It has been 7 years since the last mainline entry in the Final Fantasy franchise. An award-winning MMO, spin-offs that vary in quality, ports, re-releases, and remakes are all that have been keeping fans at bay until the next big one. From a star-studded key development dream team, Final Fantasy 16 is finally here and it’s shaping up to be yet another magnum opus for the franchise.
There’s a reason why Final Fantasy is one of the longest-running video game franchises in history and it’s mostly because development teams are given unprecedented amounts of freedom to place their own spin with each new release. This is an IP that has shifted from one genre to another while creating some of the most iconic characters and storylines in media. Since for the most part, each mainline release doesn’t concern itself with connecting to what came before, nearly every Final Fantasy game feels like its own universe for anyone to lose themselves in.
Final Fantasy 16 brings with it a series of bold changes that set it apart from the established norms and conventions of its predecessors. As with any significant departure from tradition, I anticipate this new direction to spark a divide among fans, with some embracing the fresh approach while others, the purists, expressing reservations. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy 16’s arrival marks a pivotal moment in the franchise’s evolution, inviting both excitement and debate as players delve into a distinct, and perhaps polarizing, Final Fantasy experience. Don’t worry, though! Chocobos are still here.
Back to the Fantasy
I’ve always felt a slight disconnect when it comes to more modern or sci-fi worlds of certain Final Fantasy games. While they’re all still excellent on their own merits, I’ve always preferred the more dark fantasy settings of the franchise. Luckily, Final Fantasy 16 does exactly that. And this ain’t just another medieval fantasy story. The narrative of Final Fantasy 16 is dark, mature, and filled with intrigue that will grip you with a strong desire to find answers at every turn.
Don’t worry, I won’t be talking about any major story points here. In fact, I’ll barely mention the narrative altogether. The story of Final Fantasy 16 is best experienced when you know nothing about it going in. I’d go as far as to say that even the trailers themselves have given away too much. The game’s narrative strongly benefits from the mystery of it all—making the journey all the more interesting and suspenseful. We already know how well most Final Fantasy games set up characters and scenarios that will stick with fans long after the credits roll. Final Fantasy 16 is no exception to that.
For the first time in the franchise, Final Fantasy 16 lets you directly control only 1 character, Clive Rosfield. There are party members that will join you in your adventures but you won’t be able to switch to any of them like you normally would in other titles. This places an enormous amount of pressure on Clive to be interesting from both a narrative and gameplay perspective.
The story spans multiple decades of Clive’s life. You’ll be able to see him as a teenager, as a 28-year-old, and then long into his 30s. If you’ve played the excellent demo Square Enix released, you’ll know that a key traumatic event happens that turns Clive’s world upside down. What initially starts as a mere revenge story, turns into a tale of the effects of war, racism, politics, and everything in between for the people. It even has sprinkles of environmental awareness in there. While these are all tricky elements to play around with, Final Fantasy 16 navigates each of them with a sense of care, gravity, and the quality of emotionally resonant storytelling that the franchise has always been great at.
Clive becomes more than just another brooding edge lord that sulks his way from point A to B. You will clearly see why he becomes the way he is and his progression as a character. What makes it all the more interesting are the different personalities Clive will meet in his travels. Cidolfus Telamon deserves a strong mention as he is a scene stealer every time he is present. He becomes an entertaining foil to Clive with his quips, charisma, and confidence that you just can’t get enough of. However, Jill Warrick does take some time to really settle in. It doesn’t help that she is mostly soft-spoken and is a passive character. But, She still becomes someone you eventually grow to care for. We of course can’t forget about the goodest boy of them all, Torgal. Yes, you can most definitely pet him. That’s really all there is to say really. He’s adorable and protective, and you’ll love him the second you see him.
All this and more are elevated by the near-flawless performance given by the actors to bring Final Fantasy 16’s characters to life. Everything from major key characters to as minor as some of the NPCs sound excellent in their tone and emotion. You feel the sadness, happiness, wonder, fear, pain, and everything else with each line spoken. Seriously, this is an extremely well-acted story from top to bottom.
What pulled me into the world further is a feature that they call an Active Time Lore system. This allows me to pause a cutscene at any moment, press the touchpad, and certain characters, places, and terms that are relevant at the time will be shown and explained. This is a feature that should be an industry standard moving forward. Given how every Final Fantasy is vastly different with every release, this was a fantastic way to really immerse me in this brand-new universe.
