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Preview: Final Fantasy XVI

22 May 2023

Warring nations. Broken families. People that can turn into literal gods. A massive shift in tone, but still a familiarity that feels like returning home.

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to visit Square Enix HQ in Los Angeles, California, to finally experience a greatly anticipated upcoming title years in the making: Final Fantasy XVI. There’s been plenty of hype and hope surrounding this title, particularly considering the staff attached to it: Naoki Yoshida, Masayoshi Soken, and Michael-Christopher Koji Fox, all renown for their work on the MMO Final Fantasy XIV, as well as Ryota Suzuki, previously of Capcom and known for his design work on Devil May Cry 5 and Dragon’s Dogma.

There’s also been a bit of hesitation amongst fans as well. As is modern Final Fantasy tradition, XVI‘s gameplay has been seen to be quite the departure from entries past, diving fully into real-time action combat. After spending some time with a new preview build of the game, I can assuage these fears, as what I’ve seen is definitely Final Fantasy through and through…for better or worse.

First, we must note that the build we played is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version, currently scheduled for release in June. Also, to avoid potential spoilers, we will be giving a general overview of what we experienced, rather than deep-diving the details of the story so far.

As has been shown so far, Final Fantasy XVI marks a return to the franchise’s medieval fantasy roots. Though this time around it’s playing around the dark fantasy subgenre, with many others at the event remarking on similarities to Game of Thrones throughout the playthrough. Also, right from the outset, the game wears its franchise-anomalous ‘M’ rating on its sleeve.

The session kicked off right from the beginning of the game, and I immediately found myself in the shoes of main protagonist Clive. In a simple navigation tutorial, I guide Clive amongst the outskirts of a battlefield – one in which the much advertised Eikons are threatening to make an appearance. We almost immediately hear Soken’s musical touch for remixing leitmotifs, as we’re treated to a war march version of the Final Fantasy main theme.

There wasn’t much to directly control in this part of the game – essentially just an introduction to the world – as controls were often wrested from me to show scenes of what’s happening in the background. Transitions from scripted cutscene to gameplay are incredibly smooth, and this would remain a trend throughout my time with the game, barring a single moment where a character model split-second glitched from “cutscene pose” to “battle pose.”

Following this introduction, we move to the real meat of the first part of this preview build: a transition to Clive’s childhood. It’s here that the game gives us our first combat tutorial, as well as begins the work of building its cast of characters.

Being early in the game, of course the combat is simple to start, but I managed to pick it up quickly. I had immediate access to the basics: a physical attack, a ranged magical attack, a special that allowed me to close the ground between Clive and an enemy immediately, as well as a more powerful special attack accessed by holding a shoulder button that would go on cooldown after use.

If there’s one thing I wasn’t expecting Final Fantasy XVI to feel like, it was a modern Ys game. I had just been replaying Ys VIII before this preview, so I noticed the similarities near immediately. However, Final Fantasy XVI‘s combat definitely feels weightier – responsive, but you can feel the heft behind Clive’s swings.

Shifting to story, the world that’s introduced here is particularly intriguing. One thing I particularly liked was the casual use of magic. Whether it’s water magic used to refill a glass or fire magic to casually light up a pipe, small “show don’t tell” moments like this are a promising look at the way the world will be built early in the game.

For those that do like to be told, particularly deeper details, Final Fantasy XVI features what it calls the “Active Time Lore” system…and it’s far and away the best way I’ve seen a game handle datalog-style background info. At any time in the game, even during cutscenes, the player can hold a button down to access further info on anything relevant to the story at that particular moment. Can’t recall the character on screen? Pull up the lore system for a quick refresher. Did the dialogue contain some jargon you’re not quite clear on yet? Hit the lore system for a reminder on the definition. If you’re familiar with Amazon Prime Video, it acts very similarly to the X-Ray function for movies and television shows there.

This early game took me through some simple dungeons and boss fights. One thing that stood out to me in particular was in the game’s initial dungeon. While it didn’t have a particularly complex layout (being a first dungeon of course), I noticed on my way through blue butterflies fluttering around certain interactable objects that shows the main way forward. It was nice subtle implementation of navigation assistance – not in your face, but they stand out just enough if you’re having a hard time finding the next path.

As I moved to the second part of the preview build – the shift to Clive’s adult life and the core of the story – I began to feel that what I had experienced up to this point was…a bit formulaic. Yes, I was playing the introduction to a Final Fantasy game, so spending time watching cutscenes was to be expected. But I was around two hours into playing at this point and, looking back, I realized I was basically just being shuttled from setpiece to setpiece without much chance to…well, play a game.

As if on cue, though, after one more setpiece fight (which I have to start being even more vague from here on out), the game begins to open up. I was introduced to my first “town” area and, after some story beats, set free to explore. It was a typical RPG town setup, with characters to chat with, quest givers with some sidequests, shops and blacksmiths…but after hours of cutscenes and setpieces, having the game finally hit the brakes a bit was appreciated.

After one more dungeon – a wooded area with a more open design – I was shifted to the final part of the preview. Unlike the first two, which were made up of the first three-to-four hours of the game, this segment took place much further in. While the first parts focused on the introductory experience, here, it was all about the gameplay.

Placed into an open field with a full party, I was set loose to explore, with the caveat of not activating a side-quest or continuing the story from this point (to avoid mid-game spoilers). And thus I spent an hour or so exploring a winding field, knocking out enemy mobs and collecting items.

I was able to experience a more fleshed out version of the combat system here – up until now, all I had access to was Clive’s aforementioned loadout and two special attacks, one of which I unlocked partway into the preview. Here, I had access to two sets of Eikon powers, and entertained myself by juggling between them to create the longest combos I could. Many of the enemies in the field here felt a bit damage-spongy, but I was playing with a Clive that might have been under-built at that point, so I’ll give things the benefit of the doubt here.

After about six hours of experiencing Final Fantasy XVI, my thoughts were as follows. One: despite the massive changes in gameplay style, XVI also feels like a return to form for the series in terms of tone. Two: I am legitimately excited to play through the full game, though admittedly I’m not looking forward to replaying the story-heavy intro again.

Though we’ve mostly given an overhead look of the opening experience here, I can say that Clive’s story and the world built thus far has immediately drawn me in. I’ve already experienced some legitimately surprising moments just in this preview alone, and I can’t wait to see how they’re built upon in the full experience.

Final Fantasy XVI is set for release on June 22nd, 2023, exclusively for PlayStation 5.

Screenshots taken by reviewer, sourced from content courtesy of Square Enix. FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved