Final Fantasy XVI Review

Heavy spoilers ahead

I think it’s funny that during the initial release period for Final Fantasy XVI, reviewers said that the game didn’t feel like Final Fantasy or an RPG. On the contrary, I don’t think there’s ever been a game that has felt as Final Fantasy as this one. Despite all of its brilliant moments that represent some of the peak moments this franchise has seen, it also is exactly what you will expect from a Final Fantasy game for better or for worse. Billed as a return to the series’ high fantasy roots, the game’s development was given to Creative Business Unit III, featuring Naoki Yoshida and members of the Final Fantasy XIV team. Taking criticism of previous games into account, they leaned fully into the action RPG style of combat with a more linear world. With a narrative that would deal with dark themes and an M rating, Final Fantasy XVI promised to be a confident step forward for the series.

The story starts by following Clive Rosfield, eldest prince of Rosaria and protector of his brother Joshua, a boy blessed with the power of an Eikon. Soon after, a mission goes horribly wrong as Joshua is killed and Rosaria is conquered. With Clive all but abandoned in the world and enslaved as a magical soldier, he sets out for revenge and to discover the truth of what happened that night. It’s clear from the jump that the narrative of Final Fantasy XVI is entrenched in its political conflicts like Game of Thrones or Attack on Titan. The world of Valisthea runs off the power of magical crystals that provide aether energy. Furthermore, human slaves known as Bearers can provide magic without the power of the crystals. Though this system has helped the world function throughout history, a decline of aether known as the Blight threatens the existence of humanity and drives the countries into conflict. As all good Final Fantasy games do, XVI starts off with an interesting political schism. This time though, it introduces the Active Time Lore mechanic which allows useful information to be accessible at all points of the game.

The narrative in the first half of Final Fantasy XVI had me hooked. I love when Final Fantasy is able to weave in geopolitical conflict within its stories and the sheer intricacy placed into those details was incredible. The initial worldbuilding was a fantastic setup and you can see the skirmishes and consequences throughout the continents. Unfortunately, by the second half of the game, the cracks started showing. The big problem with this game’s lore is that it’s too focused on telling instead of showing. Since there are so many story threads occurring simultaneously while you’re going through Clive’s adventure, you basically get exposition dump after exposition dump of what’s going on. If you don’t regularly check in with Tomes or Vivian, you could lose out on lore or symbolism vital to the story. Valisthea is a massive world that’s filled to the brim with different environments, monsters, people, and stories. It’s a daunting task to explore and with so many things going on, the story relied far too much on explanations rather than weaving the stories together.

This is most evident in the sidequests within Final Fantasy XVI. Much like the sidequests from XIV, plenty of these are basic fetch quests sprinkled amongst some gems. While the best side quests help strengthen Clive’s development and his allies in the hideout, a good chunk of them felt rather aimless. Though they help give context to the world, most of them were forgettable and did little to contribute to character development meaningfully. It’s nice that the important side quests are marked differently but throughout the entire game, they only focus on the perspective of Clive. For a game so focused on its character relationships to Clive, you’d think that the side quests would involve other characters like Cid, Jill, or even Torgal. I don’t think that side quests where you grab something or kill something are inherently a bad thing but they should add something to the overarching plot. In fact, you barely see the characters outside of the main cutscenes. Side characters rarely get involved in those boring fetch quests and as a result, you never really feel the impact of having other party members. This even extends to the regular mob encounters in the overworld. Your party members are an afterthought with the camera focused on Clive and you barely see the attacks or magic that the others use. There aren’t any combos that you can do with your fellow party members and there’s virtually no dialogue throughout. If you want to know what your party members think of the conflicts going on around them, you are limited to the letters they send to your room in the hideout. For a game so heavily invested in character relationships to Clive, you’d think they would opt for a Tales-style of combat where each member contributes whether you control them or not.

