Final Fantasy XVI Review – Polished to an Iridescent Sheen

    Title: Final Fantasy XVI
    Developer: Square Enix
    Release Date: June 22, 2023
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: Square Enix
    Genre: Action JRPG

The Final Fantasy franchise is, in many ways, inconsistent, as seen from its attempts at different genres throughout the mainline entries to spinoffs and their wildly opposing receptions. There’s at least one entry that suits one’s tastes. And the newest release, Final Fantasy XVI, is no different.

Being a fully-fledged action RPG with input from the combat director of Devil May Cry V, this is a pretty fresh direction that has left fans equally excited and divided. Final Fantasy XV isn’t really an authentic action experience, and Stranger of Paradise is more akin to Team NINJA’s Nioh series. So, the prospect of a more in-line action JRPG excited me to no end. After spending over 120 hours in this world (acquiring the Platinum trophy on the way), I find it to be one of the most polished games Square Enix has ever released.

Final Fantasy XVI stars protagonist Clive Rosfield, once the First Shield of Rosaria, a nation that has long since fallen in prominence due to a tragedy over a decade ago. Now, Clive’s essentially a slave to the Empire, forced to carry out perilous missions that can simply be seen as veiled attempts to have him and others like him killed in the line of duty. However, on one such mission where he’s assigned the task of killing the Dominant of Shiva, a person who transforms into an Eikon (Final Fantasy summons), he reunites with an old friend and finds himself involved with a hidden society aiming to combat the world’s corruption.

The game’s opening hours feature a prologue comprising a younger Clive, laying the foundation of how his life became the way it is and providing a chunk of tutorials. You’re then thrust right into the action and tension, which Final Fantasy XVI impressively manages to retain across its entire duration. This world, Valisthea, is one of the harshest settings in the franchise, heavily reminding me of Final Fantasy II, in particular, due to the constant death and heartache everyone endures.

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This grim atmosphere is bolstered by the treatment of Bearers, humans born with the ability to wield magic yet are enslaved once discovered. If all that wasn’t enough, the Mature rating will make itself readily apparent across several intensely emotional scenes. Still, the narrative is never grotesque or dreary for the sake of it. Each mature depiction fits in well with the game’s world.

This ties into some of Final Fantasy XVI’s strongest facets, its lore and worldbuilding. Every area and character is given substantial focus across the Active Time Lore menu that can be accessed at any time, providing a list of context-sensitive terminology and names you should be aware of. Plus, an NPC in the later stages houses a world map showcasing the ever-evolving geographical conundrums of Valisthea, as well as highly intricate relationship charts.

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For those who take the time to deep-dive into Valisthea, they’ll gradually learn about one of the most meticulously written settings in Final Fantasy and one they won’t forget anytime soon. On the other hand, those who solely progress the main story without taking the time to smell the roses and read up on what’s going on will certainly find Valisthea lacking in crucial regards. This also applies to the side content that I’d argue is collectively vital. While the first few batches of sidequests are expectedly low-stakes and don’t provide much in terms of engagement, they become increasingly thought-provoking and are integral to feeling connected to Clive, his companions, and those caught up in the crossfire of their conflict.

Honestly speaking, the sidequests in the second half are some of the best content I’ve seen in any Final Fantasy game, as they excellently utilize the cast in ways that strengthen their relationships and amplify the core of their characterizations. Even the seemingly forgettable shopkeepers in the main hub and a few members of the supporting cast receive far more focus than I ever thought they would get. This game also probably has my favorite iteration of Cid.

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Yet, these positives don’t apply to the antagonists. Throughout Final Fantasy XVI, the villains constantly stood out as the weakest parts of the story. Their presence and motivations rarely left an impact, as they often felt more obligatory than anything else. Of course, it’s not like an antagonist needs a deeply philosophical motive to become captivating, but the ones in XVI either don’t get enough for interest to kick in or come off as husks of wasted potential.

This primarily applies to the overarching villain and the one preceding them, resulting in a final showdown that could have been so much more than it ended up being. Although they each accomplish what they set out to do as threats, their execution lacks significantly compared to the core cast and certain supporting characters. And personally, the ending sequence, while fitting for what the narrative sets up, feels like it does the bare minimum. I obviously can’t go into detail, but I was left slightly disappointed after the credits rolled, which is a shame, given how terrific the majority of the plot was.

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Gameplay-wise, the crux of Final Fantasy XVI’s combat is the Eikons. Clive gains the abilities of each of these godly-like creatures, learnable via a simple skill tree. As you complete quests and defeat enemies, you’ll gain points used to learn and upgrade these abilities, heavily varying when used in combat. Garuda’s tools, for instance, are ideal for crowd control and aerial combos, while Titan embraces defensive capabilities and counters above all else. Clive can equip up to three Eikon toolkits at a time with two abilities each, featuring seamless switching on the field. Further, once abilities are fully mastered, they can be assigned to any Eikon, letting players experiment to their heart’s content.

The major exception to Eikon abilities that can be assigned anywhere is what defines them, Eikonic Feats. Tied to the circle button by default, these pivotal skills embody the combat identities of each creature, such as Phoenix having a dash to close distances and Shiva being able to freeze enemies. Mixing and matching your preferred style of build is paramount to player individuality, offering differing avenues that will make everyone’s experience unique. Odin’s abilities are likely my favorite, consisting of an emphasized approach of high hit counts and wide ranges that can devastate foes if utilized adequately.

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Regarding equipment, Final Fantasy XVI is jarringly simple. Aside from new gear becoming available after select story developments, there’s a crafting system you don’t have to think much about. The materials needed for new weapons and accessories will practically always be naturally found if you just follow along with the main story and sidequests, with farming never necessary. It’s truly a refreshing change of pace compared to other JRPGs, and it also makes life easier for completionists and casual players alike.

Combat itself is delectably smooth and just really damn fun. The primary aim across every encounter is to stagger enemies before laying into them, with skills aimed at breaking down enemy defenses. It’s a simple-to-grasp yet constantly fulfilling cycle that never grows dull. I must also make it abundantly clear that Final Fantasy XVI’s enemy design is stellar. Every telegraph is well-crafted, meaning you can react to enemy moves with little issue as long you pay attention to certain tells.

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And if you aren’t confident in your action skills, there are timely accessory rings that make the game even more approachable alongside the Story-Focused mode. Granted, it is a bit strange that the rings are available in both the Story-Focused and Action-Focused modes, but you can just ignore them. Alas, there is an oddity with the difficulty.

The new game plus mode dubbed Final Fantasy is not more difficult at all. Instead, it carries over everything from your previous playthrough while scaling enemies to the level you’re expected to be at during the endgame. You fight enemies as you always have, with no necessary strategic alterations or new movesets; the only significant difference being an enhanced cap of level 100 and new equipment solely for stat increases. This saddened me since there was ample opportunity here to challenge dedicated players seeking more.

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Still, if you’re seeking a challenge, there are specific avenues that will really push your limits, putting this game’s demanded level of mastery on the same stage as Devil May Cry and Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind. The Arete Stone is a handy locale housing a training mode and more, making it an incredibly convenient landmark to always keep in mind. The Arcade Mode is also accessed here, which is where the Devil May Cry inspiration readily presents itself. You can replay story stages here with a scoring system similar to the Devil May Cry style meter, essentially encouraging combo variety and avoiding repetition. It adds quite a bit of replay value to the already robust playtime.

Moreover, you can replay story stages under the hardest difficulty mode called Ultimaniac, demanding near-perfection as only a couple of hits will kill you. This is the mode that truly compelled me and highlights the genius of Final Fantasy XVI’s combat system. Learning how to manage every boss telegraph and which Eikon skills to mix and match is such a cathartic and addictive practice that deserves all the praise it can get. So, if you found the story fights and monster hunts too easy, I highly advise giving the Ultimaniac bouts a shot. Even the most hardcore players won’t be disappointed; I can promise you that. As of now, Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind is still the cream of the crop for Square Enix boss battle design, though Final Fantasy XVI is high up there.

