Final Fantasy XVI is about the spectacle. Whether it’s the large, beautifully detailed environments or the flashy, particle-heavy combat sequences, I was enthralled over the course of my nearly six hours with the upcoming RPG during a preview event in Los Angeles earlier this month.
Final Fantasy XVI is the next mainline entry in the thirty-five-year-old series and it’s aiming to tell a grittier, more serious story set in a medieval-inspired world called Valisthea. Six nations vie for power through their control of the magical Mothercrystals that provide aether to the world.
Our demo, which was part of a special version made for media and might differ from the full experience when it launches next month, kicked off with an anime-scale battle pitting two of the major nation-states against each other. From charging Chocobo riders to the various magical spells being slung around the canyon battlefield, it felt sufficiently epic and set the stage for the political and military intrigue that the world is steeped in.
Central to each nation is its Eikon, which Final Fantasy series fans will know as the various “Summons” in previous installments. These Eikons are seemingly central to the national defense of the nation they represent, and certain magic users called Dominants can wield their power such as the Grand Duke of Rosaria’s family manifestation of the Phoenix Eikon or the Dhalmekian’s reliance on Hugo Kupka, the Dominant of Titan.
Image via Square Enix (see disclaimer below)
Interestingly enough, I was struck by how society seems to treat those magic users in Final Fantasy XVI, especially when you consider just how much of the world that Square Enix has built is powered - and protected - through magic. Some societies can be a political leader, such as Rosaria’s treatment of its Dominant, though other cultures like the Iron Kingdom treat them as nothing more than fodder, seemingly as willing to kill the Dominant themselves as they are to use them in battle.
It’s an intriguing setting, and Square Enix’s Creative Business Unit III has beautifully realized it on the screen. Each scene is popping with detail, from the bustling castle of Rosalith to the overgrowth and ancient feeling forest of the Greatwood. At every turn, the world of Valisthea came alive with vibrant color, eye-popping detail, and, especially in combat, a shower of impressive particle effects.
Taking the role of Clive Rosfield, Final Fantasy XVI plays out throughout the various stages of Clive’s life, from his teens into his middle age. In our demo, we were able to view Clive’s journey through two parts of his life: as a teenager training to be the Sheild of his brother and the Phoenix’s Dominant, Joshua as well as his travels in his early twenties.
Clive himself is a likable protagonist, and I really loved the relationship he has with his younger brother Joshua, as well as his childhood friend and ward of Rosaria Jill. It was a delight hearing Jill’s young version’s voice actor Charlotte McBurney here, as she is tremendous in A Plague Tale, and Ben Starr, the VO for Clive is also a standout. In fact, the entire voice acting cast I heard throughout our demo period was fantastic and I cannot wait to dive even further into FFXVI to enjoy the full range of these performances.
Image via Square Enix
His motivations as the protector of his younger brother and the Dominant of Phoenix, Joshua, make for a compelling motivation for Clive, and it’s clear that he takes this role seriously. I do, though, also like how down-to-earth the noble Rosfield is portrayed as, as Clive seems more eager to earn the respect of the people of Rosaria - and his father - rather than have it thrust upon him.
While I was able to play about the first few hours of the story in our session, we’re keeping this preview light on story details in an effort to not spoil anything. However, as I drove home from LA (and given the traffic between LA and Las Vegas, it was a long drive), I kept replaying story beats in my head, excited for what I experienced and increasingly eager to keep going. It’s great so far, and I can only imagine how it’s going to ramp up as the story continues in the full game.
Controlling An Eikon’s Power
I mentioned at the top of this that Final Fantasy XVI is all about the spectacle. This is on clear display in the many, many cutscenes that help tell the story of the various nations of Valisthea. But it’s at its height during combat.
Clive, while not the Phoenix’s chosen Dominant, can still wield the Phoenix’s Flames in combat, as well as control other Eikons acquired through his travels. Combat itself is a fast and flashy affair where Clive needs to keep constantly moving in order to stay alive.
