There are two magic words that’ll make certain millennials go misty-eyed: Final Fantasy. Whenever video games come up after a few beers, I’m surprised to learn that people who wouldn’t be caught dead describing themselves as gamers utterly adore Square Enix’s seminal RPG series. For many ‘80s and ‘90s babies, Final Fantasy’s pioneering PS1 polygons are the Disney of video games, packing each grey 660MB disc with tales that have enchanted players of all ages.
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Final Fantasy 16 is upon us, as the series is at an interesting point. massively multiplayer online title Final Fantasy 14 is going from strength to strength, but despite the series’ legendary run on PlayStation 1 – and respectable follow-ups on PS2 – the last ten years have seen Square Enix’s golden boy facing a bit of a single-player identity crisis. 2016’s 15th entry attempted to modernise the well-worn JRPG formula, combining open-world elements with flashy-looking real-time combat. The result? An ambitious but slightly unfocused adventure. While Final Fantasy 15’s road trip hangs were enjoyable enough it was an outing that lacked the effortless charm and confidence of its forebears. The PS3’s painfully linear 13? Well, the less said about that, the better. Now, however, a new console generation has finally arrived – and with it comes a fresh slate for Square Enix.
With Final Fantasy 16, players can expect a more focused brand of fantasy. Opting to shelve open-world exploration in favour of a more scripted and cinematic experience, director Naoki Yoshida reveals to NME that despite its smaller scale, 16 won’t be entirely without exploration. Before we get hands-on, we’re briefly shown tantalising footage of a camera panning across vast Xenoblade Chronicles-esque open plains and 16’s grimacing protagonist Clive Rosfield wandering through a bustling desert metropolis. Yoshida also reveals that the decision to nix the open world means that 16’s story will be told entirely seamlessly – so there won’t be pesky loading screens ruining the drama.
Despite these sprawling scenes, when we sit down to play the opening salvo of our world first demo, we discover this action-heavy snippet takes place entirely in the dingy corners of a shadowy stone keep. The result? The first PS5 game that’s visually truly wowed me. As shadows flicker across the dimly lit stone, I found myself entranced by the detail on each intricately rendered brickwork. It’s over Xbox – next-gen brickery’s arrived. It’s a truly stunning experience throughout, with the lines of character’s faces wrinkling authentically as they deliver their inevitably overblown monologues.
Yet the biggest question mark for long-term fans will, of course, be the game’s battle system. For many diehard fans, moving away from real-time combat is akin to blasphemy, yet as 2020’s FF7 Remake proved, if done right, it’s a wonderful step towards modernity. Thankfully fans are in good hands here.
Joining our hero Clive Rosefield five hours into his cross-Kingdom adventure, a brief combat tutorial lays the frantic foundations for what’s to come. Part Dark Souls, part Bayonetta, battles are snappy, responsive and surprisingly complex. 16‘s secret sauce? Devil May Cry 5’s Ryota Suzuki. After 15’s iffy combat, this time around Square has wisely turned to an action professional to bring its clash of swords and sorcery authentically to life, and it’s a move that’s very much paid off. In play, this is a combat experience that feels far closer to Devil May Cry and Bayonetta than Final Fantasy.
Flanked by your formidable furry friend, Torgal, players send their dog into battle alongside them, using the d-pad to order your pet to heal, maul or generate aggro, as you see fit. Thanks to the series’ turn-based roots, Square Enix has opted to let players customise their battle style to match their action-game prowess. While there is no easy difficulty setting (just a hard mode) in-game items can fairly dramatically alter the experience, with certain amulets taking more complex combat mechanics out of the player’s hands. One ring lets your pet fight automatically, another enables an automatically triggered slow-motion dodge – yet another nod to Bayonetta. Immediately removing the helper items, battles become a frantic and challenging affair. As knights charge toward me with their swords drawn, I find myself dodge-rolling my way out of incoming spells just in the nick of time from a mage who’s managed to dodge the fray.
There’s a pleasing amount of heft to battles, helped in no small part by some cool tricks. As well as your standard mix of light, ranged and heavy attacks, Clive finds himself able to lean into the moveset of Final Fantasy’s much-advertised summons – the Eikons. After each of these fearsome foes has been defeated in battle, Clive is able to harness their moves, with players able to swap between different Eikons at the press of a button. From the rock-based barriers of the Titan, to Ifrit’s flame-imbued attacks, chaining together increasingly devastating attacks felt immediately satisfying, with lining up Torgal’s attacks and your own flashy moves becoming a screen-filling spectacle.
As I sprinted around this increasingly moody castle, battles became surprisingly scrappy and increasingly demanded complete focus – with each encounter feeling a world away from the button-mashing simplicity of Final Fantasy 15. My only real complaints are that I could do with a little more momentum for old Clive, as at this point in the game, your dash has an irritatingly long cooldown – although, again, that could well change. The camera too, could use some work, with busier fights seeing you wrestling with the camera as you hurriedly attempt to block attacks from all angles.
While the writing is predictably hammy, from what we played, the voice actors more than earn their wages here. Performances are earnest and well delivered, with The Witch and Game Of Thrones actor Ralph Ineson adding some much-needed star quality to the anime-esque amdram. The result is a JRPG that manages to deliver an English VO that isn’t unbearably cringe, bolstered in no small way by Ineson. Ineson brings some much-needed authenticity to this grimdark fantasy setting, with his gravelly Northern drawl keeping the dialogue from feeling quite as earnest as Nintendo’s Xenoblade Chronicles. As the castle demo reached its conclusion, it culminated in a refreshingly challenging final boss fight, where all the disparate layers of the combat system finally began to fully click.
Although there were a few niggles during my demo, it’s reassuring to know that the team working on 16 is something of a Square Enix supergroup. With CVs that boast games like Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy 7, The Last Remnant and Final Fantasy 15 between them, there’s a surprising amount of shared DNA between the team. Yet it’s arguably Capcom’s combat expert that truly ties all these disparate threads into a coherent whole.
It’s his touch that you can feel all over the second and final part of my demo. As recent trailers have hinted, summons play a huge part in Final Fantasy 16, and as well as the traditional levels, there are five unique different showdowns with each of the aforementioned Eikons and their human hosts – the dominants.
It was in this second demo where Final Fantasy really wore its Umbran influence on its screen, shaking off its ye olde RPG trappings and going full Bayonetta. Freed from the linear shackles of the castle, this second demo offered up a glimpse at some gorgeous outdoor environments, as well as featuring some cinematic Eikon interruptions. Filled with quick time events – here rebranded as ‘Cinematic events’ – these initial gigantic Kaiju-esque showdowns see players initially fighting in their human before finally harnessing the power of Ifrit, and allowing you to batter a giant harpy as a skyscraper-sized fire demon.
While constant quick-time events may conjure up nightmarish visions of Asura’s Wrath, here, these are used purely for big combat moments, allowing players to dodge attacks in a cinematic way and unleash fully magic-powered spectacle, feeling once again -whisper it -like PlatinumGames’ Bayonetta.
Like any Final Fantasy daring to move away from the turn-based battle system, sixteen likely won’t be a game for everyone. Yet its grim dark tone and intriguing mash of character action certainly made it the most interesting Final Fantasy I’ve played in a long time. While these demos were very linear and combat-heavy, Square’s promises more exploration and a heavier emphasis on RPG elements in the full game. Come June 22, I can’t wait to see what other secrets await in the land of Valisthea – as despite its flaws, for the first time in years Final Fantasy feels exciting again – and I’m ready to dive a little deeper into this strange and exciting new world.
Final Fantasy 16 launches on June 22 for PS5.