[Review] Final Fantasy XVI

Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix Creative Business Unit III
Platform: Playstation 5
Release date: June 22, 2023
Review date: July 7, 2023

I’m an old school Final Fantasy fan. I played Final Fantasy II on Super NES before I could even read – I memorized what my cousins did at the start of the game and thought the opening text crawl was the end credits. Later in the 90s my brother would get Mystic Quest, a game that gets a lot of flak but is a great “baby’s first RPG.” We’d rent Final Fantasy III and eventually get the PC version of VII, move on to the bizarre-yet-endearing Disney crossover Kingdom Hearts, and I have all 5 GBA ports which I’d play on the bus to school. But Final Fantasy XIII would be a turning point for me. All I had to do was watch my brother play it and I had no desire to try it myself, and I completely skipped XV. Last December I bought a Playstation 5, but I haven’t used it a whole lot, so I thought I’d get the newest numerical entry in the series, Final Fantasy XVI.

What interested me about the trailers for it was the change to a more serious tone – clearly inspired by the success of Game of Thrones, but a fresh change of pace nonetheless. XVI’s foundational plot is fairly interesting – in the world of Valisthea, massive mothercrystals dot the land and are a source of magic, which are mined and distributed around the populace and often used for mundane purposes, like lighting cigarettes, filling wells and landscaping. In addition to these gigantic crystals, certain people, known as bearers, often branded with a facial tattoo, are capable of using magic themselves, but are sold as slaves and used as tools by the upper class. But crystals have finite uses, and if bearers use their magic too much, they turn to stone, dying. A group of bearers have taken it upon themselves to form a hidden civilization where they can live normal lives - it’s less of a rebellion like many Final Fantasy games and more of an underground railroad, I really dig it.

You play as Clive Rosfield, heir to the throne of the Grand Duchy of Rosaria, or at least he would be were it not for his younger brother, Joshua. See, there are certain bearers, called dominants, that are more specialer than others and can use their magic to embody and transform into eikons, represented by summoned creatures from previous Final Fantasy games. It’s unclear how exactly it works, but I think it’s like Avatar: The Last Airbender in that only one person can be a dominant of a particular eikon at any given time. The Rosfield family has historically and reliably birthed dominants of the eikon of fire, Phoenix, but Clive didn’t inherit it for some reason and Phoenix fell to Joshua instead. It’s hard to explain more without spoiling due to some story twists, but part of the reason Clive didn’t inherit Phoenix is because it turns out he has an ability to absorb energy from dominants, taking their eikon’s powers. He’s basically Mega Man. Also, there are eight eikons, each representing a certain magical element, but there exists a ninth – a second eikon of fire, another twist that unravels over the course of the game.

Although the story revolves around Clive, you could argue that it revolves around Cid instead, the leader of the group of bearers sheltering themselves from the rest of society, who is also the dominant of Ramuh. Since the mothercrystals are causing the land to wither up and die, a phenomenon known as the blight, Cid makes it his goal to destroy the mothercrystals. It turns out each mothercrystal has a weak point for massive damage and poking them makes the whole thing disintegrate, but as society has built itself around the mothercrystals, the hard part is getting through the higher authorities that control the land around each one.

This is where the story drops the ball, in my opinion. It’s a very political story the nuances of which just aren’t very interesting. Remember the opening text crawl from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? There’s a ton of Wiki-esque world-building information for you to sink your teeth into, presented in the form of powerpoint slides and charts – if that’s your jam then you might like XVI’s story, but I frankly thought it was boring and personally didn’t feel invested. That said, I do like the concept of Active Time Lore, a feature you can activate during most cutscenes that fills you in on relevant key points – for instance if the characters are referring to another character, location or other entity, you can press the Dualsense’s giant Select button to pause the cutscene and read up on them real quick. It’s very handy if you haven’t picked up the game in a while, but again, you have to be interested to begin with, which I rarely was.

Along with Cid, Clive is accompanied by his dog, Torgal, as well as other characters joining and leaving your party as the story demands. Most often you’re teamed up with Jill, a pseudo-sister of Clive’s and Joshuas and the dominant of Shiva. Unlike every numbered, non-MMO Final Fantasy before it, you have absolutely zero influence on your party members. When I said earlier that you play as Clive, I mean you play exclusively as Clive. Your companions are just there and you, the player, have no control over their behavior, tactics, equipment – nothing. As a result, I found myself connecting very little with the side characters. You’re able to give three broad commands to Torgal in combat, but he’s perfectly fine just doing his own thing whenever he wants. Same with anyone else for that matter - Jill, Cid and anyone else who was tagging along with me would often 1v1 one of the weaker enemies or sometimes cast a spell on the big ones.

