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Final Fantasy XVI: Good, Bad, or Ugly?

How does Square Enix’s newest entry into the Final Fantasy series stack up?

Screenshot

Source: Square Enix

Final Fantasy XVI: First Hour Review

Going into this first impressions review, I knew this one was going to be challenging for a number of reasons. Reason one: I haven’t established any kind of credibility as a reviewer yet, so the question is, “Can you really get a feel for a game in its first hour?” Secondly, because this is a Final Fantasy game we’re talking about here, can you really get a feel for a Final Fantasy game in its first hour?

I make that distinction here because frankly, I think it deserves to be made. Final Fantasy stands in a league that few other gaming franchises can claim to be a member of, having continuously released games for over 35 years. While I, and many others, hold the franchise in high regard, it is still a video game franchise, not some infallible force of nature. If the First Hour Review principle can apply to other games, it must also be able to apply to a Final Fantasy game. So while the answer is “yes, I think we can get a good feel in the first hour,” but it’s important to set the groundwork of what I’ll be looking at during that time

To start off, it will be worth mentioning why Final Fantasy is held in high regard. What sets it apart in the minds of some gamers. Then we’ll talk a bit about the game itself. Its story, characters, performance, graphics, etc. The usual fare. Then look at it on the whole. How does the sum of its parts come together to paint a picture of what the rest of the game will be. Is it engaging enough to want to continue? Or does it give off the impression that it will waste your time? I’ll tell you right now, I don’t think its the latter.

With that said, I have a lot to say about this one, so on top of a First Hour Review, this is a First Hour Analysis.

Before we get into the review, I think it’s important to understand what makes this series so beloved by its fans. This iteration is aimed at being accessible to new players, and as such does away with a number of the things that long time fans have come to expect from the Final Fantasy series. This removal of certain things could potentially alienate some hardcore fans, and I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to voice their opinions about it.

Consider for a moment that Final Fantasy has, arguably, set the standard for RPGs since 1987 (or 1990 in the States), and is among the top 20 longest running video game franchises. While franchises like Mario, Wolfenstein, and The Legend of Zelda have been around for longer. What sets Final Fantasy apart from other franchises like The Legend of Zelda, is its ability to adapt each iteration to the current landscape, with a new cast of characters, a new world, and evolving gameplay mechanics. Sure, Mario has been around and reinventing itself, but at it’s core it’s-a still-a Mario hopping around its mainline entries. Link and Zelda have gotten with the times, creating some of the best open world games to date, but by and large these series have played it safe with their core identity relying on a solid cast of main characters, worlds, or gameplay mechanics to carry them into modern times.

With Final Fantasy there is no central character base to hang its identity on. Rather its approach to story telling, attention to its worlds and characters, and its gameplay systems all lend to its identity; to its “feel.” Contributing further to that feel, Final Fantasy has had, at its core, allowed a level of role playing in its worlds and with its characters that draws people in and makes its stories feel special to the player, while retaining certain parallels to other entries that make the game feel familiar, despite being largely unfamiliar.

Generally speaking, it’s that feeling of familiarity between iterations, the connection to its worlds and characters that, despite the changes between entries, has linked generations of gamers together. So when something comes along that shakes that feeling up a bit (as Final Fantasy is known to do) it loses people who really resonated with something from a previous iteration.

Plainly put, Final Fantasy XVI shakes things up quite a bit, and delivers something that is a lot different from what series fans have come to expect. So was the change worth it? Let’s find out.

The Setup

What the heck is this game? Well, Final Fantasy XVI is an action game set in the world of Valisthea, where warring kingdoms vie for control of monumental resources called the Mothercrystals; which are considered the lifeblood of the world. Mining and using shards of the Mothercrystals to draw upon a force called “aether.” This aether has allowed the citizenry of Valisthea to harness magickal-ish powers, despite not being naturally gifted enough to conjure water out of thin air on their own. The people have come to rely on aether to live their lives; conjuring water for wells, fire for cooking, etc. Recently, the aether has been fading, a Blight spreading across the land, causing the kingdoms of the Realm to war for the remaining fertile land and control of the Mothercrystals.

