Final Fantasy 16: A Spectacularly Soulless Experience – PS5 Review
There is a song from Final Fantasy 15 titled Apocalypsis Aquarius. It’s a swelling orchestral masterpiece that instantly elicits a passionate, almost religious-like fervour from its audience, an impossibly grandiose work of art that effortlessly weaves thunderous vocals with stirring, heart-pounding percussion and strings.
Apocalypsis Aquarius perfectly encapsulates the chaotic nature of Final Fantasy 15, the much-maligned yet genuinely moving and ambitious experience that sought to revolutionise a franchise that believed itself to be fading into obscurity. Its quieter moments that await the majestic rise of the chorus into a roaring crescendo reflect the beautifully crafted bonds between its core cast of characters. Its relentlessly bombastic and explosive chorus perfectly captures the epic scale of its boss fights that occasionally steal the show.
However, Apocalypsis Aquarius lacks a middle ground, an in-between motif, to unite these two states. It fluctuates dramatically between bombastic and sombre, rarely giving itself or the audience a moment to breathe. Much like Final Fantasy 15’s narrative that lacks the substance needed to make it a truly remarkable experience, Apoclaypsis Aquarius’s impactful and emotionally resonant melody lacks a crux with which to seamlessly tie its two defining themes.
Unsurprisingly, Final Fantasy 16, the latest entry in the long-running JRPG franchise, suffers from this same fate. Much like Apocalypsis Aquarius, Final Fantasy 16’s highs are intoxicatingly electrifying. It’s filled with gorgeous sprawling landscapes, moments of sensational thrills, and emotional narrative beats that quickly blossom into crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking sequences. However, all of this is lacking a unifying feature that satisfyingly ties it all together.
If viewed individually, it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy 16 received such high scores. But, when put into context with the rest of the package, they do little to elevate a dissonant, underwhelming, and ultimately disappointing video game.
“Final Fantasy 16’s extremely infrequent highs are glorious.”
Final Fantasy 16’s narrative is both its greatest strength and most damning feature, a cacophony of emotionally charged epics, meandering sequences of forgettable characters, enchantingly enticing mystery, and charmless companions pieced together like patchwork by a poorly paced and patience-testing framework. That’s not to say that Final Fantasy 16 flitters equally between the dull and the exciting. Rather, its extremely infrequent highs are glorious, diluted by the endlessly meaningless and mind-numbingly one-note drivel that purports itself to be philosophical and political waxings.
Final Fantasy 16 is set in the world of Valisthea, a place beset with a deadly blight that is set to wipe out the natural resources and populace of its six warring nations. Valisthea is riddled with injustice, corruption, and greed, seemingly hellbent on destroying itself with endless wars and prejudice. In a rather interesting twist, those born with magic are enslaved, quickly becoming commodities that are relied on for menial tasks and treated as filth. Even the Dominants, those who are capable of transforming into Eikons — enormous deadly god-like beings from across the Final Fantasy universe — are regarded with disgust and relied on solely as a weapon of mass destruction.
As a set-up, Final Fantasy 16’s heavily politicised world is intriguing and has the potential to perfectly weave a dramatic tale of injustice, war, and personal strife. Unfortunately, it fails in doing so, owing to the fact that its knee-deep explorations of its political, sociological, and economic themes are extraordinarily shallow, amounting to little more than lectures on the horrors of racism in a way that barely impacts the protagonist.
While Final Fantasy 16 is determined to let you know that the people of Valisthea aren’t fond of Clive, the game’s protagonist who is branded as a “Bearer” or magic user, very rarely does he suffer any meaningful consequences due to his overwhelming strength, abilities, and the fact that the majority of people he meets instantly fall in love with him despite their initial misguided notions or beliefs.
“Exploring Clive’s misgivings about himself and his actions was the most fulfilment I got from Final Fantasy 16’s narrative.”