Speaking of combat, this is the big thing that Final Fantasy XVI gets right. Shifting away from turn-based action completely, the game introduces an entirely new way of fighting by weaving together attack combos and Eikon abilities. They’ve also introduced a dodge and parry mechanic which both feel quite smooth in regular encounters and boss fights alike. The dodge mechanic makes up the bulk of defense as it’s much easier to execute but when you were able to time a parry correctly, there was no better feeling. The more important mobs and bosses also brought a stagger mechanic which allows you to deal massive damage while stunning them during fights. Thanks to combat director Ryota Suzuki, the game brings that Devil May Cry style of combat where you feel like you’re a master pianist or something as you string together massive combos. Unlike other action games where you dread the unavoidable, random encounters with mobs that get deleted in two hits, I actually had quite a bit of fun with all the battles. Regardless of whether it was two small goblins or a cosmic god, there was always enough diversity in the combat to keep things entertaining.

The best part about Final Fantasy XVI, however, is its boss battles. Though it starts off a little underwhelming given the fact that Clive only has a couple of Eikonic powers, the game peaks at the midpoint during the Titan and Bahumut battles. I’ve played through thousands of boss fights in my life but I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun as I did in those two fights. Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, Metal Gear, God of War, you name it and I don’t think any of them top these bosses. The sheer spectacle and scale of Titan and Bahamut were jaw-dropping due in no small part to the development team’s ability to integrate the narrative within. Final Fantasy XVI has a unique take on QTEs called Cinematic Strikes and Evasions. Combined together with the drawn out clashes with Eikonic powers, each boss fight felt like it had its own narrative arc rather than just pressing buttons and seeing all the cinematics at the end. In particular, the phase changes when the villain transformed into their Eikons to fight Clive’s Ifrit was chef’s kiss. Working with the haptic feedback in the PS5 controller, every single punch being thrown in those Kaiju-esque battles had a weight to it and every dodge was like a breath of relief. As the fights get more drawn out, you can literally feel the draining stamina and exhaustion from Clive. Going forward, I hope more developers take note of how Final Fantasy XVI manages to tell a story within its biggest fights. Can you imagine if the phase changes in Elden Ring had Cinematic Strikes?

Final Fantasy XVI gives you plenty of room for experimentation with 8 different Eikons that Clive can absorb. Each has a host of abilities that can be combined with a rotation of physical attack combos. Although each Eikon seems to represent a distinct element, there aren’t any elemental advantages or disadvantages to account for. There’s more freedom in using whatever abilities match your playstyle but there’s not much strategizing in that regard. You might use Garuda for aerial enemies or Titan for defensive maneuvers but ultimately, the game is easy enough to finish with whatever you want. On my first playthrough, I don’t think I died more than a handful of times once I stopped trying to parry everything. By the time you hit the 4th or 5th Eikon, it felt like I had to actively mess up multiple times in a row to actually lose a fight. The fact that you can heal while taking damage made most fights trivial. Accessibility is obviously important but I can’t help but wish that the higher difficulty was available from the start. This also plays an important factor in the Notorious Marks (god, the war flashbacks to Eureka) that you hunt throughout the game. Most of them were dead easy and even the S marks didn’t give me a sense of accomplishment once I killed them. Regardless, this is clearly the best combat system that Final Fantasy has ever had and keeps the RPG creativity in figuring out how to approach fights. The intricate details might be more apparent in NG+ but as it stands, it’s more than enough for me.

On the technical side of things, Final Fantasy XVI is very impressive. The environmental design is gorgeous and the cutscenes in particular are some of the best I’ve seen on the PS5. However, the game does push the console’s hardware to the limit and it would drop frames regardless of whether you played in performance mode or not. I finished the game before the latest patch which fixed the motion blur problem so I won’t criticize it too heavily. It was a really annoying issue though as everything got blurred together and blocky because it felt like the game was attempting to smooth out the inevitable frame drops. I only encountered one bug through the 60 hours I played and it was an S rank hunt resetting aggro while using Bahamut’s Eikonic feat. Not game-breaking but a little obnoxious. The soundtrack has its highs and lows and I would say that this is pretty middle of the road for Soken. There are some absolute bangers like during the Titan fight but there are also a few forgettable songs that disappear into ambiance. One thing that Final Fantasy XVI nails is the sound design though. You could literally hear the sound of Jill’s boots clanking or the leather in Clive’s armor. It’s a small detail but helped give the world a little more vibrance.

