How Final Fantasy 16’s Biggest Differences Change the Franchise

Final Fantasy fans are currently feuding over Final Fantasy 16's changes, but what makes this new installment so different from the rest of the franchise?

Final Fantasy 16 Changes
Photo: Square Enix

It’s only been out for less than a week, but Final Fantasy 16 is proving to be one of the most divisive games of 2023. Interestingly, many of the arguments people are currently having about the game are the same arguments people were having before Final Fantasy 16 was even released. Some gamers love the ways that Final Fantasy 16 changes the franchise’s “formula” and some do not.

To be fair, this argument is a little more complicated than that. As indicated above, the debate over the Final Fantasy formula is inherently strange simply because very few mainline Final Fantasy games (especially those released in the last 20 years) follow any kind of formula. While there are a few characters, entities, concepts, and reference points that unite all Final Fantasy titles, many of them have historically endeavored to be their own thing.

Even then, there are a few key ways that Final Fantasy 16 distinguishes itself from pretty much every mainline Final Fantasy game ever. So if you’ve suddenly found yourself knee-deep in Final Fantasy discourse and just want a little more context about what everyone is shouting about, here’s a look at some of the most controversial changes that Final Fantasy 16 makes to previous Final Fantasy games.

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Final Fantasy 16’s Combat Utilizes a Kind of Real-Time System Typically Seen In Pure Action Games

Contrary to seemingly popular belief, the Final Fantasy franchise hasn’t relied on one style of combat for quite some time. While the early games in the series typically utilized an Active Time Battle (ATB) turn-based combat system, recent decades have seen the franchise experiment with various combat mechanics. For instance, Final Fantasy 12 features the “Gambit” system that lets you assign complex AI commands to your party members. Final Fantasy 7 Remake utilizes a hybrid combat system that combines real-time and menu-based combat concepts. Even the recent Stranger of Paradise spin-off features an almost Soulslike combat system that emphasizes pattern memorization, character builds, and gear quality.

Despite that recent trend of reinvention, though, there’s never been a Final Fantasy combat system quite like Final Fantasy 16’s. Designed by the legendary Ryota Suzuki (Devil May Cry 5 and Dragon’s Dogma), Final Fantasy 16 emphasizes an action-heavy form of real-time combat. Many are comparing Final Fantasy 16’s combat to the Devil May Cry series, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. Both games emphasize pulling off massive combat combos that are typically fuelled by flashy attacks. 

However, Final Fantasy 16 is a touch more…methodical than a game like Devil May Cry. For instance, its use of a “Stagger” system during major encounters often forces you to consider slightly more strategic approaches. Pulling off big combos is often still the name of the game, but your better bet is to drain a boss’ Stagger meter, stun them, and then pull off your biggest combos during a brief window of amplified damage. Until you’re able to complete those Stagger combos, you’re going to be relying on a series of dodges, parries, and basic attacks to reduce your ability cooldowns and maximize your damage output. It all still feels closer to a game like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but there are some Soulslike ideas and fairly new concepts sprinkled in there for fun.

As we’ve previously discussed, though, one of the biggest controversies surrounding this combat system is its relative lack of more traditional RPG mechanics. For instance, you can choose which abilities you use (and level up those abilities), but your control over your character’s skills or “build” is relatively limited. Your damage output can certainly be affected by the choices you make and the items you equip, but the biggest determining factors will be your mechanical abilities and real-time strategies. That emphasis on reflex and input-based combat is ultimately what makes Final Fantasy 16 so different from even the other mainline real-time Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy 16 Does Not Feature a Party System

Until now, one of the defining features of the Final Fantasy franchise has been the series’ various casts of characters and how those characters often come together to form a playable party. While a few Final Fantasy spin-offs have emphasized controlling one character above all others, most of the mainline Final Fantasy games have historically focused on the party over an individual character.

However, the only playable character for the vast majority of your Final Fantasy 16 adventure is the game’s main protagonist: Clive Rosefield. You will occasionally be accompanied by AI-controlled companions during combat and exploration sequence, but with the exception of your dog Torgal (who automatically levels up as you progress and can be issued basic commands), you will have no real control over any aspect of them.

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This mechanic differentiates Final Fantasy 16 from almost every other mainline Final Fantasy game in two major areas: combat and storytelling. 

The lack of readily playable party members in Final Fantasy 16 obviously means that there is no need to manage party members throughout the game. On the one hand, that means noticeably less time spent in menus managing party members’ abilities, gear, and strategies. On the other hand, that also means no longer being able to utilize different strategies based on party members’ various strengths and weaknesses.

From a narrative standpoint, Final Fantasy 16 also places far less emphasis on those who sometimes accompany Clive into battle. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have side stories or memorable side characters. It does, and it does. However, whereas previous Final Fantasy games sometimes featured a lead protagonist who shared a lot of screen time with their party members, Final Fantasy 16 puts Clive at the center of pretty much everything. This game is much less about “the group” than pretty much every other mainline Final Fantasy story. 

