For over three decades, an essential part of Final Fantasy’s identity has been pushing boundaries. It’s a series that has consistently redefined RPGs in more ways than one, but as gaming modernized, the series stopped hitting that high bar as consistently.
That might all change with Final Fantasy XVI, however, a game that’s already breathtaking in scope and ambition. After playing roughly six hours of FFXVI, it gives me that same distinct feeling I had the first time I started up Final Fantasy VII or X, a title that wants to, once again, redefine what it means to be a Final Fantasy game.
The demo we played gave access to three distinct sections, roughly the first three hours of the game, a two-hour segment during Clive’s twenties, and some time to roam about one of the game’s open fields. As a note, we won’t be able to talk about story specifics, so no spoilers ahead.
There’s been a lot of talk since Final Fantasy XVI‘s announcement about the game going darker or “grittier” than the series is known for, and while there are certainly some weighty themes and a higher level of violence, so far, XVI still manages to have that feeling of whimsy that makes the franchise special, with plenty of magical creatures, kings, and magic.
“…FFXVI is committed to changing the very idea of what it means to be a Final Fantasy game.”
FFXVI isn’t shy about its inspirations, however, and the similarities to Game of Thrones are instantly recognizable. The same can be said about how its action-combat draws from both Devil May Cry and God of War. It’s an interesting position, as Final Fantasy has typically been about treading new ground and unique aesthetics rather than drawing heavily on what others have done. That whole fact, however, shows that FFXVI is committed to changing the very idea of what it means to be a Final Fantasy game.
Right from the jump, Final Fantasy XVI sets its story up on a grand scale, diving into the politics between various nations and how Clive fits into that overall puzzle. The first few hours are also filled with some fascinating character relationships, including far more direct sexual content than Final Fantasy is known for.
While it’s hard to get a definitive sense of the game’s overall narrative, it’s pretty clear FFXVI is weaving in themes about oppression, freedom, and breaking free of the hand life has dealt you. These are all themes I’m incredibly interested to see the game explore more, especially seeing as one of the game’s main writers is Kazutoyo Maehiro, who previously worked as the main scenario writer on Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward, an expansion that tackled similarly weighty themes.
“…unlike anything Final Fantasy has seen before.”
Despite the first few hours being incredibly cutscene heavy, it does a good job of investing you in the world of Valisthea and Clive’s personal struggles. What surprised me the most, however, was how snappy all the dialogue felt, despite the high fantasy setting. Even with early world-building, it feels like the story is being pushed meaningfully forward, and there wasn’t one moment in my six-hour playtime that I found my mind wandering.
The sense of scope that Final Fantasy XVIs story has is equally represented in the gameplay, which feels unlike anything Final Fantasy has seen before. The action-focused combat immediately feels fast and fluid, with Clive having basic melee combos, a ranged magic attack, and special abilities granted to him by the Eikon set he has equipped.
At first, Clive will only have Eikonic abilities from Phoenix, which include moves like a fiery uppercut, spinning AoE attack, and massive ranged blast. You can equip two abilities for each Eikon set and each ability is on its own cooldown timer.
In the opening hours, combat can feel a bit limited, but it’s easy to see that FFXIV’s progression will play a massive part. The later parts of our demo opened up more Eikon sets and added on Torgal as a party member, Clive’s loyal hound that you can issue commands to during battle.
Both of these aspects drastically increase your options in combat, and having multiple Eikon sets started making combat truly a thrill ride. You can swap between these sets on the fly, unleashing ability after ability in a dramatic flash of particle effects.
There’s an extensive skill tree to invest experience into, unlocking new skills for Clive while also allowing you to strengthen existing ones, slightly altering how they work. For example, one move I unlocked earlier was a gap-closing slash that was quick and low damage, but upgrading it enhanced the move with Phoenix’s power, adding a bit more oomph to the damage numbers.
“It’s clear that FFXIV, the absurdly popular MMO, has played a big part in FFXVI’s development…”
The only real worry I had cropped up during battle was how tank-y some enemies felt, soaking up tons of damage before going down. That being said, that problem didn’t seem to exist at all once I skipped ahead and had more abilities.
While standard enemies can provide a decent challenge, the combat system really starts to shine in the game’s climactic boss battles. One particularly interesting battle had me facing an assassin in a dense forest, with the boss using almost the exact moveset of the Ninja from FFXIV. It’s clear that FFXIV, the absurdly popular MMO, has played a big part in Final Fantasy XVI’s development, as you can see similar mechanics in boss battles, in terms of bosses using AoE moves or mechanics that have damage lines displayed on the field.
The absolute highlight of the experience, however, was the over-the-top Eikon battles. Our demo let us play through a battle between Ifrit and Phoenix, as well as the Garuda fight media experience earlier this year, and both were nothing short of jaw-dropping.
That idea of scale that I mentioned earlier really comes to a head here, as these clashes feel like massive Kaiju battles that quite literally rip the world apart. Both encounters were entirely original with unique mechanics. Phoenix could be compared to a high-speed coaster ride, while Garuda was more of a smackdown wrestling match between two gods. It’s in these sections that FFXVI’s effects and visual fidelity are on full display, with explosions happening left and right, limbs being ripped off, and entire mountains being devastated all at once. It’s like playing through an interactive Dragon Ball Z episode.
I’ve talked about all the disparate elements of Final Fantasy XVI, but what I really want to highlight is how all of these pieces flow together into a cohesive whole. Battles feel superbly cinematic and seamlessly flow in and out of the story. It’s easy to see a situation where FFXVI’s combat and story could have felt like opposing elements, but Square Enix has seemingly done an impeccable job of making everything tie into one core experience.
Even just hours in, you can see the ambition and confidence the development team has with Final Fantasy XVI. It still has the key elements of Final Fantasy, but it’s also unlike anything that has come before. There’s a sense that this is an evolution for the franchise, and that might be exactly what it needs.