Final Fantasy XVI is getting close to its release date, and a few weeks ago I flew to London to experience the game for a few hours. Today, I can finally share how I feel about my time with the next mainline installment of the storied Final Fantasy franchise.
I have played every Final Fantasy game since the original on the NES, and I am old enough to actually have grown up with the franchise. I have plenty of sweet memories related to it, and a few not-so-sweet. When I heard that XIV had been placed in the hands of Naoki Yoshida and many among the team that worked (and still work) on XIV, I was surprised and unsurprised at the same time.
On one side, it makes perfect sense to give your next big game to the team that created and runs the most successful and profitable title within the franchise. On the other hand, it takes a lot of trust and guts to place developers used to working on an MMORPG in charge of a single-player RPG, especially when we’re talking about a series that has been rather polarizing as of late. It’s obvious that a lot rides on the potential success of XVI.
Yet, those who know me also know that Final Fantasy XIV isn’t just my favorite MMORPG of all time (even beyond Dark Age of Camelot, another MMO near and dear to my heart the love for which I share with Yoshida-san), but it’s also my favorite Final Fantasy game ever.
I’ve played it since day one of its original and much-maligned 1.0 release. I was there for the dark times in which most players hated it and Yoshida-san and his team were heads down working hard to steer the sinking ship in a positive direction. I was there when Dalamud fell and the servers went dark, and I was there when A Realm Reborn launched and miraculously managed to invert the audience’s perception (something absolutely unprecedented in the MMORPG market). I was there throughout the successful cavalcade that forged the game as one of the most beloved MMORPGs in the market and Final Fantasy games in general. Not only it has been a relevant part of my gaming life for the past 13 years, but it represents by far the best and most uplifting story I have written in my over 20 years of gaming journalism.
This is why I ultimately feel that it’s perfectly appropriate that Naoki Yoshida and part of his Final Fantasy XIV team have been put in charge of XVI (Incidentally, you should definitely read my interview with Yoshida-san done just after I played the demo). The series has gone through some up and downs and hard times, and so did the XIV team. They have ultimately succeeded, and from what I have played so far of the new game, we may definitely be looking at another potential groundbreaking success.
The visuals are certainly impressive, and I’m not just talking about pure spectacle. While that’s certainly present (and there is a lot of it, especially when the massive Eikons are involved), it’s more a matter of style. Final Fantasy XVI must be the most grounded and realistic game I’ve seen in the franchise. It reminds me a bit of XII and Tactics, but with the gritty realism cranked up to eleven, almost as if they had a love child with The Witcher.
While there are plenty of fantastic elements like magic, chocobos, and incredible powers flying all over the place, everything feels like it could be set in a real medieval world in which the rules are simply a little different. Environment, architecture, character design, and costume design all come together to create this feeling which is certainly fresh for the franchise. For instance, chocobos are realistically depicted as war mounts and beasts of burden. While this isn’t completely new, it’s done in a way that feels different from most of their previous depictions, which leaned much more into their cuteness and endearing nature.
Chocobos aren’t the only element that has become very grounded in what you’d expect from a realistic world. The unflinching depiction of war in general has become dramatically more impactful. That’s something we’ve seen in part in XIV and other FF games, but here it has become really striking. At least from what I saw so far, Final Fantasy XVI‘s battlefields are less occasions for epic deeds and heroism, and more places where thousands of people die and suffer, ground into dust by the terrible nature of the conflict.
While realism is certainly a keyword in this game, it doesn’t abandon its fantasy nature. The beauty is in the balance. The world is full of impressive and fantastic vistas (which still mostly look within the realm of the possible), and the bombastic battles among eikons are when the developers really leaned into the fact that this is still, ultimately, a Final Fantasy.
This is definitely well-complemented by the music. Of course, I haven’t experienced all that the soundtrack has to offer, but it appears that Masayoshi Soken may have created another score that will be considered a classic for years to come. If you know his music, you may not be surprised, but those who haven’t played the MMORPG and don’t have experienced what Soken-san can do just yet are in for quite the ride.
