Despite the release date fast approaching, the many, thrilling trailers released so far and even my own prior talks with its Producer, the revered Naoki Yoshida, I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when sitting down to be among the first in the world to play Final Fantasy XVI.
With how far removed the next numbered, mainline sequel in this storied franchise is from its predecessors, the fresh talent on board and keeping in mind the divisive nature of some of the most recent titles, I picked up the PS5 controller in front of me hoping to be blown away but just as ready to remain optimistically uncertain. I’d only landed in Tokyo three hours beforehand, but after a very intimate opening presentation from Yoshida-san, more than two hours of hands-on time and a lengthy chat with some of the rockstars at Creative Business Unit III, my stiff muscles and sleep-deprived brain had been restored as if by a timely High Potion – this is the next big Final Fantasy I’ve been waiting for.
I won’t spend too much time on the basics of Final Fantasy XVI’s world or narrative setup, there’s plenty of literature out there to catch you up to speed, suffice it to say that our preview session drops us roughly five hours into the game, where main protagonist Clive is in adulthood. The full game is set to feature multiple time periods with Clive in both his 20s and 30s, alongside flashback sequences to his teen years.
The first portion of our preview took us on a jaunt through a dimly-lit stronghold of sorts with Clive accompanied by Cidolfus, the Dominant of Ramuh hailing from the nation of Waloed, and Clive’s wolf-like companion, Torgal. This section is a mostly-linear crawl through a series of areas populated by enemies to fight and loot to collect on our way to tussle with Benedikta, another of Final Fantasy XVI’s primary characters and the Dominant of the Eikon, Garuda. While hopefully not indicative of the game’s entire experience, it gives us a good idea of the moment-to-moment traversal and exploration on offer (Clive is pleasantly deft at stepping over small obstacles or hopping up and down ledges and drops), but mostly serves as a backdrop for what I’m sure the team at CBU III is most eager to demonstrate – combat.
It’s when Clive and his companions are required to take up arms that Final Fantasy XVI feels furthest from the other mainline Final Fantasy games, forgoing any manner of turn-based or hybrid battle system of old for an entirely real-time action combat system. It took playing it for myself to really understand how and why FF16 is a true action game, something closer to a mix of Devil May Cry, The Witcher III and NieR Automata than Final Fantasy XV or Final Fantasy VII Remake’s halfway approaches. There’s a seamlessness to it, with no distinction between exploration and being battle-ready and no transitions in or out.
It’s fast, too. Clive is an agile swordsman and his foes don’t wait around for him to scroll through abilities or pore through menus. Everything is immediate, with your basic attack, magic, jump and abilities mapped to the face buttons and items slotted to the d-pad, while R1 dodges. Timing, positioning, crowd management and smart use of abilities are all crucial to success here and make for much more exhilarating fights than anything I’ve experienced in the numbered Final Fantasies before this. It’s definitely not quite the technical affair that Combat Director Ryota Suzuki’s last major project, Devil May Cry 5, featured but it feels like just the right mix of approachable and exciting.
I’ll be interested to see how the basics of battle evolve throughout the game – in our preview we had a bunch of mechanics like precision dodge counters, magic charging and more acrobatic attacks unlocked ahead of time which all kept things nice and dynamic. The idea of Staggering enemies returns as well, with more powerful foes possessing a “Will” gauge that Clive and his companions can deplete through repeated regular attacks as well as good use of more unique abilities. Once this happens, the enemy is downed for a short period at which point it’s good practice to just absolutely wail on them with reckless abandon.
The big twist in FF16’s combat is Clive’s ability to tap into the powers of the various Eikon powers he encounters as the game progresses. In the demo, we had access to three Eikon ‘palettes’ based on Phoenix, Garuda and Titan, using the elements of Fire, Wind and Stone respectively. Players switch between equipped palettes by pressing L2 which changes up which magic, special move and Eikonic Abilities are available in the moment. Eikonic Abilities are powerful but work on cooldowns, taking up two secondary command slots accessible by holding the R2 button. So with three Eikons unlocked in my demo I essentially had six powerful abilities, three elemental magics and three special moves at my disposal.
