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Saturday, June 24, 2023

Final Fantasy XVI

Final Fantasy XVI - the sixteenth mainline game in the long running franchise - was the first to get an M rating for its dark mood and violence, as well as changing up gameplay styles again, becoming a stylish action game backed with some RPG elements.  But does this changeup prove a welcome turn for Final Fantasy, or should it have just gone back to its roots as a Wizardry-inspired turn-based adventure?

Final Fantasy is often considered the quintessential JRPG franchise - while not the first to be created, it was arguably the first to become successful outside of Japan, reportedly selling about 700,000 copies on the NES (compared to 600,000 on the Famicom) and it only grew in popularity as time went on, hitting a high point on the Playstation with Final Fantasy VII.  After the merger with Enix, however, the series would undergo changes virtually on a game-by-game basis, venturing into MMORPGs (XI and XIV), open world with pausable real-time strategic combat (XII), and a more actiony style with a heavy cinematic flair, though still with some RPG trappings (XV and the XIII trilogy).  These later entries had a more mixed reception among long-time fans but have consistently sold well, which only led Square Enix to further experiment with the series rather than returning to what made it a hit in the first place.

XVI fully embraces the action-oriented design with combat direction by Ryota Suzuki, who previously worked on the Devil May Cry and Monster Hunter franchises at Capcom, and programming by Yusuke Hashimoto, a Capcom and PlatinumGames veteran who also directed Bayonetta 2.  The influence is definitely apparent - combat is almost fully real-time, with a heavy focus on combos, chain attacks, special moves, well-timed dodges and parries and stunning enemies with repeated strikes in order to inflict heavy damage before they can recover.  You only directly control one character (Clive Rosfield), but can give general commands to his dog sidekick Torgal, who serves both as an attacker and something of a healer, causing a bit of your lost health to slowly regenerate.  Your own arsenal of moves includes several mainstays of the Devil May Cry series - a quick dodge, a teleport to quickly close the gap and strike distant foes, a relatively weak ranged (magical) attack that can take down airborne foes, a dashing strike to close in and deal a swift hit, and a move that can grab distant enemies and pull them closer, among others.  You also get larger special attacks that strike multiple times, have large hit radiuses and deal out heavy damage, though these operate on a cooldown system, taking several seconds to recharge each time you use one, so timing their usage to get the maximum effect is a good idea.  There is no style ranking system or combo counter like Devil May Cry (unless you're doing Stage Replay mode), but well-timed dodges, parries, counters, landing combos and finishing foes with special moves or takedowns earn you points to upgrade your arsenal of moves, slowly expanding your capabilities and making you better able to hander stronger enemies as the game progresses.  During boss battles you'll get QTEs to dodge attacks, land a powerful blow or overpower them in a contest of strength (by mashing the attack button), which earn you points as well as avoiding or dealing out a large chunk of damage at once.  The giant Eikon battles which cap off each chapter are spectacular to behold, though it's actually more fun to fight in your human form as your moveset is much more varied and all of your moves don't have a significant wind-up and wind-down.

Equipment is kept relatively basic, allowing you a weapon, two armor slots (a belt and a bracer) and three accessory slots, the last of which typically grant small boosts to stats or power up one of your special moves, either giving it a boost to damage or reducing its cooldown so you can use it slightly more often.  You're also afforded far fewer items than a typical Final Fantasy game - typically just four Potions, three High Potions and one more slot for a potion which temporarily bolsters your attack or defense, and if you pick up another potion while your inventory is full, you'll automatically use one to keep the number low; in other words, you can't just brute-force your way through battles by stocking up on dozens of items.  The old RPG standby of level grinding isn't really an option either - the overwhelming majority of Experience/AP/Gil gains are from story based battles and scripted sidequests, with low-level enemy encounters generally granting minimal amounts; not to mention levels grant only a modest boost to your stats, so trying to "grind" results in a lot of work for very little payoff.  That said, the game does give you several "Timing" accessories at the start which will automate various elements of the combat system - dodging, chaining combos, having Torgal attack and so forth, so those who aren't used to a more actiony style of gameplay (or have a handicap of some kind) can also play through the game; of course, if you like this style of gameplay and want to preserve the challenge, I'd recommend against equipping any of them (and avoid the "Story Mode" difficulty setting).  Newcomers and more experienced players alike are afforded a means to practice the combat system via a training mode at their base, so they can start at learning the basics or just hop right into chaining together long, flashy combos that rack up damage and bonus points.

