A lot of my time with Final Fantasy 16 was spent learning to accept and appreciate it for the game it is, and not the game I thought it should be. Though far more linear in scope than I otherwise anticipated, the game I got is one filled with a joy that embodies exactly what I expect from Square Enix.
Though I anticipate some may dislike how straightforward many of the more traditional RPG mechanics are, there's room for depth as you progress, which makes an already bright and vibrant combat system and world shine even more.
Final Fantasy 16 is a game I'm rather sad to review - not because I can't muster the words to express how I feel about it, or because it's too big to properly take in, but because my words are an acknowledgement that I’ll have to wait years for another Final Fantasy game. I've just finished it and I want so much more.
A good setup
For the first few hours of Final Fantasy 16, you don't feel like the main character. Though the protagonist, Clive, is the son of royalty, his brother Joshua takes up much of the spotlight. Being gifted from birth, Joshua’s blood grants him the power of a dominant, someone who can control elemental gods called Eikons, mustered from inside themselves. Clive is a strong warrior, but he is cast aside when he is not granted the same abilities.
This is a great setup that allows the world to shine. Final Fantasy 16 is a game both about the cruel expectations bestowed upon people at birth and what it means to defy them. Within this, it explores themes like masculinity, class, and the many societal systems that control us. Thematically, taking a more Game of Thrones-style approach to the familiar worlds and creatures of Final Fantasy is a brave move, but it pays off.
Fundamentally, the Final Fantasy series has managed to capture the imaginations of so many people for so long due to the fact that the world its characters inhabit is familiar, but their stories and lives aren't. Its tales are always vessels that allow us to explore something deeper, which can be both enticing and brutal. Despite living up to this idea this, Final Fantasy 16 is still a bright and hopeful game, filled with characters with their own goals and ambitions. Its cast is personable, likeable, and well voice-acted.
What it means to move on
Clive is a cynic who has lived an unfair life. After his family and home are taken away from him, he is conscripted into the army that took his home and he fights for a leader he doesn't believe in. When given the chance, he escapes, determined to figure out why his life has taken the path it has.
The game spends a lot of time setting up the chess board Clive finds himself living on. There are tons of characters to pay attention to and a war surrounding them that dominates the narrative. Essentially, Final Fantasy 16 tells two central stories: the personal tale of Clive and the mystery of his birth, brother, and life, and a political drama about warring kingdoms in a dangerous world.
Though this can mean you will sometimes lose track of names and armies, the game constantly keeps you up to date with the Active Time Lore mechanic, a menu that explains the identities and allegiances of the main characters on screen at any one moment. It can be activated during cutscenes or combat, and disperses its wisdom via paragraphs overlaid onto the action.
An answer for every question
As the game continues to evolve, you are given a board that explains not only the history of conflict in the land, but all of the characters involved in it and their relationships to one another. Final Fantasy 16 almost has a built-in Wiki, which can explain pretty much everything you’ll encounter, assuming you're willing to read all the entries it has to offer. I love this system. Despite it being fully voice-acted, I found myself reading in Final Fantasy 16 almost as much as I did in the series’ older games.
The story is not only far more interesting than the game’s first few hours may suggest, but it is brilliantly told at a steady pace and accompanied by an excellent score. Though, it could take you well over 30 hours to finish the game - it only ever drags coming up to the finale. Moments that purely consist of dialogue or are driven by subtle movements still feel like they’re treated with the respect needed to carry forth the serious tone.
Final Fantasy 16 is indulgent in a way that could be abrasive if it wasn't just so charming. It feels so confident in its characters and story that it doesn't particularly care if you aren't following along, though I had no problem following it at any moment. It seems to know how much of a joy it is to play and watch.
Seeing in colour
Final Fantasy 16’s visuals are almost astonishing at points, fully taking advantage of the powerful PS5 hardware. Though the action appears grounded and grimy in muddier moments, the game still manages to look particularly spectacular during combat. In these sections, the world is dark and dreary, while Clive is a breath of life and colour, with his elemental attacks and special moves.