As it turns out, Final Fantasy XVI is a character action game (think Bayonetta or Devil May Cry) in RPG’s clothing. Combat in the Final Fantasy series had already started shifting away from turn-based gameplay with XII (or XI if you count the MMOs), but XVI feels like the butterfly of that pupal transformation. Square Enix didn’t skimp out, as fighting in XVI is fast-paced, frenetic and responsive, just as a character action game should be. The strategy in its combat comes from learning attack patterns of your enemies and from wearing out their will meter, a small, yellow bar under the red health bar of the bigger enemies in the game. Some abilities do more damage to the will bar than others, so it pays to balance out your kit with those, as depleting this bar staggers them, stunning them for a brief period and enabling you to deal extra damage.

Ultimately, however, I found XVI’s execution of combat to be somewhat shallow. The cycle of wearing down an enemy’s will bar and slamming them while they’re stunned became apparent to me very early – perhaps due to being one of the five people who enjoyed Immortals: Fenyx Rising. I’m not sure if it was the first to have a stun bar, but it certainly did it before XVI. And those bigger enemies don’t really change up their tactics over the course of the game either – I rarely had to adjust my own strategy to accommodate for new encounters. On top of that, weenie mook enemies without will bars are trivial at best, and as long as you can land one hit on them, it’s just a matter of knocking them down repeatedly by hitting the square button over and over. They also suffer from Assassin’s Creed/Arkham Batman syndrome where they’ll huddle around you while you’re wailing on their comrades and only occasionally attack you. They might heal or cast a protection or buff spell, but they’re so easy to deal with that they hardly ever impact gameplay.

That’s not to say XVI is an easy game, since some of the bosses do take some skill to beat, even with your potions replenishing upon death, a concept I’m not a fan of (don’t baby the player unless they want it, make them get good instead). I just don’t think it’s challenging often enough. The vast majority of side quests in XVI amount to traveling somewhere and wiping out said mook characters, and they aren’t particularly rewarding – usually some money, a handful of crafting materials and a sliver of XP. Some side-quests increase the maximum number of potions you can carry as well as their potency, but you won’t know which ones reward you that way until you do them, or you know ahead of time. You can also do hunts, which are optional boss fights that also give rewards, usually a specific crafting ingredient you need to make a special item, but they aren't marked on your map and their locations are vaguely defined, requiring you to roam around in order to find them - I searched for one target and wound up encountering another along the way.

Speaking of which, character growth is decisively minuscule. Like other games in the series, there comes a time when you should upgrade your gear, but the bonuses are so negligible that I only upgraded my weapons and armor three, four, maybe five times over the course of the entire game. There are lots of weapons, but they’re all just swords (no axes, spears, ranged weapons, just swords) and they only ever have two values, - regular damage and will damage, and they’re almost always the same value. Likewise, armor, in the form of only belts and bracers, raise your defense and sometimes a tiny, inconsequential amount of maximum HP. It’s not uncommon for Final Fantasy games to present some sort of trade-off for new equipment – VII for example was great at this because you often had to choose between a weapon that does more damage or one with more materia slots. In XVI, everything is just a strict upgrade over the next thing, and if it isn’t, it’s often intangible. Whether you’re buying new equipment or crafting your own, it’s disappointingly anemic.

Accessories fare slightly better in this aspect – you can equip three at a time and they often power up specific abilities, but I just stuck with the ones that increase damage, defense and potion effectiveness and only switched them out for strict upgrades. That said, I do appreciate the inclusion of accessibility accessories you get right from the beginning, like the Ring of Timely Healing which automatically uses a potion when you’re low on HP. Though I never used them, it’s a nice way to adjust the difficulty for those that need it.

As for the abilities I keep mentioning, those are the meat and potatoes of player customization for Final Fantasy XVI. Over the course of the game, Clive absorbs eikon abilities from other dominants, translating to new actions you can use in combat. You can have up to three eikons equipped at a time, but only one can be selected at a time in combat. The L2 trigger switches between them, which is inelegant and can mess with your muscle memory. Each one has an Eikonic Feat, which is mapped to the circle button, and four Eikonic Abilities, up to two of which can be equipped and performed by holding R2 and pressing either square or triangle, thus with three eikons having two ability slots each, you can only have a maximum of six Eikonic Abilities equipped at any one time, but upgrading them twice will enable you to put them on other eikons, allowing a little flexibility. Some abilities are direct attacks while others hit broad areas, some do more regular damage while others do more will damage. Feats are more varied, they can be attacks but can be used to defend or close the distance between you and your opponent.