As this style of gameplay isn't really suited to an open world, Final Fantasy XVI's format changes up into something more stage-based, with each "level" taking roughly 15-60 minutes to complete on average and being interspersed with cutscenes.  However, you're also free to leave a stage at virtually any time (save in the middle of combat) and return to your base to upgrade gear or restock on items, and can return just as quickly to any checkpoint stone you've activated.  There are occasional sidequests too, generally in the form of little side-stories to complete, which are quite well executed - they work as vehicles for storytelling with tangible rewards for the combat component, and almost never fall into tedious item-farming to pad out the experience.  

It's a bit jarring, but ultimately welcome, that FFXVI embraces its dark fantasy element so fully - while still overall Final Fantasy in theme, they were definitely taking notes from popular IPs like Game of Thrones and the Witcher, with scenes of nudity, graphic violence, and yes, more than a few colorful four letter words being thrown around, and your protagonists' actions and motives are often rather morally ambiguous - true to life, as no one sees themselves as "the bad guy" and just works to push their ideals, negative drawbacks and all.  It's all done in a tactful and measured manner too, building up the heavy mood of the game's world and the gritty tone of the story without becoming overused and gratuitous - something a lot of other "adult RPGs" I've played can't claim.  It helps that the voice talent in the game is top-notch - every line is said with credibility and conviction and without ever becoming hammy.

Being a considerably more linear experience and not having much focus on world exploration, Final Fantasy XVI also has its own plot codex in the from of Active Time Lore.  I'm not really a fan of plot encyclopedias as they mostly exist to give the developers an excuse to get lazy with the actual world-building component by force-feeding it all to you in page after page of dry text, but it is better handled here than in most games I've seen.  At virtually any moment during the game's runtime (even mid-cutscene), you can pause the game via the touch pad to bring up the ATL and and get a brief description of relevant characters, locations, terms etc. in that scene.  Entries are also logged at your base, which you can view at your base by talking to Harpocrates if you want further information on any relevant points.  Basically it gets you caught up without being overly intrusive or distracting from the storyline.  The story itself remains relatively grounded and ultimately "human" despite its fantastical elements, befitting an epic dark fantasy RPG experience (and starkly contrasting the over-the-top campy tone of the Devil May Cry games despite using a similar gameplay style).

Final Fantasy XVI does a good job with its accessibility features and general quality of life - in addition to the aforementioned Timing accessories and an easier difficulty setting, there are also toggles for things like motion blur, having a performance mode (which reduces the graphical quality slightly in exchange for a smoother framerate) and the ability to make the subtitles larger for easier reading.  Sadly the latter option only applies to the subtitles, though - the HUD fonts and incidental dialog captioning still remain tiny, which can be a detriment if you're using a smaller television or just don't have the best eyesight.  The narrative and gameplay unfolds with no visible loading seams whatsoever too, which is pretty impressive for a series that has such a heavy focus on its cinematic presentation.

As has been the norm for the series since the turn of the millennium, Final Fantasy XVI is another experimental outing.  This time it leans much heavier into its action-oriented design than any prior entry, with connections to the series' past mostly in the form of some light RPG elements as well as recurring themes, worldbuilding components and a whole pile of references; some subtle, some overt.  One can choose to write it off for that, or enjoy what it actually has on offer and judge it on the merits of what it is rather than what they think it should be.  Personally I find its action quite entertaining and well-executed, rewarding tight inputs and player skill while also being forgiving enough (and affording plenty of ways to adapt to its intricacies) that newcomers can get into it too.  The storytelling remains on-point, keeping me glued with its interesting, well-realized characters and a constantly unfolding mystery in a grim, war-torn world.  You can debate whether it's a "real Final Fantasy" all day long (even after series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has already made his view on the matter clear), but I can safely say that regardless of your opinions on that front, it's a well-made, captivating and entertaining title that's worth picking up.

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: 2023
Platforms: Playstation 5
Recommended Version: N/A