Final Fantasy 16 Revives the Franchise’s Magic By Changing Everything

Final Fantasy 16 will likely remind you of your favorite Final Fantasy game despite being nothing like it.

Final Fantasy 16
Photo: Square Enix

Note: This demo was based on a special version made for media to experience. Its contents may differ from the final version.

It’s always exciting to get to play one of the biggest new games of any year, but the chance to play a special demo version of Final Fantasy 16 at a recent preview event was especially enticing. That’s not necessarily because I was looking forward to FF 16 more than other upcoming games but rather because I really had no expectations for FF 16. Until now, we’ve really learned very little about the game outside of what a few (mostly cinematic) trailers and some basic overviews have revealed. I went in with very little idea of what to expect once I was actually playing it. 

Besides, the Final Fantasy franchise is constantly changing. Aside from a few recurring characters, creatures, and ideas, the fact that the series is always trying new ideas is one of its hallmark features. Unfortunately, that desire to innovate hasn’t always worked out for the mainline Final Fantasy franchise in recent years. Final Fantasy 12 was certainly somewhat divisive, but Final Fantasy 13 and 15 really left fans wondering whether Square Enix knew what Final Fantasy’s role in modern gaming should be. Final Fantasy 14 eventually became a phenomenon following its reboot, but as an MMORPG, that game didn’t appeal to all those looking for a slightly more traditional single-player experience. 

So what should you expect from Final Fantasy 16? Well, it’s incredibly different from nearly every Final Fantasy game that came before in some significant ways. Whatever you picture when you think “Final Fantasy,” it probably isn’t that. That also means it’s destined to be divisive. Yet, it’s almost certainly the most exciting mainline Final Fantasy game in decades. Mind you, FF 16 isn’t exciting because it returns to what once worked but rather because it finds incredible new ways to invoke how those classic Final Fantasy games once made you feel. 

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A Beautiful Dark Fantasy

I can’t tell you much about Final Fantasy 16’s plot that you don’t already know. That’s both because there are certain things I simply can’t talk about and because the demo mainly focused on the title’s gameplay and action. What I can tell you is that FF 16’s narrative is significantly more substantial and exciting than I was anticipating given how much emphasis has been placed on the game’s action so far. 

Final Fantasy 16 takes place in the world of Valisthea, where entire kingdoms are built around ancient crystals that offer various powers and benefits. Each is protected and represented by powerful beings named Dominants that can use magic without the crystals and harness the forms of Eikons (which are largely based on the Summons from previous Final Fantasy titles). These Eikons (and their Dominants) are basically treated like nuclear weapons. The threat of mutually assured destruction can keep every kingdom in check but that fear hasn’t exactly built better neighbors.

You play as Clive Rosfield: a member of one of those kingdom’s royal families who…well, this is where spoilers get tricky. Suffice it to say, Clive must eventually embark upon an adventure involving the Eikons, the kingdoms, and the fate of Valisthea. The rest is worth saving for the game itself or what you’re able to gather from the promotional material that has been released so far. 

While much has been made of Final Fantasy 16’s return to a dark medieval fantasy style after recent mainline entries flirted more and more with sci-fi concepts, it was the game’s return to certain Final Fantasy 12 ideas that piqued my interest. FF 12 features my favorite Final Fantasy story ever, largely because of the ways that the game builds its world on the back of war-torn nations and the people caught up in that conflict. 

Final Fantasy 16 is built upon a somewhat similar concept, though even the most spoiler-filled version of this article wouldn’t be able to tell you where it all ends up. Based on what little I saw, though, FF 16’s narrative and world-building clearly benefit from featuring different nations with their own agendas, cultures, and people. You can highlight those things without war and conflict, but that approach contributes to the “dark” part of FF 16’s dark medieval fantasy setting. 

Yet, it’s the mysticism of that premise that elevates it. Some of the game’s magic may have real-world parallels, but it still treats magic and magical beings as these incredible things that are as awe-inspiring as they are potentially dangerous. We’ve seen other FF games that lean a bit more towards more grounded styles of fantasy treat magic as an awkward necessity, but FF 16 has this remarkable way of making the fantastic feel foundational.

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It should also be noted at this time that Final Fantasy 16 is not an open-world title. What, exactly, that means for the final product is kind of tough to say as our demo was very linear. The team has said that the game will still feature sidequests, exploration, and some of those other ideas we associate with larger JRPG worlds, but it remains to be seen just how much of Valisthea you will get to see, how you will get to see it, and what you’ll be doing there besides working your way through the campaign.

The quality of the game’s writing and acting was also a bit of a surprise but in a pleasant way. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but after certain recent games (including Square Enix’s Forspoken) featured writing and dialog that actively dragged those games down, I was surprised to find myself captivated by how Final Fantasy 16‘s story sequences would advance what little of the plot we were treated to. It didn’t hurt that many of those sequences were presented in a God of War-like way that flowed smoothly into the action.

Final Fantasy 16’s narrative and worldbuilding elements are undeniably intriguing, but, as I mentioned earlier, the game’s combat was the clear focus of the demo. I know it’s strange to think of a Final Fantasy game where the combat is the marquee feature, but trust me when I say that FF 16’s is more than worthy of that honor (even though it will be the game’s most divisive element).

Cue the Battle Music

The first thing you need to know about Final Fantasy 16’s combat is that Ryota Suzuki directed it. Yes, that’s the same Ryota Suzuki of Capcom fame who previously worked on games with widely acclaimed real-time battle systems like Devil May Cry 5 and Dragon’s Dogma. Those titles may give you a rough idea of what Suzuki brings to the table, though trust me when I say that you’re probably not prepared for what FF 16 actually plays like. 

Final Fantasy 16’s combat is as wild of a departure from franchise traditions as we will likely ever see. Even the recent Strangers of Paradise (which also featured active real-time action) doesn’t offer what this game offers. There is no traditional party system (though you may occasionally fight alongside NPCs), old-school summons have been replaced, and combat is not only real-time; it’s lightning-fast and often demands quick reflexes as well as the mastery of all your available abilities. 

The typical Final Fantasy 16 battle (meaning non-randomized fights against non-boss enemies) sees you surrounded by foes who are not afraid to attack from all directions. While you have counters available to you that you can activate at the press of a button (similar to the Arkham games), you can’t rely on counters alone. In order to defeat groups of enemies, you’ll need to learn to combine your various attacks.

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This is where things get really interesting. At any given time you have quick access to three abilities (along with your usual array of basic attacks and abilities). However, you’re also able to swap between pre-set special attacks from other groups of talent. So, you might have three pre-set “Red” special attacks, three pre-set “Blue” special attacks, and three pre-set “Yellow” special attacks that you’re able to swap between on the fly (I’ll avoid using those colors’ real names to keep this as spoiler free as possible for the time being). You can also swap out which pre-set special attacks are available to you at any given time via the game’s massive talent tree (which allows for constant respeccing in order to encourage trying new builds). 

Because those special attacks all have cooldown periods, the idea is to not only bounce between your attacks but to bounce between various schools of attacks in order to create almost Devil May Cry-like combos (which are indeed tracked by a kind of combo grading system). So, you might use a Red AoE attack to clear the room, a Red lunge to close the gap between an enemy, a heavy Yellow attack to launch them in the air, and a Blue ability to unleash a series of quick strikes that will keep them juggled. All the while, you might fire off a few magic missiles to keep foes at bay until it’s their turn to realize the mistake they’ve clearly made.

It’s exhilarating. In a post-demo interview, Suzuki spoke about wanting to combine the best elements of combat in games like Monster Hunter and Devil May Cry, and that effort certainly shows. Combat in this game is chaotic, exciting, and incredibly fast, but the ways that you’re asked to integrate your various types of abilities tap into that more strategic side of classic Final Fantasy games in ways that some of the other games I’ve mentioned do not. 

Yet, Final Fantasy 16’s combat is accessible. Actually, “accessible” (and variations of that word) came up a lot when the team talked about the game. They don’t want FF 16 to chase away anyone that may struggle with those kinds of action games or not be familiar with them. As such, they have made several design decisions intended to benefit those with less experience. 

Most notably, Final Fantasy 16 allows you to equip special items that automate certain parts of combat. For instance, one item might automatically perform timed counters and dodges while another will automate your pet’s attacks. The most powerful such item we got to play with automated combos by assigning them to all to the basic attack button. It was a button masher’s dream, as well as a feature that made me realize just how elaborate this game’s combo system could be. 

Those special items are basically difficulty levels you can customize on the fly. You can use up to two all of the time, some of them some of the time, or simply choose to not use them at all and replace those slots with other equipment. It’s an elegant solution to the ever-present difficulty debate that succeeds because it allows you to alter your character and playstyle rather than the game around you. The idea seems to be to let people warm up to the core game on their own time and in their own ways. I was ready to dive into the game, but those items’ abilities still showed me what the combat system is capable of when it’s being performed at a high level. 

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Final Fantasy 16 also features loot and crafting systems, though I wasn’t able to do much with them in the demo. For what it’s worth, they are most certainly not like the frustrating “live service” versions of those concepts that we usually see. New gear seems to be distributed at more JRPG-like intervals, and crafting doesn’t seem to be this massive part of the experience that will have you constantly scrounging for resources. Again, though, I really only got to see glimpses of both. 

As I mentioned above, though, that’s really all in relation to the basic combat sequences. When it comes to boss battles, Final Fantasy 16 reaches new levels of intensity. 

Every Boss Is A Final Boss

I played through a few boss battles during my Final Fantasy 16 demo, each of which showcased something new about the game despite being united by concepts seen elsewhere in the demo.

The first was a fight against two miniboss-like characters. Anyone familiar with battling multiple bosses in most games (especially FromSoftware games) will know that the key to this fight was often focusing on one opponent while keeping an eye on the other. You could sometimes do damage to both, but isolation and timing were the keys to the fights here. 

This is where I really started to appreciate the importance of Final Fantasy 16’s Limit Break system. Your character has access to a Limit Break gauge that fills slowly as you land strikes, complete stylish combos, and perform similar actions. You can enable it to enhance your damage output and keep yourself alive, though it’s almost always best to do so when you break an enemy’s composure and leave them stunned. At that point, you’re encouraged to pull off the biggest combo you can before your Limit Break timer runs dry. It’s another way the game encourages you to consider your resources and power potential while keeping the excitement of the moment-to-moment combat alive. 

This fight also introduced me to some of Final Fantasy 16’s QTE elements. At milestone points in the battle, I had to perform either a timed attack or defense ability by responding to an on-screen prompt in time. They were more like bonuses than the heart of the fights themselves, but I was sometimes a little surprised to see them pop up when they did. 

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The next boss battles against larger single targets emphasized that part of the game a little more. Like the previous fight, these battles often required me to dodge danger zones on the floor, study incoming attack patterns, and look for windows to maximize combo damage. You can really see Final Fantasy 14‘s influence in these fights. They almost feel like MMORPG raid bosses in terms of their attack styles and the ways you had to learn their moves and attack timings across multiple phases.

In both these fights, though, the QTE sections felt a little more frequent and impactful. It’s one part of the game that I’m not entirely sold on yet. It wasn’t a constant headache, but the combat in this game feels so good that there were times when I simply didn’t want its flow to be interrupted by those sequences.

Ultimately, though, those sequences are clearly designed to contribute to the feeling of how epic these fights truly are. Pardon the use of that overused word, but there are few better ways to describe battles against massive creatures filled with elaborate effects, godlike abilities, and a swelling soundtrack that often leave your hands shaking and sweating. You have to go to the God of War, Dark Souls, or DMC games to find real-time boss fights that feel so elaborate and so satisfying. You will be blown away not just by the audacity of some of the visuals and moments this game offers but the truly relentless pace at which it offers moments many other games would never even dream of featuring.

