Final Fantasy XVI Review

Eikon't believe my eyes

By Paul Hunter

33 years after playing the original Final Fantasy on NES, I'm back once again playing the latest entry in this incredible role-playing series. And oh, just how far Square Enix has come from those formative early days. Final Fantasy XVI feels familiar yet distinctly fresh, embracing its roots with elements like Eikon summons, Chocobo rides and crystals while also having notable 'firsts' under its belt, like being the first mainline entry with a mature rating and the first fully-fledged action RPG in the long-running series. I've been fortunate enough to have spent the past three weeks digging deep into this epic adventure—completing the main story plus all side missions—and I'm happy to report it absolutely delivers on all fronts.

Developed by Square Enix's Creative Business Unit III, FF16 is led by Naoki Yoshida (a.k.a. Yoshi-P) who is the creative force behind the highly successful Final Fantasy XIV revival project, A Realm Reborn. Given how impressive FF14 and its expansions have been, expectations for the PS5-exclusive FF16 have been sky-high—especially given the buzz after the meaty two-hour demo Square Enix released earlier this month. This is going to sound cliche, but for everyone who has played the demo: you ain't seen nothing yet. There's a lot of debate over what the 'greatest' Final Fantasy game ever is, is it FF7? FF6? FF10? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion that FF16 is about to join that best-of-all-time conversation.

Let's head on into the world of Valisthea to see what this epic game has to offer, here are three things I like about Final Fantasy XVI...and one I don't.

Liked: The Dark, Dark Story

I read that the FF16 development team was required to watch the Game of Thrones Blu-ray boxset because Yoshi-P wanted to create a more grounded fantasy game with a similar tone. And wow, you can feel that influence from the opening moments straight through the final chapter. You play as Clive Rosfield who exudes Jon Snow vibes from his stoic and heroic demeanour all the way down to him having a best friend wolf companion. Plus, as many of us have seen from the demo, his family situation is...rather Stark-like, bloodshed, collapsed empire and all. Other characters have strikingly similar experiences to particular Game of Thrones heroes or villains, and it's fascinating to see all these homages.

The amount of drama in this game is greater than in any previous Final Fantasy game with numerous warring factions and hours of cutscenes watching their noble elites scheme their way to bigger power. This game has it all: evil alliances, secret pacts, irredeemable tyrants, cruelty and torture, oppression and rebellion, and a few heroes risking it all to bring light back to this awful, beleaguered world. Seeing all the elites bickering, backstabbing and battling is such a rollercoaster ride with major twists and turns—some you'll see coming but many you won't. Playing through Final Fantasy XVI felt like watching four seasons of Game of Thrones, and I'm talking about the good seasons of GoT. I...absolutely need more Final Fantasy games with this depth and intensity, so please I'm begging you, Square Enix, don't make this a one-time affair.

There came a point in my playthrough where the number of main characters, factions, alliances and relationships became so thick that I was tempted to grab a pen and paper just to document all of the complex interactions. But thankfully, partway through the adventure you'll meet a strategist that will gladly record the state of the realm for you in an easy-to-use interactive character board. This awesome feature groups characters by their affiliations, and even lets you know who's married to who, who's friends with who, and who mistrusts who all with coloured connecting lines to make this simple. Best of all—the game takes place over an 18-year span and you can flip through the time periods to see how characters evolve over that time. Not only that, you can switch to a map view to see how wars shaped the land during that same time period. No exaggeration, these interactive timelines are a new benchmark to support the storytelling and I hope this becomes the standard for role-playing games to come.

Speaking of pushing storytelling forward, I absolutely adore FF16's active time lore system that you can access during any cutscene. This helpful tool will pause the scene and pop open descriptions of the characters, factions and locations you're seeing. With dozens of characters and so many complex relationships, the active time lore will instantly jog your memory so you know exactly who's in the cutscene based on your past history with them. Sometimes you may not see particular characters for many hours, or they may have been a background character in previous cutscenes but are now thrust to the forefront—but in either case, the time lore system quickly recaps who they are. I found myself enjoying the cinematics more and I love how the time lore system updates its databank each time a new character development occurs.

It’s not just the larger-than-life characters that create intrigue in Valisthea, but also its class system. Beyond the lords and peasants you’d expect from a medieval drama, this world contains bearers—humans that have been born with magical abilities. Bearers are largely hated and despised across the realm, even framed as subhuman by many of the powerful dynasties. Bearers eventually become branded—literally a large tattoo inked into their face—so that everyone can visibly see their second-class status. All sorts of horrendous fates await the branded, from being forced into lifelong military service, to being sold as slaves, to being outright murdered by those who fear their kind.

Much of Final Fantasy XVI revolves around Dominants, human bearers born with the incredible burden of possessing an Eikon, this game’s version of Final Fantasy’s classic summons. Every powerful nation in Valisthea has at least one Dominant, which is mainly used as a political pawn to expand their empires.

