Typically reserved for major world-altering events, it’s rare for the world to take pause. Especially to the level where everyone celebrates when a long-awaited video game releases. In this case, we get to bear witness to Final Fantasy XVI, the latest entry in Square Enix’s long-running franchise. No other series has us write out lists of what our favorite entry is and debate the nuance of story like any other franchise out there.
Divisive Storytelling: Balancing Ambition and Execution
While I can say the Final Fantasy franchise is best known for its respective story, music, and characters; I am standing on a razor’s edge. After many hours of venturing through this land, I am still wondering if Final Fantasy XVI meets its ambition. While it doesn’t reach Kingdom Hearts’ level of complexity, there are several issues regarding the way the story is told and how it leverages the racism and environmentalism allegory. Pacing, characters, and endless dialog make the game feel incredibly padded, bringing me to a boiling point where I audibly said “Let’s get on with this already” multiple times. Despite these, I found Final Fantasy XVI to be a rather enjoyable experience as a whole, which is wild to consider since there are a ton of missing and lacking elements that put the series on the map.
Truly a spectacle, Final Fantasy XVI is one of the many games released on PlayStation 5 that feels truly “next-gen” in the visuals department. Yes, the landscapes look lush, the combat is filled with beautiful particle effects as Clive flourishes his way through the onslaught of enemies, and the art direction is absolutely superb with intricate armor designs found in every major character within the story. Other characters suffer from what I call “plain face” where there seems to be a lack of blemishes, and perfectly smooth skin right off the Instagram page of an influencer. Hastily thrown together NPCs took me out of the immersive experience at times. Of course, the strong lack of minorities present in the game makes the population seem rather bland, despite the game’s producer Naoki “Yoshi-P” Yoshida weakly defending that stance.
Major characters within the story are met with fine details which pays off when it comes to their implementation within this world. Armor maintains the “Final Fantasy” aesthetic that the series is known for. Big, heavy suits of armor fit into this world while Clive’s vampire-esque looking regalia sticks out like a sore thumb, which is ever more prominent when standing next to Jill’s more conservative apparel and Cid’s slick style that is reminiscent of the late George Michael. Yes, I am aware that this plays into main character syndrome where Clive needs to stand out while bestowing a narrative reason, but it doesn’t make it look any less strange when characters fail to address his attire and how eccentric it looks.
For armor that is designed to encompass the royalty of Clive’s heritage, he is regaled with a slew of insults as he has the mark of a bearer on his face. This allegory for slavery is what drives his motivations throughout the start of the game. He and Cid want to help free the bearers from their current fate as the downtrodden individuals of the land. There are even cutscenes where soldiers will outright hurl a barrage of insults at Clive simply because he has a mark on his face without taking into consideration that he brandishes a big-ass sword on his back. It is the details like this that really bring the experience down a bit and weaken the premise of the story during the first half of the game.
With a plot that teeters back and forth between over-the-top bombastic moments and cruel drivel, I am constantly beside myself knowing that this is going to be one of the more difficult games to review, not for the sake of speaking to the potential spoilers, but because it is divisive. There are folks who are going to love the story and enjoy the gameplay well beyond what I have to say about it, and that is great because Final Fantasy XVI has equal parts enduring and irritating.
Dynamic Combat and Gameplay Variety
Final Fantasy XVI packs a punch with its story which now includes its own brand of mature content including but not limited to blood, cursing, and bare skin; but it never really does much with it besides add shock value. While others may experience these elements, considering it the crux of immersive storytelling, I find that is completely unnecessary. It is obvious that Square attempted to recapture and recreate an experience containing the aura Game of Thrones left in its wake, but it is not consistent by any means. There are plenty of times when I could skip entire segments of dialog and fully understand what is going on thanks to the multiple layers of context. After all, this is the sixteenth entry in a series where each isolated title plays by the same story beat over and over again.
