It’s hard to believe that Final Fantasy XV came out almost seven years ago. It received a massive media blitz, only to be released in a sadly unfinished state. If not for the unexpected but well-earned success of the MMO Final Fantasy XIV, it might have been a dreary few years for the Final Fantasy name. Perhaps that is why Creative Business Team III, headed by Naoki Yoshida, was given the helm for the next mainline entry in the series. It’s both a very similar and very different game from FFXV. Like that game, it veers toward action, focuses on godlike summons, and promises a darker story. Unlike that game, Final Fantasy XVI is undeniably finished, and it is far better for it.
Final Fantasy XVI is set in the land of Valisthea, which is technically two continents known as Storm and Ash, separated by only a thin waterway. Valisthea is dotted with the ruins of an ancient civilization called The Fallen. The world depends on the Mothercrystals, massive stores of aetheric energy that grant their blessings to the various nation states. A terrible blight is encroaching on the land, gradually turning everything that isn’t near a Mothercrystal to lifeless, dead land. As such, the nations are perpetually at war over the limited resources, with those wars centering around each nation’s Dominants, who can embody massive Eikons that lay waste to all around them.
The story follows Clive Rosfield, a young son of the Duke of Rosaria. His brother, Joshua, is the Dominant of Phoenix, and Clive has pledged to protect him. Alas, tragedy strikes. Clive’s father is killed, and Joshua meets his end at the hands of a second Dominant of Fire. Clive is sold into slavery, marked as a “subhuman” Branded, and forced to fight. When he encounters his childhood friend, Jill, on the other side of a battle, Clive rebels and sets out on a quest to find out who killed his brother and why.
From the game trailers, one might be forgiven for thinking that FF16 has a Game of Thrones-style plot. It contains some of the most grim and violent moments in a Final Fantasy title, but it is still a FF game. The political drama and conflict go hand-in-hand with over-the-top battles, supernatural beings, and a fair dose of The Power of Friendship. If you had concerns about the game feeling too grounded or too basic, don’t.
Thankfully, FF16 absolutely nails it. The cast is likable, and the side characters are some of the most memorable in the franchise’s history. The writing and translation are excellent and make the characters feel like actual people. Most of the villains are top-notch, if occasionally a little ham-fisted, and there’s one villain you never actually fight who nonetheless is one of the most loathsome and awful people in the franchise. The game shines when major characters like Cid and Jill play off of Clive. Some character storylines are a tad weak, but the title hits far more than it misses. The final villain is one of the less interesting foes, but they provide enough spectacle to make up for it.
FF16 feels heartfelt. Yes, it is a horrible and dark world, but unlike a lot of games of its ilk, FF16 doesn’t revel in it as much and encourages you to find the light in it. Clive is a deeply hurt man, but he is still caring, kind and loving, and he expresses his emotions instead of hiding them. It’s a game where genuine hugs and heartfelt expressions of love are as commonplace as horrible acts of cruelty, and it prevents it from feeling like misery for the sake of misery.
The writing can occasionally be confusing. The game starts in medias res, and while it does pull back relatively quickly, it still throws out a lot of terms and places, some of which don’t go explained for a while. Clive knows about the world that he exists in, so he’ll often take things in stride that players don’t quite understand. There are several plot beats that aren’t explained for a long time after they become relevant, including one that I thought the game had forgotten about. There are a lot of assumptions that the player understands basic things, so characters may drop information in passing and assume the player understands. There’s one particularly grim scene involving a box where a plot beat isn’t spelled out, but if you’ve been paying attention, you can figure out what it is.
FF16 contains a comprehensive datalog that lets you look back at the details of various characters, including a relationship tree and timeline of events to refresh your memory. There’s even an “Active Time Lore” feature, where at any point, you can hold down the touchpad on the PS5, and it’ll pause and bring up datalog entries on the relevant characters or places in a scene. It isn’t perfect; sometimes, it didn’t bring up minor characters, and on two occasions, the datalog contained a spoiler for something I hadn’t seen yet — including the identity of a major villain before I had even met them. For the most part, it does its job well, and the cast is well-defined enough that I could keep track of the major players and most of the minor ones.
FF16 backs away from the wide-open world of FF15 to a middle ground. Rather than one big, open world, the game is divided into four smaller chunks. Those chunks of worlds are large and have a lot to explore, but they’re also self-contained. You’re not going to fly between areas or get lost. There are hidden areas and secrets, but nothing is too far off the beaten trail. It’s akin to the different zones in FF14.
If I had to describe the game structure, I would point to FF14. While that is an MMO, the same basic design sensibilities are present in FF16. You’ll spend a fair amount of time wandering around areas, doing chores, and watching cut scenes before unlocking a new dungeon. The dungeons are largely linear affairs with some trash mobs, the occasional miniboss, and a dramatic boss at the end. Occasionally, you’ll go into epic battles with Eikons, which feel like unlocking a Trial fight in FF14. In general, a good chunk of playing FF16 felt like playing a single-player, action-oriented version of the developer’s MMO. It does mean you’ll spend a fair bit of time collecting poop and doing chores in between developing the world.
