Hands-on: Final Fantasy XVI tackles darker themes and faster action

Final Fantasy XVI

Swords, eikons, and action, oh my

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Each of the mainline, numbered Final Fantasy entries takes a departure from its predecessors. The series maintains its thematic through-lines in its summons, its monsters, and in names like Cid; but each release, especially from the PlayStation 2 onwards, reinvents itself too. Final Fantasy XVI is certainly no different.

We got a chance to go hands-on with a build of Final Fantasy XVI, showcasing just how the next entry in the series will handle and specifically highlighting combat. And really, its combat is the thing to talk about, as it’s already been shown to be a bit of a departure from the ATB systems of yore.

Clive May Cry

Combat director Ryota Suzuki is a name you might recognize if you’re a fan of his previous work with Capcom, where he worked on games such as Devil May Cry 5, Dragon’s Dogma, and Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. I certainly felt the influence, after picking up a DualSense and starting to work my way through the demo. Clive might not have the blink-strike mobility of Noctis, but our new Final Fantasy protagonist certainly doesn’t lumber around, either.

For basic moves, Clive can strike with his sword using Square, shoot magic of his chosen element with Triangle, and dodge around with R1. It wasn’t long before I started to get the rhythm; Clive gets follow-up opportunities on a perfect dodge, so timing the action just right and attacking immediately after was key.

Screenshot via Square Enix
FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

Some of the enemies in FFXVI hit hard and dodging can be a risky proposition. Parrying, which involves swinging directly into the attack, more so. Clive does get some help from NPC party members, and one constant companion in his dog, who can attack or support Clive based on issued commands.

But the real combat focus is the Eikonic abilities. It seems like, as the story progresses, Clive will open up access to different aspects attuned to the different Eikons of the world. We had access to a bit more than we would have, normally, in our preview; while the preview pit me against Benedikta, who embodies the wind eikon Garuda, I had access to Garuda’s skills, as well as Phoenix and Titan’s abilities. Swapping between them was as simple as hitting one of my shoulder buttons.

Invoking those aspects, though, significantly shifts gameplay. As Phoenix, I was a bit of an all-rounder. I could close the distance with my Circle Button, which invoked a dash attack. One skill gave me an area-of-effect damage option, while another was a rising uppercut, each triggered by hitting a corresponding face button while holding a trigger.

Swapping to Garuda, now everything’s fast and furious. My abilities are usable mid-air, and my Circle isn’t a dash anymore, but a grab that can grab foes and extend the staggered status of large enemies. Shift into Titan mode, and now I’m slamming the ground, throwing up a bulwark with my Circle, and winding up massive strikes.

Screenshot via Square Enix
FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

Simply Eikonic

All of these elements combine to form a combat system that drips with action-driven influence. Combos felt swift and natural as I’d dive into enemies as the Phoenix, whipping flames around me and uppercutting them before swapping to Garuda, extending the combo further, then landing as Titan and slamming them down.

It’s the most action-heavy I’ve seen a mainline Final Fantasy get, but the good news is, it feels good. I enjoyed my time exploring potential combo routes as Clive, figuring out how different aspects and special moves could work in harmony. Different unlocks opened up new options, as I found moves that could counter projectiles, or even activate special attack animations if I parried an oncoming attack with it. The depth of the abilities, and the accompanying upgrades, will be easier to dissect in the final build of Final Fantasy XVI. But even with what I had available in the demo, it felt really good to master the moves and roll out extensive combos on hapless grunts.

On the standard difficulty setting, it wasn’t long until I felt supremely confident against standard enemies. Of course, my hubris arrived in the form of bosses. While fights against rank-and-file baddies felt as routine as they probably should, there were several boss fights in the demo that provided greater challenge.

Screenshot via Square Enix
FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

In one, I fought two winged sisters of Garuda, fending off a simultaneous attack. Oddly enough, I saw a brief flash of Final Fantasy XIV here. While one sister led a melee offense on me, her sibling charged up range attacks that marked danger indicators on the floor, much like XIV’s encounters. Somehow, the “dodge the puddle” fits really well here, as I bobbed and weaved through floor markers while trying to get my combos in. It certainly appealed to my inner Dragoon main.

