‘Final Fantasy XVI’ Aims to Thrive Where ‘Game of Thrones’ Failed
It’s been a long time since I truly loved a Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy XII, which came out in 2006, was a somewhat forgettable distraction that mostly left me longing for another Vagrant Story. Unfairly maligned Final Fantasy XIII (2009) had a little je ne sais quoi but didn’t fully hit the mark. My aversion to Tetsuya Nomura’s nonsensical storytelling in Kingdom Hearts pushed me to skip Final Fantasy XV entirely. Even the 1990s nostalgia-baiting Final Fantasy VII Remake dared to amaze, right up until it didn’t.
A commonality between these games is the varying ways in which they tried to modernize their RPG elements with action flavoring. Whether it’s MMO-like automation or hybridized real-time combat with faintly turn-based time dilation, each entry felt like they were slipping further into “action” and farther from “RPG.” That’s not inherently a bad thing, especially when Square Enix’s own faux retro renaissance is scratching an itch for old heads like me. And as much as I love action games, I’ve wondered if it’s the right direction for Final Fantasy to go down.
Then I played Final Fantasy XVI and all the bullshit I just said went right out the window.
Rolling Stone recently had a chance to go hands-on with a near-final build of the game at a New York City press event, what was shown was equal parts heart-pounding and confounding. In a good way.
Mandatory disclaimer on the version previewed: “This is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.”
Developed by Square Enix’s dryly named Creative Business Unit III, under the eye of producer Naoki Yoshida and, perhaps more importantly, combat director Ryota Suzuki, Final Fantasy XVI is a major departure from the series in that it’s essentially an action game first and RPG second. Way second. But more on that in a bit.
At the event, members of the press were allowed to play three main sections including the game’s introduction surrounding protagonist’s Clive Rosfield’s youth, a jump forward to his twenties, as well a totally separate quasi-free roam portion of the game from down the line. Ultimately, it was the first four hours or so of the game straight through, providing a taste of the world and story to come which, based on this sampling, are going to be massive. Massive like, “the title screen doesn’t appear until two hours in” massive.
Teased for years, most recently with a preview in February, much has been made about the game’s return to a full-on medieval setting. Harkening back to the series’ early years (namely entries I – VI), it’s a welcome return to a grounded fantasy setting with nary a pseudo-sci-fi concept in sight. There are castles, dukes, armored knights, and giant chickens (err… chocobos). It feels like the franchise is slipping back into a comfortable space, but not too comfortable given the elephant in the room.
It’s Game of Thrones. Not “like” Game of Thrones, it is Game of Thrones.
At first, that might sound like a lazy catch-all for any modern fantasy content showered in red mist and persistent “fucks” but it isn’t. Both visually and tonally, the developers have been very open about their western influences — it’s literally their first game to be developed with both Japanese and English translation in tandem — but the fact of the matter is that it borrows so heavily from George R.R. Martin’s world and narrative that, at least in its opening hours, you wouldn’t be pressed for expecting Daenerys to appear growling, “Dracarys.” Except again, it’d be a giant chicken instead of a dragon breathing fire.
To respect both the embargo and gameplay experience, I’ll remain vague on the details, but within the opening hours, there are a myriad direct narrative parallels to both Game of Thrones’ first season and the entire narrative writ large.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a shaggy-haired, brooding loner from a privileged family of regional royalty, loved by his father, despised by his mother, must toe the line between sworn duty and the thirst for vengeance against the people who betrayed his family. His true nature is a secret to him that could change the realm as it’s known. He’s also got a giant, wolf-like hound.
Now it might sound like this is a criticism — it isn’t. I fucking love this. With the 4-plus hours I got to spend with these characters and world, I can safely say that this is the most I enjoyed a Final Fantasy since the 1990s.
And to be completely fair, there are plenty of ways in which Clive is different from “Shmon Shmow,” and frankly, a better character. As the “Shield of Rosaria,” he’s tasked at a young age with safeguarding his brother Joshua, one of the “Dominants” of the realm, who are chosen by fate to be the living avatar for the Eikons — kaiju-sized elemental creatures of divinity. Although he can harness the power of the Eikons in smaller ways, he was passed over as the Dominant, making him the lesser sibling despite being worshipped by his younger brother.
