Friday, August 11, 2023

Microreview [Video Game]: Final Fantasy XVI by Creative Business Unit III

It's Final Fantasy, but faster.

In Final Fantasy XVI, divine beasts clash in the skies while magic wielders called bearers submit to the will of their oppressors. Fans eager to become absorbed in yet another Final Fantasy game will be pleased to know that many of the franchise’s staples remain, even if the traditional gameplay format has been abandoned for a more action-centric focus. Larger-than-life battles rule the realm while the player uncovers the hidden secrets behind Valisthea. And at the center of it all? Clive and his motley crew.

I’ll admit that I haven't played every game in the franchise due to a lack of access in my youth, but I’ve played enough Final Fantasy titles to get the gist of what makes a title that represents the brand. One would have thought that being turn-based was one of them, or at least partially turn-based—but no. Final Fantasy is about a group of characters on an epic journey, someone named Cid, and Moogles. Anyone worried about missing out on any of those things need to fear not, XVI comes packing heat.

The story places the player in the shoes of Clive Rosfield, firstborn son of the Duke of Rosaria, and older brother to Joshua, dominant of the Phoenix. The game introduces the player to many story elements all at once, which can be a bit staggering. Thankfully the folks at Creative Business Unit III implemented their Active Time Lore (ATL) system. The ATL allows the player to pause at almost any given time and access a screen that shows them relevant information pertaining to the player’s current situation. A cutscene between two characters would have information on both of these characters, where they are, what/who they are discussing, and other important information. Of course, the player can access as much of this information through Loresman Harpocrates, but the ATL is a lifesaver, especially in a game with as much backstory and lore as XVI. While natural story reveals and progression are always preferred, for something as lengthy as XVI, it’s nice to have a boost. I used the ATL during almost every cutscene and think it has a place in future games as well.

Though the story is easy to follow (particularly with help from the ATL), some moments hinder the overall impact of the developer’s narrative goals. Some character motivations don’t align, some characters are too simple, while some are fantastic. It’s a mixed bag that works most of the time, but when it doesn’t it leaves me confused. The main female party member, Jill, is a sweet, fierce, yet compliant character. However, she was given to the Rosfield family as a ward when an invasion against them had failed. Why then is Jill so agreeable with the protagonists? Was her life at the duchy better than it had been with her family? An extra layer of complexity would have brought more depth to the character. Unfortunately, the female characters are not very deep. The good ones are agreeable, and the evil ones are either crazy or pure evil (I’m looking at you, Benedikta, and Anabella). Odd that, because Clive exhibits a lot of emotional complexity throughout the adventure. Despite this, the good guys are all still likable and enjoyable. Cid, Gav, Jill, and everyone at the hideaway round out a good cast and won’t be easily forgotten. It’s just unfortunate that the blacksmith has more emotional intricacy than the main female character.

While the story is mostly solid, some moments make no sense. Times where Clive is in his head and talking to past versions of himself while he fights god-like creatures were poor substitutes for better narrative devices. Thankfully the game drops those and comes to rely on what's happening in reality. The story blossoms and allows the players to take on Eikonic boss battles that would make the old God of War games proud. Huge, world-altering events occur, causing exciting shifts in the narrative. Like its major inspiration—A Game of Thrones— no character is safe from the chopping block. Unlike the inspiration, however, the game sometimes excessively uses profanity and instead of fitting the world, comes off as rather immature, like playing a Call of Duty game. It also doesn't help that the end arc is the weakest part of the narrative. In one sentence, Clive uses the words “final” and “fantasy” in a cringe-inducing declaration. The minor gripes are overshadowed by a lengthy, enjoyable storyline with intense boss fights and endearing cinematic sequences.

In one breath I thought that the quest writing was amazing, and in the next, I wondered who thought the next quest was a good idea. There are some great side quests in XVI, but some awful ones as well. Even the main storyline has the player doing a fetch quest at one point. Some feel lazy, while others may bring you to the brink of tears. Quite an odd combination, though I wish there was someone who caught the imbalance. While the side quests could be a mixed bag, the beast hunts were a great distraction and a nice way to hone your skills and engage in the best aspect of the game.

The combat is the best part of XVI. Clive gains the power of Eikons throughout his adventure, employing new ways of dispatching enemies. Each Eikon harnesses a different element, but with enough ability points, the player can mix and match these powers to create a flow that works for them. Creating combos feels fantastic, the fast-paced action reminiscent of Devil May Cry (complete with Devil Trigger and everything). I almost always found myself engaged in combat even when unnecessary because I enjoyed chaining combos and defeating groups of enemies. The boss fights are rewarding and, like the quest design, remind me a lot of Final Fantasy XIV (the MMO). The emulation is clear, and it was a brilliant idea to have people who design many boss fights per year come in and help design some for a single-player game. Though many will be disappointed in the lack of turn-based gameplay, the replacement is refined and enjoyable. I only wish there were more RPG elements here, XVI is a long action-adventure game and not much of an action RPG.

The technical aspect of the game is mostly pristine, with some frame rate drops being the main offender. Otherwise, the visuals are wonderful, particularly the gorgeous vistas and massive Mothercrystals. The combat effects are gorgeous, and the cutscene animations are great. The load times are fantastically short, I would find myself fast-traveling to a town I was already in because the load time would be shorter than my on-foot travel. Creative Business Unit III took advantage of the hardware, from the SSD to the DualSense implementation—XVI makes the PS5 sing.

The audio design is top-notch. The soundtrack makes the game soar, making boss battles even more grand than they would be otherwise, while also hitting the narratively sensitive moments at just the right time (though there were a few moments to contradict this). Masayoshi Soken should be commended for the score. The voice acting is great, even if the dialogue writing is sometimes stilted. The voice actors all lend distinctive, unique voices—especially Cid—to the cast of characters that are easily identifiable without looking at the screen. The audio is an elevatory aspect of this game that cannot be overlooked. I can't count the number of times I continued humming the battle music after pausing the game to go do something else.

The oxymoronic title indicates pumping lifeblood for the long venerated franchise. Final Fantasy XVI is anything but a final entry in this long-running saga, and it’s a great pivoting point for action-based iterations in the series’ future. When I finish a Final Fantasy game, I look forward to the next iteration, but I would be happy to see more from Valisthea. XVI lives up to most of its potential, offering memorable iconic clashes with spectacular visuals and audio. Though there are many more moments I wished had been explored (like the massive fight between Ifrit and Phoenix and any strife between their dominants), the game covers almost all of its bases and ends in a way that feels right for the story. Final Fantasy XVI may not be perfect, but it’s a great entry into one of the longest-running franchises in the video game industry and a thrilling action game in its own right.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 8/10

Bonus: +2 for gorgeous visuals and fantasic audio. +1 for massive story with world-shifting events.

Penalties: -1 for uneven side quests. -1 for not satisfyingly convincing me that bearers would not simply use their powers to kill their oppresors. -1 for not fleshing out the primary female characters a bit more.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.