Final Fantasy 16 opens with a bang. Two swirling Eikons – colossal beasts that series fans will know better as Summons – pepper each other with fireballs and lash out with their hefty tails as they descend deep under the earth in a scene reminiscent of Gandalf’s plunging tussle with the Balrog. It’s a level of spectacle rarely witnessed in a video game and an early indicator of the huge-scale story awaiting those venturing into Square Enix’s latest.
Having played the following four or so hours, it’s a promise largely lived up to, with razor-sharp combat and thrilling boss battles consistently exciting. But beyond the blade it also engages through its thoroughly fantasy-rooted tale, establishing the world of Valisthea, its factions, and individual personalities to good effect. It makes for an electrifying opening which, despite being a little cutscene heavy at times, made me wish I didn’t have to stop playing.
The opening section that I played is described by Square Enix as “a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.” But regardless of if the events presented are identical to the final game or not, don’t worry; I won’t be spoiling any story details for Final Fantasy 16, just discussing some of the themes at play and the stage they set.
Valisthea is a world that returns Final Fantasy to its more classic fantasy roots, albeit with heightened cinematic aspirations. It’s not afraid to throw spectacle after spectacle your way right from the off, with the early arrival of the ice Eikon Shiva onto a dusty battlefield truly stunning in its execution as she glistens in all her glory. She provides a stark contrast to her adversary, the stony, monolithic Titan who towers over the skirmish between two rival factions below. There’s a sheer enormity to the size of these Eikons that even the likes of old-school God of War or Shadow of the Colossus would be jealous of.
They may be well-worn reference points for anything vaguely medieval-fantasy, but it’s hard to ignore the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones influence here. The story is rooted in the struggle over the five Mothercrystals that tower over Valisthea, which are the source of the magic that powers this world. Naturally, the continent’s six nations are going to want to fight for control of these, and so a constant state of conflict rages on. One of those nations is the Grand Duchy of Rosaria and you play as Clive Rosfield, son of the ruling Archduke. Over the course of the opening few hours, you’re transported through different periods of his life as the personal catalyst for his story is revealed.
It’s not a revolutionary setup for a story in this genre, but one introduced with a fair amount of elegance in an early cadence that maintains a good balance between action and dialogue. This pace and a general sense of excitement are infinitely aided by the superb score that soundtracks the events, too. It’s worth saying at this point that Final Fantasy 16’s opening hours are very story heavy, and while it does a great job at introducing Clive’s family ties and those who aim to unbind them, it did leave me wishing I was playing a more active part in it at times. Not least because when you do get to let off the leash, its combat never fails to impress.
That heightened sense of cinema translates equally well to the battlefield with each encounter feeling like a real event. In my relatively short amount of playtime, I fought no fewer than eight bosses, each delivering spectacle on both a macro and micro level – ranging from massive monster clashes to time-bending perfect parry affairs against agile enemies. The first extensive stretch of gameplay sees you playing as teenage Clive as you venture through a swampy marshland littered with the most goblin-looking goblins you’ve ever seen. It culminates in a very fun fight against this world’s version of the classic Final Fantasy enemy Morbol (or Marlboro), a slimy tendrilled set of teeth with a serious case of bad breath. It’s Final Fantasy 16’s first real display of its fantastic combat in full flow, with its signature cinematic strikes and evades now fully introduced to your arsenal.
It’s a set of tools that is steadily added to as you progress, with different magic abilities welcomed into the fold. And while I had plenty of toys to play with, I still feel like I’d barely scratched the surface of what these combat systems have to offer. That’s especially true when it comes to its showpiece kaiju-like Eikon battles which flip the script when it comes to gameplay, each promising a delve into a new genre. The aforementioned opening exchange between two fiery Eikons, which played more like a flying rail shooter than an RPG, conjures up welcome memories of the finale to Nier Automata in its desire to frequently switch up gameplay styles while never pausing for breath.
As large-scale as Final Fantasy 16 can be at times, I was slightly surprised by how contained some of its levels can be. Early on at least, they were all relatively narrow locations that funnel you from arena to arena with occasional forays off the beaten path that rewarded me with useful items. A great example of this is the Greatwood area which acted as the final destination of my hands-on. A verdant, green forest, it largely consisted of leafy corridors connecting fights with feisty flora and fauna to bosses of varying sizes, the most notable of these being the scaly Giant Fafnir which looked like something on an exchange trip from Skull Island.
I did spend a small amount of time in a much wider open space from later in the game, containing side quests and challenging foes to take down, but this by no means felt like the open-world Final Fantasy that fans have become accustomed to of late in Final Fantasy 15. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – not every game needs to be a sprawling world to get lost in – and in some ways was a refreshing throwback to the more linear Final Fantasy of old. Even if it did feel a little restricted to a repetitive rhythm of cutscene, battle, cutscene, battle, with exploration coming at a premium.
There’s nothing old-school about the combat, though, which feels sharply cutting-edge in its fluidity. The fast-paced action really is excellent, so good in fact that I found myself often thinking “Just let me do it more”. As I said, cutscenes make up a lot of Final Fantasy 16’s early runtime, and while story has always been a big part of the series, I think it may be the sheer speed of its action that leads to the transition between combat and the slower, dialogue-heavy scenes delivering more whiplash this time around. The scenes themselves are all well-acted and admirably succinct in their exposition, it’s just more of a testament to the sheer thrill of its combat than anything that I couldn’t wait for them to move along at an even swifter pace.
For those that really want to take their time and delve deeper into the history of Valisthea, however, there’s the handy Active Time Lore system. This essentially acts in a similar fashion to Prime Video’s X-ray feature, allowing you to hit a button and pause the scene at any moment to learn more about the characters speaking or the terminology they’re using. It’s a smart way to provide extra context for those who want it without overloading on exposition for those who want to zip along to the next fight.
That’s not to say that Final Fantasy 16 doesn’t entertain in its slower moments, and indeed some of them are effective in building Clive out as a protagonist to care about. He’s an emotionally complicated character plagued with a tragic backstory that adds a welcome amount of depth. A section where you’re set loose to roam around his family home of Rosalith Castle serves as a great way of introducing us to Clive and his place in this world as he interacts with soldiers-in-training, magical gardeners, and a bounty of regional British accents. He may be a new breed of Final Fantasy hero, but that’s not to say that there aren’t significant hallmarks of the series here either, including a tearful look up at the night sky in the hope of a better future à la Cloud and Tifa.
From what I’ve seen so far, the future looks very bright for Final Fantasy 16. If its opening few hours of hulking Eikon showdowns, superb melee combat, and story that delivers on both a personal and global level are anything to go by, then a very fun time is on the horizon. I’m hopeful that the ever-so-stuttering pace irons itself out over the hours to come, with its ferociously fun gameplay taking precedence as Clive’s journey broadens. I went into my time with Final Fantasy 16 incredibly excited about what I’d seen in its many trailers and showcases and left very happy that very little of that anticipation had diminished by the time I’d finished.
Simon Cardy thinks massive monsters belong everywhere except the real world. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.