Final Fantasy 16 Demo Feels Even Less Like Final Fantasy Than Stranger of Paradise

Final Fantasy 16's demo is promising, but it is probably the least “Final Fantasy” game in the series so far.

Final Fantasy 16
Photo: Square Enix

Final Fantasy is widely regarded as the grandfather of modern turn-based RPG design philosophies (though its actual influence is slightly more complicated). However, the franchise has strayed further and further from these roots ever since Final Fantasy X. That’s not to say more recent entries are bad, but rather that they clearly going in a different direction. However, the latest mainline Final Fantasy title, the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI, is really testing the limits of the series’ more traditional elements.

On June 12, Square Enix released a special demo for Final Fantasy XVI. The small sampling runs players through the prologue, which should take most gamers two and a half hours to complete. Anyone who completes this section can play through another segment set later in the game that is meant to provide players a taste of the overwhelming power you can eventually wield.

I came away from the demo excited for more, and I thoroughly enjoyed the combat (which was actually guided by combat director Ryota Suzuki, who previously worked on Dragon’s Dogma and Devil May Cry 5). As far as I’m concerned, Suzuki has earned his paycheck. However, the rest of FFXVI feels…linear.

As I explored the few areas the FFXVI demo provided, I didn’t feel like I was exploring at all. If anything, I was being led down corridors from one fight to another. In the prologue, I had to walk through canyons and castles for a good hour before I got to my first proper fight (the non-tutorial kind), and from there, I was just funneled from fight to mini-boss fight to boss fight. What little exploration the demo allowed inevitably looped back around to the main path, partially because that was the only path. I was frustrated to realize that, unlike prior Final Fantasy games, FFXVI didn’t include a minimap, and I was even more frustrated to realize that the game was so linear that a map would be superfluous.

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The linearity of the FFXVI demo didn’t end with exploration. Even the demo’s character progression mechanics were unlike most Final Fantasy games. Sure, I could level up and unlock new abilities, as well as equip new items (outside of the prologue), but it all felt like it was going down a single track that gave me little control.

I could control which abilities I focused on and upgraded, but they didn’t really let me alter my playstyle. No matter which spells I equipped or used, I still felt like I was playing the same class. It didn’t help that every weapon I could use was a sword, and I couldn’t interact with or customize party members because the demo didn’t have them. The result was an experience that felt like more of a medieval Devil May Cry-inspired spin-off, which is ironic since another recent action-focused Final Fantasy spin-off felt more like Final Fantasy than Final Fantasy XVI.

In 2022, Square Enix published Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. The game is, to put it bluntly, a Final Fantasy-themed Soulslike (or “Soulslite”) that takes place in the world of the original Final Fantasy game. The developers, Team Ninja, took everything they learned creating the Nioh games and transcribed it into the world of Final Fantasy.

The levels are even fairly large and somewhat labyrinthian (as is Soulslike tradition). While all paths eventually lead to the area’s boss, at least the game has paths for you to explore and backtrack through. Stranger of Paradise might not have many hidden corridors to search, but that’s more than can be said for FF XVI (based on what the demo had to show). However, what makes Stranger of Paradise feel more like a proper Final Fantasy game than FF XVI are its job and party systems.

Most Soulslike games provide freeform character progression. Players are allowed to put points into whatever stats they want, as well as wield any weapons and wear any armor they want as long as their character stats support the equipment. Stranger of Paradise continues that trend but with the added bonus of jobs and their associated abilities.

The action and freedom are part and parcel of the Soulslike genre, but in that game, those ideas have a distinctly Final Fantasy feel. For instance, if you love to deal crushing blows, you can use giant swords and axes to do so. However, one is better for dealing damage to enemies, and the other is better for staggering them. The same applies to more defensive weapons like lances and katanas. The former lets players deftly dodge blows, while the latter is built more for parrying. These weapons follow Soulsborne design standards, but they also stick to classic Final Fantasy classes, such as Dragoons and their iconic spears.

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As a result, Stranger of Paradise offers players almost as much variety and customization options as notable series installments like Final Fantasy XIV, Final Fantasy III, and Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. In those games, players can pick any class and equip plenty of weapons and other pieces of gear that support that playstyle. However, in the Final Fantasy XVI demo, you only get longswords and skills that support them.

Stranger of Paradise also set itself apart from most other Soulslike games through its use of party members. Usually, Soulslike titles require players to adventure alone (at least until they unlock the ability to call for help from a friend). However, summons in those games are historically fairly limited. In contrast, Final Fantasy games are all about the player’s party. Cloud might be the hero of Final Fantasy VII, but without the tankiness of Barret or the healing magic of Aerith, he wouldn’t get far.

Stranger of Paradise alters that formula by granting players permanent AI-controlled allies who aid in combat. Moreover, each NPC party member is customizable with different classes, abilities, and equipment. They aren’t quite as freeform as the main protagonist, but players can still tweak their allies to shore up weaknesses and create a more balanced party. This is especially true when you unlock new classes and want to try them out. You don’t have to explore that aspect of the game too deeply, but the freedom granted by Stranger of Paradise’s job and party systems still surpass what I saw in the Final Fantasy XVI demo since I had absolutely no control over what the latter game’s party members wore, how they were built, or even what they did.

Ultimately, what I saw of Final Fantasy XVI via that demo doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game in the ways we typically think of the franchise. The combat is definitely up my alley since I love hack-and-slash titles like Devil May Cry, but that’s not what Final Fantasy is about.

In the past, that series has emphasized experimenting with classes and party layouts to fit different needs. Half the fun comes from figuring out which characters and their skills are best suited to which enemies. But if the Final Fantasy XVI demo is any indication, the game will strip all that away for a more homogenized and linear experience that, again, just feels like medieval Devil May Cry.

While there is nothing wrong with that idea, and I still enjoyed the combat in the Final Fantasy XVI demo, the whole thing was just far too linear for a game bearing the Final Fantasy name. We’ll have to see if the final version opens up a bit more when Final Fantasy XVI is released for PlayStation 5 on June 22.

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