Final Fantasy XVI

Video Game Review | A Return to Narrative Excellence Amidst an Action-Packed Dark Fantasy

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Once a franchise that put its scale and gameplay above all else, the Final Fantasy franchise has been in a bit of an experimental phase over the last few console generations, giving the impression that developer and publisher Square Enix believes it necessary to continuously offer something truly unique and modern to keep gamer interest in their games. This shift was particularly noticeable beginning with the release of Final Fantasy XIII on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The feedback around its linear nature seemed to be the catalyst for subsequent games becoming increasingly open-world and less focused. For instance, Final Fantasy XV was visually impressive but one could argue had an excessively open-world environment with little to justify it. Although they haven’t returned to their RPG roots, instead still sticking with the action-RPG style of gameplay, Final Fantasy XVI is the first indication that the series is returning to its narrative foundations and embracing what made the series great – a complex, darker storyline with series mainstays like summons and crystals, a memorable cast and abundant gameplay experiences to immerse yourself in.

The most notable element of Final Fantasy XVI is its narrative, taking place in the newly introduced world of Valisthea. This world is one much darker than many previous games, a land where magical power is sourced from precious crystals scattered across the land, and where humans known as Dominants unwittingly hold the power of Eikons – or summons. Within the land are six kingdoms typically centred around one of these “mothercrystals”, where tense peace exists between them – until things collapse. Across multiple time periods, players will follow protagonist Clive Rosfield, the firstborn son of Elwin Rosfield, the archduke of the kingdom of Rosaria. Clive, who was expected to become the dominant of the Eikon Phoenix, finds that role unexpectedly passed to his younger brother Joshua. Clive then assumes the role of Joshua’s ‘shield’ The brotherly relationship between the two is sweet, but as those who have played the two-hour demo would have already discovered, on the eve of war, tragedy befalls the pair… leading to the events of the game.

The story is truly a satisfying dark fantasy, offering one of the more captivating Final Fantasy tales in the last decade. This is not all too surprising with the creative team at the helm, including main producer Naoki “YoshiP” Yoshida who is known for saving Final Fantasy XIV, and Kazutoyo Maehiro who was the creative director and responsible for the original screenplay, having been involved in many Final Fantasy XIV expansions, Final Fantasy Tactics and more. They, along with other members of the game’s creative team managed to deliver a nicely paced and well-developed story – with mystery, surprise and a good use of its primary and secondary character cast – to deliver an experience that captivates, keeps on course and at the end feels like you are working towards a grand finale. This is something I can’t say I have experienced from any single-player Final Fantasy RPGs since Final Fantasy XII.

I will join many others in praising the inclusion of the new ‘Active Time Lore’ system, allowing you to brush up on your knowledge at any time during a cutscene or conversation with another character. By pressing and holding down the touchpad, time will pause and you will be presented with a visual list of characters, locations, nations, and more that are relevant to the scene unfolding. Square Enix boasts 2,800 written articles that delve deep into the backstory of Valisthea and its inhabitants. Impressively, these are kept up to date even mid-scene. It is small features like this which has enabled Final Fantasy XVI to offer one of the more intense and complex stories in recent years while supporting those who may lose track of the story or resume playing after an extended period.

The most divisive element of Final Fantasy XVI is its gameplay, in that it highly focuses on its action combat elements, while many mainstay RPG staples the series has pioneered over the years have either been half-heartedly implemented or just left to the wayside entirely. Is it satisfying? For the most part yes, the combat is impactful and has been implemented so that it carries the momentum and intensity of that point in the story. But it also makes me crave even more for the turn-based RPGs of yesteryear, where you had to carefully react and strategically respond to enemy threats, given the time to think through scenarios during your turn. It isn’t pure button mashing, but when compared to earlier flagship instalments which at least allowed you to use a menu system, it might as well be.

