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Final Fantasy XVI Review – A Beautiful Disaster

Announced in September 2020, Final Fantasy XVI is the newest mainline Final Fantasy game in the franchise. After all the waiting and chaos around Final Fantasy XV, it was great to see the game announced and released within a completely reasonable amount of time. With Final Fantasy XIV’s Creative Business Unit III, led by Naoki Yoshida at the helm of the game, lots of hype and excitement built up. Some of the hype I will say was worth it, and some of it was not.

That being said, there is a lot to say about Final Fantasy XVI. We’re still going to break it down into the four usual categories (story, graphics, sound and audio, and gameplay), but structure it in a good, bad, and (if necessary) ugly format. Meaning for each category, we’ll start with the good, and go down the scale.

This review will remain spoiler-free for anything after the demo. Anything mentioned after the demo story-wise will be mentioned as vaguely as possible to not ruin any of the story’s surprises.

Story

There are a couple of things about the story that I find incredible, the first being the characters. If you played the eikonic challenge in the Final Fantasy XVI demo, you have already encountered this game’s Cid. Voiced by Ralph Ineson, Cidolfus “Cid” Telamon is by far, without a doubt, the franchise’s best Cid. With a voice as smooth as butter, a layered backstory, and a bad-boy attitude, it is incredibly difficult to resist Cid in this game. The Pedro Pascal of Cids, if you will.

Now that we’ve got thirsting over Cid out of the way, I will say I actually enjoyed all of the ally characters, and most of the antagonists as well (a couple got on my nerves, but I think that’s the point). Each character had a backstory and unique personality. I really feel that every voice acting performance in this game was incredibly well done.

While some will argue that Clive Rosfield is just another boring, basic Final Fantasy protagonist, I disagree. Ben Starr’s performance added an insane amount of depth and emotional range to the character. When Clive was angry, I was angry. When Clive was sad, I was balling my eyes out. I wasn’t familiar with Starr’s past work, but I will say his performance as Clive has me hoping this is not the last we see of him in a major video game role.

My second favorite part, as I mentioned in my first impressions, is the lore tools that Final Fantasy XVI provides. A couple of hours into the game, you’re introduced to a character named Harpocrates, a wizardly-looking scholar who seems to know literally everything. Talk to him every time you make progress in the game (he has his own leveling system) to unlock his lore library. The lore library contains descriptions of locations, character dossiers, and descriptions of events (among other things). This tool is really helpful if you want to go deeper into the lore, or put the game down for a bit and refresh your memory upon returning.

In addition to this lore library, you eventually unlock something called “The State of the Realm.” This is a much more complex and interactive set of resources. You have two categories with this: a character chart, and something called a situation map. The situation map goes over, well, the current situation in terms of war efforts, and the character chart lays out all the characters and shows the relationships between them. Both of these things have a timeline that can be navigated using L1 and R1 from the beginning of the game to the present time. I hope other RPG developers are taking notes because both of these tools felt indisposable. 

Even just from what we saw in the demo, the use of eikons in Final Fantasy XVI felt new, interesting, and unique, especially in comparison to other Final Fantasy titles. Eikons were always cool, but they were just a tool summoners got to use in battle or a large force we as the player battled. Attaching them to characters (who are known as “dominants”), makes you feel more emotionally invested in them, and gives an entirely new perspective.

Much like the Dune novel, Final Fantasy XVI’s story has a lot to keep up with (again, those lore tools are very helpful), but the first 20-30 hours story-wise feel solid. You understand the goal, you have a good feel of where the story is going to go, and then everything gets thrown into a blender and spilled on the table. After this 20-30 hour mark, the story seems to split into three different directions, none of which really have full commitment. Certain story elements seem to fade, lose their importance, or even not matter anymore. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is, and you watched Game of Thrones.

