When future generations look up epic in the gaming dictionary, there's a good chance an image of Final Fantasy XVI will pop up next to it, because everything about Square Enix's latest instalment simply operates on a scale that's hard to beat. The opening sequence alone, which takes Gandalf's battle with the Balrog and cranks up the volume, stands out as perhaps the most magnificent in a long line of magnificent Final Fantasy opening scenes. What an impact! But it doesn't stand alone. During the four hours or so I played, there were several sequences that took my breath away, and while Final Fantasy XVI is not without its problems, I haven't been this excited about a game in the series since Final Fantasy XII.
During the Paris event that Square Enix invited us to, we had access to three distinct parts of the game. By far the longest of these was the opening. We were simply given the opportunity to start a new game and play for more than three uninterrupted hours. Next, we were given half an hour in one of the game's open areas, while those of us who didn't get our hands on the game back in February were given the opportunity to take on Garuda in a visually stunning boss battle. In other words, unlike February's mostly combat-orientated preview, it was a comprehensive and varied package that both introduced us to the world and its characters and showed how the combat system is evolving.
Like its predecessor, Final Fantasy XVI makes use of some significant time jumps to delve into the seminal moments in our dryly named protagonist Clive's life. In the two-hour-long intro, we see him as both an earnest but hopeful teenager and an exceedingly life-weary man in his late twenties. Square Enix is careful with the switches, however, which makes their use effective. On the whole, the prologue - which, incidentally, is exactly as heavy on cutscenes as one might imagine - is a hugely effective introduction to the central conflict, even if I did struggle at times to keep track of the alliances of the individual nations.
Despite my mild confusion, there's no doubting the quality of the almost Shakespearean drama, which, despite the less than original, but still tolerable, dialogue, is decidedly engaging. There are clear links to Game of Thrones in the form of the tenuous alliances between the game's nations, while the game's version of the summons, Eikons, is the best Kaiju fiction. It's a combination that works better than I dared hope for, and by the prologue's shocking conclusion I was 100% on board.
In the 1-2 hours that immediately follow, Final Fantasy XVI slows down a bit, which almost feels like a relief. The game begins to show signs of slowly handing over the reins to the player - even though we're still in the introductory phase, where elements such as your base, Cid's Hideaway, and side quests are explained. The former is a small hub area where you can train, buy supplies, upgrade weapons and armour, talk to NPCs and undertake the aforementioned sidequests. Speaking of which, I got to play three of them, and unfortunately they seem just as shallow as Final Fantasy XV's did. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the standard will be raised later on.
The Final Fantasy series is widely known for taking its time to introduce the world, characters, and gameplay systems, so it's not surprising that the entire first instalment I played featured very linear path design. After reaching the three-hour mark, however, restlessness began to set in and the bad memories of the almost comically linear Final Fantasy XIII started to creep in. The corridors in the otherwise beautiful forest area I explored with Cid are just a little too narrow, and the otherwise satisfying combat system is at this point treading water.
Had we stopped there, my reservations about Final Fantasy XVI would have been considerably higher, but thankfully Square Enix had a couple of extra tricks up their sleeve. Firstly, the last 10-15 minutes of the aforementioned forest area showed signs of a more branching path design that invited more exploration. It was an encouraging way to end that section. I was then transported a little further into the game to one of the game's more open areas. Here there were both open spaces and semi-hidden corners, and while you probably shouldn't look for areas that can rival Elden Ring's Lands Between, it was reassuring to see how the game will also slow down and let the player dictate the pace.
The leap forward in the story also meant access to more abilities, which opened up the combat system considerably. As Andreas mentioned in his preview a few months ago, for the first time in the main series, we're dealing with a fully action-based system. At its core, it's pretty simple. You have a normal attack and a magic projectile, as well as a dodge manoeuvre that, with the right timing, opens up a powerful counterattack. In addition, you have so-called Eikonic Powers. They are worth dwelling a bit on. As the name suggests, they draw their power from the aforementioned Eikons and in addition to determining the element of your projectile, each type of Eikonic Power comes with a special ability such as teleportation over a short distance or an acrobatic leap in the air. Finally, they come with a range of special attacks with a cooldown period, of which Clive can be equipped with two at a time. At first, Final Fantasy XVI feels very much like a more down-to-earth version of, say, Devil May Cry, but it doesn't take long for the differences to reveal themselves. Most obvious is the ability to paralyse your enemies for a period of time by inflicting a lot of damage in a short amount of time. In the paralysed state they take more damage, so it's a golden opportunity to make inroads into the often quite substantial health bar of larger enemies. This is where the use of your special attacks gets interesting. Do you use them to bring the enemy into their paralysed state faster, or do you save them so you can deal extra damage when the enemy is down?
It's a sound system, helped further by the fact that attacking and dodging basically feels good, and Clive is thankfully quick on his feet without feeling flighty. After a few hours with only one type of Eikonic Power, though, the repetition sets in as you wait for the cooldown period to expire - even if it does become possible to issue orders to the faithful dog, Torgal. That's why it was nice to be able to control a Clive that has access to both two and three types of Eikonic Powers. You can switch between the different types on L2, and the expanded arsenal opens up far more strategic possibilities, as you suddenly have to take more elements into account. There is also variation in how the different special attacks are executed. Phoenix's attacks are simple button presses, while Titan's are timing-based. Considering that there are eight different Eikons according to Cid, and Clive seems to be slowly absorbing their powers, you're in for a veritable feast of fireworks as the game progresses.
It also helps that the game's enemies are extremely well designed visually. New enemies like the little goblins you dispatch in the initial swamp area blend seamlessly with classic enemies like the Marlboro (here called Morbol), while the human enemies offer the most interesting movesets. The biggest impression is made by the huge Eikons. I got to see four of them in action, and the way Square Enix uses them feels like a natural and inspired development of the prominent role they have always played. Whereas before they've primarily acted as glorified spells, in Final Fantasy XVI you have the ability to take direct control of them and, even better, fight them in both human and Eikon form, which is loosely linked to the fact that certain humans called Dominants have an inherent ability to transform into the weapons of mass destruction that Eikons seem to be. They seem to be drawn out narratively, while at the same time playing the absolute lead role in the most bombastic playable sequences.
Although I've learnt a lot more about the latest instalment in Square Enix's flagship series, four hours is really only an amuse-bouche when we're talking about a meal the size of Final Fantasy XVI. As such, there are many things I was only briefly introduced to, if at all. How do the game's weapons and equipment affect the battle system? Are the abilities in the skill tree I briefly got a look at worth unlocking? But as always with Final Fantasy, the story is the big question mark. I know how it all starts, but it's actually just opened up even more questions than before. Can Clive develop into an exciting character, or will he remain in the weird tree-hugger territory so many of his predecessors have been stuck in? Who are the various Dominants that personify the game's Eikons, and are there eight of them, as Cid mentions at one point? Why does a certain someone betray her husband and nation to join the empire we don't yet know much about? And how do the game's six nations fit into the war that so far only involves three of them?
As I hope you can tell, I'm very curious to learn more, which is a good sign. My misgivings about the cynical, trend-chasing Final Fantasy meets Game of Thrones that the trailers and my interview partly suggest have been dispelled, at least for now, in favour of a hopeful anticipation of an epic tragedy of violent grand political conflict, personal intrigue and Kaiju battles that could make Godzilla clap his claws. If Square Enix manages to pull all the threads together satisfactorily, we could well be looking at the best single-player game in the series since its last heyday way back on the PlayStation 2. Fingers crossed!