Each swing of the sword feels incredible thanks to the excellent DualSense rumble implementation, and the DNA of combat director Ryota Suzuki, known for his work on the Devil May Cry series, is felt fully here. Clive can sling magic spells at range and come in for the kill wielding the sword. Dodging is crucial here as well, and a simple tap of the circle button skips Clive out of danger if timed properly.
Precise dodges are rewarded with attack openings that freeze enemies in place momentarily to allow for a quick follow-up, either a magical attack or with the blade.
While at face value combat looks like it can just turn into a button-mashing affair, there is a lot of depth here as well. Chaining melee and magic attacks can create combos that are rewarding enough, but when you mix in the powers of the Eikon Clive is wielding proper, things definitely can change for the better.
Clive starts out wielding the power of the Phoenix Eikon, though throughout his journeys he’ll acquire the abilities of other Eikons in the world. Skills such as Phoenix Shift which reminds me of Noctis’ Shift ability from Final Fantasy XV, can close the gap quickly and deal some great damage in an attack, while Rising Cyclone creates an uppercut of fire that can deal some devastating damage.
Enemies have a stagger meter much like we’ve seen in Final Fantasy VII Remake, and taking down the stagger meter opens the enemy up for massive amounts of damage, especially when using Clive’s Eikon powers.
Clive’s abilities aren’t purely offensive, though. Clive can parry, which opens up more time for an attack, and some of the Eikon abilities can be used for both AOE crowd control, like Scorching Cyclone, which sends a whirlwind of fire around Clive damaging everything in its path and keeps projectiles at bay.
Image via Square Enix
It’s a beautiful dance of melee and magic, and throughout each fight, it kept me on my toes. At times in FFVII Remake it could feel like I was simply punching bullet sponges during combat, however here I didn’t quite get that feeling. Fighting the large, clearly Eldritch-inspired Morbol in a nearby swamp, the boss fight played out like a delicate dance.
My two companions fought on their own, controlled by the AI itself leaving me to simply worry about what Clive was doing during combat. It is a little bit disheartening to not control my party members like in Final Fantasy games past, but given the sheer pace of combat, it’s likely for the best.
Image Via Square Enix
This doesn’t mean that Clive doesn’t have any control, however. Clive can give commands to his dog, Torgal, during the course of combat, siccing the dog on enemies, or even asking for timely heals when needed. It adds some more layers to the combat, though it’s a far cry from the full control you can take in Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat.
Throughout the Morbol fight, I found myself constantly on my toes, dodging the large creature’s tentacles while its large maw (that kind of reminded me of the Mouth of Sauron’s…erm…mouth) menacingly spewed poisoning fumes across the bleak and Blight-ridden swamp around me. Firing fire blasts while keeping my distance, I would close in after an attack, dealing a Magic burst combo when I could land one and quickly dodging out of there when the Morbol would rear its giant tentacles for an attack.
Final Fantasy XVI has both a Performance Mode and a Quality Mode, much like many PlayStation 5 games coming out nowadays. While the Quality Mode locks the framerate at 30fps, it’s aiming for that full 4K presentation. Performance mode drops the rendering resolution in favor of framerate, and it’s here I found myself playing most of my preview.
Combat just felt more fluid and precise, though I will say the implementation of motion blur in the 30fps mode does help to add to the fluidity there. I was able to precisely dodge easier with the 60fps refresh, and it made combat just feel that much more frenetic and satisfying. This to me was key in these large climatic moments, especially when fighting these larger bosses that can go on for a while.
Clive doesn’t just swing his sword and call it good. His combat style will see him jump up in the air and air-dodge as if he is Noctis reborn, stomp on enemies if they end up on the ground below him, and altogether bash enemies into submission if need be.
Clive can also wield the powers of different Eikons throughout his journey as well. During our demo, we were given save file that’s a bit farther in Final Fantasy XVI that sees Clive, Jill, and the good boy dog Torgal journeying around one of the semi-open worlds in FFXVI, Three Reeds. Here Clive had access to the Wind Eikon Garuda, which changes how Clive fights dramatically.
Garuda felt even more offensive, with Phoenix Shift subbed for Deadly Embrace, which pulls enemies in instead of porting Clive to them. Deadly skills like Gouge see Clive pepper enemies with a series of Wind-powered attacks that pile up. Where Phoenix’s attacks felt focused, yet powerful, Garuda felt fast and frenetic, keeping with the pace of the overall battle.
Progression in Final Fantasy XVI sees Clive build-up experience that can be used to unlock new abilities in a massive skill tree. These skills can be slotted to your Eikon powers to use during combat, and I appreciated that it forced me to sort of pick and choose which I wanted to use throughout my journey. This allowed for some experimentation, such as finding out as much as I liked the Heatwave skill which sends a powerful wave of fire towards an enemy, keeping the Scorching Cyclone alongside my uppercutting Rising Flames fit my playstyle a bit more. However, it’s great that you can reset this skill tree anytime to experiment even further, allowing for some really well-researched and customized approaches to Clive’s combat.
Key to combat in Final Fantasy XVI is the weaving of each of these skills together. Clive can cycle between these Eikon powers with a simple pull on the left trigger, and given that each power comes with its own cooldown, learning how to chain not just simple melee and magic attacks, but also those attacks with Eikon powers is a must. It makes combat feel a lot more layered instead of simply one or two note.
I can’t wait to dive more into these different combat styles, especially as more Eikons become part of Clive’s arsenal throughout the full version of FFXVI. However, what I really can’t wait for are more of the Titanic Clash battles which see two of the Eikons themselves go at each other.
One clash I was able to play out was a fight between Phoenix and the Eikon Ifrit, taking control of the former. This felt a bit on the rails instead of a fully open battle arena to maneuver, reminding me a bit of the side-scrolling shooters of yesteryear. However, they are a sight to behold. Firing fireballs at Ifrit while the caverns around us crumbled under the weight of our climactic struggle felt sufficiently epic. That said, there are battles it seems in Final Fantasy XVI between these powerful creatures that play out more like traditional battles, if a recent video posted to the RPG’s YouTube channel is anything to go by.
As a recurring character, I’m excited that Cid is making a return. I love Cid in Final Fantasy VII, and his incarnation in Final Fantasy XIV is absolutely wonderful. Here, Cidolfus Telamon is an outlaw soldier who is building a hideaway for those magic users who are persecuted can find protection and live their lives how they see fit.
Image via Square Enix
Given that so much of the world is powered by magic, many are marked as Bearers and forced to work as slaves in some corners of the world. Persecuted Bearers and those Dominants who feel persecuted can find solace in Cid’s hideaway - especially given Cid is a Dominant himself.
The Hideaway acts as a hub where Clive can strike out to complete tasks and quests, as well as stock up on supplies at the sharp-tongued, yet kind Charon’s shop, as well as improve armor and weapons at a nearby forge.
I really loved the design aesthetic of the Hideaway, built in the flowing stone-carved ruins of a civilization long past. The characters in The Hideaway, from the crotchety Charon who reminded me of every “Karen” I’ve met only likable, to the Hodor-like Goetz, are incredibly endearing. While in our demo I didn’t spend a whole lot of time at the Hideaway, I’m eager to explore it more and learn more about the various people who now make their home there.
Waiting for launch
In my just under six hours of Final Fantasy XVI, I found myself completely lost in the beautifully realized world of Valisthea. This preview feels like it’s barely scratched the surface of what I experienced, but we really wanted to avoid anything close to a story spoiler here. However, based on the beginning hours of the RPG I’ve played, I’m really excited for the whole tale to unfold.
Final Fantasy XVI is shaping up to be a great entry in the storied franchise, with its world full of conflict, political intrigue and, at its core, very human stories. Final Fantasy XVI is a tale woven by the individuals caught up in the events of their time. My hope is that the early impression of Final Fantasy XVI carries through to the full experience when it's finally available to play.
Final Fantasy XVI launches exclusively on the PlayStation 5 on June 22nd.
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