Review: Final Fantasy XVI

21 Jun 2023

I can hardly remember a time that an upcoming game has had simultaneously as much hype and hesitancy amongst its fanbase than Final Fantasy XVI. On one hand, we have the first mainline release in the series in over five years, being helmed by the oft lauded producers and designers behind Final Fantasy XIV. A game entirely built for current gen consoles (which is unusually uncommon even with the PlayStation 5 nearing three years old) that’s said to be taking full advantage of the hardware. The rare “AAA” game that’s stuck to its development schedule, hasn’t been delayed, and Square Enix appears to have complete and utter faith in.

On the other hand, the last two single-player entries in the Final Fantasy series have had issues that left a sour taste in fans’ mouths. There’s also the fact that this latest entry is fully embracing action gameplay in what’s probably the biggest departure yet from the franchise’s turn-based roots. Recent misfires from Square Enix (most recently Forspoken) have dampened the excitement amongst some as well.

I, personally, started my time with Final Fantasy XVI relatively excited, but also ready to put my critical eye to use. And now, having seen the credits roll about 43 hours later, to sum it up simply:

The hype is deserved, and this game is a must play.

Developed and published by Square Enix, Final Fantasy XVI is set for release on June 22nd, 2023, exclusively for PlayStation 5.

A Darker Shine

Valisthea, a land blessed by the presence of the Mothercrystals – large crystalline structures through which common people have the ability to channel magic. The Mothercrystals are vital to life across the twin lands that make up Valisthea, with multiple kingdoms and even religions having sprung up around them.

Final Fantasy XVI puts us in the shoes of Clive Rosfield, the son of the Archduke of the nation of Rosaria. Clive is growing up during turbulent times for Valisthea: something known as the “Blight” is slowly making its way across the land, leaving the places it touches devoid of life. This is causing increasing unrest amongst the various nations, and when this unrest finally explodes, Clive finds his life irrevocably altered.

I’m choosing to be vague about the description of the story setup here because, despite further details already revealed and a demo featuring the game’s prologue being available, this is a story that is better experienced rather than simply described to you by a third party. Final Fantasy XVI is a masterclass in story pacing: an immediate hook, numerous dramatic moments with just enough breathing room between them, proper foreshadowing that doesn’t give anything away but allows the game to earn its impacts.

Also notable is just how mature the storytelling is here, and I don’t just mean the fact that FFXVI is the first mainline Final Fantasy game to earn a ‘M’ rating from the ESRB. We have a cast made up completely of adults (outside of the prologue), with set values and drives in their lives. This isn’t a story about an RPG kid on an adventure learning about the world and finding themselves; it’s a clash of ideals, from the personal to the nation-spanning. The writing also gives time to explore why each person or each nation holds the ideals they do, even the most evil and despicable ones. You may come to hate certain people for what they do, but you’ll understand why they do it.

This is assisted even further by the game’s Active Time Lore system, easily the greatest way I’ve seen a game handle datalog-style background info. Holding the PS5 touchpad at any time, even during most cutscenes, brings up info about characters, locations, and terminology relevant to that current moment. It’s a great refresher if you forget who’s on screen at the moment, or are still trying to line up the various nations of Valisthea in your head. These notes also sometimes contain some background info that is irrelevant to the main story, but helps build the lore of the game’s world.

Speaking of storytelling, there’s been rumblings of worry that the “darker” tone of FFXVI simply means “edgy.” It’s Final Fantasy, just with more blood and sex! Fortunately, this is not the case. If anything, I wouldn’t describe the game’s tone as “dark,” but more “somber.” This is a serious story, and it takes itself deservedly seriously. While there are absolutely dark (and occasionally horrifying) moments, they are properly paced and occasionally punctuated with moments of levity. Hell, some interactions managed to drive some genuine laughs out of me.