But in contrast to previous instalments, combat in Final Fantasy XVI is fast-paced and reactive, as players take control of Clive as they strike enemies with their sword, use a series of combo attacks and wield their magical powers and special abilities – all the while dodging the attacks targetted at them from the enemies or enemies in front of them. While my gripes about the low level of strategy required to tackle many battles in the game, I can’t deny it is implemented in a way that is very satisfying and is a decent single-player adaptation of Final Fantasy XIV’s battle system – just with far fewer skills to use. Random mob bosses feel satisfying to plough through, while the stagger system returns for more powerful enemies, allowing you to pummel abilities at foes to knock them down, giving you a period to deliver a barrage of attacks. As you progress through the game, your skillset can be expanded by incrementally using skill points to unlock new abilities and boons, and eventually gaining access to multiple different eikons to draw your abilities from – initially beginning with Phoenix and later expanding to the likes of Garuda and other series mainstays. Simply put, it is a realistic battle system in that there are few occasions where you ever need to stop attacking or defending, weaving attack combos and magical abilities to take down all that stand in your way.

Character personalisation is very limited in Final Fantasy XVI, aided by the fact you only ever have direct control over Clive for a majority of the game – with additional characters joining them as guest characters when the story demands it. Levelling is pretty linear and minimalistic and even through what I would consider “standard gameplay” never saw me feeling too under or overpowered for any one situation. Furthermore, while you can give Clive weapons and armour, the three accessory slots are of most interest. While you can incrementally obtain accessories that provide buffs and boons, you also commence the game with several optional “Timely” assist rings that make the game easier if you so wish – from being able to perform complex combos with just the press of the square button, automatic attack evasion, having time slow down before an evadable attack, or more. Good for the novice gamer, but if you are just looking to breeze through the game, then some of these may greatly cheapen the experience the combat system offers you.

Outside of the combat system, the main story is of most importance. However, that is not to say there are no other systems and traditional RPG mechanics and systems dispersed throughout. Complementing the enriching lore of the main story, Clive will undertake many side-quests given to him by the residents of Valisthea. Similar to Final Fantasy XIV, while many may be seen as simple missions, they are never lacking in helping build upon the lore at least a little bit. Furthermore other series mainstays like a New Game + mode, Hunt Boards and even an easy-to-use combat simulator that allows you to test new strategies in situations you have complete control over. Just as importantly, everything feels like it belongs in the game, with no added fluff that would have taken development away from the core experience – and additionally, no DLC (at least at launch), meaning you get the full base game experience with nothing locked behind a paywall – no costumes, no bonus music, no nothing.

On the note of audiovisuals, being built exclusively for the PlayStation 5 with no consideration for last-generation platforms, Final Fantasy XVI showcases breathtaking visuals and performance that is exemplary of what can be expected from a current-generation AAA title in 2023… With Masayoshi Soken at the helm as composer, also another recruit from the Final Fantasy XIV team, you better believe that the musical backing is diverse and suits everything the game throws at the player – from intense battle scenes to more relaxed tunes of rest.

Regarding Final Fantasy XVI’s voice cast, both their Japanese and English offerings are incredible. Having done my playtesting on the English version, it was nice to see they opted to go with a cast that hasn’t appeared in dozens of video games before, with most of the principal cast only having a few video game voice acting roles to their name. Ben Starr in particular was a sublime pick as both young and older Clive Rosfield, Susannah Fielding was also a solid pick for Jill Warrick, and Ralph Ineson provides a distinct take on Cidolfus Telamon. Opting to go with Logan Hannan as Joshua Rosfield was also a nice choice, the experienced young actor suiting the young prince.

Final Fantasy XVI is a triumphant return to narrative excellence, enveloped in a dark and captivating world. While I do maintain reservations about the game’s full-on transition to action-oriented combat which may turn off some, overlooking it, fans have a long-lived experience with an enriching darker storyline we haven’t seen from the franchise in some time, satisfying gameplay and a high level of quality control that makes it an exemplar experience for current generation gaming. Whether Valisthea is your entry point to the franchise or your sixteenth, Final Fantasy XVI in my opinion doesn’t disappoint.

8.5

How to Buy Final Fantasy XVI

Final Fantasy XVI is now available to purchase exclusively on the PlayStation 5 both physically and digitally. It is a timed exclusive for the PS5, and will not be released on other platforms until at least 31 December 2023 – most likely sometime in 2024.

Acknowledgements

A PlayStation 5 digital copy of Final Fantasy XVI was provided by Australian distributor Bandai Namco Entertainment for the purpose of this review. This review was conducted on a launch-day PlayStation 5 Disc Edition unit.

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