Clive and the other Dominants can also “Semi-Prime” as a sort of half-measure to actually transforming into their Eikons, which makes for the game’s take on Limit Breaks, accessible after charging special gauges and essentially giving them a few seconds of greatly-increased power alongside a healthy glow.
If that all seems like a lot to manage at breakneck speeds, the good news is that the team at CBU III has made an effort to consider fans who maybe aren’t as acclimated to action games by including a series of optional assists. Five special accessories are made available to players on both the Story Focused and Action Focused difficulty modes that alter certain aspects of combat. One example is the Ring of Timely Focus which briefly slows down time whenever Clive is about to be hit with an avoidable attack and prompts the player with the dodge button, or the Ring of Timely Strikes which executes complex attack and ability combos with repeated presses of just the attack button.
These go a long way to sanding down the edges of battle for anyone struggling with the game’s combat, whether it’s a specific mechanic or a more broad aversion, without strictly automating anything or making it feel less exciting. After playing for a little while with a couple of assists on and then removing the training wheels once I was comfortable, I felt like I could easily play the game either way without the experience being compromised. The different Eikonic abilities also contribute to managing differing player skill levels, with Yoshida explaining that some have higher skill ceilings than others. That certainly rang true with the Titan Eikon palette that I was able to use, which offers players the chance to power up its abilities with a timed charge-up as well as giving them a shield counter that’s risky to pull off but devastatingly effective when done right.
Even in the time-limited and controlled capacity of our preview session, there’s one thing I’m already sure about and that’s that Torgal is a very good boy. Torgal not only makes for great company but acts as a handy guide, able to show players the path to the next objective at the touch of a button, and also helps out in combat. One of the assist accessories will automate this for you, but otherwise he’ll act through simple commands to attack enemies or even grant Clive some very small HP boosts. And yes, Yoshida assured us you can pet him.
I also had a chance to have a bit of a dig through Final Fantasy XVI’s in-game menu screens to try and glean a little more on its RPG and progression elements. While there’s obviously going to be more on offer in the full game, I was glad to see a mix of very traditional elements like character levels, weapons and armour to collect and equip and skill trees for both Clive and the different Eikon palettes he acquires throughout. From what I can see the menus are nicely laid-out, visually appealing and easy to use, and the little pixel art party member icons tucked away at the bottom are a nice touch.
The second portion of our hands-on preview of FF16 seemingly jumps us forward slightly with Clive, Cid and Torgal becoming abruptly separated after chasing Bendikta (as the enormous Garuda) through some hilly ruins, a visually sumptuous spectacle of thrashing winds stirring up debris and whipping foliage about. After reaching Garuda, it’s time for a suitably epic boss fight with incredibly unfair odds as the human-sized protagonist squares off one-on-one against the giant Eikon.
This fight was easily some of the most fun I had across my entire demo with Garuda’s fearsome design and stature echoing the thrill of the nightmarish foes in a FromSoft title. It felt like a proper action RPG boss encounter, requiring me to use all the tools at my disposal to wear it down while avoiding telegraphed attacks and occasionally engaging in another of Final Fantasy XVI’s very flashy mechanics, “Cinematic” Evasions, Strikes and Clashes. While they’re probably best described as glorified QTEs, these mid-battle sequences showcase the game’s seamless nature with its ability to flow from combat to cutscene and back again, playing out differently depending on your success in matching the prompts.
The Garuda battle also introduced us to another riff on a Final Fantasy mechanic: Toppling. After depleting Garuda’s Will gauge halfway, I was able to use the Deadly Embrace Eikonic Ability to bring the beast down and temporarily immobilise it, much like a full Stagger. With only a brief window of opportunity to take advantage of that half-staggered state and only one ability in my arsenal at the time that could make it happen, it felt ridiculously satisfying to pull off and looked cool as hell in action.
