Disclaimer: This is a special version of Final Fantasy XVI made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.
Earlier this month I was among a few members of the press who were able to get a lengthy hands-on with Final Fantasy 16 ahead of its release this June. In our demo, which focused on combat, we were able to play through one of the game’s dungeons and its climactic boss battle, as well as one of Final Fantasy 16’s much-touted Eikon fights, where you pit iconic summons from the series against one another in cinematic showdowns. Complemented by the broadly darker tone and overt shift to action, it’s quite apparent that Final Fantasy 16’s a mostly different beast. Rather than giving me pause though, I’m relishing the different direction and renewed vigor of this installment, especially in light of a string of releases that have suggested maybe the series was too tired to still innovate.
Final Fantasy 16 takes place in the land of Valisthea, a deeply complicated and tumultuous setting clearly inspired by Game of Thrones. Valisthea is composed of various nations across two continents, ominously called Ash and Storm, each with their own cultures, governments, and interests, which naturally collide. Each nation also has a mothercrystal, which the developers likened to “oil fields,” and a Dominant, essentially an avatar or host for one of Final Fantasy’s god-like summons known as Eikons. If you’ve played any number of these titles, you’re familiar with plenty of them, from Bahamut to Shiva to Titan. These Dominants become state-sanctioned weapons of mass destruction and the mothercrystals become points of tension as the nations soon come to war over them. Clive embarks on his decades-long journey for revenge after the untimely death of his younger brother Joshua, who becomes the Dominant for their nation, the Duchy of Rosaria.
If it wasn’t obvious already, Final Fantasy 16 skews almost heretically grim and dark for the series. Not that Final Fantasy hasn’t explored similar topics and themes—hell, my favorite one of these games is explicitly concerned with state violence—but Final Fantasy 16 makes a point of its darkness and complexities. Characters say “fuck” and “shit” more liberally than ever before, and though violence has never been a stranger to the series, it’s grown a touch more explicit in this game. While you will occasionally be joined by allies, Final Fantasy 16 is mostly Clive’s quest for revenge, though his motives begin to broaden as allies open his eyes to the perils and struggles the rest of the realm is facing.
Our demo took place as Clive and this game’s incarnation of Cid, a freedom fighter of sorts and the Dominant of Ramuh, infiltrate a castle in search of someone who has been taken captive. As I fought my way through the dungeon, I got a firsthand taste for Final Fantasy 16’s now entirely action-driven combat, which has been headed up by Ryota Suzuki, the lead combat designer on Devil May Cry 5. The result is a system that inarguably feels quicker than anything Final Fantasy has ever realized before, and certainly feels more put together than Final Fantasy 15, which was already leaning in this direction. Comparisons to The Witcher 3’s combat are not unfounded, though I found Final Fantasy 16’s combat significantly more involved and dynamic. Dodges and parries are now paramount to surviving fights, which now also feature enemies telegraphing moves via ground indicators a la Final Fantasy 14. For the purposes of the demo, my Clive, who can absorb the essences of other Eikons into himself, was fitted with the elemental powers of three different summons: fire for Phoenix, aero for Garuda, and earth for Titan. All three were swappable at the press of a button, and would grant me new abilities mapped to the face buttons and the right trigger. The circle button ability was always usable just as is, but the square and triangle abilities—which are normally your attack and projectile—became Eikonic abilities when holding R2, such as a flaming uppercut with Phoenix equipped or a flurry of earthen fists with Titan.
You can definitely get away with specializing in just one, but the best bits of my time with Final Fantasy 16 were when I was figuring out how to juggle the three most effectively. Often, I’d begin fights with Phoenix, which gave me a dash that was handy for picking off far away targets, before swapping to Garuda, whose attacks often prioritized speed, including a flurry that juggled foes in the air. Once they were staggered, which happens once you deal enough damage without killing them, I’d often pull out Titan, whose moves needed to be charged before hitting with devastating and sweeping force. Suffice to say, the styles felt distinct, and with more Eikons to come throughout the game, not to mention unlockable skills that I barely touched the surface of, there’s going to be a significant amount of tactical depth to which eikons players take into battle.
