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Final Fantasy XVI Review: A Song of Hellfire and Diamond Dust

As a longtime fan of Final Fantasy games, I naturally get very excited at the prospect of a new entry in the series, especially on the run up to release. However, with more recent titles in the franchise I have found myself in lengthy debates around what, and who, the games are for. Are they for the lovers of the older style turn-based games we grew up with? Well not really. The games have been moving away from that style for the last decade or so. Well surely the narrative and world building are amazing, it’s a Final Fantasy game. True, but some of the more recent iterations have been slightly more divisive in that sense, especially among longtime fans.

So, what about Final Fantasy XVI? Where would my thoughts go to on this? And would I recommend the game? In a word, yes. Final Fantasy XVI is a damn good game. Not just for longtime fans of the franchise, but for fans of gritty action RPGs, and generally JRPGs and RPGs alike.

Full of immersive and beautiful landscapes, in a world that feels alive, with exciting and intuitive combat, Final Fantasy XVI is a clear statement of intent from the outset. Bringing the franchise back to the more medieval roots we saw from the earlier iterations in the franchise, the game manages to balance its Game of Thrones-esque inspiration with what fans of the franchise recognise as Final Fantasy, albeit through a slightly more mature lens. And that mature lens offers us up a narrative that isn’t just packed with excessive violence, sex, and swearing, but also details the flawed and human nature of political tensions and wider conflicts, while keeping the focus on the characters rather than the wider stakes of the world.

As opposed to the more generic dialogue of some of the more recent entries in the franchise where all the characters are focused from the outset on needing to save the world from disaster, XVI takes a character-focused view. And through this focus we not only get a more engaging story, but we see characters develop and grow in what feels like a much more organic way as we head towards the climax. The focus on Clive and the wider cast as individuals makes for a more engaging narrative as we, the players, witness their lives, their trials, and their growth in a world at conflict in a way we haven’t for some time in a Final Fantasy game.

Speaking of the characters, what sets this apart in my mind is not only the writing, but the performances. Producer Naoki Yoshida said that with XVI he wanted to focus on the English version and performance over a Japanese version to fully sell the European medieval fantasy, and the performances delivered by the cast are nothing short of sublime (despite some slight occasional lip sync issues), taking the dialogue and written narrative to a new level that is both exciting and engaging, especially when looking at the variety of characters in the game, and the nuances in each performance.

However, and despite the broad variety of cultures that have clearly inspired the various nations of Valisthea, the lack of representation for people of colour is a very clear issue. Especially when you look at the level of splendour and effort that has gone into both the overall lore and design of each of the nations in Valisthea. That being said, the games excellent and normalised representation of LBGTIQ+ characters are a very welcome addition to the franchise, and something I, personally, have longed for, for year.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to shout out the newest, and bestest boy in gaming Torgal. Clive’s steadfast companion offers players the option of some level of tactical thinking in terms of how his AI can be used in battle, especially when coupled with the variety of Eikonic abilities Clive unlocks as you progress through the game. These two mechanics provide players with the opportunity of some more classic Final Fantasy combat planning within the dynamic combat.

While we think about the combat, is it particularly innovative? Not hugely. However, what XVI does well is introduce players to the combat basics (light attacks, magic attacks, combo attacks) and then slowly introduces more mechanics, namely the Eikonic Abilities. Eikonic abilities, much like the name suggests, are actions Clive can use in combat to deal damage by calling upon the powers of one of the Eikons. Eikons in XVI, are the name for what have been called summons or Aeons in previous entries in the series. Massively powerful god-like creatures that are linked to an individual known as a dominant. As Clive progresses through his quest, he will obtain the powers of several Eikons and it will be down to each player to determine which Eikons, and which of their abilities, they will use in combat, as Clive can only equip a limited number of both Eikons and their associated abilities. This is where players will get some of the tactical gameplay that has been somewhat missing from more recent games in the franchise, as you will need to determine which Eikon, and its abilities, are the best for each combat encounter. That being said, and yes this is a very mild spoiler, the lack of elemental weaknesses we’ve become used to are missing from the game. And this does feel like something quite big that is missing from the combat, and something that could have made for a more exciting and interesting combat system.

In truth, the combat is also not all that challenging, especially if you make ample use of the dodge button, effective and varied use of the abilities, and always keep a decent stock of potions on hand. It is fun, but for those that want more of a challenge, it is unfortunate that the higher difficulties are locked behind new game plus. But when you consider that many of the players are going to be playing Final Fantasy XVI for the story, it’s hardly a shock. And considering the story has enough intrigue that playing it through again for a more challenging combat experience won’t feel like a chore, I wouldn’t say it’s that much of an issue.

A huge pull in the marketing for the game were the battles with the Eikons, and these are spectacular in the most literal of senses. Yes, these are gimmickier battles however they provide a nice change of pace and bring a huge level of drama, whilst demonstrating the raw destructive power of some of the most recognisable summons from the franchise. Are they necessary? I’d argue yes. They don’t drive the narrative in an overt way and are definitely set piece battles, but they also demonstrate the sheer power of the Eikon’s and, when you take the comments from Naoki Yoshida in an interview from 2022, show that both Dominants and the Eikon’s they control are truly massively destructive forces.

