Review : Final Fantasy XVI : Eikonic Fantasy

For better or worse, one can’t help but respect Square Enix for how they treat their marquee franchise, Final Fantasy. Their predilection of making every single new numbered entry quite different from one another is the kind of experimentation that could easily backfire and send longtime fans away. Yet it’s this experimentation and reinvention (while still keeping certain elements that are trademark for the franchise) that has allowed Final Fantasy to remain as relevant and as everlasting as it has been since the original’s release back in 1987.

With that said, you can certainly say that Square Enix has probably gone a step further into “reinvention” with the latest entries under the franchise banner that have been released over the last decade. What was still at its core a franchise with a semblance of traditional JRPG mechanics (think turn based systems and deep customization and the like), has either been modified to a certain extent or excised completely. You can even make the argument that the franchise hasn’t been a turn-based game since 2012’s Final Fantasy XIII-2 as the franchise dove deeper into reinvention, such as the dive into MMO territory with Final Fantasy XIV (their second attempt after they did an MMO with Final Fantasy XI), a pseudo-open world action game with the tortured Final Fantasy XV, and now a no holds barred, character action-based game with few RPG trappings in Final Fantasy XVI.

I will just say it right out of the bat: if your predilection for Final Fantasy as a franchise is that it has to be a turn-based RPG with deep customization, and you don’t want to see a mainline entry really go all in on a different kind of gameplay, Final Fantasy XVI is probably not a game for you. If you were still not convinced Square Enix was moving away from that after what they’ve done over the past decade with the franchise, this latest entry (and their recent success with Final Fantasy VII Remake) should underline the direction they want to take the mainline franchise entries which go all in on high budget and four-quadrant appeal. While I understand the frustration of fans holding on to tradition, I don’t share the frustration when I see the current execution of the new direction.

With Final Fantasy XVI, Square Enix and Creative Business Unit III (the team lead by the legendary Naoki Yoshida, famous for the rescue and ongoing success of Final Fantasy XIV) delivers one of the strongest character-action based games in recent memory, with probably the most impressive scale and spectacle ever seen in a game along with a story that’s captivating, delivering more emotional heft and maturity than I expected while still maintaining thematic throughlines that makes it very Final Fantasy. Wonky pacing, inconsistent sidequests, an excessive focus on cutscenes and some late game, esoteric plot turns threaten to derail the enjoyment, but, overall, the game overcomes its stumbling blocks to deliver an overall excellent Final Fantasy game and one with some of my favorite moments from any game this year.

“It Wasn’t A Good Death We Should Be Fighting For, But A Better Life.”

Keeping the tradition of every new numbered Final Fantasy game being a completely separate thing from a prior entry, Final Fantasy XVI takes us back to medieval times and puts us in the shoes of Clive Rosfield, the first born son of the Archduke of Rosaria, one of the five kingdoms at war in the continent of Valisthea. Taking more than a page of inspiration from Game of Thrones, the continent of Valisthea is a dark one, full of scheming, politicking, and caste systems ensuring inequality between its residents. After a massive tragedy takes Clive away from his kingdom into life as a soldier slave, we follow his journey on a tale that begins with revenge for the tragedy that befell him, and leading into one of personal growth and a willingness to bring about meaningful change to the entire world.

More happens in the story than the aforementioned setup, including a rather esoteric turn typical of a late game Final Fantasy story that threatens to shift the focus too much away from its strong grounded hook into something more fantastical. Fortunately, even with that shift, the strength of the game’s characters keeps things grounded even at the times the story gets very outlandish. Even with all the overt Game of Thrones inspirations, for anyone that is used to the grander than life spectacle and the heart-on-sleeve melodrama that defines Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XVI absolutely stays true to the series, and it’s in that where the game’s most emotionally powerful moments reside.

If there is one thing that is worth emphasizing, it is the game’s strong cast of characters. Clive Rosfield has shot up as one of my all time favorite Final Fantasy protagonists, where a character that seemed aloof and angsty at first grows to be an inspiring, tender figure that’s so easy to root for (and played greatly by actor Ben Starr). Side characters like this game’s version of Cid (played by the great Ralph Ineson, having a banger gaming summer with both this game and “Diablo 4”) provide a nice sense of gravitas to the proceedings. Other great characters like Jill Warrick (Clive’s old childhood friend whose companionship-turned-love provides some of the game’s most beautiful, tender moments), the amazing direwolf Torgal (so expressive without saying a single word), the scout Gav, and many others I dare not spoil do an amazing job to help liven up the sometimes dire proceedings.

One thing that may or may not be to anyone’s liking is just how many cutscenes this game has. I’m not even joking when I say that it feels like an even 50/50 split between how often you will be watching a lot of things unfold compared to how often you will be playing. While some cutscenes manage to flow well in and out of gameplay (sometimes with a random QTE thrown in for good measure), there are times where you’ll just be watching the game tell its story. Considering the storytelling has some great character interactions, writing, world building, and cinematic flair, I didn’t mind the approach. But if the story, setting, and subject matter ends up not clicking for you, be prepared because it tells you A LOT OF IT.

“I Bowed To You Once, Now It Is You Who Shall Bow To Me!”

In between a lot of this story comes the biggest departure of Final Fantasy XVI compared to its previous numbered entries. Final Fantasy XV wanted to pursue a more action focus without fully committing, and it instead made combat into something where you literally hold an attack button to see things happen. Final Fantasy XVI, on the other hand, fully commits to the action side of things and now plays something closer to a Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry (with the latter making more sense, considering that game’s combat director worked on that game) than even the actiony Final Fantasy VII Remake did, which played as an action/sort-of-turn based hybrid. By more fully committing to an action-based style of game, the combat in Final Fantasy XVI feels more assured of itself, with a nice variety of combo-based attacks mixed with the special Eikon abilities to create a satisfying combat loop that gets better the more you play.

While initially the combat may seem limited and not as fully featured as some of the games its trying to emulate, eventually the depth shines as you unlock more powers while progressing through the story. It manages to strike a nice balance of depth without ever being the super-demanding technical action game some of the inspirations require from the player. And for the people that want the kind of challenge that tests their mettle, they have to unlock the harder “Final Fantasy” mode after completing the game.

On top of the flashy action that I never got tired of engaging with as a big fan of character action-based games, the big headliner centerpieces of this game are the incredible Kaiju-like “Eikon” battles. For select sections of the game, Final Fantasy XVI switches things around for you to engage in the battles between the Summons of this game. While some of these battles are scripted and require just prompt QTE presses, other times they allow you full control to execute combo attacks against your massive foe. Definitely carried more by the spectacle than any mechanical complexities, the Eikon battles are some of the coolest boss battles I’ve seen in a game, and you’ll be hard pressed to not have a huge smile on your face when engaging with these battles even when your interaction in some of them are more simplistic in nature.

As greatly executed as this combat system is, it’s also worth noting the tradeoffs that were made in pursuit of it. For traditional Final Fantasy fans, this is where many will find some of the disappointment of the new approach. For one, there is a shockingly low level of customization options available, with gear amounting to a sword that can be upgraded to a different version, two different gear defense pieces, and three trinkets to modify your attacks or Eikon abilities. Even with the game including a “crafting” system, it is so simple and straightforward in nature that I feel this was included to have a semblance of RPG systems in it because it’s part of the franchise rather than it being essential for the game. To me, personally, the game doesn’t benefit from this system, nor does it detract from the combat, and its inclusion just puts a spotlight over the fact that the game is not what purists want it to be.

Another subtraction is the lack of any semblance of control over the party that accompanies you. During the game, Clive is always accompanied by his Torgal and one or two other companions depending on the story (Cid, Jill, and others I won’t spoil), but you only get to “control” Torgal by pressing up, down and right on the DPad to sic him towards your enemies in the middle of a combo attack. The other companions will be with you fighting on their own volition, attacking and defending themselves on their own.

While a part of me is relieved that I don’t have to worry about having to keep my companions healthy in battle like other Final Fantasy games, the fact that the game lets you use Torgal for attacks does make me lament a bit that I don’t have the option to sic other companions on enemies since the system was already there. Understanding that this was all made to keep the focus on your character and combat skills makes the subtractions palatable, and, in the context of this game, it works, but they are worth noting for people that expect certain features from their Final Fantasy games (and to give props to XV, as half baked as that game was, it did include a lot of what fans expect).

When you are not in combat, Final Fantasy XVI takes a more compact approach to world exploration that ditches the open world nature of Final Fantasy XV for something definitely more linear in comparison. Considering that a lot of the time in XV you were in a car waiting to reach long destinations, Final Fantasy XVI‘s more compact set of locales definitely are breezier to move around to get to certain destinations than the last game, even if it often feels like you are funneled through corridors like in Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy VII Remake.

While the beginning areas do feel very linear, eventually the game opens its hub spaces a little more, and the different areas start connecting in a way that makes the world feel bigger than it seems without ever being an open world. And for people that do like to explore off the beaten path and find something cool, the games “Beast Hunt” system provides a nice way to break away from the clearly defined main quest/side quest markers of a map that reward careful exploration and provide some of the game’s toughest boss challenges.

Speaking of which, the side quest system for Final Fantasy XVI is probably the most polarizing side of the package. I say this because the first few side quests you get to do are so uninspired and fetchy in nature, with very little in terms of story importance and bad rewards, that I am not surprised when people play those early ones and then never keep doing them due to the bad first impression they make (“fetch me some wood,” “serve these three plates to some customers at the restaurant,” “go get me some dirt”). It is to the game’s disservice that the first impression of these side quests is so bad because, at a certain point, they do start providing actual story and world building in the times you least expect and with more frequency. What starts as a weird case of Russian Roulette where for every few unremarkable ones you then get a couple bangers eventually gains consistency, and it’s through them that I found deeper connections to the world of Valisthea and its characters (with some even making me tear up).

