Please note that the build of Final Fantasy 16 we played for the gameplay preview was a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.
I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game before (I know, take away my gaming credentials, etc). So when we were invited to play five hours’ worth of Final Fantasy 16 gameplay early – within the Tower of London itself – of course I jumped at the chance. Well, in reality VideoGamer is a small team and nobody else has any expertise with the series either, so I stepped up to the challenge.
In fact, I’m not much of a JRPG fan at all; I adore Kingdom Hearts and I’ve played Monster Hunter Rise, but that’s my limit. Final Fantasy 16 is breaking new ground for me, so how does it fare for someone who doesn’t know his Clive from his Chocobo and thought Tifa was one of those huge murals crowds hold up at football matches?
When you haven’t played any of the other games in the franchise, drawing a comparison for Final Fantasy 16 is difficult to say the least. The first two hours of the preview build acted as a prologue and focused on Clive’s teenage years, which introduced me to combat basics, but more importantly, the relationship dynamics Clive has with his family.
There’s Jill, his younger adopted sister, who he’s quite close with, largely thanks to their mother’s disdain for them both in favour of his younger brother, Joshua. He’s the heir to the throne once Elwin, their father, passes, and he’s also got the ability to transform into an enormous fiery phoenix. Clive’s sworn duty is to be Joshua’s guardian and protect him.
As expected, things go very wrong, and the game skips to 13 years down the line when Clive is operating as a soldier named Wyvern. This is where the game truly starts to open up – until this point, combat was fairly repetitive, but once you encounter Cid with his booming Yorkshire accent (voiced by the iconic Ralph Ineson, who also features in Diablo 4), you’ll have more abilities at your disposal and can mix things up a little.
It’s no surprise the PS5 struggled with performance a little during some set pieces, as this is a phenomenal looking game. Everything is ramped up to 11, from the size of the battles in cutscenes to the imposing, gigantic nature of the beasts and creatures you’re introduced to. It’s tough to explain without veering into spoiler territory, but whatever your expectations are for how epic this game will be, dial them up even further.
Combat is fast-paced, realtime action where the closest comparison I can make is to Kingdom Hearts, which is a Final Fantasy spin-off game to begin with. When you’re scrapping against a bunch of weaker foes in a group, bouncing from one target to the next, it’s floaty but impactful. The only difference is Clive’s unwieldy broadsword, as opposed to Sora’s comically oversized key.
Against bigger enemies, if you’re not utilising the timely rings – more on those below – it can start to drag a little as you slowly but surely whittle down their health bar. A touch of rebalancing ahead of the full launch would go a long way, although each boss has a plethora of telegraphed moves so you can learn the tells for them, which stops each fight from becoming too repetitive. As you progress through the game and unlock more Eikons however, the number of abilities at your disposal increases, each tied into a specific Eikon. For example, the Phoenix grants Clive fire-based powers, however during a short open-world section we also got to experience, Jill was alongside us and granted the power of another Eikon, which had nature-based attacks.
One thing Final Fantasy 16 doesn’t have is a choice of difficulty. Instead, you’re presented with the timely rings, which you can equip for various crutches. For example, the Ring of Timely Focus will put the game into slow-mo whenever Clive is about to get hit, so you can dodge out of the way. Or there’s the Ring of Timely Healing, which will automatically consume a health potion whenever Clive’s health is low. Rather than an easy mode simply making enemies weaker and spawning less of them, or vice versa for hard, these rings (there are a few more I’ve not gone into detail about) allow you to truly customise your experience, with a little more immersion than just making them toggleable options in the settings menu.
Part of the problem with Final Fantasy 16, at least in those opening few story hours I got to play, is that there are so many cutscenes. You can watch four or five minutes’ worth of dialogue before regaining control of Clive, walking through the next door or killing one small group of enemies, followed by another lengthy cutscene. It isn’t until you eventually make it to one of the less linear regions that you’re allowed the time to actually explore and discover things for yourself. The caveat there is that, at least from what I experienced, there isn’t much reason to explore beyond the beaten path except for a minor collectible or two.
There’s a high chance this changes in the final build – there was no context around when this open-world section takes place in the story, so for all I know, it’s the very first time you’re given the freedom to explore and as a result, is slightly more limited on purpose before opening up. However, there’s also no guarantee of that, so it’s impossible to say whether Final Fantasy 16 will have the fully fledged open world sections you’re hoping for.
I came away from the Final Fantasy 16 preview a little underwhelmed, but not because what I played wasn’t impressive – it certainly was, and gorgeous to boot – but because I expected this prestigious series to blow me away with innovations to set the genre alight. Perhaps I was misguided with those anticipations, as I hyped it up for myself a little, and the vertical slice I played was impressive… just not quite to the standard I envisioned going in. Especially since most of the other journalists I spoke to at the event were already huge fans of the franchise, and they came away very impressed. The jury’s still out on whether this will be a system seller for people new to the series, but it certainly has the potential, as long as it gives the player much more freedom beyond the short preview gameplay.
A Final Fantasy 16 demo will be released before launch. The demo is the start of the game, lasts a couple of hours and focuses on Clive in his youth.