And it’s the interactions that help to sell the story here. While Clive himself (and his dog/wolf Torgal) are the only two permanent members of your party, FFXVI includes a wide cast of characters that are featured and developed from beginning to end. The growth of the relationships between Clive and the cast is genuine, and I found myself coming to care for characters that are initially presented as simply “the blacksmith” or “the shopkeeper.”

Dominating the Battlefield

It’s no secret that Final Fantasy XVI shifts the series to full character action gameplay. What I am glad to report is that, after completing the game, Final Fantasy XVI is a well-built and competent character action game.

I’ll let our preview of the game from last month describe the core gameplay description here, but to sum it up real quick: light attack, heavy attack, dodges and parries, and special attacks with cooldowns. What I experienced back then was fairly basic, but enjoyable, with a lot of promise as Clive’s moveset would presumably develop.

In the full game, I was truly impressed with just how much power I had to develop Clive’s loadout and shape him to the style of gameplay I wanted. Clive unlocks the powers of various Eikons throughout the game, each adding a few new skills to Clive’s “inventory.” Generally, each offers the same standard options: a single attack, a crowd control technique, a support ability for certain situations, an ultimate, and a unique skill intrinsically tied to each Eikon.

The power comes from the ability to mix and match Eikons and skills. Clive gets the ability to equip up to three Eikons relatively early, giving him access to three unique Eikon skills and two other attacks each. The fun part is: you don’t necessarily need to have an Eikon equipped to use the skills related to them. By spending ability points earned from battle and occasional side quests, you can upgrade every skill Clive has access to, and once you’ve “mastered” one, you can equip it to any Eikon.

Unfortunately, a number of Eikon skills are unlocked so late in the game that you’ll likely already have a preferred build for Clive that you’re used to using. While I did experiment with some of these later skills, I found myself quickly switching back to the familiar and effective build that I had been using for the last twenty hours. If you’re a fan of completely switching up your entire gameplay style late in the game, though, at least FFXVI lets you reset Clive’s skills and rebuild him whenever you want with no penalty.

It’s not just the various skills that keeps Clive’s gameplay interesting, as the core battle gameplay manages to stay surprisingly fresh throughout the game’s runtime. The key to most fights (outside of lesser enemies) usually remains the same: punish the enemy enough to decrease its Stagger bar, and once it’s staggered, whale on it to do as much damage as you can before it revives.

While the root of that stagger gameplay never changes, the enemy movesets and situations that you find yourself in will vary. Even outside of bosses and hunt marks, there’s a number of enemies and minibosses roaming the world that have their own unique movesets and will require taking time to study their attacks before you can defeat them. I often found myself just getting lost exploring areas to find these powerful enemies just to perfect my techniques against them. Some of them do begin to show up in more powerful “pallet swap” forms later in the game, but often in different situations (you usually fight this on its own? Now deal with two of them, or now they’re surrounded by constantly spawning trash mobs) to help keep the fights fresh.

However, wandering to find these monsters is really the only use I found for the open area segments of the game. Final Fantasy XVI is a mostly linear experience, but weaved together with occasional open field areas to wander and explore in order to give a the game more breathing room. But, aside from finding monsters to fight or the occasional hunt mark, there really isn’t much else to do in these areas. You might stumble across some stunning vistas for screenshots, but aside from that, maybe just the occasional treasure chest.

Weirdly enough, treasure chests are one of my main complaints about the game. They rarely ever contain anything unique or interesting. Nearly every chest I found and opened contained crafting materials or gil. They never even contained healing items, which were instead found casually strewn about the world or stage you’re playing. Finding a stat-boosting accessory was surprisingly rare, and I can count the number of times I found a piece of equipment in a chest on one hand. By the end of the game, I stopped going out of my way to find items, only opening chests that I happened to stumble across on my way from point A to point B.