What could make for a rote sob story is elevated by Clive’s inherent likability. He’s got friends — well, a friend — in the form of a plucky young girl named Jill, and his adorable pup Torgal. Both of these companions make the transition from the early days to Clive’s adulthood and, despite a series of tragic circumstances, so does his sense of personality. There’s some brooding, but overall Clive behaves like a human being and is capable of making friends along the way without succumbing to (too many) obvious tropes around tortured heroes with snarky attitudes — at least in the introductory hours.
If the story continues to walk the tightrope — and to stick the landing — throughout what’s sure to be its lengthy campaign, Clive could fare better than most Final Fantasy protagonists. Not quite a babygirl (see: Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud; Final Fantasy VIII’s Squall) and far from a jokey trickster (Final Fantasy IX’s Zidane; Final Fantasy X’s Tidus), he occupies a space of being just mature enough to fit the game’s dark tone without being a total downer.
But while its lead is relatively well-defined, much of the greater world is difficult to follow. Bringing back Game of Thrones as a reference point, the show was famously tough for many viewers to follow, especially if they watched season to season, without a constant primer to differentiate Bran from Bronn from Brienne. Similarly, in the game, the sheer velocity at which information is thrown at players in the opening hours is downright exhausting. I spent a good portion of every cut scene furiously jotting down notes on the major players and their allegiances, many of whom were frankly lost to time before I had the good sense to turn on the subtitles specifically with speaker names.
Seemingly aware of how this can ruin the experience, the developers included a feature referred to as “Active Time Lore” — it appears about two hours into the game — which is ostensibly the X-Ray functionality from Amazon Prime Video, that breaks down every person, location, and the story context of any given conversation you’re having and the touch of a button. It is a godsend. Truly, it’s a feature so brilliant, yet astounding in its simplicity, that it should immediately be implemented in every game of this size moving forward. Industry standard.
Maybe it was the setting, playing the game against a ticking clock for the demonstration, but I found myself constantly distracted and losing track of the characters I was speaking to and their motivations, so having this feature functions as a cognitive accessibility feature that cannot be overlooked. It makes understanding the inner workings of Valisthea infinitely more enjoyable.
And allusions to other media aside, there’s much to be said for how hard Square Enix is working to still make this world identifiably Final Fantasy. From the aforementioned chocobos in the place of horses to the personification of the Eikons as franchise favorite summon characters like Ifrit, Shiva, and Ramuh, everything here does indeed feel authentic to the series’ DNA.
Even down to the game’s visual identity and UI, little love letters to the series roots can be seen peppered throughout. In the pause menu, the players party are represented by pixelated sprites pulled directly from the 16-bit era rather than glossy character sheets or key art most modern games would have. Weapons, equipment, and monsters in the bestiary are shown as fine illustrations reminiscent of games like Final Fantasy Tactics, with every blade and bangle lovingly rendered in ways only user manuals once did.
(Ed note: User manuals were little paper booklets inserted in game boxes that… never mind)
Even the overworld has this artful tact. Laid out as visually arresting maps brimming with detail, the overworld map functions as a simple point and click between locales and once again evokes the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, with three dimensionality and a living model vibe akin to that of a well-known show open (sorry!).
The world map is important to note, because despite taking narrative and tonal inspiration from western media, the developers opted not to lean into western RPGs’ love of open world frameworks. Based on the first four hours, but essentially confirmed by the developers and representatives on site, the game primarily follows linear progression through carefully curated spaces with occasional pit stops in more open environments.
We had access to one such open environment for roughly 30 minutes and it played as expected. Framed as a bridge between important locales, it served as a small playground to approach and battle enemies, farm XP and items, and snoop out treasure chest in little dead-end cul-de-sacs before moving on. We were prohibited from activating any primary or side quests in the region, so it’s hard to say whether they transcend the specific area or amount to simple fetch quests and enemy culling per the genre’s norm.
What is known is that areas are replayable in an Arcade mode, which is fitting given that the game’s greatest inspiration are high octane action games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. While predecessor Final Fantasy XV allowed players to get down and dirty in combat and throw enemies into the air for juggling à la Kingdom Hearts, combat director Ryota Suzuki’s pedigree in the action space is on display here.
