Final Fantasy XVI is due out on June 22, 2023 on PlayStation 5, following what could perhaps be best described as an identity crisis for the long-running RPG series. Promising a radically different tone for both storytelling and combat, FFXVI is ready to shake things up and, potentially, make a name for itself as a modern high-water mark for the series. Recent previews suggest there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful, even as Final Fantasy XVI risks being a little too different for series vets.
Following the Final Fantasy series hasn’t always been straightforward. While the upcoming adventure is number 16 in the main series, the franchise has seen countless remakes, direct sequels, spin-offs, and two successful MMORPGs. Mainline Final Fantasy titles have been on shaky ground with fans since at least 2009’s Final Fantasy XIII. So will Final Fantasy XVI be a strong return to form? While recent previews do highlight a core Final Fantasy experience is to be found here, the newer, darker tone and a greater focus on action-oriented combat with a single protagonist might threaten to overshadow some of what longtime fans have come to love about the series.
Combat: Mash them buttons, fight those bosses
It seems undeniable that Final Fantasy XVI’s combat will be a good time, but if you weren’t onboard with Final Fantasy XV’s controversial action-focused, mostly single-character combat system, well, the new game seems to go even further down that road.
Yes, there are status effects and equipable items that boost stats and such, but according to Polygon, the game can quickly turn into “a brainless, glorious, button-mashing lightshow.” GameSpot is in agreement, describing the combat as “mostly [consisting of] mashing the square button to attack, sprinkling in some ranged magic shots, and waiting for [summon] abilities to refresh from cooldown.” To top it off, this is a solo outing, with the player only controlling one character, not a party throwing out interlocking attacks, defenses, buffs, and debuffs. This is arguably an evolution of what Final Fantasy XV was aiming for, but one that’s looking to embrace even more action with less emphasis on stats.
That Final Fantasy XVI borders on offering mindless, button-mashing combat is rarely spoken about in a dismissive tone thus far (Polygon did describe it as glorious, after all), but it’s a far cry from what we’ve typically expected from Final Fantasy combat. That might be good news for newcomers, as players coming from more action-oriented franchises might feel more at home here. Comicbook.com says that the action-y boss battles “put to shame some of the best fights seen in other action games.”
Polygon said that the “boss battles come thick and fast in Final Fantasy XVI,” and IGN’s previewer saw “no fewer than eight bosses” in the game’s first four hours. GameSpot drew a sharp comparison to Devil May Cry in its preview; that should come as no surprise given that Devil May Cry 5 and Dragon’s Dogma designer Ryota Suzuki is Final Fantasy XVI’s combat lead.
Final Fantasy XVI’s combat certainly sounds like it will offer an exhilarating experience, with specific praise heaped on the scale and size of boss encounters and Eikon (summons). But the fact remains that this ain’t your mother’s Final Fantasy combat…hell, it doesn’t even sound like it will be your Final Fantasy combat, if you’re a longtime series fan.
Smaller gameplay environments, bigger storytelling
Do you want good news or bad news? Well here’s the good news, it sounds like Final Fantasy XVI’s won’t be saddled with a bloated, hollow, sprawling open world of the likes of Final Fantasy XV or even Square Enix’s recent Forspoken. Here’s the bad news (at least for some of you): Its structure reminded Polygon of Final Fantasy XIII.
While recent previews have shown a world map to traverse (with, sadly, no cute chibi character to guide around), IGN said that it was “slightly surprised by how contained some of its levels can be.” It described an early environment as “corridors of connecting fights.” That sure sounds like FFXIII to me.
Depending on your inclinations, this is potentially a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. But I think it’s important to remember that even the most celebrated entries in the series, like Final Fantasy VII, IX, and X, were also quite limited in their environments—they too had direct paths that had the illusion of opening up into something more based on when their world map would reappear (or in FFX’s case, I’d argue that the characters and storytelling were so direct and tightly paced that its more linear paths weren’t as much of a sore spot). This is what Final Fantasy XIII and its legendary 25-hour long corridor struggled with, and perhaps with some different trapping, it wouldn’t’ve been so jarring for players.
But it seems like pacing, at least early on, might be a bit of a sore spot for Final Fantasy XVI. Get ready for some heavy fake-politics memorization, folks, because it sounds like Final Fantasy XVI has it in spades. The weight of this political lore on the game’s overall narrative is so heavy, in fact, that an entire new system has been introduced: “Active Time Lore” literally lets you look up various historical and character information right in the middle of cutscenes.
IGN likened this feature to Amazon Prime Video’s X-Ray feature, which lets you pause to see the name of that actor you swear you know from somewhere, someplace. That sounds like a handy feature for anyone who’s played Final Fantasy XIII for a dozen hours and still felt like they didn’t know what the fuck a fal’Cie or l’Cie was, but that this feature exists at all speaks to the level of attention that might be required. Frankly, even reading previews that summarize the general premise of “kingdoms” and “war” and “crystals” sounds more confusing than it needs to be, but we’ll see how that shakes out in the final version.
Multiple previews have stressed that the game’s opening moments are also, perhaps painfully so, super heavy on hitting you over the head with story. IGN said that “cutscenes make up a lot of Final Fantasy XVI’s early runtime.” Time will tell if it’s just the opening that has this problem, but it sounds like you might want to have some popcorn ready on the side (just wash your damn hands before touching your controller).
To be fair, Final Fantasy has always been story-heavy (those of us who were introduced to it in its earlier days will remember that the games delivered hours and hours of text panels of dialogue to read). But this time the tone of the story is going for something quite foreign to the series—and it sounds like it might border on medieval fantasy misery porn.
Sad boys and dismal horizons
If you’ve been following along with Final Fantasy XVI’s development, then you know the game is aiming for a darker tone. Games like God of War and shows like Game of Thrones have been cited as inspiration for this new Final Fantasy…and, you know, we’re just gonna have to see how that turns out. Previews thus far have stressed that there’s a human tale underneath the misery fest, but they all highlight that protagonist Clive is a sad sad boy who can’t do the magic thing his family can do and thus feels left out, and apparently some defining tragic moments are told through flashback sequences that pause the present narrative to set the stage for why Clive is such a moody saddo.
Final Fantasy has never shied away from tough stuff, but it’s always carried a jovial, hopeful tone that perseveres through evidently tragic stories of loss and hardship, identity, community, love, and vengeance. It begs the question: Do we need FF to be so damn dark and miserable to convey what it’s successfully done in the past? I’m skeptical, especially when Polygon describes characters as “getting spattered in gore [...] screaming ‘I’ll fucking kill you!’ at the top of their lungs.” Digitaltrends straight up described it as a “high-fantasy Last of Us,” which is uh…hmm, not my favorite descriptor ever.
It remains to be seen how eloquently Final Fantasy XVI can handle its darker tones, but it’s clear from various previews that it ain’t holding back on dark and mature themes. As GameSpot so aptly put it, the challenge will be for FFXVI “to not conflate a darker tone and maturity.” I feel skeptical about its ability to thread this needle, but I’ll be glad if my doubts about FFXVI’s darker tone prove unwarranted.
Even series fans like myself can acknowledge that (single-player) Final Fantasy has been in a tough spot for some years, with it usually feeling like its glory days are long, long past. Whether or not Final Fantasy XVI’s changes will prove to be what’s needed remains to be seen, but at least we’re seeing Square Enix make a serious attempt to reinvigorate this beloved franchise.
Final Fantasy XVI arrives on June 22, 2023 exclusively on PlayStation 5.