As someone who has slowly been chipping away at Final Fantasy 14 over the years since A Realm Reborn launched on PS3, every bit I played made me hope we’d see the team be able to work on a single player entry in the series. When it was revealed, I was cautiously optimistic about Final Fantasy 16 after how lacking 15 was. Having now spent a combined 90 hours (between both of us) in Valisthea, I can safely say that Final Fantasy 16 is an all-timer even though it has a few issues which I will cover in this review.
Before getting to the story and its darker setting, Final Fantasy 16’s biggest change to the series is its action focus. This isn’t like prior entries that tiptoed between being turn-based and having more action-oriented combat, but a total shift. As someone who adores Devil May Cry 5 and more recently Hi Fi Rush, I approached the combat with an open mind. The end result is a low-floor high-ceiling combat system that can be as deep as you want it to be. Final Fantasy 16’s combat is sublime. It continued to blow me away even 50 hours in as I experimented with new builds that added more than a dozen hours more to my play time.
There are your usual staples from previous Final Fantasy entries such as the ability to use magic in combat, summon Eikons (summons), and even pop an Elixir or two when the going gets tough. You can’t control the other members of your party, outside of issuing commands to your trusted hound Torgal. There’s an ample amount of variety to keep things fresh even against the late-game locations that feature tons of battles. From experimenting with different combos, dodging to slowing down time, parrying, and more, Final Fantasy 16’s combat system is on par with what you’d expect from a brilliant character-action game from the likes of PlatinumGames or Capcom.
More often than not, I’d find myself experimenting with its steady stream of unlockable abilities (via Ability Points earned in battle) to find the most expedient way to vanquish my foes — or at the very least get them to a state of being staggered. This let me wail on them en masse or even activate the series’ trademark Limit Break to do even more damage while melting their health bar.
While I love the build variety and how the game keeps giving you more tools to play with, the real spectacle is in how some of the boss battles and Eikon fights feel like what you’d get if you imagined The Wonderful 101 and Asura’s Wrath with a AAA budget. Expect everything from a Panzer Dragoon sequence to massive 3D arena combat and more.
Unlike those titles which have these moments usually accompanied by a lot of cut-scenes, almost everything about Final Fantasy 16’s action is all gameplay. I can’t remember the last game I took so many screenshots in besides the Xenoblade Chronicles games and Final Fantasy 14. The cut-scenes that are well-directed, over-the-top action sequences punctuated by slick quick-time events, and final moments of boss battles do an exemplary job of making Final Fantasy 16 as epic as it is.
Some of the set-piece moments in the story and boss battles are the things I’d expect in a Sony first-party title or Rockstar Games release in spectacle. I haven’t seen this much of a visual flex since Red Dead Redemption 2 on Xbox One X on the console side. I couldn’t believe the spectacle on display at points.
As for the game itself, Final Fantasy 16 is set in the world of Valisthea. It puts you in the role of Clive Rosfield, a knight and heir to the throne of Rosalia. He’s also the bodyguard to Joshua, his brother who embodies the Eikon of the Phoenix. Eikons are powerful summons akin to Guardian Forces and Espers from previous games. Without spoiling much, from the get go you’re treated to a realm replete with political intrigue which quickly turns into unraveling a sinister plot that threatens mankind’s existence.
Clive’s story and Final Fantasy 16 overall both remind me more of Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy 10, and Final Fantasy 12 than Game of Thrones despite the latter being cited as an influence. This story is full of hope, despair, betrayal, love, introspection, and more.
Without getting into spoilers, I’m a bit surprised at the pacing of Final Fantasy 16 because of a few quests and how out of place they feel with the momentum. There are two specific story quests that reminded me of the fetch quests in Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn. I can’t get over how out of place they felt (at different points) in an otherwise amazingly-paced story. Final Fantasy 16 feels beyond impressive, just like Final Fantasy 12 and 10 did back on PS2.
Having a different kind of Final Fantasy story, the active time lore system is amazing. There is a traditional glossary available through an NPC in the hub, but the Active Time Lore is a real savior when the game reminds me of the happenings of other parts of Valisthea, and takes you back to experience or re-experience key moments on the timeline. By the latter half of the story, I was hooked, and I hope more developers implement this system going forward.
That said, make no mistake. Final Fantasy 16’s story is far from perfect with some cut-scenes and dialogue bordering on self-indulgence reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 4. However Square Enix does enough with its rich lore to weave a compelling tale that had me genuinely invested to see the outcome of its various factions. Bonus points for having imaginative outcomes for its wide cast that I didn’t see coming. It’s nice to see writers take an interest in keeping audiences genuinely surprised for what’s next rather than use the story as an excuse to take you from one section of gameplay to the next.
Final Fantasy 16 is not an open-world game. It has many varied locations that range from open fields and deserts to completely new vistas and unique dungeons. There is a lot of visual variety here, but not every location is a large zone with collectibles and secrets for you to discover. I found it a lot more open than expected in the time I’ve spent with it so far, but I still have a lot to do as I aim for 100% completion and work towards finishing New Game Plus. It’s a smart move: rather than drop you in a bloated open world collectathon, you get a focussed, story-driven experience with extensive replayability if you so choose. This made my time with Final Fantasy 16 feel genuinely enjoyable as there’s no real pressure to do absolutely everything the game has to offer as there are no major distractions to keep you from its main plotline.
Expect an action mode playthrough with some side content and exploring to take around 50 hours if you don’t rush things. If you plan on playing it in story mode and sticking to the critical path for the most part, expect to take around 32 hours to finish the main story of Final Fantasy 16. This story mode starts you off with accessibility rings equipped. You can always tweak gameplay options further by removing any of this gear that makes combat a cakewalk. When playing it in story mode, I ended up using one accessory more than the others. If you do play in action mode, you can always equip these when needed as well. There is a lot of flexibility with difficulty in Final Fantasy 16. New Game Plus mode on the other hand, is exactly what I’d hoped for, and the remixed enemy placement and variety spices things up quite a bit.
Outside the usual side quests that range from fetch quests and kill quests to learning more about the world of Valisthea, there are also other optional quests that give you rewards for helping out, bounties against uniquely challenging enemies and bosses, and more things you can do as a break from the main story. As you progress through the game you’ll also earn Renown. This grants you access to new crafting materials and equipment.
Where Final Fantasy 16’s optional content shines, is that it never feels like you’re missing out by avoiding it. Square Enix’s developers actually treat optional content as just that: optional — and the game never goes out of its way to force it on you at all (looking at you Ubisoft). And when you do, it actually respects your time. Reason being: there are specific quests marked with a ‘+’ symbol that unlock something important. These range from unlocking riding Chocobos in-game to upgrading your crafting or healing abilities.
Back when Final Fantasy 16 was revealed, I remember thinking it was great to see what looked like actual in-engine gameplay, but was a bit disappointed in the lighting. Fast forward to the final game and Final Fantasy 16 looks spectacular in most parts. It has a few technical issues relating to performance and the lighting on some specific NPCs, but it is one of the most visually impressive console games I’ve played, right up there with Sony’s first-party releases. Clive, Jill, the Eikon fights, some bosses that haven’t even been shown, and many of the mid to late game locations are stunning.
I initially thought we’d just be in a few towns and have one main hub with the large area shown in previews because we kept seeing more of those parts, but the final game is varied in its biomes, locations, and one specific dungeon felt like a next-generation take at what you’d see in a Final Fantasy 14 dungeon.
The art direction is also on point, and this is definitely a game I’ll buy an artbook for. Despite the push for the massive scale and detailed characters, the developers haven’t forgotten the classic elements of Final Fantasy, and you see care and love put towards this throughout the game including some of the menus that utilize pixel art versions of main characters. There are also a few enemies that fans of one specific Final Fantasy game will enjoy seeing and fighting.
While this is indeed a grimmer, darker Final Fantasy even compared to previous entries in the series, the art direction does a good job of showcasing the variety of environments, structures, and personas that you’ve come to expect from the series. In some places, it even surpasses it. From towering citadels to elegant dragoon knights every single inch is visually polished and a treat to look at.
Barring the few issues I had with the pacing of the main story, Final Fantasy 16’s performance mode isn’t great. Though most combat encounters felt fine, the exploration and non-combat moments can vary in frame rate quite a bit with some later areas dropping well below what I expected from the performance mode. I tolerated this for the improved responsiveness in combat but it isn’t ideal at all. I hope it can be improved in updates.
In terms of quality mode, the game felt fine through most of my playtime. There were just two or three instances of noticeable slowdown towards the end, though thankfully, none of it during critical combat sections to hamper my overall experience. At the moment, this is probably the best way to play the game until Square Enix decides to release more granular options or an update to optimize the experience. A 40hz mode would have been a welcome addition here.
And speaking of ‘modes’, the Photo Mode is extremely bare-bones. No stickers, no cool filters, and none of the other accouterments you expect from a modern AAA release. Accessing it is a bigger chore. There’s no shortcut to switch to it easily while exploring or in combat, making the process of snapping that insane combo a cumbersome process of sifting through menus amid the heat of battle.
Final Fantasy 16 has without a doubt the best voice cast in a Final Fantasy game. If you’ve played prior games, you know I wouldn’t say that lightly. My highlights are definitely Ralph Ineson, Nina Yndis, and of course Ben Starr. I’ve played many games with amazing voice casts over the years, but this one makes me want to start doing an end of year feature on voice acting like I do with the best soundtracks each year.
When it comes to music, I have massive expectations from Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger got me more interested in video game music than anything else. I consider Final Fantasy 14 as the pinnacle of the series’ music, and I’m glad that Masayoshi Soken delivered on most fronts with the music in Final Fantasy 16. I had to tweak the audio mixing a bit to find a balance I was happy with, and many of Final Fantasy 16’s themes have been stuck in my head ever since I booted it up a few weeks ago. 3D audio is great as well, when paired with a good set of headphones. It does an exceptional job of making Final Fantasy 16 more immersive and ended up being my favorite way to play.
Given the dramatic change in approach to storytelling, I should’ve expected a change for the music as well, but I was still hoping to see Soken bring more of his style seen in Final Fantasy 14 here. The Final Fantasy 16 score is full of grand battle themes, more mellow and atmospheric tunes, acoustic tracks, and also themes you will forever associate with the amazing cast of the game. Barring a few tunes that were a bit too subtle for my liking, this is one of the best Final Fantasy soundtracks easily, and a massive step up over Final Fantasy 15. Also there’s one specific surprise that I will not spoil when it comes to the music.
Although Soken was the main composer for the game, I’m glad to see the work of Takafumi Imamura, Daiki Ishikawa, and Amanda Achen in the game. I hope those who watch Final Fantasy 14 live letters and concerts enjoy those as much as I did.
Outside the music and themes, I love the sound effects and sound design of the game. My only complaint here is the audio levels should’ve been mixed a bit better, but I fixed that myself like I mentioned above with the in-game levels to make sure the music was at the forefront.
A lot has been said about the power of the PS5 and Final Fantasy 16 through marketing, but I was mostly interested in the potential DualSense features and Activity Cards implementation. The former is excellent during combat with haptic feedback and use of adaptive triggers while riding a chocobo and a few other situations. Combat audio like the clashing of swords also pipes through the DualSense mic, making for a more immediate, intense experience.
Activity Cards have been great for tracking my current side-quests and main story quest including the ability to jump back in and continue a quest without having to sit through splash screens and menus.
In terms of what I’d like to see patched in, the developers already commented on the motion blur and button remapping, but I really hope we get fast-travel improvements. Right now, walking back and forth between two NPCs in the hub for a single quest gets grating and kills pacing in the story.
One more thing I want to comment on, is how the game is actually playable from start to finish with no patch needed. I’ve had no crashes or progression issues in the time I’ve put into the game. I saw the main story through the credits and have played more of the post-game and New Game Plus without any trouble. I can’t comment on any improvements in the day one patch though as all the time spent in the game has been in version 1.00. Besides, we’re yet to see a day one patch deliver on its promise this generation. Perhaps Final Fantasy 16 will be the exception rather than the rule. For now though: we will see.
If you told me Square Enix would have its best turn-based RPG and best action game in years release months apart, but Final Fantasy is the action game, I’d have laughed at the notion, but here we are. Both Final Fantasy 16 and Octopath Traveler II from Square Enix are game of the year contenders. Final Fantasy 16 is sublime. It is one of the most impressive games Square Enix has ever made even with its few issues.
Final Fantasy 16 is a triumph in elevating the craft and culture of video games. Just like prior mainline games, don’t be deterred by the ’16’ in its name, though you’d likely know that already given the website you’re reading. The brilliant combat, superlative voice acting, amazing music, and gorgeous world come together to make the best single-player Final Fantasy since the PS2 era. This one’s an all-timer.
Mikhail Madnani and Rishi Alwani contributed to this review.