Final Fantasy XVI
Released: June 12, 2023
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
There is a sidequest deep into Final Fantasy XVI’s story where you discover a tribe of goblins protected by a human sellsword. Up to this point, goblins had been mere combat fodder while XVI’s supporting lore incongruously emphasized how “Beastmen” such as they were capable of speech, culture, and even currency. Killing goblins and their kin had low-key disturbed me from the start, as a game otherwise critical of bigotry and othering presented sentient races for the protagonist to other in such a bigoted manner he disgustedly refers to orcs as “animals.”
With this quest, Final Fantasy XVI suddenly asks the player to sympathize with the “beasts” they’ve spent potentially dozens of hours slaughtering, as their background story details take center stage. These goblins are hungry, frightened, and trying to survive after being driven from their home by XVI’s allegory for climate change. Our hilariously named protagonist - he’s called Clive - is entreatied to spare the piteous victims of circumstance, which he does.
The very next sidequest I did, just minutes later, featured an NPC in the exact same area being menaced by goblins. Clive didn’t even question the situation as he stabbed, slashed, burned and electrocuted them to death, hurling pejorative threats the whole time. These goblins, so foreign to the region they don’t naturally spawn there, had to have literally been among the same ones I’d just been asked to sympathize with, but there is no internal conflict for Clive - the quests were unrelated, so as far as the game was concerned, consequences simply didn’t exist.
Goblins are pure combat fodder, after all, except for those scant few minutes when the writers decide they aren’t.
These are two throwaway quests that you may feel just received an unwarranted number of weighty paragraphs, but I believe that to truly understand how utterly frustrating Final Fantasy XVI’s writing is, the paradox of these scenarios is key. Final Fantasy XVI is a game that says a lot but doesn’t seem to know what’s being said, making bold but thoughtless attempts to tackle a heavy themes with such inconsistency the results border on hypocritical.
I tell you what though, it’s a pretty good videogame when it wants to be!
When Final Fantasy XVI sticks to being an extravagant action game that adorably apes of Game of Thrones with a side of wacky monster brawls, it’s an utter joy. When it’s a depressing jaunt through a world so irredeemably cruel that even its impoverished smallfolk are fervidly gleeful about abusing slaves, it’s pure shit. When you’re controlling a massive fire beast and punching the hell out of a stone giant five times your size, it’s hilariously exciting. When you’re trudging back and forth performing dull fetch quests in the company of flat characters, it’s a damn slog. Final Fantasy XVI is full of contradictions, at once enthralling and exasperating with incredible moments under perpetual threat of getting undermined by haphazard pacing and just plain bad storytelling.
Perhaps the single biggest positive I can grant XVI is that it’s given up trying to compromise with Final Fantasy’s RPG roots, instead fully embracing the action genre Square Enix was edging toward with every confused hybrid it made. An historically messy blend of genres has been ditched in favor of direct combat with a solo character, one sharing more DNA with Devil May Cry than any of its own predecessors. The result is Final Fantasy in name only, but while I miss the series’ older roleplaying incarnations, I can’t deny binning their trappings has resulted in a far better game than if Square Enix had only gone halfway again. Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another non-actionized mainline Final Fantasy, I’m wholly in favor of this iteration finally pulling the bandaid off.
Clive (lol) Rosfield tackles enemies with his trusty sword and a number of moves that Dante himself would not only be proud of but claim gimmick infringement over. Hell, this lad literally copies DMC’s stinger attack, and I’m glad because it’s one of the best moves in either game. Fighting is fast, responsive, and quite fun indeed, as Clivey-Boy zips around from foe to foe, deftly dodging attacks and performing visually satisfying counters when evading with perfect timing. As well as melee attacks, there’s a piddlingly weak magic projectile best used for chaining within sword combos, and the potential to parry enemy blows by swinging your sword just as they connect.
Larger enemies come with a stagger meter, which games these days are so fond of having, and given their propensity to power through all of Clive’s offense with perfect poise, staggering them into a motionless and undefended state is crucial. While Clive’s human allies (all of whom have better names than him) attack completely autonomously, his faithful wolf Torgal can be commanded to perform both a grounded and aerial attack which can chain from the player’s own moves. He can also heal a negligible amount of damage, but since healing in this game rather sucks overall, you likely won’t use it very much.
There’s a period during the early campaign where fighting threatens to get a little too repetitive even if it stays entertaining, as Clive’s offense is not only limited but geared toward one blatantly effective sequence of commands (combo, lunge, punish, repeat). Once he starts diversifying his arsenal, however, further battles evolve toward dazzlingly empowering displays. Being a “Bearer” with the unique power to absorb “Eikons” (this installment’s version of summons), Clive slowly adds to a growing assortment of powerful abilities governed by individual cooldown meters, adding not just to his offensive versatility, but to the sheer visual chaos that typifies every encounter.
So-called Eikonic Abilities aren’t universally useful - in fact, some seem curiously weak even when fully upgraded - but there’s more than enough to choose from. Up to three Eikons may be equipped at once, each able to offer two cooldown attacks with a third unique action that’s usuable at any time. The Phoenix can always, for example, perform a swift warp toward enemies while its cooldown attacks include a fiery uppercut and a move that absorbs projectiles while launching one of its own. Ramuh, unlocked later on, can attach electric charges to opponents which chains lightning to nearby enemies when struck, and he offers such attacks as crowd clearing electric explosions and the summon’s classic Judgment Bolt, a massive strike that adds a new bolt with every upgrade. Annoyingly, there isn’t a selection wheel or similar convenience for Clive’s three equipped Eikons, so they must be cycled through in turn with a press of the left trigger. Given the range of commands and the hectic nature of battles, it’s easy to get tripped up as you desperately scroll to find your desired Eikon and pop off abilities as and when they’re available.
Each Eikon has four abilities to choose from, all of them providing some potential for crowd control, singling enemies out, or more defensive maneuvers such as Will o’ the Wykes - an Ifrit specialty that surrounds Clive (lol though!) with little fireballs and deals minor contact damage while absorbing incoming attacks. Using ability points earned during play, these powers (as well as Clive’s humble smattering of physical abilities) can all be upgraded, and the best part is the complete lack of penalty for refunding investments and spending points on something else. This allows for fuss-free experimentation and has encouraged me to try out everything.
The only downside to all this is that, as previously noted, not all abilities are created equal. A bunch of them deal perplexingly little damage despite initially seeming powerful, while a few either take too long to perform or leave Clive vulnerable in some other way. It’s hard to justify using an Eikon slot on Garuda at all, since her attacks deal scratch damage and their initially impressive stagger drain is handily outclassed by the Eikons that follow.
When our hero isn’t genociding goblins and birdmurdering chocobos by the dozen, he’s transforming into his personal Eikon Ifrit to tackle the monster’s godlike counterparts. Ifrit’s controls are fundamentally similar to his Dominant’s (mmmmh) with his own suite of abilities, though moving and attacking is a little slower to get across the size of him. I usually dislike it when games shift gears to let you control a large powerful entity as such sequences often manifest as sluggish distractions from the proper gameplay, but Eikon battles move at a swift clip despite a slower pace, and they’re just so bombastic I can’t help adoring them. These lengthy duels - each spanning multiple locations and health bars - are incredible at getting across just how large and destructive they are, and there’s variety with the occasional gameplay shift resembling a “runner” type game or a shoot ‘em up.
Cutscenes blend in and out of the controllable action with occasional one-button QTEs doing just enough to keep players involved even if they’re otherwise pointless. During every battle, the camera constantly whips around, visual effects fill the screen, and animation sequences become so flamboyant and speedy it’s harder to keep track of than the most sleight-handed shell game. Eikon battles commit sheer audiovisual anarchy at times, and it’s awesome… but the awesomeness of that anarchy applies only to Eikon fights.
