Review: Final Fantasy XVI
Developer: Square Enix Creative Business Unit III
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: PlayStation 5
It is done. Forty hours later, my epic battle for survival in the Final Fantasy XVI world of Valisthea is at an end and a most satisfactory conclusion.
Stack Up received a code for review for Final Fantasy XVI the evening before the release of the game, so as excited as I was to receive it, the “I-have-to-get-this-review-done-in- a-timely-fashion” went right out the window, and it became an “I’ll-get-around-to-it-when-I-can” priority. Hence Stack Up’s Final Fantasy XVI review came out a month after its release. And I could have played 10 hours and called it a day. I got the general idea of what this version of Final Fantasy is in the realm of other Final Fantasies are. But I also have a terrible track record with this decade's releases of Final Fantasy games: I never touched the Final Fantasy XIII series, I got 100 hours into Final Fantasy XIV’s “Main Story Quest” line before finally giving up (but enjoying the story behind it), and playing about 10 hours of Final Fantasy XV before something else shiny got in the way.
Final Fantasy XVI was different. It was immediate from the press event that we went to here in Los Angeles that the game was borrowing liberally from the Game of Thrones series with its political intrigue and countries going to war over pettiness and elitism had me interested. There’s never been a “Rated ‘M’ for Mature” Final Fantasy game before, so it all came together in a tornado of my being violently interested in a Final Fantasy game for the first time since…well, ever.
The opening story, which has been included in trailers, should be fairly easy to understand: main character, Clive and his little brother Joshua are members of the Rosfield royal family. Living in the Duchy of Rosaria in the north…west (like the Starks from Game of Thrones, anyone?) of Valisthea, their father, Archduke Elwin Rosfield, is a kind and benevolent rule…because, of course, he is. They believe in allowing magical-touched human beings, known as bearers, to live peacefully among regular non-magic humans. However, during an ascension ceremony for the Duchy to go to war with their aggressive neighbors, the Iron Kingdom (which looks strikingly like Game of Thrones “Iron Islands”), their family is betrayed, and Clive finds himself exiled. Final Fantasy XVI picks up 13 years after the Rosfield’s family betrayal, which led to the fall of the Duchy, and Clive embarks on a quest of vengeance to determine who killed his family.
I am leaving approximately two boatloads of details out of this extremely barebones explanation, but without spoiling anything or getting into pages of details in the story, the story in Final Fantasy XVI definitely goes places. The good news is that, unlike most Japanese roleplaying games that require you to keep a pen and paper by your console to keep track of who is who and what is where Final Fantasy XVI blessedly does all that for you in an innovative and game-changing new concept called “Active Time Lore.” During any cutscene you’re watching, at any time, you simply push the middle button on your PS5 controller, and it brings up most of the proper nouns and gives you a chance to review who the main characters are and the concepts they are talking about. The number of times I had to go in and check on who/what someone was talking about using this was numerous, but it wasn’t for my lack of trying to keep up with what was going on. I never skip cutscenes, and I pride myself on keeping up with the storyline of most games I play. There is just a lot going on in this Game-of-Thrones-esque game. But have no fear, even if your questionable concept isn’t listed in Active Time Lore, you have not one, but two different historians in your hideout that each have expansive menus exhaustively explaining every nook and cranny of Valisthea, from historical battles that are briefly mentioned to the pantheon of insignificant non-player characters you meet along the way. Final Fantasy XVI knows it is hitting you with a firehose of information, and they make sure they give you every opportunity to delve into the rich history and knowledge base of Valisthea. Big kudos from the lore guy here.
While I am going to congratulate them on the story they told, Final Fantasy XVI suffers terribly from “Far Cry 3 Syndrome”, where they introduce you to an incredibly charismatic bad guy very early, who you end up dispatching halfway through the game in what feels like a 20-minute epic boss fight…and then you’re left with a series of nearly mute “real” boss and situation you are forced to care about. The pacing of the story leaves a lot to be desired, as you do battle with a living god, and then after defeating them, you spend the next 2-3 hours literally running errands for one of your hideout mates to build a new kind of sailing vessel…and the game clunks along for another 20 hours.
Final Fantasy XVI takes a hard left turn from the “active time battles” of old, turn-based strategy be damned. No clicking on an “attack/defend/item/run” menu; Final Fantasy XVI is a full-on action game. Having consulted with Platinum Games, the studio behind action heroine beat-em-up Bayonetta, Final Fantasy XVI feels more like you’re playing Devil May Cry, complete with ridiculous mid-air juggle combos. It's definitely more my taste in gameplay; you feel more involved with the combat as it’s impossible not to, but this also doesn’t feel like much of a Final Fantasy game at that point. I’ve heard the Final Fantasy VII remake gets a little closer to what we see here regarding action-style combat, but this feels like quite the departure that I’m sure many actual Final Fantasy fans might be a little miffed about.
Oh, and while the open world and active combat of the game are a nice breath of fresh air for me, there seems to be very little need to do anything outside of the main storyline. The world is rife with side quests to keep you preoccupied, but the loot you get in the game gets whittled into three different types: gear you can equip, things you can sell for cash, and then crafting materials. However, every area in Final Fantasy XVI seems to go the same way: go to the store and buy the brand new sword upgrade for Clive, go next door, and use the boss upgrade material to upgrade the sword or armor once, then go about your business. As extensive as the crafting system might be, it doesn’t exactly appear necessary, as the dangers of Valisthea scale around you. Gone are the days of going into an area and being under-leveled. At no point in the game was I over or underpowered for the area I was going into, and that is a damn shame. I was really hoping for a reason to do some of the myriad side quests out there. Even dying during a combat scenario, there is no penalty. As a matter of fact, they allow you to come back and give you a pile of health potions to boot. No fight really pushed me to my limits or forced me to worry about my level; the game could definitely use a difficulty slider apart from the “casual/I just want to see the story” and “I’m familiar with video games” settings it gives you to start with.
Another good use of the side quests and money in the game could have gone into being able to “respec” your character. Another flaw with Final Fantasy XVI is that Clive gets an absolute plethora of powers along his journey, and while it gives you the ability to refund your purchased skills and spells, it is not a 1-for-1 transition, unfortunately. Which means of the six main talent trees that Clive gets in the game, you’re penalized for wanting to diversify or try new powers out. This would have made for a wonderful use of the in-game resource of gil or given me a way to earn a token that allows me to respec for free or something. Unfortunately, I went with the starting abilities that I’d been building from the beginning of the game and eventually switched out one of the ones I was less impressed with for the late-game talent tree and completely skipped two entire talent trees because I didn’t want to spend the ability points.
If it feels like I’m dogging on Final Fantasy XVI, it definitely has its flaws. The story comes out paced poorly, and the leveling up and role-playing elements between story beats feel unnecessary because the game is so willing to forgive you if Clive dies. However, the story Final Fantasy XVI is trying to tell is fantastic and treats me like the adult I am, and the new combat system was an innovative new way to spice things up with a regularly stale format. The epic story was worth grinding through the, unfortunately, B- role-playing game around it. But I would still recommend people give Final Fantasy XVI the time if they’re turned off by the Final Fantasy series in general because this definitely ain’t your daddy’s Final Fantasy game.