Final Fantasy 16 is remarkable. While the core DNA of past Final Fantasy games remains, FF16 manages to somehow feel completely original and like a fresh start for the beloved series. It’s no secret that the marketing for one of 2023’s most anticipated games has been extensive, and changing things up in a long-running franchise is a daunting task, with many entries in the series being considered some of the best RPG games ever made. The stakes are high, but Final Fantasy 16 proves that an old dog can not only learn new tricks, but it can also become an instant classic, and in my view, the best PS5 exclusive we’ve had yet.
Final Fantasy 16 takes us to the continent of Valisthea, which is home to numerous kingdoms, each with its own plan and set of ideals. FF16 weaves a political narrative involving these regions under the surface of your adventure, offering a tense subplot that consistently bubbles up to become a focal point.
You take the role of Clive Rosfield, the firstborn son of Rosaria’s rulers and brother of Joshua Rosfield, and embark on a journey across Valisthea to find answers following a personal tragedy. Along the way, you will battle several Eikons. Eikons are magical creatures that work through human hosts, called Dominants. Many of the Dominants are tools for each of the various kingdoms of Valisthea, typically being used within wars. However, Dominants are mostly treated like gods by the people, and can even wield superbly strong abilities without fully becoming their Eikon forms.
The story follows Clive as he goes through three different phases of his life, starting from a young First Shield of Rosaria. Since the Final Fantasy 16 length soars past the 35-hour mark on story content alone, it’ll be difficult to give you the full rundown of the experience, but as I progressed through the narrative, I realized that things aren’t quite as they appear within Valisthea.
Final Fantasy 16 delivers a narrative that feels like a solid mix of Final Fantasy, Game of Thrones, and the melodramatic nature of a show like Downton Abbey. The story beats all feel like exciting moments in a long-running TV series, offering twists and turns that excite and enchant you. For each Kaiju-like battle that offers huge theatrics comes a grounded sequence showing the effects of Valisthea’s political clashes on the region’s people.
A story is only worth the characters within, and thankfully, Final Fantasy 16’s characters are incredibly well-acted and nuanced. From Ben Starr’s performance of a dark and mostly-moody Clive Rosfield to David Menkin’s show-stealing role of Barnabas Tharmr, each and every character offers depth within their role in the plot, and the voice acting is one of the main reasons for this.
It also helps that you feel deeply connected with the world of Final Fantasy 16. There’s plenty of lore and detailed descriptions of Valisthea and the political conflict at the heart of it. This is thanks to an amazing Active Time Lore feature that allows you to open up a small panel explaining various places, people, or terminology and read up on them, with many being updated over the course of the story. It’s so great, that I argue any game with a decent amount of lore should have this in the future – Destiny 2 strikes me as the perfect example of a game that would benefit from these quick, useful overviews.
What good is reading about conflict, when you want to be a part of it? Well, Final Fantasy 16’s combat is absolutely sublime. At the start of the game, it can come across as a bit sluggish and confusing, offering an almost soulslike feel without actually entering that genre. It isn’t long though before FF16 becomes a flashy, fast-paced, and action-packed experience that easily offers some of my favorite gameplay in a game, ever. This is mostly thanks to the different Eikon abilities that Clive can wield over the course of the game, ranging from a fiery wing that smashes opponents into the air, to hands of pure rock picking the land up from underneath an enemy’s feet.
Many of the combat encounters offer a Dynasty Warriors-like experience to battles, as you demolish most things in your path with the occasional mini-boss to make things a little challenging, especially in the latter half of the story. However, the highlight of both the gameplay and the experience in Final Fantasy 16 is the boss encounters. These larger-than-life fights offer high-budget and over-the-top cutscenes interspersed between an incredible mix of difficulty and spectacle, offering a way of proving your skills as well as having visceral battles of attrition between yourself and each of the big enemies. Encounters with Eikons like Titan are massive battles that span entire regions, while bosses like Benedikta are smaller-scale fights that had me on the edge of my seat.
The boss fights are made even more memorable by the fact that many of them are hugely important to the story. Finally going up against Hugo Kupka after witnessing his atrocities, and seeing his personal hatred for Clive and his friends, makes the boss fight an anticipated story beat that feels rewarding to be involved in. It’s just one of many examples where FF16’s incredible combat and story work seamlessly together.
There’s also the fact that the score is absolutely superb, especially during combat. The aforementioned fight with Titan has a cinematic soundtrack that builds momentum as the fight reaches its climax, while a battle with the otherworldly Typhon has an almost synth-like sound that feels rightfully out of place and uneasy. Masayoshi Soken’s score is a key ingredient that makes almost every element of Final Fantasy 16 feel interwoven.
Even things like simply traversing each of the various levels of Valisthea feels great with all of the above points. While some levels are actually a bit sparse when it comes to enemies and items, the fluid combat, engaging story, and sensational score all blend together to make what would probably be considered a bland level in any other game an exciting experience to play through.
The graphics are also something to absolutely admire in the latest entry for the series. While most of FF16 leans on a color palette of dark grays and blacks, it feels totally fitting for something with a focus on a medieval world, and it all looks fantastic. The character models are fairly detailed too, offering a range of emotions during each of the plot points. Each Eikonic ability has such life and passion poured into them, so much so that you can see each of the fiery feathers during a Phoenix attack, or the different bolts of lightning as you use one of Ramuh’s abilities. Final Fantasy 16 really is a sight to behold.
I decided to set the game to quality mode on PS5, focusing on resolution and visuals over the framerate. Despite having a 30 FPS cap throughout, I never felt like it hindered the experience, with the frames feeling smooth even in the times when there were a lot of enemies on screen and I was performing six different huge abilities in a short span of time. The performance, overall, remained impressively high, as I only saw frame dips when entering a new level (and this was very occasional, might I add).
Finding fault with Final Fantasy 16 is a difficult task. If there was one thing that could have been better executed, it’s probably the material economy and gear progression. This didn’t add too much to the overall experience, and while it gave me something else to work toward, it generally felt a bit undercooked. But to be honest, with how good every other aspect of FF16 is, this seems inconsequential and is probably a mechanic the game could have gotten away with not having in the first place.
That being said, I don’t think I’ll ever truly forget about Final Fantasy 16. Every moment from the start to the end was paced beautifully well. The story was tantalizing and juicy, with drama and intrigue filling the gaps between visceral and extremely fun combat encounters that captured the heart of Final Fantasy while giving the adrenaline rush of Devil May Cry.
It would be difficult for any studio to bring new and fresh energy to an almost 30-year-old series with over 100 games within it, but Final Fantasy 16 has somehow set a new, very high bar for future entries to attempt. For me, it’s the best PS5 exclusive on the console so far and is a definite Game of the Year contender.
Final Fantasy 16 (PS5)
Blending brutal and flashy combat, a deeply detailed and lore-filled world, and a story that offers intrigue and character-driven moments, Final Fantasy 16 is a completely fresh take on the series, despite having the heart of a standard entry. It deserves every ounce of praise it will surely get, and in my view is a GOTY contender.