enix. It is available on PS5. This copy was obtained via publisher for review and was reviewed on PS5. Approximately 60 hours were spent in single-player and the game was completed. There is no multiplayer. 

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M for Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence. According to the site: This is an action role-playing game in which players assume the role of an enslaved prince (Clive) on a quest to [REMOVED FOR SPOILERS]. From a third-person perspective, players explore a fantasy kingdom, complete various quests, and engage in battles against enemy soldiers and fantastical creatures (e.g., trolls, orcs). Players use swords and magical attacks (e.g., fireballs, lighting strikes) to kill characters in melee-style combat. During fighting sequences, players can perform cinematic attacks/finishing moves by following on-screen prompts. Battles are fast-paced, accompanied by impact sounds, cries of pain, and large explosions. Blood-splatter effects frequently occur when characters are slashed and killed. Cutscenes depict additional acts of violence and blood: a character’s hands severed by a sword; a guard’s throat slit by a knife; a character impaled through the chest; a prisoner’s shoulder stabbed and twisted by an interrogator’s blade. The game contains some sexual material: a character caressing and straddling a man in bed; references to prostitution—sexual moaning sounds in a brothel; dialogue such as, “I’d be happy to show you…provided I can afford it” and “…thank you for your service. My chamber is just upstairs.” Some characters are depicted with partially exposed breasts and buttocks. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” are heard in the game.

Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are not present in the options menu.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are subtitles and visual cues throughout the game and subtitle size can be adjusted. 

Remappable Controls: The controls cannot be remapped but there are control diagrams and different presets.

Cj Salcedo
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