For more than a decade, Final Fantasy has been gradually shedding parts of its turn-based RPG roots and embracing a more action-oriented direction. It was only a matter of time before that focus on action took precedence over the role-playing elements, and it appears that Final Fantasy XVI is finally the moment the ratio has flipped. As a longtime fan of the traditional Final Fantasy games, I wasn't quite sure what to think of this development. The turn-based classics are still some of my favorite gaming experiences of all time. But after an extensive hands-on with the game, I've come around on this direction for the series, or at least this entry in it. If Final Fantasy is an action franchise now, at least it's shaping up to be a damn good one.
This isn't to say that the game lacks fantastical elements like mythical beasts and magic spells, but those are used to complement the story and action, rather than as a layer of menu abstraction. In the fictional, high-fantasy world of Valisthea, an extremely small number of mortals are innately gifted as Dominants--hosts for supernatural Eikons, which longtime Final Fantasy fans will recognize as summoned creatures like Ifrit and Ramuh. Eikons are essentially weapons of mass destruction, and the various nation-states use their Eikons as symbols of their power and culture. The Dominants are respected, feared, and sometimes even exploited by their respective nations as the implied threat of the Eikons keeps other nations in check. The protagonist Clive's brother, Joshua, was given a place of honor as the Dominant of Phoenix, the aspect of fire. Clive's journey is one of revenge, as an attack from an invading army and a mysterious, previously unseen Eikon left his younger brother dead.
My play session took place when Clive was in his 20s, obsessed with vengeance, and throwing his lot in with revolutionaries who are looking to overthrow the social order. This segment of the story tightly focused on just three major characters, which helped illustrate how the political and magical machinations play out amid interpersonal relationships. Clive was accompanying Cidolfus Telamon--this game's Cid, another Final Fantasy mainstay--who is both a freedom fighter for magical refugees and the Dominant of Ramuh, the aspect of lightning. Their mission brought them to a castle guarded by Benedikta Harman, the Dominant of Garuda, aspect of wind--and apparently, Cid's old flame. Clive was also accompanied by his loyal and very-good-boy dog Torgul, who acts as a constant companion character in battle.
If it seems like I'm focusing heavily on the story, it's because I found that aspect interesting right from the start. The best fantasy stories use fantastical elements to say something about the human condition, and nation-states having entered an uneasy cold war as each of them harbor their own personal living, breathing WMDs is a fascinating hook that feels relatable to real-life conflicts. The fact that some nations worship their Dominants and others imprison them as living weapons speaks to the breadth of how we treat things we don't understand. On top of all that, these superpowered beings have their own human lives and relationships, which adds yet another wrinkle to every interaction. It's the interplay of all these disparate elements that stands out the most, and made me care about the characters as I explored.
An engaging story wouldn't amount to much without a strong battle system to back it up, and on that front, I was more skeptical. In Final Fantasy XVI you control one character, Clive Rosfield, and the entire story revolves around his perspective as he matures over the course of decades. The singular focus on Clive as the sole protagonist--sometimes but not always flanked by AI-controlled companion characters--seemed to indicate a de-emphasis on juggling commands from party members with disparate skill sets, which is part of the joy of a traditional Final Fantasy game. FFXVI replaces this level of strategic intensity with a battle system that feels naturally action-focused, but with the underpinnings of choice.
As Clive proceeds through the story, he picks up abilities from the different Eikons he encounters. This doesn't make him their Dominant, but it does mean that his fighting style will be imbued by magical flourishes that embody their unique traits. For the demo, he had the blessings of Phoenix (fire), Garuda (wind), and Titan (earth). You can swap between these on the fly, and use their unique spell abilities to complement your array of melee attacks. Phoenix, for example, is particularly agile and able to close gaps, while Gerudo is better for air-juggles and reaching out with its harpy-like claws to grab enemies from afar. Titan feels very different from both of these, with heavy attacks that often require a brief charge to deliver their full impact.
The combat system not only allows but demands that you swap between these abilities, since each of them has its own cooldown that will be in various states of recharging while you swap to another. But the cooldowns were generous. You're clearly intended to use the full suite of moves quickly, and to swap between them constantly. At first, I found swapping between these disorienting--especially when I would tap a Titan ability, having forgotten that it requires a charged button-hold instead. But after only a couple of hours it felt much more natural, and I could see room for a great amount of flexibility to the system.
