Recently, I was invited to New York City to play around five hours of the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI. I am a massive fan of FF and had high hopes for XVI. From the little I’ve allowed myself to watch of trailers and gameplay, it looks like an RPG version of Devil May Cry; how could I not be excited as heck for a combination of two of my favorite games? I’m here to tell you that even those expectations were blown out of the water. I try my best not to give into hype cycles, so I am not being hyperbolic when I say this game is going to be incredible.
Before we start, I need to state that this is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version. Our demo time was divided into three major sections: the first starting from the beginning of the game up until the end of the Greatwood dungeon; the second taking place a bit later in an open area; and the third being a combat focused experience showing off a dungeon and an Eikon battle. After an intro sequence, we flash back to Clive’s training at age 13 to become a shield for his brother, crown prince, and Dominant of Phoenix, Joshua. I’m going to save story discussion for later (and even that’s more about tone, characters, and theming because you don’t want this to be spoiled for you), so let’s dive right into combat.
Clive can perform a four hit melee combo by simply tapping Square. If you need some space but don’t want to let up on the offensive, he also has access to a magic spell (in this case fire) that you can shoot by tapping Triangle. It’s simple and easy to grasp on the surface, but the hidden depth comes in the form of Magic Bursts. With proper timing, after each sword strike you can point blank shoot a powerful spell for even more damage. So a magic burst combo will look like this: Sword>Magic>Sword>Magic>Sword>Magic>Sword>Magic. It can be difficult to get all four Magic Bursts in a single combo, but it’s incredibly satisfying and even quicker than a normal combo since Magic Bursts seem to cancel the ending lag of each swing.
At a certain point in the story, good boy Torgal will join your party and you’ll be able to command him to do one of three moves at any time using the D-Pad (you can swap between commands and items by pressing left). Up is Sic, right is Heal, and down is Ravage. Heal will have him cast a cure spell on Clive, and Ravage will launch Clive’s targeted enemy into the air. Sic just seems like a normal attack on the surface, and this dog will do that regardless of what you tell him to do, but it’s actually an integral part of combos. After completing a combo, you can press up on the D-Pad to have Torgal follow up with a Precision Sic, dealing much more damage than normal and giving Clive time to keep up the assault.
You can perform aerial combos, launching an enemy with Torgal’s Ravage or your own attacks, but you really have to earn every second you spend airborne. It’s difficult to do in the heat of battle, but you can practice once you unlock the Arete Stone’s training mode. Here you can practice combos to your heart’s content using convenient features, like displaying Magic Burst timing, showing inputs, and much more. It’s extremely helpful, so I’d recommend at least getting the hang of Magic Bursts ASAP, and more features will unlock as the story progresses.
Those are just the basics, and combat reaches even further depths when you work in each Eikon’s… Eikonic Abilities. (Everyone sees what you did there Square and I LOVE the pun.) Clive is blessed by Phoenix, so he has three additional fire bird abilities along with the fire spell. Pressing Circle will perform a gap closer called Phoenix Shift, teleporting you to a target within range ending with an elemental melee attack. Obviously this is great for closing the distance, but you can still work it into a combo whenever you wish. By holding R2 (with no haptic feedback as that would probably interfere with the lightning pace of battle), Clive can use two equipped abilities assigned to Square and Triangle. These are powerful moves and, as such, will enter a short cooldown period after use, so time them well. The ones I had access to for Phoenix were Rising Flames, a big, fire-aspected wing strike, Heatwave, a ranged sword beam that will do extra damage up close, and Scarlet Cyclone, a circular wing attack useful for clearing crowds.
While each of these Eikonic Abilities will deal powerful damage (each using the element of the channeled Eikon), they’re also great for breaking an enemy. Much like Final Fantasy XIII, powerful foes like bosses will have a break gauge under their health bar that, when depleted, will stagger them and open them for a time to even more damage. Initially I wanted to save my Eikonic Abilities to pile hits on a broken enemy, but they can also greatly deplete the break bar. Later on in the demo when I had access to Phoenix, Garuda, and Titan styles, it was clear I couldn’t fit them all into the stagger window, so I used multi-hit attacks like Garuda’s Gouge and Titan’s Raging Fists (which feels like a Jojo’s reference) to quickly break them, and then dump all my other abilities for pure damage.
As for defensive options, while Clive can’t block (at first) he has two major options for dealing with enemy attacks. Pressing R1 will have him dodge, and dodging at the last minute will allow you to follow up with a Precise Counter or Spell. If you’re confident in your timing, you can instead parry certain attacks by pressing Square the exact moment a hit would connect. This will activate Witch Ti- I mean slow down time for a brief moment, leaving the enemy open for attacks.
Playing without any of the Timely Accessories, the game is pretty challenging. They throw mini-bosses at you constantly, but you still need to be on your toes in normal encounters too. Enemies fight just as aggressively as you do and they’ll come at you from all angles. Every major boss has me using up my entire supply of potions and in one I finished the fight with only 14 HP out of several thousand. You really need to learn the timing of attacks to dodge them, know when to stay back, and be aware of any XIV-esque hazard indicators. It makes for a thrilling challenge, especially once you get the hang of things, and the game keeps track of how many Magic Bursts and perfect dodges you can pull off in a row.
