Final Fantasy 16 is the furthest the mainline series has ever strayed from its traditional RPG roots. It's more of an action game with RPG elements bolted on than it is an RPG with action combat, but at the same time, it boasts all of the ingredients that we associate with the greatest Final Fantasy titles. Its character-driven story is grand and intoxicating, its fantastical world building is brilliant, and it's fit to burst with glorious battles. Again, it's a bold new direction for the beloved franchise, but it's also the best mainline, single-player Final Fantasy game since 12 — and it's not even close.
Granted, the incredibly divisive 13 and 15 didn't exactly set a high bar, but with 16, it feels like Final Fantasy is focused again. This was a project with a clear vision, and that shines through in the impressive cinematic quality of the storytelling, and the largely excellent combat system. When the credits rolled, we felt like we'd been on a memorable, emotional journey and we were sad to see it end. That's what finishing a Final Fantasy game should feel like.
For this particular journey, you're plopped in the consistently tragic shoes of Clive Rosfield — a noble-born swordsman charged with the protection of his throne-bound younger brother. In this world, a select few — including Clive's little bro Joshua — are essentially born with the power of demigods inside of them. Some nations use these 'Eikons' to wage war, while others worship them. These all-powerful entities are at the heart of the game's story, and every time an Eikon takes to the stage — whether it's during an eye-popping cutscene or a mind-melting boss fight — it's hard not to be blown away.
Final Fantasy 16's narrative is a fairly intricate mix of grounded political intrigue — all very reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12 — and crazy Eikon-based chaos, with magic and crystals and superhuman feats that wouldn't feel out of place in Dragon Ball Z. Somehow, the game's plot manages to meld all of this together without creating tonal whiplash, and that's perhaps down to its mostly immaculate script. Indeed, the localisation team deserves so much praise here, because they've taken a Japanese script and transformed it into something that feels completely natural, topping it off with some superb voice acting.
When the sh*t hits the fan — and it does, a lot — Final Fantasy 16 tells a truly gripping tale. It's up there with the most emotionally impactful plots in modern gaming, and it's further bolstered by cinematic action sequences that would make God of War 3 blush. We haven't seen spectacle quite like this in a long time, and as the story develops, it only gets more and more obsessed with one-upping itself on the "is this actually happening?" scale.
Now, given its penchant for lengthy cutscenes, you might be sitting there worried that Final Fantasy 16 is more movie than game. It's a fair concern if you've dabbled in the demo — which features the title's cutscene-heavy prologue — but thankfully, combat and exploration are just as prevalent as the big story moments. While there's no doubt that this is a cinematic experience first and foremost — it's exactly what Square Enix wants you to see in trailers and carefully curated presentations — you'll still spend most of your playthrough battering beasts and wandering across large environments.
Structurally, the game jumps between very linear, story-slinging 'dungeons', and whole chapters where you're free to roam open areas, ticking off side quests and getting to know secondary characters. Final Fantasy 16's plot pacing can be so intense that it's nice to have some downtime every now and then, so we did eventually find ourselves welcoming the opportunity to just go off and do our own thing for a bit.
However, we say 'eventually' because some of the side quests — particularly early on — are mind-numbingly dull. The drop off in overall quality between the main story and these optional tasks can be jarring, as engaging camera angles and full motion capture are replaced by static character models and flapping mouths, spewing the kind of completely forgettable quests you'd find in an MMO (which does make some sense, seeing as this game is spearheaded by Final Fantasy 14 developers).
The problem is that we're long past having to chew through such dreary side quests in modern RPGs. In an era where titles like The Witcher 3 and Horizon Forbidden West have redefined what we've come to expect from branching activities, Final Fantasy 16 may as well be a PS2 release in terms of questing. Some quests do help flesh out the world, providing insight into the finer points of the lore, but when the accompanying gameplay literally boils down to finding objective-marked NPCs and listening to their inane prattle, one after another, you can't help but feel as though your time is being wasted.
Fortunately, when the next story beat kicks in and you're back on the rollercoaster, you can forgive the title's (admittedly optional) missteps. The aforementioned 'dungeons' represent the core game at its peak, as Clive rages through a series of stunning locations, peppered with near perfectly placed encounters and jaw-dropping boss battles.
Alongside the story, it's really the combat system that holds everything together. Accessible and flashy, but also stocked with an intriguing degree of depth, Final Fantasy 16 plays a little bit like a streamlined Devil May Cry. The inputs are comparatively simple, but the, er, devil's in the details, as you gradually start to explore more advanced techniques like parries and attack cancelling. On a fundamental level, it feels fantastic to play, with responsive controls, slick animations, and satisfying sound design.
More important fights — against foes that can't just be launched into the air and combo'd into oblivion — revolve around dodging incoming attacks and retaliating at the right time. Aside from just a handful of specific battles that are almost too graphically busy for their own good, the visual cues — the ways in which enemies wind up their attacks and unleash special moves — are extremely well designed. This leads to a difficulty curve that often feels incredibly rewarding, where over the course of a protracted battle, you'll get to grips with exactly what your opponent is capable of, and learn to take full advantage.
In combination with Clive's standard sword swings and magic projectiles, you're steadily given access to a range of elemental, Eikon-driven abilities that operate on individual cooldowns. After unlocking said abilities with points that you gain from battle, they can be assigned to your combat bar, and you begin to build your own style of play. Some abilities are ground-shakingly powerful but they're balanced with long cooldowns, while others are much more versatile, adding unique quirks to the way you approach different enemy types. Again, the system itself is easy to understand, but discovering ways to link everything together is where the mechanics start to sing.
Back to the topic of difficulty, Final Fantasy 16 gives you just one difficulty level that can be made easier by equipping special accessories, which are granted at the beginning of any new game. It's an odd way of doing things, but we suppose it works in that there's no need to rebalance the entire combat system to suit arbitrary settings. However, players who are more experienced with action games are probably going to crave a greater challenge, and that's where the touted 'Final Fantasy' hard mode enters the equation.
Final Fantasy mode makes your foes stronger, remixes various encounters, and even unlocks the level cap while adding new items and equipment. The catch? It's only playable after beating the game, through New Game +. Now, we get it: Final Fantasy mode is designed to add replay value to the package — a reason to join Clive on his journey all over again, and daring you to push the combat system to its limits. But it is a bit of a kicker that the concept of a harder difficulty is locked behind a full playthrough — a playthrough that can already last upwards of 70 hours if you want to complete everything.
It's quite a minor complaint, though. Despite its unwavering focus on story and combat — there are no minigames here at all, eschewing series tradition — Final Fantasy 16 feels robust and complete as an action game package. Between hunts that see Clive track down and slay especially dangerous monsters, to the ability to replay your favourite dungeons — complete with boss fights — through a dedicated arcade mode, the title fully embraces its lovingly crafted combat system.
The PS5 is embraced in a similar fashion, through the magic of ridiculously fast load times (seriously, it takes less than ten seconds to get from your console's home screen to gameplay) and haptic feedback, which is really well implemented throughout.
Is it a technical showpiece for Sony's system, though? While its cutscenes certainly rival and at times surpass the standards set by PlayStation Studios, it's not quite on the level of a first-party blockbuster overall. Generally speaking, the visuals are hugely impressive — backed by amazing art direction and environmental design — but as we wrote earlier, things can look rough outside of the main story, with distractingly wooden animations being the biggest issue.
And then there's the frame rate, which does like to dip on a pretty regular basis when using performance mode. The dips aren't distracting enough to the point where we'd recommend the graphics option — which caps at 30 frames-per-second in exchange for slightly better visual quality — but it's a real shame that such an otherwise refined action game can't maintain a smooth 60fps. It's also worth noting that, at least at launch, there's no option to disable the title's heavy-handed motion blur effect — although we daresay you get used to it.
Of course, this wouldn't be a Final Fantasy review without mentioning the music. Simply put, the score is outstanding; an absolute odyssey of orchestral magic that enriches every cutscene, every location, every battle. In a word, immense.
At its best, Final Fantasy 16 is a jaw-dropping epic of rarely seen proportions. It's pretty much the pinnacle of cinematic spectacle in modern games, and its often gripping, emotional story is only matched by its fantastic combat system. While its overall quality does dip outside of the main plot, this is still a must-play action RPG, and the best single-player Final Fantasy in over a decade.