I don’t know if this will work for everyone, but I found it to be an enjoyable structure because it allows the game world a lot of time to breathe in a way that Final Fantasy‘s mainline entries haven’t had since the PS2 era. You’ll spend a lot of time learning about the world, the people in it, the odd bits of backstory and detail, and it all comes together in the end. You need to have some patience for lengthy cut scenes between the action bits, but I prefer it to the desolate feel of FF13 and FF15.
FF16 continues the franchise’s transformation into action-RPGs, but it feels distinctly different from FF15 or FF7R. The closest comparison you’ll find is character action games like Devil May Cry, perhaps not surprising because there’s at least one member of the Devil May Cry 5 combat design team on the game, and boy, does it stand out. That isn’t to say it’s a full character action game. Instead, it’s a streamlined and basic take on the genre, with more simplified controls that drastically lower the expected skill floor. There are a host of accessories that grant passive bonuses that can make the game easier — up to the point that the game automatically dodges attacks.
Clive’s combat ability is straightforward and will sound most familiar to DMC vets. You can attack with a sword or magic, with the former being high-damage melee attacks and the latter being ranged but weaker. You can quickly unlock skills that let you do things like instantly charge at enemies à la Stinger, do a downward thrust, hop off enemies to extend combos, and more. As I said, it’s all going to feel familiar if you’ve played a DMC game before, but the actual execution requirements are generous. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dodge mechanic. You can tap a button to dodge, and if you tap it at the right time, you can do a Precision Dodge, which confers a few different benefits and is almost essential for avoiding some enemy attacks. Thankfully, the window for this is very generous, and you’ll probably be able to nail it regularly.
Clive can equip up to three different Eikons at any time. Eikons are effectively amped-up versions of Styles from Devil May Cry. The equipped Eikon grants a single specific move that is bound to the Circle button. Phoenix gives you a trickster-style move that teleports you to the enemy. Garuda lets you pull enemies closer, like Nero (and drag them down to the ground while stunned). Titan lets you guard and parry foes. While a lot of these skills are defensive, not all of them are. Bahamut lets you charge Megaflare, a powerful AoE move that gets stronger the more you charge. You’re defenseless while charging, but dodging enemies precisely causes you to charge more quickly.
Each Eikon also has four associated special moves. Usually, it comes down to a single target attack, an AoE attack, a utility attack and a cinematic high-damage move associated with the traditional summon attack. Each Eikon can equip two of these at a time, and by default, only the associated Eikon can use the skills. However, you can level up each skill, and upon “mastering” it, you can equip it to other Eikons, allowing you to create amalgamations of the skill sets. The more powerful the skill, the more it costs to master it, so it is more effective to master weaker skills than stronger ones.
The neat thing about skills is that they are all distinct. Titan has slow but high-damage attacks that charge up, rewarding you for releasing them at the right time with enhanced effects. Ramuh’s attacks function well from range, and it’s usually best to pepper attacks from a distance with him before moving in for melee. The utility skills also have a lot of cool attributes. My favorite was Titan’s Raging Fists. By default, it makes Clive punch the everliving crap out of an enemy. If you use it to parry an attack, it causes time to stop, and Clive goes full JoJo on his foe with an endless swarm of punches. Cinematic skills have a huge cooldown but do a ton of damage and, more importantly, stop the Break meter from dropping while they’re active. That means you can use them to pile a lot more damage on a weakened enemy.
Combat isn’t just about styling on foes but wearing them down so you can unload some of your biggest and most powerful attacks while they’re helpless. Most major foes have a meter that represents their will, and the quantity and types of attacks that you land stagger the enemy and eventually cause them to Break. While Broken, an enemy is immobile and helpless, and they take gradually increasing damage from every attack.
FF16 doesn’t have traditional party members. Instead, you have a rotating cast of AI companions who fight alongside you, but at least one spends a good chunk of the game at your side. One permanent companion is your pet dog, Torgal, who fights on his own but can be issued commands (sic, heal and ravage) that can be strung together with Clive’s attacks. Healing can slowly recover some (but not all) of your HP, and Ravage can knock enemies into the air, allowing Clive to follow up with a combo. As the game progresses, Torgal gains new abilities. Even though he’s AI controlled, he feels like a true ally because you can issue commands.
It takes a while for the combat to get going. It doesn’t start to shine until you have at least three Eikons and enough points to cross-class skills. When you start making choices about your Eikon lineup, the earlier parts of the game can feel basic. Once it does, you can create some extremely fun class combos. For example, one of Odin’s skills allows you to cancel any attack or ability and get a brief boost of slow time. I would chain that into one of Garuda’s attacks, a fast-moving set of slashes that chews through enemy stagger bars but is difficult to use to its full potential on fast-moving bosses.
