With ‘Final Fantasy XVI’, the series tries a new direction

Not-so-sweet sixteen.

Square Enix

Square Enix wants a hit Final Fantasy game that’s just as popular as any game in the storied history. It’s taken seven years to get from the tepidly-received Final Fantasy XV to Final Fantasy XVI, and the company continues to wrestle with what a FF game is in 2023.

The company courted nostalgia with FF7 Remake (and the Pixel Remaster series). At the same time, its MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, continues to be a huge success – but what about the prestige title? It has a plan, and it involves giant-summoned monster battles with different styles of play, a single controllable protagonist with guest-star allies, a support dog that grows up with you, horny antagonists, wicked moms and several bleak plot twists to help establish the plot and characters relatively early on. I won’t spoil the story much, but the early segment covers warring nations, vicious family dynamics, slavery and more. I spent six hours playing through the game's opening chapters, and thought: This plan might work. Although heavy in battle tutorials, the opening of the game does a good job of teasing the narrative beats and major players, which is crucial not only to JRPGs like Final Fantasy, but to modern games in general. It’s just a shame the main character is called Clive.

I played some early chapters, which focused on the childhood years of Clive, flanked by his younger, ailing brother, Joshua, who was chosen to house the power of the Phoenix (giant mythical flaming bird, usually wielding healing powers in Final Fantasy lore). This is the game’s first example of an Eikon; magical summoned beasts that seem to live through their wielder, passed on through lineage and seemingly the cause of uneasy peace between nations. Each is assigned to an elemental beat of a fantasy RPG.

During the demo, I got to see roughly six Eikons in action. Sometimes they were going toe-to-toe. Other times, their human host channeled them for upgraded moves and damage. I particularly enjoyed the opening beats of Clive’s adulthood chapter, where you’re forced to navigate a cliffside as Shiva and Titan hurled giant glaciers and boulders at each other. I caught a glimpse (or fought with) beasts representing fire, ice, earth, lightning and wind. However, as you’ve probably gleaned from the teasers and snippets up until now, Ifrit, another fire-based beast, is setting things aflame. That’s not allowed, apparently. Why? I do not know.

Blessings from these Eikons form the basis of Clive’s skills and magic. Equipped with “a blessing from Phoenix” (his brother), the protagonist starts with sword skills, including lifting, rushing, and elemental attacks. Square Enix claims this is the first fully-fledged action RPG in Final Fantasy history, and it doesn’t play like any of its predecessors.

Final Fantasy XVI preview
Final Fantasy XVI preview (Square Enix)

There is no menu. All your items and attacks are done through button combinations and assigned shortcuts, with some degree of customization. I had my doubts from Final Fantasy XV, but Clive proves to be surprisingly agile and most battles were fluid and, honestly, exciting.

While allowing you to swap between enemies, the battle system shines brightest when you’re pitted against big solo enemies or boss fights. As soon as multiple enemies are dashing around, and the camera’s spinning, it’s a bit chaotic – a lot like Forspoken, another game from Square Enix.

Like Forspoken, there’s a smoothness and style to combat here that comes as more moves and skills are added. Clive can switch between Eikon-based movesets, not only differentiated by elemental attributes but by playstyle, too. For example, earth-based Titan attacks offer up a shield and counter system, while wind-based skills manipulate the distance between you and each enemy. If you can counter, or make a well-timed dodge in battle, you’ll be rewarded with a star. At the end of the fight, those stars will translate to battle spoils: extra accessories, items and resources.

My demo was almost exclusively controlling the heroically named Clive. However, there are support actions you can trigger from the d-pad, which directs your faithful hound, Torgal, to heal, strike or distract enemies. I also briefly fought alongside allies, but there didn’t seem to be any way to guide their behavior.

As you’ve probably seen teased in several trailers, FFXVI offers up different styles of battles when giant Eikons go head to head, razing castles, literally creating canyons and glaciers. Sometimes these played like rhythm action games, carefully timed evasions and attacks, while another was like an on-the-rails shooter. Hopefully, this variety spreads across the entire game.

Beyond the Eikon battles, all ofthe boss fights are where this system shines most. And if you’re wary of the notion of a live-action Final Fantasy, the game does feature an intelligent way to make the game more accessible through special accessories.Some of these will auto-heal you (if you have the potions for it) while others can widen the timing window for counters and parries. These offer a way to tailor the game to keep it challenging but avoid difficulty walls – and there were a few even in this early demo.

Outside the fights and the main campaign, there were hints of fetch quest horror, but the ones included in my demo were blissfully nearby, working more to show where to get your supplies and do more lore-building – which is what side quests should do. Still, there wasn’t anything reaching Witcher 3 levels of side quest hell just yet.

Final Fantasy XVI preview
Final Fantasy XVI preview (Square Enix)

Another feature introduced in FFXVI is Active Time Lore (a play on Active Time Battle, the turn-based battle system of older FF games). Here, you can pause during the game and cutscenes and dive into who’s talking, where they’re from and even the region you’re in. It’s a fantastic way of transmitting the plot and everything without overwhelming the player – it reminds me of the X-ray feature on Amazon Prime Video.

FFXVI producer Naoki Yoshida has pointed out that he sees the latest entry as heavily inspired by the likes of God of War, mentioning both the books and TV show Game of Thrones in the same interview. There’s a lot of the latter here. Also, I think this is the first time I’ve seen Final Fantasy characters show… lust? There are some horny people here and for once it’s not tongue-in-cheek, so to speak. So far, this appears to be a different kind of game – I’m intrigued to see how the whole thing turns out. Square Enix has added that it'll be launching a demo featuring the opening beats of the game ahead of its release.

Final Fantasy XVI launches on 22nd June 2023.

Square Enix noted this was a special preview build of the game built for press. Content may differ from the final version.