Final Fantasy 16 is polished excess, a decadent jumble of high fantasy cliches. It’s a bloated spectacle, a time-sapping adventure that crutches on a meandering yarn, weaving you at breakneck speed through a land of wyverns, nervy brutes, and force-fed morality. A Final Fantasy game then, but one entrusted to the capable folks at Square Enix’s esteemed Creative Business Unit 3. You play as Clive, a regal’s son chucked to the mercy of war banners and front lines after the death of his brother. Revenge on his mind, and by extension yours, you set out to right perceived wrongs to orchestral swells and choral trills.
Within an hour, Final Fantasy 16 bombards you with so many duchies, Eikons, regals, and lashings of pomp that it quickly unfurls into wading through a narrative morass, barely able to keep your head above water to decipher it all. And while we should expect a piled and heaped story from a Final Fantasy game – it comes with the territory – FF16 leans a little too far towards the impenetrable much of the time. The story pings you off on mandatory tangents that, instead of driving forward the main narrative, feel like a chore, unnecessary bulk added to an already heaving, weighty story. These often lack the expected payoff, and arcs flatten limply rather than reach a pleasing conclusion.
Curiously, Final Fantasy 16 is self-aware of its inherent complexity and has a dedicated feature designed to decode the narrative clutter – Active Time Lore. Tap pause during any cutscene, and you can sift through primers for characters, places, and events. I found myself dipping into ATL regularly just to make sense of it all. It says a lot that a game is so convoluted that it requires such a feature for players to understand its story. Supplementary text, logs, and diaries should add colour, not be mandatory reading.
The pivot to high fantasy pays dividends and is a welcome return to the series’ roots. Gone are the pseudo-futuristic settings and the road-tripping boy band-like gaggle of friends. But, it’s marred in an overreliance on caricatures, whether that’s fickle, double-crossing monarchs or meek peasants more than happy to bend over backwards to aid Clive. The real hit is how Final Fantasy 16 drags us through its story without relent. We often witness, fight, and then solve problems as a sort of glorified factotum, making it tough to feel like we have any say in Clive’s and the broader story. It rarely relents, sending you to and fro at hectic pace from one seismic, grand climax to the next. It all drags and leaves you musing about whether Clive’s story could have been condensed into something shorter.
Speaking of the leading man, Final Fantasy 16 has a curious habit of divesting the player of any meaningful sense of agency, of a say in Clive’s journey. Part of this is down to Clive not being endowed with all that much charisma, which makes it tough to understand why we see every NPC pining for or happy to be led blindly by the man. The frigid, broody vestiges of teenagehood never entirely dissipate, making it difficult to root for Clive. An unfortunate thing because his backstory stacks gripping personal turmoil, a commendable urge to do good for the downtrodden, and an intriguing exploration of how clinging to a fictional past can taint the present. But at the cost of vagueness and to avoid spoilers, the less said here, the better.
While buoyed by ample, visually arresting flair and colourful fanfare, along with superb animation work, FF16’s combat lacks impact. The gameplay rarely matches the scale and ambition of Final Fantasy 16’s epic world and setting. Pulling off clever, cinematic combos does little to chew through hefty enemy HP bars. This is especially prevalent when fighting bosses or against what we’ll call not-quite-bosses elite enemies, of which there are many. The thrill of juggling, chaining, and cycling through Clive’s varied abilities rapidly loses its initial lustre. Supposedly tense brawls morph into tedious slogs that often outstay their welcome. Painstakingly chipping away small chunks of health dilutes the efforts put in by CBU 3 to make Clive a speedy and fluid fighter. All too often, it’s more about endurance than skill. And, while Final Fantasy 16 does test the player’s ability to handle the frenetic pace of enemy attacks a little, it’s rarely mechanically challenging and more a case of decrypting what’s happening on screen.
The move to real-time combat scores points for accessibility and may very well draw in many fence sitters, but some of the shrewd tactics and complexity of previous Final Fantasy games have been lost in the transition. And what may be new for the series isn’t for games as a whole or even the genre this new chapter in Final Fantasy’s history falls firmly into. There’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking here. There are better flavours of what FF16 proffers up out there: more precision, snappier controls, more strategy in the demands they place on the player. Despite impressive animations, Clive doesn’t move all that smoothly or elegantly in your hands.
