It’s always risky for a franchise to take a different direction, but there’s always a chance that it pays off and marks a defining new era for a series – Resident Evil 4 is a textbook example of this. After the contentious Final Fantasy XV, decried by many as a ‘boyband simulator’, some will feel a change of direction was sorely needed. Final Fantasy XVI does not disappoint — in this regard or any other. If anything, it’s an astounding success that should take its place in the echelon of best Final Fantasy games of all time.
And yet, this change of direction is one that looks back over its shoulder. In many ways, with what is formally its sixteenth iteration, the franchise is coming of age. It hearkens back to earlier titles in looks and feel, channelling Final Fantasy 12 in its high fantasy feel, Final Fantasy 10 with its mysterious ancestral race, and Final Fantasy 1–6 in a bevy of ways, most particularly the early games’ fascination with crystals.
Valisthean society is utterly dependent on magic, from filling wells to lighting lamps and fuelling forges. Even humble fishermen rely on magic to keep the catch of the day fresh. Such is their dependance that Bearers — those who can channel magic without the use of crystals — are enslaved at birth, becoming property of those who cannot freely wield magic. They are branded with face tattoos that strip their identity and denigrated by all around them. All except Clive, that is. His tale told through three distinct periods in time, Clive’s mission is a simple one: to end the plight of Bearers and create a world where all people can live and die on their own terms. All this while saving the world from the encroaching blight.
Long-time fans will be able to see and feel the evolution here, from less-than-subtle nods to the Star Wars franchise, to the way composer Masayoshi Soken weaves a phenomenal score through the game. Battle systems have been tightened into a full action RPG experience, but the game remains an RPG at its core, with abilities being readily reset so you can rebuild your character over and over again without penalty. While some are already, no doubt, shouting at their screens that this is a JRPG, if anything it could be termed an ERPG, such are the utter anglophiles that created this game.
Along with his more noble mission, Final Fantasy 16 pits Clive and his merry band of outlaws on a mission to explore all of the regional accents of England and Scotland. From the old cockney geezer at the back of the pub to a scouser passing you information at your base, and subtitles that read like an Irvine Welsh novel, this game is decidedly British — so much so that I’m sure some Americans will have to rely heavily on subs for the thicker accents.
With that dose of Britishness comes swearing. Nudity and raunchiness aside, this isn’t a game for kids unless you want them swearing like a sailor. Even their in-universe blasphemy scans with British slang and swearing in a way that is both amusing and endearing. For example, the God in FF16 is named Greagor, and she is female. During my time with the game I’ve heard both ‘Greagor’s gash’ and ‘Greagor’s teats’ as blasphemy. I’ve also heard ‘Black as Odin’s bumhole’, which made me chuckle.
Again, this game is an evolution of all that has come before. The linearity of previous games is there, and with good reason — it’s vital to the storytelling — but each linear story mission is followed by an open-world intermission that pits you against side-quests and bounties. Sure, you can skip these if you want, but they open up a bevy of useful additions, like Chocobo riding and larger potion satchels. This is a game where the ratio and pacing of open to linear is bang on.
Getting stuck into battle reveals a deeply nuanced combat system, with Clive starting fairly underpowered, but slowly adding to his arsenal of magics as the game goes on. Unlike previous games where you sometimes start with already godlike powers, his progression feels natural. Skirting around spoiler territory, Eikons (summons) in this game are locked to select individuals in the world — Joshua, Clive’s little brother seen in the demo, is the Dominant of Phoenix, meaning he and he alone can channel the Phoenix’s magic and turn into it should things get a little ropey. Clive is unique in that he can draw from each Dominant he meets, using their magic abilities to turn the tide of combat.
The kicker is that you can only channel three Eikons at a time, and while each grants four abilities, you can only equip two. How you spend your post-battle Ability Points really changes how combat looks and feels. For example, using Garuda’s strongest attack fills your screen with a tornado and little numbers, reducing the game to button-mashing hell, while Phoenix’s strongest attack makes you feel like an absolute badass as you annihilate multiple foes at once without overcluttering the screen.
And speaking of the badass, we now have Eikonic battles. These giant set piece battles only get more spectacular (albeit also silly) as the game progresses, and they are one of only a very few gripes I have with the game. At times, it feels like they were trying to make a movie that got shunted over into being a video game. While it’s not as egregious as Metal Gear Solid 4, which set world records for its lengthy cutscenes, it certainly skirts close to the line.
My other gripe is with the equipment system. Building and upgrading your character is integral to all RPGs, and while your armour is tied to the story and cannot be changed, you can change your sword, belt and vambraces. The idea is that you collect items from defeated enemies and use them to craft better equipment. However, despite there being a bevvy of options here, they’re all useless outside of the weapons you unlock by beating the story bosses, which simply upgrade your current best weapon. It’s a shame that this aspect of the game didn’t get the attention it deserves.
But that is a minor detraction from an otherwise sublime game. There is so much more that we could write, but the crux of it is that Final Fantasy 16 is truly sublime. The writing offers characters that haven’t been this memorable since Final Fantasy 10, a love story and tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, and societal amorality that looks towards The Handmaids Tale. If you’re ready for a grown up Final Fantasy, this is the game for you.