Final Fantasy XVI‘s Opening Mostly Sticks The Landing

Games Features Final Fantasy XVI
Final Fantasy XVI‘s Opening Mostly Sticks The Landing

Disclaimer: This preview is based on a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.

When I first previewed Final Fantasy 16 some months ago, I was struck by two things in particular: how fluid an action-RPG it had become and how much darker the title was than a lot of its predecessors. As the latest entry in a long running series that has often remained light-hearted despite apocalyptic stakes, the bloody, grim and foul-mouthed nature of Final Fantasy 16 is downright off putting, if still promising. What Final Fantasy 16 needed, in my eyes, was a solid foundation to build upon, which makes it all the more appropriate then that I recently got to play the game’s opening five-ish hours, which works really hard to establish this game’s tone and characters ahead of what’s sure to be a long and hard journey for Clive and his allies.

True to what the developers told us back in February, Final Fantasy 16 briefly begins in Clive’s present as a conscripted soldier on a mission to find a Dominant, someone who possesses the powers of an Eikon. Before long, the conflict erupts and Clive lose consciousness, prompting a tutorial and flashback for the players that sees Clive as a teenager back in the Duchy of Rosaria, where he trains as a Shield to protect his younger brother, Joshua, the Dominant of the Eikon of fire, Phoenix. This section runs for about two hours as you get a feel for the politics of Valisthea and the internal conflicts of Clive and his family. You get a semblance of his love and overprotectiveness of Joshua, who seems sickly and maybe a bit too weak to currently handle the power he contains, as well as Clive’s fondness for Jill, who not only becomes the Dominant for Shiva, but an ally in Clive’s journey later in life. Importantly, you get to know his parents, Elwin and Anabella, whom Naoki Yoshida (director of Final Fantasy 16) undersold months ago as Clive’s “gentle father and strict mother.” To say that their relationship is complicated would be putting it too lightly. Soon after returning home, Elwin lets Clive know that the situation in Valisthea, whose various nations have been warring over mothercrystals that grant magic and protection from something called the Blight, is quickly making its way to their own doorstep. Ahead of the inevitable conflict Elwin gives Clive—-who, despite his royal lineage, has faced an uphill battle in the hearts and eyes of Rosaria’s people and soldiers—-a mission to prove himself.

At this point, Clive and a reliable pair of himbos embark on a mission through a swamp that gave a great look at some of the monster designs in Final Fantasy 16. Weirdly enough, the first preview featured almost entirely human opponents outside of the boss fights, which is perhaps why it felt so in-line with the Game of Thrones comparisons that have come up time and time again in FF16’s rollout. That being said, it was cool getting to see some nasty little goblins and a big ol’ Morbol in this area, with even more monsters littered throughout the opening five hours. While it may not be the first thing to come to mind, Final Fantasy’s monsters are an integral part of the series’ legacy, and besides the Eikons, it’s great to see them find a place here and ground 16 in Final Fantasy’s past. Not that I ever really thought the game would leave them behind, especially seeing as they have been in plenty of marketing since the game’s announcement.

Combat against monsters and humans alike felt as smooth, responsive, and cinematic as it did in my initial hands-on. Since we were dropped into the beginning of the game, I had less abilities than the later section we first played through, but this time I also bothered to go into the skill menu and use my points to unlock techniques that mixed things up a fair bit more. Among the moves I added to Clive’s repertoire were a mid-air stomp, an airborne plunge, and a thrust that rounded out a fairly simple but robust beginner’s set of techniques. Along the way I metabolized some information from the tutorial that didn’t quite sink in the first time round, like the fact that you can follow up sword strikes with a fire blast almost like the Gunblade’s secondary damage in Final Fantasy 8. Thanks to a breadth of encounters throughout my demo, I also found a bit of a string where you alternate between a dash strike and a dash spell attack (the equivalent of hitting circle, square, circle, triangle with the Phoenix Eikon equipped) for a layman’s infinite combo. While it wasn’t flashy, I think the fact that you can chance upon one so early (anecdotally, another person at the preview told me they found a different infinite combo), speaks to Ryota Suzuki’s (Final Fantasy 16‘s combat director) approach from our conversation some time ago, where he indicated that he wanted to make high-ceiling kind of gameplay approachable to folks who were perhaps used to a different mode of play. All throughout, the game kind of dazzled, blending transitions in and out cutscenes and quick-time-events almost seamlessly. The game’s also graphically going for something just a notch below hyper-realistic fidelity, where you can see that tons of money has obviously gone into making the game look good without entirely forsaking art direction. The world, characters, and effects in most fights (there are some exceptions) have an elegance to them, which stands apart from the sometimes muddy and busy visual fare of a lot of high-fidelity blockbusters.

