Final Fantasy 16 Isn’t The RPG It Needs to Be

Final Fantasy 16 is a stunningly beautiful action game that only pays lip service to RPG ideas it desperately needs to do more with.

Final Fantasy 16
Photo: Square Enix

Back in February, I was lucky enough to attend a hands-on preview event for Final Fantasy 16. I left that event ready to tell everyone who was fretting over the game’s many changes to the Final Fantasy franchise formula that there was no need to worry. What I had just seen was one of the most thrilling and beautiful demonstrations of next-gen gaming I’ve had the privilege of playing over these last few years. Maybe it wasn’t a traditional Final Fantasy game, but it was something that everyone was going to have to experience for themselves. 

You can take most of the good things I had to say about that Final Fantasy 16 demo and apply them to the main game as well. Final Fantasy 16 is an achingly beautiful action game that boasts one of the best soundtracks and one of the best stories we’ve ever received from a franchise known for excelling in both of those areas. 

Yet, the full version of Final Fantasy 16 reveals a painful truth that no snapshot of the experience could ever convey. For as many ways as Final Fantasy 16 justifiably challenges the Final Fantasy formula, it abandons or dilutes too many RPG concepts to the detriment of everything else the game accomplishes. 

Final Fantasy 16’s Character Building Systems Fail to Enhance Its Action

While people love to argue about the definition of an RPG, the genre is typically identified by a few key design elements. Most notably, many RPGs emphasize the process of growing your character through some kind of experience system. Most games ask you to play some kind of role, but RPGs often distinguish themselves by asking you to slowly build out that role in ways that feel representative of your choices, preferences, and experiences. 

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Like many of its RPG-like elements, Final Fantasy 16 only offers a begrudging nod to that seemingly simple concept. Your ability to influence the gameplay-related growth of Clive (the lead playable protagonist for most of Final Fantasy 16) is largely limited to your choice of Eikon abilities

As you play through Final Fantasy 16’s story, you’ll eventually unlock seven (7 1/2, actually) Eikon grids, each of which contains multiple abilities related to that entity. By spending Ability Points on those grids, you can unlock and upgrade those abilities. Ultimately, though, you are limited to choosing three Eikon forms and six main Eikon abilities. You can mix and match those abilities as you see fit (and the game’s generous refund system lets you freely experiment with various combinations), but that’s pretty much the extent of your ability to convert your experience points into gameplay-altering character traits.

One of the big problems with that system, though, is that those abilities do not really alter the gameplay nearly as much as they should. The vast majority of the game’s abilities fall into one of three categories: damage attacks, stagger attacks, and defensive maneuvers. Some abilities take a little from two or three of those categories, but only a couple of late-game abilities offer truly unique mechanics. While it’s nice that the game lets you mix and match those abilities so easily, creating truly compelling combos soon proves to be much more difficult.

Most major fights in the game see you inflict as much Stagger damage as possible to stun the boss before going all-in with your more powerful damage-dealing abilities. All the while, you’ll weave in a few basic strikes to reduce your cooldowns while dodging more powerful incoming blows. For as intense and visually stunning as those fights often are, they soon suffer from the combat system’s disconnect from even basic RPG elements.

The damage you deal and the ways you deal it rarely feel connected to the ways you’ve chosen to build your character or even the ways you’ve mechanically improved through your own combat experience. Many of Final Fantasy 16’s fights feel choreographed to offer a specific kind of experience, and it sometimes feels like the game is trying to ensure that you do not do anything to disrupt the intended flow and pacing of that experience. Maybe that’s why the game’s most memorable fights (the epic Eikon vs. Eikon encounters) are also its most blatantly choreographed. They’re the moments of the game that aren’t even trying to sell you on the idea that what you playing is a traditional RPG in any kind of way.

Similarly, you’ll reach a point in the game where your choice of Eikon abilities will become pretty obvious. Some of the late-game Eikon abilities you receive are so much more powerful than what came before that choosing not to use them would feel irresponsible. Furthermore, you can only unlock those abilities in a very specific order no matter what you do. That means that you don’t even get to explore the full depths of a fairly-limited character building system until very late in the game.

