This review contains endgame spoilers for Final Fantasy XVI.
I had to sit with this one a little bit.
I could have started writing this review some time back in July, because I didn’t get it early and I was really finding this game a slog to get through for reasons we’ll discuss from a mechanical, gameplay-loop perspective in a bit. It wouldn’t have been fair then, I think. I could have started writing it some time in August — and I did, in fact, for like 400 words which I’ve mostly junked — but I was actually starting to enjoy the thing and I thought, let’s give it some more room. Two weeks ago, I decided I was gonna see this title through to the end, and I’m glad I did.
Final Fantasy XVI is somewhere around the fourth or fifth best mainline Final Fantasy ever made, in my estimation. My personal list has 9, 8, 7, 6, and 10 ahead of it, in that order, with 12 following behind; when I play enough of 14 to judge it, it’ll probably slot in there somewhere too — this is that team’s attempt at a single player Final Fantasy. It is, generally speaking, a success on those terms. As of late August, the actual sales of the game were credibly described as “fine.” I don’t think “fine” is up to the standards of the C-suite of Square Enix for a single-player ship-of-the-line title, but they’re also not going to actually fire any of the people involved because Final Fantasy XIV, the other game this team is responsible for, has made and continues to make the company a superlative amount of money. Absent any attempts to capitalize on “the Final Fantasy XVI universe” the way they’ve done with the Final Fantasy 7 Reboot game or that they did with Final Fantasy XIII, the story of this particular world is done except for random Ehrgeiz cameos, and that’s precisely how it should be. We’ll get into plot spoilers later in the article, but suffice it to say that’s how they wrote the game: an actual final fantasy for the world depicted.
So Final Fantasy XVI didn’t have the greatest demo. Instead of providing a vertical slice of the game to play through — a sampling menu, basically, of all the different things you could do in the title — you as the player instead got the first two hours of the game with a hard stop at the end of the provided content, and a save file you could carry over into the release build. There’s a lot to recommend to this approach, and it’s obvious what that is: you don’t have to replay content, especially a bunch of content that’s prologue, backstory, and tutorial. The relationship between protagonist Clive and love interest Jill and Clive and brother Joshua are two of the load-bearing struts the game’s entire emotional weight rests on, so you do need to see it established in-depth from somewhere close to the narrative beginning. Sometimes games do this in the form of intermittent flashback sprinkled throughout the story in small doses; it helps Final Fantasy XVI later on that it decides “no, you’re gonna sit through a playable episode of Game of Thrones instead and we’re gonna hash all of this out right here,” but for someone who plays it later as just the first two hours of the story instead of with the feelings of “wow a demo for a game I’m excited about!” leavening the dough, it probably feels a lot like homework.
It picks up from there, though it takes a little bit of time; I was extremely down on the demo and went complaining to a friend of mine who is massively invested in Final Fantasy XIV, who told me, “look, I know this dev team’s tricks and I’ve played all their previous work — no matter what they’re doing now, no matter how dark it toys around with getting, it’s going to come down to the uplifting power of friendship to save the entire universe in the end.” He was right, though the victory of friendship and so on turned out to be far from a frictionless one for our heroes. By the end of the game, they’ve earned the ass-kicking that you put on the final boss.
But it does take quite a while to get there. This game was made by Squaresoft’s Creative Business Unit III, which is actually a name with much more flair than their previous internal designation, Business Division 5. They’re the group responsible for creating and maintaining both Final Fantasy MMOs, Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, and apparently also handle the modestly to impressively successful Dragon Quest Builders series. You don’t need this explained to you if you’ve played any of Final Fantasy XIV, though; once the game opens up a little and you start doing real dungeons, you understand immediately: structurally, this is a single-player MMO.
There are some mechanical aspects that don’t actually track to that assessment, and we should touch those first: this game seems to openly resent the idea of gear, zigging where a bunch of these single-player games that double as Game-as-a-Service zag into endless loot with incremental upgrades. Final Fantasy XIV is no stranger to that either, as anyone who has played it knows; it loves a good gear treadmill. Not in Final Fantasy XVI. There is always a correct option on what should be equipped at any given time, and whether or not you have access to it is determined by whether you’ve been keeping up with your sidequests and hunt board bounties or not. Have you been doing all the content as it appears? You’ll have the unique materials to craft the best stuff at Blackthorne, your blacksmith. Have you decided to not do side content in a single-player RPG for some reason? You won’t. There’s a clear schedule for what you should be replacing and when from the moment that the shops open up three hours into the game until the moment before the final conflict.
And you should keep up with your gear, because most encounters in this game feel a little bit over-tuned in terms of enemy health if you’re playing on the harder difficulty (“Action-focused” is what it’s called). Outside of boss fights, you won’t be in danger. Fights will just…take 5-10% longer than they probably should. In boss fights, the difficulty difference suddenly becomes directly apparent; my favorite combat experience in the entire game was getting through the phases of Benedikta/Garuda, the first real boss fight in Final Fantasy XVI, but by the back half of the title I’d turned the difficulty down to Story-focused because of how long the build to those boss fights was taking. It’s the difference between demonstrating mastery over a miniboss’s combat loop twice or three times, and three times on each miniboss is just one too many. This game has a lot of minibosses.