Pacing Issues and Immersive Combat
I understand that plot elements include rising actions and as there are multiple crescendos, there must also be lulls. Unfortunately, each low point in the pacing makes it so irritating that I had to take a break. I’d hate to be the one to say it, but these moments could have been removed entirely with little to no impact on the overall experience. Segments like trying to find a side character’s passport feel so tacked on and brought the game down to a screeching halt. This trend plays throughout the entire story, giving you these impressive boss battles that engrossed me to the brink of audible cheers. It is absolutely bewildering how a modern title like this rides this linear path where one moment you are fighting one of the most powerful beings on the planet to handing out soup to patrons. Yes, that moment was designed to build a sense of understanding within this world, but the prologue did that just fine.
Later in the story, a character says the line “I’m not convinced our roles in this ruse were entirely necessary” and that is a good summary of everything outside the action-packed moments. Granted, these moments are designed to show Clive’s relationship with those around him and build upon the framework of his beliefs but they fall incredibly short. Even the side quests at the start are dull and rather uninspired. They do improve as the story goes on but I find it to be a rather lame excuse. Narratively speaking, there are a few side quests that really immerse you into this world and present a better view of the game’s meaning and potential, but if the first batch of side content is drivel, what will make me or anyone else venture forward into completing the rest of it?
I look back at the way that the content is delivered to the player and I can’t peer any further than the game’s production staff. I already mentioned Yoshi-P who is also the director for Final Fantasy 14, the MMO, and that flavor is mixed into the experience and thank the Founder because if the combat wasn’t this good, I would have given up on the game altogether.
From the fetch quests style side content that you see in MMOs to the actual enemy mechanics. The content itself that you are playing is a mixed bag but the means in how you experience it makes up for the rather bland mini adventures you go on in this world. Combat is Final Fantasy XVI’s strongest aspect, and it pays off in dividends. Taking the best elements from Devil May Cry, Clive rushes around the combat arena blasting enemies with a slew of elemental powers that can be enhanced to make these grand flourishes even greater. Big bosses will telegraph their attacks using various templates on the ground, telling you where you should be positioned to avoid incoming damage. As an MMO gamer myself, I nodded and smiled, knowing exactly the origins of this direction.
When attacks aren’t telegraphed, you must rely on the enemy’s attack patterns, either dodging out of the way or attempting to parry the attack. Not going to lie, aside from the introductory tutorial mission, I have only performed a parry accidentally. There s a certain power you get that allows you to block attacks and I am much better at that, especially since the counter-attack using that move is a grand flourish that reminds me of the cult classic: Asura’s Wrath.
Speaking of Asura’s Wrath, Final Fantasy XVI is ripe with quick time events but they have a new name in this context, throwing “Cinematic” onto the dodge and attack terms. I have always found quick-time events to be rather lazy, and Final Fantasy XVI injects them into the game at random intervals. I guess this is their way to make sure you are still awake during the prolonged cutscenes that make up the crux of each major beautiful battle.
Content Depth and Replayability
Completionists will find a lot of content to sift through with some folks stating that their entire full clears range up within the 75 to 100-hour area within just one playthrough. If you are steamrolling through the main quests, then you can experience the full story in as little as 25 hours. There is a New Game + mode that allows you to start from the beginning with all of your resources and abilities as well as presents a newer difficulty called Final Fantasy Mode which also changes up many aspects of the game, giving you a whole new experience. It also gives you the ability to craft the Ultima weapon, the highest-quality equipment, and more. In my eyes, it is ideal to run through the main game and then tackle all the side stuff on subsequent playthroughs.
It may have seemed like I was overtly negative during this review but I did find the total package to be rather good as a whole. With huge moments that feel grand and immersive and mostly skippable lulls, Final Fantasy XVI is a solid modern entry into the action combat world. As someone who grew up on the franchise, I’m glad to see a sense of conciseness throughout the years. While it may break away from the core concepts in gameplay, it still pays respects to what made this franchise so iconic. It is absolutely worth visiting this unique world, just make sure you have popcorn at arms reach.
A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of this review.