Incredible combat supports a rather flat Game of Thrones inspired narrative in the next entry of this Eikonic series
From its outset in the 1980s, Final Fantasy has been willing to jettison everything that came before it as a franchise. Each game is its own universe of lore, storytelling and epic fantasy. As the series evolved, it pushed this idea of reinvention by boldly expanding its concept of what fantasy can be as a genre and how an RPG can play.
Final Fantasy VI’s magitek armor-suits, VII’s gritty cyberpunk Midgar and X-2’s playful jpop aesthetic hint at the series’ ambition to redefine itself.
FFXII’s approach was to draw on the work done by Square-Enix’s first foray into MMORPG design - creating a large expansive world and a combat system that involved programming your party members to fight in real time.
Final Fantasy XIII played with the idea of the ‘macro’ decision making in combat - when should someone heal or do damage; not what heal spell should they cast, dramatically speeding up combat.
FFXV attempted a bridge between a real time character-action combat system that relied heavily on parries, dodges and auto-attacks with the ability to pause and issue commands - it was a mixed success but paved the way for the incredible combat of Final Fantasy 7: Remake.
That brings us to Final Fantasy XVI, this time helmed by the Square-Enix internal team Creative Business Unit III (the crew behind the hugely successful FFXIV MMORPG).
Under their stewardship, Final Fantasy has morphed into a high-octane action game. Takes have been thrown around the internet comparing it to Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. While XV felt floaty and unresponsive, XVI has some of the best real-time combat the series has ever seen.
This radical gameplay shift comes alongside yet another narrative reinvention for the series. Final Fantasy XVI shifts the back to a mediaeval setting of knights, kingdoms and regional politics. Gone are the flying cars, boyband twink companions and camping trip adventures of XV. The flavour of the day? A grim-dark fantasy drawing on the developer’s love for Game of Thrones and other blockbuster fantasy hits.
THE ADULTS ARE TALKING
Final Fantasy XVI is set in the land of Valisthea, a fantasy kingdom dominated by several ruling powers. This is a world of high-fantasy magic - each generation, 7 people are born as ‘dominants’, and are the living embodiments of powerful deities known as Eikons. Able to transform into towering behemoths and wield godly powers of destruction - they very quickly become an allegory for nuclear weaponry.
Clive Rosfield, our main protagonist, comes from nobility. The firstborn son of the ruling house of the Duchy of Rosaria, Clive is the first shield to his brother, Joshua - the dominant of the phoenix of fire.
It’s here, early on in Clive’s teenage years that we’re first introduced to the branded. Those in Valisthea who are born with magical powers are considered less-than-human, branded with facial tattoos and forced to live a life of servitude for all others. The idea of magical people being othered and enslaved in fantasy settings has been explored with great nuance and depth in recent years, N.K Jemison’s The Fifth Season and even BioWare’s Dragon Age series with its mage circles come to mind.
Unfortunately, nuance is not something that the Final Fantasy series is known for. Final Fantasy XVI stumbles around its themes on slavery and freedom and more widely - the concept of grimdark fantasy as a whole. The writing just can’t figure out the appropriate tone. One moment, you're thrust into a gritty, bleak adventure of revenge and plotting kingdoms. The next; you’re having a whimsical chat with a floating Moodle in your home-base.
Many attempts at Grimdark plotting splatter onto the ground with a wet thud. Clive’s evil mother Annabel is an unintentional camp icon, a mommy dearest figure with some truly quotable one-liners that flop tremendously. Hugo Kupka, the dominant of Titan, is also the economic advisor of the Republic of Dhalmekia. In reality, he’s a strange man-baby, often seen chucking furniture around his throne room and loudly yelping ‘fuck!’. The Hugo of the game's massive array of lore entries does not square up with his on-screen persona.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are moments where Final Fantasy XVI slips into the series’ core narrative strengths: epic fantasy with a whimsical edge. These moments soar; whether it’s the swaggering charisma of Cid Telamon, the outlaw leader with a heart of gold, the genuine relationship between Clive and childhood companion Jill, or Gav the scout’s various adventures and deeds.
Quibbles about a rather flat plot aside, there are other ways to be distracted - the incredible combat and the enthralling spectacle of its multi-stage boss battles.
FIND THE FLAME
Combat in Final Fantasy XVI is a joy to behold. Think less Final Fantasy and more Devil May Cry or God Of War (2018). XVI generously onboards you with its combat mechanics, slowly unlocking more abilities, techniques and mechanics to give you time to adjust to its pacing.
Clive starts with a basic combo string of attacks and a magic spell that he can fire. By triggering your magic attack at the arc of your sword swing, you can weave melee magic bursts into your initial combo - allowing for immediate skill expression. Clive can dodge enemy attacks with r1 - allowing for a perfect precision dodge & counter swing if timed correctly. He can also parry attacks by attacking JUST as an enemy is about to hit. If done correctly, time will slow and the enemy will be briefly stunned, allowing for a huge open window for damaging attacks.
Mixed into these basic swings are Eikonic abilities - powers that are based around the different elemental Eikons of Valisthea. Eikonic abilities are quite varied, from room clearing AOE abilities to counter-attacks that when triggered at just the right time do extra hits and let you dodge an enemy attack. Attacks can hit both the HP of enemies and their ‘will meter’, which when drained - puts enemies into a stagger state. Using a mixture of abilities that do heavy will damage to trigger staggers is essential on harder fights. Learning how to chain your best damaging abilities in a stagger window for maximum damage feels somewhat like mastering a good damage rotation in an MMO - careful planning, lining up of cooldowns and then using your abilities in the correct order will result in eye-watering damage.
