Final Fantasy 16 review: a sublime story-driven action game, but a frustratingly flawed RPG Play4ever

Final Fantasy 16 is basically two games in one. First of all, you have an excellent, best-in-class 20-hour action game with a truly brilliant story. Bolted to it, however, you have a deeply flawed role-playing game – which makes up the other 25 hours of the experience.

This is the tale of FF16; when it’s excellent, it is truly, unbelievably, earth-shatteringly good. When it’s bad, it’s mildly frustrating at best, and pretty wretched at its worst. On balance, the good outweighs the bad to an enormous degree, and so it’s a game that’s incredibly easy to recommend in spite of its shortcomings. It’s also the best entry point and jumping-on point for Final Fantasy newcomers in decades.


Will Final Fantasy find its salvation in 16?

Let’s start with the good, because I do think that’s what’ll stay with you once the credits roll. Final Fantasy 16 presents one of the most accomplished and well-rounded stories in the series. In narrative terms, this tale now sits up there with numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10 in terms of its execution and my overall satisfaction.

How Final Fantasy is it? Well, plenty, I think – though not so much early on. In fact, in its earliest stages, FF16 feels like it deliberately shies away from and treats its legacy with the subtlest of cold shoulders. Instead, it’s interested in a grittier sort of world building, one clearly inspired by Western works like God of War and, yes, Game of Thrones. The Thrones influence can be felt everywhere, from the more grounded world to the way characters act – and in a bunch of series alumni who show up in voice acting roles.

Grounded is a good word to sum up the game in general. It’s often expressed in the little things; characters don’t just sit around in their heroic outfits, but have bedclothes, or make appearances wearing nothing at all. It cuts a sharp contrast to FF7 Remake, where everyone cuts about in pristine ‘hero outfits’ at all times. For most of the game, the exposition-heavy monologues that are something of a series staple are left to the side. It’s belt-and-braces, workmanlike. If you want the detailed lore, there’s a codex you can open to dig into that.

Shiva? I barely knew her. | Image credit: Square Enix

This is a world quite unlike any other Final Fantasy. People have drawn lines of connection to FF12 and Tactics, two games which share a great number of development staff with 16 – but make no mistake, this is something new. There’s the combat, which we’ll come to, but Final Fantasy games have often swapped out systems and mechanics. So that element isn’t a departure. What’s new here is a difference in tone.

Final Fantasy has been medieval, relatively modern, and dabbled in punks, both cyber- and steam-. But it’s never been quite like this. In the first couple of hours, which many of you will have experienced in the demo, there’s more cursing and on-screen throat slitting than in practically the entire rest of the series put together. There are no pleasant deaths. People die soaked in blood, their eyes locked open in terror. People are strung up, mutilated, and abused. Some slit their own throats rather than face their fates. There are fairly extensive references to sexual assault. Characters we like and sympathize with execute their enemies, even unarmed, without a second thought.

Sometimes it feels a little rote, like when the initial party of revolutionaries hold a planning meeting in a brothel, their strategizing interrupted by moans of pleasure from next door. But generally speaking it all works – it’s an unpleasant world, but one I was nevertheless happy to be adventuring in. It’s a departure I welcome, and in tried and true FF fashion it manages to feel fresh while obviously lifting from some other popular works.

The Holy Capital (not a capital made by casting Holy).

The greatest part of why it all works can be placed on two groups of people: first, all those involved in crafting the character models and facial animation. FF16 unfortunately has that classic split between truly curated cutscenes and more basic scenes, so there’s probably a 50/50 split between hand-directed cinematic moments and those with static blocking and basic lip-flap. But all of the stuff that is artistically directed is sublimely so – utterly convincing and entertaining in its delivery.

Second, there’s the group of people responsible for the other half of that – a brilliant voice cast, and all of those who translated, wrote, ad-libbed, and otherwise helped to deliver this narrative. These guys are the absolute MVPs of this game, and in doing so they create some aspects of this game that will dominate Final Fantasy ‘best of’ lists – the best Cid, the best romantic subplot, some of the best cutscenes, and even a protagonist who will probably henceforth prop up quite a few best lead lists.

