Review – Final Fantasy XVI
Is there a franchise more divisive and controversial amongst its own fans than Final Fantasy? How many times have I seen equal amounts of people loving and hating Final Fantasy VII‘s remake, XIII’s linearity, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origins‘ ridiculousness, and so on. With the exception of maybe VI, IX, and parts of XIV, I don’t think I have ever seen a Final Fantasy game truly, 100% adored by its fan base. Final Fantasy XVI will NOT be one of those games. I am pretty sure this will be one of the most controversial and discussed games in the franchise’s history. Some will love it. Some will call it a far cry from the franchise’s philosophy and ethos. My opinion on it? Well… I loved it. For real. But I will completely understand if someone approaches me and tells me they hated it.
The reason for it is simple. Along my dozens of nearly uninterrupted hours playing Final Fantasy XVI, I was reminded of influences from many different franchises. Game of Thrones, Shaman King, The Northman, Hamlet, The Count of Monte Cristo, Devil May Cry, The Witcher, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Dragon’s Dogma, freaking Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Nier: Automata, even Halo at times. I swear to you, I’m not even joking. What it barely reminded me for most of the time was actually Final Fantasy itself. This game is very different from anything that came out before it. Even Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origins felt less like a departure from the series’ roots in comparison.
Weirdly enough, at the same time, Final Fantasy XVI feels like the biggest love letter to old-school Final Fantasy I have ever seen. Well, second biggest love letter, as you can’t compete with Theatrhythm. Classic enemies appearing on occasion (for the most part, you do fight soldiers, though). The classic FF victory theme once you beat a boss, but this time, sang with a choir. Chocobos can be ridden. Moogles look at you and say “kupo”. Dragoons. The plot revolves around the classic summons like Phoenix, Ifrit and Shiva. Not to mention that the game’s main MacGuffin is, once again, Crystals. Just like back in the 80’s.
In theory, these elements would be enough to please the more purist of Final Fantasy aficionados, especially with the overall lack of Nomura-esque elements that have almost become a joke as of late. Not a single fool with a spiky hairdo in sight. Outfits aren’t ridiculously plastered with belts. The dialogue isn’t overexaggerated, like an anime. You won’t see a single outdated representation of a minority, like Barrett or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XVI is very medieval, and very serious. The plot is dark, violent, at times depressing, but never edgy in a Stranger of Paradise kind of way. No nu-metal in sight, as much as that pains me. It does feel a lot like Game of Thrones in terms of the sheer amount of betrayals and twists you witness throughout its runtime.
Yet, purists will probably be the ones loathing the game the most. There are a few elements that will be too much for them. One of them is the aforementioned tonal shift. Sure, Final Fantasy has been dark before, with plots like the one from VI being the franchise’s highlight, but this takes a step further. This is violent, bloody, rated M. Naoki Yoshida, the game’s producer, must have binge watched Game of Thrones while sipping tons of coffee whilst designing the game; it just feels like a massive HBO show at times. There is also the fact it’s very linear at first, which is a point of contention for some, especially those who hated X and XIII. More on that later.
But there is an even bigger point of controversy I would like to point out. I don’t even think Final Fantasy XVI can be fully considered a JRPG. Sure as hell doesn’t feel like one. Sound the alarm, pick up the torches, riots on the streets.
If you have already played the demo, you may have noticed that Final Fantasy XVI plays vastly more like a Platinum action game or like Devil May Cry. Hell, Platinum even worked on the combat system. It’s all about frantic, fast-paced hack and slash action, with dodging, parrying, and a vastly reduced emphasis on magic. Sure, spells can be used, but they act more like special attacks bound to a cooldown meter than, you know, actual Final Fantasy magic. Hell, you don’t even have access to a magic meter to begin with, you only have HP to care about.
Stats and other RPG elements are present, but they are very minute. You don’t have access to classes, for instance. You don’t learn new moves via leveling up, instead resorting to skill trees in order to unlock and upgrade abilities. Equipment slots are very limited, with the player only having to worry about a sword, two armor slots, and three accessory slots. That’s it. No need to care about armor, INT, DEX, none of that stuff. For the most part, all you need to worry is looking for items whose numbers are bigger than the numbers offered by your current items. The bigger the number, the better the item. Simple as that. The same level of RPG depth as God of War: Ragnarok.