At the heart of the political intrigue lies the Bearers, those gifted enough to summon magicks of their own volition. Depending on which Realm they belong to, a Bearers life may be one of respect, or of servitude. All bearing a tattoo on their cheek branding them as unequal in the eyes of the common folk.

Along side the Bearers are people known as “Dominants,” wielders of powerful beings known as Eikons. People familiar with the franchise will recognize a number of the Eikons as previous entries’ summons or aeons. Under the control of the Realm’s major powers, Eikons are seen as a personification of a nation’s power, and where the ultimate goal of “victory at all costs,” Eikons are deployed with no regard for the soldiers on the ground, be they friend or foe. The Eikons are meant to ensure victory for their ruler, land for their people, and let me tell you right now, these titanic clashes are epic. Both what you see in cinematics and gameplay sections, the Eikon battles are absolutely a sight to behold.

And then there’s you, the player. This entry focuses on the life and times of one Clive Rosfield: the firstborn son of the Archduke of Rosaria. Clive is originally expected to inherit the power of the Phoenix Eikon and awaken as a Dominant. That didn’t happen, though, and his younger brother Joshua is chosen to bear the Eikon’s power. All’s not lost for Clive, though, as he is “blessed” by the Phoenix allowing him to bear some of the abilities and wield flame powers. This all happens before the events of the game however, so we join Clive as he becomes Joshua’s sworn protector. You’re quickly swept into the politics of the world and thrown into a dark narrative of revenge and redemption.

The Review

I’m going to save the story and gameplay for last because that’s where there’s the most to talk about. But jumping right into the world of Valisthea, you’re greeted with beautifully dense, lush environments and wonderfully crafted medieval castles and hamlets. Graphically, the game looks great, but has a markedly more muted color palette compared to other games in the series. This seems to reflect the overall tone of the story and world well. Each choice of color seems intentional and materials are used to great effect here. This carries over into the characters.

The characters are wonderfully detailed and retain some of the series’ identifiable style. From their armor to their hair, and their facial expressions conveying sometimes guttural emotion in a way I haven’t seen executed this well before. The characters feel like Final Fantasy characters to me, and the arc. Overall there’s a solid sense of cohesion between the world and its inhabitants, but some of the less important NPCs do not get the same level of attention as the main characters. That, however, can be explained away as a story bit, but it’s noticeable. As we’ll get into, this game has its share of shortcomings, but thankfully graphics are not one of them.

Which is good because that level of quality carries over into the game’s cutscenes, and there are a lot of those. In keeping with the series’ high-quality cutscenes, Final Fantasy XVI appears to be focusing on delivering much of its narrative and character development through wonderfully acted, beautifully rendered, and well-directed cutscenes. They seem to be where you find out the majority of the information about this world, and did I mention there are a lot of them? Because there are a lot of them. Even in the first hour alone, it seemed like there was a disproportionate number of cutscenes, and by all accounts, that’s the way this game is. At points, I put the controller down just to watch these things play out, and I could see their frequency turning some people off. But for me, the overall quality of these cutscenes largely outweighed their somewhat intrusive nature.

When you’re not watching cutscenes, you’re running around the dense environments or engaging in combat. While I found Clive’s run animation to be a little stiff, he loosens up like the Tin Man after an oil bath during the combat sections. With such a focus on real-time combat, I’m happy to say that it looks pretty good, with colorful elemental attacks and grandiose special moves. Everything flows and is choreographed like a finely tuned dance. Attacks feel like they have weight to them, owing to the animations, and it’s clear that a lot of effort was put into making the combat look and feel like a spectacle. Visually, I think they pulled it off, regardless of what you might think of how this game approaches combat.

Then there are the Eikon battles. These are epic; that’s really the best way I can think to describe them. Their sense of scale and power shines through their graphical representation and marks a high point in visual storytelling. Massive, unique kaiju battles between immensely powerful beings absolutely ravaging the world around them as you go; they are really something.