Each of the Eikon abilities, along with Clive's standard melee attacks, has its own upgrade tree. I explored the tree and upgraded a few moves, unlocking new combat abilities and enhancing the strength of some of my favorite moves. Choosing which Eikons to equip and how to upgrade them looks as if it will provide ample strategic decision-making in the moments between battles. If anything I was spoiled for choice, as the upgrade options looked like equally exciting and fun ways to mix up my arsenal of moves. Those choices then pay off with white-knuckled combat when you're in the thick of the fight.
Square Enix boasted that it brought on Devil May Cry veteran Ryota Suzuki as its battle designer, and the moment-to-moment melee combat mixed with magical ranged abilities certainly felt reminiscent of Dante and Nero. The game that most came to mind when I played, though, was another action franchise, God of War. That's because the melee battles are punctuated by Eikon battles--uniquely built action set-pieces that feel markedly different than the standard battles, and are particularly exciting.
While traversing the castle, I came face-to-face with Benedikta, an enjoyably scenery-chewing antagonist with dramatic flair. Benedikta first called on the aspect of Garuda to a limited degree, turning into a superpowered demi-human version of herself with wings. Cid met her in kind, half-transforming into Ramuh, resulting in a clash of superpowered beings that still looked roughly like their human characters, and still acting with their own human motivations.
The ensuing battle involved fighting two other harpy-like creatures that she summoned and later referred to as her sisters, and then progressed to fighting her in half-Eikon form on a tower rooftop. It was a test of skill for all I had learned up to that point, while also tossing in cinematic story elements. One moment, when Torgul leaped to my defense, clenched his jaw around Benedikta's neck, and spun around twice, was a real fist-pumping moment for me, which isn't a feeling I often associate with this franchise. Her injuring and then tossing my canine pal aside while spitting a curse ("f***ing dog!") made me that much more determined to destroy her.
Of course, this all led to the real set-piece moment, an Eikon-on-Eikon battle between Ifrit and Garuda. Like all Eikon battles, this was crafted to be its own distinct encounter, pitting Ifrit's agility and brute strength against Garuda's ability to control the battlefield with the wind. And it was an absolute blast, a kaiju battle come to life, with all the dramatic underpinnings of the human story that had informed it. The uniqueness of the encounter meant that I was largely learning its mechanics on the fly, but this didn't feel like it was meant to be challenging like the traditional melee combat. Instead, it was made to be a spectacle, and something to reward all the efforts leading up to that point.
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To the extent that this new, more action-heavy focus might put off longtime fans of the series, Square Enix has come up with a pretty ingenious variable difficulty system. Final Fantasy XVI has a Story Mode, but unlike many games that use that name for an easier difficulty level, it instead simply turns on a couple of helpful assists. Those assists are available whether you chose Story Mode or not, so turning that mode on simply makes them the default. But it's exactly how these assists are implemented that makes the system so smart.
Instead of menu options, the assists are presented as a series of five special rings that grant different types of assistance. One of them simplifies combat so that simply pressing one button automatically controls your combos, for example, while another extends the window for a successful dodge. You can equip these rings in your three accessory slots, but that means you'll always have more rings than you have space to put them in. You'll have to choose which, if any, to use to make combat easier on you. This also presents an opportunity cost, as each slot taken up by one of the assist rings is one fewer accessory you can use to customize Clive's other abilities. The whole system seems thoughtful and elegant, letting you still feel the thrill of combat while gently nudging you toward removing the training wheels as you get more comfortable.
This new focus on action combat does come at a price, though. Square Enix has already stated that Final Fantasy XVI doesn't use an open-world structure, which may remove some of the expansive scope and awe of a traditional Final Fantasy game. My play session consisted of a fairly straightforward level design with only brief side-paths to discover some treasures and then proceed along the main path. The producers noted that the full game has wider spaces, which should provide a sense of exploration, but I didn't experience them for myself.
A narrower level structure may just be the nature of this genre shift. As Final Fantasy XVI crosses the threshold into full-fledged action spectacle, some aspects are bound to feel different than RPG fans have grown accustomed to. For this RPG fan, though, the change of pace is welcome. Who knows what the future holds for Final Fantasy, but I'm convinced that this is the right direction for this entry in the franchise. I went in as a doubter, and I came out as a true believer, eager to experience the ride.
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