The game’s story suffers from clear and obvious cuts and reshoots. Some parts of the story felt like The House of 1000 Cuts – back-to-back cutscenes felt like two completely different games,  and there were some wild inconsistencies. The first big one occurs right after the eikon fight in the eikonic challenge in the demo; Cid says something along the lines of “We gotta get out of here, this place is coming down,” and it is notably very dark outside, and clearly night time. Cut to the next scene, and it’s the middle of the damn day. So hold up – you’re telling me that that building was crashing down, and you needed to escape as quickly as possible, but it apparently took you *checks watch* eight hours to do it? Sure, Jan.

Again, without going into too much detail, you can also tell that certain side characters were supposed to have more of a storyline, and a lot more context added to their stories. One character in particular’s storyline is, for lack of better terms, more political and less action-packed. You can tell there was meant to be more there because the shifts from their scenes back to the main storyline are very drastic. That, as well as having a lot of questions about characters and conversations.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to play drinking games, take a shot every time a scene opens with “some time later.” Much like Game of Thrones, the sense of time in this game is absolutely broken. That mixed with very quickly showing up in places that were as far away from your original point as humanly possible, makes it hard to keep track of the timeline.

While the side quests do offer interesting lore, every single one of them – both main story and side quests – are fetch quests. The way side quests are introduced into the game (and handled, for that matter), is what really made Final Fantasy XVI an exhausting experience. But more on that later.

Graphics

This is an absolutely gorgeous mainline Final Fantasy title. The environments are different from one another – from lush forests to barren wastelands – and there is a lot of detail put into them. The characters are all very well done, and the CGI cutscenes are fantastic as always. 

The map is quite lovely. It reminded me of the Warhammer overworld maps with 3D terrain. As you progress in the main story, and the environments go through changes, the world map will immediately reflect them. Outside of the maps, the menu is well put together, and easy to navigate. My only complaint would be that when you hit L2 or R2 to switch sections, it often lags (I had this issue with three separate controllers). The throwback sprites on the save screen are also a nice touch.

Now this next point is both good and bad: the particle effects. In combat, these particle effects are both a blessing and a curse. They make you really feel like you’re casting magic, and utilizing the power of whatever eikon you’re using. The colors are dazzling, vibrant, and sync with your moves – honestly, a visual spectacle. Until it becomes too much. There was an eikon fight after the halfway point where I literally just could not see what was going on. Particles flying everywhere, a dark background, and lighting effects. It had the potential to be a great fight. You know, if I could see.

This happens a few times, and again with the QTEs, specifically the “cinematic strikes.” In these moments, you are instructed to press square repeatedly as quickly as possible. When this prompt comes up, so does this wild, flashing spirograph-esque design that overlaid the already busy environment with a million-particle battle cinematic behind it. 

As someone who is a huge advocate for colorblind support in gaming and the workplace, I was shocked to see this game didn’t have any. If you’re a colorblind player, did you have issues playing Final Fantasy XVI? If so, please comment and let us know! While the game does lack accessibility overall, it does offer both visual alerts and hearing-impaired subtitles.

If you feel the game is too dark, you are not alone. In-game graphic settings only offer two things: screen brightness, and UI brightness. Due to no other settings in-game, you will have to tweak both your television’s display settings and PS5’s HDR settings.

Since the release of the game, Square Enix has launched patch 1.03, which introduces the ability to turn down the strength of motion blur. This is on a scale of 0-5 and is helpful in dealing with how insufferable motion blur was upon release. Despite this being added to the game, I do recommend playing on “frame rate” mode as opposed to “graphics mode,” as the latter does cause the game to lose significant frames and really chug along.

Facial animation is very inconsistent throughout the game. It’s pretty well done in CGI cutscenes, but in in-engine cutscenes, it’s mediocre at best, and even in some cases, missing entirely. In-engine cutscenes also feel very stiff; almost like playing an old Elder Scrolls, or the first Mass Effect game. Basic camera angles going from one person to the other, little to no body movement, and stiffness really make the game feel older than it should.