So that’s graphics, but what about performance? That’s where it’s a little bit of a mixed bag for me. While I’m not nearly as well-versed as someone like Digital Foundry (and I highly recommend you check out their technical video on Final Fantasy XVI) the game has two modes: one focused on graphics and one on performance. Besides a brightness setting, you don’t really have any graphics control. In the graphics focused setting, you’ll be treated to an upscaled 4K image that locks you at a solid 30 FPS (the key being “solid” there). With the performance mode, the image is again upscaled but is noticeably less crisp, and unfortunately is not very stable in the framerate department.

I may not have the capture devices or capabilities to measure frame rates at the moment, but I’d argue that if the performance is bad enough for me to notice the issues without them, it probably means there’s a bigger problem. At the time of this review, FFXVI’s performance mode does have some issues reaching and maintaining 60 FPS, most notably in the exploration sections. Normally, I’m not too much of a stickler for these types of things, but FFXVI presents you with some nice open areas with great scenery that you’ll want to look around. When panning the camera through those sections, the inconsistency in framerate was noticeable and did pull me out of the experience. Coupled with the lower frame rates on distant enemies (which a lot of games do to help increase performance) there were just too many inconsistencies with the performance mode for me to continue using it.

I will say this was not a deal breaker, because where it mattered most for me, combat, the frame rate seemed to level out. If I had to guess, because the game limits your play area during combat, the game is likely diverting its resources to processing the battle and nothing else in the distance. Still, if you want a consistent framerate throughout the experience, set the game to graphics and live your best 30 FPS life, and experience the world with the visual fidelity it deserves. Again, go watch the Digital Foundry video, their tech breakdowns are awesome if you’re even the slightest bit interested in what’s going on under the hood.

Audio quality and composition have consistently been good throughout the series, and FFXVI maintains that standard. Voices are clear, well acted, and well written. Nothing from a vocal standpoint struck me as off, though it seems like creatures are lacking in a little bit of audio presentation. The sounds during combat clue you in with identifiable pings and notifications when skills are ready or certain actions can be taken. And the sound you get when you hit the pause button to bring up the UI was, for some reason, really satisfying to me. Overall the mixing of the environment, battle, music, it all worked.

In keeping with the series’ high quality music, FFXVI features rich orchestral pieces, tense synth sections, and epic battle themes. Its themes that are solidly grounded in its medieval tone while retaining an identifiable style and themes that has been carried throughout the series. Describing sound in a game is challenging, but for me, the key question is whether it feels fitting to the game on offer, and in this case, I believe it absolutely does. While, in my opinion, the victory theme leans a little too much on the minor side of the scale, it reflects the overall tone.

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Source: Square Enix

Throughout the first hour the essence of Final Fantasy was there in its gameplay, but it was certainly different. Like reuniting with a friend after years apart; you still recognize them, still sense that they’re the person you once knew, but they’ve changed. After a journey of self discovery, they’re back and it’s up to you to decide if you like who they are now. That’s kind of the feeling I got with FFXVI, whether this change is the series going through a phase, or if this is what we can expect going forward remains to be seen, and it’s going to resonate differently with different people.

As I mentioned, FFXVI is different. This was largely done by design. Square and CBUIII made the point to communicate that FFXVI was meant to be approachable for modern gamers; gamers who may have viewed Final Fantasy as a walled garden, one that they might not want to play in, even if they could get in. The creators believed that modern gamers would not want to interact with the slower paced, turn based, battles of the Final Fantasy series; referencing Call of Duty fans and the fast paced action they’re used to. SkillUp had a hands on preview that gives a lot of insights into what Square was going for with this entry, and making FFXVI Accessible was at the forefront of their vision. Did they deliver? Yea, and maybe almost a little too well.

A staple of Final Fantasy has always been its strategy elements. Included among which have been its approach to combat being more strategically focused. The way you approach combat, the specialized party members offering different skills to augment the battle, elemental weaknesses, status buffs and debuffs, all contributed to the strategy of the game. Previous entries required you to at least be familiar with each of the systems if you wanted to really get good at the game, and that may have been the wall around Final Fantasy’s garden, so to speak. So Square tore that wall down, drastically streamlining gameplay to focus mainly on doing damage.

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Source: Square Enix

Combat in FFXVI encompasses melee, ranged, distance closing, and special attacks. As Clive gains Eikon abilities, he also gains the power to perform elemental attacks. During the first hour, I experienced the Phoenix Eikon’s abilities, including impressive special attacks and a fireball ranged attack. The Phoenix’s distance closing ability allows Clive to quickly approach targeted enemies. The primary focus in this game is on staggering enemies by depleting their endurance meter. When the meter is reduced by half, it briefly interrupts the enemy, and when depleted completely, it staggers them, enabling you to unleash powerful attacks for maximum damage. If I were to evaluate the combat in this game as a standalone aspect, without considering Final Fantasy, I would describe it as satisfying and enjoyable. However, I have one major complaint, which is the insignificance of the elemental attacks—they don’t seem to have any meaningful impact.

Example. Fighting a plant that’s essentially a bunch of weeds, grass, and a flower. In just about any other game that enemy would be weak to fire. Ever since the days of Pokémon Red and Blue, the little flower creature was weak to fire, but not here apparently. I didn’t believe it at first so I shot a few fireballs at it, they did 31 damage. Then I fought a wolf or something, 31 damage again. It blew my mind a little. I know they were trying to make this game approachable, but this is basic stuff here. While I get it, it’s probably due to the way the game introduces powers to you, meaning starting off you don’t have the slew of magickal attacks a traditional wizard might have. Except you kinda do in the context of the world, right?

What’s stopping Clive from attaching a shard of a mother crystal from the town well to his sword to do water damage, or robbing the town cook of his oven shard to deal fire damage to hostile weeds attacking the village? “Well that’s not how it works int he world, dude.” Except it is, I know I’ve seen images of a guy with a staff that has a crystal on the end of it, in battle, slinging spells. Instead we get “the red spell that’s like the green spell, but it’s red” It’s weird and in my opinion an oversight, but I guess it’s fine if you don’t think about it (but I think about it a lot). After noticing this, I started noticing how much strategy had been removed from the game in the name of being approachable.

To that end, another notable piece that’s missing is the party system. While yes, technically, you have a party of AI controlled companions, they seem to be there simply because the story says they should be. Sure they contribute to battle a little, but they’re off doing their own thing , with their own style, and you’re just off Clive-ing it up. To me it seems like wasted potential on a couple levels. Firstly, from a strategy perspective, at least offering the option to engage with your party in battle gives the players more options to engage in battle. Secondly, adding even a simple optional interaction with your party adds a level of connection with your supporting cast that isn’t really present here. A simple interaction is low hanging fruit that many games, both inside and outside of the series, have done that doesn’t add a barrier to entry and drastically adds to the overall game.

Simple math example. If Clive has 3 attacks (he has more than this, but bear with me), and stringing each of those attacks in different ways is a combo, that means Clive has 3*3*3 possible 3 move combos, 27 possible combos. Now say you introduce a simple AI companion with 3 basic actions you can call upon to augment your combo. Tack on another 3 and you’ve got 3*3*3*3 combos, or 81 combos. That’s…checks notes…more combos, but doesn’t really increasing any complexity beyond the scope of the current model of combat. Not only does that keep the combat approachable, but it gives the player the ability to interact with their companions (if they so choose).

Why is that interaction so key? It somewhat boils down to the difference between telling someone something and showing them something. If I tell you that a character is an almighty badass that shoots fire out of his nostrils to scorch enemies, that sounds cool I guess. I can tell you that in very interesting ways, maybe even show you a picture, but you’re taking my word for it. You might even believe it. However, if I give you control of that character, and while playing them, that character shows you they can single-handedly carry a monster barbecue by breathing fire, it’s easier to demonstrate exactly how badass that character is because you get that lizard-brain-satisfying cause and effect factor and the “I did a thing” satisfaction. Now, even outside of that scenario you attribute that feeling to the character.

FFXVI does a lot of telling you about the characters. Showing you in cutscenes that they’re powerful or a badass, but it doesn’t really resonates as much as if you could whack a guy a few times as Clive then call in your buddy to do some kind of team attack and finish a battle in an epic way. That’s because that battle experience carries outside of battle, it permeates the story. Clive feels badass, because we demonstrate time and time again that whatever the odds, he’s going to handle it, or Godzilla will show up and wreck everything. The rest of your party isn’t like that though. I know Cid is in my party, but regardless of how well he’s portrayed in cutscenes, I can’t help but think of how much more connected to his character I could be if they he was at least minimally interactive in combat.

What’s frustrating is that I think the game knows this to an extent, because it has one character you can interact with like this; the dog, Torgal. Setting aside the fact that he’s a fine hound and gets points simply for being a pet-able dog. I can sic him on enemies, heal myself, or have him help start an aerial combo (wow, 3 simple actions that adds to the experience? Incredible.) but it makes him really feel like he’s your companion outside of battles. You see him in cutscenes and are like “there’s ma boy!” Which ups the emotional stakes for that character. I don’t know if anyone dies in this story, the tone wouldn’t shock me if someone does, but without that interaction we’re relying on the story telling to make that matter. Whereas if at 1 hour and 1 minute Torgal died, I would riot because the game has fully sold me on my own and Clive’s connection to the Realm’s finest hound.

That’s basically my gripe with them doing away with the party system. I like the characters, I think the story telling so far has been really good, but giving us the ability to interact with these companions more would add a lot and sacrifice nothing. It’s story and actors does a good enough job to drive at least some connection, but again I think it could be so much more. This may boil down to how I like to play these games and feel a connection to the world, because after all becoming invested in a world plays into the element of role playing. Final Fantasy has traditionally done a pretty good job on the RPG front, so how does this one fare?

Eh. It’s ok. The systems strike me as pretty shallow. From gear to skill and abilities, there’s some cool stuff going on, but nothing that really seems like it adds anything ultra meaningful. Sure I can select which types of basic attacks and Eikon powers that I want to use and upgrade (or “master,” as they’re called), and that will influence how I play as Clive. Which, of course, means that you could play Clive differently than I do, but it seems like the options for customization are not as deep as they could be. Maybe in the context of how this game is, it’s about as varied as it could be, considering the lack of other strategic elements like buffs and debuffs, elemental attacks, etc. For what it is, it’s fine, but it is pretty clear that this game is less about role playing and more about simply making Clive more powerful. His skill customization revolving mainly around how you want to structure your own move sets to simply hit harder.

Speaking of hitting harder, the gear system lends directly to you hitting harder, and being able to be hit harder. The gear system, man, the gear system. It’s pretty barebones. Clive has a slot for a sword, a belt, a bracer, and 3 accessories. Again without strategic considerations, you’re mainly going to be looking at which item gives you the biggest numbers. Some accessories will boost special abilities, but beyond that they mainly boost attributes like defense and attack. Another product of accessibility, and kudos to them for making it accessible I guess, but this, by most standards, is pretty simple. This is also where we can start to talk about difficulty in FFXVI.

Final Fantasy XVI is about combat and story, in my opinion. It’s auxiliary systems seem significantly less fleshed out compared to those two main ideas, and that can further be seen in how the game approaches difficulty. When initially selecting difficulties, you can choose from “Story Focused” or “Action Focused” You can toggle between the two at any time, and I did a few times. Honestly, until I looked into what was going on, I didn’t notice a difference in combat. Turns out, and I think I knew this, but instead of the game getting harder, combat just gets easier. Basically this equates to the game equipping Clive with 3 rings that automatically offer support in combat, like dodging, combo-ing, Torgal-ing (having Torgal attack, support), etc. I have two thoughts on this.

Firstly, in terms of welcoming new players to the franchise, I think it’s cool. It’s like “here’s Final Fantasy with training wheels. Once you’re ready, take them off and experience the game” in principle that’s awesome. Secondly, and what I’m less enthused about, is what happens when you take the training wheels off. It doesn’t feel like much happens, and frankly what we lose in terms of item performance and buffs just so the game can be accessible has a negative impact on the potential longevity. Even for new players.

Let’s say you’re brand new. You get into the game, want some additional challenge, so you take off the auto-dogging ring and control Torgal for the first time, and are like “hell yea, I’m a dog master” now I want to take off the auto-healing ring, “sick, I’m not dying now” and you’ve really gotten the hang of the game. Where’s up from there? Can I do the: “I can clearly see the poison grass monster over there, I should buff up against poison and buff my fire attacks”? Nah fam, doesn’t exist. This is even worse if you’re not brand new, and already understand the combat. Again another thing I think they could have done to increase the overall experience with this game. The theory is great, and they’re almost there, but workshop with me for a second.

Give me basic elemental damage buffs and enemy weakness. I really don’t think you’re losing players with that mechanic. If you want to keep the ring system to help players, by all means do it, but maybe have a ring that swaps to the spell that’s got the best damage against that enemy. Using the training wheels analogy, I see the feedback of “red against green good”. Then I rip the training wheels off, lose the auto-Magic ring, know how to situationally select the right spell, and throw on a “fiery ring of weed killing” or whatever that buffs my red spell. Another easy addition that I really don’t think would alienate people, but adds a lot to the already good, but relatively simple, combat.

Make the game approachable, but let players grow with it. That feedback loop is satisfying in games. With a system that eases players into what your game offers is a great idea, and it works, but where we go from there seems lacking. Mastering a games systems is rewarding; it’s a satisfying feedback loop. Like the first time I took down Seymour’s zombie form in Final Fantasy X, or walking more than 10 feet in Elden Ring. Doing the impossible in a game feels great, and FFXVI has a great system that makes that impossible approachable, but so far hasn’t really offered a difficulty level that feels rewarding. Frankly, I don’t think that’s an early game problem. From what I’ve seen that’s just the way it is, and that’s a little disappointing. While there allegedly is a new game plus mode, it’s kind of like seeing a movie (in more ways than one with this game) a second time but having a massage chair for your second viewing. You already know what’s going to happen in the movie, but you’re in for a slightly different experience because now your chair is rumbling more than it was the first time. Maybe that immerses you more than before, or maybe that’s a terrible analogy, but it makes sense if you don’t think about it.

The Verdict

So what’s the verdict here? While there are some things I don’t like about this game, and I’ve described them to death here, I can’t deny that on the whole I’ve been enjoying it. Yes it’s annoying that the party is mainly narrative driven. Yes, it’s annoying that there’s not much strategy here, but in judging it for what it is, not what it could be, I am still enjoying it. As a long time time Final Fantasy fan I’m not offended by it going in a different direction. If don’t think we would have made it to a 16th mainline iteration if the team was afraid to take chances on its gameplay. Do I think it could have been better? Sure, but there’s still something very Final Fantasy about the story and its world.

Its massive set piece moments, character writing, acting, and stories are all great (but would be WAY BETTER IF I COULD INTERACT WITH THEM) and the combat, while simple, feels good. It’s effort to remain approachable shoots itself in the foot maybe more than it should, or could have, if they’d just opted to be a little deeper with the systems, but overall it’s serviceable. This extends to the simple RPG systems. While they could have been better, they make sense in the context of this game. The question is, do you vibe with that context? I honestly do, and will be finishing this game.

My final thoughts on it are that Final Fantasy XVI is a great action game, maybe not the best Final Fantasy game, but I think on the whole, despite it’s flaws, it makes up for it in other ways making this enjoyable, and after the first hour, I’ll be looking to log many more.

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Final Fantasy XVI

8.5

Final Fantasy XVI has its flaws, and its drastic new take on gameplay might turn off some longtime fans of the series. Despite that, It offers a very different, bold, take on the Final Fantasy formula, and when it works, it really works. Offering one of the best, most mature, narratives in the series. Coupled with fluid combat, and epic set piece moments, FFXVI is one I’ll be seeing through to the finish.

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