Trouble is, Square Enix applied much of the same mayhem to regular battles too, with flamboyant animations and distracting effects that most certainly put style over usability. It can be hard to tell when enemy attacks begin and end thanks to their visual flourishes and the array of lights, flames, and other busy litter filling the screen. This is also one of those games in which enemy combos continue even after a perfect dodge, meaning you’re likely to be punished if you do what comes naturally and launch an attack from successful evasions. None of this is too lethal, since the game generally isn’t super hard, but it takes some getting used to and no amount of playing will ever improve one’s ability to clearly make out details behind all the lightning and cloudy gouts of magic.
Combat is mostly great, and the dedicated story missions culminating in extravagant boss battles are almost always wonderful, but Final Fantasy XVI’s connective tissue is sorely lacking. There’s often quite a bit of downtime between exciting missions, with tasks both mandatory and optional amounting to lethargic fetch quests, scads of dreary dialog, and boring backtracking. It’s difficult not to feel deflated when you just got done clobbering a veritable demigod in a veritable journey of a multi-part duel, and your next several jobs involve wandering around previously traversed maps picking shit up off the floor and buying rubbish from impolite merchants. XVI suffers tremendously from erratic pacing and poor direction, regularly confusing a breather episode between climaxes for a sleepy bit of humdrum busywork.
It doesn’t help that Clive moves at a stupidly slow rate. While the world’s broken up into humbly sized maps, traveling nonetheless feels time consuming due to our brave hero’s insistence on casually jogging, only electing to automatically sprint after a very long period of consistent movement. There’s no dedicated sprint command, you’ve just got to wait for it to happen, you can’t do it at all when inside a town, and if you stop sprinting for even a second you’ll have to wait again. When you finally access your own Chocobo, you keep needing to whistle for it every time before watching an animation of Clive getting on and off, which is such a hassle that sometimes it’s not even worth using. I’ve been perpetually baffled by just how tedious it is to merely get from A to B in this bloody game.
The pace of general progression may indeed be inconsistent, but it’s smooth as fucking butter when compared to the writing. The example this review kicked off with is but a reflection of what an utter junkyard Final Fantasy XVI’s story and worldbuilding is, a narrative jumble sale boasting the occasional valuable trinket amidst piles of garbage.
The world of Valisthea is, to put it kindly, the domain of cunts. It’s a realm where magic users are reviled and forced into slavery, at once despised and relied upon by a moronic society of bone-idle shitheads who can’t so much as clean their own clothes or perform basic food preservation without the use of magic. Those labeled Bearers are living utilities, or they would be if not for the fact that crockery gets treated with more dignity. Almost the entire population of Valisthea are more than merely permissive of slavery - it’s into slavery. Everyone, from the most privileged noble to the humblest of fishmongers, delights so thoroughly in starving and beating their slaves it creates a bizarre environment in which the story’s main villains are nowhere near as disgusting as the average nondescript villager.
Meanwhile, the Bearers themselves - those that haven’t been liberated by Clive and his privileged saviors - are entirely depicted as meek, weak, and helpless, never fighting back despite possessing powers that could raze entire cities. Hell, Clive himself just takes it from a bevy of rude quest givers and background NPCs, even after he earnestly joins the liberation efforts of the non-Bearer Cid whose heroic exploits underpin just how shit the slavers are at saving themselves on their own. Our protagonist is capable of taking down garrisons of soldiers and godlike monsters, but the most he’ll do in response to getting spat on by a puny loser in pantaloons is mutter some passive-aggressive grumbling as he backs off. At one point, he gives an aristocrat who serially murders Bearers for entertainment a light scolding and walks away despite the killer admitting he’ll keep killing. The murderer is only stopped when a nameless NPC arranges for a wolf to tear the fucker apart, and I desperately wish we could play as that guy.
Oh, and Clive’s home kingdom of Rosaria is the only territory portrayed positively because they treat their slaves a bit better. Yeah, that trope is in effect.
Final Fantasy XVI is one of the most broadly stroked, cartoonish, downright vulgar depictions of social injustice you could hope to see. I don’t expect much subtlety from my mainstream games, but I think a story may just have a problem when I’m getting happier the closer the world is to destruction, because I genuinely want the game’s setting to collapse, burn, and sink into the fucking ocean. Look, I would love to see more big titles attempt to tackle the themes this one does, but I don’t want to see them do it with this much clumsiness.