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This is also where the game’s lack of a job or class system really starts to hurt it. You can’t just decide to become a magic wielder, a powerhouse warrior, or a debuff specialist. The Eikons that you draw power from have their own unique styles, but it’s not like you can invest heavily in one Eikon in order to tap into the full power of their abilities at the sacrifice of others. When those abilities are on cooldown, you’re just Clive. You don’t get to build a party around Clive, and your ability to enhance Clive’s base form through your own actions and decisions is painfully limited. 

That last issue should have been addressed by the game’s stats and gear systems, but those soon proves to be two of Final Fantasy 16’s biggest weaknesses.

Final Fantasy 16’s Stats and Gear Are Mostly There For Show

Like many RPG characters, Clive’s relative power level is largely determined by a series of stats. Your HP determines your max health, Willpower affects your Stagger damage, etc. You’re shown all of these stats every time that Clive levels up, which is actually quite handy given that I would have otherwise easily forgotten that they exist. 

Aside from automatically leveling up and equipping new gear that is often objectively better than what you had before, you have no real control over the growth of Clive’s stats. You don’t get to choose which stats to focus on, and there are no real secondary stats that allow you to noticeably alter Clive’s basic combat style. You can make Clive more powerful, but you can’t really use the stats to determine how he (and, by extension, you) approaches combat. 

“But Final Fantasy 16 isn’t that kind of RPG,” you might argue. Maybe, but if that’s the case, then why do these stats even exist? With the exception of HP, which noticeably increased the size of my health bar, I can’t say I ever really felt the seemingly intended impact of any of my stat upgrades. Because enemies scale with your level, and because the only real way to noticeably impact your combat experience is to choose different Eikon abilities, those stats largely reflect where you are in the game and not how you’ve chosen to play it or even the personal progress you’ve made. They acknowledge the idea of growing your character in a meaningful way without really offering you the chance to do so. 

Final Fantasy 16’s gear and equipment suffer from a similar problem. Most of the new gear you receive is not only objectively better than what came before but is often distributed at unavoidable main story-related junctions. There are a few pieces of optimal gear that you have to go out of your way for in the main game, but most of that gear doesn’t offer special abilities, obvious improvements, or even ways to change what Clive’s equipment looks like. Most of them just offer more stats that don’t always translate to the experience of…well, actually playing the game.

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For instance, there is a hidden, ultimate weapon in Final Fantasy 16‘s base campaign that is clearly better than every other weapon in the game. That weapon offers 35 more Attack and Stagger points than the second-best option. That’s it. You would need to film a side-by-side comparison of the two weapons to even start to see what that statistical difference actually means for your damage output.

Even pure action games like Devil May Cry offer weapons that allow you to choose between at least slightly different playstyles. Again, the only way to really determine how you approach combat in Final Fantasy 16 is to choose your Eikon abilities, and the only pieces of gear in the game that affects those abilities whatsoever are your accessory items. Even then, most of those accessories just make most of those abilities slightly more powerful. Why not give swords and armor secondary stats that offer similar benefits? Why even have a gear system in the game if most of those gear upgrades are little more than plotline necessities that have very little impact on your experience? 

Again, the issue isn’t that Final Fantasy 16 uses an action-heavy, real-time combat system rather than a more traditional turn-based Final Fantasy combat system. The issue is that it still tries to maintain the illusion of traditional Final Fantasy RPG mechanics without using them in any meaningful way or replacing/upgrading them with new ideas that better fit what this game is trying to do.

Sadly, that same issue soon proves to impact so much more than the combat

Final Fantasy 16’s Linear World Structure Hurts the Game’s Storytelling

Final Fantasy 16’s developers have been very clear about the fact that this game isn’t an open-world experience. They should be commended for being so honest with that information, even if their honesty cost them some valuable pre-orders. However, that makes it all the more strange that Final Fantasy 16 often tries to appear so much bigger than it actually is. 

Most Final Fantasy 16 areas (beyond the opening “tutorial” sections) allow you to navigate fairly limited areas of varying sizes. All roads lead to the same major quests (and there is no world map navigation between those areas), but you are allowed to do things like participate in sidequests, get into optional fights, and acquire scattered items as you see fit within the confines of these multi-path locations. 

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That approach is not a problem in and of itself. Many Final Fantasy games are actually much more linear than their world maps would lead you to believe, and Final Fantasy 16 really just cuts down on the time spent in those largely useless spaces. In a sea of needlessly open-world games, I can respect that Final Fantasy 16 is trying something different. 

The problem is that Final Fantasy 16’s worlds lack depth as well as width. Most of those items you go out of your way to collect are often crafting materials that will soon clog your inventory. There are few things in the game worth crafting in the first place, and the things that are worth crafting typically do not demand that many resources. The occasional piece of gear can be found off the beaten path, but such discoveries are tragically few and far between. Besides, you’re going to replace a lot of that gear simply by progressing through the main story. 

You could theoretically grind some battles to help level up quicker, but as noted above, your character level has relatively little impact on the challenge of major fights. You can earn Ability Points to unlock new skills, but the game’s generous refund system soon makes even that part of the process redundant. There’s no need to grind levels, and there is no real incentive to go out of your way for these combat sequences aside from whatever personal pleasure you get from the game’s combat.

Even Final Fantasy 16’s sidequests feel strangely superfluous. The ones that actually reward you with significant upgrades are marked with a “+” symbol that screams “These actually matter.” Most other sidequests simply reward you with crafting materials or currency that you’ll too rarely ever get to use.

The experience of participating in those sidequests should be all the reason you need to keep seeking them out, but too many offer too little pleasure beyond their largely useless item rewards. Most of them are actually simple fetch quests or basic combat sequences, and I did not find any sidequest that told a story so compelling that you simply have to experience it in order to see the best that the game has to offer. 

In fact, I sometimes got the feeling that the Final Fantasy 16 team may have been hesitant to make non-marked sidequests too substantial. Maybe that’s because they didn’t want you to feel compelled to complete them, or maybe that’s because they didn’t want sidequests interrupting the flow of the main story.

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Given that so much of that main story consists of cutscenes you’re simply forced to watch, though, I honestly think more substantial sidequests would have helped this game’s biggest pacing problems. At the very least, they would have allowed you to feel like more of the genuinely meaningful parts of the game are there to be discovered rather than just eventually reached by watching enough cutscenes.

Without those sidequests, minigames, and other enjoyable distractions, though, Final Fantasy 16 ends up feeling so much less substantial than previous Final Fantasy games that offered genuinely intriguing excuses to veer away from the main path, even if those distractions eventually brought you back to the same place. 

Final Fantasy 16 Isn’t Enough of an RPG to Justify Its Runtime

In many ways, I consider Final Fantasy 16 to be an evolution of the original God of War trilogy. Some may call that insult, but I don’t mean it that way. I love the ways those God of War games pushed the limits of their hardware to deliver jaw-dropping moments anchored by best-in-the-world production values and intense action. It’s been too long since we’ve gotten a brazenly epic action game like the God of War trilogy, and Final Fantasy 16 delivers a shockingly similar experience. 

However, those God of War games were about 10 hours long. Similarly, some of the more notable recent “pure” action games like Devil May Cry 5 or Bayonetta 2 clock in at around the same runtime. Even if you only stick to the main story, Final Fantasy 16 will take you around 30 hours to beat. 

Sadly, Final Fantasy 16 doesn’t always offer three times the experience you’ll find in spiritually similar games. It often feels obligated to deliver a mainline Final Fantasy experience that takes quite some time to beat, but it lacks the character building, side activities/stories, and depth that often made those games genuinely substantial for reasons other than how long you could theoretically play them.

I’ll champion this game’s best ideas (and there are many of them) as much as I’ll champion the belief that Final Fantasy games should never feel compelled to ever be just one thing. However, Final Fantasy 16 too often fails to reimagine the series’ core RPG elements (even when it would benefit from doing so). As a result, the things that this game does do so well are stretched so thin across the scope of the adventure that you’ll often begin to grow tired of them despite the fact that their quality rarely dips in any notable way. 

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I don’t know where the Final Fantasy franchise goes from here. At this point, Final Fantasy 17 could very well be a battle royale title given how often this series has been reinvented in recent years. What I do know is that Final Fantasy 16 shows that the future mainline entries in this franchise either need to embrace its RPG roots or subvert them so thoroughly that we’re never left to dwell on their absence. By trying to navigate the thin line between those two ideas, Final Fantasy 16 doesn’t chart an obvious path for the future of the franchise.