Combat encounters are blisteringly placed and heavily dependent on precision timing for dodges, parries, and delivering maximum carnage through a complex recipe of basic attacks, magic, and multiple Eikon abilities and feats. At times, it can be totally overwhelming, with multiple sets of multiple attacks to remember to utilize to inflict the damage efficiently enough to stagger enemies. I wouldn’t call battles grueling, but over the course of multiple mini-boss and actual boss battles, there was a legitimate sense of fatigue, especially if you’re repeatedly losing a particularly tough fight.
There are some accessibility options available to mitigate in the form of accessories that extend response time windows or slow down the pace, and the full game be played in Story Mode, but in the end, it’s either your kind of game or it isn’t, and that’s okay.
Unlike classic Final Fantasy games, or even the recent Final Fantasy VII Remake, there’s practically no control over AI party members, either by taking direct control or assigning commands. Instead, players solely control Clive in the field, but can (thankfully) deliver commands to the goodest boy, Torgal.
Yes, you can 100 percent live out your “Shmon Shmow” fantasies, envisioning a world where canine friends aren’t introduced as an integral plot element only to be thrown in the garbage entirely with absolutely no bearing on the proceedings thereafter.
Of course, there are skill trees within skill trees to progress through for players to learn new skills in basic combat and Eikon abilities. Each tied to an individual Eikon and their element, abilities can also be individually leveled up in ways that resemble old Final Fantasy magics and numerically leveled spells.
The combat is exciting, and the progression systems are satisfying. Overall, once you accept that this is a full-on action brawler with stats and less of an RPG — even by modern design — the sooner you’ll move onto enjoying the great things it has to offer.
Given that it’s centered around high-octane combat, it’s a shame that the game often fails to deliver the horsepower needed to fluidly bring the fantasy to life. Sure, the cut scenes are beautifully rendered, and the environments can be stunning when stopping to admire the details, but all-in-all, this is not the best looking or performing game on current gen consoles.
A far cry from the brilliantly detailed and steadily optimized heavy hitters of today like Sony’s first-party masterpieces The Last of Us Part I or Horizon: Forbidden West, many areas and character models are painted with muddy textures and frizzy edges. Although there’s tons of modern bells and whistles like dazzling particle effects from magical attacks, the game often chugs with an inherent jank when combat gets too hot and heavy or worse yet, simply navigating densely packed areas like leafy forests.
Per the norm, there’s both Performance and Quality modes to toggle, the former reportedly delivering 60 FPS, although you could’ve fooled me. I spent a good portion of time toggling between the two over the course of the demo to see if there were any noticeable improvements and for the life of me, I could not tell the difference. There’s a persistent motion blur that exasperates the lower frame rate (presumably on Quality Mode), but it felt present in Performance Mode as well. At times, the blur, combined with the jagged edges of the character models left me with motion sickness, which is a feeling I’ve never experienced — even in VR.
Perhaps the difference between the modes will become clearer with more hands-on time of the release version, or maybe the game will get some extra polish via patches, but as it stands now it’s wholly playable and immensely enjoyable, but sad to see a game that feels this important lagging behind the curve.
Things do look better during Eikon encounters — which are ultimately heavily scripted kaiju battles wherein players take control of the elemental beasts for story-driven climactic sequences that each have their own specific mechanical twist. In the February preview, the press was allowed to play as the fire Eikon Ifrit in a knockdown fistfight with the wind Eikon, Garuda. A thrilling sequence that’s frequently visually overwhelming, these sections amount to some small taste of the magnificent power of the monsters and, while they don’t provide the same level of control as the main combat, do well enough to provide mostly on-rails rollercoaster thrills without wresting control away from the player entirely.
The game itself opens with a different Eikon battle, between the player-controlled firebrand Phoenix in hot pursuit (pun intended) of Ifrit. The sequence plays out like an arcade shooter and feels wildly different from just about everything else in the game. It’ll be interesting to see what other Eikons become playable and how the showdowns between colossi diversify.
Despite raising an eyebrow at some visual follies and endlessly twisting the knife for the similarities to other media, I walked away from the demo with elation. Heart pounding from a fire monster beatdown and a notepad filled with names and locations to commit to memory, I was fully invested in what Final Fantasy XVI had to offer.
If the full game can deliver on what the opening hours tee up, it could be the best Final Fantasy game in over two decades. At the very least, it will still likely end better than Game of Thrones.
Final Fantasy XVI launches on June 22 for PlayStation 5.