The combat loop is pretty simple character-action stuff; Devil May Cry it is not, but it’s still more fundamentally engaging than its predecessor Final Fantasy XV, which seemed to have little to no concept of spacing and also didn’t focus the mechanics and action-performance fully in on the protagonist Noctis as firmly as this title does with Clive. Clive’s health bar is the only one you see; your faithful hound Torgal is the only character you can give any sort of orders at all, even if you have multiple other NPCs following you around, and you can fully automate Torgal by giving up an accessory slot for the appropriate item. This frees you to focus on Clive, who has a bunch of devastating close-range combos, an incredibly weak magic attack at range mainly used to harrass similarly weak enemies, and a scaling set of two, four, and then six cooldowns on R2+Circle and R2+Triangle which increase in number based on the different eikons (Final Fantasy summons) you have access to.
The most fascinating thing about eikon design in this game from a mechanical perspective is that elemental effectiveness, which is the cornerstone of how these characters distinguished themselves in battle for generations of titles, is basically irrelevant in Final Fantasy XVI. You’re not gonna run up on a Bomb, for instance, and find that Ifrit/Phoenix aspected spells and abilities won’t work, or even will work less effectively, just because they’re both fire-aligned. This is because when you equip an eikon you’re not equipping it because of its elemental role; you’re kind of locked into being a fire guy anyway for plot reasons. You’re equipping an eikon because of mechanical utility. Ifrit is the close range, high damage AOE/cone guy. Phoenix is similar, but with heals. Shiva hits the full field and lines of enemies while providing some dodge. Titan is the alpha-strike god, putting out endgame damage with his charge abilities. Garuda and Ramuh do crowd control in different ways — Garuda through melee expression, Ramuh through larger AOE effects. Bahamut and Odin both use boutique gauge mechanics to reward skillful, attentive play — Bahamut far more so than Odin, in my opinion, but you can probably do a lot more fully sick stuff with the Zantetsuken mechanic than I was interested in learning once I had my Shiva/Titan/Bahamut rotation locked in.
The basic combat loop is that unimportant enemies have regular health bars, which you deplete by attacking and thereby killing them. More important enemies have stagger bars as well, and while you can kill an enemy with a stagger bar by reducing their health to zero rather than participating in the stagger mechanic, it’s always much easier to reduce their stagger bar to zero and get 10-30 seconds of free attacks on the enemy with a slightly better damage multiplier than you had when the enemy was up on their feet.
So your workflow is to use abilities that do high stagger damage alongside basic attacks until the enemy enters the stagger animation, and then let loose with your big health-damaging abilities while they can’t do anything about it. You’ll need to learn some dodge timings and being able to execute successful parries will certainly make these fights a lot shorter (rather than staggering an enemy outright, a parry in this game gives you sort of a bubble of bullet time to just wail on your foe without them being able to respond), but in the end, it’s all about the stagger bar and getting yourself from stagger to stagger as quickly as possible before maximizing your time there. Also, equip the Berserker Ring when you get access to it and give it a spin; the item description vastly undersells the way it changes how Clive plays when dodging and counter-fighting.
You’re going to be doing that loop a lot; the world of Ash & Thorn in Final Fantasy XVI is very regimented, very combat-focused, and not an open world: you’re either running through field areas, each carefully gated by loading zones, or you’re in a dungeon. The field areas are physically very large and quite pretty, but feel somewhat empty. The world in general feels sparser and less lived-in than you might expect; it absolutely has less to see and do in it than Final Fantasy XIV, for instance, but even on its own merits there’s less going on in the spaces between big plot moments than maybe there should be. There’s never really any feeling of exploration, either. In a way this makes sense; in the story, the usable world is shrinking as a creeping magical degradation effect called “the Blight” gobbles up arable land and turns it into inhospitable hellscapes, in a bit of none-too-subtle climate change cudgeling. Magic is the stand-in for fossil fuels, and our heroes are both radical abolitionists of the enslaved magic-using underclass and dangerous eco-terrorists. Like in Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, the internal politics of this world provide a decent enough palette with which to paint the individual characters, but don’t stand up to any real close inspection.
Compounding the feeling of slightness or emptiness is how few sidequests there are; generally, I think this is a positive — they focused on a smaller number of sidequests with more involved story content, such that every basic fetch quest also served to develop some characters in the world with whom Clive was going to be interacting for much of the game. Important character beats happen in sidequests, especially later ones, and there are entire mechanics — like your chocobo mount for use in the field areas of the game — that are gated behind their completion. Still, it feels like they built an entire infrastructure for managing sidequests at your base, with a dedicated NPC just for tracking what’s available by region and fast-traveling to it, and it never seems to have more than two or three sidequests in it at a time. At its heart, the game really is mostly about learning of, traveling to, and then completing large, setpiece dungeons.
I was reminded repeatedly of Final Fantasy XIII’s design during the dungeon areas; it was criticized heavily at the time for just being a ‘hallway of fights’ for its first 15 hours on release, and while I don’t disapprove of the approach here as much as reviewers of that game did at the time…this is a big part of why this review is landing in late September, not late July. A normal dungeon run in this game is something like 10 normal fights in a row, with carefully parceled-out potions in between (you have a cap on how many you can have in your inventory at once, which is how healing is balanced in this game), then a miniboss, then five more normal fights, then another miniboss, then a two to four stage boss fight. Earlier dungeons don’t have the second miniboss loop; later dungeons will throw three or four minibosses in front of you before the full boss fight, sometimes separated by rest fights, sometimes separated by walking segments, and in at least two instances, as a form of miniboss rush. This is pure MMO raid design pared down to its most basic single-player mechanics, and it had me pausing to go do something else more than a few times. It’s not bad — I enjoy the combat in this game well-enough for what it is — but I switched from Action-focused to Story-focused difficulty about halfway through the game and found it much easier to complete just because of how much shorter it made fights where I had already demonstrated mastery and was just going through the motions.
As Final Fantasy XIV players might expect, the boss fights are the centerpiece of the whole show here; this ranges from good — the Garuda, Odin, and Ultima fights are genuinely great works of pacing and showmanship — to intriguing — the entire Titan fight is like something out of a different game, almost, in how it expands the way you play this fire Godzilla who is flipping around the map dodging an even bigger threat — to stuff that’s basically a cutscene. The Bahamut fight is the worst offender here, but basically any time you have to play as Phoenix it means you’re gonna be in for a wonky ride. In terms of the highest of highs, I’ve already praised the Benedikta/Garuda fight for what an introduction it is to this game’s boss style and the Titan fight would straight-up be my choice for gaming action spectacle set piece of 2023 if not for the Merrin/Cal team-up in the temple on Jedha in Star Wars: Jedi Survivor. But when you get to the back half of the game, especially that Bahamut fight but even the final phase of Titan, which felt like it lasted one segment too long, there’s a lot of fights whose “gameplay” mainly consists of watching story content and pressing Square, X, or R1 when prompts indicate. These aren’t actually quicktime events — they’re impossible to fail so long as you’re awake and looking at your screen, and the consequence is just trying again. They’re literally just input prompts to check and say, “Are you good? This is a video game, are you still with us?”
And that’s fine, to an extent! The production values on the cutscenes are so good that I’m actually content to just watch them play out, especially given how much the cutscene production team took from Asura’s Wrath in terms of not just the use of button presses to enhance the brutality of combat effects but certain cuts and presentation techniques. For example, the stagger crash button mash zooms in both of the following scenes — they’re from the endgame, so we’re fully in spoiler territory now — are textbook Asura’s Wrath. The way Ifrit loads and delivers the fireball in the first video might as well be taken directly from that game.
An extremely important part of the game’s presentation in those cutscenes is the voice acting. Michael-Christopher Koji Fox and his team have done a great job translating this script into something that puts the actors in the best place to succeed, but it’s the actual vocal performances themselves — all taken from the British working class of actors, so to speak, BBC TV performers who moonlight as voice actors for the most part — that distinguish the work. Ben Starr is fantastic as Clive Rosfield; it’s likely you’ve never experienced his work otherwise unless you watched the Sky Network original production Jamestown. Susannah Fielding is brilliant at taming what could be a hideously saccharine role as Jill Warrick; you might know her as a supporting character on the most recent Alan Partridge, if you know her at all. Ralph Ineson’s Cid is the biggest name attached to this cast, and you probably know him better as Lorath from Diablo IV than you do as the constant, consistent minor character actor he’s been for the last ten years. There is an instinct in these scripts to go fully into maudlin, too-sweet melodrama, and the competing instinct from the British vocal cast to minimize, soften, and wryly undercut the material perfectly balances it out. The scene where the Duchess is confronted by her two sons is probably my favorite single scene in the game, but it’s clear to see that Christina Cole’s take on Anabella’s insanity and how she comes to grips with it, while far from low-key, doesn’t quite match the over-the-top body language of the rendered character. Cole had the right instincts, and I understand why toning down the cutscene to match a VA’s particular interpretation wasn’t an option.
In the end I think this is my fifth favorite One of These; Final Fantasy IX is my clear number one, followed by 6-7-8 in some order that constantly changes, and then here’s Final Fantasy XVI. There’s no shame in that; 6 through 10 have some powerful childhood and teen nostalgia working in their favor, and I think this is a clearly better offering than any single player Final Fantasy they’ve put out since the turn of the millennium except for Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which is such a compelling total package of nostalgia and modern sensibility that you sort of have to set it aside for the purposes of any real kind of ranking.
There are two paid DLCs in development, apparently, but the game itself offers no hint as to what in the world those might be. They certainly won’t be necessary to understand the story, which is self-contained, well-told, and worth experiencing…as long as you can get through the first two hours.
There’s a Windows version coming sometime next year for $70 and sales don’t happen all that often on Square Enix titles within first-year release window; personally, I don’t feel like I was ripped off or short-changed for $70, but it is a discrete, limited single-player experience, and you may want to wait for a 30% off deal or a gift card at Christmas rather than paying full sticker.
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