It’s not all precisely perfect, mind. The game’s best female character is written out of the action towards the end in a way that feels like a huge cop-out. One of the key villains, Clive’s mother, is one-note and goes nowhere. And surprisingly, the core cast of ‘Dominants’ that have heavily been promoted actually aren’t the game’s best. Many are under-served, in fact. More minor characters pre-release materials have barely referred to such as Gav, Byron, and Mid are better-developed than the likes of Barnabas (Odin), Hugo (Titan), and Benedikta (Garuda). But even in the case of these lesser-developed characters, excellent performances carry them. Hugo has barely anything to do, but has a verbal sparring match with Clive before battle that is among the best exchanges in the game, which flexes its graphical prowess with some brilliantly subtle facial animation as the two men seethe with fury.

The story works, then. So too does the combat, which takes cues from ‘character action’ games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta rather than your typical RPG fodder. You’ll control only protagonist Clive, but for a few brief exceptions – and it’s an entirely action-oriented affair. Hiring people who have been experts on this type of combat is a work of genius, for it isn’t just an imitation – it’s one of the finest examples of this sort of combat, lifting abilities and iconography from Final Fantasy at large to provide the most flashy pieces of combat, the powerful Eikonic Abilities.

FF16 would be a near-perfect game if Square Enix could just Titan up some screws.

When you’re in full-flow and the combat is firing on all cylinders, FF16 is fabulously engaging and exciting. I can understand why its combat director, a Capcom and DMC veteran, calls the game his masterpiece. But it’s also a system that is sadly undermined by other elements of the game. And it’s here where Final Fantasy 16 begins to struggle.

In many ways, it’s a game built around compromises. Fans expect Final Fantasy to have party members – so FF16 has party members. As a pleasant surprise, there’s a larger rotating cast of heroes joining Clive throughout his adventure than has been let on. But it’s easy to have lots of party members when they’re largely useless in battle; they toss out a few weak attacks here and there, and later in the game will cast some half-decent spells. But make no mistake that there’s no team-up attacks, and no tangible feeling that you’re fighting alongside anyone. They’re there for aesthetic and story reasons only.

Torgal, Clive’s faithful hound, is more useful in battle. But the pup has no RPG progression, and aside from one story development that bequeaths him a power that seemingly triggers at random, he doesn’t grow across the game’s 45 hours. Then again, that shouldn’t be surprising: Clive himself has relatively few powers to unlock. The act of ‘attuning’ Eikons and obtaining their powers, which expands his potential skill pool, is poorly paced. A ‘full deck’ of equipped skills involves three Eikons, which you won’t have until a good 20-25 hours into the game. Further unlocks come every five to seven hours.

Canine out of 10.

Progression feels slow, and then even when it comes you’re fairly limited in what you can equip. Clive can have three Eikons, making for six skills (plus three Eikonic abilities), and that’s it. It’s so few that you’ll likely end up sitting on thousands of unspent Skill Points once you find a build you like, as there’s no point upgrading skills that aren’t usable. You can swap them in and out and even mix-and-match Eikons and skills as you get deeper into the game – but in an RPG sense, it feels quite shallow.

But this isn’t a pure action game. It is an action RPG. And this is where the troubles lie. For an action game, like a Devil May Cry, it’d be just fine. But DMC5 is about 12-15 hours long; FF16 is three times that length. No matter how good the combat looks and feels – and it’s bloody magnificent – it’ll inevitably wear thin without strong progression across a 40+ hour run-time. And this sort of issue feels to bleed across every RPG element of the game.

Crafting is present, for instance, via an NPC at your home base. But the flow of new weapons and gear is a tiny trickle, and I ended the game with thousands of unused crafting materials, because there’s little to craft. I also ended up with hundreds of thousands of Gil – FF’s currency – because unless you plan to collect music for a Jukebox in your base at 20k-50k a time, there’s absolutely bloody nothing to spend it on.

Side quests are plentiful, but actual high quality ones are few and far between. Quests with decent rewards are marked with a separate icon, dividing side content into two ‘tiers’ just like in FF14 – but those decent rewards are basically only upgrades to the potency and stock of your potions (which are limited, Souls-style), three new Blacksmithing recipes, and unlocking your Chocobo.

This isn’t a game for loot goblins in general, really – I can count the number of times I got something useful from a chest in nearly 50 hours on my fingers. Usually it’s just more crafting materials – which, as previously mentioned, are useless. Like, wow – I trekked out of my way for this chest and it’s another 20 Sharp Fangs! Great! I’ll put them in the pile with the other 1400.

Cid really tries to Ramuh his points home with thunder magic.