If you are wondering if this was an issue to me, well, it wasn’t. On the contrary, I absolutely LOVED the combat system in Final Fantasy XVI. Dare I say, this game has an even better combat system than some fully fledged action titles made by Platinum. It sure as hell felt more fluid, stylish, and fun than Bayonetta 3. Maybe even Bayonetta 2. It’s just that juicy. The feeling of pulling off a perfect dodge, giving you the opportunity to dish out a stronger counter attack on a foe, only for you to follow up with a lunge or a fire barrage, is priceless. I particularly loved the fact you can’t even block. Learn how to dodge, ya goob. You will zip through the arena with your teleportation skills, shredding enemies like they’re sushi. It never gets old.
People who are into hack and slash games will love Final Fantasy XVI, and won’t even mind about the game’s obscenely long stretches of linearity. That is a big controversy surrounding the franchise as a whole: whilst lots of people disliked X and XIII‘s corridor-like structure, a similar amount of people seemingly hated Final Fantasy XV‘s complete open world structure.
Final Fantasy XVI starts off with a structure that can be best described as “90% linear”, at least for the first twenty hours or so. Whilst there are opportunities for you to explore certain locales with a small degree of freedom, and whilst there are a few sidequests at your disposal, it’s not worth bothering. The first handful of sidequests are just boring fetch quests, or just being told to go to point B and interact with a character. The game did open up a bit afterwards, also introducing a new type of sidequest in the process: hunting jobs. Not unlike Witcher contracts in The Witcher 3, those tougher challenges were easily the highlight of what was, otherwise, a pretty underwhelming gallery of side content.
There is an upside to this decision, however. Making the game more linear than before worked wonders in order to make its plot flow better. Boy oh boy, if there is one thing you should take away from this review is that Final Fantasy XVI‘s story is just amazing. Fantastic. Sublime. Pristine. Emotional. God damn excellent. Name a positive adjective: Final Fantasy XVI‘s story is that.
It’s not just because there is a heavy dosage of Game of Thrones thrown into the mix. To be fair, I’m not even a big fan of the show, or the George R. R. Martin books for that matter. Everything is just incredibly well-conceived. The world of Valisthea might be your generic “medieval continent” with warring nations, but each one is unique, and it doesn’t take long before you understand each one’s motives. At the end of the day, each nation is basically struggling for survival. A mysterious force known as the Blight is sapping the life force out of the earth, ruining crops and ridding it of aether, so nations are basically fighting for the remaining scraps of fertile soil for their citizens.
One of the nations is the Duchy of Rosaria, the homeland of our protagonist, Clive Rosfield. Despite not exactly the heir to the throne, even though he is the first son of the ruling Archduke, he grew up in a lavish environment alongside a loving brother and a not-so-loving mother. Shenanigans ensue, treasons occur, and the story begins with a runaway Clive, who had been captured as a slave by a neighbouring empire, getting a second chance in life after meeting lovable outlaw Cid (well, duh, it’s a Final Fantasy game). What happens next is a tale of revenge, plot twists, blood, death, and me becoming an emotional wreckage upon witnessing the sheer amount of epicness (and, at times, sadness) happening onscreen.
I’m not going to dive into the plot, because it’s best enjoyed when you know very little about it. Let me just state that the characters in this game are fantastic. Clive might be my favorite protagonist in the entire franchise, at least unironically (I’ll always have a soft spot for Jack Garland from Stranger of Paradise). He has one hell of an arc. You see the lad grow from brave but naive nobleman to a bloodthirsty warrior with a heart of gold.
That is backed by some insanely good voice acting. I thought I would hate his voice actor at first, but the performance eventually grew on me. It’s mixture of Jason Statham, Geralt of Rivia, and three daily packs of Marlboro Red, with a heavy dosage of emotional baggage on top of it all. His arc is great. He starts off barely speaking a word, being grumpy as all hell, but the more you play the game, the more he opens up towards people he cares about, going from edgelord to a bonafide hero. He carries a ton of baggage, but he learns how to deal with it. A much better arc than, say, Cloud Strife, who starts off as an edgelord and ends the game as an edgelord.