Dominants can become semi-primed, meaning a halfway form where they still resemble their human form while taking on traits and powers of their Eikon. They can also outright transform into an Eikon—with examples being Phoenix, Odin, Bahamut and Titan—and mostly do so during large-scale faction wars to dominate and destroy the battlefield. Turning into an Eikon has major repercussions for its host, namely, it saps their life force, known as aether, eventually turning them into stone and killing them. The same fate awaits the common bearers should they use their magical abilities beyond what their bodies can withstand.

When you mix the empires and rebellions, each filled with lords and peasants, bearers and branded, and the fearsome Eikons, you have a recipe for incredible drama and eye-watering action. While in past Final Fantasy games you would often see summons and magic without thinking twice, in this game every time either is used you’ll know it’s draining the life of its human host—sending them to an early grave—and that’s a massive weight to shoulder.

I could go on and on about all the things I enjoyed about the story of Final Fantasy XVI but to avoid ruining the surprises this game has in store for players, I'll just say that this is the first game in years that made my jaw drop repeatedly with its many shocking twists. There were times when I had to pause and put down the controller to say 'no way' as I could not believe what I what just transpired. This might be the best-written Final Fantasy yet, and I say that with the utmost respect to the previous games.

Liked: Gameplay

Final Fantasy XVI is touted as the first fully-fledged action RPG entry in the mainline series. And while that's only partially true (FF15 was an action RPG, for instance) it certainly has the strongest emphasis on 'action' of any Final Fantasy game. It makes sense, too, when you consider that the gameplay was designed by Ryota Suzuki who previously worked at Capcom on Devil May Cry 5, Monster Hunter and Dragon’s Dogma.

Combat in FF16 is entirely customizable, meaning it can be challenging or made easier, depending on your preference. At the beginning of the game, you're given the option to choose between 'Story Focused' and 'Action Focused', with the former starting you off with numerous rings that make combat much, much easier. On the extreme end, the Ring of Timely Evasion will make Clive automatically evade all attacks that can be evaded. Or you can equip the Ring of Timely Focus, a midway ring that slows time for a couple of seconds when enemies strike but requires you to actually press the evade button. There are also rings that make your pet Torgal auto-execute commands, auto-use potions when your health is low, and unleash complex combos by simply pressing the square button.

So that's the 'Story Focused' option, but of course, players that want a challenge can choose 'Action Focused' where you'll have no assists and need to perfectly time evades, strikes and healing. Having both gameplay options is awesome because it means everyone can enjoy this game, whether you want to focus on the story or gameplay.

The actual gameplay itself is super satisfying, as good if not better than the highly praised gameplay in Devil May Cry 5. On top of sword strikes, Clive can also equip Eikons that grant him immense elemental superpowers, be it searing fire slashes, ground-pounding earth slams, or deadly area-of-attack lightning blasts. You're able to equip up to three Eikons at a time, each with two ability slots, for a total of six magical powers total in your arsenal. What's great is there are no MP points in this game at all, with all Eikon abilities recharging after a cooldown period.

Combat has a great rhythm to it where your goal is to reduce the enemy's endurance until they reach a staggering point, which leaves them stunned for upwards of five seconds and allows you to dish out ridiculous damage: I'm talking about 20,000+ damage delivered in a blink. Over time you'll learn that some Eikon abilities stagger enemies faster, while other abilities are best to save for when they're stunning to deal eye-popping damage in seconds.

To keep the gameplay fresh, each Eikon you acquire has five abilities, some you'll need to unlock using ability points, and each individual ability can be levelled up twice. Even after more than 40 hours of game time I still had several abilities to unlock and upgrade, so you'll need to be choosey about where to invest your points. FF16 includes a robust New Game+ mode where your abilities, level and gear carry over, and I'm already feeling the itch to start a fresh campaign to unlock all abilities and take on new challenges (such as the more challenging "Final Fantasy" difficulty setting).

Taking a look at the Bestiary, Final Fantasy XVI has a little under 50 common enemies to defeat, which may look like a small number versus previous games, but keep in mind that FF16 combat places its greatest emphasis around two things: slaying legendary beasts from the Hunt Board and, of course, the epic Eikon boss battles. The Hunt Board, which is amusingly controlled by an adorable Moogle, feels straight out of Monster Hunter and has you search the land for ultra-tough legendary enemies that provide huge Gil rewards upon completion. You'll also gain Renown, which is remarkably like the renown in Blizzard's recent Diablo IV, and similarly can be traded in for sweet rewards like new accessories, rare crafting materials, ability points and jukebox tracks to play in your home base.

