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'Final Fantasy 16' Review: The legendary series at its best

Protagonist Clive, who wields elemental magic and can transform into a gigantic Eikon under the right conditions.
Square Enix
Protagonist Clive, who wields elemental magic and can transform into a gigantic Eikon under the right conditions.

It's 1993 and I'm standing in front of a gigantic wall of video games at my local video rental store. I scored a perfect four stars on my weekly writing test, which meant that my parents would let me rent a game and buy me a Happy Meal.

My eye caught titles that looked appealing — Smartball, Rocky Rodent, Contra 3, F-Zero — but before I could make a decision, my sister pulled something off the shelves. The cover was red and plain, its only distinguishing feature a shiny sword replacing the letter "t" in its title. That game was Final Fantasy IV (released as Final Fantasy II in North America), and it would introduce me to my favorite series of all time.

It's 2023 and I'm downloading a pre-release copy of Final Fantasy XVI in a hotel room. Someone thinks it's an okay idea to let me review it. The more I play, the more my heart fills with a childlike joy. I tell my wife, "Sweetheart, I can't believe I'm playing this game right now."

Often impressive and at times unparalleled, Final Fantasy XVI is not only a worthy entry in the legendary series, it's also one of the best (trust me — I've been playing a lot of this series recently).

Chocobos, the giant birds endemic to the series, also take the place of horses in <em>Final Fantasy XVI.</em>
/ Square Enix
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Square Enix
Chocobos, the giant birds endemic to the series, also take the place of horses in Final Fantasy XVI.

Although it struggles to find an identity early on, it grows into itself beautifully, with endlessly entertaining combat and a compelling storyline. It's not quite a flawless masterpiece, but Final Fantasy XVI certainly stands out as one of Square Enix's strongest outings since the turn of the century.

Game of Chocobos

Final Fantasy XVI follows the gruff, good-natured protagonist Clive Rosfield over 18 years as he transforms from honor-bound aristocrat into revolutionary and savior of Valisthea — a land where humans called Dominants can "prime" into massive god-like Eikons, magic users called Bearers are brutally subjugated for control of their gifts, and a Blight is rapidly turning the two continents of Storm and Ash into wastelands.

Final Fantasy has always been defined by its storytelling, and XVI uniquely balances two main influences. On the one hand, you have typical Final Fantasy elements: a clear juxtaposition between good and evil, fantastical creatures like chocobos and moogles, maybe the best iteration of Cidever, and an especially captivating antagonist. On the other hand, you have a heavy dose of Game of Thrones, which Producer Naoki Yoshida required the development team to watch.

<em>Final Fantasy XVI </em>follows a group of outcasts — including Goetz, Charon, Jill, and Clive (pictured left to right).
/ Square Enix
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Square Enix
Final Fantasy XVI follows a group of outcasts — including Goetz, Charon, Jill, and Clive (pictured left to right).

For the most part, these influences blend together into a gripping narrative. But Final Fantasy XVI's weakest moments come when it leans too heavily on Game of Thrones tropes. If you've ever watched the famed HBO series, you'll see many parallels. Blood everywhere? Check. Political intrigue? Double check. Exposition-ridden Sex? You betcha.

Yoshida has also drawn ire for comments he made about representation in the game last year: "Due to the underlying geographical, technological, and geopolitical constraints of this setting, Valisthea was never going to realistically be as diverse as say a modern-day Earth." While he's since clarified these remarks, it's true that the game doesn't feature as many people of color as rival big-budget RPGs like Hogwarts Legacy or Diablo IV.

But despite its blemishes, Final Fantasy XVI tells an amazing tale about the lengths we'll go to fight for those we love and for what we believe is right. Its characters are complex, their relationships are well-developed, and the romance between Clive and his childhood friend Jill is so touching that it made me weep a total of five times (no shame in admitting that).

Moogle May Cry

I never thought I'd say this about a Final Fantasy game, but XVI's fast-paced action combat might be its greatest strength, and unquestionably ranks among the best in the series.

Switch between elemental modes to unleash devastating combos on enemies.
/ Square Enix
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Square Enix
Switch between elemental modes to unleash devastating combos on enemies.

Fans of games like Devil May Cry 5 and Dragons Dogma will immediately feel at home thanks to the contributions of Capcom veteran and XVI's Combat Director, Ryota Suzuki. While it's not as deep as DMC5, it's just as flashy, satisfying, and consistently fun, while also welcoming to newcomers of the action genre.

Similar to fighting games, Clive can string together attacks into myriad combos. You'll earn new abilities at a steady clip throughout the game to keep things from getting stale. I punctuated countless victories by quietly exclaiming to myself "Helllllll yeah" after landing a series of combos on a staggered enemy.

You'll also occasionally get treated to Eikon battles, where massive mythological beings face off. The simplified controls don't provide much of a challenge, but the epic confrontations show off spectacular, cinematic animation at its finest.

AAA done right

Square Enix took their time to polish Final Fantasy XVI and it shows. Navigating the not-quite-open-world zones of Valisthea, browsing menus, and equipping gear and abilities all feels buttery smooth. But a bounty of innovative quality of life features streamline the game, my favorite being the Active Time Lore (ATL) system.

At nearly any point you can hold the touchpad to pull up a small constellation of entries on relevant characters, locations, or events. They're roughly equivalent to footnotes in a complicated fantasy novel, and I really hope other development teams take note (looking at you, Kingdom Hearts).

Clive transformed into Ifrit, Eikon of Fire.
/ Square Enix
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Square Enix
Clive transformed into Ifrit, Eikon of Fire.

The game also allows you to simplify combat with special accessories. If it feels too overwhelming, equip an auto-dodge ring provided at the beginning of the game and mash the attack button. Equip another to easily execute combos with perfect timing.

When it comes to inventory management and crafting though, you likely won't need any help, as they've been simplified almost to a fault. As long as you finish side quests, open treasure chests, and pick up materials along the mostly linear path, you can easily craft each newly-unlocked Blacksmith piece without dealing with a crowded inventory.

A legendary series at its best

My first playthrough of Final Fantasy XVI lasted about 70 hours. I finished every side quest, crafted every weapon, beat every hunt, bested every challenge, and then immediately began New Game+ on Final Fantasy mode — this game's equivalent of a hardcore mode.

I wanted to relive the story to better understand its nuanced character development. I wanted to hear the astounding soundtrack from beginning to end, and once again appreciate its virtuosic range, power, and beauty. I wanted to launch enemies up into the air, juggle them, and then slam them into the ground before finishing them off with a perfectly timed spell. It's all just so, so good.

<em>Final Fantasy XVI </em>also features gorgeous environments in its not-quite-open-world.
/ Square Enix
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Square Enix
Final Fantasy XVI also features gorgeous environments in its not-quite-open-world.

If you're a Final Fantasy fan and worry that the game's beginning feels too much like a Game of Thrones clone, stick with it. And for all you newcomers out there, XVI might be the most approachable entry in the series yet. Who knows, maybe you'll fall in love with it as much as I did.

Final Fantasy XVI releases June 22 exclusively on PlayStation 5.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andy Bickerton
Andy Bickerton contributes to NPR's gaming coverage and acts as digital strategy analyst for the newsroom. Data is his forte, video games are his passion. He's based in Anchorage, Alaska, and really doesn't mind freezing temperatures.

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