After fighting Garuda for some time and finding myself in mortal danger, a sequence of events leads to Clive transforming into the Eikon, Ifrit, and going toe-to-toe with Garuda in a clash of kaiju-sized proportions. After Yoshida-san explained to us in the pre-demo briefing that each one of the game’s Eikon vs Eikon fights utilises a completely different gameplay mechanic I was initially dismayed to see that Ifrit’s controls in this battle were essentially a mirror of Clive’s. That feeling quickly went away as soon as things kicked off though, with the heft of these hulking monsters making the building-sized brawl much more deliberate in nature. We’d trade blows like two impossible-huge pro wrestlers, creating and seizing opportunities to launch an all-out assault.
As the skirmish began to turn in my favour, a series of set piece clashes with Cinematic prompts began to unfold, highlighting a newfound level of brutality that I’m absolutely not used to from the series. Seeing the Eikons absolutely tear each other apart, ripping off limbs and regrowing them only to continue pummelling was certainly a sight to behold and helps to paint a picture of how much darker and more “mature” this entry might be. There was at least one instance of a character dropping a “fuck” in the mix as well, something I’d expect frequently from Stranger of Paradise’s Jack but certainly took me by surprise in this mainline title.
Our demo ends with Ifrit emerging victorious after using his classic Hellfire ability as a devastating finishing move, solidifying something that’s been apparent throughout my time with the game – that it’s bloody gorgeous. Everything you’d expect from a massive Final Fantasy production is here with astonishingly detailed characters and environments, superb animation, flashy and over-the-top visual effects and fantastic designs.
Of particular note is the top-notch facial motion capture and lip syncing, matched with some stellar writing and voiceover work. Localisation Director, Koji Fox, explains to us that not only was the English capture work done first, but there was a consistent back-and-forth between the Japanese and English script work within the CBU III team that resulted in a kind of equilibrium where neither language could be considered the “primary” one in a lot of cases.
I was also very much enjoying all of the well-placed music used throughout the two sections, but there was an especially giddy glee in hear some classic Final Fantasy motifs woven into different moments. The series’ staple victory fanfare being chanted by a Gregorian choir might just be the best thing ever.
The game will also reportedly give players a choice between two visual modes geared either towards fidelity or performance, though the supposed 4K visual-first mode we were playing in at the time seemed to be targeting 60fps and performed quite well for an early build so I’m not entirely sure what the benefit of the other option is going to be in the final product.
A relatively lengthy hands-on session with Final Fantasy XVI under my belt, I’m left with plenty of questions still to be answered. Like, just how much room will there be in this world for players to explore? What’s the optional content like? When will we see another trading card sub-game? One thing we found out through our talks with Yoshida-san and his team before and after our hands-on is that the game will contain a sort of “hub” area from which players will be able to converse with a growing number of side characters, likely upgrade and craft, learn more about the world and travel to its various locales from a dedicated map, which is something I’m super keen to know more about.
Something else I didn’t get the chance to see for myself but learned of after talking with the team is that, on top of having Historian and Scholar characters taking up a residence at your in-game hub to help keep track of lore, the game will apparently contain an Amazon Prime Video X-Ray type feature where players can pause the game at any time – even during cutscenes – and have access to almost-encyclopaedic information about whatever is going on in-game at the time.
Regardless of the session having a more narrowed focus on combat and Eikonic battles, the two-and-a-bit hours I spent immersing myself in Final Fantasy XVI has painted a reassuringly positive picture. It’s been in good enough hands this whole time that I’ve always felt rather confident in the game to really bring the single-player Final Fantasy experience back into good stead, but knowing what I now know and playing what I played I’m almost certain that this will be the Final Fantasy to truly wow the world once again.