This shallow approach to its themes and motifs is carried across all aspects of its storytelling, not least its various factions and interconnected characters who are rarely fleshed out and congeal together like a discordant mess. It’s impossible, without the aid of Final Fantasy 16’s numerous narrative guides, to figure out who is vaguely important, what their ultimate goal is, or how they relate to our protagonist. These various factions and their figureheads are so poorly developed that when the game eventually descends into an agonisingly tedious exploration of the political landscape of Valisthea, it becomes an arduous task to muster up the motivation to care.
Frankly, this is alleviated somewhat by Final Fantasy 16’s central narrative that clumsily inserts itself into this half-baked world. It is, at least initially, about Clive’s failings, his inner turmoil, and the journey of redemption and self-reflection that comes with that. This segment early on in Final Fantasy 16’s 40-hour runtime is genuinely fascinating, and exploring Clive’s misgivings about himself and his actions was the most fulfilment I got from Final Fantasy 16’s narrative. Unfortunately, this is pretty quickly wrapped up in favour of pursuing a recurring mystery, promptly shoved aside and resolved in an entirely unsatisfactory way.
Its resolution comes in the form of an epic boss fight and lengthy flashy cutscene that are resolute on shutting the door on the game’s only enticing narrative thread. The emotional payoff this sequence of events attempts to elicit from the player is not earned, nor is Clive’s later development, as it feels like barely enough time has been given to exploring Clive’s traumatic experience of overcoming his grief.
“Perhaps what is hurting the narrative more than its failed attempts at emotional manipulation is its lack of compelling characters.”
This narrative failing doesn’t just apply to this singular instance with Clive. Rather, it is a failing that dramatically impacts the entire narrative, as story beats are frequently resolved or elevated by seemingly engrossing sequences that deliver absolutely no payoff or in any way feel deserved. On multiple occasions, Final Fantasy 16 will pull out its emotional trump card in the hopes of getting you to stop looking at your phone without putting in any of the work required to make it resonate in a meaningful way with its audience.
Perhaps what is hurting the narrative more than its failed attempts at emotional manipulation is its lack of compelling characters. Final Fantasy 16 does not have a traditional party made up of a diverse cast of characters. Instead, it relies solely on its dour, plodding protagonist whose vulnerability, his only redeeming quality, is removed almost instantaneously. There are side characters who join Clive on his adventures, but they lack any real personality, all relentlessly devolving into meandering philosophical waxings as they stand around a poorly lit table with stern looks plastered across their copy-pasted faces.
Gone are the quieter moments of reflection amongst a group of people that genuinely care for one another present in almost every other Final Fantasy game. You will rarely find instances of Clive and his companions pausing to bond with one another, smiles spread wide across their faces. Instead, practically every conversation between Clive and the rare companion that floats in and out of his life as quickly as you can recall their indistinct name is bogged down in the political and sociological themes that the game is evidently incredibly proud of.
It is this attempt to ground the iconically silly moments frequently found in Final Fantasy games that ultimately ruins the overall narrative experience. Rather than allowing the game’s jovial moments to elevate the importance of its serious or emotional sequences, it resorts to making everything as serious and earnest as possible. There is no brevity, no moments of calm before the storm. Final Fantasy 16’s narrative is all storm, all of the time, and that, across 40 arduous hours, is incredibly tiresome.
“Final Fantasy 16’s cutscenes are as shallow as they are beautiful.”
Fortunately, this narrative is presented through the game’s impeccably beautiful visuals. It is evident that the visual prowess of Final Fantasy 16 is its crowning achievement, an unceasingly staggering testament to the genius visual worldbuilding the series is famous for. These visuals elevate an otherwise inconsequential narrative through expertly animated cutscenes the likes of which the gaming industry has never seen. These cutscenes are a genuine highlight, with lengthy deviations into bombastic action, and intense emotional scenes that distract from the tepid storytelling.
Watching towering Eikons thrash at one another as the world around them is torn asunder by cataclysmic attacks, each frame deftly sweeping across the action to capture every jaw-dropping moment of its majesty, simply never gets old, even as the game’s runtime nears its conclusion. Additionally, the heartfelt performances in both English and Japanese inject a much-needed sense of reality into every scene, giving the heart-pounding action an emotional weight and gravitas that ensures it never feels stale.