The writing in Final Fantasy 16 deserves a lot of praise given how much it has to juggle in terms of story, characterization, and some really heavy stuff. The game is not afraid to go to places you wouldn’t expect a franchise like this to go to. And sometimes, you’ll even find the most harrowing of it all in the various side missions that are carefully spread out in each area and story moment. The game drip-feeds you its content in a way that feels purposeful and well-thought-out. This makes playing through it all more worthwhile than an overwhelming endeavor that so many other AAA games have fallen into.
There’s some magic involved here
I have to mention how impressive Final Fantasy 16 is on a technical level. Despite the gargantuan size of this game, there is virtually no loading screen to be found. None. At. All. There are some fade to blacks here and there but they only really take like 5 seconds at most. It takes me approximately 10 seconds to open up the game from the PSN home page and load it into a playable state. 10. Seconds. My jaw was on the floor when I realized this. This game is a wizard when it comes to utilizing the power of the PS5.
And it’s probably redundant to say this about a game in this franchise but Final Fantasy 16 is drop-dead gorgeous at times. The design of its varied locations are equally excellent in dark and vibrant tones. This is also complemented by a fantastic lighting system that really shines its best when characters are using their different abilities. More on that later. The visuals of this game are just something I lose myself in. I spent hours in the photo mode just admiring all of it.
Character models are excellent as usual except for the NPCs themselves who look a bit too generic. This was probably done as a conscious effort to make sure key characters stand out but at times, they end up looking out of place rather than being a natural part of the world. Jill in particular would look a bit stiff at times in terms of her facial expressions. Everyone else, however, looks great, including the enemy designs.
In terms of performance, I tried both framerate and graphics options just to see how different it is and I was surprised and a little disappointed to find out that there isn’t much. The graphics mode that locks everything to 30 fps still feels smooth enough even in the heat of combat. Performance mode tries its best to go for higher frames but ultimately fails. Oddly enough, I notice this more in the quiet moments when not much is happening. A town called Lostwing is one of the earliest offenders of this. Just running around the place (which isn’t all that populated really) chugs down the performance by a noticeable margin. However, Final Fantasy 16 still feels fantastic in motion. It never felt like a PowerPoint presentation. A day-one patch has been released and I was able to try it out for a bit before writing this review. It does patch up the performance mode to make it a tad bit better but it still doesn’t consistently hit 60 fps.
A mostly refined experience
You progress the story by constantly visiting a world map that allows you to fast travel between key locations. Here lies one of my personal issues with Final Fantasy 16. Having to go back and forth with this interface removes any sense of cohesion and immersion in the story. I understand that it might seem like a hidden loading screen but I’d honestly rather have that than watch a cutscene, go to the map, select a location (that’s at times, only 1 choice), and watch another cutscene. It really takes me away from the experience. I can see this catering to those who want to clean up a side mission that they missed or trying to purchase/ craft something somewhere else but when the previous cutscene clearly established that the characters don’t have the luxury of time, then it’s just weird to give the player a choice to go off a different path.
Final Fantasy 16 is a mostly linear game that has areas opening up for a bit of exploration. You won’t find Elden Ring or Tears of the Kingdom levels of quality area design here. It’s mostly just extra enemies to fight for more XP and loot to find for crafting. That’s really about it. And that’s okay because this is not the type of game that really needs a large open space and a cluttered world to do nothing but distract the player from the engaging story it’s trying to tell. Final Fantasy 16 knows its strengths and doubles down on it while leaving unnecessary game design conventions somewhere else.
Its linearity in both its gameplay and story progression is at its worst during the first act. A lot of the core systems are tucked away until you’ve reached the second act. And if you’re anything like me, then you’re gonna take hours until you get there. However, this is not exactly a bad thing because everything that is initially presented to the player does more than enough to hook you into staying with it for hours on end.
A lot of the side missions are just the usual chores you’d expect but what adds value to them are the characters and story tidbits that really add a significant foundation to the world-building in Final Fantasy 16. There are some quests here that really stuck with me even to this day. A father and son involving a wolf, an apple tree, and a little girl looking for her pet are just a few of the things to look out for here. Such simple initial setups which then turn into thought-provoking and emotional rides that affected me in ways I never expected. A lot of these can easily be done in a few minutes and so I urge you to try them all out whenever you encounter them because you will be rewarded in more unique ways than one. What it lacks in systematic design makes up for it with narrative value.
