I have very mixed feelings about Final Fantasy XVI. It’s a game that I loved at the outset when I played the demo the night before release, then liked for most of the first 10 hours or so, only to sour on it as it dragged on with a slow plot and repetitive gameplay, only to warm back up during climactic moments or new areas opening up. I repeated this cycle several times, sometimes feeling like I wished the game were just over and then sometimes being enthralled by what was happening. In the end my PS5 says I put over 60 hours into the game, and while that seems high I did do every side quest, most of the optional monster hunts, and crafted the best sword in the game before finishing it. This is a game that managed to suck me in even as it was pushing me away and I can’t remember the last time I flip flopped on a title with that level of frequency.
Final Fantasy XVI sticks you into the greaves of Clive Rosenfield, the eldest son of a powerful Duke who has been passed over as heir in favor of his younger brother, who controls a powerful “eikon” called The Phoenix and thus is destined to be the next ruler of the Duchy. Clive’s own mother views him as nothing more than a worthless failure because he did not inherit the phoenix, but Clive has good relationships with his father and even his little brother Joshua who, despite being doted on by everyone around him, seems to idolize his older brother and “first shield” Clive. He also has a special connection to Jill, who is more or less a hostage taken from a rival clan and raised in the Duchy to prevent the two nations from warring. If it sounds very “Game of Thronesy” it is, and has much of the tone of that show, even though by the end it’s clear that Final Fantasy XVI isn’t interested in politics as anything more than a backdrop for its characters and the existential and ideological stories it wants to tell with them. All of the grounded storytelling and mature characterization is backdrop for some very Japanese pseuforeligious nonsense that reveals itself over the course of the game.
Overall I thought the story and world were fine, if a little blander and more grounded than I would have liked. The game spends a lot of time making sure you know what’s going on, with two separate characters whose main function it is to keep track of lore and the current status of the realm and a complex and self-updating encyclopedia of terms and ideas. In the end it’s not very important, though, because this is a personal story about Clive, his companions, and their antagonists and all the high political drama and complexity gets swept away by other forces before the end of the game. I did care about the characters and their fates, though, perhaps more so than any other JRPG that takes a stab at realism and groundedness. Most of the people you meet in the game are well intentioned and struggling to find justice and home in a cruel world where magic users are treated as discardable slaves and empires clash violently to try over dwindling resources. There’s a lot of intrigue and murder and the game does not pull its punches. It isn’t very Final Fantasy like in that people just straight up die, often for cruel and capricious reasons, and in bloody and brutal ways. Multiple characters cut their own throats just off camera and there is plenty of blood. The aesthetic is definitely much darker than Final Fantasy usually goes.
Despite the mature tone Final Fantasy XVI is, in some ways, a very Final Fantasy game. Fixtures like chocobos, moogles, and Cid are all well represented, and there are numerous references to other concepts from various games. The “eikons,” godlike beings that are contained within “dominants,” people who control them, are all old school Final Fantasy summons like Bahamut and Shiva, and there are probably more crystals in the game than in any previous title in the series. There are even a few moments of whimsy and a couple comic relief characters, including a Moogle who would fit right in to the lighter entries in the series. I didn’t feel like this was “not Final Fantasy” just because of the dark tone and more grounded, realistic, aesthetics. This felt fairly in line with something like Final Fantasy Tactics or a few other earlier entries into the series before it got completely goofy with water polo players and guys with Chocobo chicks in their hair.
Aesthetically the game is at least pretty classical RPG in its approach. Most of the areas look like places in the English countryside, with a desert area thrown in and a few desolate wastelands to show the world’s decay. There castles and rotting towns and mystical ruins but while you do get a volcano dungeon you don’t really get snow areas let alone anything truly otherworldly. This is a throwback RPG aesthetic to the time before these fantasy games became truly fantastical and a lot of these areas look like they could exist in the real world except for the griffons and drakes that prowl them.
Combat, on the other hand, has now fully embraced the real time action genre, with you having direct control over Clive in every encounter, unable to switch characters even when there are others in the party (they operate by their own AI but don’t take damage so fortunately the game is not one long escort quest) and focusing on typical action game commands like perfect dodges and special abilities on a cool down. As action RPGs go it’s okay, fast and responsive at least, but not very deep and at times unengaging. You have a decent number of skills that can be upgraded and switched in and out, and a ranged attack that you can charge, but it’s all pretty simple and not hard at all. I played in “action mode,” without using any of the items like an autoheal amulet that let you customize the difficulty, and I died a total of twice; once when I got to a boss fight without a lot of healing items left and another time where I failed to pay attention to my health and died with potions still available.
