It might sound odd in a game full of medieval mysticism, raging battles and swordplay, but “Final Fantasy XVI” actually wants to help its players survive the chaos.
Every few hours or so, a character will express befuddlement. “Does any of this make sense to you?” a travel companion will ask, just a few missions after an enemy shrieked in horror that he didn’t know what the heck was going on. He could be forgiven.
Moments before his confusion, a woman with a godlike ability to harness tornado-force winds — this after sprouting wings and shape-shifting into a glistening, multi-story creature — had been rendered powerless by a seemingly more simple magic user, the game’s player-controlled protagonist. But the 16th core “Final Fantasy” game — no previous knowledge of the brand required — isn’t out to confuse as it lets 35-plus hours of story-driven gameplay unfold with surprising patience.
Yes, there’s a lot that “Final Fantasy XVI” is attempting to juggle, be it the multiple warring factions of a fantasy realm; nods to climate destruction and deceitful parentage, which has saddled our main character, Clive Rosenfeld, with a forever existential crisis. Then there’s Magic, which anyone who has rolled a 20-sided die or spent time in Middle-earth will know is often a curse as much as it is a blessing. And in the “Game of Thrones”-like world of “Final Fantasy XVI” it’s mainly just a curse. That’s all just scratching the narrative surface in this title from producer Naoki Yoshida (“Final Fantasy XIV Online”) and director Hiroshi Takai (“Final Fantasy V”) .
The comparison to George R.R. Martin’s series is no slight as “Final Fantasy XVI” appears to be unapologetic in its debt to the HBO franchise spawned by Martin’s books, complete with a map that looks lifted from the opening credits of the series and a beginning that’s heavy on action and flirting. This is a big-budget soap opera of a video game fantasy where battles, which erupt often, are dazzling displays of hyperactive sword blades that attack with images of fire and ice. The action is dizzying, as blue and red tendrils circle around Clive in colorful, abstract displays, and each battle win is punctuated with an operatic choir.
And yet “Final Fantasy XVI” is an action game that plays as interactive television, especially if one makes use of the game’s hand-holding options. Don’t be put off by the “XVI” in the title, as this is a game that aims to be approachable viewing with a participatory bent. Heavy action scenes are followed often by lengthy calms, in which the controller can be set aside for extended periods of cinematic exposition. Tonally, it’s all a bit odd — the cartoon violence clashes with lustful characters, and large, symphonic swells instantly give way to more ethereal, head-in-the clouds sounds — a game that wants a mature, grown-up edge without losing any youthful, all-ages appeal. It mostly succeeds, even if the beautiful PlayStation 5 title feels like a throwback of sorts.
Granted, it all can be a bit silly, especially as one learns the lore of the Eikon, higher powers that appear attached to certain bloodlines, allowing characters to transform into majestic, glowing beasts that can control the elements. The fantasy realm here largely views those with such abilities as weapons. Magic isn’t feared so much as looked down upon; those born with power are cast off into lives of servitude in which they are branded with a tattoo across the cheek. Those who harness magic via crystals are perceived by the society in the game as less feral, crystal magic being seen as more easily controlled and tamed.
But there’s a catch: such crystals may be destroying the world, believed by some to be the root cause of a blight that is quickly deadening the lands and throwing the abundance of kingdoms into war. That’s just a backdrop; “Final Fantasy XVI” works because it so narrowly focuses its tale on Clive, born to a doting father and a scornful mother who views him with disgust and prefers the younger, Eikon-blessed Joshua, whom Clive is sworn to protect. But the family drama leads to a power grab that leads to tragedy, setting up, at least in its initial hours, what appears to be a revenge tale.
I didn’t come to “Final Fantasy XVI” as an expert in the franchise, and while each mainline game in the series is a reset, with new characters and some different approaches to gameplay, I was surprised at just how approachable and linear it is. In a year in which we’ve seen the release of “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom,” a game that emphasizes creativity of the player, “Final Fantasy XVI” felt almost old-fashioned, a tightly focused narrative that wants to bridge the gaps among television, film and interactivity. We watch almost as much as we play, and the latter can be heavily tailored.