However, the star of the show was the Eikon boss battle. Again, we’ll dance around spoilers regarding the specifics, but there are points in the game when the game’s Eikons will face off in special fights that significantly increase the already considerable scope of the game’s combat. 

Crucially, each of those fights will be based on a different gameplay mechanic. One, for instance, might feel more like a shoot-em-up game, while another could emphasize magic. The one we got to try was described as being inspired by a pro-wrestling match, and that was certainly the perfect comparison. It was a heavy battle filled with powerful blows that highlighted the power and size of its combatants. Every such battle would have felt appropriate if it were styled like that one, but the idea of each of those fights being built around unique mechanics is truly exciting. 

“Exciting” is the word I keep coming back to. Yes, Final Fantasy 16’s combat is excellent. Yes, it manages to incorporate traditional RPG elements into that action in ways that many other modern action games simply fail to do. Yes, its story is as promising as any story we’ve seen in any other kind of Final Fantasy game. However, the thing that really seems to make Final Fantasy special is the energy that its team has brought to it

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For the Love of the Game

Final Fantasy 16’s all-star team includes names like Ryota Suzuki, Director Hiroshi Takai (The Last Remnant, Final Fantasy 14), Writer Kazutoyo Maehiro (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy 12), and composer Masayoshi Soken (Final Fantasy 14). Yet the name that everyone keeps coming back to is producer Naoki Yoshida.

Through his work on rebooting Final Fantasy 14, Yoshida has established himself as one of the most captivating creators in the gaming industry. Famous for his dedication to and honesty with fans, Yoshida and the FF 14 helped turn that game into this chaotic blend of world-class storytelling, airtight mechanics, soaring music, a genuine sense of community, and irreplaceable moments. There are times when it seems like it should all go off the rails, but the love and talent behind that game somehow keep it together. 

The same is true of Final Fantasy 16. Yoshida joked (though it certainly wasn’t entirely a joke) that working on Final Fantasy 14 and 16 at the same time cost him “sleep and his youth,” but the energy that made that incredible effort happen is all in the game. FF 16 was described to us as a rollercoaster ride, and it more than lived up to that billing. It was an almost non-stop onslaught of colors, sounds, stories, and action that somehow found ways to top the craziest bit of game design you’ve ever seen just moments after that bit happened. It’s a pure declaration of youthful revolt, enthusiasm, and optimism yelled out by the kind of industry veterans with the talent and experience needed to make their vision for something better happen.

The Final Fantasy 16 team clearly loves Final Fantasy. They love it so much that, in the words of Yoshida, they wanted to create something that felt real “not just for my generation but for the younger generation as well.” They didn’t try to use a Phoenix Down to revive the body of the Final Fantasy franchise that was. Instead, they really looked at what made the best Final Fantasy games special. All of those elements (memorable characters, incredible fights, a world to lose yourself in, and unrivaled presentation) are in the game, but they’re in the game in ways that allow you to feel like you felt when you experienced them for the first time or that you’re getting to experience them for the first time as others previously have if you haven’t yet had the pleasure.

Final Fantasy 16 will likely remind you of your favorite Final Fantasy game despite being nothing like it. I have questions about the game the demo didn’t answer and concerns it didn’t entirely address. Some will reject this game outright on the basis of what it is compared to a traditional Final Fantasy title, and some may find that it’s simply not to their liking. However, it’s difficult to deny that this team’s vision is worthwhile, that their hearts are in the right place, or that what they’ve put together isn’t one of the most exciting combinations of concepts a single-player Final Fantasy game has gifted us in years. 

I didn’t know what to expect going into the Final Fantasy 16 demo. I now know the game sits comfortably near the top of my list of most anticipated games of 2023. 

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Final Fantasy 16 is scheduled to be released for PlayStation 5 on June 22, 2023.

Note: This demo was based on a special version made for media to experience. Its contents may differ from the final version.