For over a decade, Final Fantasy has been gradually shedding 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.
A New Focus on Action
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.
Story and Characters
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