Based on my latest hands-on preview of Final Fantasy XVI, I assumed that the fine but shallow gameplay of the prologue would eventually be deepened. Even if it didn’t turn out that way, I expected the game to at least continue the stonkingly good, personal storytelling and visual spectacle of the prologue. Now that I’ve played the game out, the latter appears to be the case. Final Fantasy XVI tells a better story in a more competent way than you’d expect from the series. It is epic in the literal sense of the word, and at the same time direct and personal. Rarely has the plot of a JRPG managed to grab me so much. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the somewhat shallow game systems, repetitive missions and barren environments. Still, the story, world and large-scale, visual spectacle make this a game not to be ignored.
Learned from the best
Anyone who has played the demo knows that Final Fantasy XVI starts strong. From the first few hours, you are deeply invested in the lives of Jon Snow-lookalike Clive and his companions. Their motivations are clearly laid out and hit hard. The introduction gives Clive quite a hard time, and with its M-rating, the game doesn’t shy away from portraying that violence. But this game has more in common with Game of Thrones than just a main character, bloody violence and almost sadistic backstories. For example, even the strongest person here is vulnerable. Anyone can die at any time, and while there is also plenty of “plot armor” handed out, the game has plenty of shocking twists even after the emotional whiplash of the prologue.
The story is not only exciting and dark: it is also surprisingly well told. Thematically, it’s pretty close to what you expect from Final Fantasy. Once again, you play an ecoterrorist in a world where the rich hoard power and magic at the expense of the planet and its inhabitants. The actions of Clive and co are extreme, but necessary, and have a tangible, disruptive effect on the world around them. Yet the game always keeps the focus on Clive and his loved ones, keeping the narrative purposeful and intimate – even when the world around Clive is literally on fire. Thus, it’s always clear what’s at stake: you’re not just fighting with the goal of saving the world. More importantly, your friends and family survive and have a future. With this, the game kept me gripped for the full 42 hours.
Below are minimal spoilers for the beginning of Final Fantasy XVI!
Another central theme we’ve seen before in the series is that of free will and identity. The way FF XVI tackles this is a bit more clunky than, say, Final Fantasy XI did, but at least as effective. People who can use magic without the aid of crystals (and thus without the implied approval of those in power who possess the Mother Crystals) are branded and enslaved. Such is the case with protagonist Clive, who not only can use Phoenix’s magic, but as a dominant can even turn into the iconic summon (here “eikon”) Ifrit. To keep him small, he is branded and chained. His name is taken from him and he is placed in an army of peers where he would have to fight to his death for his masters. Even after he regains his freedom, there are those who want to break him. Throughout the game, he will resist and have to reinvent his identity as a free man. Both themes are central to everything from the main quests to side missions. Unlike many games in the genre and series, the theme here is also clear and coherent.
Small cracks in Final Fantasy XVI
That is not to say that Final Fantasy XVI does not commit narrative lapses. For example, some important characters are introduced very abruptly, and Clive’s romantic antagonist is reduced to the stereotypical damsel in distress up to three(!) times. In the process, everything gets completely out of hand in the final act. Where Final Fantasy XVI initially tells a relatively down-to-earth story (with or without magic and giant Eikons), it throws in yet another classic, metaphysical supervillain. It may be a part of it, but I would have liked to have seen the material problems and political intrigue unwound without having to involve a deity as the incarnate concept of slavery. It does what it needs to do, but that kind of nonsense always feels a bit easy anyway – and all the more so as a finale to such a strong story as this.
It’s not just in the story that Final Fantasy XVI takes great strides. The combat system, too, has been completely revamped once again. As I mentioned in the initial hands-on discussed, this Final Fantasy plays more like a “spectacle fighter” than a JRPG: think Devil May Cry, or Bayonetta. That’s not surprising either with the combat director of DMC4 and Dragon’s Dogma at the helm. Basically, he did a fine job here, too. Clive controls fluidly, and the audiovisual feedback makes it immensely satisfying to dodge, parry or knock the enemy out of a strong attack with perfect timing. In terms of “game feel,” this is definitely a winner.
What is less satisfying is the depth and diversity of combat. While you can invest in certain spells and skills, that freedom of choice is a wash. In the prologue, you already have all of Clive’s basic moves at your disposal. The only way this builds out is through the various Eikon slots. All available Eikons have their own unique move, a few regular spells and an ultimate. You can take three Eikons at once, gifting you the corresponding unique abilities and choosing two of their spells.
What you choose is not very relevant. Enemies hardly have any weaknesses to exploit, and there are few other RPG systems to consider. So you never have to adjust your loadout to a confrontation. Every fight can be won the same way, and spells do their damage at most in a slightly different way. Unique moves, such as Phoenix’s dash, Titan’s guard/counter or Ramuh or Bahamut’s stronger long-range attacks have more impact on your playstyle. Still, even these won’t necessarily shake up the handful of standard combos. Only the latest Eikon really brings a different moveset. By the time you unlock those, you have less than 10% of the game left to go.
In the process, there is little challenge to be found. Gameplay starts slowly, with the first bosses consisting largely of quick time events. Gradually, the game asks more and more of you, but throughout the main story, not once did I see a game over screen. I didn’t even come close to it. Some more challenging, optional content does appear in the last company in the form of arenas and minibosses, but these are mostly scaled-up versions of enemies you’ve already fought before. You can make the game easier with accessories that let you automatically heal or dodge, but there is no setting to make the game harder. New game+ offers more challenge, and a higher maximum level and better equipment to meet that challenge, but I wonder why any kind of resistance had to be withheld for so long. The 40+ hours of a first playthrough (including side content) does take a long time to be held by the hand before the “real game” can begin.
Besides the combat, the structure is also different from what you are used to from the series. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a structure in a game. You usually start in your quest hub: the hideaway. Here you have access to a store, a blacksmith and, after each main mission, more and more sidequests. When the main story sends you on your way, you choose your next destination on a map. That’s either an open area with a village and maybe an extra side mission here or there, or it’s what in other Final Fantasy’s would be called a dungeon.
The open areas have little to them. They are almost empty at first and are only filled in somewhere in the second act (around 50% of the story) with more side quests and an optional (mini-)boss here and there. Exploring makes little sense. There are plenty of side paths and visually interesting spots, but you are hardly rewarded for visiting them. Sometimes a larger enemy guards a treasure chest there, but the contents are rarely more than a potion, a handful of crafting materials or a few gil. While most of the sidequests you find there are narratively rich and give the world more context, they too are of little value gameplay-wise.
Dungeons here take the form of Arcade-style levels where you run from arena to arena to take out a group of enemies. By themselves, these levels do what they are supposed to do, but they are also very linear. You can best compare them to a level from a DMC, but completely without puzzles or backtracking. At the same time, they often take just a little too long. No matter how beautifully an ancient ruin is designed, after five of the same elevators with the same two or three types of enemies, you’ve seen it once.
The only game that has ever come close to this kind of spectacle on this scale is Asura’s Wrath.
Fortunately, the end of such a dungeon more than makes up for that straightforwardness. Here you almost always have a large-scale battle where you get to chop into the Eikon of another dominant as an Ifrit. Once Clive unleashes the Ifrit in him, he is capable of anything. He rips limbs off Garudas like it’s nothing, pounding away a giant laser beam from Bahamut. Ifrit even literally leaves the atmosphere in one of the battles. The only game that has ever come close to this kind of spectacle on this scale is Asura’s Wrath.
The promise was that each Eikon vs. Eikon battle would have its own game systems – and this is largely true. Against Garuda you wrestle in a Kaiju fight, and with Titan you sprint across rocky plains while, as in an on-rail shooter, you shoot away his projectiles with yours. The frequency and scope of these systems do gradually decrease. The further you get, the fewer QTEs and one-off game systems you encounter. This is good in a way, because after a few such battles, the gimmick becomes apparent. Fortunately, this never compromises the scale of the battles. Even in the final boss fights, where you encounter almost no gimmicks, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the spectacle.
This is what ultimately typifies Final Fantasy XVI the most. While the action itself is fluid and satisfying, it has little in the way of content. But purely because of how the game lays out that action, and how that action is given a place in the game, it drags you in and doesn’t let you go. Even when the sidequests keep asking you to defeat some trash mobs, or collect random McGuffins, the atmosphere, context and visual spectacle surrounding it makes it almost impossible to put down the controller.
So, as you would expect from the series by now, Final Fantasy XVI does it all just a little differently again. For generations, the games have been moving away from their turn-based roots and toward more real-time action. No Final Fantasy succeeds in this better than XVI. Battles are fluid, impactful and when they involve a boss, they have a sense of scale like you’ve rarely seen in a game before. At the same time, Final Fantasy XVI tells a better story in a more competent way than you’re used to from the series. So you almost take the somewhat barren areas, shallow game systems and repetitive missions at face value.