Geek Preview: Final Fantasy XVI

Geek Preview: ‘Final Fantasy XVI (FFXVI)’ Forges A Bold, Promising Start Into The World Of Full-Time Action RPG

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Geek Preview: Final Fantasy XVI Yoshi-P

Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV) director Naoki Yoshida is no stranger to risky undertakings. This is, after all, the creative maestro who transformed a once-failing game into the thriving MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) that it is today, which at one time was so popular, the game’s servers had to shut down temporarily due to overwhelming network traffic. 

With Final Fantasy XVI (FFXVI), the industry veteran is looking to turn things around yet again. The 16th entry in Square Enix’s long-running franchise takes a bold leap into new territory, where signature franchise elements including turn-based mechanics and a four-member party system won’t form part of the core experience. Instead, the upcoming title will feature an entirely fresh game presentation rooted deeply in full-time action. 

It’s an occasion of many firsts for the studio – in addition to the drastic departure from a familiar formula, FFXVI, which is the only M-rated game in the series, also turns characters into the Summons themselves. These changes may seem at odds with the essence of Final Fantasy, but a hands-on session with the game has offered hope that taking risks isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Geek Preview: Final Fantasy XVI (3)

The tonal difference is prominent right off the bat in the preview build, which starts five hours into the main story. Driving the narrative is one Clive Rosfield, the firstborn son of the Archduke of Rosaria – one of the world’s six realms – who embarks on a quest for vengeance after he becomes the subject of the devastation wrought by the mysterious dark Eikon known as Ifrit.

Yes, that Ifrit. See, FFXVI introduces the presence of Dominants, individuals like Clive who are born with an Eikon (the game’s equivalent of the Summons) inside of themselves, and thus have the ability to turn into these mythical beings. This literal metamorphosis extends to the battlefield, which sets the stage for two different fighting experiences: the usual encounters in human form that warrant the use of Eikon-imbued skills, and an all-out Eikon-versus-Eikon showdown.

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The welcome change in pace puts a fresh, dynamic, and lively spin on combat, coming closest to Fantasy XV (FFXV) in terms of gameplay action. The overall feel, however, is more Devil May Cry than anything else, with the polished, more complex battle system bringing improved finesse to combo chaining and ability execution. Slicing enemies proved to be a smooth affair, and the transition from one attack to another was fluid and clean. 

The ghost of familiarity comes as no surprise, considering combat director Ryota Suzuki’s experience with Devil May Cry 5, which he had previously worked on while at Capcom. Considered one of the best in its genre, the 2019 title is a good example of an action game done right – and its influence has bled heavily into FFXVI, starting from the ability to switch between different attacking styles and powers. 

As Clive, players are able to cycle between a selection of attacks and abilities based on traditional Final Fantasy Summons (Garuda, Ifrit, and Titan in the preview build), which can be learned or mastered through the skill tree. Each loadout maxes out at three slots and comes with their own perks: perfect parry, for instance, can only be done when Titan is activated, while aerial attacks are exclusive to Garuda. 

The action-swapping ran seamlessly in the hands-on session, making it a joy to stack one attack on top of another. Reaching a certain number of chained hits will momentarily stun the enemy, and extend the window to land more devastating strikes. Coupled with the precise lock-on mechanism, the refreshed battle system is easily one of the most delightful parts about FFXVI, affording players the flexibility to experiment with various combinations and develop their own battle style. 

It’d be welcome if the switching mechanics were slightly more intuitive, however. Where each character style or weapon is bound to any one of the keys on the d-pad in Devil May Cry 5, they are all assigned to just one button here. What this means is that the cycling only goes in one direction, so individuals will have to go through the whole motion again if they want to activate a non-adjacent style, or when they accidentally skip past it altogether.

Admittedly, the learning curve can be rather steep for newcomers. Apart from the frenetic pace and constant hectic activity, the game also features pet commands, which are issued to Clive’s best boy companion, Torgal, during battles. This brings an added layer of complexity to combat, as players will have to juggle yet another mechanic on top of the original chain attack system and maximise combo potential, but there’s a saving grace in place: quick time events (QTEs).

Well, not exactly. While similar to the traditional model that requires individuals to perform a certain button action within a tight timeframe, FFXVI has brought its own spin to the formula. For one, the prompt won’t be random and is bound to two fixed keys, and secondly, only shows up when wearing certain starter equipment. Action veterans can, as such, disable the feature by removing them, with the QTEs in cutscenes serving as an exception. 

Indeed, hostile encounters in the preview build did feel easier when the accessories were equipped, and proved useful in easing the transition to a new battling format. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Clive will sometimes be joined by AI companions, which have been programmed to do their own thing and not get in Clive’s way. 

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The highlight, though, was arguably the all-new Eikon-versus-Eikon experience. Considering that past Final Fantasy entries only had players summoning, well, Summons and invoking their powers, the novelty of becoming one of these mythical beings is a welcome breath of air. As Ifrit, Clive is more sluggish and aggressive than fleet-footed and stylish, which breaks the high-octane rush that comes with normal battles. But that’s the point – players are meant to move and fight like how a massive, lumbering, and wild creature is supposed to, and FFXVI appears to have done a good job at translating that extra weight and oomph into gameplay.

Fighting in Eikon form is, in contrast to usual combat, a straightforward and simple affair, with Ifrit limited to only a leap-and-attack moveset. The action feels crisp and smooth, and the experience is as enjoyable as it gets, though there may be a potential issue once the novelty wears off. 

Without the flexibility and flair of the standard battle system, it’s unclear whether a more rudimentary play style will cause Eikon gameplay to become stale and repetitive over the course of the game. Yoshida, in a separate interview, did state that each Eikon encounter will be different from one another, so fans can only take his word for it. 

FFXVI doesn’t just feel good, it looks good too. Unlike the oft-futuristic, tech-fuelled setting of most past titles, the environmental design here finds its roots in medieval European fantasy. Detailed, gloomy, and creeping with shadows, the game’s aesthetic reeks of Dark Souls and Game of Thrones influence, with the only slight gripe being that the interior decor and layout can look too similar at times – something the team did account for, because players can ask Torgle to guide them. Cutscenes, even with QTEs, still retain a crisp, cinematic quality, and the soundtracks, true to Final Fantasy fashion, remain an epic, exhilarating listening affair. 

Departing from tradition always comes with a risk, but FFXVI is shaping up to be a risk worth taking. The full-time action approach sets up the stage for a lot more explosive thrills that while may take some time to get used to, seemingly promise a delightfully hectic and charming combat experience. Hopefully, this sense of hope will carry over to the full game, as Yoshida and the team look to capture lightning in a bottle yet again. 

Final Fantasy XVI is launching on 22 June 2023 as a PlayStation 5 exclusive.