Long-running franchises form a sort of cultural backdrop that inspires other media over the course of years. What would the entertainment landscape look like without Star Wars, for instance? That said, what happens when a property gets long enough in the tooth it becomes a little intimidating for folks who haven’t kept up with it? When you tell someone who isn’t a long-time Final Fantasy fan that we’re up to Final Fantasy XVI, for example, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll wonder if they need to play the other fifteen to figure out what’s going on.
It’s even better when you tell them there’s WAY more than fifteen other games and they’re required to play them all. True fans know the score, but a little trolling never hurts. That said, Final Fantasy XVI is finally here! And it’s mostly good! But it’s not all sunshine and chocobos. Let’s take a look.
The world of Valisthea has long existed in a sort of tense peace; the Mothercrystals that tower over the land offer both a center for civilization and magical aid to keep things running. Using crystal shards, all manner of conveniences are possible, from summoning drinking water to drying clothes with magical wind. The real grease in the gears of society, though, are the Bearers, people capable of using magic without a crystal.
It turns out that Bearer potential is determined at birth, whereupon the individual is marked with a brand and placed firmly into the lowest echelons of society. If that sounds like an allegory for racism that’s handled with all the sledgehammer subtlety the medium is known for, well…
Young Clive Rosfield is a noble from the Valisthean nation of Rosaria whose brother, Joshua, is a Dominant – a sort of super-Bearer who can control the power of one of Final Fantasy’s hallmark summoned monsters, known here as Eikons. As one of only eight known Dominants, Joshua plays an integral role in keeping Rosaria safe and Valisthea’s nations in check. Suffice to say, things don’t stay particularly rosy for long, and we end up following Clive on an adventure to save the world from magical pollution and fantastic racism.
Plot aside, let’s go ahead and address the Behemoth in the room: Final Fantasy XVI has completely ditched the series’ long-running tradition of turn-based gameplay. We’ve seen this coming, of course, as recent Final Fantasy entries were mostly just paying lip service to the concept, but XVI is an action-RPG through and through.
That means you’re going to control Clive directly as he slashes and magics his way through the locals. FXVI’s bread and butter involves mixing up cutlery and casting in a sort of alternating motion, hacking and blasting in order to speed up your combos and maximize damage. On defense, you can dodge roll like most games of this sort to avoid attacks, with a powerful counterattack becoming available after a well-timed dodge, and you can parry incoming attacks with your own. Clive’s also got Eikonic powers that do plenty of damage on a cooldown; these are your heavy hitters for the most part, though there’s also the odd counterattack to spice things up.
Weaker enemies go down with some hacking and slashing, but more powerful foes have a stagger bar a la FFXIII that needs to be wiped out to knock them over and render them vulnerable. It’s often best to save your Eikonic powers for a stagger to get the most out of them. You’ve also got Clive’s furry pal Torgal around for most battles, but his damage contribution is negligible; he’s mostly just there to knock baddies over so Clive can get in and stab them while they’re down.
Finally, Clive has a Limit Break ability that offers a sizable chunk of bonus damage, heals some of Clive’s health over time, and charges up way, way too fast so you can throw it out multiple times in a given fight.
How does this all pan out in practice? We’ll start with the good: Final Fantasy XVI’s main story and the associated content are absolutely fantastic. Clive’s adventures are at their best when he’s doing something relevant, and players will likely find themselves itching to get to the next twist or turn. You’ve got gorgeous dungeons, endearing character banter, dramatic moments, spectacular Eikon battles that take FFXVI’s combat system and apply it to a kaiju fight…everything but the kitchen sink, really, and I’m pretty sure I saw some plumbing fixtures somewhere for that matter.
When you’re playing through the spiciest moments of FFXVI’s plot, you’re going to have a good time. Bosses in particular are an absolute treat; a simple, accessible combat system like what we’ve got here really works for cinematic drama. There’s even the odd QTE here and there to make you wonder why we started hating those. Trimming the fat would do a whole lot for FFXVI, because the meat is absolutely stellar.
That’s where we run into the bad, which is most of what’s left. Clive’s adventures are at their worst when he’s slogging through sidequests. These run the gamut of questionable MMO-style quest design, so you can expect to slowly trudge from place to place, delivering food, collecting MacGuffins and bashing monsters in forgettable scuffles. I’m a little surprised our gritty hero isn’t asked to kill ten rats at some point. There are dozens of these, and they mostly just exist to pad out the time between exciting story beats – i.e. the good parts of FFXVI. Your reward for your trouble typically consists of more of the same two or three crafting materials you already possess by the hundreds.
There’s the odd winner, to be sure, and it’s nice to find a cute snippet of lore, a healing potion upgrade or the ability to summon and ride a Chocobo to make the rest of the drudgery slightly less agonizing. For the most part, though, FFXVI’s optional content is pretty clearly a transparent effort at artificially lengthening the game, and before you claim that’s what all sidequests are, check out the vast and impressive array of interesting diversions in a Yakuza game and get back to me. The best that can be said here is that the optional Notorious Mark minibosses are fun to seek out and battle, but those are a small portion of what’s on offer.
All in all this is a tough pill to swallow, as it means you’re going to have the most fun with FFXVI by playing less of it. This is a game that lives and dies on spectacle and bombast. Collecting herbs doesn’t really qualify. Likewise, combat is clearly intended to be accessible to longtime series fans who might not be familiar with action-RPGs, but that means it’s both a little shallow and way too easy. The option to try a more difficult playthrough upon finishing the game, but at that point, well, you’ve finished the game.
Returning to that spectacle and bombast, one would imagine you’d need some hefty graphical chops for a game like that, right? Well, FFXVI tries to deliver. At the moment this is a PlayStation 5 exclusive. You’d expect, then, that because it runs on standardized hardware that’s the top of the line for consoles, everything’s peachy keen. You’d be sadly mistaken, as performance tends to fluctuate wildly from scene to scene, and hilariously this is another case where the best results come from the game’s main story quests.
Towns, random battles and most situations where there’s a lot going on tend to see the framerate chug a bit. In fact, it’s easy to tell when a big, impressive boss battle is coming up because Clive will typically run across a wide open arena devoid of frame-chewing decor. While cutscenes and bosses tend to look and feel great, by and large FFXVI’s performance is disappointing; here’s hoping the inevitable PC port allows hardware enthusiasts to indulge a bit.
Gripes aside, Final Fantasy XVI wobbles wildly between boring drudgework and stunning fantasy adventure. Were it just the former it’d be easy to give this one a pass, but the latter really nails the essence of what makes Final Fantasy great. For a game that’s so willing to take in-your-face risks by making drastic gameplay alterations, much of FFXVI’s content plays it far too safe to be interesting. Pick this one up, play through the story and spare yourself most of the extracurricular activities for best results.