Apart from the impressive overhauls though, Final Fantasy XVI falters quite a bit in its overall story arc. While it starts off very strong initially, the story ultimately falls back on the traditional Final Fantasy cliches. If you’re a diehard fan of the series, you’re obviously going to see the plot twist coming from a mile away. Countless Final Fantasy games do the exact same setup of political conflict before evolving into some world-ending level threat. Whether it’s Final Fantasy Tactics (class warfare that turns into ancient alien demons in church), Final Fantasy XII (political factions scheming and backstabbing into manipulative cosmic beings), or Final Fantasy VII (capitalism and then also aliens), there’s always the real “antagonist” hiding behind the initial conflicts. Having your stories set up like this isn’t an inherently negative thing but it also heavily relies on execution. For a lot of Final Fantasy games, it’s intriguing to guess where the mystery will end up but they often default to tropey explanations.

In Final Fantasy XVI, we are once again presented with sociopolitical struggle in the form of the Bearer slaves and the feuding nations. The good thing about the game is that it never tries to both-side the conflicts (I’m looking at you Tales of Arise). In fact, the game kind of beats you over the head with it in most side quests and the encounters that Clive has in each region. Unfortunately, a lot of the Bearer stories are half-baked: I remember a side quest towards the final arc of the game where L’ubor gets revealed to be one. He immediately gets pelted with rocks until two children step in to defend him. Not even 10 minutes later, you clear the enemies, and all of a sudden, everyone loves him again like they weren’t being extremely racist for no reason. Moments like this made me roll my eyes into the back of my head because these stories had the potential to be thought-provoking but ended up being little more than an unrealistic portrayal of how bigotry gets challenged.

Worse still, Final Fantasy XVI sets itself up as this “dark, mature” game that tackles difficult topics but by the end, the Bearer plotline that they keep beating you over the head with becomes quickly forgotten in the face of Ultima. The plot is quite interesting at first because having been enslaved himself, Clive’s own experiences drive him toward creating his ideal world as he helps out Bearers in each nation. But it just doesn’t go anywhere. Of course, you could say that this kind of narrative is to be expected from the franchise but after hyping it up to be this somber, critical analysis of tough issues, it doesn’t amount to anything more than what you’ve seen in all the other games. Final Fantasy XVI seems afraid to commit to any sort of real commentary on the human condition, class disparity, or the vicious cycle of oppression. Instead, it hand-waves it away with Ultima as the god who created this world dependent on crystals. So long as Clive inevitably destroys Ultima, all is right in the world. There’s no critical examination of why this system has persisted beyond a few lore notes and either way, it’s not important to the final fight.

The other thing that bothers me a little bit is that Valisthea was designed to be geographically and culturally isolated per Yoshi-P’s controversial interview. I didn’t take it to be a negative thing at first because that’s just how the game’s scope was imagined. Yet, it’s an absolutely gorgeous world with diverse scenery, environments, and people. Some of the environmental changes were absolutely breathtaking so the game did feel a little smaller in scope without different races of people. This was especially noticeable in regions like Dhalmekia. Understandably, the optics with the whole Bearer plotline might be really bad by including Black or Brown characters but I can’t help but feel like we lost out on a grander world design since that particular narrative was so mediocre anyways. Like yeah, I get why they made the conscious decision to do it this way but the payoff in the narrative was definitely not worth it. Who knows? Valisthea could’ve been a lot more immersive and interesting if they weren’t so committed to the Bearer storyline. To have this game laser-focused on sociopolitics before discarding it is a very Final Fantasy thing to do but while it’s expected, you can’t help but wonder what was the point of marketing this game as an edgy, unique take on the series in the first place.

