Disclaimer: This is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.
Final Fantasy XVI certainly doesn’t know how to take it easy – and that’s a good thing. Instead of a traditional opening scene with slow narrative beats and exposition, the upcoming entry in Square Enix’s long-running franchise opens in a spectacularly blood-pumping fashion. Two colossal beasts, known as Eikons (or Summons, for franchise veterans), fly across the screen, dotting the skies with fireballs.
It’s not a brief sequence, either. The visual spectacle lasts more than mere seconds, drawing players in with breathtaking, dazzling animation and electrifying action. Following a cutscene transition into the core narrative, the excitement then fizzles out, but it’s never truly gone, only humming beneath the surface.
That’s the kind of tonal whiplash that coursed through the early hours of the game, which sets the perfect stage to deliver powerful, poignant blows after seemingly lull moments. Having played four or so hours in a preview session held for Southeast Asian media, it seems Square Enix has mastered the craft of weaving the ups and downs into a compelling, if sobering, opening act.
An earlier hands-on session highlighted enjoyable, fluid and action-heavy gameplay that holds plenty of promise, and it’s safe to say the optimism continues to be well-warranted here. With a more story-focused slant than before, there’s a little more insight into the central conflict and political intrigue looming over the world of Valisthea.
The fantasy realm isn’t a nice place. Bathed in the blood of felled comrades, slain enemies, and innocent civilians, Valisthea invites war because of the five Mothercrystals – the source of magic that powers the world – that towers over it. The six nations, wanting to seize control of them, are locked in a constant state of conflict, with one of these states being the Grand Duchy of Rosaria. There, our protagonist makes himself known: Clive Rosfield, son of the ruling Archduke and a highly-respected, talented swordsman, who later grows into a grieving, hardened warrior.
Interestingly enough, his fighting prowess and noble standing couldn’t grant him full inheritance of Phoenix’s powers, which is traditionally passed down through the family’s generations. Instead, it was his younger brother, Joshua, who became the host, and while that’s regarded as a blessing, the opening act is quick to remind players that it’s more of a curse.
This brings us to the Dominants and Eikons, two key terms that are exclusive to Final Fantasy XVI. Unlike previous entries in the franchise, Square Enix’s latest sees individuals transforming into Eikons, beastly mythical beings capable of causing massive destruction which long-time fans will recognise as Summons. Those who can, well, summon and turn into them are called Dominants, of whom there are only a select few.
The whole Dominant business also plays into the Rosfield family drama, where Clive’s mother finds him to be a disappointment, which Clive’s father disagrees on. Amidst the tension, it’s heartwarming to witness genuine warmth and sincerity in Clive and Joshua’s interactions, their care and concern for each other evident – until betrayal and tragedy befalls the family.
Calling the catastrophe an ugly sight would be an understatement. As the first M-rated game in the franchise, Final Fantasy XVI pulls no punches in its shows of violence. The battlefield rains blood, fallen soldiers get slain in gruesome ways, and throats are slit – there are plenty of similar graphic acts that take place over the course of the opening act. In one scene, an axe is thrown right an enemy, effectively slicing his face into half.
Considering the grisly backdrop of revenge, death, conquest, war, and oppression, a shift to a darker, more grim tone is only to be expected, and the game doesn’t let you forget that. Characters drop F-bombs and swear words as soon as five minutes into the story, and there are some sequences with very suggestive content, which marks a departure from the series’ usual tame approach.
The treatment of the Dominants, in particular, is a damning show of humanity’s ugly side. Eikon hosts and certain types of magic users are often enslaved as tools of war or thrown to the side as pawns – sights that aren’t easy for anyone to witness. While a commendable effort at examining a complicated dynamic, it will require some intricate nuance to pull off without coming across as insincere, so only time can tell if Square Enix has it done right.
It should be noted the story of Final Fantasy XVI isn’t revolutionary in any way, as it features a handful of well-worn tropes spanning different genres, but there’s enough intrigue in the plot twists and narrative strands to leave players wanting more. The cinematic sequences are also wonderfully animated and scored with breathtaking visuals, striking colours, and blood-pumping battle music, with the sharp voicing acting adding to the overall viewing experience.
Fair warning, though: the early hours of the game are very heavy on cutscenes, so some might find them to be quite lengthy, especially during moments with more dialogue than action. This is where the Active Time Lore comes in handy with its comprehensive overview of the characters, the events, and the world of Valisthea at large.
Once the leash is off, that’s when the fun begins. Unlike its predecessors, Final Fantasy XVI features full action combat a la Devil May Cry, and boy, is it razor-sharp, exhilarating, and a welcome breath of fresh air. As before with the gameplay-focused preview session, chaining combos here feels fantastic and satisfying, and the ability to issue Torgal – Clive’s fiercely loyal companion and best boy – commands is a nice touch for those seeking more creative executions.
Genre newcomers or non-action enthusiasts won’t have much to worry about, too. Sure, it can be difficult to follow the flurry of constant action, and the breakneck speed leaves little room to breathe, but there are accessibility equipment and QTE-like features (quick time events) included to manage things on the battlefield more easily.
For all that Final Fantasy XVI feels novel, it’s still steeped in familiarity. The upcoming title marks a return to the franchise’s more classic fantasy roots with heavy influences from Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, and retains some signature JRPG gameplay elements, such as side quests, collecting/upgrading/crafting equipment, world exploration, and the like. Granted, there isn’t much to explore as compared to past entries since some of the game’s environments and levels are rather contained, but the option is there for those with an adventurer’s spirit.
In the pursuit of a new path, Final Fantasy XVI has carved out a compelling world that enthralls and intrigues as much as it despairs and devastates. Only time will tell if the game takes better to long time fans or franchise newcomers, though one thing’s for sure: Square Enix is trying to tell a story, and it’s going to be one hell of an ambitious one that we’re stoked to experience.
Final Fantasy XVI is slated to release for the PS5 on 22 June 2023.