It’s a challenge not everyone will be able to tackle though, which is where XVI does have me a bit worried. The game does have the aforementioned Timely Accessories for players to customize the difficulty by automating certain things like dodges and combos, but I’m not sure that’s enough for players with, for example, repetitive strain injury. By equipping Timely Accessories for auto-combos, dodging, and Torgal commands, I was able to simplify combat to just mashing Square, but obviously mashing can be painful for some. There is an attack you can learn that involves holding Square, but I think for those who just want to enjoy the story, a few more concessions need to be made to make the game more accessible. I will say that there’s a decent suite of options for audio, like closed captions in cutscenes, subtitle backgrounds, and a visualization of audio I don’t quite understand, but once again this isn’t the final game and there could be more coming.
From what I’ve experienced, the game is mostly linear with small branching paths leading to more encounters and/or treasure, again like FFXIII. It’s not hallways like XIII though, and with no mini-map, it feels more like you’re actually exploring until you eventually reach your destination. Areas don’t seem to connect naturally either, instead you travel between locations using the world map. You don’t have a run or sprint button either, which is refreshing in a time where you always need to click in the left stick to move faster. Instead, in more open areas you get exactly Devil May Cry’s Sprint ability, where you start to run after moving for a while. It’s very convenient, but again exploration isn’t the focus here.
To finish off our gameplay section, let’s talk Eikon vs. Eikon battles. Without spoiling which Dominants are taking part, one I played was an on-rails shooter while the other was something like a Kaiju fight. I really enjoyed the spectacle of the shooter section, with tons of particle effects and the environment crumbling around you. The fight goes on for a while, but keeps you engaged with moving targets and having to dodge or heal occasionally.
The brawl was a bit more of a mixed bag. It started off great with Clive fighting the Eikon on foot, but once you take control of an Eikon, the novelty of being huge and fighting an equally huge thing wears off quickly. It’s a very slow fight, with too many Quick Time Events (QTEs) for my liking. These are called Cinematic Strikes or Evasion and have you press either Square or R1 to attack or dodge before a meter runs out. I don’t think failing these can kill you, though I never failed one personally to check. Instead, they simply offer opportunities to deal damage during a battle transition, such as an enemy losing a weapon or the battlefield changing.
I actually like these normally, but they happen way too often in this particular fight. That being said, the Eikon battles are absolutely brutal, with combatants ripping each other’s limbs off in an animalistic fashion. It can be kind of hard to watch, honestly. It is abundantly clear why the game is rated M, and it’s not just because of these fights either.
Final Fantasy XVI feels mature in a way that most games that claim to be aren’t. It’s not trying to be a TV show or Movie, but still tackles complex themes head on. I imagine this is how Final Fantasy VI felt back in the day, and I honestly think it may change the medium. Of course that’s a bold claim to make without playing the entire thing, so don’t quote me on that just yet. Still, this game’s story is going to hurt you.
The characters are immediately likable, especially Clive and Joshua. Both are clearly hiding their own personal struggles from each other to appear strong and supportive, which makes for an interesting yet tragic dynamic. Cid is also a lot of fun. He’ll occasionally crack jokes to give the situation some levity while still being serious when it counts. I didn’t get to know Jill very well, but her ice magic in combat is very cool. Of course, Torgal is the goodest of boys as well. The villains are interesting too, particularly Benedicta, and I’m excited to see more of them in the full game.
It’s been a while since Final Fantasy has had a proper medieval setting, and it’s refreshing to see Moogles and Chocobos again. The thing that really stuck with me about the world is actually the mundane use of magic. People will use fire spells to light cigarettes and candles, water crystals to pour drinks, and so on. It’s little details like this that really make the world feel lived in.
Lastly, I actually want to give special mention to the sound. As you’d expect from Soken, the music is phenomenal. He works in leitmotifs, particularly from FFXIV, very frequently and it’s exciting to hear the prelude or Fallen Angel sneak into other songs as a fan. (Speaking of references, there’s an NPC called Spoony Bard which brings me no end of joy.) I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that in the full review, but I actually really appreciated the sound effects in this preview. You can hear Clive’s leather squeak as he moves around occasionally, the clack of Torgal’s paws on stone, and bugs and other animals in the forrest. I remember in Final Fantasy XV there were quite a lot of instances, like Noctis and Gladio falling hard on stone, that just didn’t have sound effects and I’m glad that’s not an issue here. Once again, it’s this attention to detail that really immerses you in the game.
I want to end this off with a story. On my trip to NYC, everything that could have gone wrong did and I’m not being hyperbolic. I had issues with the train, hotel, and even the return trip. Apparently a train at one of the stations I was supposed to pass through caught fire (thankfully no one was hurt) so we were delayed about an hour, just to give an example of Murphy’s Law in full effect. Of course, the people at Square were incredibly helpful in fixing the issues they had the power to help with (thanks Kat, you’re the best), but it was still frustrating. Even with all that in mind, it was more than worth it to play Final Fantasy XVI. I was already excited to play it, but now I’m absolutely ravenous for more.
Disclaimer: This is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.
FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.