Thankfully, Final Fantasy XVI fares a bit better in its characterizations and their respective narrative arcs. Clive is written extremely well and is a particularly sympathetic protagonist. His story revolves around the themes of family and duty, both to Joshua and Cid, the latter of which he takes up the mantle to create a better world. He’s easily the most emotionally mature Final Fantasy protagonist that we’ve seen and best of all, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Enemies are not spared because he understands the importance of consequences and he doesn’t doubt the morality of those decisions. In particular, Ben Starr delivered an outstanding performance and you can easily see why the development team decided to complete the voice acting in English first. On the other hand, the secondary protagonists, antagonists, and side characters are more hit or miss. Cid and Joshua are done fairly well and have complete character arcs that help strengthen Clive’s characterization. Comparatively, Jill felt underutilized throughout different points in the story. I disagree with the early reviews saying that Jill was just a pretty face or she was written poorly. With a story so focused on Clive, it’s not surprising that the other characters come up short at times. There were even a few parts at the beginning where Cid is little more than another way to exposition dump about the world. Jill’s character arc is more or less complete when she takes her revenge and after that, it’s her blossoming romance with Clive that helps drive their development further.

At the same time though, it’s quite confusing to see her getting sidelined in favor of Dion toward the end. Here are two Dominants who have both given parts of their Eikonic powers to Clive. Jill has obviously given most of Shiva’s power while Dion can still take on Bahamut. That said, why couldn’t she have gotten involved like Dion? Why not just write her into the final showdown? In the overarching narrative, Jill is far more important to Clive and Joshua’s quest to save the world. The fact that Dion went with them meant that you could see his sacrifice coming from a mile away so that Jill would stay alive for the romance subplot. Don’t get me wrong, the romance between Clive and Jill is probably one of the best in the franchise. The slow burn as they reunite, their shared trauma, and the comfort they found in each other in the beach scene were all heartwarming. But it undermines Jill’s strength right at the end and feels like a disappointing conclusion to what would otherwise have been a solid character arc.

Generally speaking, the side characters in Final Fantasy XVI are written quite well. There’s a host of hideout characters that have larger-than-life personalities and intriguing backstories that you discover through side quests. Gav, Byron, Mid, and Charon are clear standouts that benefit from the deep dive into their motivations (Nektar is also my favorite Moogle in the entire series). But on the flip side, some characters like Wade or Goetz are a little one-dimensional or in the case of Jote, zero-dimensional. There was more than enough potential to flesh out these characters during side quests but again, Final Fantasy XVI seemed to care more about developing the political conflicts (that never went anywhere in the end).

The villains were also poorly written for the most part because they often became caricatures or nothing more than plot devices to propel Ultima’s goal of creating the perfect vessel. Benedikta had zero development before being killed off, Anabella’s insanity was laughable rather than dangerous, and Barnabas turned out to be nothing more than an annoying preacher with mommy issues. That being said, this might’ve been ok if Ultima was actually interesting. Unfortunately, Ultima’s aura of mystery is quickly shattered by tedious rants and monologues. The intimidation you hold for Ultima at the beginning of the game dissipates because he’s so detached from the protagonists. Again, the problem of being too Final Fantasy happens here with Ultima’s master plan being the magical cause of the game’s events thus far.

Overall, I had fun playing through Final Fantasy XVI and though the story nosedived towards the end, it was an enjoyable experience nonetheless. If this is the future of the series, this is definitely a step in the right direction with its intricate combat system and epic boss fights. However, whether you like this game or not will depend heavily on what you expect coming into a Final Fantasy game. At the end of the day, it’s exactly what you expect out of the franchise despite all of the marketing pointing to the contrary. It’s undoubtedly a very Final Fantasy-feeling game as it marries the traditional RPG aspects with a new style of action-oriented combat. The problem is that I can’t help but feel that being too Final Fantasy is no longer a good thing. The tropes, story beats, and villains have all felt too similar over the past two decades in this franchise. If that’s the exact formula that you’re looking for when you buy a Final Fantasy game, then all the more power to you. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed after all the promotion leading up to the game about dealing with mature themes and having darker tones. In the end, the game doesn’t really want to commit too strongly to any of the ideas it presents and seems more than satisfied with going back to its formulaic roots. Final Fantasy XVI captures the essence of the franchise in every measurable way but sometimes, it’s too Final Fantasy for its own good and gets held back from greatness.


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I turned my incoherent ramblings on music, anime, and video games into an entire blog.

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