That is not to say that these cutscenes make up for the shortcomings of the overall narrative. They are merely a bandaid, plastered over the gaping chasms caused by the bumbling story that offers players a visually appealing attempt at piecing together the disconnected narrative threads. Final Fantasy 16’s cutscenes are as shallow as they are beautiful, fascinating spectacles that wash over the player much like a cold sweat. While the analogous polished turd doesn’t quite do Final Fantasy 16’s cutscenes justice, it does somewhat describe the ambitious and admirable attempts at keeping me entertained while the game’s convoluted narrative went through one ear and out the other.
Similarly, the densely packed linear environments and sprawling open-world zones are blessed with the game’s phenomenal art direction and overall visual fidelity. The first time you arrive in the Three Reeds zone, it’s hard not to be taken aback by the verdant valleys, shimmering sapphire waters, and dilapidated buildings long reclaimed by the long tendrils of mother nature. It is a marvel that, much like the lively towns full of animated NPCs milling about the ornately designed stalls and gorgeously detailed medieval buildings, perfectly masks the lack of depth, meaning, or fun to be found in any of the game’s varied environments.
“The lack of verticality in the environments removes any sense of adventure.”
Exploration in Final Fantasy 16 is an entirely redundant task. Your efforts to find a modicum of entertainment, excitement, or intrigue out of exploring Final Fantasy 16’s several open-world zones or linear sections will always go entirely unrewarded. Stunning vistas and interesting objects littering these areas are merely window-dressing, with absolutely nothing in any of the explorable areas being interactable. You may see a towering ruin in the distance dwarfing the rustling trees and roaming beasts and wonder what secrets await you there. However, when you eventually arrive at its base, you’ll realise there’s nothing there save for those rustling trees and more enemies to fight.
Final Fantasy 16 has no interest in meaningfully rewarding players for their curiosity, instead absent-mindedly filling its environments with glowing materials you always seem to have in abundance, yet another pack of enemies to slay, and mindlessly mediocre fetch quests given by forgettable NPCs. Critically, exploration is made significantly worse by the lack of a traditional party. Rarely will your companions speak to you, should you have any accompanying you in the first place, leaving you to roam the wilds in utter silence outside of the occasional grunt during combat. Furthermore, the lack of verticality in the environments removes any sense of adventure, as all notable landmarks or collectibles are within your eyesight at all times, with no secrets or special locations hidden behind interesting and varied topography.
Disappointingly, the more curated linear segments also fail to instil the creative expression and genuine joy that exploration can offer. Dungeons, which are ostensibly what each of Final Fantasy 16’s linear areas are, lack any sense of versatility or variety. Each one is a series of copy-and-pasted combat arenas connected by winding corridors filled with nothing to do save for the occasional “Hold R2” to open a door mini-game or a tight passageway that needs to be squeezed through. While each dungeon tends to be mercifully short, it’s hard to ignore the tedium that sets in after heading into yet another of the strenuously soulless combat encounters against an assortment of random enemies.
“Eikon abilities are the showstopper, dealing huge amounts of damage while looking jaw-droppingly stunning in the process.”
Of course, none of this would be inherently terrible if Final Fantasy 16’s combat was remotely enjoyable. Exploration would be an engrossing experience if hunting down enemies brought the visceral pleasure it should. Similarly, running through these combat gauntlets in sun-soaked environments densely packed with striking emerald foliage, hacking and slashing your way through scores of enemies as vibrantly explosive particle effects burst from the tip of your blade, would be engrossing if combat had the impact that it should.
Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tone of the rest of this review, Final Fantasy 16’s combat is entirely style over substance, an ostentatious fireworks display that requires little more than mashing a singular button and burning through your core abilities. Combat can be broken down into two components: your regular attacks and Eikon abilities. These regular attacks are two-pronged as you can hit enemies with your sword by pressing Square, and fire magical blasts with Triangle, although why you’d ever bother with that is beyond me as the damage is so minuscule, the time spent pressing the button is wasted.