Sound and Audio

Final Fantasy XVI’s soundtrack is composed by the legendary Masayoshi Soken, whose rise to fame came from the critically-acclaimed MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV. Soken has been the composer for each expansion, as well as the original release (referred to as 1.0). Back in May of 2021 during the digital fan festival, Soken revealed he had written a good chunk of Shadowbringer’s music while undergoing chemotherapy treatment in the hospital. It was an emotional moment for the developers on stage and fans all around the world watching, especially when he announced his cancer is now in remission.

The battle music is epic, the eikon fight music is great (the final battle was fantastic), and you can hear little bits of Final Fantasy XIV in some tracks, too. What I love about Soken’s work – and this goes for his work in XIV as well – are his piano pieces, and nighttime music. They have always been serene and calming to me. Music that’s there, but doesn’t get in the way while still enhancing the experience.

A small detail I really appreciated – and I hope others noticed and do, too – is how battle music out in the open world works. For example, if you’re out in the open running and encounter a mob, battle music will automatically start playing, and Clive will draw his weapon. You can run and avoid the battle altogether. Once you’re out of range, the battle music will stop and the area music will resume. You run a little bit farther, and you encounter another group of enemies. The battle music will start up again from the exact spot it stopped. I find this attention to detail incredibly impressive and removed the annoyance of having to hear the same part of the same song over and over again.

The ambient noises were great, too. In fact, they were often really convincing and hard to separate from reality. The bird noises, the crickets, and the wind, even, often had me wondering if it was outside or in-game. Living in Texas, the outdoors can be unpredictable, so if you don’t feel this way, it’s perfectly okay. But the sounds aren’t over the top, either. They’re well done, really done at the right frequency. I truly felt as if I were outdoors in the environments presented to me.

One of the funniest parts about Final Fantasy XVI is the dialogue you get in the event you decline a quest. I highly implore everyone to say no before saying yes (don’t worry, you can just talk to them again like it never happened, and happily accept their quest). Some of the dialogue that occurs when you decline a quest is hysterical. And honestly, I wish more games did this. There’s a good handful that I missed, but I’ll definitely be saying no every time in my new game+ playthrough. 

As someone who does enjoy Soken’s music, there was something, however, that seemed off. There were several scenes, areas, and situations where the music just didn’t fit at all whatsoever. To make sure I wasn’t losing my mind, I asked a few others about it after the game’s release and they felt the same. For example, later on in the game, you’re talking to a sad pregnant woman about things that happened in her town. The music in the background sounds like Game of Thrones battle music, where it really should have been a somber piano piece. And then in other situations, it was quite the opposite; playing somber music when it should have been something more intense or upbeat.

There were two things about the audio that drove me up the wall – the first of which was a severe lack of diversity in battle dialogue. Not even three hours into the game, I had already grown incredibly tired of Clive’s lines in battle when talking to Torgal. “Torgal!” “Sic ‘em, boy!” “Get him, boy!” “Get him!” Over.. and over and over again. There wasn’t anything really memorable from the other team members, either. They barely made any noise. 

The second and most annoying thing was the fact there were missing voice lines. In the home base area, there are plenty of NPCs you can talk to (including a shop owner and a blacksmith). As the story progresses, you’re presented with new dialogue options (asking them about what’s going on, etc). When you select these dialogue options, roughly the first three words are voiced, and the rest, well, aren’t.

As an example, let’s say you walk up to Harpocrates and ask him what he knows about the Kingdom of Rosaria, where Clive is from. His line could be “Well you see Clive, in order to really understand the roots of the Kingdom, we must look back at the year 550,” but he’ll only voice “Well you see Clive, in order” and then you have to read the rest. Sometimes they don’t voice any more of the conversation, and other times they do, but again, just the first few words of a sentence. It feels really out of place, and in a way, incredibly lazy.

Gameplay

The most to talk about is truly in Final Fantasy XVI’s gameplay. There’s a lot of good, a significant chunk of bad, and some ugly things about it. The things that are good are really good, and the things that are bad are just downright painful. It’s where both the game truly shines, and equally disappoints; it is in its own way a beautiful disaster.

