The Final Fantasy series began in 1987. 36 years later, the recent release of Final Fantasy XVI has me wondering whether it’s suffering a mid-life crisis.
Like many long-running series, Final Fantasy has reinvented itself over the decades from a turn-based RPG, to a real-time action game with RPG elements. In 16, it has moved from its dedication to the power of teamwork to the power of the individual, both in storytelling and in gameplay. No longer do you carefully allocate the tasks of each team member, developing their skills over the progress of the game. No, Final Fantasy follows Clive, and Clive alone, in frenetic, button-bashing, cut-scene laden combat.
This massive change in combat is one that’s progressed over several iterations of the game. But this feels so far from the Final Fantasy of my childhood, that I kept wondering whether Final Fantasy XVI is really a Final Fantasy game?
Despite the often independent worlds of the series, Final Fantasy is more than a name. And it’s more than the surface dressing of moogles, chocobos, and magic crystals. It’s the epic battle between good and evil fought by characters we come to love, in the hope that they will win against the odds. It’s about fighting against ritualistic status quo, whether that’s the worship of the eikons, or power-hungry rulers – or both. And in that way Final Fantasy XVI taps into the classic tropes of all Final Fantasy games.
But while there are all the surface elements of a Final Fantasy game, this edition rings hollow for two reasons. The first is the darker storyline inspired by Game of Thrones and Elden Ring. This creates a tonal conflict between the optimism of classic Final Fantasy games and the often violent story of Rosaria. How can you have any joy in riding a chocobo after watching people slain before your eyes? Where magical people are slaves, and some of the side quests involve witnessing the deep brutality of what this slavery means?
The second reason the games rings hollow is that the forgettable gameplay demands little of the player other than their familiarity with the attack button. And it’s a shame, because the Final Fantasy series was once held up as the pinnacle of strategic roleplaying games. Who can forget the fingers and toes crossed moments of fighting Yunalesca in Final Fantasy X?
The game takes around 40-50 hours to complete, and I’m about 20 hours into the game. I feel like I’ve played enough to form some definitive views on its strengths and weaknesses, although I will revisit this once I finish the game. This is also a spoiler-free review.
Final Fantasy XVI’s story
What is FFXVI about?
The game opens in the middle of a conflict between two warring nations in rough terrain. The main hero, Clive, is branded with the mark of the bearers, a tattoo which shows a magic user in this medieval inspired world. Magic is not the boon it appears; the bearers are bonded into slavery, and the plot of Final Fantasy XVI hinges on the liberation of magic users across the continent. Not only is magic a curse to be born into slavery and a life of exclusion, but it also gives bearers a form of magical consumption – vague and sinister coughing accompanies our favourite magical characters.
A step up from bearers are the dominants, the magic users who wield the powers of the seven eikons. If you’re familiar with the Final Fantasy world, you’ll recognise the familiar faces of Shiva, Odin, Garuda, and Bahamut, amongst others. After this brief introduction to the modern world, you’re thrown back to Clive’s teenage years. He was once a royal of the Rosarian family, tasked with protecting his younger brother, and dominant of the Phoenix, Joshua. The relationship between these two brothers is well-established in this opening, and so too, the harrowing geopolitical consequences of this small kingdom.
It takes approximately six hours for the game to open up, and improves markedly after this point. Until then, you’re locked in a fairly linear storyline and combat scenarios, assisting freedom fighter Cid in his quest for magical liberation. Deep-voiced, cigar smoking Cid really steals the show here. With the looks of a fantasy Nate Drake and a roguish personality, it’s hard not to be drawn into his quest for freedom.
This leads to part of my conflict in reviewing Final Fantasy XVI: it has some of the most likeable characters out of all the recent games. Clive is a gentle and noble soul dedicated to protecting his brother. He could be an overwrought paladin, but he’s a softly spoken warrior who commands the respect of those who follow him. Yet he seems out of place in this dark and violent story. Gone are the colourful outfits of previous Final Fantasy games. Here, everyone wears leather and metal.
And with this decade-spanning, Game of Thrones style story, comes the confusion. As a player, you’re thrust into a geopolitical war without explanation. There’s not one, but four kingdoms at conflict. Yet it’s approximately 12 hours into the game that you’re given an explanation for this conflict, in the form of academic Vivian Ninetales. Her explanations of the conflict over time are excellent, accompanied by war maps and character charts. But these come so late in the game, you’ve already been left bewildered for hours. It could have benefitted from a Lord of the Rings style opening, making clear the four kingdoms and their motivations to anchor the player in the world. In the land of Rosaria, where the crystals lie…
The difficulty, too, of being the sixteenth in a series that’s always built around the classic elements of Final Fantasy, is that the story becomes a mechanical framework for fan service. The story feels contrived to enable the player to wield the power of the eikons. You know what’s coming, because the skill tree shows you how many you’re missing. Likewise, if you’ve played other Final Fantasy games, you’ll know what gysahl greens are for, you’ll know the symbolism of the moon, and the power of the crystals, and the importance of a man fighting destiny, which makes the plot feel like a predictable device to facilitate these elements.
Added to this are the usual RPG fetch quests. Despite Clive being a hardened warrior, he’s got a part-time gig as a food delivery driver and fetcher of things. And look, sometimes those fetch quests upgrade your kit or your potion efficacy, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for them, especially the ones with a plus symbol. These quests don’t necessarily advance Clive’s character, although some broaden up the stories of those around him.
Hunts for legendary creatures also keep the combat hungry gamer busy; who doesn’t want to go toe-to-toe with Final Fantasy’s most annoying flying eyeball, the Ahriman? There’s plenty to do here, but as a narrative designer, I asked myself, what is the purpose of this task? What does this show me about the world and the people in it? Final Fantasy XVI left me wondering, as I fought another creature to pick up another rare object that someone had asked for in Clive’s hideout.
A lack of diversity
In a stark improvement on Final Fantasy XV, the game has some complex female characters, like Jill, Clive’s erstwhile companion and love interest, and Benedikta, the ruthless wielder of eikon Garuda. But outside these women, female NPCs are often left in gendered roles as healers, merchants, botanists, courtesans, and bar owners. Diversity is not common in this world, with most characters and NPCs white, despite the exoticisation of the Dhalmekian Republic, with its veiled and turban wearing anonymous warriors. There is, however, an astonishingly awful array of facial hair among the men. Neck beards, anyone?
Square phoenix: Final Fantasy XVI’s Gameplay
At the start of Final Fantasy XVI, you’re given a choice between playing on story mode or action mode, and I chose action mode. Story mode gives you additional accessories equipped at the start of play, which make the combat far too easy in those early stages. Where most RPGs are highly challenging in the opening levels, these accessories automate combos and defence. All that’s left to do is hit the square button.
This is no good if you’re trying to learn the game’s systems or combos. While I tried these accessories out, it made the game boring for lack of challenge.
And this is the biggest problem with Final Fantasy XVI. Everything feels too easy. It’s low skill, high gloss gameplay. Even without these automatic accessories, hours into Final Fantasy, the gameplay relies on circling through Eikonic combos, the powerful attacks enabled as you open up the powers of Final Fantasy XVI’s deities. With these powers, you can spam Titan block and become near-invincible with the right timing. Your gameplay becomes about killing time between effect cooldowns, and avoiding enemy attacks.
Even the conclusion of boss battles are tied up in cinematic clashes, rather than skill based gameplay. All you need to do is hit the right button in a generous window, then mash the square button at the right time, all while lights are flashing and enemies are clashing. Player agency has been left by the wayside in favour of glossy cut scenes. But all I was left with is dissatisfaction; I did not earn these wins, nor did they challenge me.
The thing is, gamers like a challenge. We talk about the battles hard won with pride. They become rites of passage. We ask what did you do to defeat this boss? We marvel at the skill of those who win. And we go back to the battle; once more upon the breach dear friends.
A good boss battle is etched in gaming history.
But Final Fantasy XVI holds the player’s hand. There’s no need to slink away to the main menu, to walk away from the game after a five-hour session, to take a break in frustration as the controller slips through our fingers in rage. There’s no need to strategically hoard potions, waiting until the very last moment to use one. No, if you die in battle, you’re resurrected mid-fight, with full potions and high-potions. And not even at the start of the boss battle. You’re taken to the latest checkpoint, meaning that anyone who wants to conquer this game can, given enough time.
I get that not every game is designed to be hard. I appreciate games which provide levels for everyone – from fans of good stories to those looking for a challenge. But Final Fantasy has a legacy of strategic, challenging, and epic gameplay.
When everything is easy, the game becomes boring. It’s just one battle after another. There’s no adrenaline in a battle you know you’ve already won.
Clive’s skill tree is built around these Eikonic abilities. It’s simplistic in its growth; you can put points from experience into mastering your skills and combos. Apart from the high-level eikonic attacks which are worth saving up for, the lunge skill is extraordinarily useful for closing combat distances with a brutal attack.
Final Fantasy XVI’s Graphics
Finally, it’s worth talking about Final Fantasy XVI’s graphics. On a next-gen console like PS5, we’ve had releases like Horizon Forbidden West, which have pushed the quality of graphics to a level unseen in video gaming. And while Final Fantasy has a very different visual style, the graphics of this game are such a mixed bag it needs to be discussed.
It’s expected that there would be a difference in quality between the cinematic cut scenes and general gameplay, but there is a marked difference here. The cinematics and large-scale battles are often beautifully done. Much of the gameplay revolves around the mother crystals, large crystal formations which power the continent’s magic supply. The interiors of these feel similar, although not as complex, as Elden Ring’s phenomenal Academy of Raya Lucaria. Running through the blue ether, fighting battles under a wall of lava, are great examples of where Final Fantasy’s creativity shine through.
But it’s not consistent throughout the game. Engaging with NPCs is often in flat, unappealing lighting, making the characters look as if they’ve come from a game five years ago. Clothes don’t interact with the environment, even just to flutter on the wind. There’s something uncanny about the way the NPCs’ clothing falls, especially on the female characters.
It’s an issue I had with Final Fantasy XV, and it’s frustrating considering how far games have come. I get that an anime-inspired video game is going to have some level of stylistic choice here, but there’s a massive difference between what you see in the cut-scenes and the everyday people of this world.
Reviewing a series as legendary as Final Fantasy is always going to come with the baggage of nostalgia. While Final Fantasy XVI is one of the better instalments in the franchise in recent years, it left me longing for the drawn-out strategy of older games. With more consistency of the graphical quality, and attention to creating purposeful and tightly written quests, Final Fantasy XVI could have reached the echelons of the best games in the series.
But in its desire to please the player with flashy lights, easy gameplay and cut-scenes, the core values of Final Fantasy got lost along the way. It’s a shame too, because the characters here are all heart.