Conversely, Eikon abilities are the showstopper, dealing huge amounts of damage while looking jaw-droppingly stunning in the process. You can only have six of them equipped at any given time, giving the illusion that a difficult choice must be made as to which of the many at your disposal you bring into battle. However, ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as each ability snugly fits into one of three categories, AOE, single-target, or counterattacks, resulting in a series of abilities that look vastly different from one another, but function more or less the same. Additionally, due to each ability being on a cooldown, rather than requiring mana or other resource to use, you’re encouraged to use them as soon as they become available as opposed to tactically deploying them at an effective time.
“When you’re not spamming your Eikon abilities, you’ll be smashing your default sword attack.”
This issue is exacerbated by the fact that enemies aren’t divided into elemental types, despite each set of Eikon abilities being distinct in their elemental attributes. For example, the Ifrit or Phoenix fire-based Eikon abilities will deal just as much damage to Fire Bomb enemies as Garuda’s wind-based attacks. As a result, there is really no need to conserve these abilities, thus completely removing the fundamental need for strategizing and careful planning that this once turn-based franchise had become synonymous with and dramatically simplifying combat as a whole.
This broken Eikon system is built on the back of the deeply unsatisfying regular attacks that require you to mash Square whenever near an enemy and close the gap by pressing Circle if they get too far. When you’re not spamming your Eikon abilities to chip away at spongey enemies that take upwards of five minutes to defeat, you’ll be smashing your default sword attack, which while upgradable in minor and oftentimes insignificant ways, never requires any skill, precision, or talent to use. It results in a combat system that feels neither fulfilling nor rewarding, a temporarily exciting and aesthetically pleasing spectacle that quickly loses its lustre once its shallow outer layer cracks to reveal a pathetically simplistic inside.
Unfortunately, the boss fights and highly anticipated Kaiju-esque Eikon fights fare no better. Boss fights are identical to one another save for slightly different attacks that are nevertheless so blatantly telegraphed that dodging them is drearily unstimulating. They’re overly long, requiring you to exhaust your Eikon abilities numerous times and never offering unique ways to take them down.
Similarly, Eikon fights are painfully easy yet oftentimes drag unnecessarily. Rather than have the player access their Eikon abilities, these cinematic fights offer players a basic set of controls that essentially boil down to punch, jump and dodge. Eventually, both boss fights and Eikon fights will devolve into a hollow, soulless QTE segment in which you mash Square repeatedly without feeling any sense of involvement, watching as the remarkably breathtaking yet ultimately pointless action unfolds without any of your input.
“Final Fantasy 16 feels like a time capsule of bad game design.”
All of this begs the question: what’s the point? Throughout my entire playthrough, I frequently felt like giving up, forcing myself through yet another mindless combat gauntlet only to be greeted with a sliver of narrative that I had no personal investment or attachment to. It is not as if Final Fantasy 16 has no redeeming qualities, after all, the stunning visuals and moments of genuine intrigue in its otherwise earnest narrative are genuinely fantastic. Rather, Final Fantasy 16 feels like a time capsule of bad game design, poor plotting, and a narrative tone that deserves to remain in the mid-2010s when Game of Thrones, this game’s most obvious influence, was at the height of its popularity.
Final Fantasy 16 feels like an outdated experience, an old-school Xbox JRPG that needlessly attempts to appeal to Western sensibilities instead of embracing its phenomenally unique roots and, as a result, offers nothing of any real value. The qualities that made the Final Fantasy series so remarkable in the first place, such as interesting characters, strategic turn-based combat, beautifully detailed worlds full of things to see and do, and narratives with emotional stakes and a timeless sense of innocent humour, are entirely absent in Final Fantasy 16. It is a shame, as there is evidently potential here, but I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this spectacularly soulless experience.
Final Fantasy 16 Review
Final Fantasy 16 is a tremendously disappointing JRPG with a clunky, shallow narrative, unengaging characters, lifeless environments and overly simplified combat. It's few redeeming qualities, namely its visuals and occasional intriguing story moment, are overshadowed by its plethora of flaws. Final Fantasy 16 is a hard game to recommend, even to diehard fans of the franchise.