There are a lot of little gameplay elements that make the game great. In addition to having the lore tools mentioned earlier, the game introduces “active time lore.” While in a cutscene, you can hold down the touchpad and a screen pops up with little articles/descriptions of things relevant to the scene at hand. This is especially helpful if you’re not sure who someone is or where exactly you are while watching a cutscene (whether or not Clive is present).

Other little things I personally find handy are the NPC dialogue log (which appears on the lower left-hand side of the screen, and can be turned off), the fact you don’t have to physically pick up items (you simply walk near them), and the training grounds. If you’re trying to master combos or really min-max in combat, the training grounds provide a bunch of options for you to play with. A controller map is also visible on the right, which makes seeing exactly what you’re doing very clear. 

The thing that definitively gives XVI an upper hand over other Final Fantasy games is its skill tree. If you played Final Fantasy X, you are all too familiar with the seventh circle of hell otherwise referred to as the “sphere grid.” Things have to be done in order, and if you stray too far off the beaten path, you’ve screwed yourself over, and the process of resetting your grid is as convoluted as it possibly could be.

Final Fantasy XVI’s skill tree looks similar to X’s sphere grid, except it can be reset at any time. I found this a marvelous feature and really made figuring out my preferred combat style a breeze. While each eikon has at least four moves, you can only program two abilities per eikon at a time. Using L2, you can cycle between them (and you can change this order, as well). I preferred the Ifrit-Titan-Garuda order. 

To upgrade and master the eikonic abilities, you use ability points, which are gained with each battle you complete. The benefit of mastering any ability is that it can be assigned to any eikon. For example, Garuda gives you a couple of moves that are similar (one is a single-target while the other is an AOE), a counter move, and an AOE tornado. If you wanted to program Rook’s Gambit (counter move) and Gouge (single-target) but also wanted to use Aerial Blast (AOE tornado), you could master Aerial Blast and assign it to Ifrit. This does not hinder the damage output at all whatsoever. It simply gives you the freedom to play the way you want to play.

Once you unlock the three eikons ability sets (this isn’t terribly far into the game), and start spending ability points, the combat really becomes fun and especially smooth. Final Fantasy XVI also has some pretty satisfying final blows, which can be executed on a downed enemy by holding the square button. The game does not explain this to my knowledge; I had accidentally figured it out myself.

Another small thing I really appreciated was NPC dialogue options being marked as completed. When you talk to NPCs that are static (those that are shop owners, give quests, etc), they have multiple dialogue options, and as the story continues, additional options may pop up. Once you select that option, it is noted with a check mark, helping you avoid the “Did I already talk to this person about this?” question. I would love to see this somehow implemented in the next Mass Effect title.

Even though the combat, after a certain point, is incredibly fluid and satisfying, my thumb definitely hurt. Because attack combos are simply pressing square five times in a row, and QTE attacks are also slamming square a bunch, your hand is stuck in the same position making the same movement with the occasional pressing of the triangle button. My thumb hasn’t hurt this bad since P.N.03, and I love that game, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not easy on the thumbs. Having more combat combinations like in Spider-Man would have made it a bit more fun, and probably less painful. You can also hit triangle for basic elemental magic, but it honestly does little to no damage and was only useful when trying to accomplish magic bursts in timed trials (which are unlocked roughly halfway through the game). 

Two of Clive’s basic functions were unpleasant: the lack of a manual sprint, and his ability to jump. If you’re familiar with Final Fantasy XIV, you know that the game offers a manual sprint function, which provides 20 seconds of sprinting every 60 seconds. With the world of Final Fantasy XVI being so big and open, I was very disappointed that we didn’t have a similar sprint ability. What replaces it is Clive automatically starts to sprint after he runs for a certain amount of time? There were plenty of places where I didn’t want him to sprint and had to essentially reset it to get him to stop. Pressing L3 to sprint, I personally feel, would have been great.

Clive’s ability to jump also seems. Pointless. He can’t jump very high, and there’s only a small handful of places where you can really jump over anything. If you thought you could jump over a very low fence to exit a town and into an open area, you can’t. If you think you can jump over certain things in the environment, you can’t. He barely gets his feet four inches off the ground. What’s even more disappointing is that he can’t swim, either. Final Fantasy XVI has plenty of water, and Clive can’t even run in the rivers!

