Final Fantasy XVI Review - Victorious Valisthea
There is a whole generation of modern gamers, who were not alive during the golden era of Final Fantasy in the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s. Gen Alpha was a mile off while the Gen Z-ers were barely out of nappies when the classics of Final Fantasy VI-X were all launching. The era of the PS3 and Xbox 360 served as the dark days of the JRPG, and Final Fantasy XIII, but also the failed launch of Final Fantasy XIV, epitomised the fall of the genre through this time, and it seemed as though the franchise was failing to embrace the trends of the industry, with the sheen starting to come off the beloved franchise. Since then, Square-Enix has been in crisis mode as it endeavours to repair the damage that the franchise sustained. Final Fantasy XV was the first step towards a core franchise reinvention when it launched in 2015, however, the franchise metamorphosis has now reached completion with the launch of Final Fantasy XVI. The question now is – is this seven+ year transformation a beautiful butterfly, or the moth we simply want to swat away?
The kingdom of Valisthea is in turmoil, kingdoms are warring, and a menacing blight takes over the land. Realms fight over Mothercrystals, and the dominants, blessed/tortured individuals with the control of powerful Eikons, have the power to influence the shape of these wars in an instant. The state of the world is fickle, tensions are high, when a sudden assault on the Kingdom Of Rosaria leaves its King dead, and the fate of its Dominant Joshua in limbo. Meanwhile, Clive, son of the king and older brother to Joshua has had a dormant power awaken, making him, unbelievably, a second Fire Dominant, as the Dominant of Ifrit. Years removed from the attack, Clive is still wrestling with what transpired but also has the burning desire to exact revenge upon those who decimated his family and home, and when the opportunity emerges, he strikes out on a path to exact that revenge, making enormous discoveries, before being wrapped up with a global war, and extraordinary powers that, without his intervention, could lay waste to the continents of Storm and Ash.
Square-Enix have clearly learned a great deal from the feedback that both of the two most recent, single-player Final Fantasy’s in Final Fantasy XIII, and Final Fantasy XV received for their overly complicated plots, and excessive layers of narrative mud to wade through, because Final Fantasy XVI often keeps things pretty simple. By no means does this mean that the world of Valisthea is lacking in texture, nuance, or complexities, rather the delivery is clearer than in other recent franchise entries, newly introduced plot points are given time to breathe, and a considerable shoutout must be offered to the Active Time Lore mode, which can be activated during cutscenes and can provide additional details to the player about locations, historical events, and key figures within a certain sequence, akin to Amazon Prime Videos’ X-Ray Mode feature.
The traditional storytelling elements, through written word and spoken dialogue are but the beginning of the exceptional world of Valisthea that Square-Enix’s Creative Business Unit III has assembled. Not only is the lore and writing of a supremely high standard, but that exceptional element is elevated further by wonderfully rendered environments that tell their own stories, stellar voice-acting which at no point devolves into cheesy troupes that JRPGs so often fall into, and audio effects that enhance the on-screen action. Final Fantasy XVI is a stunning game to behold, from the love and care that has been put into the designs of each character, to the efforts of the environmental art team and the impressively diverse regions of Valisthea. Wartorn regions look devastated and broken, desert areas look suitably inhospitable, while other, more fantastical portions of the world feel as such. The world, the environments, the townships and cities, and even those who inhabit the world play an enormous part in complementing what the cutscenes and moments of dialogue are expressing to the player. The soundtrack of a Final Fantasy game is always a huge factor in immersing players deep inside the world of that given title, and Masayoshi Soken’s score for this sixteenth entry sits neatly alongside much of the best that the franchise has offered to date.
It is in the gameplay where Final Fantasy XVI takes landmark strides forward for the franchise, embracing the trend that the IP had been headed in since the launch of 2006’s Final Fantasy XII in exploring a more action-focussed path. With each entry the franchise has become less and less turn-based, but it is with XVI where the transformation that was begun 17 years ago has now reached completion. Final Fantasy XVI has now completely done away with its turn-based roots, favouring pure action gameplay akin to the Devil May Cry’s and Bayonetta’s of the world, and assisting in that transformation is Ryota Suzuki, the combat designer of Final Fantasy XVI, with previous experience on the kinetic Devil May Cry V. The game looks and feels the part of the modern character-action game, but it also draws on the various ability systems that have long underpinned the Final Fantasy franchise as well.
As Clive’s adventure continues he will be able to draw upon the extracted powers of numerous Eikon’s from Phoenix, to Ifrit, Ramuh, Titan, Garuda and more. Each Eikon possesses several unlockable attack types, which Clive can level up and socket into one of six attacking slots, each useable (with cooldowns) by pressing the R2 button and then either square or triangle, having already selected one of your three equipped Eikon’s. Though there are some abilities that at face value can look similar, there are subtle differences between each which make them more or less effective depending on how they are used. As the game progresses, Clive also unlocks what many would know as a God of War-inspired Rage meter, one that builds up through hits landed, and then can be unleashed in an even greater, more powerful flurry of attacks to break a contest open. Stagger meters, first introduced in Final Fantasy XIII return once again, with the enemy rendered temporarily powerless once staggered, leaving them wide open to severe levels of assault from Clive and co.
Where the combat feels every bit like a Devil May Cry game with Final Fantasy textures, some Final Fantasy elements seep in that hamper the combat as well. Final Fantasy games have long been known for their extended boss battles, some that can last for huge spans of time, and even beyond an hour at times, and these can resurfance in Final Fantasy XVI too, but unfortunately this is more due to the enemies feeling spongey, or the boss battles being multi-staged to a point of excess at times, rather than a result of the deep strategical needs found in traditional franchise entries. Battles with Eikon’s either as Clive or when he learns how to harness the powers of Ifrit, are epic in their size and scale but can too fall into the same traps as these other, more standard encounters, despite their spectacular cinematic theatrics.
Side questing is also a bit on the lacklustre side. In a day and age where players have had exhaustive worlds like The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and more which not only deliver an engaging golden path narrative, but a litany of side-quests that are just as engaging, Final Fantasy XVI’s feel comparatively poor, with many amounting to fetch quests or “go here, kill monster, save person” styles of tasks.
Final Fantasy XVI is the Final Fantasy for established fans and new faces alike. Narratively, it hits all of the notes that players have come to adore, with a far grittier tone than we’ve ever seen before appealing to the Game Of Thrones crowd in particular. The changes to the gameplay have been seen through Final Fantasy XII, XIII, XV and even 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, but have reached their definitive form with XVI, and while there are still some balancing issues that make some encounters a little longer than is necessary, players will undoubtedly still find a lot of fun in the fray. It wasn’t that long ago that the future of Final Fantasy was in doubt, but with XVI, Square-Enix have dug in their heels and made a powerful statement that this franchise is going nowhere, and will again rule the roost for the JRPG genre, now and into the future. Whether you grew up with the peak of Final Fantasy or not, XVI is the game for all Final Fantasy fans.
Final Fantasy XVI was reviewed on PS5 with a code kindly provided by Bandai-Namco Australia