Since it’s early inception Final Fantasy has given gamers some of the most iconic and recognisable pieces of game music ever. From the Crystal Harp theme that’s present in nearly every game, to Zanarkand, the Chocobo theme, or Tifa’s theme, and One-Winged Angel or Battle on the Big Bridge, the music of each game in the series works in tandem with the narrative, cutscenes, or gameplay to really elevate the emotions and XVI is no different. With the immense talent of Masayoshi Soken composing the music, each beat and piece is constructed to add to the emotions, intrigue, or drama of each scene. Players of the “Critically acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV” will be all too familiar with Soken’s approach to composing for Final Fantasy, and his distinctive approach and style complements the narrative at every single step, reflecting both the emotional tone and importance of scenes, as well as providing music that flawlessly drifts from calm field music to exciting and memorable tracks when Clive and the crew engage in combat.

Along with the central narrative of the game are a whole host of side quests players undertake. Now I’m going to be completely honest these side quests, for the most part, took a leaf out of the smaller side quests in Final Fantasy XIV (the whole talk to NPC A, go to place, talk to NPC B, or collect item, or kills group of enemies, return to NPC A for reward), but despite mildly dull and repetitive gameplay, you complete these side quests for the stories. And some of these stories hold some of the best writing in the whole game, and really bring some of those emotional gut punches we’ve come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. The side quests also allow you to learn so much more about the world of Valisthea and the characters that inhabit this wonderous world. You’ll also meet characters you’ll assume are just for that quest, only to see them grow and develop in their own rights within the story, and this is one of the games biggest pros.

Completing these side quests will net you general crafting resources and Gil. And here are two of my minor gripes with the game. We all know that towards the end of a Final Fantasy game you will, likely, have more Gil left than you know what to do with. However, there are so few things to spend Gil on in XVI that you are more than likely going to end up with much more Gil than you know what to do with by around the halfway point of the game. In the earlier sections you will probably be on the verge of spending a lot of Gil, but as you progress, you’ll find you can afford all the latest weapons and equipment, plus being fully stocked on potions and have loads of Gil remaining. It just leaves me wanting something else to spend it on so it’s not just sitting there. Perhaps we’ll get DLC where we can buy Clive a nice house and all my spare Gil will have a use at last, besides buying all the soundtracks for the Orchestrion (yes, a minor spoiler, but we love the music in this game so why wouldn’t I point out you can do this).

Gil aside, my other gripe with the game is the almost pointless crafting system. It feels as though it’s been put in purely because the game is an RPG and apparently all RPG’s must have some form of crafting system. Much like the gil issue, you’ll find yourself most likely hitting the latter stages of the game with way more crafting materials than you need, and considering the only things that change is the look of Clive’s sword, I’d have preferred this to have been left on the dev room floor. And mainly because it feels as though it was put in as more of an obligation, something that had to be in the game because it’s an RPG. And when you consider the repetitive, almost MMO style, side quests you tend to find yourself wondering what the point of these were, as there could have been far more interesting and innovative ways for the game to explore different characters.

A newer mechanic that that is far more exciting than the aforementioned side quests, however, are the hunts and the Hunt Board. These work pretty much as you’d expect a hunt in a game to work, but what makes them exciting is the lack of hand holding the game gives you. To find your notorious mark you are given an area of the map to go to. Not a specific waypoint, but a general area. From there it’s up to you, the player, to locate and eliminate your quarry for some rather nice rewards. Rewards that are, more than likely, going to be needed to craft the better gear that you actually want.

Now I started this review recommending the game as a longtime fan of Final Fantasy, but chances are if you’ve made it that far (and if you have thanks for sticking with me!) you may be wondering if there are any major caveats to my recommendation outside of the niggles and gripes I’ve already mentioned. Honestly, there could be some others. I wish I could sit here a go through all the smaller moments of the game that I adored, some of the scenes and exchanges that made me literally laugh out loud, or brought tears to my eyes. But I shan’t. What I can say, however, is that it has been a very long time since I was completely captured by a Final Fantasy game in the way that XVI has captivated me. And I think Square Enix knows that too. By the end of the prologue you will know if this is a game for you or not. It puts every card on the table for you to see. If you enjoyed it, chance are the game is for you. And when you consider the prologue was released as a very generously sized demo before the games release, it’s clear that Square thought this too. So I stand by my original statement that I would recommend this game to anyone. And if you’re still on the fence, then grab the demo and try it for yourself.

With a plot that spans continents, from the earth to the very heavens, without losing focus on the character-driven human core of the story, Final Fantasy XVI both breaks tradition with the older games in the series, whilst staying true to the reason that fans love the series so much. Whilst also providing a series first for representation, and not shying away from the grittier and grimmer aspects of our world, it manages to stand out as a Final Fantasy game for a new generation.

The Final Fantasy franchise has lasted as long as it has because, much like the Phoenix, it has the uncanny ability to go through multiple rebirths and grow as both the landscape of gaming changes, and as it’s fan base does. And while some of these rebirths and changes have been less than stellar, Final Fantasy 16 burns with the intensity of a Megaflare.

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