Fight with your demons
Final Fantasy 16 has an active combat system. As mentioned, Clive is the only character you can directly control. Some fans may take issue with this especially given how well-received Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s hybrid system was. However, the main combat designer for Final Fantasy 16 was the man who was behind excellent titles like Dragon’s Dogma and Devil May Cry 5, some of the best the action genre has to offer. Some might argue that a fully active combat system has no place in a Final Fantasy game, but I’m here to say that it most definitely has.
Clive strikes fast, hard, and incredibly satisfying. Fantastic combat animations and bombastic sound design have all come together to create one of the flashiest systems I’ve ever played with. Switching between melee and magic combos feels nice and powerful. My screen is constantly filled with visually impressive effects. You can command Torgal to engage an enemy or heal you but this barely does anything significant so you’re better off using a potion or attacking the enemy yourself.
As your progress through the story, Clive will receive more tricks up his sleeve. It would be a spoiler if I said what they are or how he gets them but just know that it does take a bit of time till your arsenal grows. You’ll mostly have to deal with purchasing better swords or crafting new ones altogether to make your attack power numbers go up.
I will admit that the combat here is a bit too simplified. As you level up, you’ll be purchasing new abilities from a skill tree that isn’t all that generous in terms of diversity. This was a massive step down given that I just came from the extensive progression systems of Diablo 4. You only really need to do the same combo, dodge, and wait for your abilities to recharge to do it all again to dominate the battlefield here. It’s also not challenging at all. I’ve only really died less than 10 times in my playthrough.
Final Fantasy 16 doesn’t have difficulty options. It instead lets you choose between Story Focus Mode or Action Focus Mode. The only difference is that Story Focus Mode immediately equips Clive with a number of accessories that basically play the game for him. Automatically execute special abilities, slow down each time an enemy is about to hit for you to perform a perfect dodge, automatically use healing potions when your health drops a certain level, etc. It is way too easy for an experience that is already barely a challenge. I don’t recommend using any of these items at all.
Eikon fights are definitely a stunner to behold but they are the worst offender of combat simplicity. It’s really just two giant titans slapping each other until a health bar drops to zero. They are cool to look at but ultimately boring to play with.
What Final Fantasy 16 really focuses on is the visual feel of the combat. This is especially proven true by the different cinematic systems that will pop up every now and then in major key battles. These are essentially quick-time events that you trigger to attack or evade in a cutscene. Again, they look extremely cool but it also emphasizes a key issue of how Final Fantasy 16’s combat lacks a more active system for the player to experiment with.
Final Verdict – 8.5/10
Leading up to Final Fantasy 16’s release, there’s been a loud discourse as to whether or not this really is a Final Fantasy game given the amount of streamlining that was done with a lot of its key gameplay systems. While I do agree with some of the sentiment that it does dumb down the complexity of it all, it got me thinking as to what really defines a Final Fantasy game.
For others, it can be about the grind to level up and overcome a challenge. Taking care and managing your own party and making sure each one does their job well. It’s in the in-depth and extensive systems that players lose themselves in and what really attracted them to the franchise in the first place. If that’s the case for you, then Final Fantasy 16 might be a disappointing experience.
However, for me, Final Fantasy is all about the narrative experience. Witnessing characters grow into something they never thought they could be. Going through a story that’s well written, filled with lessons and thought-provoking elements, and leaving a lasting impression that has me thinking about what I just went through. It’s falling in love with the fictional world that was created and despising the villains that seek to break it all apart. It’s also smiling when I see returning elements I’ve come to adore such as Chocobos, seeing a modern-day version of Ifrit, hearing iconic Final Fantasy tunes being played, etc. If these are your reasons to play a Final Fantasy game, then Final Fantasy 16 is an easy pickup.
This is one of the most polished AAA releases we have in recent memory. I encountered no major bugs, major performance issues, or even visual pop-ins. Final Fantasy 16 feels like a game that was made the way the creators intended it to be with the utmost care. There are no compromises made here for artificial extensions or hidden profit-making agendas. Final Fantasy 16 is a complete experience from start to finish and it is one that I’d say is worth taking.
This review was made via a PS5 game code provided by the publisher.