Final Fantasy 16 Places Less an Emphasis on Builds, Gear, and Stats

“Building” your character is a big part of most role-playing games. The act of making your characters stronger by improving their stats, skills, and gear (among other things) is often what determines a character’s power level as much (if not more) than the inputs you make during combat.

However, some Final Fantasy games have emphasized that particular part of the RPG process more than others. For instance, Final Fantasy 5’s elaborate Job system encouraged you to explore various character builds in order to overcome its toughest challenges. Final Fantasy 10 featured a complex “Sphere” skill system that has since become something of a darling among hardcore RPG enthusiasts. Comparatively, games like Final Fantasy 9 emphasized party member roles over how you built those individual party members. 

Even by this series’ standards, though, Final Fantasy 16’s character-building options are relatively limited. There are no party members, so you obviously can’t assign them “roles.” There is no job system or skill grid, so you can’t specialize Clive’s playstyle through such mechanics. The most control you have over Clive’s “build” comes from picking and upgrading his nine optional Eikon abilities. 

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Final Fantasy 16 also features far fewer stats than other Final Fantasy games. You don’t have to worry about things like elemental resistances or mana management in this game. You mostly need to worry about your Health, Attack Power, and Stagger Damage. Defenses are nice, but most of your defenses will come from dodging or parrying attacks.

Because of that, you also rarely have to consider the secondary benefits that pieces of equipment may offer. In fact, most of the gear in the game doesn’t even offer any secondary benefits. Most equipment in the game is simply objectively better than what you had before. The only pieces of gear you will really have to “choose” between are accessories that boost specific abilities. Even the game’s secret weapons are essentially stat sticks. Again, Final Fantasy 16’s combat is more about the abilities you pick and how good you are at executing combat mechanics that often revolve around those abilities. 

Final Fantasy 16’s Story Features Darker and More Mature Themes

We’ve previously talked about how Final Fantasy 16 features a fantasy world rather than one of the sci-fi settings the franchise sometimes flirts with. However, it’s worth emphasizing that Final Fantasy 16 actually utilizes a surprisingly dark form of medieval fantasy that is closer to Game of Thrones than pretty much every mainline Final Fantasy game we’ve seen so far. 

Some have called this the most “mature” Final Fantasy story yet, but it’s important to clarify what that means. Final Fantasy 16 features plenty of cursing, sex, blood, and even some scenes of partial nudity. Obviously, we’ve seen similar types of content many times in many different games over the years. However, we’ve rarely (if ever) seen any of those things in any Final Fantasy game. 

If you ignore the early Final Fantasy titles that were effectively censored for the West, most modern Final Fantasy games have played it pretty “safe” when it comes to such potentially controversial content. Characters are typically sexualized, but they never really have sex. There’s plenty of violence, but little blood. Final Fantasy 16 simply isn’t shy about featuring things that other games only hinted at. 

Final Fantasy 16 also features a somewhat complex story of warring kingdoms and palace intrigue. While we have seen similar themes and narrative concepts in other franchise installments (most notably, Final Fantasy 12), there’s really never been another Final Fantasy game that has emphasized them in quite the same ways. Again, it’s very much like Game of Thrones in the sense that it tries to balance grounded medieval story elements with the more magical aspects of medieval fantasy. It’s tonally quite different from the majority of mainline Final Fantasy games in terms of its narrative (at least for most of the game).

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Final Fantasy 16 Does Not Include An Explorable World Map or Many Modern Open-World Concepts

The Final Fantasy 16 team has been refreshingly honest about the fact that Final Fantasy 16 is not an open-world game. While that’s somewhat surprising at a time when so many tiles do utilize open-world elements, it’s really not that surprising in the grand scheme of the Final Fantasy franchise. After all, most mainline Final Fantasy games haven’t featured what we now consider to be modern open worlds.

However, Final Fantasy 16 is notably less open than other Final Fantasy worlds. Whereas those games typically featured a massive explorable world map and usually emphasized finding your way from objective to objective, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost in Final Fantasy 16. Objectives are clearly identified, and you’re even able to use a GPS tool to find your way between them. 

You probably won’t spend any time in Final Fantasy 16 being, or even feeling, lost. In turn, that means that you’ll spend considerably less time navigating between points of interest or backtracking (though some backtracking does still occur). However, that also means that some of those “off-the-beaten-path” activities that existed in previous Final Fantasy games are either gone or simply not as impactful as they previously were. 

Actually, that brings us to the next major difference between Final Fantasy 16 and other Final Fantasy games…

Final Fantasy 16 Features Less Substantial Side Quests (but More of Them)

Historically, different Final Fantasy games have taken slightly different approaches to sidequests. However, most mainline Final Fantasy games have generally emphasized valuable (usually hidden) sidequests over large quantities of readily available sidequests.

