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Final Fantasy XVI Review: Return of an Icon

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Final Fantasy, Square Enix’s long running series of sprawling, epic role-playing video games, occupies a revered and deeply sentimental place in the relatively short history of gaming. Early Final Fantasy titles established themselves as pinnacles among their peers, with their high-end visuals, deep narrative, and distinct characters helping the games shape the medium itself. A generation of gamers have grown up on Final Fantasy, and these games have left a formidable footprint on impressionable hearts and minds.

However, after a string of beloved titles that are to this day held up as some of the best games ever made, Final Fantasy lost its way. Subsequent games failed to live up to high expectations and as other modern franchises grew popular, the series somewhat lost its cultural foothold. Final Fantasy became a glorious relic of the past, its relevance dwindling in a shifting gaming landscape.

Reinvention, however, has remained a hallmark of Final Fantasy. The franchise is less of a series than it is an anthology of standalone games that do not share their worlds or the primary protagonists who inhabit them. Each mainline title harbours its own setting and storyline. The games do, however, share a common ethos. They borrow generously from popular culture and feature recurring motifs, both in name and nature. And while Final Fantasy narratives play out on a grand scale, they also paint affecting personal portraits of their heroes and villains.

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That’s why Final Fantasy XVI, the series’ latest reinvention, feels like a rebirth. The long-awaited sixteenth main instalment in the franchise, which released June 22 exclusively on the PS5, represents a departure from Final Fantasy norms in many ways. It’s updated for modern times and brings a streamlined action-RPG experience that tilts heavily towards the action and less towards the role-playing. In the process, it sheds a chunk of what defines a Final Fantasy game. There is no party system — not in the traditional sense, at least. While there are party members who accompany and aid you in quests, you do not control them. FFXVI also sticks with real-time action-based combat, akin to recent titles in the series — another contentious departure from its turn-based roots. These changes might displease old-time fans of the franchise, but they’re also likely to attract a new generation of gamers who haven’t experienced a classic Final Fantasy game.

Like its predecessors, FFXVI tells a new story; one that draws heavily from Western medieval fantasy. The clear inspirations here are Game of Thrones and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but the game manages to craft its own world and people with distinct flair and clarity. It takes common fantasy tropes like palace intrigue, betrayal, and revenge, and spins them into a convincing coming-of-age tale, charting the personal journey of our hero, Clive.

Deep and consistently engaging lore; several kingdoms and their own motivated dispositions; and dozens of players all affect the story, shift the balances of power, and add their own chaos to the existing churn. There’s also a deceptively simple and ridiculously fun combat system that focusses on player reflex and retaliation, utilising melee and magic to paint a Jackson Pollock of elemental abilities and special moves on your screen. All of it is scored by some of the year’s most evocative and emphatic music in games, driving both the emotion and the action home.

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There is no party system in Final Fantasy XVI, but your companions aid you in quests
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

The result, in many ways, is a resounding return to form for Final Fantasy. Despite its shallow RPG experience, its weak side content, and its sore lack of customisation and exploration, Final Fantasy XVI accomplishes what it sets out to do. It lacks the versatility of its peers, but it makes up for that in its total commitment to its singular craft. It also wears a veneer of old-school charm that’s hard to find in slick modern video games.

Final Fantasy XVI overloads its main campaign, offering a dramatic and meaty story that keeps you turning the pages throughout its 40-hour run — almost. In its vague imitation of a feature-complete RPG — which should include item crafting, customisation, exploration, meaningful choice, character builds, and fleshed-out side content — the game falls flat on its face. But, as a consistently fun action title that cranks up the production value to 11, FFXVI soars higher than perhaps any other game released this year.

The newest Final Fantasy takes place in Valisthea, a high-fantasy world sustained by Mothercrystals. These monolithic crystals, towering over the realms of Valisthea, are primeval and powerful sources of aether — the cradle of all magic that flows through the land and its people, powering industry and economy. The mountainous Mothercrystals are also centres of power, imparting political strength to the nations that hold them. Vicinity to them is paramount; realms wage war and forge alliances to maintain their hold over them.

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The world of Valisthea runs on the magic from mountainous Mothercrystals
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

The crystals’ blessings are also passed on to Dominants; people who hold vast reservoirs of magic within them and serve as hosts to colossal beasts. These elemental creatures, called Eikons, are monstrous distillations of the crystals’ power. Eikons, which represent summons from previous Final Fantasy games, are the ultimate weapon at the disposal of a realm. Dominants thus fulfil a crucial strategic role, acting as both deterrent and aggressor for their nations.

Final Fantasy XVI follows the story of Clive Rosfield, the first-born son of the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Rosaria, one of the six nations of Valisthea. Clive, expected to be born as a Dominant, was passed over for the crystal’s blessing, which instead bloomed within his younger brother, Joshua — born as the Phoenix, an Eikon of fire. The game’s opening drops us in the shoes of a 15-year-old Clive, sworn to protect his younger brother.

The intro gives us a handy combat tutorial and sets up the moving pieces of the story. Young Clive’s world is torn apart when he witnesses a traumatic event that sets him on a path of revenge and redemption. While I don’t want to give more details away, FFXVI’s two-hour long opening is incredibly effective, pulling you into its complex world order. It is powerful, not just in its action set pieces, but also in its narrative stakes.

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Clive’s path of revenge is full of revelations
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

Years later, a grown-up Clive is living the life of a mercenary, fighting battles that aren’t his to fight. A desire for vengeance seethes withing him, but he only finds purpose when he meets Cidolfus Telamon, a charismatic outlaw leader running his own revolution. Cid, a major side character in the first act of the game, takes Clive under his wing and aids him in his journey. Final Fantasy XVI’s story is delivered primarily through long, beautifully crafted cutscenes with incredibly high production value. These serve as lengthy interludes in the frenetic action, but they never drag. You could watch them as you a watch a TV show, following the arc of your protagonist.

It also helps that FFXVI has in-built tools to help you absorb the story as it plays out in real time. The Active Time Lore system provides necessary context about the people and places on your screen, never letting the world overwhelm you. At any point in the game or during a cutscene, you can long-press the touch bar on the DualSense controller to refer to Active Time Lore. Most games have a codex that serves as an overstuffed encyclopaedia for their world, but you never bother to read them. Active Time Lore, on the other hand, condenses information and presents efficiently. Think of tapping a word on your phone screen and looking up its meaning, versus getting an actual dictionary, flipping through the pages and finding that word. This convenient lore delivery system softens the blow of exposition dumps, making FFXVI’s overall story more digestible.

The narrative isn’t without flaws, though. The laser focus on Clive means the people around him don’t get their due. Cid stands out for his mischievous magnetism and debonair flair, but the rest of the cast are flat at best. Jill Warrick, Clive’s childhood friend and trusted companion, exists as a phantom presence throughout the game, never making her own decisions or imposing her will. Despite being a Dominant who houses the power of the Eikon Shiva, Jill remains meek; her purpose and ambitions walled within Clive’s own journey. The villains of Valisthea also fail to take flight. Their conflicts with Clive feel isolated from the geopolitical churn on the continent. They exist purely as one-dimensional foils to our hero and thus struggle to occupy their own place in the world.

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Jill, a Dominant, hosts the Eikon Shiva
Photo Credit: Square Enix

FFXVI’s story can feel overstuffed at times. There is a lot going on and not all of it gets the same treatment as the main story thread, leading to sub-par side plots. In fact, there’s little that supports the game’s main campaign. Interesting premises are often established only to be abandoned or left unexplored.

Let’s talk about the combat in Final Fantasy XVI. It is ridiculously good, and Sqaure Enix knows that it is ridiculously good, because it’s served up at every opportunity. It’s a a bottomless buffet of battle, yet you’re always in control of the chaos. FFXVI’s combat hinges on sword-based melee attacks and elemental magic that stems from the crystal’s aether. You’ve seen the standard sword combos of light and heavy attacks in similar games before, but it’s the synergy of the swordplay and the increasingly fun arcane abilities that makes the combat here stand out. Clive, who has the Phoenix’s blessings, starts out with fire-based abilities and keeps adding other elemental powers from corresponding Eikons to his repertoire as the game progresses.

Each magic type has its own skill wheel, letting you unlock and upgrade specific special moves. Of course, you can switch your magic types on the fly, swapping out their corresponding signature abilities with button combinations specifically bound to them. These abilities are the primary drivers of the combat system. They work on a cooldown timer and thus encourage strategic use in battle.

There is a tactical element to FFXVI’s combat, despite it seeming like a mindless button-mash of wanton violence. Aside from a health bar, enemies also have a poise meter, which when whittled down to half, staggers them, leaving them open to attacks. Enemies also take extra damage when staggered. The best strategy is to time your special move usage to a T, so that when you stagger your foe, your signature high-damage-dealing abilities are ready to be unleashed in consecutive flurries. This never gets old. Timely dodges will give you windows of opportunity to hit back, and the game also utilises context-specific quick time events (QTEs) for cinematic action set pieces.