In addition to the main combat system, there are Eikon battles, where you control Ifrit in epic fights against the other Dominants. Some of these battles, especially early ones, are akin to glorified cut scenes with an occasional button prompt. Later in the game, you get an actual move set for Ifrit, which is a mix of the standard Phoenix set with a couple of other moves. This is when the combat starts feeling smoother and a lot more like the standard combat system.
I was genuinely worried I would dislike the Eikon battles, and the first one made me hesitant, since I felt like I was watching a cut scene that had a health bar. As the game progressed, they became more interesting and more epic. The later Eikon fights feel like someone looked at Platinum Games and tried to one-up them, with some of the most absurd and over-the-top scenes I’ve ever seen in video games. It’s similar to Metal Gear Rising in that the game seamlessly shifts from combat to cut scene and back again. Sometimes, it ends up being just cut scene for a while, but what is going on in the cut scene is so mind-blowing that it doesn’t detract from the whole.
Every major boss fight is an absolute delight. They are usually unique, interesting, extraordinarily well crafted, and contain some of the game’s best moments. I genuinely looked forward to each and every one, and I was rarely disappointed. There are some incredibly cool moments in the game, and the final boss fight is a nonstop party of excess that managed to be satisfying.
There are a lot of enemy types, but quite a few are basically cannon fodder. The standouts are the enemy spellcasters, who need to be taken down or else they’ll spend entire fights buffing and healing their allies. The minibosses are much more interesting, but you’ll see a lot of them, which can drain away some of the fun. The “large human with an ax” subtype feels omnipresent, and one more miniboss type would’ve alleviated that. The game is so long that you’ll encounter a lot of the same foes. There are also stronger versions of many of the foes, and the minibosses often get new or expanded attack patterns, especially when they show up as hunt marks.
If I had one complaint about FF16, it is that the RPG elements feel vestigial. You get new weapons at a regular pace, but the difference is visual and which has the biggest number. The game provides (effectively) free weapon upgrades after every major milestone, so you’ll never be far behind the curve, but doing side-quests can occasionally put you a tier or two ahead. Armor upgrades more slowly but follows the same basic rules. It’s the bare bones of an equipment system, which isn’t a huge flaw but also isn’t exciting. The Arcade mode just gives you a set equipment for each stage, which underscores the bland equipment lineup.
Accessories are a little more interesting. You can equip up to three accessories, and unlike weapons/armor, those do carry over to the Arcade mode. Most accessories are a small boost to overall stats or to a specific Eikon ability. The balance is a bit off, and there are a few that I wore for the entire game, like the Berserker’s Ring, which grants a flame sword effect when you narrowly avoid an attack. I would’ve loved to see more of that and fewer bonuses like a five percent boost to damage (not bad, just boring).
In addition to fighting Marks, which are souped-up versions of most enemies, there’s also an Arcade mode and Chronolith Trials. Arcade mode turns the title into a true action game, letting you replay the main dungeons as stages, complete with a post-fight ranking. Chronolith Trials let you take on specialized timed challenges using a pre-defined set of Eikon moves, and it’s a nice way to encourage players to try different moves that might have been overlooked. Finishing the game also unlocks a Final Fantasy mode, which remixes enemies and enemy placement and is designed to be played on a NG+, so you can maintain the challenge if you want to play the game again.
There is a lot of content in FF16. A single playthrough will probably take around 30 hours for the main story. I finished my first playthrough in 55 hours, but that was without doing all of the Chronolith Trials and missing a couple of side-quests. It’s extremely well-paced, with something new happening almost constantly. There are some quiet lulls that are dedicated to character building rather than giant god-robots punching each other, but they don’t feel overly long.
FF16 looks phenomenally good. The character models are expressive, the environments are interesting and varied, and the combat is smooth and looks awesome. I played primarily on Performance mode, and the game ran smoothly aside from a few areas with a ton of fog and particle effects, where it hitched slightly. The voice acting really sells the game. The cast knocks it out of the park, and Clive’s voice actor nails every line he is given. He can switch from gruff to heartfelt in a moment, and the moments where he must sob or sound heartbroken tug on your heartstrings. The music is excellent, with a lot of memorable songs. There are only one or two that I feel grasp the absolute highs of some of FF14‘s music, but when they hit, they hit hard.
Final Fantasy XVI is by no means a perfect game, but it is an exceptionally good one. The engaging plot, beautiful visuals, and enjoyable gameplay all combine to create something that feels special. It can occasionally be a little long for its own good, and the combat system is slow to get going, but once it hits all the right marks, it knocks them out of the park. I left Final Fantasy XV disappointed by how unfinished it felt, but Final Fantasy XVI is a true rarity these days: a fully finished game that is satisfying from start to finish.
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