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Final Fantasy XVI cracks the action-RPG formula with spectacular combat

Disclaimer per Square Enix regarding the demo build previewed below: “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.”

In case Square Enix hasn’t made it clear enough over the last few years: Final Fantasy is changing. While the legendary RPG series had long been synonymous with traditional, turn-based combat and whimsical creatures, recent entries have signaled a slow-moving sea change aimed at transforming the franchise eventually. Games like Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake have teased a new direction for the series, but Final Fantasy XVI fully rips the Band-Aid off.

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I got a clear picture of that when I sat down for a 90-minute demo of the game, which is scheduled for a June 22 launch on PlayStation 5. At first glance, the latest installment of the series is almost unrecognizable from anything that came before it. It’s a full-on character-action game with a dreary tone that more resembles something by FromSoftware (though it’s certainly not a Soulslike). I wasn’t issuing commands to party members, cinematic quick-time events popped up between battles, and there wasn’t an MP bar in sight. Whether you’re ready to accept it or not, this is the future of Final Fantasy.

The good news is that developers at Square Enix’s Creative Business Unit III have not taken their responsibility lightly here. Based on my short time with the demo (an unfinished slice of gameplay custom-built for press), Final Fantasy XVI feels like the confident cannonball the series has needed after dipping its toe into action for well over a decade. It’s a loud, thrilling spectacle anchored by the series’ best stab at hack-and-slash gameplay yet. Just don’t expect it to cater to your RPG nostalgia; you have to be willing to meet it on its own modern terms.

Back to high fantasy

What’s particularly funny about Final Fantasy XVI is that it’s both a total departure and a return to form. In a presentation before my hands-on session, I’m given a grand overview of the standalone game’s high fantasy setting. It’s about everything I’d expect from a classic entry in the series, with a multi-empire conflict set in the world of Valisthea that revolves around giant blue crystals and the people who seek to wield them. The massive emphasis on story will include over 11 hours worth of cutscenes — and that’s not counting anything related to subquests.

The demo itself (which takes place about five hours into the story) didn’t reveal too much narrative, but I’m fully introduced to its protagonist, Clive Rosfield. The grizzled swordsman is on a complicated revenge quest that weaves in classic Final Fantasy lore. Rosfield was supposed to be born a “dominant,” which is a warden of the elements and the summons (dubbed “Eikons” here) associated with them. Instead, his younger brother, Joshua, is chosen to be Phoenix’s keeper, which appears to end in a tragedy worthy of vengeance. What’s most intriguing about the narrative setup is that it’ll be told over a 30-year span, following Rosfield in his teens, 20s, and 30s. That premise has me interested to see how both the hero and world will evolve over the course of the adventure.

Aside from its high fantasy setting, the adventure quickly parts ways with the wider series once I go hands-on. During my demo, I find myself trekking up a dreary castle tower as I slash through rooms full of guards and watchdogs en route to a rooftop boss fight. It’s a surprisingly linear “dungeon” filled with square rooms, stone hallways, and only a small handful of extra corners to explore. I’m not sure how indicative that is of the final game, but the development team on hand emphasized that Final Fantasy XVI is not an open-world game. Instead, it compares it to a roller coaster ride, which is the feeling I get as I zip between combat encounters with my wolf companion like I would in Bayonetta 3 or Hi-Fi Rush.

Clive stabs Garuda in Final Fantasy XVI.

The deeper I get into the demo, the more I feel like I’m playing an action game with its own distinct identity. Final Fantasy’s history is still present in summons and spell names, but it’s otherwise shocking to see bloodied bodies lining the castle floors or to hear characters dropping F-bombs. During a roundtable interview with some of the game’s creative team, I asked what linked the project to other games in the series. Rather than drilling into specific references or systems, everyone on hand had a broader definition that they felt XVI fully conformed to, just like any other entry.

“For me, a Final Fantasy has to have that deep story,” producer Naoki Yoshida tells Digital Trends. “It has to have that complex game experience. It has to have a unique battle system, great graphics, great sound … and then chocobos and moogles! Final Fantasy XVI has all of those, so I think we’ve made something that feels like Final Fantasy.”

Director Hiroshi Takai perhaps puts it best when he points out that Final Fantasy games are about “challenging something new.” Mainline entries have always been completely separate games that explore their own worlds, characters, and systems. In that sense, Final Fantasy XVI is completely in line with the rest of the series in taking a new approach to RPG gameplay … and it’s that gameplay that will ultimately make the reinvention a lot easier to swallow once fans actually get to feel it in action.

Cracking the action-RPG

Final Fantasy has long tried to break away from traditional turn-based combat in favor of real-time action, to varying degrees of success. Final Fantasy VII Remake cleverly fuses the two ideas by working a menu-style command system in-between its swordplay. Final Fantasy XV delivered more of a straightforward hack-and-slash system that suffered from a lack of depth. After all those attempts and more, Final Fantasy XVI feels like it’s finally settled into a satisfying combat system that works.

That’s largely thanks to combat director Ryota Suzuki. The developer previously worked on Devil May Cry V — and that certainly shows here. The battle system is incredibly fast and complex, with a variety of mechanics to juggle. Core combat revolves around a central attack button and a spellcasting command that shoots long-range magic at enemies. Limit breaks are represented, though they’re more consumable bars that give players a surge of power rather than a one-time-use special attack. Modern action staples are all represented here, from evasive dodging to a parry system, and enemies can be staggered similar to Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Clive slashes an enemy in Final Fantasy XVI.

