Our review of Final Fantasy XVI, developed by Square Enix. Available now for PS5.
WHAT IS IT?
A darker, grittier Final Fantasy.
IS IT GOOD?
Yes, and it’s thankfully less grimdark than its inspiration.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
THIS GAME WITH THRONES
Let’s address the dragon in the room: yes, the latest Final Fantasy is an unabashed riff on Game of Thrones, right down to several characters more or less borrowed from the book/television series. I’ve never seen a Game of Thrones episode in my life, and even I can tell that Square Enix has gone all George R.R. Martin on us.
Which, honestly, is fine. FFXVI is certainly far less miserable than GoT – no “red weddings” here – and even manages some of the lightheartedness which Final Fantasy is known for. (Not for nothing does Final Fantasy VII – a game about planetary collapse – feature a scene in which someone endlessly complains as you climb 59 flights of stairs.)
FFXVI is also just plain fun. As with (nearly) every one of its predecessors, its central cast is likeable, the main and side narratives are compelling and rewarding, and the gameplay is start-to-finish exciting. Though I may miss the more relaxed vibe of the classic turn-based battle system, in almost every way FFXVI proves its worth as an evolution of the long-running series. With more chocobos and moogles than you can throw a Phoenix Down at, FFXVI is the Final Fantasy you’ve been waiting for.
At first blush, FFXVI protagonist Clive Rosfield – a name not nearly as cool as “Cloud Strife” or “Squall Leonhart” – isn’t a particularly interesting figure. Clive, who looks like a rough sketch for a FF character – impeccable hair, V-neck tunic, giant sword – is the eldest son of a royal family, tasked with protecting his younger brother, Joshua, the designated “host” for an otherworldly being.
Clive and Joshua live in Valisthea, a Medievalesque world where each kingdom – Sanbreque, Rosaria, the Iron Islands, the North, the Shire, Gondor… – hosts its own such magical being, called an “Eikon”. It will not surprise longtime FF fans that these Eikons are themed around the elements – fire, ice, etc. – and that magic crystals play a central role in the story. It will also not surprise fans that a small, ragtag team of heroes eventually forms around Clive, accompanying him on an epic journey across Valisthea.
What will surprise new and returning FF players is just how action-packed this game is. Gone is any semblance of turn-based combat. Gone is the ability to control more than a single character in your party. Gone, for the most part, is the larger, open-world scale of FFs past, with scenarios generally limited to a given area at a time (not dissimilar to the overhauled mini-Midgar of FFVII Remake).
In their place, what Square Enix has given us is an Action-RPG that’s equal parts George R.R. Martin and God of War. In combat, Clive combines melee attacks (with a big ole sword only slightly less ridiculous than Cloud’s Buster Sword) and magic abilities, including several new variations on the trademark FF summons. He runs, he dashes, he jumps. He even parries and can slow down time with a well-timed dodge – both of which are surprisingly easy to pull off, thanks to refreshingly generous mechanics.
Outside combat, Clive wanders the various kingdoms, settlements, and other locales spread across Valisthea, chatting with NPCs, taking on side quests, and generally moving the plot forward. Grinding – I can’t believe I’m saying this – is largely optional: while you can, if you choose, burn hours taking on foe after foe to level up your character, the game does a decent job of keeping you competitive if you just follow the main storyline.
Plus, FFXVI does something which every game should do: it offers in-universe mechanics that make things easier. So, for example, you can equip the “Ring of Timely Evasion” which automatically dodges attacks. Or, you can equip the “Ring of Timely Healing” which automatically triggers healing items when your health drops below a certain level. I love this because it side-steps the artificiality of the typical video game “difficulty” menu, and I also love it because I feel less guilty about making things easier when I’m using tools that the in-game world makes available to me.
It was probably after the second or third brutally mutilated Chocobo that I realized FFXVI really wasn’t the Final Fantasy of my youth.
Sure, FF has dealt with serious, adult themes before, but never in such stark terms – or with such shockingly graphic visuals. There is blood and guts and nudity and (awkward, male-gazey) sex in Final Fantasy XVI. Characters won’t stop saying the f-word. Valisthea looks like someone took a FF schematic and rendered it through a machine learning filter with the hashtag #got.
For all its ill-advised, juvenile attempts to go all “M For Mature” on us, it’s striking how FFXVI never loses sight of what it is. Which is: a Final Fantasy game, in which light shines in the darkness, and where characters embrace hope and courage. FFXVI is also careful to include all the familiar FF tropes, right down to a new “Cid” and plentiful callbacks to previous games (not to mention the unfortunate, plasticky sheen to the characters’ faces, something which FF apparently cannot shake). Even the brilliantly orchestrated Thrones‘ified soundtrack can’t help but revisit the famous themes with which gamers are familiar.
FFXVI may not, exactly, be the FF you remember. But it is, among all the blood and guts, all the f***s and s***s, a Final Fantasy at heart.
Final score: 9/10 materia.
Visit the official website for Final Fantasy XVI here.