Torgal is Clive’s faithful wolf companion and the final piece of combat. Torgal can be manually commanded and has three main attacks - a bite, a healing howl and an attack that can launch enemies skyward. Manually commanding Torgal just after you finish a combo will boost his damage - so learning to weave Torgal into your attack strings becomes a key factor for efficient combat.
Combat is fast, flashy and furious. As you progress in the game, Clive will gain the ability to swap between different eikonic power sets, allowing for up to 6 eikonic powers and 3 special moves to be available at any time. Combat never felt flat across the 60+ hours of my first playthrough and seeing some of the crazy antics on YouTube of players attempting no-hit/zero damage boss fights has inspired me to keep on playing into newgame+.
GIANT BEASTS & BEAUTIFUL CORRIDORS
All of that pales to the spectacle of Final Fantasy XVI’s hefty Eikon battles. These giant set pieces are the big boss-battles of the game; cinematic fights between demigods that are sumptuous visual feasts.
Once again, the God of War comparison comes roaring back, this time not to God of War 2018, but the original PS2 series - with its playful setpiece boss battles against giant towering gods.
The use of scale in some of these Eikonic battles is otherworldly. You’ll be battling a god the size of a mountain, barely scratching their ankles in one spectacular battle - in another you’ll find yourself soaring high up above Valisthea trading laser beams in space. It is jawdrapping stuff- even as the PlayStation 5 shudders to keep up with all the effects on screen.
It’s when you land back down to earth after one of these blockbuster battles that some of the rough edges come back into focus.
Scale, unfortunately, is the downfall of FFXVI’s level design. Creative Business Unit III’s strength at MMORPG design start to manifest as FFXVI's weeakness. The land of Valisthea is split up into discrete chunks - a mix of big open world environments (think a zone in World of Warcraft) and then discreet mission locations where big story events take place.
The zones in FFXVI are barren and empty. In FFXIV, they’d be where farming for crafts skills, leveling and interacting with other players takes place. In FFXVI, they are giant, empty fields. Items twinkle in the distance in these fields - run over them and you’ll find something - but rarely anything of value. Most of the time they’re crafting materials that feel worthless or in even worse circumstances, a paltry 10gil lying on the ground. These giant zones are also where the majority of FFXVI’s rote side questing takes place.
Sidequests take on the exact pacing and format of leveling sidequests in final FantasyXIV. Some are marked with a + symbol, letting you know that important upgrades are rewarded on their completion, while others simply offer experience and more crafting materials. The quests themselves usually boil down to heading to a location to slay a group of enemies, or in FFXIV fashion - looting items or objects in an area and returning to a quest-giver. Just like an MMORPG, most of these quests will have you ping-ponging from town to town, speaking to multiple NPCs. It’s weird and it doesn’t quite work in a single player setting.
Even the main story of Final Fantasy XVI suffers from the plotting and pacing of an MMORPG. After big boss fights or key story events, the game’s story will slow down and force you into rote activities for 30-50 minutes. You’ll find yourself adrenaline soaked, giddy and over the moon from a spectacular boss sequence, only to be tasked with running around your main base, speaking to NPCs and doing mundane fetch quests (collect lumber and bring it back to base) before the game lets you progress forward.
The more linear story sequences have the pacing of a Final Fantasy XIV dungeon. They’re beautiful corridors. Most missions will lead you down a single path to small arenas for trash-fights with weaker enemies and then big circular environments for large mini-boss and the final boss battle of the zone. The most you’ll do in these locations is explore a rare branching off-path for a treasure chest or press R2 to push open a heavy door.
Something is missing here - the total absence of anything to do except walk forward and fight.
I cannot believe I’m saying this, but I started to miss the annoying puzzles in Final Fantasy 7: Remake's dungeons. Raising and lowering elevators, changing water levels in the sewers and moving robotic hands around to reach materia and treasure chests felt like annoying busywork at the time - but I underestimated how much value getting lost and trying to work my way through an environment brings to the dungeon-crawl experience. When it’s all shaved away and taken out, there’s walk forward and hit things.
It makes you ask the question - what’s missing as a whole? For that, I turn to God of War: Ragnarok - an action game series attempting to layer more RPG mechanics onto itself. While Final Fantasy is simplifying core elements of its RPG design to embrace the character-action game genre, Ragnarok has cloaked itself in RPG trappings to provide more depth.
Ragnarok’s gear and equipment system has multiple stats and allows you to customise Kratos in various ways - XVI’s gear has been watered down to four stats - damage, will damage, health and defence. God of War allows you to customise your companions, control them in combat and upgrade their skill tree and gear. AI companions in XVI have no gear, skills or any ability to be customised. They float in and out of the party and other than Torgal’s rather weak direct attacks, feel barely like they’re in the mix.
Ragnarok’s world is filled with secrets, interesting sidequests that involve exploration, puzzle solving and leans on the metroidvania genre in allowing new powers to open up secrets, mysteries and shortcuts as you progress. FFXVI’s side-quests are the blandest of MMORPG fodder.
It might sound like I’m coming off negative here; and at times FFXVI’s bold attempt to step the franchise forward does feel like a trip backwards twenty years or so. But, despite it all, Final Fantasy XVI feels like the best mainline Final Fantasy game we’ve seen in nearly a decade.
Clive is a solid protagonist, FFXVI’s combat system is going to enthrall and challenge players for years to come; its bonkers narrative belongs in the camp video game canon. It’s not perfect, but Final Fantasy games never are.
Welcome back, Final Fantasy - I missed you.
A copy of FINAL FANTASY XVI on PlayStration 5 was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.