Even the story, excellent though it is, isn’t safe from this chaff. FF16 has an awful habit of following up one of its incredible Eikon battle set pieces – which are genuinely hair-raisingly brilliant – with absolutely naff compulsory fetch quests. The worst of these often involve talking to a series of NPCs in succession who are placed at opposite ends of your base, The Hideaway. You can’t sprint in the Hideaway, and crossing from one end to the other takes about a minute. This feels like a pathetic thing to complain about, but when you’re criss-crossing for like the tenth time, it really begins to grate.

Other times, you’ll be trekking back to areas of the world you’ve been to before in order to fight enemies you’ve fought before to pick up some trinket or another. This is classic RPG stuff, obviously, but something about how the compulsory versions of these quests are placed and paced screams padding. It seems to admit as much later on, too – where late game quests drop the charade of walking here and there and begin to automatically teleport you to key locations. Almost like the developers are saying: ‘alright, we’re almost at the end now, we’ll quit wasting your time’.

The problem, to be clear, isn’t that FF16 isn’t ‘enough’ of an RPG. It also wouldn’t be a problem if FF16 flat-out wasn’t a role-playing game. The issue is when RPG mechanics have been integrated in a way that is unsatisfactory and, honestly, in a way that often just undermines the solid story-driven action adventure at FF16’s heart. I was truly gutted to realize this, because the first impression is so strong, the combat so tight, and the character-driven narrative so fiercely gripping that I thought this might be up there for me with FF6, 7, and 9. But then the bloat sets in, and you begin to brush up against the padding.

Like a Phoenix, the series rises.

Sometimes, it feels like insecurity and worry about FF’s legacy and its existing RPG fan base have driven certain decisions. This adventure is split into two sorts of levels – linear action stages and four semi-open zones. This works really well, and is a strong template for FF’s future, and to some extent most closely resembles FF12.

But the open zones inexplicably lack a mini map or compass, a baffling choice considering Hunts give you vague directions such as “North of Martha’s Rest”. The only way to determine ‘north’ is to repeatedly open the full-screen map. I’m convinced this decision was made over worries that a mini-map would expose these areas as not really ‘open world’, but as a series of relatively linear connected corridors. But, honestly – who gives a shit? Give me a damn mini map!

There’s a lot of stuff like this. I wish the game had a single memorable town (it doesn’t; the great big population centers you see in trailers are only ever visited in linear action stages, when they’re on fire, under siege, or in ruin). I wish Clive could effectively equip more than six skills, as it’d really make upgrading skills more worthwhile. I wish it either had less of this RPG content, or that the RPG stuff was better. Because, honestly, the rest is pretty fantastic.

That’s the thing. This is a truly great video game. It’s a towering achievement in its own way. So, to be fair, was Final Fantasy 15. And in a way, these two make a strange little duology; FF15 a game that is somehow more than the sum of its broken, slightly rubbish parts, and FF16 a game that is routinely brilliant but (due to some strange decisions undermines that brilliance) is a little less than the sum of its parts.

To be clear, FF16 is the better game of the two – and I’d say it’s clearly the best numbered single-player Final Fantasy since the PS2 era.

Clive will become an Eikon.

For series fans, FF16 will inevitably provoke debate. I expect it to be both beloved and reviled. The discourse will be unbearable. That’s how you can tell it’s a good Final Fantasy, by the way. For newcomers, this presents a different, thoroughly modern Final Fantasy: full of wonder, and joy, and flaws in a way that feels most appropriate to the rest of the series.

Relatively early on in Final Fantasy 16, our first party of adventurers make a pact. They agree that the only way forward for the world – if people accept it or not – is to destroy the crystals that loom large over the land and have defined its destiny for eons. Cid and Clive drive daggers into a small piece of crystal to signify that vow. In a way, that is this game: the crystals are representative of the history and traditions of FF, and whether fans like it or not, some of those traditions have to be desecrated and destroyed.

But it’s not that simple. It never is. In FF16, Clive, Cid, and the others ultimately derive their power from the same mysterious origins as the crystals themselves. To complete their objective, they need the very thing they seek to destroy. And so too does FF16 need that history, those traditions, leveraging some even as it drives a dagger through others. That is the duality of the game. A dichotomy at the heart of its structure, its triumphs, and its failures alike. It’s a fascinating piece of work, a wholly imperfect but nevertheless enthralling experience.

PROS

  • Thrilling action combat
  • A strong story elevated by incredible voice work
  • A complete, polished, fully self-assured product

CONS

  • RPG systems so weak you wonder why they’re there
  • Poor pacing, largely as a result of oodles of padding and busywork
  • While the characters are fantastic, the world itself is not that memorable

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