There are bracelets, for instance, that one can acquire that can greatly simplify action, allowing players to better time their parries, or turning complex moves into simple one-button presses. Using many of them ups the arcade feel of the game, but also ensures that anyone can conquer even the toughest of battles. Though there are role-playing game attributes like hit points and upgrade-able abilities, they aren’t a focus. Action and story take priority over puzzles, essentially nonexistent, and strategy. And simply pressing the pause button will bring up what the game calls “Active Time Lore,” a quick who’s who and what’s what of every current mission.
It’s a rather welcome addition, ensuring that one is always up to speed and can make sense of what political faction or motivation is currently driving the scene. Games of this size are sometimes overwhelming, especially if one must step away from them for a few days, but “Final Fantasy XVI” is constantly laying out the welcome mat, even creating a character who serves as a historian with knowledge of everyone — and every royal lineage — we encounter for reference. So when a character expresses confusion at the game’s actions, an answer is usually only a pause button — or a conversation — away.
As a lead, Clive can take a bit of warming up to. For the first half or so of the game, he’s largely doom-and-gloom stoic— refusing to process a tragedy and see more than a single-minded view of the world. Or, as one character says, “Clinging to the past like a torn blanket.”
Some of this is explainable; his mother, after all, discarded him and turned him into a servant of the kingdom. For many of those in “Final Fantasy XVI,” killing is their trade, even when they don’t want it to be (“I like wolves!,” exclaims one party member, when forced to kill a pack of them). But a run-in with Cid, who has dedicated his life to creating a sanctuary for discarded magic users — and an encounter with Jill, a childhood friend who is also an ice-wielding Eikon and had been similarly enslaved by another kingdom — makes Clive look inward. Somewhere around the 25-hour mark for me (your mileage may vary, especially if you’re a faster player better skilled at combat), Clive starts to see his own life as one worth saving.
This was a welcome moment; just when “Final Fantasy XVI” was layering on the kingdoms and the royals, Clive dedicates himself to delving into his own history and magical abilities. Clive accrues more of the latter during the game, allowing his sword in one moment to seemingly transform into a blade of fiery wings and in another to disappear into instantly summoned claws. It’s implied that using magic is draining, a risky endeavor that slowly saps one’s life-force, but for much of the game Clive doesn’t appear too concerned, never once barking back at us for using a torrent of abilities in any fight.
For as serious as Clive can be, “Final Fantasy XVI” moves rather swiftly and likes to touch on hallmarks of high fantasy. There are all sorts of creatures, including dragons and disgusting spiders, and if you slow down in a town, the game can get a bit thirsty. “I’d be happy to show you how well I wield my blade after my shift is over,” we overhear one sword-wielding character say to a suitor in broad daylight. The game also toys with a will-they or won’t-they vibe between Clive and Jill, which, while games can all use a little more sexiness as they mature into the dominant medium of our era, is perhaps a bit weird due to the childhood history.
Still, their biggest chemistry is on the battlefield. What do they do, Jill wonders, when exploring an ancient sanctuary filled with rocks that come alive as various creatures. “The usual,” Clive responds, and “Final Fantasy XVI” leads to an extended fight scene that ends with Clive succumbing to his magical powers, which for much of the first half of the game he struggles to control. It’s the latter that drives his inner torment and gives the game its narrative heft. His powers are also, admittedly, fun to play with, especially as the game advances and Clive can mix and match magical abilities.
About halfway through the game opens up some, as just when Clive lightens up he becomes less wary of helping others and “Final Fantasy XVI” gives us a host of side missions to choose from. Still, the game is largely fast-paced, propelling itself forward as its overarching story becomes bigger, more complex. I’m not sure I closely followed every second of it — blessed the in-game library — but who Clive is seeking revenge against simply shifts from time to time. And its thesis is rather direct: Would “Game of Thrones” have been better if it had been playable? Your answer likely depends on what generation you belong to.