A Fantasy Reimagined
The title "Final Fantasy" may strike one as paradoxical, given the series' remarkable longevity and enduring success. However, the inception of this iconic franchise, developed by Square Enix, was steeped in desperation. The name "Final Fantasy" was chosen for the first instalment because it was intended to be Square's last-ditch effort to stave off bankruptcy. This seemingly prophetic title has not only defied its grim origins but has also become emblematic of the central motif within each iteration - the impending apocalypse. While these games often revolve around the quest to save the world, they simultaneously compel players to confront the spectre of its annihilation, probing how individuals grapple with existence in a world haunted by pervasive anxiety.
This persistent atmosphere of impending crisis, which bears a striking resemblance to the challenges of the real world, has silently contributed to Final Fantasy's enduring allure. It is this very ambience that I posit binds a series renowned for its constant evolution, transitioning from turn-based combat to spectacle-driven rhythm games, and most recently, as witnessed in Final Fantasy 16, morphing into a conflicted yet engaging hack-and-slash experience set within beautifully crafted yet somewhat lifeless landscapes.
Traditionally, Final Fantasy narratives have unfurled through the eyes of a younger generation grappling with oppressive regimes and would-be deities. In Final Fantasy 16, players inhabit the role of Clive Rosfield, the brawniest and most stoic scion of the Rosaria duchy. His younger brother, Joshua, possesses the rare ability to channel the power of Eikons, mystical creatures inspired by the summons from previous titles.
The odyssey of Clive and Joshua commences with a skirmish over a Mothercrystal, a colossal gemstone whose shards confer magical abilities and symbolise a form of fossil fuel in the Final Fantasy universe. As their tale unfolds, it envelops the entire realm of Valisthea, a quasi-medieval continent under siege from warring dynasties, Dominants, and an encroaching Blight that threatens to render the land uninhabitable. This familiar apocalyptic backdrop is interwoven with themes of systemic injustice, where individuals who can wield magic without crystals are branded as Bearers and relegated to lives of servitude.
It falls upon Clive to unravel the chaos, one quest at a time. Following a generous prologue replete with tragic twists, players establish a hub within the game world and embark on journeys through various regions. These regions feature bustling settlements and moderately open areas brimming with collectables, where players embark on quests that invariably involve reaching a waypoint and engaging in battles against adversaries.
Clive, despite his imposing presence, serves as a stoic counterpoint to the game's vibrant and diverse cast of characters. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy 16 ventures deep into Clive's character development, exploring not only his tumultuous family history but also his status as the Chosen One protagonist and the world's profound reliance on him.
This theme of individual responsibility permeates the characterisations of other Dominants and the realm's rulers, evoking memories of the political intrigue and power struggles witnessed in "Game of Thrones." These characters are emotionally scarred individuals whose actions mirror their self-indulgent and often self-destructive behaviours, all set against the backdrop of impending catastrophe.
The game's combat system sets itself apart from other action-oriented entries in the Final Fantasy franchise, such as Final Fantasy 13 and Final Fantasy 15. It offers a more forgiving experience akin to Devil May Cry, seamlessly integrated into the exploration aspect of the game. Clive begins with basic sword techniques, dodging manoeuvres, counterattacks, and a few fire-based special abilities, gradually expanding his arsenal with elemental powers. Players can equip up to three sets of these abilities, providing a diverse array of combat strategies.
However, the game's pacing suffers from its gradual introduction of combat intricacies. With a playtime extending beyond 30 hours, it takes a significant amount of time to fully grasp the nuances of the combat system. Repetitive skirmishes against wildlife and generic soldiers tend to artificially elongate the gameplay, often lacking in genuine challenge, especially when it comes to the final third of the game.
The game's redeeming quality lies in its well-executed auto-lock feature, which facilitates seamless transitions between enemies. Yet, the excessive monotony of these encounters is counterbalanced by the epic boss battles that culminate in each chapter. These confrontations pit players against a variety of formidable foes, delivering intense and visually spectacular confrontations that leave a lasting impression.
The design of quests in Final Fantasy 16 offers a mixed bag of engaging and tedious missions. The main storyline quests are undeniably captivating, but the game occasionally resorts to the clichéd "visit the next themed dungeon" formula. It regains its footing in the closing hours as character stories unfurl and the ultimate antagonist is unveiled. The exploration of the barren continent of Ash stands out as a particular highlight.
While some of the sidequests offer enjoyable interactions with key characters, many veer into the realm of the mundane and repetitive, often involving the collection of obscure items, the search for missing individuals, or the mundane task of making deliveries. These sidequests lack narrative depth and often fail to provide meaningful surprises or memorable moments.
Final Fantasy 16's unwavering dedication to worldbuilding sometimes overshadows the gameplay itself. The game introduces an abundance of systems to convey its intricate backstory, including convoluted lore displays, relationship charts, and lengthy expositional presentations. Despite these efforts, the sheer volume of worldbuilding can be overwhelming, causing players to gloss over most of it in favour of forging ahead with the main narrative.
The game's most lacklustre quests have a detrimental impact on its visually striking locations, which initially captivate but, regrettably, lack significant replay value. Final Fantasy 16 fully embraces a high-fantasy setting, eschewing the sci-fi elements that have featured prominently in recent entries. While unquestionably visually stunning, some areas can feel monotonous, consisting of vast expanses of greenery or barren landscapes, with setpiece structures that struggle to match the grandeur of those featured in earlier instalments.
Final Fantasy 16 presents a complex narrative that delves deep into the consequences of being the chosen hero in a world teetering on the brink of destruction. Its combat system, while intricate, demands a substantial investment of time to fully appreciate, and the game's length is artificially extended by repetitive encounters. However, the captivating boss battles and engaging main quests provide moments of brilliance that offset the lacklustre sidequests. The game's dedication to worldbuilding, while admirable, can occasionally be overwhelming, and questions about ethnic homogeneity may raise concerns about inclusivity. Ultimately, despite its strengths, Final Fantasy 16 may leave players yearning for earlier entries that prioritised the camaraderie of the party over the hero's solitary journey.