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Final Fantasy XVI Preview – A Blend Of Award Winning Cinematic Action

Crystals of war

2023 sees the next title in Square Enix’s flagship role-playing series, and after some hands-on time with it, we are in for a  Final Fantasy game unlike any other. No stranger to experimentation, the Final Fantasy franchise recently riffed on the brutal, stamina-gauged souls-y formula with Stranger of Paradise. But now the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI is instead gunning for the prestige cinematic action we’ve come to associate with the likes of God of War. Prepare to test your mettle with the darkest, most adult of the numbered entries of Square Enix’s roleplaying darling. 

Even if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy game before, I would implore you to keep reading.  If you’ve ever enjoyed a “spectacle fighter” courtesy of Devil May Cry or developer Platinum Games, you have the tools to grock this new flavour of combat that promises to drive most of Final Fantasy XVI. This is not the Final Fantasy that fans know and has blown the door wide open to prospective new players. In my roughly 45-minute demo, I was thrust into the dark and medieval eastern kingdom of Waloed. Nestled in the world of Valisthea, this kingdom has swallowed the entire eastern hemisphere, known as the continent of Ash. Set approximately five hours into the game proper, we control a young adult Clive, a plain-named protagonist on a revenge mission to find who killed his younger brother. Joining us on this journey is the recurring series handyman Cid, or Cidolfus, as he is known in this entry. 

I’ve only had a taste, but am head over heels for Cidolfus

The performances and facial animation stand out immediately. As I later confirmed in an interview, the English capture has been recorded as the primary language for this title. The lip-synching is outrageously good as the drama plays out before us, and while Clive remains an enigma to me as I play this slice of the early game, the raw fidelity of his expressions and movements says everything his few words don’t. Cidolfus in particular is voiced with painstaking depth by the thickly Yorkshire-accented Ralph Ineson, who had a haunting turn as the titular character in the beautiful yet opaque The Green Night. A standout performance that effortlessly elevates the anxiety and anticipation of the drama about to unfold as we creep further into the Mordor-like kingdom of Waloed. 

As we follow Clive and Cidolfus deeper into this eastern stronghold, we are joined by a canine companion named Torval. For players willing to micromanage in a storm, Torval can be issued combat orders. There is a basic attack, a heal, and a more powerful grapple called sic. You are encouraged to sic your dog on enemies, with a combat log appearing in the corner of the screen telling us how many sic [sic] combos we currently have. If issuing combat orders while actively dodging and parrying incoming attacks sounds a bit extra, and I found it was, there is a set of gameplay assists that can be enabled by equipping items. One such item automates Torval’s orders, which was great, as all other allies are controlled by an exciting AI that makes battles look more dynamic and involved than the series ever has before. 

Players only control Clive, but the friendly AI chip in

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Tasked with pursuing a suspected Eikon-wielding spy, we soon come across bloodied bodies strewn about. Here we find these nondescript, armour-clad soldiers covered in gore and get a hint of the destructive powers at play. Eikons are the summons that recur throughout the series, a kind of primordial entity that a select few humans called Dominants can wield. With little context to go on, Cidolfus comments on the carnage that the assumedly evil Dominant has left in their wake, and I could not help but be surprised by the scenes of slaughter woven into the environments. 

To combat such threats, at least this early in the game, Clive only wields a sword. Jumping, dodging, and closing gaps with lunges all sound pretty Final Fantasy XV, but the beauty is in the versatility. Mashing a standard attack may work against low-level fodder, but perfectly timed dodges and parries lead to heavy counterattacks. Don’t get comfortable though, as enemies often come in waves and will try to flank you. They pack a punch and a player not quick on their feet will get smashed. You’ll need to string together sword attacks with magic missiles, spiced up with loads of unlockable cooldown abilities. Familiar to fans is also the limit break ability, a kind of berserker mode that transforms Clive into a bloody killing machine.  

The active nature of the combat means that shields will be typically impenetrable. Outmanoeuvring is required to gain the advantage over larger enemies, singling out healers and making quick work of the deadly mobs. Managing the limited resource of healing potions requires the player to consider their button-mashing strategy, as there are no quick-fix solutions when health is running low and a boss fight looms ahead.

The cinematics are moody as heck and elevated by another winning composition

Then there are the game’s magic systems, which are faster and more impactful than any of Square’s other RPGs – save for the recent Forspoken. Magic handles completely differently from the previous game’s cumbersome grenade crafting system. Taking lessons from Iron Man, Clive shoots elemental magics like repulsor beams from his upturned palms. Each press of the triangle button unleashes a volley of fire or deadly bursts of wind, meaning rapid presses fire off like rockets. 

The active element used for firing off magic also affects the special cooldown abilities that overlay the DualSense primary face buttons by holding R2. We were given three Eikons for Clive to rotate between during the demo: Ifrit, Garuda, and Titan. Series fans need no introduction to what Ifrit represents – a demonic, fiery entity granting Clive devastating flame attacks and magic that cuts through defences like butter. Garuda is more adept at dealing with mobs of enemies, with various wide-area slashes imbued with wind power. My personal favourite is the weighty and tanky Titan. Of the default abilities, Titan allows Clive to conjure a shield for extremely satisfying ripostes when timed precisely to deflect an enemy attack. Clive is also able to charge enemies like a rugby player with no regard for personal safety, as well as a ground pound. All three default abilities ripple through the DualSense controller in a way I haven’t felt since Returnal and show a lot of love and programming passion towards the controller that we’re not often treated to. 

A successful Titan block delivers a satisfying haptic explosion

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Taking another note from God of War is the hiding of load screens. The team are very proud of their commitment to creating a seamless experience between narrative and gameplay, with load screens obfuscated by environmental transitions. In this case, the classic “raise the gate”. The neat thing here is that there is a novel kick of resistance in the adaptive triggers. The load screens are obvious now to anyone that played last year’s blockbuster GOTY or its predecessor, and development team Business Unit III knowingly nods to the player with a neat little finger exercise courtesy of the DualSense when raising said gates with an R2 prompt. 

Likewise, cutscenes are rendered in-engine and transition smoothly from gameplay, typically when entering a new area or triumphing over a challenging fight. These cutscenes are a treat,  with certain ones occurring between the stages of important battles even including the slowed-down quick-time events borrowed from that infamously name-dropped Sony title. 

At the end of the demo, there is a quiet silence that hangs over us, as I and the other Aussie press leave our preview booths and head for lunch. After sitting down, we all offer our typical surprised superlatives. When we start talking proper turkey, the Australian games media in attendance exclaim altogether, “did you note the ‘fuck’?”

Can I get some updog?

The surprise f-bomb in question involves our beloved combat companion and pet, Torval, shredding the neck of a big bad during a boss fight. The boss cries “fuuuuucking dog!”, bemoaned in that derogative fashion with which an Australian might round out a tasty drop of vitriol. The sparing but impactful use of the jolly swear, paired with some particularly gruesome dismemberment on display, makes for an exciting and unexpected departure towards an adult rating for the reasonably family-friendly role-playing series. 

My final thoughts are briefly on the kaiju battles shown in the reveal trailer, otherwise known as “Eikon clashes.” We were told that each of these will be a unique set-piece battle with vastly different mechanics depending on the Eikons involved and will occur at significant moments during the story. In the battle I played, Clive had become Ifrit and was fighting against a hooded stranger believed to be associated with Garuda. Ifrit carries weight behind its attacks, lunging forward on its hind legs as it commits to an assault. Projectiles can be used to whittle Garuda down from afar, but eventually, the most effective damage occurs from leaping towards the flying beast and laying the smackdown. The wrestling analogy is not simply wordplay either. This is a titanic brawl where the world below becomes the ring, as the tops of trees are taken out by destructive magic and ruins are kicked to dust as we tussle. These fights are, forgive the superlative, absolutely epic.

The Eikon clashes are anime as fuck, in the best of ways

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All of this is somehow Final Fantasy XVI. A surprisingly mature and action-focused turn for a series that has defined the genre tropes associated with its country of origin and turn-based role-playing games themselves. Those players turned off by the anime characters, weak gasping and grunting, and scantily clad magical girls will be surprised by this moodier, westernised medieval fantasy. If 2023 lacks a wide-appeal, Western swords and shields fantasy blockbuster, Square Enix has a shocking little cocktail to offer. Especially to those thirsty for a bloody exciting new spectacle-fighter action romp.

Final Fantasy XVI releases for PS5 on June 22, 2023.

Written By Nathan Hennessy


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