In a sense, this plays thematically into his development as a character. Built up as an edgy, complicated hero, the circumstances of Clive’s environment work to draw great highs and lows out of him behaviour-wise. He is ever-evolving and finds himself changed by encounters with the wider world.
Being born into wealth and comfort, but looking to cement himself as a great soldier, his role in side quests almost feels similar to that of Kazuma Kiryu from the Yakuza franchise. He is a badass with a dark soul who wants to live in a better world than the one he sees around him. He pings from one fellow lost adventurer to another, always finding a little bit of time to make their story just a little nicer.
On the side
Unfortunately, many of the game's early side quests are simple, consisting mainly of going from A to B. Though their stories are mostly good, the gameplay itself can be a bit lacking and the loot system doesn't adequately reward you for your time. Later quests fix this somewhat by incorporating more customisation and a hunt system into the equation, but it takes a while to take effect.
This area of the game is partially held back by the fact that Final Fantasy 16 has stripped back some of its RPG systems in comparison to its predecessors. Loot is found sparingly and you aren't really rewarded for making a specific build. This makes additional playthroughs not quite as interesting, as you can't explore the combat from as fresh an angle. The experience is more cinematic and tight, but those looking for a huge open-world experience may be let down somewhat.
It took me a while to adjust to this relatively straightforward approach, but I was fully engrossed in just a few hours. It helps that the game reaches a better balance once you’ve sunk several hours into it.
Fight or Flight
Fortunately, its combat is excellent from start to finish and only gets better with time. As you attune to different Eikons, you are given special moves that can be used in combat, but are limited by a cooldown. To fill things out, you also have a standard attack, dodge, and a few more tricks up your sleeve.
Feeling like a mix between Final Fantasy 15 and Devil May Cry, the combat rewards you for flitting around the battleground. At the end of strikes, you can tap the ranged button, enabling one more high-power attack. This means the moment-to-moment gameplay often consists of finishing a combo, hitting a special attack, and dashing to the next enemy.
As you level up and take on more enemies, you are given ability points that give you new moves and the ability to upgrade already unlocked ones. This does allow you to start making a build, but it only really affects the moves you choose, not the way your stats are distributed. This means that, while you can change the way you engage with combat, players are left mostly the same character as everyone else.
The tricks of the trade
One of the things that makes the combat so satisfying is how much room you are given to work out small techniques and mechanics. You can stagger boss enemies by building up a bar under their name, which allows you to knock them down and deal more damage. Not only did I develop specific move setups, but I found myself perfectly timing cooldowns to trigger staggers as quickly as I could.
I felt rewarded for learning the game’s systems deeply and this made tougher bosses incredibly satisfying. Some of the bosses take a lot of inspiration from the likes of God of War and Asura's Wrath, with quick time events and multiple arenas, which only add to how great everything feels. Though QTEs have historically often been used in a gimmicky way to make games feel more cinematic, Final Fantasy 16 justifies them by making its story just so enticing to watch regardless.
There's a sense of drama and, sometimes, melodrama to Final Fantasy 16 that feels sincere. Though the individual parts may feel cheesy or cringy in a different world, they just work here. You can't help but love it when the world swoops you up and lets Clive punch a hole in a mountain or scream an angsty tirade at the nearest antagonist.
Though I could talk endlessly about the combat, the visuals, the quest design, or any of the other areas it nails, what sticks in my mind after finishing the game is just how cohesive every inch of it is. There's a maturity to the story, but a charming goofiness to many of the characters. Though bosses were epic and cinematic, I still got that pit in my stomach after the credits flashed on screen: the knowledge the game has ended but you aren't really finished with it yet. Final Fantasy 16 made an impression on me and it may take a while for that feeling to dissipate.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. A code was provided by the publisher.