Final Fantasy XVI – has it strayed too far?

by Lars
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I’ve managed to spend about fifty hours with Final Fantasy XVI, and while my general verdict on the game is that it’s just about worth playing (by a sadly slim margin) I don’t really recognise much of what I’ve loved about the series over the years.

If you’re unfamiliar with the setting for the latest game, it’s basically a (relatively) dark high fantasy story that seems very much like a Japanese take on Game of Thrones. The problem being that it’s arrived about five years too late to ride that particular hype train, and by trying so hard to emulate that conspiracy ridden, gritty world, it’s lost a lot of what made Final Fantasy what it was.

What makes this all the more unfortunate is the man at the helm. Beloved director of FFXIV, Yoshi-P. He’s often credited with saving FFXIV, which is probably why he was given the reins to the next mainline instalment. I have spent hundreds of hours in that world, and it is a beautifully crafted MMO experience. There’s a lot of XIV’s DNA here, but the dark/gritty overtones are so strong they overpower any of that charm and leave you with something that feels like a linear trudge from one spectacular set-piece battle to the next.

Final Fantasy XVI young Clive

Final Fantasy is famous for its characters. They’re usually distinctive, vivid with colour and personality. Even the miserable ones – which there are plenty of – usually have something to mark them out. XVI has a more-or-less endless procession of jumbled British accents attached to characters with largely unmoving faces. Yes, there are some standouts. Cid (voiced spectacularly by Ralph Ineson) and his daughter Mid are both enjoyable to watch for very different reasons. Gav is perfectly likeable, and Tarja too. But if you asked me to look any further, I’d struggle to recall being invested in anyone else.

This is not something Clive and his childhood best friend Jill necessarily suffer from. Clive resists the urge to become another brooding Final Fantasy protagonist, in quite pointed fashion. He’s a badass when he needs to be, and a humble friend to the people too. Even when they’re asking him to venture out into the woods and gather three goblin tongues or whatever weird thing they need that day. Even when he discovers something quite shocking about his past, he picks himself up and gets on with what needs doing without much fuss. We get to see him work through his trauma and embrace who he is, which is something we rarely see in the series.

Final Fantasy XVI battle

Jill is very much in the same boat as Clive – after the game’s start, she’s whisked off to an enemy army to serve as the Dominant of Shiva, using her abundance of power to serve their ends. She has done terrible things in someone else’s name, and she will not stand by and let Clive do all the work. She has her own pain to work through, her own motivations that just so happen to align with Clive’s.

I’m conflicted, because I’m delighted that Final Fantasy has finally returned to its high fantasy roots. I even begrudgingly accept the full move away from any semblance of the turn-based combat it was defined by for so long – SQUARE have been slowly sweeping that one under the rug for quite some time. But this shift in tone has resulted in a game that feels, despite the gorgeous environments and titanic Eikon battles, really quite drab. Final Fantasy XV was pretty dreary in tone, but the amazing bromance between Noctis and his pals provided a welcome counterbalance, and it ran as deep in the game’s story as anything else.

Final Fantasy XVI Shiva

The new action combat system is perfectly serviceable. You attack, block and parry incoming strikes whilst wheeling through whatever skills are off cooldown until everything is dead. Limit Break is now a sort of Devil Trigger button where Clive does a bit more damage and takes a bit less until it runs out. Everything looks spectacular, but enemies are often such health sponges that you’ve just got to keep firing skills off with little actual… well, skill. A lot of the time it’s just chipping away at a health bar until they either change phases or trigger a quick time event, which is soulless and repetitive.

The story isn’t bad, but it is dry stuff a lot of the time. About a third of the way through the game things get much more complicated, with multiple nations involved all with their own agendas and the typical massive empire consuming everything in its path. It shifts from a personal revenge story to a much bigger, globe-spanning conflict. I knew we were entering rough territory when the game had to introduce an NPC whose sole function is explaining the state of the world to Clive in a slightly condescending manner every hour or so.

Final Fantasy XVI Eikon battle

Oh, yes, there’s still Moogles and chocobos. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that even the chocobos have tragic backstories. They don’t even play the iconic Chocobo Theme when you ride them – perhaps they thought it was too jaunty in tone. Without these core Final Fantasy elements featured more prominently, we’re left with a game that feels more like something making glib references to a past it would rather forget. And the sad fact is, the resulting game just isn’t engaging enough to justify it. I’m all for darker Final Fantasy stories, but in my opinion, XVI has gone just a little too far.

The dry, political intrigue-riddled storyline just doesn’t land. Clive, Jill and Cid are all great characters in a cast of mostly faceless British accents. Yoshi-P decided that what mainline Final Fantasy really needed was a bunch of MMO fetch quests stapled on to bulk out the playtime. There is not enough of what makes XVI good on display here, and far too much that makes it, well, ordinary. Here’s hoping the next game has something different to show us all.

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