While the rewards for doing most side quests eventually becomes more about the story than any tangible rewards, there are a few marked with a “+” sign that definitely provide both story importance and a substantial upgrade on completion. If you are pressed for time and are not interested in finding out about the world of Valisthea, at the very least the ones that will improve your gameplay will be specifically marked for you. I completed every single side quest available, and, even with the early misses, I don’t regret my decision as it made the game’s final moments resonate much more.

If there is one thing the inconsistent level of the sidequests underlines (and this is shared with the mainline quest), it is that the pacing of Final Fantasy XVI can be pretty wonky. Even beyond the cutscene to gameplay split mentioned earlier, there is something about the pacing of Final Fantasy XVI that swings wildly from great momentum to some harsh stops, and these comedowns tend to happen particularly right after one of the game’s most incredible moments. Trying to get into some kind of flow with the game can be hard at times when taken in huge chunks as the way it escalates and deescalates sometimes feels out of sync, with some of the slower moments near the end of the game lasting a little too long without the “in your face” excitement that feels like a reward after a long valley. The big moments definitely feel like incredible payoff to slow build up, but for a game that Square Enix says can take an average of 35 hours to complete (I finished it in 75 hours doing everything), sometimes the valleys to get to the peaks may last more than you’d probably want.

“Come To Me, Ifrit!

Traditionally, a Final Fantasy game has always been synonymous with being the most visually impressive thing available in the market, and I would say Final Fantasy XVI definitely fits that tradition. It is clear Square Enix poured MASSIVE amounts of money into the production of this game, and even for a franchise already known for its incredible spectacle, there are moments in this game that defy understanding when it comes to scale and detail. The aforementioned Eikon battles are rendered at such detail and size, they feel like things that were only possible in someone’s imagination. If what you want is the most impressive thing possible to make your fancy TV setup get a nice workout, Final Fantasy XVI definitely fits the bill. This game deserves the biggest possible screen to appreciate the workmanship on display. I haven’t been impressed with a game’s sense of scale and detail since 2010’s God of War III.

But if you think the visuals are impressive, just wait until you see them paired up with this game’s MAJESTIC soundtrack. The work by Masayoshi Soken was already praised highly by fans of his work in Final Fantasy XIV and its expansions. The level of high energy he’s brought to Final Fantasy XVI when paired with the spectacle is euphoric to the highest levels. How it punctuates the epic and emotional moments will always send chills down your spine even when the motifs are repeated. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to it. It is a soundtrack that sticks with you and will always make you remember the epic moments you see on display. How anything else will measure up in the soundtrack department this year, I can’t even imagine. It’s such a visual and aural masterclass.

Is the game’s technical side without flaws? Not exactly. In the visual side, the game is so impressive-looking with great biome diversity and level of detail, yet there are a few things like character facial animation in some side quests that feels so stilted and stands out like a sore thumb with how meticulously detailed the game is elsewhere. Even with some of the visual variety on display, there are many places that are so dark lit and drab looking, they don’t maintain the visual splendor achieved by the rest of the game (and the final 10 hours of the game casts a literal pall on the world that makes even the prettiest places look duller than the beginning). As for the performance, the game comes with both a graphics mode and a framerate mode, with the graphics mode providing a rock solid 30 fps, which is where I did the majority of my playtime. The frame rate mode lowers the resolution slightly and, unfortunately, doesn’t provide a rock solid performance, which is weirdly jittery while you are exploring and somehow becomes a mostly rock solid 60fps where you enter a combat scenario. The fluidity in the place that actually matters still makes playing in frame rate mode a worthy time. The sheer visual splendor and general stability of the graphics mode, however, is what gave that mode the edge for me.

“The Only Fantasy Here Is Yours. And We Shall Be Its Final Witness.

Risk-taking is something I will always appreciate and champion in the gaming industry, especially when it comes to long-running franchises. While not perfect, the risks Square Enix took with Final Fantasy XVI to focus this game on a genre completely different from many of its prior entries did manage to pay off in dividends. The darker and grounded motif worked even when the fantasy side made itself known. The spectacle is such that I doubt it can be topped anytime soon.

Clive’s story of revenge and redemption, culminating in the game’s final moments, made me feel in a profound way. And, beyond that, this was an excellent action game throughout that managed to still feel like Final Fantasy. Even when I think of some of the moments that lacked the excitement of its incredible peaks, the impact of those pure euphoric moments that this journey left will stick with me longer than most games will.

You can find Seasoned Gaming’s review policy here

By Alejandro Segovia

Contributing Writer for Seasoned Gaming. In his spare time, he writes about the gaming, TV and Movie industry in his blog "The Critical Corner". Host of "The X Button" Gaming Podcast. Follow on Twitter @A_droSegovia

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