I’ve played the demo with Japanese voiceovers. Not only that’s my personal preference, but I have a feeling that most other previews you’ll read did with the English option selected, so you probably don’t need just another report on that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Japanese voice track is a masterpiece that will likely satisfy the most demanding of enthusiasts. The actors did a fantastic job at conveying each character’s feelings pretty much at all times, making them even more relatable.
Beyond the top-notch production values, the storytelling is what impressed me the most. Albeit I’m limited in what I can tell you without spoiling plot points, you can expect the narration and characters to feel ultimately very relatable exactly because they’re so grounded.
The game doesn’t shy away from depicting important themes both on the realm of large, world-changing events, and on a much smaller and personal scale. I was impressed by the skillful depiction of national and international politics (both in peace and in war), with plenty of intrigue that may remind you of a David Eddings novel. Yet, when you go down to the micro level, you see the feelings of characters examined in great depth thanks to the exploration of personal problems like the relationships with their parents or spouses, or how to deal with unsavory themes like slavery and guilt.
One of the most impressive things I’ve seen is the realistic depiction of sexual interaction. Most games either reduce it to simple fanservice or compartmentalize it into some sort of mechanic in which you have to gain your chosen partner’s affection to get into their pants as a reward. Games in which sexual attraction is something that is integrated and woven seamlessly into the story are rare, and nearly non-existent in Japan (at least outside of visual novels, but that’s a completely different market). I’m not even talking about actual sex per se, but the depiction of characters that act openly like they’re sexually attracted to each other in a way that you could expect from real people. This is something that absolutely happens in Final Fantasy XVI, and I loved every second of what I saw.
Ultimately, the people you meet in the game feel by all means like real people, and I think this may very well be one of the elements that could crown this game as a real classic. I have a feeling that this is something Square Enix tried hard to achieve with Forspoken, but perhaps they tried a bit too hard and it ended up feeling artificial for a number of players (albeit I actually mostly enjoyed it). On the other hand, from what I have seen so far, Final Fantasy XVI fully succeeds in that attempt in a way that will probably be embraced much more broadly.
Final Fantasy XVI is not an open-world game, but it isn’t a linear game either. It includes both linear segments and much larger areas that encourage roaming and exploration. Yet, even the linear portions reward the player who doesn’t just go straight through the beaten path. If you take the time to explore the extremely numerous optional side paths, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of loot, exactly like you would expect from a classic Final Fantasy game.
On the other hand, the larger areas provide you with the freedom to stretch your legs, find quests and side stories, take in the vistas, and enjoy a breather between the tighter storytelling moments. I haven’t played the game long enough to be sure that the balance between the two elements is just right, but the fact that both exist and both appear to be compelling from what I’ve been able to test is certainly a positive signal.
Combat is probably what people are going to either love or hate. If you’re among the “turn-based only!” crowd, this may not be your cup of tea. Unlike the Final Fantasy VII Remake, XIV is uncompromising in its action RPG nature. That being said, if you do like action, you’re probably going to adore the battles in this game. They feel flashy, visceral, impactful, and very satisfying. You’re gradually provided with a wide variety of actions and spells that certainly feel very diverse in their nature, encouraging their tactical and skillful use against different enemies.
Even more interestingly, the game feels genuinely Challenging. I’m no action game god, and you shouldn’t expect something borderline frustrating like a Souls-like, but timing and situational awareness are very important unless you want to have to guzzle potions like a madman (and likely run out when you really need them).
This is not to say that if you aren’t good at action games you’re out of luck. Square Enix has implemented a set of “Timely Accessories” and you can select the “Story-Focused” mode to have them all equipped by default, almost like the developers wanted to tell you that there’s no shame in getting some help. You can equip them all or only one or some, depending on which areas of action combat you feel the weakest at, and they’ll helpfully remove that worry from your gameplay.
