‘Final Fantasy 16”s dark fantasy has won me over
What’s your first Final Fantasy game? That’s a common question between video game nerds, up there with “what’s your favourite starter Pokémon?” and “how many hours did you spend sobbing into Animal Crossing during COVID?”
A less common but still persistent question: what was your last Final Fantasy?
While I loved the franchise for 7, 8, 9, and even 10, I slowly lost interest. Until recently, the answer would have been Final Fantasy 12, with its glacial pace and unending corridors — but after an extended session with Final Fantasy 16, I’m thinking I’m back.
A lot of this comes from Final Fantasy 16‘s broody protagonist Clive Rosfield. He’s straight out of the “broody but gifted” school of Final Fantasy protagonists, but voice actor Ben Starr adds some real weight to his delivery. He’s well-written and interesting, scarred by some very real trauma that means his broodiness is actually worthwhile — as opposed to the “I’m so misunderstood” sob stories of beloved grumpypants like Squall and Cloud Strife.
Chucked into the game’s prologue during Clive’s teenage years, you find a flawed hero. Despite being a masterful fighter, Clive is unskilled in the gift of the Phoenix — a magic birthright that he’s unable to wield — which marks him a failure despite his noble blood. One Game of Thrones-level betrayal later and Clive is stripped away from that life and discarded, ready to start an epic journey that feels very Final Fantasy indeed.
Because he’s just an everyman despite his originally lofty position, seeing wars between kingdoms (and their Kaiju-esque Eikons) from his role as an infantryman adds an extra gravitas. In previous games you might have controlled Ifrit or Shiva yourself, here you’re merely hoping to survive their rampage, a task that feels impossible because of how powerful they are on the battlefield.
Final Fantasy 16 itself owes a lot of debt to the recent success of the dark fantasy genres. While Final Fantasy 15 was all about some nice boys and their car, this is a more traditional sword and sorcery affair, with smart writing and cracking performances to back up a more mature tone. From what’s on offer during this preview, there’s nothing to be concerned about with that tone, and there’s no doubt in my mind that people are going to fall hard for these characters and this setting, with several recognisable voices popping up around the place.
Veering away from the story to protect the spoiler-averse, the rest of the game is solid too. Fighting here is like a slightly clunky action game, with sword swings, called-in abilities and even magic being used with aplomb to take apart enemies. Quick presses of the dpad allow you to quickly bring up items or abilities, while a squeeze of a trigger turns the face buttons into powerful tools to let you unleash magic or powerful abilities that can reshape a battle with smart use. Factor this in with blocks, dodges and both light and heavy attacks and Final Fantasy 16 really does feel like an action game at its smoothest, and it’s a delight to hurl around hacking at things with a sword.
This works best in fast-paced fights against smaller foes, but became a little bit of a chore against larger bosses, who all felt like they had 20 per cent too much health. Your mileage may vary, but as someone who has largely migrated from RPG games into more action combat in my old age, once the attack patterns had been learned it often just felt like I was battering a large boss effortlessly, doing chip damage to the legs and butt of a huge baddie and waiting for the cutscene that called an end to things.
Still, it seems like Final Fantasy 16 could be a winner. The only real irritant was a boss fight that played out more like a QTE-filled cutscene than a real combat sequence and left me dead – twice – without any real concept of what happened. Thanks to the quick-thinking actions of a journalist sitting next to me I was able to get past it, but with a screen full of flashing lights and colours and a very imprecise pathway of what to do next, it was the most frustrating part of my hands-on.
Still, ignoring my frustrations with Final Fantasy 16‘s bosses, there’s no doubting the quality that’s on show here. With one month to go until launch, Final Fantasy 16 feels like a Chocobo worth betting on — and from this preview’s slice of magic, I suspect 16 won’t be the final fantasy life has in store for me.
Final Fantasy 16 releases for PS5 on June 22. The preview was played on a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.