Final Fantasy 16 review: Great action wrapped in a gruesome story

After 16 main installments, it’s hard to say just one thing defines the Final Fantasy series. There are certain unchanging bits of symbolism that should carry over from game to game – chocobos, Cid, moogles – but the form in which they appear is always different. In my mind, I see it as a series of dials that are pushed up or down depending on who is in charge of each installment. Some people prefer the game when the anxiety dial is turned all the way up, and others want to see a bit more volume in dungeons or puzzles. Every Final Fantasy is someone’s favorite Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy 16 is sure to be someone’s favorite Final Fantasy. It’s not mine, exciting as that often can be. I’m drawn to the radical, melodramatic stories of Final Fantasy. FF16The story of is vast and very melodramatic, but it’s also boring and tedious, making me feel like the game was wasting my time. What a shame it was the story that came with the compelling combat design and encounters I couldn’t get enough of.

Final Fantasy 16 is a fast-paced action game that begs to be played over and over again. You take on the role of main character Clive Rosfield, once a prince of a duchy and now an enslaved soldier, and you play this man in combat between scripted scenes that advance the story and excursions to discover the side quests. Ryota Suzuki, the fight director of 16also worked on the dogma of the dragon and Devil May Cry, and it shows – not just in its electric combat, but also in the ability to replay each stage in pursuit of the next level.

Clive, with a long sword slung over his shoulder, runs towards a medieval town with a towering mountain behind him in Final Fantasy 16

Image: Square Enix

Rather than summoning characters like Garuda or Shiva to fight for him, Clive is imbued with the elemental power of these Eikons. Eikons are the physical embodiment of the elemental powers of super-special magic users called Dominants (yes, they’re all called Dominants all the time, and no, it just keeps getting funny). In the fictional world, only Dominants can summon the powers or transform into Eikons, and there can only be one Eikon per element at a time.

Each unlocked Eikon gives you a new set of elemental powers to mix and match. You start with the Phoenix’s Blessing, which allows you to instantly close the distance to an enemy, along with two other abilities, one that sets nearby enemies on fire and another that kicks an enemy on fire. These abilities are useful in battle not only for reducing enemy health, but also staggering them, allowing you to hunt them while they are temporarily incapacitated. These maneuvers are also beautifully animated, encouraging you to use them as much as possible.

The abilities tied to each Eikon are as varied as they are versatile; Garuda brings enemies closer to you, while Ramuh lets you slow down time and target multiple enemies with a powerful lightning bolt. Many unlockable abilities change the overall flow of combat. Will o’ the Wisps summons fireballs that encircle Clive, continuously hitting any enemy within range. Whirlwind, which you earn after unlocking Garuda, lifts several enemies into the air before smashing them to the ground. At the end of the game, you can refine your loadout of abilities to make it a true killing machine without equal. At first, I was a bit concerned that the amount of customization would prove unwieldy – but by the time the credits rolled, my newfound power had become second nature.

Clive uses a fiery whip-like attack against a winged enemy called Imperial Astrologer in Final Fantasy 16

Image: Square Enix

I approached each fight in 16 with the hunger of a fasting animal. No matter how much I disliked the other aspects of the game, every combat encounter rejuvenated me. Sometimes, while roaming the few open areas of the game’s map, I felt cheated if I was defeating roaming mobs of low-level enemies too quickly. I needed more: seeing Clive leap and dash from enemy to enemy, throwing them in the air, ramming my sword at them, electrocuting them, setting them on fire, moving from one element to another so quickly that the screen lit up my surroundings with all the colors of elemental magic.

It’s fun even just having fun, seeing what’s possible and how your combat abilities play off each other. Once, while fighting a dragon, I summoned a ball of lightning that I could strike with my sword to create even more chains of lightning. The dragon opened its mouth to spit fire, and running out of health, I moved out of the way, even though I desperately needed to kill that damn dragon before it killed me. I was lucky; the fire hit my lightning orb, activating its chain lightning and killing the dragon all the same. I screamed out loud in my empty apartment.

