Whisper it, but Square Enix may have an absolute zinger on its hands. There will be some long-time fans who will likely take issue with Final Fantasy XVI’s broadly action-oriented approach, but after approximately an hour of play during a recent preview event, we walked away with our jaw on the floor. If this extraordinarily high budget adventure can stick its landing, then it’ll be a Game of the Year contender for sure.

We got the impression that the Japanese publisher is confident in what it’s put together, and during a meaty presentation prior to our gameplay session, director Naoki Yoshida was in side-splittingly good spirits. In a swanky Shoreditch hotel, he – along with lead localiser Koji Fox, who was on translation duties for the day – joked through an extensive presentation, which offered a crash-course on the world of Valisthea, and the political intrigue that engulfs it.

It’s a Final Fantasy game, so we’re afraid crystals once again play a key role in the plot, but it’s clear that the development team is aiming for a more “adult” story this time around. While influences weren’t mentioned explicitly, it’s obvious the studio has been taking notes from huge Western hits like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and God of War – tonally, it’s got a strong European fantasy flavour to it, but the anime is still very much there, bubbling beneath the surface.

The story, then? It’s dense, so pull up a pew while we try to consolidate it all. As alluded to above, there are multiple crystals located around Valisthea, each one powering a different realm. Clive, the game’s unfortunately named protagonist, hails from the Grand Duchy of Rosaria, but there are several other kingdoms in the game: the Holy Empire of Sanbreque is all-powerful, for example, while the Dhalmekian Republic is a dusty trade outpost.

All of the locations surround the Crystalline Dominion, a neutral territory which forms the political epicentre of the story. Effectively, all of the other territories have entered into an uneasy alliance, where they’ve all agreed not to encroach on this important central land. But when the power begins to slowly drain from each kingdom’s crystals, it inevitably leads to a complete breakdown of the treaty between the different factions.

The story will span decades, as you’ll follow Clive through his teens, 20s, and even 30s – and you’ll visit many of the different locations all around Valisthea. It’s not, however, open world: Yoshida explained that the developer wanted to render each location in obsessive detail, and while there’ll be ample opportunity to explore, you’ll effectively be poking around in vast zones rather than a sandbox that spans hundreds of kilometres.

The main cast of characters you’ll encounter over the course of the campaign are known as Dominants, which means they effectively channel the power of elements – or Eikons, as they’re referred to in the fiction here. This forms the basis of both the party system and the skill tree, as you’ll be utilising techniques like thunder, light, and wind. All of the party members are AI controlled, but you can manually issue commands to your dog.

Which brings us to our extremely impressive demo, some five or so hours into the game. Square Enix explained that aspects of this were tailor made for preview purposes, so some elements may vary in the final build, such as the availability of specific techniques. Nevertheless, after a short medieval-style training sequence – which doubled as a tutorial – we found ourselves in the catacombs of a gothic Sanbreque dungeon, accompanied by the Eikon of Thunder’s wielder Cidolfus Telamon, this game’s version of recurring character Cid.

The writing and voice direction is excellent: it’s melodramatic in the manner you’d expect from a good anime, but it lacks the disconnected awkwardness you may anticipate from contemporary Final Fantasy games – almost as though it’s been written in English first, rather than translated from Japanese. As we alluded to above, Final Fantasy faithfuls may feel frustrated by the direction, but it’s abundantly obvious the game is playing to Western tastes.

The presentation is almost on par with a first-party PlayStation project, which is among some of the highest praise we can shower on it. The motion capture is excellent, and all of the character designs are really appealing. Yoshida said the full game will feature over 11 hours of cinematics, and while that’d usually concern us about a Final Fantasy, the quality is so good here that we can’t wait to kick back and enjoy them.

But what of the core moment-to-moment gameplay? Yoshida was eager to point out that Capcom’s former combat director Ryota Suzuki – also in attendance at the London event – was recruited for this project, and his background with character action titles like Devil May Cry 5 is evident in Final Fantasy XVI. Rather than the methodical precision of something like Elden Ring, skirmishes feel rapid like Bayonetta, with last-minute dodges slowing time and combos combining melee weapons and spells.

Effectively, you’ll channel the powers of different Eikons, unlocking hot keys in Clive’s arsenal which you can toggle with L2. Each one has a primary ability, like a grappling hook which you can use to pull enemies towards you, as well as special moves attached to cooldowns. In the case of the Phoenix, the fire-based Eikon, you can launch a cyclone-style spinning move attack – or with the Titan you can slam the ground, deploying a devastating area of effect.

Switching between these different skills does feel a little fiddly, but we’re not sure whether that’s a flaw with the game or the fact we were thrown into the demo. Nevertheless, a fight with two Valkyries named Suparna and Chirada felt distinctly God of War, as we worked to crush their willpower before launching into our Limit Break and unleashing a deadly flurry of attacks. The particle effects fill the screen, and while we were playing at 30fps, Yoshida said a 60fps performance option will be available at launch.

As we worked through the Sanbreque dungeon and to a cathedral rooftop, we faced the area’s final boss: Benedikta Harman, the wielder of Garuda, the Eikon of Wind. Yoshida had talked during his presentation about creating a playable roller-coaster ride, and this battle was filled with larger than life set-piece moments, many peppered with QTEs. While some may take issue with the lack of agency at times, it genuinely feels like a Dragon Ball Z fight, with outrageous spectacle occurring at all times.

And this is especially evident when the titans eventually face off in a kaiju cage match. Transformed into Ifrit, you’re tasked with beating down Garuda in a battle where the damage numbers are multiplied by a dozen. Ifrit can attack from range, but also throw punches and lunge in for suplexes. It does feel a little button bashy, and we suspect there may be some scripting going on, as everyone we spoke to said they finished the fight by the skin of their teeth – but it looks wild.

We should also mention that it feels great on the DualSense, too, and clearly the console exclusivity has given Square Enix the freedom to explore all of the textures made possible through the PS5’s pad. It’s even integrated the adaptive triggers during strenuous activities, like lifting gates. One other note of interest is that the title doesn’t have difficulty options, but it does provide you with some optional items you can equip to automate certain activities, like dodging and blocks.

All in all, we got the sense Final Fantasy XVI will divide the most hardcore franchise faithfuls: it’s clearly got Western consumers in its crosshairs, and it’s channelling the spirit of hugely popular franchises like The Witcher and God of War. But there’s enough Final Fantasy in it to set it apart, and the production values are off the scale. If the full game can strike the same kind of tone as our demo, then this is comfortably shaping up to be a Game of the Year candidate.

Thanks to Square Enix for inviting us to get hands on time with Final Fantasy 16 early. Have your expectations been raised by our early impressions? What are you most looking forward to experiencing in this game? Wield the power of an Eikon in the comments section below.