For instance, many early Final Fantasy games feature incredibly challenging secret sidequests that allow you to acquire powerful abilities or weapons. Some Final Fantasy games (like 8 and 10) feature compelling minigames that you can participate in throughout the adventure. It wasn’t until recently (most notably, Final Fantasy 14 and 15) that the series started to experiment more with larger quantities of “lesser” sidequests and minigame activities. 

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Final Fantasy 16 continues that trend in an interesting way. Its sidequests are actually closer to the MMO sidequests feature in Final Fantasy 14. Some are slightly more involved, but most of them are fairly simple assignments that you complete to earn more resources (or even just learn a little more about the quest givers and world). The sidequests that reward you with something more substantial (such as a mount or extra potion slots) are marked on the map with a “+” symbol that indicates their increased value. 

There is some secret gear in the game, but the gear isn’t exactly the equivalent of the Ultimate Weapons from previous games. Again, that’s mostly because Clive isn’t as gear and stat-dependant as previous Final Fantasy characters were. Furthermore, it’s generally easier to find those items (though many players will miss out on them simply because they’re not the game changers previous pieces of hidden gear were).

There are also no persistent minigames like Triple Triad or Blitzball in Final Fantasy 16, but there are Hunts. The Hunt sidequests task you with hunting down increasingly difficult monsters found throughout the world. It’s the most challenging and involved series of sidequests in the game, but a few others (that are more story specific) do exist. 

Generally speaking, though, Final Fantasy 16 really does feel closer to an MMO in terms of how it treats sidequests as simpler activities you’re encouraged to participate in for resources and experience above all else.

Final Fantasy 16’s Eikons Replace Traditional Summons

Most mainline Final Fantasy games since Final Fantasy 3 feature some kind of summoning system. Typically, Final Fantasy‘s summons are powerful spells that allow you to..well, summon some kind of mythical entity. Final Fantasy‘s traditional summons are famous for being as powerful as they are visually elaborate. Many of the most powerful Final Fantasy summons from previous games even have to be acquired by completing some of the elaborate secret sidequests noted above. 

For all intents and purposes, Final Fantasy 16 replaces summons with Eikons. Instead of “summoning” Eikons, though, you essentially become them. Sometimes, you merely assume the “stance’ of an Eikon to gain access to one of its innate abilities. You’ll also always have access to a suite of those aforementioned Eikon abilities that essentially serve as Clive’s special attacks. On occasion, though, Clive will become an Eikon to participate in massive Eikon vs. Eikon battles that typically occur at significant points in the story.

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The Final Fantasy series has experimented with a similar concept before (Final Fantasy 10 allowed you to “control” some summons for a brief period of time), but Final Fantasy 16 is different. Those Eikon vs. Eikon sections basically turn Final Fantasy 16 into an entirely different game. Actually, it would be more accurate to say “different games” as each battle utilizes a different core mechanic that is typically based on some other game genre.

There are also no hidden Eikons in Final Fantasy 16 as there have been hidden summons in previous games. Eikon forms are acquired in a set order that can’t be altered (though you can choose some of the Eikon abilities you eventually unlock and upgrade). Eikons are also obviously not limited to certain characters as summons were limited to certain characters in some Final Fantasy games. After all, you’re just controlling Clive for most of the game. 

Final Fantasy 16 Includes a Unique Difficulty System

Though some Final Fantasy games can actually be quite challenging, mainline Final Fantasy titles historically haven’t offered optional difficult settings. It wasn’t until recently that some of the re-releases of the earlier Final Fantasy games added difficulty settings to help curb those titles’ absurd (sometimes broken) old-school challenges. More recently, Final Fantasy 7 Remake featured difficulty settings that ranged from Easy to Classic. Those who beat the game could also unlock a New Game Plus and Hard Mode. 

Final Fantasy 16 takes a completely different approach to difficulty. Though there are no selectable difficulty modes, players are gifted five “Timely Accessories” at the start of the game. These accessories allow you to do things like automatically evade incoming attacks and complete complex combos just by tapping the attack button. You can only equip three at a time, though, and some impact the game’s overall difficulty much more than others.

It’s a strange system, though the thought process behind it is rather simple. The Final Fantasy 16 team didn’t want to scare off franchise fans who aren’t comfortable (or familiar) with action games, so they added these accessories to help those players with some of the more complex parts of the game. You can equip and remove them at any time, so they basically offer a way to dynamically alter the difficulty of the game how and when you see fit. 

However, Final Fantasy 16 does also include a New Game+ mode that eventually allows you to access a more difficult version of the game. You can carry over your progress, skills, and gear from the main mode to help out (and New Game+ includes special powerful items not found in the main game), but the mode is generally designed to offer experienced players an expanded challenge. 

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