Final Fantasy 16 is shaping up to be one of the best in the series
Clash of the Eikons.
Disclaimer: This is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.
A lot hinges on Final Fantasy 16. After the lukewarm response to Final Fantasy 13 and 15, muted new releases from last year, blockchain controversies, and selling its Western studios, the success of Square Enix has rested on MMORPG Final Fantasy 14 and nostalgia for remakes and remasters of Final Fantasy games of old.
Now the company is looking ahead with the release of its next numbered single player game some seven years after the last. Creative Business Unit 3, led by Final Fantasy frontman Naoki Yoshida fresh from Final Fantasy 14 success, is taking the franchise into the future with the next big PlayStation 5 exclusive.
I was ecstatic to go hands on with the game but I had questions. Would the fanboy in me be satisfied? Can Yoshida and CBU 3 deliver a strong single-player Final Fantasy game? What does the future of the franchise look like?
I returned from the preview with the biggest grin on my face. I'm happy to report that, from what I've played, Final Fantasy 16 looks set to put the JRPG franchise back on top with a game aimed at appeasing both older fans and series newcomers. This is CBU 3 at the height of its power: confident, self-assured, and righting previous wrongs of the franchise.
The demo I played took place a few hours into the game and was focused on its new real-time combat system. Don't worry, I won't be discussing story spoilers at all.
Playing Final Fantasy 16 is a rush. What struck me most of all is the sheer scale and intensity of the game's battles, with a real sense of escalation across the demo. Small skirmishes against armoured soldiers led to a miniboss against twin elemental enemies, all before a climactic and lengthy boss encounter atop a castle at night as sparks fly and the dramatic choral score augments the tension. Afterwards I played a separate Eikon battle that literally took the game to colossal heights. Yoshida described the game as like a rollercoaster and he wasn't lying: this Final Fantasy 16 demo was a relentless, extended crescendo of thrills.
Clive's moveset is fast with weighty attacks. Capcom veteran Ryota Suzuki (Devil May Cry 5) has designed a combat system that's completely real-time, without menus or turns. This isn't a hybrid of old and new like Final Fantasy 7 Remake; this is wholeheartedly an action-RPG, something fans of Devil May Cry or even the Souls games will likely be drawn to. And while this may alienate those wishing for the turn-based days of old, the action focus is a pull for newcomers. Plus there are plenty more RPG intricacies to come.
The fluidity of combat and its array of interlinking options is impressive. Clive's basic moveset includes sword attacks and magic to shoot from a distance, each of which can be charged for added strength. Last minute dodges can be followed by a precision counter, meaning players who successfully read enemy attack patterns and dodge correctly will be rewarded.
Then there are Eikon abilities that can be cycled through like weapon sets - or even Jobs. These not only provide elemental attacks but unique abilities too: Phoenix, for instance, provides a lurching rush at the enemy, while Garuda pulls with a grappling arm and Titan blocks with a stone shield for those keen to tank. These moves can then be linked together: charge up a fire spell then rush to an enemy for a sword lunge, dodge and counter an incoming attack, then target another with a grappling arm and spinning whirlwind of claws to toss the enemy into the air ready to juggle. Cycling through Eikon sets is a little fiddly in the heat of the moment, but the demo provided me with abilities that wouldn't usually be available at this point - switching between Eikons will come with practice.
Peeking at the menus showed a glimpse of customisation options: each Eikon has a separate wheel of abilities that can be individually unlocked using ability points and then mapped to specific buttons. Points can also be reversed and spent elsewhere if you're keen to experiment. Clive can be kitted out with various weapons, armours, and accessories, the latter of which ties into the game's accessibility options. Lastly, resources collected after battle can be used in crafting, though this system wasn't shown.
Clive is joined in battle by party members controlled by A.I., though Yoshida promises plenty of chatter and communication between them. Clive's moveset is complex enough without the addition of other characters, but the exception is permanent companion Torgal the dog. He's controlled with the d-pad (along with item use) and can either heal or add to combos. It's a bit finicky, but thankfully Torgal's moves can be automated using the game's accessibility options. And yes, you can pet him.
Combat is tense, requiring precision to dodge and attack before unleashing a fierce barrage of spells and abilities. But the Eikon battles transcend to a higher level.
Each Eikon encounter will offer a unique set piece focusing on gameplay specific to that battle, be it a 3D shooter or a clash centred on scale and speed. I played a fight between Ifrit and Garuda that Yoshida described as a wrestling match. It certainly showed the titanic heft of these summonable creatures and served as a suitable climax to the demo.
It began with Clive battling Garuda: a terrifying clawed creature who towers over Clive with her gigantic feathered wings, their battle taking place in the midst of a swirling maelstrom. As a test of battle skill, it brought to mind the trials of Final Fantasy 14, albeit played solo: a singular platform for a vicious encounter.
And then it escalated once more. Clive's power was not enough and soon I was swept up in a duel between Garuda and the hulking fiery behemoth Ifrit. This was pure Final Fantasy kaiju fan service, witnessing these iconic beasts battle at a scale unprecedented in the series. Ifrit lurches forwards and unleashes flaming attacks, while Garuda spins and twirls in the sky, the pair clashing in a great bestial tangle of claws and jaws. And I'm in control - at least for the most part. As the battle swoops into cinematics, it does dissolve into an interactive cutscene with button prompts. But then the screen erupts into a burst of Hellfire as the music soars, my sweaty palms release the controller and I finally take a breath. Final Fantasy summons have never felt so formidable, so exhilarating, or so integral to the world and its story.
It's just all so seamless. Exploration, battles, and cinematics (all in-game) flow effortlessly from one to the next. One minute I'm caught in battle, then the camera plunges inwards for yet another scene with exceptional cinematography, before control is handed back. Sometimes the lines are blurred with quicktime events during battle cinematics, but these are simple and unobtrusive, serving only to punctuate the action.
And it's delivered beautifully too. Final Fantasy 16 might just be one of the most attractive games I've seen, both on a technical and artistic level. Characters are memorable and animated with nuance and subtlety: during cinematics you can see the tiny wrinkles and expressions on each face. Cold dark castle corridors are warmly lit by flaming torches; a storm rages, ripping apart the ground. And when battle strikes, the effects are electrifying.
I'm also a big fan of the cast and their performances. As Clive, Ben Starr is clipped and brooding, but I suspect Cid is likely to be the fan favourite - Ralph Ineson's delivery is deep and rumbling and the Sean Bean-esque characterisation fits well with the Game of Thrones vibe of the world and story.
Little of the world was shown in the demo beyond a Soulsy, atmospheric medieval castle, though a glimpse elsewhere showed wide plains and crystalline caverns and volcanos, deserts, taverns and more, all richly detailed with vibrant, striking vistas. Yoshida confirmed the game is not open world, but instead comprises several areas constructed in extreme detail, each large and offering plenty of exploration. It's surely the right choice and I'm hopeful it will strike a balance between world building and storytelling.
Yoshida also promised the story will be complete, with a beginning, middle and end. Of all the criticisms thrown at Final Fantasy 13 and 15, story was a major complaint, but it's clear CBU 3 are learning from past mistakes to offer fans what they want: a grand yet comprehensible story, likeable characters, a beautifully realised world to explore, and bombastic battles.
From what I've played Final Fantasy 16 is surely set to deliver. Its intense battles escalate to an outrageous sense of scale; exceptional cinematics weave seamlessly into battle to truly showcase the power of the PlayStation 5; and Yoshida and his team exude confidence in their vision.
What I want to see next are the quieter moments. Peacefully riding a chocobo around that sumptuous world. Tender moments from Clive so we can empathise with him as the protagonist. If this demo showed the peaks, what's in the valleys? I'm excited to explore further and find out.
Oh, and for music fans, this time the iconic battle fanfare has lyrics sung by a choir. It's awesome.