Upon first impression, Final Fantasy XVI struck me with its darker and more violent tone than anything in the series’ past. It’s not just in the graphic depictions of bloody battles or godlike beings crushing each other to a pulp, but also in the explicit narrative threads about persecution and enslavement. It delves into the death and destruction that follows in the wake of all the political drama and supernatural standoffs. The brutality inflicted upon its victims is laid bare at nearly every turn, sometimes to the point of embellishment, to strike the nerves it wants to hit. But there’s a thematic coherence to it all that melds what happens to the people at the ground level with the fantastical elements that steer their destinies. And within that harsh exterior, glossed with magic and aether, is a gripping story about characters clinging to their humanity, the bonds that give them strength, and the lengths they’ll go to make the world a better place–all told in a way that only Final Fantasy can.
Final Fantasy has always been about reinvention and FFXVI perhaps marks the series’ most drastic shift yet. The combat system veers much closer to a Devil May Cry than Final Fantasy XV or VII Remake, and is a shining example of what an action-RPG can be. Eikon battles initially seem to be just explosive set-pieces but grow into meaningful moments that are as narratively driven as they are utterly impressive spectacles. Through the awe-inspiring battles and emotional cutscenes, I found myself repeatedly asking in disbelief, “Did this game just do this?” as the soundtrack’s beautiful melodies were seared into my memory. However, those peaks are also met with dated design conventions that stick out like sore thumbs, making for some noticeable lulls in the 50-plus hours I spent with the game. Still, I’ll always remember FFXVI for its powerful and stunning moments, for those are the reasons it stands among the storied franchise’s best.
FFXVI is very much about the growth of Clive and the people around him, but story’s initial emphasis on the nations and political structures of Valisthea set the stage for everything that follows. Valisthea is a world plagued by environmental decay and war is fueled by the hunger for resources, which in this case, are the crystals. Because they are a catch-all magical resource, those with the inherent ability to wield magic are abused, subjugated, and treated as property; tools to be used and sacrificed in service of their supposed superiors. Thus, liberation and revolution are the narrative throughlines, and FFXVI heavily leans into these themes, using them as a strong foundation to build every facet of the story and its characters.
FFXVI mostly navigates these themes with a deft hand. Its writing often demonstrates an understanding of the complex dynamics that come with the territory, and it shines by empowering characters, letting them and their experiences be the focal points in sharp cutscenes and dialogue. As heinous as the darkest moments may be, they’re also crucial to each character’s understanding of the hostile world they exist in. It’s encouraging to see the game plainly say what needs to be said, though at times that deft hand turns heavy, laying it on a little too thick or overlooking a bit of nuance that could’ve gone a long way in properly unpacking a theme or perspective. On rare occasions, I found a few minor story events that undermined the rather clear messages the game tries to send. But as a core motivation for the cast, and me as the player, to take action remains convincing throughout, and this results in some great narrative payoffs.
Clive and his brother Joshua are caught up in all this because they belong to a royal family that inherits the power of Phoenix, one of the Eikons that shake up the power balance within Valisthea. Tragedy strikes their family early on, setting the story in motion and establishing just how important Dominants–the select few who can tap and transform into Eikons–are as weapons of mass destruction. It seems like a blessing, but it’s very much a curse, and the earth-shaking power they wield comes with clear consequences. This blending of political drama, social injustice, and the fantastical tropes of Final Fantasy gives the story room to have the mythical bombast expected of the series but also make it meaningful. The Eikons are a great reimagining of Final Fantasy’s summons, and they’re smartly contextualized within the story–so for as bonkers and over-the-top as Eikons can be, FFXVI’s story always finds itself landing on solid ground.
Embedded in the themes of rebellion and the displays of godlike power are strong personal stories of revenge and redemption. The burden of sins, things they’ve done that they’re not wholly responsible for, weigh heavy on the main cast’s shoulders. I’ve grown quite tired of the old trope that seeking revenge is an empty endeavor that makes you as bad as your oppressors, so it’s invigorating to have a story put its foot down and give characters the satisfaction of killing their masters to set themselves free, presented without caveat. Nevertheless, atonement is yet another important lens through which you see characters develop and go through the process of re-distinguishing what’s right and wrong. Sometimes this means forgoing their privileges, making immeasurable sacrifices, or defying their supposed fate.
For all its dark turns, FFXVI is very much a story about love and the various forms it can take. It’s a beautiful, honest tale of brotherhood; there’s a familial love that I sometimes find hard to relate to, but in this regard, FFXVI cuts sharper than any story I’ve experienced in recent memory. There are also a few romantic plot lines that flow naturally into what motivates particular characters, and deep friendships that form through shared experiences. And good boy Torgal is the loyal dog who fights with Clive every step of the way. It wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy without the power of human bonds manifesting as the strength to carry on and giving its characters a world worth fighting for.
These more granular themes work so well because whether it’s Clive, Joshua, Cid, Jill or any of the other key characters, their personalities are driven by inspired voice performances. Clive is often the gruff guy who doesn’t have much to be happy about, but this makes the moments he breaks out of his shell all the more impactful. When he screams and cries in desperation, it’s the sound of someone truly in pain and you feel it in your bones, and when he cracks a smile or lets loose, it’s a moment to rejoice. It certainly makes him one of the realest protagonists in the Final Fantasy pantheon. Cid shakes the room with the sheer bass in his voice, and his smooth charisma and sharp wits steal every scene. He’s the kind of person that can make even the most aimless people believe in a cause, and the most stone-hearted people bare their souls. A believable human quality draws you toward Jill, so when she pours her heart out or has blood in her eyes, you know she means it. And when each of them rises to the occasion in their most critical moments, you can damn well hear it in their delivery.
FFXVI goes for some big swings, and hits when it matters most. It’s a tightly woven and focused story told without sacrificing the magic that makes Final Fantasy special. It takes a while to see it come together, and stumbles into a few disappointing tropes along the way. But at its peak, whether it be the sheer thrill of the action or the raw emotional honesty–and sometimes the harmony between the two–FFXVI goes so hard that I could feel it in my heart.
A significant part of what had me so invested in FFXVI is the stylish-action combat since it’s so tightly tied to the game’s identity. While you only control Clive throughout the game, his roster of Eikon abilities build up alongside story events, and the framing of his greatest battles works so well because he controls like a nimble, masterful swordsman with a slew of badass powers he can whip out and string together at any moment.
FFXVI loosely retains the design principles of an RPG, with skill trees, a leveling system, upgradable gear, and stats that create a sense of progression. But when you’re in combat, your handling of Clive’s technical capabilities and Eikon powers are what’ll win the battle. You can equip three Eikons and swap between them on the fly in battle–each has two powers on cooldown and a unique utility move that you can execute at any time. Customizing and mapping out your Eikon abilities is key; to be approached as if you’re creating loadouts or team compositions in other games. And because these abilities all have properties such as launching, midair execution, charge-ups, or area-of-effect damage, you can get creative with some sweet combos.
For example, I often used a bread-and-butter rotation starting with Phoenix’s Rising Flames then going into Garuda’s Wicked Wheel, launching myself midair before smashing down with Titan’s Upheaval and finishing off with a full-powered Windup before mixing in the standard sword-slashing combo. If you just want cool-looking abilities that do tons of damage, you can get away with that, too. But the more you inspect the nuances of how certain abilities can be strung together, the more you’ll see the ways you can execute deliberate attack rotations.
Brilliantly designed boss battles bring out the best in the stylish-action combat. Typically, you work to bring down their stagger meter then hit them with all you’ve got, carefully planning your attack sequence to make the most of the damage multiplier that goes into effect in a staggered state, similar to Final Fantasy VII Remake. But these bosses also challenge your skills in dodging, positioning, reading incoming attacks, and reacting with precision and swiftness. As someone who has a couple thousand hours in Final Fantasy XIV and regularly does savage raids, I can clearly see how the MMORPG’s boss mechanics have influenced FFXVI. It’s one of the development team’s many strengths and I’m thrilled to see those design philosophies cross over to enrich the experience.
Because the accumulation of Eikon abilities is beholden to story progress, it takes time for the deeper gameplay elements to open up. While it strengthens the narrative coherence with the gameplay, it creates somewhat odd pacing in the first half of the game, and it’s a bit disappointing because later Eikon abilities offer some fascinating possibilities and add layers of depth.