Final Fantasy XVI offers two modes: action-focused, and story-focused. Because of the way this game handles accessibility, the modes (to me, at least) felt no different from one another. Instead of having accessibility settings and adjustments, you had to eat up a gear slot (or all three) to apply accessibility settings. Clive has a slot for his sword, a belt, vambraces, and three accessories. Accessibility is added – or equipped, I should say – by using up to three of five rings given to you at the beginning of the game.

I had initially had the ring of timely assistance (Torgal’s actions automatically adapting to Clive’s) and the ring of timely focus (slows down right before an evadable enemy attack, prompting an R1 dodge) equipped. Because of the benefits of other accessories, I had dropped timely assistance and honestly forgot all about Torgal and the fact I had to control him entirely. On the lower left side of the screen, you have your d-pad commands which can be assigned to three items of your choice (I typically had potion, high potion, and then one of the damage or defensive buff items). By pressing left on the d-pad, you switch to Torgal’s actions, which are sic, heal, and ravage. I was so focused on my combat and item usage that I never thought twice about manually commanding Torgal to attack. 

The other three rings are the ring of timely evasion (Clive automatically evades attacks), a ring of timely strikes (ability combinations can be executed by simply pressing square), and the ring of timely healing (Clive will automatically use a potion when his HP falls below a certain point). Timely evasion and timely focus cannot be equipped at the same time, as they are very similar in function. As the game goes on, you pick up other accessories that benefit you in other ways. Some give you stat boosts, others increase the damage of a specific move, and some even dramatically shorten cooldown times for eikonic abilities. 

I can absolutely see many players needing to use all three slots for accessibility, which in my opinion hinders the experience (in the sense you either have to pick accessibility or be able to customize your combat experience). The rings should have been options, and you should have been able to utilize the three accessory slots in whichever way you wanted. The accessories are made to be swapped out depending on what your combat style is at any given moment, and you’re often making concessions because of the accessibility rings.

There are some small nuisances worth mentioning without going into grave detail. You can only sort your items (weapons, accessories, etc) alphabetically, the predominantly QTE eikon fights can be boring to play, all these seals Clive receives from NPCs to wear and show allegiance aren’t visible at all (when he should look like a decked out Girl Scout), and the abundance of title/chapter screens feels excessive. These are all minor things that don’t change how I feel about the game too much, but I feel could have been improved upon.

But there are gameplay elements that drove me up the wall. Elements of this game that truly made it a genuinely exhausting experience, and in some cases, left me feeling empty. Final Fantasy XVI has little to no actual RPG elements, which is a huge shift from other games in the franchise. You have zero party member management. Your teammates did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Sometimes they felt useful and other times they felt useless. The “crafting” is such a basic function that I can’t even really call it “crafting” as much as I can call it “handing an NPC some materials to make it for me.” Even the crafting in The Last of Us Part II felt more RPG-like than the crafting in Final Fantasy XVI. 

Final Fantasy XVI is an action game. As much as I want to believe myself when I say it’s an action RPG, it’s really an action game with hardly noticeable RPG elements. I can understand Square’s approach in wanting to make XVI the new mainstream Final Fantasy, like what VII was in the 90s. But even Final Fantasy VII didn’t sacrifice its RPG elements for the gamble of mass appeal. This is where Final Fantasy VII Remake did action RPG right, and where XVI fell short. Although there were some issues with VII’s material-weapon-ability system (and the game’s lack of truly explaining how it worked), it felt like an action RPG because you could swap weapons for party members, level certain things for them, and assign them accessories and different abilities. I would have loved to do that in XVI and the absence of that truly left a hole in my heart.

