|Developer||Creative Business Unit III|
Final Fantasy’s track record is far from immaculate. Between the controversial side games like Dissidia and Type 0, XIV’s problematic early days, and XV’s novel based on canceled DLC, it’s almost a wonder how the franchise still sells enough to justify making more games. The Final Fantasy name still carries weight, but not nearly as much as before. So now, with the release of the next numbered entry, we’re faced with one question: can Final Fantasy XVI possibly be good enough to redeem the series, or should Square Enix have put it to rest a long time ago?
When Square Enix announced FFXVI, my first thought was, “ugh, another one?” The reveal trailer didn’t help my skepticism much. Final Fantasy XV burned me, and it took six years to gather the wherewithal to finally finish it. Even still, I figured I’d play XVI anyway, just to see if maybe it could be better. The second trailer hooked me, however, and I’ve looked forward to the release since. So, let’s take a look at what’s on offer, and see if it was worth the wait.
Strong Language: The game earns its M-rating in this category alone. All of the language one would expect is present here. Players will hear a steady stream of f***, b*****d, b***h, s***, a**, h***, and d***.
Violence: On top of a lot of blood, cutscenes show people killed in battle, consumed by fire, crushed by boulders, impaled, hanged, a few instances of graphic dismemberment, and the corpses of characters who had been killed as human sacrifices. There are depictions of suicide and abuse as well.
Smoking/Drinking: Several characters smoke, and most characters drink wine or other alcohol.
Sexual Content: There are about half a dozen scenes with almost-graphic nudity, but not all of them are in a sexual context. One cutscene nearly veers into a sex scene as a woman climbs onto top of a man, both naked. However, the camera is always angled so that nothing is ever explicitly shown, except for a few characters’ backsides. In addition to that, there’s a scene in a brothel, and while players won’t see anything, they will hear a bit coming from nearby rooms. In a few scenes scattered throughout the game, characters kiss, including a scene with two men. There are occasional innuendo-laden jokes.
Spiritual Content: Most of the inhabitants consider the crystals divine. Characters pray to various deities, such as one known as The Founder, as well as a star called Metia. A goddess named Greagor holds primacy over the others. There is a monotheistic cult later in the game that worships a being they consider the Almighty. One character is a religious zealot whose life goal is to fight to bring about his god’s will at any cost. There are rituals surrounding the cult and the people beg for salvation. A few characters consult astrologers. There is a religion called the Crystalline Orthodox, whose priests teach that Bearers—humans with the ability to use magic without crystals—are abominations, and who practice human sacrifice to the crystals in order to purify Bearers. Certain enemy attacks are named after Biblical terms, such as “Heavenly Host.”
Other Negative Themes: Bearers being sold as slaves and treated as subhuman are major elements of the story.
Positive Themes: The primary theme of the game is love, and love for others drives many of the characters. Other major themes of the story involve fighting against tyranny to free slaves, as well as seeing people as equals without discrimination. There are instances of people sacrificing themselves to save others.
Visually, the game is spectacular. The environments are beautiful, the chocobos are adorable, and the monsters—especially the goblins—are terrifying. And that’s just during regular gameplay. The cutscenes look even better, and the cinematics during the Eikon battles—more on those later—are mesmerizing.
As for the music, Masayoshi Soken did an outstanding job composing the soundtrack. At times epic, at times soothing, and everywhere in between, this is one of the best soundtracks in the series. It perfects the atmosphere with each shift in tone. There are several moments that are prime examples of how music can elevate an already great scene even further.
The openness of the world is perfectly balanced. It is more linear than open world entries like Final Fantasy XV, but it’s also more open than Final Fantasy VII Remake. Where you can go is limited, but not restrictive. Best of all, the environments are gorgeous.
There are four primary places you get to explore, and you “unlock” more as the game progresses. Obelisks that you find scattered throughout each region serve as fast travel points. As you activate more obelisks, the list of fast travel points grows. Best of all, you can go to any of them at will. Every region is its own smaller kind of open world, reminiscent of classic Zelda games. The game will lock you out of fast travel as the story necessitates, but that only happens occasionally. There are incentives to explore and learn the maps as well.
At its core, this is an Action RPG. As with previous Final Fantasy titles, once you’ve smacked around a stronger enemy enough, they will become staggered. That is your opportunity to deal as much damage as you can with your strongest abilities. They are only staggered for so long, so you have to work quickly.
You have limited space for healing items in your inventory, and no curative magic for when things get hot. Caution is essential. If you time it right, you can dodge just about any attack, but that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. You can also parry by attacking at the same moment as the enemy so that weapons clash, but that’s even more difficult. As you progress, the battles become harder. However, it’s balanced so well that it’s challenging without being difficult. You still get the satisfaction of taking down a strong opponent, without the frustration of dying a dozen times. In that way, it’s more accessible than Souls-likes. One of the most satisfying moments for me came when I defeated a major boss at the last second, when I had no potions, and all it would take to kill me was one more hit.
