Final Fantasy XVI casts dark for a grittier RPG
There’s a lot riding on Final Fantasy XVI. Its predecessor, Final Fantasy XV, didn’t do so hot, critically speaking. And with FFXVI, the team at Square Enix is trying to right the ship by making a Final Fantasy that has a broader appeal.
To do that, the development team nixed some elements that have become synonymous with Final Fantasy. The static, turn-based combat system is out, in favor of a more fluid, action-oriented system filled with swift and flashy melee strikes, powerful and splashy-looking spells, and acrobatic dodging.
The team has also adopted a darker tone, aiming for a story rooted in what the developers say is more like reality. I remember seeing the first trailer for Final Fantasy XVI and being shocked at the copious amounts of blood. Final Fantasy’s never really shown blood like that.
I got the chance to play this darker, more broadly appealing Final Fantasy XVI at a Square Enix press event. I played about an hour of a specially made demo designed exclusively for the event, and I got to talk to the game’s senior developers, including the game’s fan-beloved producer, Naoki Yoshida.
For the demo, I played as Clive Rosfield, a young man on the path of revenge. I was dropped in about five or so hours into the game, tasked with searching a soldier-filled keep for a prisoner of special interest to Clive. I’m not alone: I have my faithful hound Torgal with me as well as this game’s Cid (Cidolfus Telamon). Though I have my companions, they aren’t party members in the sense that I can issue them commands or control them. All I got is Clive, a sword, and some neat bits of magic.
Final Fantasy XVI’s attempt at broad appeal is evident in its combat. Clive strings melee combos together with a simple set of button presses, augmented by the occasional spell. He’s also equipped with the blessing of several Eikons, which changes up what kind of spells he casts and gives him access to special abilities attuned to an Eikon’s element. Titan, the Eikon of earth, lets Clive smash into opponents with rocky fists. His Phoenix blessing lets him cast fire spells and spin around, igniting a wheel of flame that catches enemies in its wake.
I never jived with either Final Fantasy XV’s or Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat. Final Fantasy XVI feels better and simpler. No need to worry about which combat mode Cloud is in or switching between any of Noctis’ many equippable weapons.
With Final Fantasy XVI, I felt like I was playing the way the developers intended. I was mixing up my melee and spells, chaining them with Eikon abilities, switching those abilities by changing which Eikon I had active, and it was all very fluid and natural. There’s a stagger mechanic; the faster you combo, the faster a stagger bar fills until it’s full and your opponent is briefly stunned. I was atrocious at this in FFXV and FFVIIR, not so much in FFXVI.
With Final Fantasy XVI, I felt like I was playing the way the developers intended
And even if I didn’t gel as well with the combat as I did, the developers created a suite of accessories designed to make combat accessible. There are several rings you can equip on Clive that make him auto-combo or auto-dodge or slow time down, giving you a more permissive window to dodge or parry yourself.
The result, whether you have these accessories equipped or not, is combat that looks extremely slick and impressive. The developers want you to be impressed because they want you to feel like you’re playing a movie.
Yoshida likened Final Fantasy XVI to his first time playing the original Final Fantasy 35 years ago.
“You’re there in the game, then you cross that bridge and get to the title screen, and it felt like you were in a movie,” he said through translator Michael-Christopher Koji Fox, who also worked as the game’s localization director. “That’s the thing that we wanted to create with Final Fantasy XVI.”
There were a lot of other descriptors thrown around for FFXVI. Rollercoaster was one; Ultraman and Neon Genesis Evangelion were others. In the demo, there’s a moment where Clive, who’s been transformed into the Eikon Ifrit, fights against the Eikon of the wind Garuda, and it feels very much like the city-toppling battles in the mecha anime.
There are several such Eikon vs. Eikon battles in the game, but only the one I played will feel like a kaiju battle.
“There are other battles that more resemble a 3D shooting type of game or a high-speed action type of game,” Yoshida said. “And each of these boss battles are all created from the ground up. They’re all unique and have a different type or feel to them and are going to provide players with a unique experience with each individual battle.”
Each Final Fantasy across the series’ 35-year history has been pretty different from each other. No two games have ever been alike. That’s always been to the series’ benefit, but even with all that variety built-in, Final Fantasy isn’t as popular as it once was.
“We’ve seen that our fans are distancing themselves from the series,” Yoshida said. “There are not as many people playing the series as it’s gone on. Those numbers are going down.”
“One game that is close to how the whole game cycle works is the most recent God of War.”
And so the strategy that the developers have come up with — the combat’s flashiness, the visual spectacle of the Eikon battles, even the game’s darker, bloodier tone — is all designed to make Final Fantasy XVI look and feel more like the games that are already out there. Games like God of War.
“One game that is close to how the whole game cycle works is the most recent God of War,” Yoshida said.
I, of course, do not blame Square Enix for wanting Final Fantasy XVI to have the same kind of success as 11-million-copy-selling God of War Ragnarok. But God of War isn’t Final Fantasy. I go to each game to get separate things. If I want to watch hurt people hurt people, I play God of War.
In talking about FFXVI’s darker tone, Yoshida said, “The past 10 or so years of Final Fantasy has been about how bright the series is. You still have these dark themes about how we’re going to save the world. But then it’s like you have these kids that are in their teens running around saving the world, having fun and going fishing and things like that, even though the world is supposed to be ending. And so there’s not a sense of reality.”
I understand the desire to do something different, something that feels more rooted in reality, but I feel like I and a lot of other fans come to Final Fantasy specifically because we want the series’ signature brand of youthful optimism (child soldiers and all).
I want chocobos and airships and a huge open world in which I can get lost all while listening to the comforting sound of the newest iteration of the “Prelude.”
And while I was assured by the developers that the RPG and story elements that fans have loved about Final Fantasy for 35 years are still in FFXVI, I worry that Square Enix’s attempt to appeal to everyone will end up pleasing no one. I enjoyed the demo, and I look forward to seeing the full game when it releases in June. I just wish that the parts I did see felt like a Final Fantasy.