One thing that sets Final Fantasy apart from other game series is its willingness to reinvent itself with each new numbered installment. From the start of its 35-year history, Square Enix’s flagship franchise has reinvented its own wheels—either by building upon existing systems or changing half of the familiar elements for something new.
In some ways, Final Fantasy XVI is one of the more radical departures from the series’ norms, as the first “real” action RPG in the mainline. Yet, in other ways, it’s also the most “Final Fantasy” game in the numbered series in about twenty years.
Final Fantasy XVI revolves primarily around Clive Rosfield, son of a duke and sworn protector of his younger brother, Joshua. In their world of Valisthea, a minority of the population are born with the gift of magic, while a select handful become “Dominants”—connected to mighty elemental Eikons, this game’s take on Final Fantasy’s signature summons. Joshua is the Dominant of Phoenix, Eikon of Fire, and thus the shadow of war falls upon the Rosfield house as a Blight slowly renders the land unlivable, and nations fight for resources.
As you may have seen already in the demo, a brutal tragedy sets Clive on a quest for revenge against the enigmatic Eikon, Ifrit, and anyone else responsible. Across Final Fantasy XVI’s sprawling, 40-60 hour story, Clive’s fate intertwines with the other Dominants and the Mothercrystals that grant magic to Valisthea.
People bound by fate to mighty summoned beasts, a dying land, international conflicts, massive crystals that supply people with magic powers… Much ado has been made about Final Fantasy XVI finding inspiration in Game of Thrones, but so many of the series’ strongest themes are still present. If anything, Game of Thrones may have informed the tone of its delivery, with a fair share of scenes that justify its M-rating, but Clive’s journey is as Final Fantasy as it gets.
“In some ways, Final Fantasy XVI is one of the more radical departures from the series’ norms…”
At times, particularly in the opening hours, the narrative leans a little harder into that inspiration, with an abundance of F-bombs, sex, and bloody deaths, atypical elements for a Final Fantasy. (The inciting incident, for instance, ends with a viscerally uncomfortable moment of Neon Genesis Evangelion-esque violence.) After the initial impact, however, the tone evens out into something more on-brand—if you were put off by the demo’s more uncomfortable moments, rest assured.
That heavy-handed foible aside, Final Fantasy XVI is, simply, one of the best-written RPGs I’ve ever played. Its scope transcends most other games in the series, both in in-game terms and in its delivery. Clive’s story is focused on three points over an 18-year span, fleshing out rich layers of personal, international, and supernatural conflict. After the first few hours, the plot settles into a powerful cadence between set piece levels and side quests that enrich the entire narrative.
Calling them “side quests” almost feels like a disservice. Square Enix’s Creative Business Unit 3, the same team behind reigning MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, made a conscious effort to craft supplementary quests that truly enhance the world. Granted, sometimes you’re still on a “fetch x items” or “kill these monsters” mission. It’s the narrative implications that give them such tremendous, cumulative weight, however.
Most of the quest-givers are associates at Clive’s base of operations, the Hideaway, or allies across Valisthea. Each has their own arc that relates to the main story, reflecting or contrasting Clive’s beliefs and plight. I’d be curious to see how the experience would change if I didn’t see them all through, but I also can’t imagine ignoring them either.
Its story is one of the most complete and comprehensive RPG sagas in recent memory, but Final Fantasy XVI has implemented a simple yet revolutionary feature just in case you get lost along the way. The Active Time Lore system allows players to pull up context-sensitive entries from a game-spanning encyclopedia, accessible at most points outside of battle—even in cutscenes. Imagine the datalog from Final Fantasy XIII, but better in every conceivable way.
“Its story is one of the most complete and comprehensive RPG sagas in recent memory.”
Where Final Fantasy XVI deviates most from series conventions is its combat, as an action RPG. Players control only Clive (aside from a brief segment in the prologue) as they traverse Valisthea and battle its fiercest souls. Other allies will come and go as the plot demands, controlled only by AI without player input. (The exception to this is Torgal, Clive’s loyal hound, which can be directed via a small menu of commands on the D-pad.)
While the previous game also leaned heavily away from the tried-and-true turn-based format, Final Fantasy XVI takes that one step further. At its core is a simple action-RPG system: chainable physical attacks and magic, dodges, parries, etc. Over the course of the game, however, Clive can supplement his basic moves with abilities gained from the Eikons. He starts with a simple set of the Phoenix’s powers, and can eventually cycle through three customizable sets, picking and choosing from a respectable roster.