Maybe a couple of NPCs don’t sound particularly exciting, but that is a standard deviation that feels acceptable when the rest of the cast delivers a banger of a job. To make things even better, there’s the soundtrack. Oh boy, the soundtrack. This blessing to one’s ears offers everything you would want in a game like this. Whenever you’re in a town, you get calm, acoustic guitar notes. When on a field, the music becomes exciting, adventurous. Then you’re thrown into an epic boss fight, and you’re greeted with choirs singing their hearts out. You feel the urgency, the scope increases tenfold. It’s simply perfect.
For as much as I loved this game, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t mention that there are a handful of flaws that did disappoint me a bit, and I’m not talking about the aforementioned design issues (linearity, pacing, bland sidequests, etc). It might be a game made with the PlayStation 5’s hardware in mind, but it’s not exactly the one that best used everything at its disposal. It’s no Returnal or Ratchet & Clank, that’s for certain.
Before you jump at me, no, I’m not saying the game is ugly. Far from it. Final Fantasy XVI might feature some of the prettiest environments ever put into a video game, and most of its characters are incredibly well-designed. There’s no Nomura nonsense in here, no spiky hairs or excessive belts; every single character basically looks real, from the daddy-o duo of Clive and Cid, to the loathsome villains I just loved wanting to murder. But there are occasional instances of assets just popping in from a distance, and NPCs, especially those who offer you sidequests, look a generation or two behind in terms of level of detail and animations. It’s something you can ignore, though.
You cannot ignore the framerate, however. This is not Star Wars Jedi: Survivor levels of bad, don’t worry, but it’s not consistent at all. There are two visual options, but none of them are stable or ideal for the kind of gameplay Final Fantasy XVI has to offer. The Graphics option prioritizes better lighting effects and resolution, while running at 30fps with poor frame pacing. Not particularly ideal for combat, but good if you want to take lots of screenshots, I guess.
The Performance option is supposed to prioritize a better framerate, but that doesn’t mean 60fps. In fact, I’m not sure the game ever reaches that target when exploring bigger (and gorgeous) environments. Things improve when in battle, probably due to some coding gimmick I am too ignorant to understand, but still, nowhere near as stable as juicy 60fps would offer. Thankfully, the controls are so freaking responsive that this issue wasn’t exactly a deal-breaker. But it’s obviously worth pointing out.
Some technical issues are present, but at the end of the day, what will make or break Final Fantasy XVI is your own stance on what Final Fantasy means to you. Purists might feel this game is way too different from anything that had come before it, be it for its vastly darker tone or emphasis on hack and slash action. Others might not enjoy how long it takes for the game to stop being Final Fantasy XIII levels of linear before finally opening up for exploration. My position on it is simple: I loved it. I loved its gameplay loop, and I fell in utter love with its setting and story. I get it if you dislike it, I doubt the entire fan base will laud it, but for me, it was fantastic, surpassing my already sky-high expectations with gusto.
Some of the best-looking character models I have ever seen, as well as utterly jaw-dropping environments, occasionally marred by cheap-looking NPCs and an inconsistent framerate.
It’s pure hack ‘n’ slash, with just a few RPG elements here and there. Purists won’t like it. I did. This combat system is utterly delicious, to a beyond cathartic degree. It would have been even better if it wasn’t for the occasional framerate issues.
Even if maybe one or two characters aren’t exactly voiced to perfection, the rest of the cast is. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is just… wow. That damn thing slaps hard.
The pacing is a bit off. It takes a while before the game actually opens up to an acceptable degree (it’s Final Fantasy XIII levels of linearity before that), and there are a few technical and design flaws. But when a game has such a fantastic combat system and a mind-boggling plot that hits you in the gut whenever possible, you can overlook some of these problems.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Final Fantasy XVI is available now on PS5.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Final Fantasy XVI was provided by the publisher.