FFXVI isn’t a particularly difficult game, but sometimes you’ll run into DPS checks or encounter enemy attacks that do significant damage in one hit, which you can sometimes brute force your way through by popping potions. There is challenge in the purely gameplay-focused Arcade Mode–which ranks you like a Devil May Cry game–and the New Game+ Ultimania difficulty, which cranks the challenge to near-impossible heights, for those who want it. Other than sheer enjoyment of besting the game’s toughest battles, engaging with these modes is mostly for leaderboard bragging rights. On the flipside, there are accessories that act as gameplay assists that can help those who may struggle with various aspects of the combat system–options such as auto-combos or more lenient dodge timing don’t completely automate the experience, though there are accessories that can do that for you. However you choose to play, it’s certainly satisfying to best the most imposing monsters while receiving hardly a scratch with every Eikon ability exhausted.
FFXVI isn’t a complex game either, as its structure is pretty straightforward. You have a home base called The Hideaway and sparsely populated hub areas for each region that gradually open up as you make progress and sidequests populate these areas to flesh out the world. Once you get access to the Hunt Board, you’ll find optional boss fights within these regions that reward you with a satisfying challenge, a bunch of XP, and materials for better gear. But the main quest is primarily driven by distinct combat-focused scenarios akin to a linear dungeon where mobs of enemies are interspersed with a handful of boss fights. Not only do these contain some of the best story moments and cinematics, it’s where gameplay finds its groove, hitting an enjoyable cadence of spectacular fights.
Sidequests are, unfortunately, one of FFXVI’s weaker parts. Having done all of them, I feel they’re still worth doing for the way they humanize the people of Valisthea. I would go as far to say that a handful of them are critical for getting the full picture of key characters and their relationships. But outside of those few important ones that reward you with heartfelt scenes, they’re mostly comprised of stilted dialogue sequences with objectives that rarely make the most of the game’s strengths. It’s where the writing occasionally falls flat, too, so the contrast in quality is stark when the main quest has best-in-class storytelling.
Where FFXVI flexes the hardest, though, is in the Eikon-versus-Eikon battles: pivotal moments where fully transformed Dominants put everything on the line and fight with everything they got. There aren’t many of these boss fights, but the ones from around the halfway point up until the end make for some of the wildest, most impressive spectacles seen in video games. New powers specific to these battles open up as the game goes on, too, so it’s not all quick time events or glorified button mashing. And even when they do rely on QTEs, you get a ridiculous display of strength that would make Asura’s Wrath proud. I’m not easily wooed by fancy cinematics or super-high visual fidelity, but FFXVI is one case where that technical prowess accentuates the grand scale of these genuinely surprising, astonishing moments.
Whether it’s in heated battles, emotional cutscenes, or brief treks across Valisthea, it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without an evocative soundtrack to match. Composer Masayoshi Soken and his team are a significant part of what makes FFXIV a special MMORPG experience, and their work on FFXVI further proves that the series’ music is in good hands. Reverberating piano pieces instill a tranquil and wistful vibe set against the vast landscapes, much like overworld themes heard in FFXIV. The commanding orchestras and choirs bring an undeniable weight to crucial battles. But, as Soken often does, he breaks from thematic conventions to add electronic tunes and heavy guitars that somehow fit right in. Even the normal boss theme had me sitting up straight, shoulders squared, humming along as I whooped on my foes with confidence. And the identifiable melodies that become powerful leitmotifs capture feelings that are tough to put into words: beautiful expressions of the complex emotions that the characters, and me as the player, feel in particular moments. Music is integral to the storytelling in Final Fantasy and FFXVI is a masterful execution of this pillar of the series’ tradition.
When I hear the new renditions of the Crystal Prelude and the original Final Fantasy theme, I look back at the franchise’s rich history and realize just how much of an impact it’s made on me and countless others. There are eras of my life that have been defined by Final Fantasy games and my connection to them. Having seen FFXVI all the way through, I’m happy to include it alongside some of my all-time favorites in the series. It’s heartening to see that this bold approach to both story and gameplay is now part of that legacy, expanding the definition of what a mainline entry could be. It may fall short in some respects, but it should be celebrated for its most stunning moments and the characters who embody them. FFXVI succeeds and earns its place within the Final Fantasy pantheon as one of the great entries, and does so on its own terms.