The big twist, though, is tied to Eikons. As Clive acquires the essence of different elemental creatures, he gains access to a host of abilities for each that operate on a cooldown. When his fire ability is equipped, you can press the circle button to warp toward an enemy. Holding down R2 and pressing the attack buttons fires off different skills (unlocked via skill tree with ability points), like a fiery uppercut. In my demo, I’m able to hold three of those powers at once and cycle between them on the fly with L2.

It didn’t take long for me to get the hang of it as I smoothly shuffled abilities in-between standard attacks to devastate my enemies with panache. Having access to several abilities ensures that I always have something cooled down and ready to use, letting me fluidly chain together attacks. A standard battle would have me closing in on an enemy with my fire warp, flipping to Earth magic to block an attack with my rock shield, delivering a barrage of close-range smashes, and then flipping to electric magic to juggle nearby enemies with a massive aerial spell.

When you find the flow, it feels like you’re Dante or Bayonetta using Clive’s powers to show off while keeping the pressure on his foes. It’s all the thrill of an in-depth combo system, minus the complicated inputs. Instead, I can easily execute my abilities and chain them together with straightforward controls. All I have to keep an eye on is my cooldowns.

While it’s an incredibly fun system, it might be a bit of a culture shock to longtime fans. When asked about the shift to flashy action, Yoshida gives a somewhat sobering answer: The developers are just following the data. It’s simply how the team realistically thinks it can recoup the exorbitant development costs that come with a modern game. It’s simply playing to a younger audience that grew up on shooters and fast action games. Yoshida also notes that the team felt it would be a waste of the PS5’s graphical capabilities to just have characters standing around waiting for orders.

Clive evades an enemy attack in Final Fantasy XVI.

Though that might not be the most creatively satisfying answer, the team hasn’t entirely thrown history out with its new combat. In fact, Takai notes that the system has a surprising link to a classic entry in the series.

“The ability system that we have, with using the Eikonic abilities, that’s something that we actually based off of Final Fantasy V’s ability system,” Takai says. “For me, it was thinking back to: If we took the Final Fantasy V ability system and made it into something that was real-time action, this is what it would look like … To those players out there who are still on the fence and thinking ‘I don’t want to play this because I’m a turn-based person,’ I’d ask them to at least try it out once and see how it feels. We think you’ll change your mind.”

Enter the Eikon

The new combat system isn’t the only trick Final Fantasy XVI has up its sleeve. The most spectacular part of it revolves around its Eikons. At the end of my demo, I’m thrown into a boss fight elsewhere in Clive’s journey. At first, it’s similar to what I’d experienced before. Clive comes facefto-face with Garuda and is tossed into a round arena with the titanic boss. I weave around electric attacks and tornadoes as I load her up with damage. It’s a frantic, exciting fight, but it’s only the prelude to the main event.

After a false finish, Clive transforms into Ifrit, the classic Final Fantasy fire summon. A kaiju battle ensues as the two hulking beasts go head-to-head. The core combat controls are the same here, as I lunge forward with X, shoot some long-range flames with triangle, and slash at Garuda with square. That alone is thrilling enough, but the roller coaster spectacle ratchets up as her health bar hits the halfway point. Suddenly, we enter an extended cinematic where I’m using quick-time actions to execute cinematic dodges and attacks. It’s a full-on Hollywood monster movie battle in which the PS5’s visual capabilities are on full display.

I can’t stop grinning the entire fight; it’s blockbuster action at its finest. I instinctively fist pump when it’s over.

Garuda and Ifrit battle in Final Fantasy XVI.

The development team laid out some inspirations for the encounter, which ranged from Neon Genesis Evangelion, to Godzilla, to professional wrestling. However, they joke about how much money they spent for a one-off sequence, because no two Eikon battles will be the same. The team implies that a later battle will take on more of a 3D sky shooter setup, for instance. After the Ifrit fight, I’m already dying to see how later battles can one-up that experience.

The enormous battles aren’t just for show. Eikons are the heart and soul of the action-RPG, spiritually tethering it to the Final Fantasy series at large. When creating the project, Yoshida wanted to create a Final Fantasy game that finally dug into the lore and mythology of summons, which have long been used merely as special attacks. Final Fantasy XVI will dive into their backstories, while showing them as more capable fighters. That alone is the most compelling narrative hook the sequel has going for it, taking a new approach to what parts of the wider RPG universe are allowed to be fleshed out in a game like this. That’s all part of the overall mission of the game: to create a more mature Final Fantasy for an audience that’s grown up with it.

“Yoshida’s order at the time, he had this very big idea that he wanted to focus on the summons,” Takai says.” His other order was basically that the Final Fantasy fan base is getting older. They’ve been with the series a long time. So we wanted to create a story and narrative that resonated with the older fans.”

Ifrit fights Garuda in Final Fantasy XVI.

I can feel that philosophy as I play through my short introduction to Final Fantasy XVI. There’s already a lot of weight to the narrative stemming from its personal revenge story, its multidecade structure, and its deep mythological worldbuilding. The energetic action is an entirely new frontier that might upset longtime fans, but the series’ heart isn’t totally gone here. Though it may not have the whimsy of previous entries, and its linear structure leaves me with a slight bit of trepidation, it honors the shape-shifting nature in a way that feels consistent with its legacy.

If that’s still not convincing enough, this is your moment to get off the train. But if you stay on, it seems like you’ll be in for a spectacular ride regardless of how much it resembles the old games you love.

Final Fantasy XVI launches on June 22 exclusively for PS5.

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