As far as latter day Final Fantasy protagonists go, Clive is at least not a completely miserable tosspot. While he starts off as yet another angsty void of personality, he becomes quite affable despite his arbitrarily enforced spinelessness. He has a genuine warmth not seen in the series’ primary characters for literal decades. I’m also amused by the fact he’s contractually obligated to shout “FUCK” several times per boss battle. Most of the other allied (and thoroughly white) characters are either dull or annoying, with the exceptions of Gav the cheerful Geordie and Cid, whose roguish likability is portrayed by one of my favorite actors, Ralph Ineson. In a game already teeming with snide little twats, I can’t say I care for characters like Charon the merchant, who remains irritable even after she warms up and might have been more enjoyable if her scorn wasn’t piled on top of the world’s established hatefulness.
Contrastingly, XVI’s rotating villains are delicious, from the sultry Benedikta to the smug Lord Harbard. They chew scenery with gusto, bringing the kind of antagonistic stylishness that videogames in general have lacked for quite some time. Because there's so many of them, they run the gamut of villainous archetypes - you have the sexy femme fatale, the hulking brute, the sneering emperor, the mad queen, the effeminate prettyboy thirst trap, the eldritch manipulator, etcetera. I must however reiterate that for all their machinations, not one of the baddies exhibits the kind of deliriously joyful viciousness of a random bystander in a random village. The sheer malice of XVI’s non-Bearer NPCs drench the game with such exaggerated wickedness that even the most bigoted among the main villains comes off as no worse than the local blacksmith.
Final Fantasy XVI makes no secret of the fact it’s mimicking Game of Thrones with its extensive politics between warring nations, dark fantasy aesthetic, and penchant for sex, violence, and harsh language. It’s got nowhere near the level of tits HBO’s adaptation has, keeping the sexual aspect dramatically minimized, but every other element is worn on the sleeve. Multiple characters and story details are blatantly reproduced - Clive’s relationship with his bigoted mother Anabella mirrors that of Jon Snow and Catelyn Stark before the latter goes full-on Cersei Lannister. Goetz is a more intelligible Hodor. Jill’s origin as a ward of House Rosfield echoes Theon Greyjoy. One warlike kingdom resembles Westeros’ Ironborn to such a faithful degree they’re even called the Ironblood. I highlight none of these comparisons negatively, I must stress. On the contrary, I think it’s cute as heck that Final Fantasy is jumping on the Thrones bandwagon years after pop culture’s moved on from it. As a fan of the Song of Ice & Fire books, I’m genuinely amused by the shameless degree of imitation on display. It’s just plain darling.
Square Enix brings its usual audiovisual quality to the table with a graphically top tier presentation somewhat hamstrung by how muted and grey much of Valisthea looks. As is common with modern console games, there’s a choice between graphics and performance in the settings, and like with every PS5 game, performance mode is vastly preferable, but even then I’ve found the framerate to be inconsistent and likely to drop in populated areas. The aesthetics are put into overdrive for Eikon battles, with an abundance of lovingly crafted animations and a sense of visual complexity that truly gets across how earth-shattering it is when these big bastards have a scrap. Special note must be made of the soundtrack, with Masayoshi Soken compositions ranging from the atmospheric to the beautiful to the downright fucking cool.
All of this - everything I’ve detailed and more besides - converges, collides, and consequently creates one hell of a conflicting production.
Final Fantasy XVI is all over the place. It’s a game of incredible highs and distasteful lows, boasting such a narrative trainwreck of disarranged ideas it’s borderline incompatible with itself. Endeavoring to tackle themes of fascism and slavery would be laudable if the result wasn’t inelegant at best and offensive at worst. The frustrating, exhausting nature of XVI’s miserable narrative is countered by notably enjoyable combat, impressive setpieces, and truly stunning boss encounters. When it’s not boring, it’s exhilarating. When it’s not exhilarating, it’s insulting. When it’s not insulting, it’s delightful.
I love Final Fantasy XVI when it’s Game of Thrones with Kaiju. Every attempt to be more than that makes me like it far, far less.