Fighting Benedikta on the roof, though, was a highlight of my preview. Here, the combat speed clicked for me. The Dominant would charge me in a flurry of blows, forcing me to carefully time my presses, then know when to do my follow-up. Long-distance exchanges of magical bullets quickly segued into a close-quarters dance back and forth. When I missed one window, I was subjected to a cinematic strike on Clive that did some serious damage.

Screenshot via Square Enix
FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

This might be jarring to some. A fast, action-heavy take on Final Fantasy had some mixed results in XV, even though it landed a bit better in Final Fantasy VII Remake. Final Fantasy XVI is certainly the most action-heavy we’ve seen the Square Enix series lean, even eschewing any semblance of a command menu. But it really does work for me. It feels like they’ve got the right ideas in place, and it helps that it doesn’t feel like the team is dipping a toe in the water. In a post-demo interview with the developers behind the game, they noted that this is an action game, and they’ve tried to achieve both a high ceiling and an approachable floor for all skill levels.

For those worried about how approachable it will feel, especially if your reactions aren’t up to snuff, there are some helpful options being put in place. Clive will be able to equip some accessories that offer different levels of assistance with the action. One gives you a window and a prompt for dodging attacks, while another lets you auto-combo through mashing, an option some fighting games have included in the past. Heck, one even automatically issues commands for your dog companion. I tested these out, and they do feel like helpful methods of making the more dangerous and hectic sections of combat feel comfortably manageable.

Game of Eikons

As for the world of Valisthea, the setting of Final Fantasy XVI, it is definitely going for a darker and more politically motivated story. As we’ve seen in demos, Clive is spurred onto a quest of vengeance, touring across the realm for answers. Different nations vie for power and influence, using their Dominants and their ability to embody Eikons (the summons of Final Fantasy) as weapons.

I only got a small slice of the story, as the preview focused mainly on the combat and gameplay. When I did get some plot, though, I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued. I haven’t seen any hints of deeper interrogations into warfare and politics, as you might see from a Tactics game, but the political tensions were palpable. I’m curious to see how that develops.

Of course, Eikons are a big draw, (for story reasons I won’t delve into here), and my preview concluded with me piloting one of Final Fantasy’s most recognizable summons, Ifrit. Playing Ifrit against the winged Garuda felt a bit challenging at first; where Clive was agile and swift, Ifrit felt like trying to drive a flaming semi-truck into the eye of a hurricane. Was it as cool as it sounds? Absolutely. But piledriving Garuda into the ground did entail a lot of tentative approaching while mashing the attack button. I think that will really only shine in specific, tailored sections, which thankfully seems to be the approach for Eikon fights.

Screenshot via Square Enix
FINAL FANTASY XVI © 2023 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

Presentation-wise, Final Fantasy XVI looked amazing in its showpiece moments. Cutscenes and big battles were graphically incredible. When Benedikta brings the roof down, literally, it looks fantastic. Individual characters have some great details, and all of the story encounters landed strong for me.

Some of the more dungeon-exploring moments of the demo gave me pause, though. The drab, gray halls blended together, and some heavy motion-smoothing effects didn’t help. We were told a Performance Mode is currently in the works, and I’m hopeful for that. I’m curious to see what Final Fantasy XVI looks like in more open-air sections, away from the night-time fortress raid and cramped quarters we saw.

A new fantasy

Final Fantasy, as a franchise, changes with every entry, and Final Fantasy XVI is no different. It might squash some hopes, if there are fans who still want to see the series return to a more classical, PlayStation-era format for combat. It might also draw players in who may not want turn-based battles, but are intrigued by the high-budget fantasy and powerful summons on display.

My main takeaway from playing Final Fantasy XVI is that Square Enix is not making a half-hearted effort at an action-RPG. From the team that’s been assembled to the way combat feels fast and engaging, XVI certainly feels like a fresh and different take from what’s come before it. The ultimate question is whether it can make the action still feel that good across a vast RPG adventure, and if fans both new and old latch onto this. We’ll find out, June 22, when Final Fantasy XVI makes its grand debut on PS5.

This is a special version made for media to experience. Contents may differ from the final version.
Travel for this media preview was provided by the publisher.

Eric Van Allen
Senior News Reporter