Final Fantasy XVI first impressions: Kaiju, just add royal politics
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Final Fantasy XVI is just around the corner. Square Enix’s beloved franchise is leaning heavily into the action RPG format. Another hallmark for the series is its complex narratives and beloved cast of characters. Recently, I played the first four hours or so of the title before its debut next month.
Unlike Mike Minotti — who dove into FFXVI’s combat — I’m not as familiar with the franchise beyond FFVII and spin-off series, Bravely Default. As a result, my impressions are from the perspective of a series newcomer. Important to note, the version I played was built specifically for this media preview so content may be different compared to the final release.
Warning — there will be some early story spoilers below!
Royal political intrigue, minus the subtlety
The world of Final Fantasy XVI is set in the vaguely medieval fantasy continent of Valisthea. The politics of the realm revolve around people (dominants) that can turn into massively powerful elemental creatures (Ekions). The safety and security of each nation depends on the power of these dominants. Controlling (or killing) another country’s dominant neutralizes their military might.
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Moreover, dominants pass down their powers through families — at least that’s the case for our protagonist’s family. Clive is the oldest child of the Duke of Rosaria, but his younger brother Joshua was blessed (or cursed) with the powers of the Phoenix. As a result, Clive is skipped over for succession and Joshua is set to inherit the throne.
Meanwhile, Clive proves himself as a knight and becomes the First Shield of the Flame. With this role, he is blessed with additional powers and must protect Joshua, especially while he is still a vulnerable child.
One of Final Fantasy XVI’s most useful features is its Active Time Lore system. With the press of a button, you can open a menu with situationally relevant lore for characters, locations and key concepts. Be sure to check often as many of these lore tidbits are only available during narrow windows of dialog. Also, many key character motivations and backstories are only explained through this system.
While this set up has a lot of potential, it is somewhat undercut by extremely obvious foreshadowing. As an example, you can piece together some early story beats soon as Joshua coughs and you’re reminded that he is the dominant of the Phoenix.
There are a lot of unique concepts and interesting story threads, but don’t expect many surprises early on.
Final Fantasy XVI takes its time
The intro for Final Fantasy XVI takes its time before giving players more agency. The first few sections of the game are primarily cut scenes, a basic combat tutorial and walking down linear paths.
While I didn’t time this exactly, I spent most of the first two hours in cutscenes. This probably won’t deter long-time fans of the series, but new players will face this barrier to entry. While you do get to explore Rosaria’s capital of Rosalith, there isn’t much outside of the main courtyard. Of course, this could change by the final release.
The pace picks up significantly after this point. Your introduction to “dungeons” and the boss fight did a good job of presenting the game’s basic mechanics. Additionally, the difficulty and complexity ramp up significantly by the time you reach the hub city.
Gamers will have to decide for themselves if they want to invest hours of their time watching these early cutscenes without much agency. However, Square Enix did leave me wanting more after the first few hours.
Final Fantasy XVI debuts on PlayStation 5 on June 22, 2022.
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