To simplify what has understandably become a complicated combat system for fans more familiar with turn-based games, as well as to provide accessibility options for the larger audience, Final Fantasy 16 also boasts what the team are calling timely accessories. Rather than having difficulty settings, these accessories, which are equipable at any time, modify the experience based on what players might need. For example, for the purposes of my demo, I began with one equipped that paused the action when an incoming attack was about to hit me and prompted me to dodge at the last second. Though this became a distraction that interrupted me and actually caused me to take more hits, the goal is for players to pick and choose what works best to fill in their gaps. Another simplifies combos and commands for Torgal in battle, and one will automatically use your potions to heal you when your HP has gotten substantially low, which funnily enough bit me in the ass as I was taking on the series of boss fights towards the end of the level.
The dungeon culminated in two boss fights, one against a pair of demons that appeared to be siblings of Garuda and a final climactic fight against Benedikta, the Dominant of Garuda herself. Though neither fight was all that special, they were great displays of how satisfying the combat feels when you’re forced to put it all together. Darting around the arena while Suparna and Chirada telegraphed attacks that consumed the field didn’t feel unlike the dances players often find themselves doing in Final Fantasy 14’s finest boss encounters. Both fights also showed off Final Fantasy 16’s new emphasis on cinematic action, where the actual encounter segues into dramatic cutscenes occasionally punctuated by simple quick-time prompts. The screen will flash any one of three different colors—red, blue, or orange—to indicate whether players should dodge, attack, or get ready to lightly mash a button, respectively. In return, Clive pulls off obviously impressive flourishes that sell the fantasy that this grim protagonist is a really cool dude.
These cinematic touches were in full force in the final stretch of the demo, the Eikonic battle between Ifrit, who has found an unwitting host in Clive, and Garuda. Beginning as a battle between Clive and Garuda, this segment of the fight is more straightforward as you wail away at a giant enemy in the eye of a storm. Before long, Clive seemingly fells Garuda, hacking off her talons and gouging out her eye, sending her plummeting off the cliff. Unsurprisingly, she returns and as the threat becomes all too real, Ifrit erupts from within Clive and you take on a titanic showdown as the summons lay waste to each other and the surrounding environments. The controls here were simpler than ever since Ifrit really only had a melee, dodge, projectile and a lunging attack. The fight was far less tactical than it was chunky, emphasizing the destructive force of these two deities as they exchanged blasts, summoned the elements and ripped limbs off of one another. The whole fight was mostly on rails, leaving me little to do but kind of behold the spectacle of it. While undoubtedly impressive to look at, I hoped there’d be a bit more to it, though the team has promised in the past that the Eikonic battles are pretty mechanically distinct from one another, so here’s hoping there’s more mechanical depth to those as the game progresses.
Your mileage of Final Fantasy 16 will vary. Admittedly, what I’ve described sounds like a far cry from the series foundations. Yes, they’ve explored dark themes, but there’s almost always been a levity that this demo lacked. The traditional party of a Final Fantasy game has more or less been eroded, and at this point in time, I just don’t know how often Clive will be accompanied by others, though trailers have shown him alongside Cid and a character named Jill. Even then, you certainly can’t control them, as the game’s singular focus, at least to begin with, is Clive. And though he is a great deal of fun to control, thanks to a heavily reworked approach to combat, it obviously comes at a cost. Final Fantasy 16 is undoubtedly the biggest step in a new direction for this series, which has stumbled on its way to this moment, but this game at least feels more confident in that stride than countless of its predecessors. Considering how assuredly it’s planted that step, I’m willing to follow Final Fantasy 16 down that path and see if the gambit pays off.
Disclaimer: This is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.
FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.