I say most fights because I once again got to preview yet another Eikon fight—the very first one in fact—which was tied to a particularly strong and downright harrowing moment in the story, but admittedly took me out of the moment almost entirely. When I played the fight between Ifrit and Garuda in February, I lightly bemoaned the fact that despite its obvious big-budget showiness, it felt mechanically shallow. I walked away thinking that it might be the worst (but not obviously poor or outright bad) symptom of making such a tremendously big game, and this introductory fight did little to assuage that notion. “Epic” feels like a suitable descriptor for the scope of these things rather than the feeling of them, especially as we tore through the sky destroying colossal structure after structure laying waste to each other in an on-rails shooter where all I could do was dodge, aim, and shoot. All the while, there’s an obvious crisis going on in the story and I felt like the game was engaging me in the worst way to make me feel this moment. Were it not for the way the whole sequence concludes (I uncomfortably winced my way through the finale), I’d have felt like the game’s obligation to deliver cinematic thrills undermined the gravitas of the situation entirely. Earlier, my hope for the Eikon fights—which are said to be mechanically diverse—was that they’d offer me more to do, but now I just pray that they don’t undercut each of the story’s climactic moments.

It’s only at the end of all of this that Final Fantasy 16‘s title card finally shows, and by then it’s more than made a point of the kind of story it wants to tell. Here we snap back to the present and proceed on Clive’s mission, which becomes complicated by more than one factor. Soon enough though, he comes to join Cid, the leader of a rebellious force freeing many of the various nations slaves, known as the Marked. Cid is a breath of fresh air, confidently sauntering through his scenes with a gruff but sarcastic demeanor that’s a natural foil to everything about the man Clive has become. He also comes with a purpose that diversifies Clive’s understandably one-note quest for revenge and introduces him, and the player, to his camp, essentially the game’s first of likely many towns, where you can shop, hear idle chatter and take on side quests. Seeing as I was on borrowed time, I took on one side quest that had me doing a shift at a tavern and serving some refugees a meal. Like most RPG and FF quests, it was a simple quest with some heart, as the tavern’s keeper made clear to me that everyone there was formerly a Marked, making the dish you served them perhaps their first hot meal in years, or maybe even ever. For the folks worried that FF16 isn’t going to have levity, heart, or charm, I reckon that side quests like these will be where you find a lot of it.

The end of my demo mostly took place in a dungeon of sorts, where I was accompanied by Cid and Torgal, your wolf companion and seemingly most consistent party member through the game. The dungeon, a forest called The Greatwood, was luscious and filled to the brim with scores of monsters from ravenous plants to wolves, but mostly functioned as an introduction to controlling Torgal in battle. Though I appreciated having so much control over him, giving him manual commands on the directional pad and then remembering to swap over to my own menu felt cumbersome at first, which made me grateful for FF16’s timely accessories. These accessories function as accessibility tools that can lighten the load of combat by automating some responses, like heals or Torgal commands, or prompting you ahead of incoming attacks so that you can dodge or parry if you’re having trouble keeping up with the quicker combat or have impaired motor function that just doesn’t make it feasible to respond lightning fast. Regardless of your reasoning, they do make a hell of a difference in action and I’m happily applying them to at least automate Torgal, freeing me up to button mash and try to learn combos.

At the conclusion of this bit, we were able to load up a further save that dropped us into one of FF16’s more open environments where you can presumably take on side quests, grind encounters, and maybe even uncover some secrets. Though I wasn’t allowed to go beyond a certain point or use the Active Time Lore—a very cool function that gives you most of the present information you need about the characters you are with and where you are and might’ve spoiled things for me—I was able to roam around and pick some fights for a while with an expanded moveset reminiscent of my first demo. In lieu of an open world, FF16 has a world map that’ll be filled with explorable areas like this, a shift I’m happy to see some bigger games making rather than purposelessly making an interconnected and bloated world. The corner of the map I was relegated to wasn’t particularly big, but the town ahead held some promise and looks I’ve gotten at the game’s other regions from trailers and presentations suggest that these locales absolutely scale up to be gargantuan.

My sweeping preview of Final Fantasy 16 had to end at some point, but by then the game had more than won me over. As someone who tends to lean towards more mature stories, I’ve always been interested in the promise of Final Fantasy 16, and having now seen firsthand how it begins, I want to see it through. There are character dynamics teased in these opening hours that I haven’t even touched on that feel like new ground for this series and I can’t wait to see how it’s tackled. Familiarizing myself with the foundations of combat also has me itching to dig further into its systems and getting to a point where I’m doing Devil May Cry-like air juggles with flair and aplomb. And of course, it’s stunning to look at, even if one of the game’s biggest selling points feels like it prioritizes visuals over substantive gameplay. In a game this big, maybe these things can co-exist happily. But there’s little time left to theorize, since the next time we talk about Final Fantasy 16, it’ll be out in the wild at last. Until then, I’m waiting with bated breath to dive in and see if it sticks the landing.

Disclaimer: This is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.

FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin