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Final Fantasy 16 preview: possibly PlayStation 5’s most important game of 2023

James Daly

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Final Fantasy 16 preview: possibly PlayStation 5’s most important game of 2023

Featured Image Credit: Square Enix

One of the most anticipated titles of 2023, Final Fantasy XVI is seen by many (including me) as the main reason to own a PlayStation 5 console. I thought this when I first saw a trailer for the upcoming RPG years ago. I believed it more after I played a small preview build of the game a few months back, and I stand firmly by this opinion after a more recent gameplay session. So why is that, I hear you ask?

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After our first preview, GAMINGbible was invited by Square Enix to attend a second Final Fantasy XVI event for media and influencers. This time we were given longer with the game - roughly five hours, in fact - playing through sections from different parts of hero Clive Rosfield’s tale. However, the developer made it clear that this experience didn’t fully reflect the final release, with key differences like the magical abilities on offer during combat, and so on.

Having previously explored the combat and plot setup of FF16, I was eager this time out to get to grips with the game’s story and world as much as I could. The game begins with a teenage Clive developing his swordplay in the name of protecting his kid brother Joshua. Both members of their nation’s royal family, the younger sibling holds the spirit of the Eikon of Fire, essentially giving him enormous power over life and death.

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These Eikons are something players will learn more about as the story develops, and a key part of the gameplay experience is wielding them in combat. Each Eikon has its own elemental powers, based on ice, fire, wind and earth, and come with their own moves to pick and choose from as the situation dictates.

Final Fantasy 16 / Credit: Square Enix
Final Fantasy 16 / Credit: Square Enix

Naturally I won’t spoil the story, but the few chapters I could experience saw Clive mature into an adult soldier (a word that carries some serious Final Fantasy VII Remake vibes), as he hacked and slashed his way across various lands. From arid cliffs to lush forests, the map of FF16 is a varied one, with each zone accessible through a menu screen. You select the area you want to venture into, and the game effectively teleports you there.

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The result is a selection of areas that feel more like dungeons or arenas than one complete, interconnected world, albeit with a hub area to travel back to during downtime. While not quite as ‘level select’ as a game like Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, it’s not an open world in the classical sense. However, there are still places to explore and side quests to take on in each place, so expect to spend plenty of extra time in most locations.

The world of Valisthea is still something of a mystery when it comes to size and full number of areas/biomes. Square Enix gave us access only to limited locations, going so far as to forbid us from accessing the map screen when in the open area we sampled towards the end of the preview session. Despite this, there was still a clear presence of the flavour of the upcoming RPG.

Final Fantasy 16 / Credit: Square Enix
Final Fantasy 16 / Credit: Square Enix
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The open area we were granted access to felt like a blend of The Witcher 3 and a Xenoblade title. There were rolling hills and flowing streams that were frankly too beautiful to compare to anything in reality, but with a more realistic colour scheme that added a gritty sense of impending doom. Enormous beats roamed the countryside and NPCs called out for assistance. Both Geralt of Rivia and Shulk would feel partially at home here, and that’s not something I’ve ever imagined outside of a Super Smash Bros. session.

As for combat, I previously mentioned how Final Fantasy XVI feels similar to Devil May Cry 5 (which is to be expected given the involvement of Ryota Suzuki). During this more extensive experience, I found the combat mechanics to be intuitive and easy to recall, choosing to play most of the game without the Timely Accessories; items that basically take some difficulty out of the game by providing features like automatic evading or instant healing when injured to a certain degree.

My main complaint with FF16’s combat is the camera. Despite using the right stick on the PlayStation DualSense to control the angle, enemies would often slip into blindspots during group battles. While this isn’t a problem unique to Square Enix’s title, it made it more difficult to keep track of foes and tell when they were gearing up for an attack, resulting in some knocks I could’ve blocked/dodged otherwise.

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As for the feel of the combat, it’s like an evolution of Final Fantasy XV and the non-turn-based option of FF7R: real-time, hack-and-slash swordplay with a sprinkling of magical moves courtesy of the Eikons. It’s fluid and dynamic, hitting a middle ground between the aforementioned FF titles and DMC5 that is bound to suit the majority of players. There are also quicktime events which feel awkwardly outdated as a concept but work well enough here, although one battle did overdo them, briefly denting my enjoyment. (I predict a lot of debate over how effectively balanced these moments are.)

One of the most interesting elements of Final Fantasy XVI is the in-game cinematics. Visually stunning cutscenes are nothing new for the series, but the tone present here feels more akin to Game of Thrones than fans might be used to. There’s political tension, nefarious types baying for blood, and an openly sexual relationship. One moment in particular had me feeling sick with despair and I felt like we’d never have anything as lighthearted as Cloud Strife sneaking into the Honey Bee Inn ever again.

This isn’t to say previous instalments in the franchise don’t have their fair share of adult themes, but the manner of approaching them in FF16 feels very different, and that could make the game more appealing to Western audiences who enjoy more dramatic and violent media.

Final Fantasy 16 / Credit: Square Enix
Final Fantasy 16 / Credit: Square Enix

Where we’re more at home with the franchise's established identity is in the music. Delicate piano motifs enhance the splendour of the gorgeous open countryside zone, while the heavy choir pieces bring baritonal bombast to boss battles. The original soundtrack makes everything feel more alive, strengthening emotions of happiness, sadness and all in between.

Lastly, I have to praise the game’s visuals. The PS5 is no stranger to gorgeous games, from Demon’s Souls to Horizon Forbidden West, but nothing has drawn me in quite like Final Fantasy XVI’s graphics. From the level of detail on the cobblestone paths to the ornate suits of armour, there’s plenty to delight in. The character models during gameplay may dip in quality from their cutscene counterparts, but the game is a feast for the eyes, overall.

With a month to go before Final Fantasy XVI, I remain convinced this game will be the biggest PlayStation title of 2023, for both newcomers and returning fans. There’s a game here that’s aiming to do something different to everything else out there. It’s more Western than previous FF games. There are sequences which feel like virtual roller coasters. There’s a sense of marriage between RPG subgenres that have often been considered as opposites, i.e. Western and Japanese.

Whether the full game delivers on the promise set up so far remains to be seen, but, for better or worse, Final Fantasy XVI looks poised to define PlayStation’s year. Personally, I’m willing to bet folding money that it’s going to be a great one.

Final Fantasy XVI releases 22 June, 2023, exclusively for PlayStation 5. Preview build was a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.

Topics: Final Fantasy 16, Square Enix, PlayStation, Preview

James Daly
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