Speaking of potions, they are one of the many, many, areas where the game eschews traditional RPG mechanics, often to its detriment. You have a very limited number of potions (you start with 4 normal and 3 hi potions, along with an extra slot that you end up with few options for, and the ability to expand your capacity later) and the game generally doles them out generously during its action levels, to the point where there’s no reason to conserve them. You can also buy more at any store for a very low price. Loot in general in the game is…awful. It’s legitimately the worst loot I’ve ever encountered in a game that is at least nominally an RPG. There are four ways to get loot. The fist is little sparkling spheres scattered around that are sometimes potions but are more often a few gil (and when I say a few I mean that literally; at most like 40 and at least like 2) or crafting supplies. The second is in chests, which will very rarely contain pieces of equipment but more often a larger number of crafting supplies or gil (as much as 3,200). Finally there are battle rewards and quest rewards. This all sounds pretty normal, but it is profoundly underwhelming because there are only a few types of crafting materials and you end up with way more of them than you need, or you can buy extra from shops if you somehow don’t have enough.
Also the equipment in FF XVI sucks. There are basically two stats, attack and defense, and equipment either adds to your attack if it’s a sword or your defense (and sometimes HP) if it’s in one of the two item slots. There’s also “stagger” but as far as I can tell the stagger value is always the same as your attack stat so it’s not actually a different stat. There are three other stats that go up as you level but the only effect they have is on your attack or defense so they also are not actual stats. Resistances? No. Any kind of stat that affects cooldowns? Not as far as I can tell.
Accessories are slightly different but equally boring. More or less they have some minor effect like slightly decreasing cooldown or increasing damage for a specific move or having some other minor effect like increasing the damage your dog companion does or increasing your magic damage by 10%. I mostly just left the accessories that increase gil, XP, and AP (more on that later) from normal encounters on, even for bosses where they had no effect. That shows both how little the accessories matter and how easy the game actually is, requiring absolutely no attempt to manage your build or prep for individual bosses.
The only piece of character development that’s actually important is your skill set, which is done via spending AP points (acquired through combat or sometimes quest rewards) to gain or improve various combat skills (like a dash attack or downward thrust) or magic abilities on a cooldown. Unfortunately a lot of this makes less of a difference than you’d expect. While the skill bound to the O button can vary greatly from a dash towards opponents to yanking them towards you to blocking (the only way to block in the game) the cooldown skills all pretty much just do damage. Some might do wide AOE damage on a long cooldown while some might only hurt opponents in melee range on a shorter cooldown, and some might do more stagger damage vs HP damage but because they’re all on a significant cool down I really did not feel like they changed up the gameplay a lot. The net effect is that you have a lot of customization choices in your skills but most of them end up feeling pretty similar.
It's a good thing that the combat is…adequate then. Some people have called it watered down Devil May Cry, and that’s fair, but it resembles other character action games like the new God of War, though Clive is much more nimble than Kratos and every single weapon in the game feels exactly the same. Non-boss enemies are mostly punching bags who don’t do much, though some magic users will heal or armor their compatriots and there are a few tougher opponents who will force you to play a little more carefully and generally have a stagger bar, as do all the bosses. The stagger bar, which has appeared before in modern Final Fantasy, consists of a yellow bar below health that only bigger enemies have and that depletes when you do damage, usually faster than HP. When it hits the center line the enemy will stumble, which interrupts any attack they were doing and also allows you to use the “yank them towards you” move to increase the stun time by a bit. Then when it fully depletes the enemy goes into stagger mode where they just lay there for a bit while you whale on them with a damage bonus. For many boss fights the optimal strategy is to make sure that as many cool downs as possible are available when the boss enters stagger so you can really go to town and take off a big chunk of life.
Other than that I found the best strategy was to carve up the little guys as fast as possible and stand back from the larger enemies hitting them with charged magic shots (there is no MP so you can use the attack as much as you want), trying to hit precision dodges when they attacked and hitting a few counter blows before backing off again. You can also parry if you attack just as an enemy is about to hit you but I never felt the need to master that and mostly got parries during my limit breaks (a gauge that increases as you do damage and can trigger on command, which is also often worth saving for stagger points) when you can attack much faster than usual.
The system works well enough and combat is entertaining but I really wish there were some more RPG like wrinkles. Status effects of some sort, the ability to do more damage through elemental strengths and weaknesses, or weapons that either felt different from one another in some way or even just were balanced towards HP damage or stagger. Nope. You also don’t get to command your party members except for your dog, who is mostly irrelevant. You can command him to heal you for like 3-4% of your HP, significantly less than 1 hit. Yay?
But if the combat is missing additional RPG mechanics the rest of the game is much worse. You can walk around and talk to people, you can gather things, you can shop, and you can fight. That’s it. There are no mini-games, crafting is as bare bones as it gets and often results in you increasing your attack by like 3%, and there’s basically nothing of value to find. There are plenty of side quests (I did all of them) but most of them don’t provide you with anything of value, though a few have an impact like improving your potions or providing you with other meaningful awards. You can do side quests and named monster hunts to gain rewards and increase a reputation gauge that gives you…more (mostly useless) rewards at various levels. It’s all kind of RPG shaped but it doesn’t feed back into the main loop of the game well. Some of the side quests are well-written and develop some of the character, and some of the unique monsters are neat or funny, but none of it feels meaningful outside of the stories they tell. And so to me the game lived and died by how I felt about whatever story I was participating in. When the main story was cooking I was engaged and eager to see more. When it was in a lull I wondered whether I’d ever finish the game. Side quests with compelling characters and interesting things to say felt engaging. Side stories that were just fetch quests or boring felt like pointless chores. If I had it to do over again I would not have done nearly as much side stuff because too much of it felt like filler in a world that’s already repetitive and lacking things to do.