My favorite Final Fantasy games give me something I’ve never seen before, and 16 is awash with moments of dazzling spectacle. The boss fights in 16 are kind of a theme park: I fought a colossal Eikon on top of a mountain, stabbing his palm as he punched me. I transformed into Ifrit, an Eikon who looks like a demon consumed by flames, and turned my flaming fists on the technology of a long-lost precursor race. I fought a dragon and was launched into space, punching my enemy until they were dead, before falling back into the atmosphere. Even the Quick Events – an aesthetic but silly addition to most games’ boss fights – add to the thrill. Those set pieces made me feel downright powerful, providing moments of catharsis even in the middle of the fight.

Clive grabs his sword from the feet of a towering lava giant, which also has horns, in Final Fantasy 16

Image: Square Enix

If each part of 16 was as good as its boss fights, it would be one of the greatest games of all time. But the scripted story is, frankly, boring. It’s not that the characters aren’t lovable – I grew to love Clive through his romance with Jill, and found Cid to be a welcome respite from a dark and unforgiving narrative. Lots of banter between characters during missions also made the characters feel more whole. The world of Valisthea that these characters inhabit is the real problem, as is the narrative’s propensity to rush characters from traumatic event to traumatic event with little rhyme or reason.

Final Fantasy 16The plot of is one of the most routine medieval fantasy tales this side of 1960. Although it draws clearly and clearly from Game Of Thronesfrom A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin series, it takes all of the fantasy tropes that Martin was commenting on and plays them totally straight. The result is a story largely about white Europeans discovering that slavery is wrong for the very first time in their lives.

As far as I know, every nation in Valisthea depends on slavery to run its economy. Magic users, known as Bearers, are tested and enslaved at birth and have their faces tattooed so that anyone can always identify them. They are cruelly worked to death, bought and sold, and are not considered human by non-magical users. Cid recruits Clive with the noble goal of freeing slaves, but that comes with the annoyance of you, the player, having to watch Clive realize that slavery is wrong. It’s a little uncomfortable playing as a guy who only realized about five minutes ago that it was wrong to possess a human being, even though the game goes to great lengths to show you that he has always been kind to slaves.

This subplot about slavery never makes much sense, even though explaining the ins and outs of this system of slavery takes up most of the game’s first dozen hours. But fear not: this extremely uncomfortable and poorly handled subplot abruptly disappears in favor of a doomsday threat. The political situation of the nations of Valisthea no longer has any consequences.

Clive deals with the health of a giant, sprawling boss in Final Fantasy 16

Image: Square Enix

Despite the time it takes to set up the lore surrounding the magic system in the game’s many cutscenes, Final Fantasy 16 is not very interested in the politics of slavery or enslaved peoples, nor does it seem interested in its history in general. Unfortunately, some of the finer plot details are relegated to the game’s wiki; the emperor of the French-flavored nation of Sanbrecque keeps threatening another with a very specific flower, and you only learn that this flower is the literal symbol of the nation of Sanbrecque if you read a text entry in a optional feature. That such a powerful element of character symbolism and motivation is consigned to an optional menu speaks to the game’s priorities; the action is central, the story a distant second.

Worst of all, the plot is diametrically opposed to the gameplay: wooden where the gameplay is vibrant, rote where the gameplay is inventive. During certain cutscenes, I found myself falling asleep, character lines sliding off my brain like water off a duck’s back. This is not to denigrate the voice actors, who all do their best with very tired material. Ben Starr’s performance as Clive is particularly noteworthy, as is Ralph Inseon of Game Of Thrones fame. It’s just that I’ve seen this exact story before, almost beat for beat – not just in novels but in movies, songs, video games, and even other Final Fantasy games. Actually, Final Fantasy 16 replicates some of the same plot beats from Final Fantasy 14For who 16 producer Naoki Yoshida is a director.

As the credits roll, I put my hands up in the air, totally oblivious to a resolution I didn’t want Final Fantasy 16 had won. Then, after a few minutes and some hand stretches, I started again with the new game plus. I chose the highest difficulty. I skipped every cutscene, diving into the action instead, using my very specifically designed Eikonic power set to assassinate mobs and bosses, and I thought to myself, Why did this game feel like such a chore just a minute ago? Then I let a cutscene unfold, I felt my eyelids grow heavy, my exhaustion finally rising, until I fell asleep on the couch.

Final Fantasy 16 will be released on June 22 for PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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