The sun is setting upon the land of Valisthea. For centuries, people have flocked to her Mothercrystals to partake of their blessing—the abundant aether that fuels the magicks they rely upon in their everyday lives. But as the aether begins to fade and the lifeless deadlands spread ever further, so too does the struggle over the final flickers of the Mothers' light grow ever more fierce. Bloody battle rages across the realm, rival nations sending their ultimate weapons against each other: the Dominants. Men and women within whom sleep the world-shattering power of an Eikon. There are few in Valisthea whose lives have not been touched by this war for the crystals' blessing, and Clive Rosfield, firstborn son of the Archduke of Rosaria, is no exception. Unlike most, however, the vicissitudes of fate are to reveal to him the dark truth that lies at the heart of his world, and lead him on a mission to destroy those selfsame Mothercrystals the rest of the realm hold sacred. The legacy of the crystals has shaped mankind's destiny for long enough.
It took two months (with about sixty hours of playtime), but I've finished Final Fantasy 16. I have some opinions.
For the sake of politeness, these opinions will take the form of a spoiler-free review section followed by a spoiler-filled reflections section. I don't have a great way to mark them off so if you're not interested in spoilers...stop scrolling, I guess.
To a large extent, it really makes no sense for me to review this game.
This is an action game. I do not enjoy -- nor am I skilled at -- action games. I played on the "Story Focused" difficulty mode. So if I say that I found the combat boring, the obvious response would be "Well, of course you found it boring! You played it on the baby-mode for babies!" That's completely fair.
So, I'm not an action game fan. But I am an RPG fan and, more specifically, a Final Fantasy fan. To be completely transparent about where I'm coming from, I'm not the "world's biggest" fan of these things. I'm not going to win any "well, actually, a real fan would..." gatekeeper contests. But I play the games. I talk about the games. I spend time thinking about the games and what they mean to me. I watch YouTube essays and read books and follow discussion forums. I like Final Fantasy!
So I can absolutely commend the CBUIII team on their "Story Focused" mode. As a Final Fantasy fan and action game anti-fan, I was able to play this game from start to finish without getting angry or frustratedly bogged down. I played with one assistance accessory (the "Ring of Timely Focus") and felt in control for almost every combat encounter. At least in terms of the "We're moving past turn-based RPGs: get on board or get lost." sentiment that Square Enix has embraced, this game probably fulfills the "A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers" promise that Final Fantasy 15 made a few years earlier.
To an extent, I imagine that this is what it feels like to be good at these kinds of games. I actually did start to learn to read enemy animations a bit and eventually started only seeing the assistance pop-up during boss fights. While I was eventually able to hold my own with the random mob groups scattered around the map (thanks, of course, to the story focused mode), the boss fights provided something of a challenge throughout the game. Although, most of that for me was really just reacting to the assistance pop-up. There were just too many particle effects and animations going on for me to ever learn to read the boss' animations. That's a skill for a different type of gamer, I guess.
Still, since I can imagine what it must be like to be good at this game...I can only assume that a skilled player would be just as bored as I was. So much of the game is just pushing through large open spaces and fighting mobs of the same 3-8 enemies over and over and over again. I've never played a FromSoftware Soulsborne game, but I've heard that every enemy encounter is interesting and requires attention. While FF16's encounters might be harder on higher difficulties, I just can't imagine that they're ever really interesting for anyone. Could be wrong, though. Don't take my word for it. I am, after all, playing on baby-mode for babies.
So I can't usefully talk about the action gameplay (not that this fact stopped me from burning 500 words on the subject...). And this is an action game. So what can I say about the gameplay?
So I had high hopes that he would take the same approach for a single-player Final Fantasy title and really zero in on what these game means to the players and fans.
Instead, he copy-pasted the worst elements from 14 into 16.
- How do you find a side quest? They're just question marks on your map.
- What are the side quests? Go talk to this person then go talk to this person then go talk to this person then go kill a monster then take the drop to a person who'll tell you to take it to another person.
- Need to gather information? Go talk to exactly 3 NPCs in the area.
- Looking for something hidden? There'll be a green circle on the map to "explore".
In 14, there's at least an excuse that this gives you something to do in the game between sessions of playing with your friends. In 15, it's just mindless drudgery between fights without any of the social excuses.
It's all fine. There's nothing challenging or interesting about it. But you can plod through and make progress without a lot of thought. It doesn't hurt or anything. Some of the side quest stories are endearing or have payoffs later. Most of them aren't and a lot of the payoffs don't like.
It's fine as filler. But it really is just filler copied straight from the MMO and it could have just been left behind; when you're slowly walking from NPC to NPC (because heaven forfend we add a run button to this action game) to have a conversation that could have been an email (and yes: you do get letters in this game so that is a canonical option!), it's very easy to start counting all of the seconds of one's actual human life being wasted here.
So if the action gameplay is boring and the questing gameplay is boring, I guess that leaves the presentation and the story.
I have a lot to say about the story once I feel some freedom to talk about spoilers; for now, suffice it to say that it fell flat for me. It's obvious what they're trying to do and it has some potential. But it really could have used some strong editing passes. It is, like everything else above, fine.
The presentation is where you really start to see the millions of dollars that were undoubtedly spent bringing FF16 to life.
The graphics are good. They're not life-changing or anything. Some of the character models have an uncanny valley thing going on. Some of the animations are clearly ripped right out of FF14. But, overall, it's pretty! It's definitely the best looking game I've played to-date...but only marginally so.
The graphics are certainly better than, say, the graphics for Final Fantasy 7 Remake...but not a lot better. Certainly not better enough to justify the $500 I spent on a PS5 to play it. With the exception of load times, this would honestly have been fine as a PS4 game. We're clearly at a point of diminishing returns for graphical improvements and they're really just not going to be system-sellers going forward unless there's something more than an ever-increasing number of particle effects on offer.
I've noted it before but I'll reiterate here: the money spent on improving graphics would be much better spent on some radical improvements to the way that dialog is presented. The voice acting for this game is really phenomenal; but it's also really let down by the way that every individual sentence is clearly stitched together one-by-one. There's no natural cadence or flow of conversation: it's all extremely stilted and off-putting after 60 hours. And it's a real shame because the voice actors themselves have set a new bar. Really great stuff.
Finally, there's the music. The music of this game is an absolutely unqualified success. Soken is a treasure and he brought his A-game and it works from the first note to the last note. I spent $35 buying this OST on iTunes because it's not on Spotify yet and I simply do not regret that purchase. Stellar soundtrack all around.
So there you have it. The gameplay is fine. The graphics are fine. The story is fine. The music and voice acting are great.
If I were going to rate this on a "Skip/Rent/Buy" scale, it's a definite "Rent". But you can't meaningfully rent a 60 hour game (and Blockbuster isn't really a thing anymore). This'll never end up on Game Pass which is a shame because it's a perfect Game Pass game.
Should you play it? If you're a Final Fantasy fan, it's really a no-brainer. It's a mainline numbered Final Fantasy title. If you want to be part of the conversation, you have to play it.
If you just like RPGs but don't care about FF as a franchise? I think it's safe to skip it.
If you like action games? Beats me. I played on story mode.
It's a fine game and you can definitely go play it; but I think it very unlikely that it'll be on anyone's GOTY list. Heck, it's probably the only game I'm going to finish this year and it won't even be on mine.
***Note: *** this section will container major spoilers for Final Fantasy 16 but is also not afraid to spoil other games in the franchise.
I admit that I am completely unqualified to critique FF16 as an action game. But it's more than an action game: it's a mainline numbered Final Fantasy game and I'm at least as qualified as anyone else on the Internet to judge it in that context.
And I judge it...a mixed bag.
Mostly, it comes down to the story. It'd be ridiculous to criticize the story for being messy, confusing, and convoluted. That's basically table stakes for a Final Fantasy game.
But I think I can be a little sad that it's just a basic chosen-one plot.
In most of the games, there are "special" characters; but they're not really chosen by fate or destiny to save the world. They're just doing their thing and, by virtue of being noble and capable and powerful, end up in a position to save the world.
In 7, it's convenient that Cloud met up with the 7th Heaven Avalanche cell since he was best placed to fight Jenova/Sephiroth.
In 9, Zidane's ties with Terra and Garland are convenient for the quest; but he was just in the right place at the right time to end up kidnapping the princess and starting on that path.
In 10, Auron just thought it'd be neat to bring Tidus to Spira and Yuna had every intention of following in her father's path by bringing about the Calm.
In 13, the group literally was chosen at the beginning of the game; but that's just because of where they happened to be standing at the time.
In 8...look, I don't really like 8 very much. And the fact that our group of little amnesiacs just happened to all get together so they could stop their Matron and then eventually Ultimecia is...I dunno. I guess they were chosen by fate or time travel or something.
And that's sort of my point: in 8 they're just the chosen ones and it's boring. So Clive being the culmination of thousands of years of Ultima's plan and having all the special unexplainable powers just so he can be led by the nose on his journey is just boring.
The main theme of the 16 presents itself as "humans have free will and it's the relationships we choose to entangle into our lives that give us strength". But Clive doesn't really exercise that free will in any meaningful way. He executes Ultima's plan perfectly until the very end where he is finally able to use that will by...swinging a sword when he's told not to. Great.
It falls flat to me. The story is convoluted and is told largely in info dumps (the Active Time Lore system is great, btw) and that'd be fine if it weren't also boring and paint-by-numbers.
Although maybe the problem is that "humans have free will" is not the real theme of 16. I believe the actual theme of this game is "magic is bad".
And I honestly...have no idea what to do with this? Like...magic isn't real. It's as good or as bad as the writer wants it to be.
Is magic here a metaphor? Is it really supposed to be about convenience and consumerism? Despite the Blight, I don't think magic is really a stand-in for environmentalism (like mako is in 7) because most of the cost we see is in the brutal way the Bearer slaves are treated. So maybe it's a metaphor for how I can order a phone charger on Amazon and it shows up on my doorstep that afternoon thanks to a network of underpaid and mistreated factory, warehouse, and courier workers?
In the post-credits sequence, there's a vignette of a happy family living an idyllic life without magic, and it cuts to a book about the fabled days of magic called Final Fantasy. So is this really about how tired the creators are of working for Square Enix and having to make FF games over and over again?
(If so: I see FF7 Remake as largely a way for Nomura to express how sick he is of the fans. So if this interpretation holds any water for 16, it might be time for SE management to step in and find some less-jaded creators to carry on their tentpole franchise. But I digress.)
Honestly, I played 60 hours of this game and I followed the individual plot beats. But I still have no real idea what it was about. But I also didn't find it compelling enough to really care.
So that's all fairly disappointing.
Where the story falters, a Final Fantasy game can make it up with great party members and side characters. This is more of a mixed bag. The main characters that really resonated with me were Cid, Mid, and Jill.
Cid is as charming and as funny as you could ever hope for. He's exactly the sort of person who should be leading a pie-in-the-sky change-the-world fantasy crusade. You can absolutely understand why a large group of people would follow him into hell and back and why he's being so successful at running a full-fledged organization.
Mid is also charming and funny. In an M-rated game that is not a little afraid to drop an F-bomb every few minutes, Mid is the only character who actually gets creative with her swearing. She'd win me over just with that, but she combines creative swearing with inventiveness and follow-through and she eventually has her own ship.
I'm cautious including Jill in this list. She has a "girl-next-door" thing going on and I am aware that this is a cheat-code to my heart. Still, she's one of those characters who forcibly stands out despite the writing. As much as the game is trying to push her into Clive's shadow, she still has her own arc and trauma and needs and she makes sure that those needs are met. As a character, she stands out as a real person that the fiction is unable to entirely shove into the box it's carved out for her. That's always a special type of character and they tend to stand out.
Gav and Jote have honerable mentions here. These are characters of pure competence and I always find that fun to watch. Unlike Clive who is always talking about "I will do my duty!" "Come, let us do our duty!" "We must do our duty!"...Gav and Jote just go and get the job done. They don't spend any time making sure that people understand how committed they are to the cause. They just get the work done. Unfortunately, they just don't really have much to do in the game. Gav runs errands and Jote stands stoically to the side so the heroes can have their moments.
There's a different game out there that is the stories of Jill, Jote, and Mid. I think that'd be a more interesting game, but it's not the one we found.
By all rights, three characters should be enough. But the fact that none of them are the main character isn't doing the game any favors. And since the game doesn't have a customizable party system, I'm not able to choose the folks I want to hang out with. They come and go as the writers please.
I don't really care about Joshua. There's no depth to him. He's just a good guy who does the right thing. I don't really care about Otto. He just hands out quests. Isabella needs to learn to solve her own problems. Qunten has a cool backstory but that backstory is completely incongruous with the character model, character performance, and character behavior of the person we see. I don't care really care about Tomes or Vivian. They are literally menu functions given a character model.
Charon is also a menu function beneath a character model, but at least she took some guy's eyeball. I respect that.
Tarja's cool too. Add her to the Jill/Jote/Mid game and you'll really have something.
Then, of course, there's Clive. Given that he's the chosen one and the vessel of destiny and Mythos and all of that, it's hard to separate Clive from the main story writing.
Clive is notable because the first half of his story is just trauma on top of trauma on top of setbacks on top of more trauma. And that could be interesting in a grimdark Game of Thrones kind of way. But it doesn't work for me because all of it leads him to do...exactly what he was going to do anyway. Clive is all about his duty, after all.
If Clive decided that it was all too much and he decided to retreat to run a bandit group for a few years or something, that would be interesting.
But, of course, our hero isn't going to do that. Despite all the talk of free will, he's going to follow the script that was laid out for him by Ultima and Joseph Campbell. And that's fine, but it's very dull.
If the heroic characters range from "interesting enough to deserve a better game" to "largely flat", the villains give us far less to work with.
Annabella is just awful. Benedikta is awful but wants to be loved. Kupka is awful and as dumb as a bag of rocks. Barnabas is awful and brainwashed by religion. Ultima just wants to kill everyone because he hasn't killed everyone lately.
A common idea is that the best villains are ones where you can say "I mean, sure, they're evil. But they kind of have a point." None of the villains in this game have a point and I cannot see where they are coming from.
I was so angry when Kupka gave his big villain speech and admitted that he knew that Clive wasn't the Cid that killed Benedikta but hey Clive has been using the name "Cid" so he might as well chase Clive around for years to kill him. Fleeing from Kupka trap to Kupka trap took up several hours of my real human life and the best reason the writers could come up with was "Yeah, he'd probably hate that one name very specifically."
You'd think it would help that Clive really did kill Benedikta. But Kupka didn't know that! He really thought he was just pissed off at a name! And he was okay with that because he's not smart enough to realize why that's so stupid! One could imagine Kupka going after Mid or something to get revenge against Cid. But no. He just hates the name.
I can't relate to that kind of villainy. I can't care about that kind of vendetta. It's just a bunch of quests to get through.
So the characters and characterization (at least for the heroes) do a better job of making this game stand out than the story does, but even that is not really enough to paper over the large number of flat one-note characters that populate the game. The characters are then let down further by lacking a party system so I'm not even able to spend as much time as I want with the rare gems.
Even the stellar performances from the cast can't really salvage the characters from the other choices that the game makes.
The third side of the FF triangle is what I will refer to as the "brand identifiers". I'm thinking of things like chocobos and Moogles and crystals.
Things pick up pretty well here. I'm not sure if they had an official brand consultant on staff, but someone was clearly keeping an eye on things to make sure that the setting was "Final Fantasy enough".
Nektar is probably my favorite Moogle in the franchise and I loved every single one of his stories. There are crystals everywhere and they're pretty integral to the whole story. Elemental magic is a thing and also fairly integral to the whole thing. There are plenty of chocobos (though I do wish that they weren't just horses wearing bird costumes; give me an iconic chocobo knight or chocobo-based paddle boat technology or something!).
The Eikons are a big deal. I'd like to have seen more done here (maybe a Shadow of the Colossus thing?) but you can't argue that they're not present in a big way.
I can quibble that they don't really feal meaningful to me. Plot-wise, they're just MacGuffin WMDs and could have been anything that the 8 Dominants had. But in this game they had Eikons. That's fine. I could wonder what a Shadow of the Colossus take would've looked like, but I guess the big particle-effect Eikon battles are fine. (I didn't enjoy them, but that's fine. I played on baby-mode so my opinion doesn't count.). The Amano logo is pretty.
The Eikons feel a little flat to me, but I struggle to articulate why. And I think that may just be too many past games asserting themselves in my memory along with a whistful feeling of what-could-have-been without any real concrete ideas about what could have been better. So I'm going to give the Eikons a pass here.
And, in general, I think I can say that the brand identifiers are the strongest component of this Final Fantasy game. The 20th word in the opening cinematic is "Mothercrystals" and from that moment to last of the closing credits, this is unambiguously a Final Fantasy. That'll be immediately recognizable to anyone even passingly familiar with the franchise.
It's tempting to think that "gameplay" should be a part of what makes a Final Fantasy game. But how could it be? There are pure turn-based games, ATB games, paradigm-based games, gambit-based auto-battling games, tactics games, and now action games.
My opinion is that FF7 Remake did a better job of merging FF with action gameplay than either FF15 or FF16 did. But FF16 did a passable job. I wish it weren't quite so "Triple-A" (by which I think I mean "your character walks slowly and every environment is some shade of brown", but even I am not certain about what I mean here). But I did finish it and do all of the side quests and all of the hunts. So I can't dismiss the gameplay out of hand.
I've now written four thousand words about this topic and there are still thoughts in my head. And I don't think this piece will become better just by being longer. So instead, I will take the coward's path and simply present a list of other things I could opine on:
- They didn't want to make a game; they wanted to make a movie
- There are three different tiers of cut scenes (fully voiced, cinematic cut scenes where you cannot skip dialog; fully voiced, straight-ahead or over-the-should cut scenes where you can skip dialog, unvoiced, straight-ahead cut scenes that clearly didn't matter); an editor could probably have reduced the need for the cut scenes so they could've afforded to do them all well
- The sheer scope of pointless scenes they weren't willing to cut so they did them unvoiced demonstrates that they should never be allowed to make a movie
- I feel bad for the person who had to program the crafting menu. Imagine going to work each day knowing that your job was completely pointless.
- I feel worse for the person who had to scatter crafting ingredients across the levels. I bet that person drank a lot.
- Valisthea is empty. There were never more than a dozen people in any one environment. Cyberpunk 2077 did well here. I understand that Starfield does an even better job (though I haven't played it yet). If I'm going to spend $500 on a PS5 to play a game, I think the cities should have people in them.
- There are going to be so many mobile gacha games starring Torgal, aren't there? He's a standout fan favorite and he's a very good boy.
- If I ever do anything big and creative, I hope it doesn't come out the month before Baldur's Gate 3. What awful timing.