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One last combat critique I have that I think will be shared with most players is the magic system. For an inexplicable reason, despite every Eikon having their own elemental shot tied to the triangle button, they’re all identical in approach. To elaborate, when shot, even when charged, each spell reaches enemies in the same manner without any creative variation. This seems like a missed opportunity since the spells could have been different depending on their type, providing additional innate Eikon-based strategy and uniqueness, similar to how spells are seen throughout Kingdom Hearts. This isn’t a dealbreaker, yet it’s a design choice I constantly found myself questioning.

Still, I can’t deny that Final Fantasy XVI is a visual marvel. At times, it’s akin to a Hollywood blockbuster or high-budget anime, thanks to the inclusion of Eikon battles where Clive transforms into Ifrit and battles opposing Eikons. Each of these fights feels rather different from one another due to area and mechanic differences. They’re never difficult but don’t need to be, as they provide some of the most hype-inducing setpieces Square has ever produced.

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In fact, one specific Eikon battle genuinely amazed me with its scope, easily becoming one of the best battles in the franchise. These bouts are bolstered by Cinematic Clashes, seen as QuickTime events or Reaction Commands, where you have to press specific buttons during an automated segment. These Clashes also occur outside of Eikon battles, but I usually associate the mechanic with them due to their sheer spectacle.

Square is always used for attacks, and R1 is used for dodges throughout these sequences; that’s important because, in Final Fantasy Mode, the button UI vanishes. It’s a strange minor alteration, though I suppose it’s meant to make you pay more attention. One relatively harmless critique I have is how you can’t skip any scenes throughout Eikon Battles, probably because of the Cinematic Clashes. It’s just slightly irritating on replays.

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Final Fantasy XVI’s progression is linear. The main story objectives and several sidequests all hold your hand in terms of where to go, though that’s not necessarily to its detriment. The game is clearly focused on combat above all else, and there are still plenty of wide-open areas to explore at your leisure with treasure chests and monster hunts. These are unlocked in the later parts of the game, and it’s the only facet of the overall experience that doesn’t show you exactly where to go on the map. You instead have to judge their location based on bounty descriptions, which I appreciated since it demanded more thought.

Another gameplay element you’ll encounter on the map is the Chronolith Trials. These are timed battle challenges unique to each Eikon, providing terrific awards once accomplished. You can consider these to be skill checks to an extent since you need to understand the basics of each Eikon’s abilities to prevail since your loadout changes across every battle. These were honestly some of my favorite combat segments since the restrictions paved the way for enacting thought-provoking strategies you wouldn’t think of in ordinary battles. Even more demanding variations are then unlocked at the hub’s Arete Stone once they’re cleared for the first time, as well as in Final Fantasy Mode.

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If you do everything you can in Final Fantasy XVI during a single playthrough, counting sidequests, hunts, and exploration, you’ll likely spend around 70 hours, assuming you don’t skip any scenes. Plus, if you do new game plus and Arete Stone activities, you can easily go over 100 hours, so you’re definitely getting more than enough bang for your buck.

Final Fantasy XVI boasts an astounding English dub, easily on the same level of enunciation and emotion as Final Fantasy VII Remake. Clive’s voice actor, in particular, excellently exhibits a range of emotions that make him naturally multifaceted. It’s a truly standout performance. I also found the soundtrack great, where Masayoshi Soken creates a standout composition that rivals Final Fantasy XIV. The title’s grim tone of desperation and oppression is strongly encapsulated in its songs, with a few calming atmospheric tracks present to balance it all out. Lastly, the game’s performance is pretty solid. It doesn’t retain 60 FPS at all times, but it’s usually consistent. Most of the drops I noticed were during select cutscenes, which is obviously far preferable to gameplay. No combat sequences were ever impeded by poor performance.

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Final Fantasy XVI is an action JRPG polished to an iridescent sheen. Its well-designed combat system and enemies, outstanding character writing and worldbuilding, and consistently stellar side content make it a standout entry in this legendary franchise. Even when accounting for the weak villains and a lukewarm conclusion, this was a journey that truly gripped me from beginning to end. This is a must-play game of the year and a Final Fantasy adventure you won’t forget.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual.