Earlier this May, GameCritics was invited to play a hands-on preview of Final Fantasy XVI.

For more than five hours I had a controller in hand and got a feel for combat, I took in story beats, and I got a peek at surprises in store for the journey ahead. As someone who’s familiar with — but not the world’s leading expert on — this long-running landmark series, I was unsure of what to expect. However, while there’s still plenty of game left to see, I walked away pleasantly surprised and ready for more.

Disclosure: This hands-on preview event was arranged by Square Enix PR and all expenses were paid.

Throughout my time with this demo I controlled the protagonist, Clive Rosfield. We started with an introduction in his childhood and play progressed all the way up to an early stage where he appeared to be in his 20s.

My first impressions of gameplay are incredibly positive. Ditching the mix of menu-based combat/real-time action featured in something like the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Clive moves incredibly fast and combat overall feels good, offering the best elements of character-based third-person combo-heavy combat games, which makes sense given that combat director Ryota Suzuki’s (Devil May Cry 5) has a background in titles of that sort. 

During the short tutorial on combat contextualized by a young Clive learning the ropes of attacking, defending, and using spells with one of his father’s soldiers, the standard fare of chaining together attacks, dodge-rolling to avoid incoming hits and throwing a fireball from far away is a satisfying loop.

One of the earliest enemy types I encountered was a group of swamp-dwelling goblins that attacked in small clusters, and Clive had no problem landing hits on foes, even when there were multiple enemies coming from different angles. Also, one of my favorite discoveries in combat was a ‘perfect dodge’ maneuver that allowed time to slow down if I rolled at exactly the right moment — very similar to “Witch Time” in Bayonetta, another leader in the character-action genre. Later on in the demo, I also encountered human knights and even series staples like Morbols, as well as a few major bosses I can’t reveal.

Frankly, the combat is much more accessible than I was expecting. Rather than being bogged down by complicated systems, I enjoyed how seamless and smooth the action flowed, and there’s even a combo meter that awards players with more XP as they perform different kinds of attacks, encouraging players to change things up and keep it fresh — the devs again taking notes from the biggest entries in the character combat genre.  

Another major addition came in the form of Eikons. Playing off of classic summons from earlier Final Fantasies, Clive transforms into giant variations of well-known creatures such as the dragon Bahamut, as he encounters a fiery Phoenix early in the demo. There’s an immense sense of scale that comes across when playing as one hulking titan fighting another, and the gameplay even had a bit of a shoot-’em-up flavor as Phoenix and Bahamut clashed mid-air. It’s impressive and absolutely gorgeous too, with plenty of complex effects lighting up the screen.

While the combat was great, the story was just as good, though I was surprised by how dark the tone of the narrative was — intense family drama set during a brooding medieval backdrop is the order of the day. I won’t spoil major plot points so I can’t say much here, but everything felt dangerous. Similar to manga like Berserk, there was a sense of hopelessness that inhabits a world like this, where characters can seemingly be killed by both horrifying monsters in a desolate swamp, or by the ruthless politics in control of everything. 

Even with all the dark atmosphere, it was nice seeing references and elements from past Final Fantasy games make the jump to this generation. The large bipedal Chocobos were ridden during cutscenes and a few of the adorable Moogles were present at shops. That said, my absolute favorite thing from the FF vault had to be the epic new rendition of the iconic victory theme. Nothing makes winning an especially tough battle better than hearing a powerful chorus sing the most recognizable RPG composition.

After my time with the main portion of content concluded, I was given a chance to explore a separate demo in which the available area was significantly larger.

The save provided by PR was clearly set much later in the adventure, as Clive was at a high level and had two party members with him. Spread across this open map were a few, higher level enemies which I won’t spoil. While I wasn’t allowed to activate any major quests in the area, my guess is that it will be filled with sidequests and probably some good spots to grind for XP. I was impressed by the landscape’s lush beauty, and I’m looking forward to the other environments that await me.

Overall, I was quite impressed with what I played of Final Fantasy XVI. Its combat and story were a treat, but knowing that there’s much more coming on the horizon has me eager to play the full release.

Final Fantasy XVI releases on June 22 for PlayStation 5. 


Preview Disclaimer: These impressions were based on a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.

FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

Cj Salcedo
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