Earlier in the year, after playing through a tailored demo designed specifically to showcase Final Fantasy 16’s combat systems, we described the action-heavy PS5 exclusive as a bonafide Game of the Year contender. With publisher Square Enix seemingly intent on showing as much of the sequel as possible, we’ve since played several more hours of the release, and our opinion largely remains unchanged. However, glowing as we were in that initial assessment, we did come away from our latest demo a little less impressed.

We got to play a lot of the game – including the entire first chapter and a meaningful chunk of the next one. As we said in our previous preview, the presentation is on par with what you’d expect from a Sony first-party, and the developer deserves credit for seriously improving the quality of the script and voice acting compared to past entries, without losing any of the distinctive anime-inspired qualities that makes Final Fantasy, well, Final Fantasy.

The opening is breathless, although we’d argue that’s to the title’s detriment. While we’re already familiar with the overarching fiction from past presentations – the world of Valisthea is broken up into several different regions, all surrounding a neutral venue named the Crystalline Dominion, which comprises the epicentre of the story – we struggled to keep up with the politics in the opening cutscenes, and frankly felt a little lost.

This is probably intentional, as the game pulls the classic story-telling trick of starting out in the middle of a massive battle, before pumping the brakes and turning back time. When you reassume control of the unfortunately named Clive Rosfield, you’ll find him training in the Grand Duchy of Rosaria, his home realm. This location has a strong European flavour to it, with medieval turrets, farming materials, and market traders.

The training you complete here, observed by engaged onlookers including Clive’s younger brother Joshua, doubles as a tutorial for the gameplay. Unlike in our past demo, this time we were able to enable the title’s performance mode, and were satisfied with the fluidity and pace of the action at 60 frames-per-second. While this is a stunning looking game throughout, its breakneck, borderline Devil May Cry-style combat deserves to be played with a more responsive refresh rate.

There is room to explore the Grand Duchy of Rosaria, and there are even NPCs you can stop and communicate with, but these opening moments largely funnel you towards the next objective marker, as the title slowly introduces you to its cast of characters. The game is not subtle at teasing its villains – you can tell within seconds that Clive’s Mum is a wrong’un – but the melodrama is appreciated, and the direction of the cutscenes definitely draws you in. It’s light-years apart from the era of Tidus guffawing like a goon.

With the tutorials out of the way, it wasn’t long before we were ushered back out into the field, this time a squelchy bog-like environment inhabited by all different kinds of triffids and organic inhabitants. The game is pretty relentless with its pacing, seguing from one set-piece encounter to another. One particular foe that lived long in our memory is named the Morbol, an enormous sentient root with chomping teeth and toxic breath.

Our biggest concern coming out of this opening sequence is that Clive is restricted to just one set of Eikon powers, with more presumably unlocked as you progress through the campaign. Without these other abilities to draw upon, however, we found the combat to quickly feel stale and one-note. We understand the developer doesn’t want to overwhelm players, but we fear the opening hours, at least until more abilities are unlocked, could quickly get repetitive.

Nevertheless, narratively, things escalate quite quickly in this opening chapter, and while we’re hesitant to outline the exact chain of events – well, let’s just say it sets up the story in pretty spectacular fashion, with some truly outlandish events, including one sequence where you’re controlling a giant fire phoenix in a Panzer Dragoon-style rails-shooter encounter. The development team has clearly taken inspiration from God of War, specifically the classic PS2 and PS3 era entries, and dreamed up some larger-than-life scenarios to anchor the campaign around.

Later on in the demo, we get to take control of an older Clive, who’s been helped by accomplice Cid into an underground hideaway. It’s here that the game does start to display some more of its cracks: in-engine cutscenes lack the same level of gloss and polish as the main cinematics, and while it’s clear that retaining consistent quality across a 50 hour adventure would have been near-impossible, the step-down in character models and animation is stark.

Still, you can explore this area as much or as little as you’d like, fashioning new equipment from raw materials and even engaging with an otherworldly training gauntlet, which allows you to practice and hone your skills. While our demo largely required us to chat with a specific string of characters, it’s easy to imagine how this will evolve into becoming one of your hubs of operation later on, as you choose to embark on different quests.

We ended up back out on the field with Cid, and our trusted dog companion Torgal, this time marching through a much more idyllic forest environment – albeit one still infested with animated plant-life and vicious wolves. One thing that continuously impressed us is how the game is consistently able to raise the stakes, with one giant enemy making way for another – in this instance, a scaled reptilian-like beast named Fafnir. All the foes are obsessively animated, and their specific attack patterns raise unique challenges.

While we were politely asked to stop playing the story at this point, Square Enix had prepared a save point later in the game, whereby we were able to engage with some of Final Fantasy 16’s more open-ended gameplay. As has been noted multiple times, the release is not open world, but there are sizeable hub-like areas you can explore. We spent a bit of time here drinking in the scenery and putting down some of the local wildlife, before picking up a side-quest in a nearby town.

If you like the freedom that sandbox games provide, then you may be disappointed with the scale of these, as the area we got to poke around in was not particularly vast. But it’s clear these sections will break up the monotony of the more linear environments, allowing you a little more room to stretch your legs. Thus, we reckon the developer has struck a nice balance by creating the illusion of some exploration without going entirely open world.

Still, even in this area we were restricted to just two of Clive’s Eikon powers, and we were starting to feel the onset of monotony at this point of our playthrough. It’s our only real niggling concern: we’re confident the complicated nature of the story will come together, but we’re worried the combat may take a little too long to truly find its feet as your options are seriously limited throughout these opening hours.

This worry may ultimately turn out to be misplaced, as our hands on was largely confined to the opening hours of the campaign, and in the tailor-made combat-focused demo from earlier in the year, we fell in love with the sheer wealth of options available to Clive, which we assume is where the system will end up once you’ve progressed beyond the opening chapters. So yes, we still very much believe there’s a Game of the Year contender looming here – but we’ve identified a couple of minor niggles that will still need to be answered by the final release.

How is your hype holding up for Final Fantasy 16 now we’re roughly a month away from launch? Feel the enthusiasm flowing through you like you’re a Dominant channelling the powers of an Eikon in the comments section below.