Let's move on to the Eikon battles which I've purposely saved for last because they're so awesome! These battles are usually highly choreographed, with several cutscenes during the fights that will require you to push buttons for 'cinematic evasions', 'cinematic strikes', 'cinematic clashes' and more. The Eikon fights are certainly in the running for the most cinematic combat moments in gaming history: They are stuffed with flashy sequences that can last seconds or minutes and there will be times I'm sure when you won't believe what you're seeing. These cutscenes are bombastic, explosive and blisteringly fast—you'll see an Eikon cast bone-crushing magic spells, only to be countered by the other Eikon in an even more dramatic fashion. The sheer escalation of these fights is ridiculous.

What's awesome is there's a massive variety in the Eikon fights, too. Some might have you climb a giant, limb-by-limb just like Kratos does in God of War 3. Other fights might be on-rail shooters reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon. And then other battles can be tried-and-true brutal arena battles that'll put your skills and reflexes to the test. I also love how some of these Eikon brawls are multi-stage. You might begin with your opponent semi-priming, in other words, powerful but still human. After a few minutes of beating the tar out of each other, the enemy might turn full-blown Eikon with an entirely new look and skill set. And then sometimes they get even more powerful for a third phase that is just nuts to play with even nuttier cinematics to watch.

When you add all the cool Eikon powers you'll get, the thrilling common enemy battles and Hunt Board legendaries, along with the supremely exhilarating Eikon fights, the end result is gameplay that simply oozes style and grace—and will surely be talked about for decades to come. I fully expect many fans will think FF16's gameplay sets a new high bar for the Final Fantasy series.

Liked: Bonus Content

Final Fantasy XVI is a gigantic adventure that'll take around 40 hours to complete the main campaign. Beyond that, the game offers a plethora of side content that could easily keep you satisfied for another 30 hours or more.

On top of the Hunt Board which I've already discussed, your hideout has an Arete Stone complete with a training arena to hone your skills and a Stage Replay where you can revisit areas you've beaten to clean up any treasures you may have missed or to simply grind for Gil, XP and AP.

Arcade Mode though is the real reason to visit the Arete Stone and here you can replay the Eikon battles—only this time you'll be scored. Points are acquired by attacking the Eikon in style, mixing up your attacks, building huge combos, plus perfect evades and riposte strikes. It's a lot of fun to revisit these set-piece battles, but even better the game features an online leaderboard to see how your best efforts compare to those from around the world.

As if all that wasn't enough side content, the game features dozens of side quests that'll have you meet new characters and get a deeper understanding of how this world operates. Quite a few of these quests are your standard fetch type, defeat a certain enemy type or escort missions, but there are some that have a stronger meaning to them. In some cases, you'll go on side quests where you'll learn just how terrible humans treat the branded, which can be shocking to witness. There are other side quests that offer nice perks, including unlocking your Chocobo mount, increasing the number of potions you can carry or gaining new blacksmith crafting recipes.

All told you're looking at over 70 hours of content including the main campaign and all optional missions and modes. That's before even starting the New Game Plus+ which has a new hard difficulty setting, enemy types change in certain areas, and equipment can be upgraded even higher, among other new additions. FF16 is a colossal game that could certainly keep you busy over the whole summer, and then some.

Didn't Like: Pacing Issues

Let me reiterate that I think the story of Final Fantasy XVI is truly epic, perhaps the best in the series yet. But I still couldn't help but groan sometimes because of the handful of mandatory tedious missions that feel like busy work. You'll go from getting a massive adrenaline rush defeating a powerful Eikon to then having to do a menial task like realizing you've misplaced a pass and spending 20 minutes questioning the townsfolks to see if they've seen it. Or having to spend half an hour on three different fetch quests to get materials someone in your hideout is too lazy to get themselves. Way too many characters ask you to do three things (Go buy these three things! Go talk to these three people!) to progress the adventure. I would have much preferred if some of these missions with either outright cut from the game, or at least moved over to optional side quests.

From a story build-up perspective, a lot of the major developments are backloaded to the final half. This means the game certainly ends on a high note, but it also means you might not feel as much progress in the first half of the game. For instance, you don't even get your Chocobo mount until about 20 hours in and that's just one example of many. Overall, I'm content with how the story unfolded, but I think certain missions could have been streamlined more to sustain better pacing over the entire campaign.

The Verdict

Final Fantasy XVI is the pure definition of a system seller. Once the word gets out about how incredible this game is, I'm sure we'll see PS5 consoles flying off the shelves. I'm totally blown away by the bold, brave new approach this game has taken, which will surely shake up the Final Fantasy formula for years to come. It has some of the best boss fights I've ever seen in gaming, along with a bonkers story that left my mouth open in disbelief. It is truly an epic experience that every role-playing fan deserves to experience for themselves.

Final Score: 9.5/10 - Amazing

Final Fantasy XVI details

Platform: PS5
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action Role-Playing
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

A key was provided by the publisher.