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Final Fantasy XVI adds blood and grit but doesn’t change the series’ soul

The game is hindered by its reliance on tropes inspired by Game of Thrones, but its combat and character performances more than make up for a ho-hum story.

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Artwork from Final Fantasy XVI featuring Clive Rosfield wielding a sword of flame while his arm is covered in dark spikes that burst with fire.
Image: Square Enix

There’s a moment within the first quarter of Final Fantasy XVI in which Clive, the protagonist, faces an enemy that has withstood his strongest attacks. Beaten and worn out, the game prompts Clive to “accept the truth.” As he does, two limit-break bars (ones that Final Fantasy XIV players will recognize) appear. But they don’t just pop in as though the game was merely updating its UI to introduce a new feature — they burn on as though they’ve been branded onto the screen with a hot poker. It feels like the game wants you, too, to feel the flames that burn within Clive as you press in the thumbsticks to make him go Final Fantasy Super Saiyan. 

I almost destroyed my TV, losing my grip on my controller as I pumped my fist into the air with an excited, “Oh f– yeah,” battle cry. That battle cry happened a lot.

In my first interview discussing Final Fantasy XVI, the game’s producer, Naoki Yoshida, told me that he wanted the game to feel like “a rollercoaster.” 

“We envision Final Fantasy XVI as like a giant, high-speed rollercoaster that will take players on a thrilling ride both story- and gameplay-wise.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. Final Fantasy XVI is a rollercoaster that takes an unforgivably long time to climb the first hill but is well worth it for the drops, loops, spins, and “f– yeah” moments thereafter.

Final Fantasy XVI’s developers have also likened it to Game of Thrones. This, too, is accurate… painfully so. 

Within the game’s first handful of minutes, multiple f-bombs were dropped, with a “cock” thrown in for good measure. There were many instances of nudity or over-the-top vulgarity for titillation’s sake, as well as scenes that evoked the notion of “sexposition,” even if there was no actual sex happening on-screen. 

Screenshot from Final Fantasy XVI featuring a close up of Joshua Rosfield, his face covered in blood.
Expect a lot of uncharacteristic amount of blood, nudity, and swearing in Final Fantasy XVI.
Image: Square Enix

The developers wanted Final Fantasy XVI to ape the dark and gritty themes of Game of Thrones or God of War as a way to broaden its appeal in hopes of making the game as wildly successful as its inspirations. There’s nothing wrong with a series changing up its tone, especially one that likes to iterate and play with tone, themes, and settings the way Final Fantasy has over its 35-year history. But XVI’s Game of Thrones-esque tone is clumsily executed, with moments that are unnecessary at best and laughably bad at worst. 

Final Fantasy XVI’s developers have also likened it to Game of Thrones. This, too, is accurate… painfully so

Late in the game, there’s even a bit of implied incest — one of Game of Thrones’ most prevalent and defining themes — when a character, who’s naked, embraces a facsimile of his mother — also naked — sighing with contentment as the scene fades to black. But unlike how the revelation and development of Jamie and Cersei’s incestuous relationship defined their characters and drove critical plot points, I learned nothing from this. I gained no further insight into the mother-fucker’s motivations, and it’s never brought up or hinted at again. I groaned aloud in frustration because the characters in this game are its second-best feature that deserve more than one-off lurid moments that exist only for shock value. 

I like my Final Fantasy plots political, which is why Final Fantasy XII is my favorite of the series. But though XVI’s story is very political, with a plot that weaves a complicated web of alliances, betrayals, succession schemes, and more, it is the weakest thing about the game. 

Clive Rosfield is the eldest prince of Rosaria — a duchy in the land of Valisthea. He’s a knight sworn to protect his younger brother Joshua, the controller, or “dominant,” of the Phoenix eikon — a creature of immense power. On the eve of war, Rosaria is betrayed. Joshua is overcome by the Phoenix’s power, sending him into a rampage and awakening a similar power within Clive, forcing the two brothers to fight with devastating consequences. After a 13-year time jump, we rejoin Clive, who has become a slave soldier because of Valisthea’s contempt for but dependence on people called Bearers who can wield magic. Clive is rescued and embarks on a quest to free other Bearers and change the world so that magic users can live freely. 

Final Fantasy XVI’s story is aggressively fine with twists and developments that should assuage anyone concerned with whether or not the game is a “real” Final Fantasy — an already silly concern because no two Final Fantasy games have ever been alike in its 35-year history. XVI’s rightful place within the series is assured as its bog-standard “fight the power, free the people” narrative suddenly morphs into “attack and dethrone god from the back of a chocobo.” The only real difference is that instead of doing it with teenagers, you’re doing it with grown men who desperately need therapy.

Screenshot from Final Fantasy XVI featuring Clive Rosfield aglow with flames bursting from his skin.
Men will literally transform into all powerful flame-flecked beings instead of go to therapy.
Image: Square Enix

It also takes a criminally long time to get interesting. In the beginning, there are so many short battles sprinkled with brief moments of walking interspersed between long cutscenes that made the game feel like a rollercoaster with a faulty chain lift. It doesn’t really get going until maybe 10–15 hours in, so long that a casual player could be forgiven for abandoning it. Please, stick with it, but I understand why you might not.

I wish there was something I really liked about the plot. It’s not really intriguing the way I felt XII’s political plot was. I saw a lot of the twists coming, and when they were revealed, it didn’t feel like a “Ha! I was right!” so much as a “Yup, I was right.” However, the game’s characters and the performance of its voice actors sold the plot so well that I didn’t mind its mediocrity.

“It’s amazing how much this game allowed me to process that loss and channel that loss into something good and creative.”

Ben Starr put his whole Final Fant-ussy into his performance as Clive Rosfield. He suffused so much emotion into that gravelly voice that it was impossible to feel that Clive’s grief or love or rage was anything but real, and according to Starr, it was. In an interview on Kinda Funny Games’ Spare Bedroom show, Starr shared that his father passed away while he was working on the game.

“It’s amazing how much this game allowed me to process that loss and channel that loss into something good and creative,” Starr said. “When you’re hearing some of that stuff, that’s kinda real. Clive saved my life.”

Clive’s love for his brother and his grief over his loss is so palpable that, in combination with the PS5’s gorgeously detailed graphics, when Clive cried, I cried. 

Screenshot from Final Fantasy XVI featuring the brothers Clive and Joshua embracing, wreathed in flames.
When Clive cried, I cried.
Image: Square Enix

Before I had the chance to experience the game, I was worried that because this Final Fantasy was aiming to be so different from its predecessors that it would lose some of the spirit that makes a good Final Fantasy game. One of the best things about Final Fantasy XV, despite its mixed reception, was the connection the game forged between the player and the main cast. Final Fantasy XVI, though it takes a long while to get there, manages to do the same with its cast. Clive, Jill, Cid, Gav, Joshua, and Torgal became just as endeared to me as the choco-bros

Screenshot from Final Fantasy XVI featuring Cid, Torgal the wolf, Clive, and Jill
Clive gets by with a little help from his friends.
Image: Square Enix

Even the side characters are well done with the game featuring the best example of the series’ limited number of female villains and a character I know a very large and very vocal community of Final Fantasy fans are gonna go ape shit over. 

But, if we extend the rollercoaster metaphor, Final Fantasy XVI’s character and story are like the distant screams of riders — just enough to entice you to wait in line. But what you’re really there for is the thrill of the ride itself: combat.

I haven’t really enjoyed the series’ pivot from turn-based to action gameplay. From FFXIII on, including the VII Remake, it’s felt both mindless and complicated. In XV, combat was a means to an end — an event to mash through as quickly as possible with little style or flourish as it was too burdensome to figure out exactly how to incorporate said style or flourish. In the VII Remake, you had to manage fussy combat stances, and if you, like me, couldn’t really make sense of that mechanic, fights like the House or the Scorpion Sentinel were all but impossible. 

In XVI, combat starts simply and is centered on the powers of the various Eikons Clive can absorb and wield. In the beginning of the game, Clive can only use the power of the Phoenix, but over time, as he absorbs more Eikons, his abilities grow. With those abilities and a handful of generic sword attacks, you can execute technically simple, visually impressive, and mechanically powerful combos that make even the most action-game agnostic players (i.e., me) feel like gods.

I had no problem stringing together complex and devastating combos. Once I got the hang of it, I could respond to almost any combat situation — something that really never happened in all my years of playing Bayonetta or Kingdom Hearts or any of the other action-based Final Fantasy games. 

If an enemy popped up into the air, I didn’t have to wait for it to fall down to continue its ass-beating. I could switch from Phoenix to Garuda’s Eikon powers to pull it back down with her wicked claws. Or I could use Garuda’s powers to pop into the air myself before switching back to Phoenix to send the monsters flaming to Earth. And when they were finally back on the ground, I could quickly switch to Titan’s earth powers and pummel them further into the dust. 

This all sounds complicated and messy, but the inputs were so simple and so well tuned to combat’s fast-paced flow that all this action happens in seconds with barely any thought beyond, “How cool do I wanna make this look?”

Very, very friggin’ cool. 

Screenshot from Final Fantasy XVI featuring an armored dragoon silhouetted by moonlight, perched stylishly on a building’s spire before descending into combat.
This guy showing up mid-fight with his own “dynamic entry” moment was aggressively cool.
Image: Square Enix

I love Bayonetta (with exceptions), but one thing that always bothered me about those games was how divorced I was, as a player, from the action happening on screen. In the intro to Bayonetta 2, there’s a great cutscene in which she confronts a gaggle of enemies while riding on a fighter jet. There’s a whole minute-long sequence where she’s shooting and fighting and doing all kinds of awesome stuff that I only get to spectate. 

In Final Fantasy XVI, you are an active participant in the cool shit. Throughout the game’s more cinematic boss fights, there will be moments when Clive performs the most ridiculous moves this side of a shonen anime, and every so often, you’ll be responsible for ensuring he doesn’t eat shit while doing it. No, your level of involvement doesn’t really go beyond a single button press quick time event, but the game more than makes up for that with the sheer number of “holy shit, I can’t believe I’m doing this!” combat moments in which you are in full control.  

I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil those moments, but the Bahamut fight, in particular, was amazing and as appropriately epic as fighting one of the series’ most iconic monsters should be. 

And all this is enhanced to godly levels by composer Masayoshi Soken’s music. 

In the fight that introduced limit breaks, the music at that point was an exciting orchestral arrangement. But as Clive exploded into flames, a chorus kicked in, singing in what was probably Latin, letting me know — just in case I wasn’t already sure — that everything before this was child’s play and that now, shit is about to get real. In another big, climactic fight, the music changed from orchestral to rock, telling me this boss was done messing around and was ready to get down to real, health bar-busting business. Soken and the developers used amazing musical cues to signal a shift in both narrative and gameplay mechanics that made me feel like I was… well… on a rollercoaster. The combat’s the ride, but the music made my stomach friggn’ drop.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a Final Fantasy. I was 12, alone in my father’s comfortable but spooky-to-a-12-year-old-who-just-saw-Scream-for-the-first-time basement. My older brother had a PSX and demo disk. Out of boredom, I popped in the disk, selected a random demo, and hit play. 

Bah. Ba-ba-ba-ba. Baaah. Bah. Bah. Bah. 

I feel my heart rate start to pick up with the music, anxious to find out, “What kinda game is this?”

Up until that point in my life, video games had been enjoyable trifles — things with which I whiled away the hours that were only memorable not for what they were but because of the beloved company I was in when I played them. 

Ba-ba-ba-ba. Baaah. Bah. Bah. 

But the opening seconds of the Final Fantasy VIII demo hooked me the way no other game had before. The rising tone of the music, Nobuo Uematsu’s “Overture,” made me feel like I was being pulled up and up and up as vignettes of these cool-looking characters with whips, guns, and too many belts flashed across the screen. I became invested in learning who they were.

Then, after all that build-up, a new song started, and it felt like the floor dropped out from under me.

Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec

There’s a popular meme format on social media in which people describe things that “rewired their brains” as a way to explain how special and formative a piece of media is. 

Final Fantasy XVI is not perfect, and later, we’re gonna have a conversation about the game’s approach to diversity. But I can feel it rewiring the rat’s nest of cables in my brain the way VIII did. I am just as enamored of its systems and characters as I was VIII’s. And instead of Uematsu’s “Liberi Fatali” that sends me careening down a coaster’s biggest and best drop, it’s Soken’s “Find the Flame.”