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Final Fantasy XVI (PS5)
Final Fantasy XVI is everything a Final Fantasy game needs to be - Final Fantasy XVI Review

Final Fantasy XVI is everything a Final Fantasy game needs to be - Final Fantasy XVI Review

2K View2023-07-29
Since it arrived last month—heck, even since it was first revealed way back in 2020—one of the most oft-repeated opinions about Final Fantasy XVI has been that it doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game. After spending eighty hours with this latest entry in one of gaming’s biggest franchises, I can finally definitively respond to that opinion: Yes, Final Fantasy XVI doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game, and it is precisely for that reason that it feels exactly like a Final Fantasy game.
Let me try to explain.

What is Final Fantasy anyway?

Most Final Fantasy fans can pinpoint the moment they fell in love with the series. For a lot of people, it was facing off against Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII. For younger fans, maybe it was the rush of first playing blitzball in Final Fantasy X or discovering an appreciation for MMOs with Final Fantasy XIV. Or if you’re like me, it might all come down to playing through that opera scene in Final Fantasy VI and realizing it was unlike anything you’d ever seen before.
What do these different origins for Final Fantasy fandom have in common? What elements do each game share? What is it that makes a Final Fantasy game? In what way could one possibly expect a modern, big-budget, cinematic adventure to feel the same as, for example, an NES game that came out nearly forty years ago?
I hope you’ll forgive me some meandering in this review. I normally try to avoid that, but it feels appropriate for Final Fantasy XVI, a game that above all else meanders; a game that is, from beginning to end, like this review, obsessed with questions of identity, legacy, and being able to define one’s own existence, to free oneself from the expectations and assumptions thrust onto one by family and religion and society.
In some sense, the game itself operates as a commentary on the pressure of trying to make a new mainline Final Fantasy game, trying to live up to a thousand different expectations from millions of fans who discovered and grew to love the series at different times and for different reasons.
Then again, that makes the whole thing sound self-obsessed and boring, and Final Fantasy XVI is far from boring. Let’s talk about Final Fantasy XVI.

The story of Final Fantasy XVI (no spoilers)

With admitted heavy inspiration from Game of Thrones, Final Fantasy XVI tells a tale of the complex political and military conflicts of Valisthea, a land made up of two continents and a good half-dozen or so different factions. Players take on the role of Clive Rosfield, one of two sons of the royal family of Rosaria.
While this nation has survived and thrived over a history of heated encounters with neighboring countries, it isn’t long into Final Fantasy XVI before things fall apart for Rosaria and the Rosfield dynasty. I played as a teenage Clive just long enough to get to know his family and start liking them—just long enough that it would sting to see it all torn away in a blaze of betrayal, bloodshed, and suffering.
After that intense opening, I jumped a decade or so into the future to find Clive in a rough place. Actually participating in these early events made it easier for me to forgive Clive’s gruff stoicism more than with some of the brooding protagonists of Final Fantasy’s past—I’m looking at you, Cloud Strife. In fact, the strong focus on Clive as an individual is perhaps one of the biggest changes from previous Final Fantasy games.
While Final Fantasy XVI technically has party members that float in and out of the picture as the game progresses, Clive was essentially the only character I controlled for the whole of the game. And unlike Final Fantasy XV’s Noctis—a main character I liked well enough but struggled to really get invested in emotionally—I got truly pulled in by Clive’s journey.
Final Fantasy XVI allowed me to play as Clive across multiple time periods in his life, beginning as an awkward but affluent teenager, to his time under forced military service to an evil empire, to even more unexpected places that I won’t spoil here. And because I was with Clive for the whole of this journey, I was able to witness character growth from him in a way that most RPGs with a bigger party of adventurers rarely afford.
A big part of Clive’s journey, as mentioned earlier, is his search for his own identity. Even before the traumatic events that tear him from his home, he struggles to belong. Technically, Clive is the firstborn son of the duke of Rosaria, but in this nation, whichever child inherits the magical force known as the Eikon becomes the successor to the throne. Clive’s younger brother Joshua has inherited Phoenix, the Eikon of fire, and so Clive is set up to be his brother’s protector rather than the heir to throne or even his own person.
As Rosaria falls, Clive’s search for identity becomes even more difficult and more pressing. Who is he without a home? Without a family? He begins awakening to ever greater abilities with magic, but in a world where magic-users are looked down on at best and enslaved at worst. Where does he belong in such a world?

The world of Final Fantasy XVI

Questions about the world of Final Fantasy XVI may be more relevant than they first appear. Early on in the game, I thought it was going a similar route to Final Fantasy XIII and XV, games in which the focus was so firmly on the characters that the world around them felt more like a sketch than a fully fleshed out place. But ten or so hours into Final Fantasy XVI, it pulled off a surprising trick: It took all of Clive’s uncertainty about himself and externalized it, shifting suddenly and profoundly into a story about Clive’s relationship with the world at large.
So yes, Final Fantasy XVI is a character study, but it is also a world study. Perhaps this switch to world-building shouldn’t have shocked me, seeing as this game’s producer is Naoki Yoshida, the director of Final Fantasy XIV, which I would argue is one of the greatest triumphs of building a complex, fascinating, and fully-realized fantasy world in video game history.
Final Fantasy XVI’s Valisthea may not quite reach the same heights as Final Fantasy XIV’s Eorzea—nor of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, for that matter—but it gets closer than any of the single-player Final Fantasy games released in the HD era of gaming.
From the gleaming spires of the Holy Empire of Sanbreque, to the dusty halls of the desert-bound Iron Kingdom, to the ostensibly neutral island known as the Crystalline Dominion, each of the regions and nations of Valisthea were slowly but surely fleshed out. Cultures and factions that were initially only mentioned in passing or seemed completely unfathomable became populated with characters I knew and came to understand the motivations of.
More than that, while Final Fantasy XVI is not an open-world game, it does feature fairly large fields within each area of Valisthea. As I progressed through the story, I was able to return to previously visited areas to take on sidequests and also to see how the world itself was changing in response to major events. I got pulled into the schemes of dozens of different side characters and got to see whole villages evacuated from emergencies, while new communities sprung up and thrived with my aid.

The gameplay of Final Fantasy XVI: action versus RPG

While both the main story and sidequests of Final Fantasy XVI are heavily story-based, regularly boasting ten-plus minutes of cutscenes digging into the details of these characters and their lives, the actual actions I was taking in these missions primarily focused on one thing: combat. The way this game has embraced a full-on action approach to combat is perhaps one of its most controversial elements among franchise fans. Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake both leaned heavily in this direction, but XVI feels like a more complete embrace of action over RPG.
While I can’t promise that Final Fantasy XVI’s flashy swordplay will win over hardcore players who were hoping for a return to turn-based combat, I think even the most skeptical action gamer would be hard-pressed to find fault with what Square Enix has done here. No small thanks for that is owed to Final Fantasy XVI battle director Ryota Suzuki, a developer who previously worked on the Devil May Cry series at Capcom.
Suzuki and the rest of the Final Fantasy XVI team have crafted one of the most visually appealing, varied, and downright fun action combat systems I’ve played in years. It focuses on spectacle but it still has a huge amount of depth and breadth. RPG players who are nervous about the faster pace of combat can play on the game’s easier “Story” difficulty setting and should still have no problem pulling off combos that look incredible.
For action aficionados, though, a real treat awaits. As Clive moves through his journey, he unlocks an ever-expanding suite of powers. Each set of special abilities is based on a specific Eikon, and Clive can swap between up to three different Eikons on the fly during battle, with two abilities assigned to each Eikon. So basically, in any given battle, I had access to six special abilities on top of normal sword combos, spells, and a special attack or traversal skill.
In a brilliant move that I didn’t expect, though, I was able to mix and match abilities from any Eikon. I could have Ramuh, the Eikon of Thunder, equipped with one ability from Garuda, the Eikon of Wind, and a second ability from Bahamut, the Eikon of Light. Aside from one “ultimate” ability for each Eikon, Final Fantasy XVI did not limit my ability to experiment.
Beyond making room for strategic choices, this freedom in combat allowed me to push myself to find new ridiculous combos. I was able to string together Eikon abilities to keep some enemies stuck in a weakened stagger state, or to find specific combos that could absolutely melt a boss’s HP bar in a matter of moments. I haven’t had so much fun just trying out different moves and seeing how stylishly I could wipe out a group of enemies since...well, since Devil May Cry 5!
The controversial trade-off for this newfound focus on action is that the RPG elements of Final Fantasy XVI are minimized. I still leveled up plenty, bought and crafted new weapons and armor, and unlocked a long list of upgrades and loot through sidequests. But aside from choosing which Eikon abilities to unlock or power up with my ability points, Final Fantasy XVI didn’t ask (or offer) much in the way of mapping out Clive’s build. And I wasn’t able to put my fingerprint on anything involving the party members, even recurring ones who show up regularly throughout the whole game.
If you’re a big RPG player and this is disappointing, all I can say is that’s a completely valid reaction and I understand it. But if you think that means Final Fantasy XVI isn’t a real Final Fantasy game, I would say that means you don’t have a great sense of how this series has always worked.
From the very first sequel, every entry in this series has stood out, trying its own weird mechanical twists—from active time battles in Final Fantasy IV to dresspheres in Final Fantasy X-2 to slow-as-molasses MMO combat in Final Fantasy XI. Heck, the franchise has even already embraced action combat with Final Fantasy XV. In reality, Final Fantasy XVI is just the latest in a long legacy of a franchise that refuses to stick to just putting out the same game with the same design every time.