The crafting system here is also haphazardly used. It’s a simple system: collect certain items and turn them in to a blacksmith to “craft” a new piece of equipment. But after the early game, where I had many options to upgrade basic merchant-purchased equipment, I only ever returned to craft every few hours or so. A couple new pieces of craftable equipment are typically unlocked after every boss, and these unique items can’t be upgraded, so it became a cycle of beat a boss, craft its equipment, then ignore crafting ’til the next major boss. You can unlock some unique recipes through sidequests that use items earned from hunt marks, but I’d argue these aren’t necessary to complete the game – just for the players that want to kill things faster.

Speaking of sidequests, I’m kind of torn on them. On the one hand, the gameplay content of them is ‘meh’ at best. Typically going to an area to collect some items, or beat up a few monsters. Occasionally the classic “go talk to a few people then come back, that’s about it” quests that the developers seemed to carry over from Final Fantasy XIV.

On the other hand, the writing of the sidequests does a great job in helping build the world and lore of FFXVI. Each sidequest provides a deeper look at characters, cities, power dynamics, and background events – development that isn’t vital to understanding the main story, but greatly helps build Valisthea into a living breathing world. Yes, the gameplay here can be dull, but I absolutely recommend doing the sidequests regardless.

The Glow of Flames

We can typically count on mainline Final Fantasy games to be graphical powerhouses, showing off some of the best presentation of any given game’s time and console generation. FFXVI is no different, and I’d say is the first PS5 game that truly justifies the ludicrously expensive television and sound system I decided to go into debt for a while back.

At 4K on an HDR screen, this game truly shines. The rolling hills and desert sands of Valisthea, the moody lighting of the various dungeons, the bombastic set piece Eikon battles, were all an absolute visual feast. Add in some wonderful surround sound, and I found myself getting quickly immersed during every session with the game.

Alas, it’s not quite perfect. I chose to play on Quality mode rather than Performance, completely expecting some framerate drops and occasional issues…which is exactly what I got. During graphically intense moments, especially the Eikon battles, the framerate noticeably dropped. But I also had occasional drops during simpler moments where two characters are chatting in less-detailed areas. Additionally, distant enemies in open-field areas have reduced animation frames, which would often make them look like something out of a flipbook until I got closer.

The developers claim that the entire game (aside from a handful of scenes) is completely rendered in-engine, without the use of pre-rendered scenes. But they also clearly chose to put more animation work into certain scenes above others. Basic conversation with NPCs and quieter moments had Clive and others often using repeated animations, with their faces really only having the lips and lower face animated. Going from an “important” scene to a standard one really highlights the difference in animation detail.

While all of the above are often noticeable, they never got in the way of being able to play and enjoy the game. I never experienced a framerate drop during combat, staying buttery smooth from beginning to end. I can live with occasional chugging during cutscenes, especially knowing that that was what I was getting into by selecting Quality mode.

When it comes to audio, I have absolutely zero complaints: Final Fantasy XVI absolutely knocks it out of the park. Masayoshi Soken turns in an absolute masterpiece of a soundtrack. The vast majority of it is orchestral with choral punches, which perfectly fit the themes of the game, but the moments where he gets to experiment (which are all moments I can’t mention…) are easily the highlights. The English voice acting is equally stunning, with all of the main characters turning in top-tier performances that often punctuate the emotions of any given scene.

Final Triumph

I’ve spent the last few weeks completely immersing myself in Valisthea and the story of Clive. Countless hours exploring, fighting, and trying to predict where the story would go next. Now, after I’ve finished, I’ve found myself with an urge that I’ve never had with any other JRPG, not even ones from my favorite franchises: I want to go in and play again. I don’t do New Game + modes, but Final Fantasy XVI has me rearing for another go around.

Stellar and surprisingly customizable combat, a masterfully written and engaging storyline, and a beautiful audio visual presentation. It’s nearly a complete package, but with a few annoyances that keep it from being a perfect game.

That said, even with those frustrations in mind, Final Fantasy XVI is an absolute return to form for the mainline franchise, and easily a reason to get yourself a PlayStation 5 if you’ve yet to.

And with that said, it’s time for another go-around in Valisthea.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Square Enix for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer.