That Square Enix wants to shake up mainline Final Fantasy games with Final Fantasy 16 isn’t up for debate. Every Final Fantasy is a reinvention, of course, but few more so than this. It’s produced by Naoki Yoshida — the fixer who saved Final Fantasy 14 and turned it into one of the world’s hottest massively multiplayer games — with a remit to broaden the series’ appeal and turn these venerable role-playing games into a slick, modern action-adventure. In interviews, Yoshida and the other developers love to name-drop two titans of recent, hard-bitten, mass-market fantasy: Game of Thrones and God of War.
The risk is that, in the drive to keep Final Fantasy in the top echelon of global blockbusters, the series loses its identity. Some fans might be distressed to learn it has transitioned from a party-based RPG into, essentially, a single-character action game (albeit a very refined one). Others might have qualms about Final Fantasy characters getting spattered in gore or screaming “I’ll fucking kill you!” at the top of their lungs.
These two things happen within a single scene, early in the game. They certainly raised my eyebrows when I played through Final Fantasy 16’s opening hours at a recent London press event. But as much of a departure as Final Fantasy 16 might seem to be — and despite its self-conscious edginess — it’s undeniably a Final Fantasy game at heart. It has the summons, the Chocobos and the Moogles, the crystals and the Aether, but more than those things, it has the spirit: earnest, grandiose, a little bit emo, but with a generous sprinkling of charming goofiness. Yoshida insists that the game comes from the heart, not from a corporate mandate for change: “For us, it was about: Let’s just make what we love and get everyone excited in this series again,” he told me. Based on what I’ve played, I believe him.
It’s true that the Square Enix team is so anxious to make a splash that the game takes a little while to settle into a comfortable rhythm. The opening is a context-free flash-forward to an aerial battle between two of the game’s godlike summons, Eikons, with the player controlling a flame-spitting phoenix in a Star Fox-style rail shooter. It’s spectacular, if puzzling: Within a couple hours, you’ll be playing this sequence again, only with a better idea of what’s going on and what you’re supposed to do.
Then we cut to our protagonist, Clive Rosfield, an embittered soldier in a hit squad skirting a battle between two other factions. Clive is a classic Final Fantasy protagonist: a moody pretty-boy with an endearingly dorky stiffness about him. There’s a confusing cutscene involving some political maneuvering between two powers in a keep near the battlefield: We hear about the Iron Kingdom, Waloed, the Dhalmekian Republic, and the Holy Empire of Sanbreque, without quite understanding which of them is represented in the current fight. There’s a chat about Mothercrystals and Dominants.
Final Fantasy 16 starts in medias res, plunging you into the thick of a complex military and political map in its trad fantasy world, and expects you to keep up. It’s a bold storytelling choice that might have floundered if not for the Active Time Lore system, which allows you to pause the action (or the cinematic) at any point and read helpful wikis on the characters, locations, and concepts in play in the current scene.
After another destructive Eikon battle, observed from the sidelines this time, there’s an extended flashback/tutorial sequence as we hop back to Clive’s teenage years as the less favored prince of yet another kingdom, the Grand Duchy of Rosaria. His delicate younger brother Joshua is a Dominant, which means he has the power to summon and control the Phoenix Eikon that is Rosaria’s defender. As the elder heir, Clive was expected to inherit this power, but didn’t — much to his mother’s disgust. But he’s a gifted soldier with the power to absorb and use aspects of the Eikon’s power in flashy attack moves and spells.
It’s only now that the game starts to relax and be itself, taking time to more patiently build its characters, its world, and its gameplay. The royal family drama is easier to get a handle on than the political intrigue, and Clive gets to stretch his legs on a sortie to mop up some goblins that serves as an effective introduction to the free-flowing combat. The first proper boss battle is against a Morbol (a ravenous plant, and vintage Final Fantasy monster) — it’s terrific, with interesting mechanics, clever staging, and a satisfying rhythm, thanks to the combat system’s focus on staggering and then punishing enemies.
Boss battles come thick and fast in Final Fantasy 16, but you’ll be looking forward to them. They’re sharply designed, epic without being slogs, and they’re the best showcase for the full range of Clive’s combat skills. The game’s approach to accessibility and difficulty is interesting, too; you’re given a suite of “Timely” items that can be equipped for customized help in certain areas, such as dodge timing, skill selection, or healing. With the most powerful of these equipped, the game is a brainless, glorious, button-mashing lightshow; with none of them, it’s a precise but fluid brawler.
After a family ritual ends in tragedy, we jump back (or rather, forward) to the older Clive. I won’t spoil the plot any further, but this is the point at which Clive leaves his life as an Imperial assassin and hooks up with Cidolfus Telamon, or Cid, a classic Final Fantasy laconic gunslinger type who reminds me of FF12’s Balthier, voiced rumblingly by Ralph Ineson (The Witch, Game of Thrones). Cid takes Clive to The Hideaway, an outpost hidden amid ruins that serves as the game’s hometown and base of operations, with a garrulous cast of characters and a Final Fantasy 7 family-of-rebels vibe.
For these first hours, Final Fantasy 16 is quite straightforward and propulsive, balancing big story beats and moments of visual spectacle with linear combat arenas where Clive and his AI-controlled companions can grind through enemies and level up. I also got to sample a later area of more open design, where there’s some exploration and side-questing to be done. Structurally, the game reminds me most of 2009’s Final Fantasy 13, an underrated series entry with great combat and beautiful visuals that very gradually opened up its initially tightly confined funnel of gameplay. FF13’s biggest flaw was its painfully slow start, which thankfully is not a problem that FF16 shares.
Final Fantasy 16’s developers may have wanted it to be God of War, and it certainly has the production values, but that game’s virtuosic, seamless Hollywood staging is not what Square Enix does best. By staying true to themselves, Yoshida’s team has created something that may not play like Final Fantasy, but definitely feels like Final Fantasy. It also shares DNA with a whole generation of Japanese action games and RPGs from the 2000s, the heyday of the PlayStation 2. It has the flamboyant drama, the cool, moody attitude, and the playful self-mockery that characterized the era, as well as a focused, headlong approach to both storytelling and gameplay.
The question is whether Final Fantasy 16 can sustain this beyond its first few hours. We’ll find out on its release on PlayStation 5 on June 22.