Final Fantasy XVI’s imperfections

It’s probably clear by this point that I love Final Fantasy XVI an awful lot. However, I don’t want to pretend like it’s perfect. The game has some problems. It tries to take on some particularly mature themes with mixed results. One undercooked element of the story is slavery, a thorny topic that the game tries to wrap up a little too neatly. Much smarter critics than me have written some great articles on this topic. Recommended reading.
Another area where the game trips up is pacing. In a move that will be familiar to Final Fantasy XIV players, the main story in Final Fantasy XVI gets regularly sidetracked by interminably lengthy fetch quests. In theory, these distractions provide some time to breathe between the intense set piece levels that the bulk of the plot is devoted to, as well as an opportunity to get to know more about Clive’s allies and the world of Valisthea. In practice, they just kill the game’s momentum and clearly should have been relegated to optional sidequests.
But for every moment that I found myself bored and annoyed with the game’s unnecessary insistence on taking a break from the story, I experienced a dozen of the most over-the-top, utterly insane moments of spectacle in a series that is pretty well-known specifically for having moments of spectacle. The aforementioned Game of Thrones influence may have some players assuming that Final Fantasy XVI is a more grounded, low fantasy-style tale. Don’t be fooled; many of the game’s biggest boss encounters turn into what are essentially kaiju fights between two massive Eikons.
This may turn off some players, but if you can’t get stoked about Ifrit flying through a mountain canyon like an X-wing, blasting off fireballs at Titan as he rips giant chunks out of the ground and tosses them at Ifrit...well, that’s your right, but I was losing my mind with enjoyment.


So let’s go back to the questions I was pondering at the beginning of this rambling review. What does it mean to be a Final Fantasy game? If it’s hardcore, nitty-gritty, number-crunching RPG elements, Final Fantasy XVI has to be a disappointment. If it’s imaginative, cinematic spectacle of unrivaled scale, it may be the best the series has ever been. If it’s a deep story with well-developed characters and a world that changes as you progress, it knocks it out of the park and earns a spot near the top of the franchise.
For me, though, it’s none of those things. Not exactly. To me, what makes a Final Fantasy game—or what separates a bad or merely okay entry in the series from a great one—is a certain intangible magic, a power not altogether unlike that wielded by the game’s “Branded” mages. It’s the power to shape a virtual world that goes above and beyond most other games, to create a place where I want to spend time, a land where I want to linger, unable to tear myself away even if it means writing my eventual review embarrassingly late. It’s a place, characters, a story, a combat system, a means of engaging with a game that I haven’t experienced before, not in this particular way, not with different pieces mixed and matched in this particular configuration.
What makes a Final Fantasy game, in short, is a willingness to be its own thing and find its own identity even in the face of genre conventions and fan expectations. Whatever its problems, its bits and pieces that could have used a bit more polish, Final Fantasy XVI is undeniably itself, and for that, I’m grateful.
[Review by TapTap editor Kef]


• Epic fantasy adventure. Final Fantasy XVI tells a sprawling tale of swords, magic, and massive beasts that should please anyone who grew up reading cheap paperbacks from the Dungeons & Dragons section of the bookstore.
Devil May Cry and other character action games. Despite also being a long-as-hell RPG, Final Fantasy XVI also successfully captures the best parts of stylish character action games. Action fans should find a lot to love here.
• Cid. This recurring Final Fantasy name takes on many forms throughout the franchise’s history, but Final Fantasy XVI represents the biggest spotlight on Cid yet seen. The new vision of Cid developed in this game is charismatic and instantly lovable.
💬 Have you jumped into Final Fantasy XVI yet, or does this series’ long legacy not appeal to you? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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