On the surface, it's hard to recognise the Final Fantasy of your childhood, but behind the gloomy exterior, the heart of the series beats more powerfully than it has in decades.
Identity is a fascinating concept. Don't worry, though. I'm not about to go down a rabbit hole of identity politics and a major investigation into one's self. No, we're sticking (at least for now) to the IPs that have become so durable that they can follow us through a lifetime and, in some people's cases, ignite (slightly too) strong feelings of both love and hate. Initially, it's often easy to point to some key traits that define an IP - Star Wars, for example, was initially characterised by its main characters and bombastic soundtrack. But as universes expand, these characteristics become less tangible.
This is also the case in the gaming world, where some series have been around for half a lifetime. One of the most enduring is undoubtedly Final Fantasy, which is also one of the hardest to categorise. Because what makes Final Fantasy Final Fantasy? Chocobos and Moogles? Sure, sure. But for me, it's also something more intangible. It's seeing a group form and find each other to stand together against the greater powers. It's big emotions on the biggest stage imaginable, and even though it gets a little over the top at times, I love the series for not being afraid to go off the rails. It's that feeling that has stuck with me as the series has jumped between high fantasy and steampunk, throwing certain mechanics out of the window while new ones have taken their place.
Despite the diversity the series has provided both mechanically and environmentally, Final Fantasy XVI feels like perhaps the biggest departure yet when it comes to numbered single-player titles. The fact that it's now a full-fledged action game in terms of the battle system is perhaps the least surprising given the recent evolution of the series. Far more shocking is the deeply sombre tone, where psychological trauma competes with pierced bodies and mass hangings to distance itself from the series' usually more PG-13 approach to fantasy.
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Fortunately, behind the dark exterior, there's still a heart of gold beating, and once you get over the many episodes of explicit violence, death and destruction, it's clear that at least a large part of the series' identity is intact. Because at the end of the day, Final Fantasy XVI is still about many of the things the series is known for. Friendship, hope and the courage to risk everything to create a better world. And with a development team that realises its vision of a streamlined and luxurious action game with a deep story and world in exemplary fashion, I don't think I'm being overly generous in calling it the best entry in the series in 20 years.
A large part of what makes Final Fantasy XVI so successful is the streamlined approach Square Enix's Creative Business Unit 3 has taken to the project. It's clear that the focus has been on the world and the story that unfolds in it, as well as the battle system, because all the excess fat has been trimmed away and the systems that remain are all built around supporting and enhancing one of the two elements. The approach is similar to the one Square Enix used in Final Fantasy XIII, but unlike that title, Creative Business Unit 3 shows a much better understanding of how to tighten the grip and when to loosen the reins.
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In keeping with the series' modus operandi, the introduction is a tightly choreographed dance of death, with a thumping orchestral score and razor-sharp visuals setting the stage for the tragic events that plunge our protagonist Clive into a lifelong journey of first revenge and then something else more meaningful.
Clive is the first born of the noble lineage that rules the Principality of Rosaria, one of the five primary nations that call the two continents of Ash and Storm home. At the start of the game, we're on the brink of a new war, and the aforementioned tragic events, which include classic high treason, are the catalyst for the major conflict that acts as a constant backdrop throughout the story. There are a myriad of names, events and places to keep track of, but thanks to the excellent active time lore system that lets you pause any cutscene and read short paragraphs on relevant topics, and your base's two lore masters, Harpocrates and Vivian, who collate all the information you gather and present it in a dynamic and educational way, I was never afraid of being left behind. In fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Final Fantasy XVI is delving into the brilliant lore Square Enix has created, and many developers could learn something from how Creative Business Unit 3 integrates the systems into the game's story.
The main cause of several nations' imperialist itch is to be found in the blight that spreads across the two continents, turning lush and fertile landscapes into barren wastelands. This results in large refugee flows, which puts additional pressure on areas not yet affected. Acquiring new fertile land is obviously a temptation that many can't resist, even if it means open warfare. Most attractive are the places where the so-called mothercrystals are located. In Final Fantasy XVI's world of Valisthea, some people have magical abilities and are often ostracised as a result, but the vast majority rely on crystals mined from the great mothercrystals to keep everything from the forge to the kitchen running. In short, they are the world's primary source of energy and therefore more sought after than a pint of beer at Glastonbury Festival.
No, you'd have to be more than unusually inattentive not to read the mix of fossil fuels and a destroyed planet as a thinly veiled commentary on the climate crisis. It's not the first time the series has shown its climate activist face - just think of the remake of Final Fantasy VII - but the parallels to our world seem extra strong this time. This also applies to the instruments of war, the enormous Eikons, which can be deployed on the battlefield as weapons of mass destruction to turn the tide of battle. Eikons are Final Fantasy XVI's version of Summons, Espers, Eidolons and whatever else they have been called throughout the many chapters. Historically, they have often played a role as glorified spells, but here they are brought to the fore both mechanically and narratively.
Each Eikon takes up residence in a flesh-and-blood human, a so-called Dominant, who can transform into the enormous, powerful creatures on command. Dominants are both loathed and idolised - depending on which nation you ask - and their role in the war and the fate of the continents is that of both actor and instrument. Because it takes an enormous effort for a Dominant to transform, and because Eikons have a history of escalating conflicts, they are rarely used on the battlefield, but when they are, it results in Final Fantasy XVI's most bombastic moments.
You get to both control and fight Eikons in battles that mechanically aren't among the game's most complex duels, but visually blew me away. Garuda, for example, turns an entire area into a gigantic hurricane that tears apart buildings as you try to get to the centre of it, while the battle against Bahamut on top of one of the aforementioned mothercrystals turns into a kaleidoscopic blast of cosmic proportions.
It's pure Kaiju power fantasy, but Square Enix doesn't settle for making the fights duels between two heavyweight boxers. Instead, they naturally juggle genres. Suddenly the game is an autorunner and then switches to an on-rails shooter. Again, this is not where the gameplay is most impressive, but the playfulness shines through, and because Square Enix is so good at devising visually stunning scenes, they are a joy to play.
Overall, the battle system is a triumph on most parameters. Especially in the big battles, where Clive faces particularly formidable opponents, its mix of accessibility, variety and pyrotechnics is a real pleasure. Success here requires timing and a bit of forethought, while weaker opponents are more like glorified piñatas. Fun to tear apart, but less satisfying in the long run.
The battle system basically consists of six elements. You have a normal attack, a magic shot, special attacks similar to God of War's runic attacks, a limit break that is again more God of War than classic Final Fantasy, an evasion manoeuvre and finally a special ability that relates to the Eikon power you have activated. The last one in particular requires some explanation. Clive begins with the blessing of Phoenix, as his brother Joshua is his Dominant, but over time he gains access to the powers of multiple Eikons. It's possible to equip him with three different Eikon powers at a time, and depending on which one you choose, it affects the element of your shot, your special attacks and your special ability. If you've chosen Phoenix, the latter is teleportation to the nearest enemy, while Ramuh lets you mark enemies and then short-circuit them with electricity.
The special attacks, or Eikonic Powers as they're called in the game, are even more interesting. Some are best for dealing damage to one opponent, while others are good for a group. Some are short attacks, others long, and then there are the timing-based ones, where charging the attack and releasing the button in time can deal extra damage. You can also learn new ones and upgrade existing ones along with a number of your normal attacks in the game's excellent skill tree.
You switch between Eikon powers on L2, making it incredibly easy to switch around, and the combination of being streamlined but still offering plenty of options is one of the combat system's greatest strengths. It also helps that everything feels good. There's gravitas behind Clive's attacks and the way the game slows down as you dodge an attack at just the right time is hugely satisfying.
But ultimately, it's the Eikonic Powers, along with each Eikon's special power, that keep the battle system fresh for the 40-50 hours it takes to get to the end, depending on how much side content you choose to seek out. Whilst Final Fantasy XVI is primarily played for its main story, the side content is quite extensive and, thankfully, a lot better than my first impressions led me to believe.
The side missions may start off sluggishly, but over time I came across more and more that acted as little vignettes, telling stories that are compelling in their own right and help paint a picture of the place in Valisthea you find yourself in. And many of them have rewards that are well worth the effort - especially for those of you who like to ride. If you're more into pure combat, bounties on particularly difficult enemies are a fun distraction that also requires you to read a map, and Arete Stones offers some of the game's sharpest challenges in the form of wave-based combat.
And all the side content is also just a good excuse to explore more of the down-to-earth and fantastical world Square Enix has created. Not that the game's exploration is anything to write home about - even in the more open areas that regularly contrast the game's mostly linear structure - but there's not a finger to point at the look of the world itself. On one hand, Final Fantasy XVI exudes Eurocentric dark medieval fantasy with Sanbreque and Rosaria standing in for Western Europe, the Iron Kingdom rhymes with the British Isles, Waloed looks like the North, while Dhalmekia stands for the exotic Middle Eastern element - minus the Crusades, though. It's detailed in a really dirty way, but there are gems to be found in the mud. Final Fantasy XVI also has a more classically beautiful and adventurous side that creates an intriguing contrast to the dark forests, villages and fortresses. Sanbreque and Crystalline Dominion's castles make even Neuschwanstein look pale, and Waloed's King Barnabas biblically divides the sea in two, but most adventurous of all are the enormous mothercrystals. One burns red as fire, while another unfolds like a flower big enough to shade a city. I will never forget the image of three enormous Eikons' exhausting and epic battle on top of this particular crystal to the tones of the hugely successful music, which, in keeping with the series' history, is by turns thunderously epic, melancholic and sensitive, and whimsically playful.
Yes, there's a lot to be happy about in Final Fantasy XVI, but the game isn't without its problems either. The difficulty level is a little on the easy side at times, which tends to undermine the otherwise excellent battle system; the pacing suffers from some dips that drag on a little frustratingly, the voice acting fluctuates a little in quality to the detriment of the otherwise mostly excellent characters, and even in performance mode I experienced occasional dips in framerate. However, this was rare in combat, and it wasn't severe, so hopefully Square Enix can fix it quickly. It should also be said that technically speaking, the game feels incredibly solid, and I didn't experience any crashes, erratic AI or even basic clipping errors during my playthrough.
Just as The Legend of Zelda and God of War have recently done, Final Fantasy wins by throwing the rulebook out the window and rethinking what the series can be in a modern age. Where both XIII and XV felt trapped between worlds, Final Fantasy XVI definitely goes down the action game path. But it doesn't forget the essence of the series. Yes, the tone is dark and sombre and the style more realistic, but the sense of community and epic journey is fully present. And while the combat system feels very different at first glance, over time you begin to notice that the rhythm of switching between cheap standard attacks and more costly special attacks has more in common with the combat systems of yesteryear than you first thought. Plus, there's something amazing about playing a gigantic AAA game in 2023 that doesn't try to embrace everything, but bets entirely on relatively few core elements. This may not be the Final Fantasy of my childhood, but it's the right Final Fantasy for 2023.
9 / 10
Beautiful and deep world. Razor-sharp graphics. Excellent combat system. Rich in epic moments. Active time lore is a gift to the story. The background music hits all the right notes.
The middle section is too easy. The pace takes a dip at times. Some side missions feel like filler.