At specific points in the story, you unlock new Eikonic powers. Each Eikon has a number of abilities you can unlock by spending Ability Points, which you earn in battles. You can have up to three Eikons equipped at any time, and there are two ability slots per Eikon. These powers add a new level of strategy and experimentation to the battles. And the limited number of Eikons you can have equipped simultaneously adds to the replay value, so you can try out different combinations. Best of all, you can reset all of your abilities to have all of your AP refunded in order to buy different upgrades with no penalty.
Another thing I really appreciated about the battles is the ally AI. First off, they don’t have HP, so you can focus on the battle rather than spending half the time healing them instead of doing damage to a boss. Second, when you find yourself up against one strong enemy and a dozen lackies, you don’t need to fight off the weaker ones. You can if you’d like, but your companions will take care of them if you choose to focus on the strongest one. There is actually a point to having them with you, and that’s refreshing.
All of these things combined make for an incredibly fun combat system. There is a nuance to it, but it’s easy to understand and it is ultimately a matter of skill. It’s complex, but not complicated.
The Eikon battles are some of my favorite moments in the game. I love grand-scope fights, and the ones here go all out. Once again, they’re not overly difficult, as the purpose is more for the spectacle and the story rather than beating you to a pulp. Each one gets progressively crazier, and I can’t get enough of them. Those kinds of scenes are why I love Eastern Fantasy so much.
After one of the major turning points in the game, you gain the option to go hunting for certain marks. The hunt board will give you basic information, such as difficulty level—ranked by letter from C to S—and rewards. It also gives you a vague description of where the target was last seen, and it’s up to you to remember where to find it.
Completing the hunts comes with several rewards. They’re a good way to earn extra gil, but more importantly, certain marks give you essential materials—orichalcum, for one—that you need for crafting better weapons and armor. Only one story mission requires you to do a specific hunt; the rest are optional.
Don’t be too hasty to skip them, though. Hunts also earn you renown. As you build up your renown, you hit benchmarks that unlock various rewards. Sometimes those prizes are songs to play in the hideaway, sometimes they’re gear or crafting materials, and sometimes they’re Ability Points. They’re spaced out enough to make you work for them, but not so far as to seem pointless. There are more ways to get renown, but in order to earn enough for all the rewards, you’ll have to do all the side activities.
In the hideaway there is something called the Arete Stone. It’s another optional diversion, focused primarily on honing your skills. Though there isn’t much to do with it when you first see it, there is plenty later. There are three activities, plus a hidden one unlocked later. The first is the Hall of Virtue, which is a simple battle simulator where you can test out weapons and abilities.
The second is Arcade Mode, which takes you back through a chunk of a previous chapter and gives you a score. You can replay it as many times as you like and try to beat your previous score. It’s a fun way to test out different abilities and see what combination is most effective.
Thirdly, we have Stage Replay. As the name indicates, that one takes you back through a chapter—though, not every one is available—with all of your current gear and current level. The loot drops are different, and the experience points earned are lower. But enemies maintain their original levels. I tore through the earliest one at level 47, and it was a blast to one-shot almost everything.
Side quests are balanced perfectly. Some reward you with new items or weapons, some impact the story, and others develop the world even more. A few of the side missions in Sanbreque are dark, and they show how horrifically Bearers are treated. They’re not all gloomy, however. We do see swift justice in some of them. Then, near the end of the game, the side quests ramp up the emotional impact. Some are moving, and some are tragic, and they add so much to the game. It’s incredible.
To sum up this section: Final Fantasy XVI is a lot of fun. The combat is great, exploration is a joy, and the extracurricular activities are more than worth the time. However, that’s only enough to be a contender for Game of the Year, and another could easily take that crown. After all, a lot of games are fun to play, so story and characters are what matter most to me. So, let’s move on to those.
Clive may be the best Final Fantasy protagonist ever. He isn’t mopey like Cloud, Squall, and Lightning. He’s not overly goofy like Tidus and Zidane. He’s serious, but he has a fun personality that often comes out, and he’s funny. He expresses his love and devotion to those around him and is passionate about helping and defending the weak.
Jill is equally as good as Clive. She’s strong, she’s not a damsel-in-distress, and most importantly, she isn’t a stereotype. She’s one of the most well-written women in video games.
This wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without a Cid. Of all the Cids in the franchise, Cidolfus Telamon is my favorite. Honestly, it came as a shock to me; I’ve always been partial to Cid Highwind from VII. But Cidolfus has an electrifying personality, and a brilliant voice actor. The banter between him and Clive is a constant source of humor without ruining the gravity of the situation.
There are a large number of other lovable characters. Gav and Charon are two of my favorites. My number one, though, is Torgal. He is, without a doubt, the best dog in video games. And yes, you can pet him.
The characters, main and side, stand out from the rest in the franchise, and from most games in general. This game is a masterclass in character development and making the player fall in love. I don’t remember the last time I cared so much about the characters of any media, not just video games.