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Final Fantasy XVI features one of the year’s best combat systems
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

In addition to general combat, you also take part in monstrous Eikon battles. These gargantuan bouts only take place during scripted story sections of the game and are equivalent to Godzilla fighting King Kong. Eikon battles are epic in scale and offer something new each time. During these bouts, the music swells, the action reaches a crescendo, and the visual energy climaxes. Eikon battles are a highlight that elevate the Final Fantasy XVI experience. It’s some of the most fun you’ll have in video games this year.

While combat forms the thrust of the gameplay, there very little more to embellish the experience. There is an item crafting and upgrade system, but it’s a pale, paper-thin imitation of what modern RPGs offer. There’s next to no weapons and armour customisation — you get to buy or craft new swords from time to time, but they don’t have any unique value except higher damage output and cosmetic differences. Pieces of armour can be bought and crafted too, but they don’t look any different in the game and only give you marginally higher stats. No matter what you equip yourself with, your attire remains the same.

Final Fantasy XVI is not an open-world game, which suits its no-frills approach and funnels you into purposeful engagement with its systems — a contrast to the aimless meandering most open-world games encourage. Instead, the map is divided into small hub worlds that serve as vessels for your main and side quests. FFXVI has a world map that marks the realms of Valisthea and gives you the lay of the land, but these hub worlds lack any potential for meaningful exploration. There’s nothing to be found aside from stray enemy encounters and odd trinkets for crafting. Most missions will have you beelining to the objective marker as it’s simply not worth your time to wander.

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FFXVI is not an open world game and instead features multiple hub worlds spread across its map
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

Side quests, which should serve as vehicles to explore a game’s ancillary offerings, suffer the most. All side missions are aggressively unimaginative and most are prosaic fetch quests. Only a handful of them involve crucial gameplay and story aspects that affect the main campaign. I did quite a few of them early on, running around FFXVI’s beautiful environments, doing inconsequential favours for bland NPCs, but I abandoned that pursuit soon and instead focused on advancing the game’s main story. Why should the player care for side content if the developers couldn’t be bothered themselves?

Aside from its narrative and combat, Final Fantasy XVI succeeds emphatically in the visuals department. The game is stunning to look at almost all the time, blending a fantastical aesthetic with realism in its environments and character models. Nothing is too flashy; instead, FFXVI opts for a muted tone that grounds the game and its brooding narrative. The world of Valisthea is often oppressively dark and the game’s visuals, music and story embody its underlying melancholy.

Final Fantasy XVI is also graphically demanding and pushes the PS5 almost to its limits. The game often drops frames, struggling to maintain 60fps in the Performance mode, especially when you’re out and about in the hub worlds. I found the resolution-focussed 30fps mode to be a more consistent experience.

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Final Fantasy XVI’s colossal Eikon battles are a highlight
Photo Credit: Square Enix

Despite its many inadequacies, FFXVI holds on strongly to what makes it good. It leans heavily on real-time combat to deliver its kinetic action, and its stunningly produced cutscenes spin an engaging story. The game is essentially a series of wickedly fun action set pieces, with gorgeous cutscenes serving as timely interludes. And since both these elements represent the best that FFXVI has to offer, the gameplay loop sustains itself till the end.

There are many parts missing in the puzzle. When it comes to versatility of gameplay mechanics and diversity of side content, FFXVI pales in comparison to most modern video games. Even the dizzyingly good combat system barely ever gets challenging, and half-baked systems lead to an annoyingly inadequate RPG experience. In fact, you cannot call FFXVI a role-playing game by any existing standards.

Still, it is an excellent action game with perhaps one of the medium’s most likeable protagonists in recent times. Final Fantasy XVI is a worthy return for an iconic franchise — that much is clear. Whether this success can light the path for future Final Fantasy games and elevate the series to its past heights, is perhaps a trickier question to answer.

Pros

  • Fun combat and epic Eikon battles
  • Engaging narrative and finely crafted cutscenes
  • Excellent world-building and deep lore
  • Likeable protagonist
  • State-of-the-art visuals

Cons

  • Shallow RPG experience
  • Paper-thin crafting, upgrades, exploration
  • Sub-par side quests
  • Lack of customisation
  • Performance issues

Rating (out of 10): 8

Final Fantasy XVI released June 22 exclusively on PS5.

Pricing starts at Rs. 4,799 for the Standard Edition on PlayStation Store for PS5.


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