At first this sounds great, and I do like the variety of options to suit your playstyle, but I have a few problems with it. Firstly, compared to other character action games, because you only have two abilities selected per eikon, you’re rather limited to what you can do in any given battle. Every ability has a cooldown and when they’re all tapped, you’ll have to rely on simplistic combos in the meantime. You don’t have a heavy attack either, just a charged attack which leaves you vulnerable and is only really useful for breaking through defenses that opponents rarely use. Second, the game dripfeeds new abilities to you, as Clive’s absorption of dominants ties into the game’s story. Delivery of such abilites is spread very thin – you get the last one mere hours before the end of the game, not that it matters because the ones you get early are already some of the best, if not perfectly serviceable. Third, though less of a problem and more of an inconvenience, you are able to respec for free at any time outside of combat, but doing so resets all of your ability points, so if you only wanted to refund one ability, you’ll have to re-unlock everything.

So combat is a little on the mediocre side, but what about the presentation? Final Fantasy XVI nails the spectacle of Final Fantasy present since the pre-rendered cutscenes and extravagant summon animations of VII… but is that a good thing? Final Fantasy XVI makes use of absolutely disgusting motion blur, smearing the image at even the slightest camera adjustment. Fortunately, just as I finished the game, they did release a patch that lets you adjust the level of motion blur, even turn it off entirely, but for me it was too late. With the motion blur and blatantly excessive use of particles and post-processing effects, it’s very difficult to make out anything that’s going on half the time. I legit don’t understand how people find this kind of thing appealing, it looks terrible.

And it’s not like FFXVI pushes the PS5 to its fullest, as even with the “graphics” preset on a console that advertises itself as 8K, it doesn’t run at a very high resolution, contributing to the lack of clarity. Characters themselves are packed with detail, and the lighting and how it bounces off the different materials is actually pretty great – I played on an LG C1 and the HDR was pretty solid. But the graphics preset locks the game at 30 frames per second, and the performance preset struggles to hit 60. It’s able to stay mostly at 60 during combat, but according to Digital Foundry, it only runs at a paltry 720p, not that you’d be able to tell through the smeary motion blur. There are moments where the game looks great, but most of the time it doesn’t really look much better than what a PS4 Pro could achieve.

Adding to the spectacle are scenes where Clive temporarily becomes an eikon himself and fights another eikon. These moments take up a lot of time with minimal player involvement. You often have to satisfy QTEs, which boil down to either hitting square, hitting square a lot, or hitting R1, all within an exorbitantly generous timeframe. Said QTEs are shuffled between combat sections that play a lot like they did before, only you’re bigger, slower and blurrier, and the boss is bigger, slower, blurrier and massive damage sponges. The HP bars of bosses in these segments are merely vague suggestions, as the game switches back to QTE slapfighting whenever you’ve done a nebulous amount of damage. When you take these sections, combine them with all the regular cutscenes, the countless, frivolous battle segments against insignificant mooks (especially for side quests), and the frequency of finishing one cutscene just to move forward and hit X to start another cutscene, add them all together and you have a game that has very little respect for the player’s time.

I’ve written so much in this review and I haven’t even touched my notepad with all of my nit-picks yet. To start, this game goes overboard with tutorials. Very frequently, especially early on, you’ll get a text box explaining the game’s mechanics. Sure they’re necessary, but not always. I had one tutorial box pop up to tell me how to open chests by pressing X. That’s something so mundane that even Mystic Quest didn’t do it. Mystic fucking Quest. There’s another that tells you certain enemies heal other enemies, and that you should take them out first to avoid prolonged fights. It’s right, but I don’t need to be told that, I can figure out the strategy on my own. In one eikon fight, I was told how to sprint and that dodging the round blast wave was a good idea. The thing I hate the most about video games is when they patronize the player, and Final Fantasy XVI does it way too much.

Although it’s not very buggy, I did encounter what I consider an issue – there’s no world map that you explore like most other Final Fantasy games, instead you pick a location and warp to it. Sometimes you’re not able to, so after a late game boss fight, I noticed I was allowed to warp, so I decided to warp back to a shop and restock on potions. When I got back, the entire chapter had reset and I had to fight the boss again. Other inconveniences include not being able to hide side quests – up to three can be prioritized at any given time, but you can’t unprioritize them to declutter the screen, so you always have up to three prioritized no matter what. Also, why is there no mini-map? You can press a button to open a local map, but you can’t give me a mini-map? It’s not like there’s no room on-screen for one.

If you think I’m being overly negative towards the game, it’s because I do care about the Final Fantasy series – my criticisms with it come from a place of love. I’ve seen so many people say that old school Final Fantasy fans don’t like XVI because it’s not turn-based. To be honest, there is some truth to that, but it’s not as simple as being a matter of taste - I just wrote several paragraphs of issues I have with Final Fantasy XVI strictly as a game. A game series is defined by its gameplay connections – if it didn’t then Mario Kart should be treated the same as Super Mario Bros 3. Mario is a racing game now, so deal with it. Speaking of Mario, what about Mario Hoops 3-on-3? That game has playable Final Fantasy characters in it, so is that a Final Fantasy game? Not really. Zelda II is still a Zelda game not because it’s a side-scrolling action game, but because of the gameplay similarities to the other entries in the series, such as exploring a somewhat open world and growing your character with new abilities that enable access to new areas and problem solving.

Think about Final Fantasy XII, which was considered a radical departure at the time. To be considered a departure in the first place means breaking the norm - deviating from the expectation of what a Final Fantasy is, and that expectation was predicated upon the gameplay of previous entries in the series. It’s not turn-based, or at the very least it’s debatable given that actions are performed after a bar fills up. Yet, it still has party management and a variety of weapon and magic types that strategically matter. Those are gameplay connections with the rest of the series leading up to it. XI and XIV, despite being MMOs where you control one character, still let you group up with other adventurers, each with mechanically unique classes known as jobs – another distinctly Final Fantasy gameplay connection. Although X lacks an open and explorable world, something I was initially upset about at the time, it might be the richest in terms of strategic turn-based depth in the entire series. Even VII Remake, a game all about setting itself apart from the original and with a completely new combat system, still retains the materia subsystem from the original.

XVI hardly has any of the gameplay elements that defined the series in the past, and tries hard to connect solely thematically. For example, despite Nobuo Uematsu having no involvement with XVI whatsoever, his melodies can be heard periodically over the course of the game, like the classic prelude, the very first song you ever hear in the very first Final Fantasy, or the bass line heard in battle themes throughout the majority of the early series. But are these included because Final Fantasy has always had them, or are they included merely as a tribute for enfranchised fans to recognize? If they’re included as tribute, they’re acknowledging that they only exist to make the game reminiscent of a Final Fantasy game.

Many recognizable characters and enemies from past games appear in Final Fantasy XVI, but not as many as you would think – I don’t remember seeing a single cactaur or tonberry for example. Often when someone does an attack, you’ll see the name of it appear on the screen, some of which will be familiar to Final Fantasy fans like Diamond Dust or the different variations of Flare. They’re flavorfully relevant, but have little connection to Final Fantasy outside of that – those moves could have any other name and they would be the same thing. I don’t feel rewarded as a fan for getting the reference when an attack is called Spirits Within, or recognizing the Final Fantasy I map theme in a certain boss fight. I feel pandered to. You know how many movies use the “nostalgia piano” to appeal to old fans of certain movie series? It’s the same shit. There are even worse examples late in the game that I’d rather not spoil, but there were times I felt genuine cringe.

Between this, FFVII Remake and Strangers of Paradise, it really feels like the Final Fantasy series is in the middle of an identity crisis, and even Square Enix doesn’t seem to know what it means for a game to be a Final Fantasy. XVI itself is constantly teetering between being anime-esque shlock and borderline misery porn. For an M-rated game with more mature themes than Final Fantasy typically has, it has a lot of corny Dragonball Z powering up and massive damage numbers that are usually more appealing to younger audiences. The best I can say about it is it’s relatively bug-free, has some decent writing and voice acting, and is sometimes a fun game, but serious pacing issues make those fun moments few and far between. I spent 45 hours and did most of the side quests, but that’s a very long time for an action game – overall I’d say only around 15-20% of the time I spent in Final Fantasy XVI was actually engaging. I really wanted to like it, and there are a few things about it that I do, but ultimately it wound up disappointing.