One thing the game is blessedly missing, is the “anime character” trope most JRPGs inevitably include. Almost every Japanese RPG I can think of, whether classical or modern, parallels anime character archetypes. On the female character side, that means they have either the hypercompetent, emotionless girl (compare Kasane in Scarlet Nexus with Mikasa in Attack on Titan), the airheaded ditz (Selphie in Final Fantasy VIII, and Aisha in Outlaw Star), or both. And typically, one or more of the women will be chronically underdressed. This game has none of that. All of the women are realistic and have normal emotions and personalities. And even Shiva, who historically has had barely any covering, is fully clothed here.
On the male character side, there are the tropes of the lech (Vashyron in Resonance of Fate and Meliodas in Seven Deadly Sins), and the goofball who is just there for comic relief, then only becomes awesome when everything hits the fan (Prompto in FFXV and Goku, and too many other anime protagonists). Once more, the men in this game are well-written, and are masculine rather than macho, and have no problem expressing their emotions.
With the tropes, JRPGs often start to feel like an interactive anime. Which isn’t necessarily bad, if that’s what you like or want to play. All in its right place. But the seriousness of FFXVI’s characters is refreshing.
The final thing that elevates the characters above other games is the relationships. Seeing the characters engage with each other is very moving. Most games try to add depth to their relationships, but oftentimes come across as just that: an attempt. Most games have shallow friendships with a veneer that hints at something deeper. But that is not the case here. There’s a real substance to all of the interactions. You can feel that there’s more under the surface, and that helps you connect with the characters better. It’s amazing.
It’s almost impossible to say much about the story itself without giving a ton of spoilers. I’ll do my best to avoid that. I can say, however, that from the beginning of the game, it’s clear that Clive is out for revenge. But that quickly morphs into something so much more. The story is a rollercoaster in the best ways. It has genuinely surprising twists, epic battles, romance, joy, tragedy, betrayal, and hope. What is there not to love?
The worldbuilding is incredible. Enough is given in the narrative to help ground the world and make it feel real, without there being too much boring exposition. You can also learn more by visiting Harpocrates in the hideaway. The more you visit him, the more you can read about the characters, the world, and the monsters. It’s optional, but worth it. Visiting him after a little while also increases your historian level, and with that comes a small easter egg for fans of the classic games.
Though set in a vaguely Medieval Europe-esque world, there’s a distinctly Japanese flair to the storytelling. The Eikon battles aren’t something you would normally see from a Western storyteller—a fact I lament—and some of the more epic set pieces make it stand out as so much more than the typical Medieval Europe fantasy. This game is an incredible showcase of what fantasy can be, if only more writers would expand their imaginations past the popular medieval books and TV shows.
Valisthea is a bleak world. It’s not so in a blatant, gothic way, as Souls-likes typically are. It’s much more subtle, emotional. Loss and grief are recurring motifs, and many side quests drive the point home even further. From characters losing loved ones, to Bearers being killed for entertainment, one might wonder why anyone would want to play such a depressing game.
However, it is exactly because of how grim the game is that it’s so powerful. All the darkness makes the happy moments that much more poignant. When the game gives you a reason to smile or laugh—and there are plenty—it’s all the more brilliant. My two favorite side quests are near the end of the game, and both are tearjerkers because of how beautiful the moments are. As much as grief is a major theme of the game, equally so is healing.
I don’t get overly emotional with video games. In fact, I don’t recall any game ever making me cry. The closest I’ve ever gotten is misty-eyed, but that’s hardly the same. For some reason, games just don’t affect me as deeply as other media. Then this game turned to the rest and said, “hold my ale.”
Whether it was from beauty and joy, or heartbreaking tragedy, this game brought me to tears many times. I’ve never been so invested in a game and its characters. The Mass Effect and The Last of Us series are the only ones that have come close, but even they aren’t on the same level as this one. And that is why FFXVI succeeded where all the rest have failed.
I’ve said a lot of good things about this game, haven’t I? In this age of AAA studios releasing broken games, there must be a catch. What is holding this game back? Well, I think now would be a good time to address my issues.
This is where I’d put my complaints, if I had any. I’m not even trying to be facetious. I spent the entire game looking for flaws with which to balance my praise, and I kept coming up empty. I thoroughly enjoyed my time, all the while waiting for that Damoclean sword to drop. Except, it never did. Instead of my head, it was the credits that rolled.
The closest thing I have to a complaint is the ending, which will no doubt divide players. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with it; I found it powerful, and it’s the best ending they could have done. It just wasn’t the ending I wanted. That’s nothing more than a creative difference, and it’s not a true complaint. I love the ending all the same.
I set my expectations high for this game, and it exceeded them all by miles. Yes, the gameplay, graphics, and soundtrack are all brilliant. They alone make it a Game of the Year contender. But for me, it’s the story and characters that set it apart from every other game. Final Fantasy XVI is a masterpiece. I am still amazed by the experience. It is more than just my Game of the Year.
For as long as I can remember, Final Fantasy VII and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time have been my two favorite games, period. Their stories helped shape who I am, and I never thought any game could ever take their place. So it is with utter shock that I admit I was wrong. Final Fantasy XVI is the greatest game I’ve ever played.
The Bottom Line
Final Fantasy XVI is the pinnacle of the franchise, the fantasy genre, and gaming overall.