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Key art from Final Fantasy 16, showing Clive Rosfield standing between Eikons (summons) Ifrit and Phoenix, with the giant Mothercrystal in the background Image: Square Enix

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Final Fantasy 16 is a fascinating mix of Devil May Cry and Game of Thrones

Square Enix’s new Final Fantasy is a pure action game with the necessary drama

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Final Fantasy 16 is set in a high fantasy cold war, where the world of Valisthea’s superpowers wield weapons of mass destruction called Eikons — known as Summons to Final Fantasy players — to maintain their political dominance. It’s an action game, very much in the vein of Devil May Cry and God of War, that cleanly breaks from Final Fantasy’s turn-based heritage. It’s also the intensely personal story of a man seeking vengeance over the death of his brother.

It’s the most fascinating mainline Final Fantasy in many years, thanks to its mashup of character-action gameplay and Game of Thrones-style political intrigue that will play out alongside Clive Rosfield’s personal journey told over the course of three time periods.

During a preview event in New York earlier this month, Final Fantasy 16 producer Naoki Yoshida likened Square Enix’s newest entry in the 35-year-old role-playing game series to a “thrilling roller coaster ride.” He brought a playable PlayStation 5 demo of the game, one that included a pro wrestling-inspired battle between two giant monsters, to back up that statement.

But first, Yoshida outlined Final Fantasy 16’s setting in great detail. He described the kingdom of Valisthea as “a realm in its twilight,” where massive Mothercrystals serve as a sacred energy source for the residents of two continents: Ash and Storm. To the west lies Storm, home to the Grand Duchy of Rosaria, Clive Rosfield’s home, and the Holy Empire of Sanbreque, a theocracy. Eastward lies Waloed, with its military might; the Dhalmekian Republic, a fierce political power; and the Iron Kingdom, an island nation where Dominants, humans who embody Eikons, are viewed as unholy. At the heart of Valisthea is the isle of the Crystalline Dominion, established around the world’s largest Mothercrystal.

Many of these nations and states are represented (and protected) by Dominants with the power to transform into Eikons. Think Game of Thrones’ Westeros and Essos, only every faction has its own dragon. At the heart of the story, the duchy of Rosaria is represented by the Phoenix, for which Clive’s younger brother Joshua served as Dominant. When Joshua is seemingly killed, Clive’s journey of revenge and the fragile peace of Valisthea begins to shatter.

Ifrit slashes at a downed Garuda in an Eikon Clash battle in Final Fantasy 16 Image: Square Enix

In an action-focused demo built especially for the media, a fact Square Enix repeatedly emphasized, I got to experience a taste of Clive’s journey. There were snippets of story, of course, but it was all out of context; much of what I played was designed to convey just how much of a pure action game Final Fantasy 16 will be. That should be no surprise, given that the game’s combat director, Ryota Suzuki, built a career at Capcom working on the likes of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Dragon’s Dogma, and Devil May Cry 5. Still, the action and fighting game influence is a remarkable change for Final Fantasy, which has traded in turn-based actions to varying degrees and party-based battles. Here, Clive is mostly alone, with the exception of occasional support from his wolf Torgal and this game’s Cid, Cidolfus Telamon.

(Developers said that Clive will sometimes have a large party, but those allies will be, for the most part, AI-controlled.)

Yoshida described Valisthea as a massive, detailed world, full of places to explore. But it is not an open world; areas appear to be contained, and players will be able to travel across Valisthea from a central hub location. In the playable demo, set about five hours into Final Fantasy 16’s story, I took control of Clive, sneaked into a fortress tower in search of Benedikta Harman, a representative of Waloed and the Dominant of the Eikon Garuda. Clive comes simply armed: He has light armor and a sword. At his side he has Torgal and Cid, and they’ll sometimes aid him in battle, autonomously (though the game does give players some semblance of control over Clive’s companions). But Clive’s greatest power comes from the Eikons.

Clive Rosfield faces the giant winged Eikon Garuda in a boss battle from Final Fantasy 16 Image: Square Enix

While Clive is not presented as a Dominant himself, he appears to absorb the power of various Eikons, including the power of the Phoenix that was previously controlled by his brother. The demo also featured abilities that Clive may not have at this point in the final version of Final Fantasy 16, including the powers of the Titan and Garuda Eikons. Each Eikonic power has its use in battle, and the developers expect that players will mix and match loadouts to suit their play style.

The Phoenix powers that Clive can control include a teleporting dash move called the Shift Strike, which closes the distance between him and his opponent. Rising Flame is a type of uppercut, summoning a flaming wing that knocks an enemy upward to start a juggle combo. Scarlet Cyclone summons a whirlwind of flame around Clive, damaging anyone nearby.

Garuda’s Eikonic power lets Clive send out a giant claw to pull enemies toward him; Gouge, a rapid-fire series of punches; and Wicked Wheel, a rising attack that sets up a mid-air combo. Titan powers include a powerful block, a devastating punch, and Upheaval, a slam attack. The latter two moves bring up a timing meter, letting players unleash more powerful attacks if they time it right.

Clive Rosfield dodges an attack from an enemy in a dark chapel in a screenshot from Final Fantasy 16 Image: Square Enix

Combined with swordplay and magic projectiles, Clive’s Eikonic powers bring an incredible amount of depth to Final Fantasy 16’s real-time combat action. After some adjustment — learning all three Eikonic powers at once, instead of over time, was a bit of a challenge — I found myself rapidly switching between each ability set while certain abilities were on cooldown, and simply because it was so much fun to engage with the variety of attacks at my disposal. Given that many abilities can be upgraded and mastered through experience, there’s an impressive level of depth to Final Fantasy 16’s combat.

While much of the action in Final Fantasy 16’s playable demo was centered around clearing rooms full of soldiers and magic-wielding sorcerers, it also featured two action-packed boss battles: one against Garuda’s twin allies Chirada and Suparna in a fortress chapel, and another against Benedikta, channeling Garuda. It’s in these battles that Final Fantasy 16’s emphasis on action, including perfectly timed dodges, parries, and fast, precision strikes, becomes most evident.

But what about longtime Final Fantasy players who aren’t action-game aficionados? The developers have a solution. Players will be able to equip items called Timely Accessories that will enable long windows for dodging attacks and single button presses performing more complex combos. Other accessories afford more powerful offense or better defense, but all are optional. Players who want to experience a challenge have that choice. For my part, I played through much of Final Fantasy 16’s demo both ways, employing the Timely Accessories to learn its systems, then revisiting it when I was more familiar with its controls. Both felt great, in different ways.

A menu screen from Final Fantasy 16, showing the Gear and Eikons section, and the Ring of Timely Strikes accessory that enables combinations that can be executed with a single button press.
Final Fantasy XVI © 2023 Square Enix Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.
Image: Square Enix
Image: Square Enix

Where Final Fantasy 16 feels unapologetically, well, Final Fantasy, comes from its boss-battle pageantry. My 10-minute encounter with a Garuda-powered Benedikta was full of extravagant action and violence, with my opponent pulling huge clumps of the tower apart and launching them at Clive. This was all intercut with melodramatic dialogue and Benedikta’s evolution from well-dressed woman to winged, green-glowing monster.

But the real spectacle was saved for another scene, separate from the other section I played, when Clive summoned the full strength of the Eikon Ifrit and grew to skyscraper size for a battle with Garuda, now a six-armed, four-winged giant. This was an Eikon-versus-Eikon battle — officially called an Eikon Clash — in the scope of a Neon Genesis Evangelion Angel attack, with two massive monsters hurling fireballs and huge chunks of earth at each other. There were body slams, limbs torn from their bodies, and a vicious pummeling that ultimately resulted in Clive’s Ifrit summoning forth Hellfire to burn Garuda alive. It was a laboriously long Final Fantasy summon spliced with a 3D fighting game, complete with top-of-screen health bars. It was the kind of visual dazzle that will enrapt you even if you aren’t the one playing.

Yoshida and Suzuki later told me that not all Eikon battles will play out this way; in fact, in one short snippet of a teaser video Yoshida played, I saw an Eikon vs. Eikon fight that looked like a level from Space Harrier or Panzer Dragoon, only the player was controlling a flying Phoenix.

(For the hardcore character action-game fan, I will note that Yoshida has promised both graphics and performance modes for Final Fantasy 16, with the latter prioritizing a steady frame rate over graphical fidelity.)

As Yoshida made clear at the beginning of his pitch for Final Fantasy 16 at the preview event, his team’s new game is a thrill ride, with a focus on action and massive battle centerpieces. Of course, there’s a grand story to be woven in there, but based on the hours I spent with FF16, the spectacle is already enticing enough.

Final Fantasy 16 is coming to PlayStation 5 on June 22. The game will be exclusive to Sony’s console for at least six months. Square Enix says the playable demo described here is a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.