This is where combat truly gets exciting. As the pool of moves expands, customizing Clive’s loadout to manipulate the RPG elements of combat best becomes a true joy. Do you want to prioritize depleting larger enemies’ will bars to stagger them and earn the chance to wail on them unassailed? Or would you rather kit Clive out to deal with mobs of lesser enemies, or anything in between?
Each time new Eikon abilities were gained, I felt a fresh incentive to play around with Clive’s setup. All have unique options, including a movement or gimmick used with the Circle button and a couple of different abilities that map to R2 + Square/Triangle. I was toying with options until the very end, and I could quickly see how every player might play through the game with wildly different approaches.
The ability system enhances combat as the Active Time Lore system enhances the story. Skills can be upgraded to enhance their effects, then mastered to make them equippable on any Eikon. Players can refund the skill points they’ve spent on abilities from the menu at any time, so there’s no need to stress if you’ve sunk everything into one Eikon but want to try another skillset out. Coupled with a pseudo-combat simulator at the Hideaway, Final Fantasy XVI makes it fun and worthwhile to experiment with everything it can do.
It all may sound daunting for Final Fantasy fans who don’t play action RPGs. However, there are a set of “Timely Accessories” that Clive can equip to handle certain elements, like automatically making combos with one press of a button or enhancing the ability to dodge. Combat is fast-paced and frantic, yet accessible; it’s no Devil May Cry, nor is it anywhere close to Elden Ring’s ilk.
A rare treat shaking up the flow of both battle and narrative are the Eikon battles. At various key points—often as one phase of a multi-part boss encounter—the player assumes control of Ifrit as the infernal Eikon does battle with its other elemental brethren. They’re like the classic prerendered FMV scenes from PlayStation-era RPGs but with QTE elements… and they’re incredibly intense moments.
Much of that intensity comes from Final Fantasy XVI’s high level of production. The game is simply a feast for the eyes. From characters, to scenery, to battle effects, it’s a generation-defining experience. Composer Masayoki Soken cements his place as Nobuo Uematsu’s successor with another stirring score, while the entire voice cast, led by Ben Starr as Clive, truly brings the writing and the world alive with heartfelt performances.
In fact, Starr’s performance has shot Clive straight into my upper echelon of Final Fantasy protagonists, alongside Cloud and Squall. His range brings so much humanity to the role, compelling us to share in his rage, his sense of justice, and his steadfast determination. It’s hard to keep your heart from breaking alongside his, or to keep from jumping up from your seat during one of his rousingly defiant speeches.
I could keep gushing about the experience of Final Fantasy XVI (and I probably will for the foreseeable future) but there’s only so much that can be said without spoiling the roller coaster-like highs and lows. There are some minor flaws that bear mentioning, however.
If you were worried that it might copy Final Fantasy XIV’s homework too closely since it’s from the same team, that simply isn’t the case. There are some aesthetic similarities and familiar terminology like “Eikons” and “aether,” but otherwise, CBU3’s created a new world that stands on its own. Some boss fights utilize the same signalling techniques as FFXIV’s bosses, but this mechanic is used with appropriate frequency.
While the presentation is solid overall, there were some incredibly minor and infrequent hiccups during cutscenes (yet, amazingly, not during the bombastic Eikon battles, as uncountable light effects blasted across the screen). At times I felt as though my companions were barely contributing in battle, and the equipment crafting system’s incremental gains were somewhat underwhelming, at least until the back half.
“Final Fantasy XVI makes it fun and worthwhile to experiment with everything it can do.”
That “roller coaster” metaphor the development team has used may be a little too fitting in some regards. The early game might keep players somewhat on the rails, but at least it grants independence much earlier than some of its ancestors. These feel like minor quibbles, though—peas under the princess’ mattress compared to the rest of the game’s intensity.
By and large, Final Fantasy XVI is the kind of huge title that should stand as one of the generation’s tentpoles, sending echoes throughout the industry as Final Fantasy VII once did. As good as the last few numbered entries were, I haven’t felt this kind of impact from my favourite franchise since Final Fantasy X 22 years ago, back in the SquareSoft era.
It may be an action RPG, but it’s also one of the most genuine Final Fantasy experiences Square has made to date—not just for its smart utilization of allusions and easter eggs or its common themes but for the way it pushes technical and creative boundaries as they used to do so well back in the halcyon days of the PS1 and PS2.