Bigger fights involving Final Fantasy 16’s take on summons, Eikons, are thankfully supplemented by beautifully polished and compelling set pieces and a turbulent, emotive score befitting the scale. The quick time button tapping of these carries more impact than the real-time combat, partly due to the thrill and intensity of two towering Eikon colossus clashing, but mostly because these attacks feel like they actually matter. All this may be symptomatic of how well served we’ve been in recent years, attributable principally to FromSoftware ever elevating what we’ve come to expect from melee-based, real-time combat. Spoiled we’ve been, it seems. So when a game doesn’t quite reach comparable heights, especially one backed by deep coffers and the expertise of not just Square Enix but Japanese developer PlatinumGames of Nier Automata fame, there’s a palpable starkness to the difference.
However, there are times when Final Fantasy 16 confidently soars, elevating itself beyond the sum of its parts. The game oozes with an undeniable cinematic flair, beautifully realised cutscenes, and poignant, memorable voice acting work and a humourful wit that should get a wry smile out of most players. It’s hard not to lap up the rare moments when we’re made privy to Clive’s softer side or fully buy into his quipped exchanges with the supporting cast, notably Cid, a Sean Bean-inspired outlaw and by far one of the game’s most engaging characters. CBU 3 also made the wise choice to draft in a cast of voice actors with various regional accents, from the musicality of the West Country to the comforting warmth of the Welsh accent, that enhance the sense of a living world and diverse regional identities.
Most of the major story beats land, but it’s the quiet, gentle moments that linger as a well-crafted slice of life that brings a much-needed lick of authenticity to the forced big-picture politics. The game is peppered with charming sub-plots and intimate moments. These act as a welcome pause from the messy grand events of the overarching, continent-spanning world saving and Clive’s glib platitudes. Many are staged as fairly uninspired, entirely optional fetch quests, but this is just mechanical dressing to treat us to believable characters preoccupied with the mundane, the messy grit of the everyday backdropped by a fraught world.
It’s all far more mature than we’ve come to expect from the FF series, presumably born from finding inspiration in the incest-heavy, regicidal Game of Thrones, something CBU 3 has been very vocal about. There are brothels, unexpected narrative flips, and coarse language aplenty to drive home the sense of a mucky, imperfect world. And, well, it can get pretty saucy and rowdy. All for the better, as this works to counter some of the highfalutin fantasy dross daubed on the game.
It feels strange commending a game for working as intended, but a word on performance is due given the glut of botched launches we’ve grown accustomed to. Star Wars Jedi Survivor and the PC port of The Last of Us Part 1 spring to mind as recent examples. During our playthrough, we didn’t encounter any bugs or crashes, with the game sticking to a steady, constant frame rate bar the very occasional drops during intense Eikon tussles and when pivoting the camera in asset-heavy portions of the world. Gameplay blends seamlessly into cutscenes and back. Fast travel load times are measured in a handful of seconds. It’s exemplary given the graphical ambitions of the game, which it globally pulls off – the sweeping vistas, the inspired enemy and boss design, and the leading cast’s richly-detailed garbs, to cite highlights.
At its peak, Final Fantasy 16 is a dark, brooding fantasy epic propelled by a rich, circuitous narrative of feuding kingdoms and personal revenge gone awry, one punctuated by engrossing set pieces unfolding in a gorgeous, sharply realised world. At its worst, it’s overly sentimental, rutted in an icky, forced realism, made worse by stifled combat with diminishing returns and insufficient agency to make us feel like we have a stake in Clive’s ordained, immovable fate. Final Fantasy fans will find their fill here. Despite our misgivings – especially compared to the mediocrity peddled in FF15 – this is the best non-reboot single-player game in the series for quite some time. But for the rest of us not hitched to the IP by loyalty fostered over decades, Final Fantasy 16 is as worth playing as it isn’t. Take or leave it, Final Fantasy 16 is a good but unremarkable game.
Reviewed on PS5. Code provided by the publisher. All images taken by VideoGamer.