While I’ve tested the Timely Accessories to see how they work, and they absolutely do a great job in encouraging a more relaxing gameplay, I’ve made a point to play the whole available demo without them, and I came out from the experience very satisfied by the balance and difficulty. I’m the kind of player who enjoys gameplay that isn’t a walk in the park but I don’t go as far as loving the utter frustration leading to the final satisfaction of FromSoftware’s Soulsborne games. I’m not getting any younger and my reflexes aren’t what they used to be. Final Fantasy XVI without any aid pretty much hit that sweet spot for me.
Most of the time, you won’t fight alone in this game. You’ll be accompanied by Clive’s canine companion Torgal, to whom you can impart simple orders. While the system isn’t extremely complex, it’s another great tool at your disposal to provide another level of depth to the already satisfying battles. He’s also absolutely adorable, which never hurts. On the other hand, human companions act on their own governed by the AI, and from what I’ve seen, they do a pretty good job at watching your back and helping you out.
Eikon battles are a completely different pair of sleeves. While I haven’t tried many of them, it appears that each is its own unique animal, and what I did try was absolutely spectacular, albeit it didn’t feel as challenging as normal battles did. It’s probable, though, that the difficulty will ramp up as the game progresses.
There are occasional quick-time events, albeit they’re not what we’re mostly used to. In most games, you have to rely on looking at the prompt and then precisely hitting the required buttons. Here, the buttons to press precisely correspond to the action that is being performed on screen, so theoretically, you wouldn’t even need the prompt to guess what button you need to press if you’re paying attention. These sequences are also very forgiving timing-wise, so you can consider them more a way to avoid having to just watch a cutscene during a combat transition, and inject a little of interactivity into it. If you’re used to them during raids in Final Fantasy XIV, you’ll feel perfectly at home, as they’re basically the same thing.
Character progression is pretty standard. You earn XP by defeating enemies and you level up as usual while automatically increasing your base stats. You can also unlock and level up abilities, and purchase increasingly powerful equipment and upgrade it. The game doesn’t really reinvent the wheel on this front and it really doesn’t need to.
There is plenty of side content to explore including the “Active Time Lore” menu that will let you delve deeper into the background of the story and characters (which I absolutely love) and collectible elements like the Thousand Tomes or the Orchestrion that lets you unlock and listen to the game’s music. This is another enjoyable feature lifted pretty much directly from Final Fantasy XIV.
Incidentally, I also really enjoyed the fact that we’re playing a slightly older character (albeit you can play parts of his youth as well). The Final Fantasy series has been around for a long time, and many of its veteran fans aren’t spring chicken anymore. I have a feeling that Clive will be more relatable for most than the usual strapping youngster. Kazuma Kiryu from the Like a Dragon series has been an older dude for a long time, and people love him, after all.
Ultimately, I went into the demo with lofty expectations, and Final Fantasy XVI not only matched them but blew them out of the water. I’ve gone exclusively with PC gaming so far this generation, and I planned to wait for a PC version. The gameplay and storytelling I’ve experienced are pushing me to purchase a PS5 (kicking and screaming). I don’t think I can wait for a PC version that no one knows when it’ll come. I suppose it’s mission accomplished for Sony’s pervasive tactic of purchasing timed third-party exclusives (and believe me, I do feel a little dirty for giving in), but even more so, it’s certainly a testament to how good playing this game felt. None of the games released this generation, not even Sony’s own much-boasted blockbusters, came even close to persuading me to buy a console. Yet, a partial demo of Final Fantasy XVI did, and it didn’t even break a sweat. I suppose I’m weaker than I expected to be.
I don’t even remember the last time that I’ve been this excited about a Final Fantasy game. Of course, it’s too early to gauge whether it’s really going to be as good as it seems, but for now, I have a really, really good feeling.
TechRaptor previewed Final Fantasy XVI at an in-person event organized by Square Enix on PS5 and played multiple demo segments over several hours. Square Enix provided TechRaptor with travel and accommodation to enable our presence at the event.