But the thing that really made this game exhausting and tough to play, especially in such a short amount of time, is the side quests. The side quests are not only boring in gameplay, but they completely ruin the pacing of the game. And note that if you do not complete the side quests as they pop up in the first half of the game, you will get locked out of doing them. Coming up on the end of the game, I had a good handful of side quests and they weren’t short by any means. These quests, with all their dialogue and how much distance you had to travel, took me hours. I knew I was approaching the end, and I was so ready to experience the big finale.

After one main story quest and one epic cutscene – literally right before the last quest – another 10-15 side quests popped up. I remember groaning out loud and sinking into my couch, begging for it to be over. As I mentioned earlier, the side quests provide a lot of really interesting lore, but they’re all fetch quests. Every last one of them. Go talk to this person, then go talk to this person, and then go get this item and take it to this person, and bring it back, sometimes in a different order, or just more times than the last quest. 

The side quests are where the stiff in-engine cutscenes all occurred. Just Clive staring at an NPC or two, everyone with their arms at their sides, the camera just going back and forth as the other spoke. It felt so aged, and tiring. The only thing I could think to myself was, “Aren’t we beyond this?” Final Fantasy VII Remake had a nice damper between side quests with the minigames and combat trials you could do for prizes and even scavenger hunts for orchestrion rolls (in XVI, they are just wildly overpriced). It kept the game fresh, and it gave you variety. Final Fantasy XVI was just one or the other: side quests, or battles.

Counting the Hunt Board (which you eventually unlock) into this side quest category, there was one aspect of this that made zero sense to me. If you’re familiar with hunts in Final Fantasy XIV, you know that you can pick up mark bills in different towns. These mark bills are wanted posters for specific notorious monsters. You get the name and rank, the amount of targets (sometimes it’s more than one), the general location, and the reward. When you agree to the mark, the little poster sits in your key items inventory, so you can come back to it later on in case you forgot where the notorious monster is, or what the reward is.

Unfortunately in Final Fantasy XVI, you don’t get this luxury, which I feel should be a basic feature. I did not mind the hints in the description telling you where to find the notorious monsters (some gave you a general area, whereas S-Ranks had a description you had to comb for details), but I did mind the fact I had to go back to the board every single time I wanted to revisit the information. It wasn’t long before I started writing all of them down, and I highly implore you to do the same (or take pictures of them).

The hunts are fun, and definitely necessary if you want to craft the best weapon, belt, and vambraces in the game. As you make your way through the story, more hunts will pop up alongside side quests. Do not take this as a “do it now or never” thing, as some are definitely higher level and will require you to be closer to level 50 to beat. In the midst of all the side quests, these hunts were a welcome refreshment. I enjoyed doing a handful of these hunts back-to-back as they felt different from one another, utilizing a wide variety of fight mechanics.

Conclusion

With all of that being said, Final Fantasy XVI is a fantastic game. It’s developed incredibly well, and once again sucked in fans around the world, both new to the franchise, and those who have been on this wild ride for quite some time. XVI is not perfect, and while I can understand why some gave it a perfect score, the issues I have with the game aren’t something I can brush off. I have at this point spent over 90 hours with it, and I can’t sweep my issues with it under the rug.

I am glad I finished it before making my final decision, as the story did have a solid ending. It’s not the ending I would have chosen, and it most definitely upset me in more ways than one, but I understood why it was necessary. While there has been no announcement or plan stated publicly for DLC, I have no doubt in my mind that we will at some point see DLC for XVI. There’s a handful of things that could be explored and a very obvious missing part that we could dive into with a new piece of story to enjoy.

Here at The Koalition, we rate our games on a 5-star system. As much as I want to get incredibly nitty-gritty and say this game is a 4.25 out of 5, the characters, moldable combat styles, and emotional moments in the story push it to a 4.5 out of 5. Had I given this game a score at the 40-hour mark, it would not be this high.

While I do have a lot of criticisms about Final Fantasy XVI, the good does outweigh the bad. It doesn’t get a full pass for me to turn the other way on my issues with it but had certain things been addressed and adjusted, I truly feel this game could have been perfect.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This review was written based on a digital review copy of Final Fantasy XVI for PlayStation 5 provided by Square Enix.

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