The game is also extremely linear and light on exploration. There are a few forks in the road and some open field areas, but every side area (which there aren’t many of) will end up being used for a later story beat or side quest. Not an inch of space exists just for atmosphere or exploration. Granted the game does send you back to areas multiple times, which helps it feel less linear than something like Final Fantasy XIII, but with no real over map (you can travel between different disconnected areas via a map screen but cannot roam outside the action areas), and mostly linear areas, it feels much smaller than a game like Xenoblade Chronicles II or III. This is made even worse by the garbage loot. Walk a little bit out of your ways to find a chest only to recover 20 “bloody hides,” which you already have 1,500 of and no use for? It feels almost like the developers punishing you for wanting to explore.
As an aside, none of the rewards in this game ever feel balanced in any way. Late area chests have pretty much the same things as early area ones. XP and AP feel arbitrarily assigned. For some reason various types of wild dogs give way more AP than most enemies, but you absolutely cannot predict what rewards you’ll get from the difficulty of an encounter. A quick battle against a couple waves of trash mobs that you dispose of using an AOE ability can provide more rewards than fighting a boss who pushes you as close to your limit as this easy game gets.
At times it feels like the developers are trolling because they resent that they’re having to make an RPG. “You want meaningful rewards? Here’s 300 AP for defeating a pack of dogs and 60 for defeating a dragon.” “You want a crafting system? Here’s 20x the amount of crafting materials you could ever need and when you do craft an item it increases your damage by 2%.” “You want meaningful exploration? Congratulations you found a chest, but if it doesn’t have a negligible amount of money in it you will instead get an item that improves the damage of one move you don’t have equipped by 3%.” That’s if the game lets you explore at all, which it rarely does.
If the main areas feel linear then the ‘dungeons’ are more or less corridors. There are a few optional chests in small rooms off the main path and in a couple dungeons you have minor optional areas or the need to go hit a switch to unlock the main path, but it’s mostly just move forward and fight like a linear action game. Some of the boss fights are impressive (and there is a special fighting mode that gets activated maybe half a dozen times that makes for some truly spectacular and cinematic battles) but it’s very much an action game, complete with huge numbers of potions to keep your health up as you move from encounter to encounter. The game even lets you revisit these areas in “arcade” mode either with your fully upgraded character or one constrained to the level and stats you would normally have on your first time through.
While none of these sections feel much like an RPG they are the best parts of the game, and that, to me, is why it doesn’t feel like a mainline Final Fantasy game. As I played it I asked myself what makes an RPG? Is it a focus on story and side quests? Is it leveling and character development? I think the latter is closer than the former but I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Final Fantasy VII Remake had real time combat, but its more involved progression mechanics, use of mana and party mechanic, and side activities like the racing and box smash made it feel like an RPG even with its linear level design. I think the big difference to me is the sense of exploration and discovery that Final Fantasy games have usually had, the feeling like there could be some weird minigame or optional dungeon around any corner. You always know what’s around the corner in Final Fantasy XVI. More combat and talking. There was only one moment in the game that genuinely surprised me from a mechanical perspective, and it ended up not being meaningful.
So I enjoyed FF XVI but it didn’t give me what I was looking for our of a Final Fantasy experience. It’s definitely not a game I hate like FF XIII, but it manages to be both a good time and a disappointment at the same time. I bear no ill will towards Clive and his crew and now that I now what the game is I might even be interested in DLC or one of their weird sequels or spinoffs down the road, but I was also left craving a real RPG experience after I finished it. I ended up booting up the original Wild Arms on PS5 and in the first few hours of that you get dungeons more complicated than anything FF XVI offers and a set of stupid mini games at a festival that are exactly what I think FF XVI is missing. In the end FF XVI feels like the developers wanted to make an action game but were forced by Square to make a mainline RPG instead so they phoned in the RPG parts (except the story) and focused on the stuff they cared about, which is also not the stuff I want from a mainline Final Fantasy game, even if in a vacuum it’s decent gameplay. If this were just another spin off like Stranger in Paradise the whole thing would make more sense to me.
I don’t know where Final Fantasy goes from here and I’ll probably travel with it at least a little bit longer, but I hope future games go back to the overstuffed goofiness of the franchise’s past. I played the FF VII Remake DLC before I started FF XVI and that felt much more like what I wanted, with a whole mini RTS game and weird shooting gallery section jammed into a few hours of DLC. That’s what I want from a mainline Final Fantasy game and what was missing from FF XVI. Oh well. There’s always FF XVI-II, at least if it sells well.