Final Fantasy XVI review — PS5 return to form falls a little short

By Lee Brady,

Final Fantasy XVI represents a bold new stop for the venerable RPG franchise on PS5 — but is it bold enough?

Final Fantasy XVI and those Final Fantasy XVI trophies have fans hopeful that this will not only be one of the best PS5 games so far but also see a return to form for the RPG franchise. Well, barring a few minor gripes, Lee all but confirms it in his Final Fantasy XVI review: Final Fantasy is back on top.

We've since revisited our Trophy Tactics section to give you more accurate advice on Final Fantasy XVI's trophies — check it out in the review below.
Final Fantasy XVIFinal Fantasy XVI is a visual feast.

Lee

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After having luxuriated in Final Fantasy XVI’s gorgeously rendered world for over 65 hours, indulging often in its fluid combat and a generous array of side content, I admit the final note of the game left me feeling a little ungrateful.

Final Fantasy XVI is a game that celebrates the legacy of Final Fantasy, drawing swathes of inspiration from all-time classics like Final Fantasy V and VI, yet it also feels consistently like its own thing. It’s a game that criticizes the needless excess of later entries in the series, like we saw with Final Fantasy XV, and instead offers players an adventure that feels massive even without a tacked-on open world or a hybrid RPG combat system.

There’s an evident desire here to re-establish the Final Fantasy brand name as a seal of quality, and I’m happy to report that in that mission, Final Fantasy XVI absolutely succeeds. There’s simply no denying it — FFXVI promises a big story, plenty of spectacle, and some incredible gaming moments, and it absolutely delivers on that promise.

So why then did I feel ungrateful after finally beating the game? Well, in spite of all its obvious effort and its many back-to-back killer battles, I could feel my petty gripes with the game’s design choices grow to the size of buzz-killing qualms over the game’s lengthy runtime. So much so, in fact, that by the time the 65th hour crept around, I was absolutely done with Final Fantasy XVI.

By the end, I was as gripped and elated by the conclusion of Final Fantasy XVI’s story as I was furious at the designers who had wasted hours of my life playing some truly boring content before getting there. Small design choices eventually had me feeling ungrateful in the same way I had while visiting extended family on Christmas Day as a kid. I mean, I appreciate that we all love each other, but couldn’t we do this some other time? Santa literally just got me a cool PlayStation game this morning.

Final Fantasy XVILike a kid on Christmas.

Starting on the right foot

I don’t want this review to get too bogged down in my final feelings, though — especially because, if you’re smart, you can probably avoid soiling your experience as badly as I did. Instead, let me first be a little more firm in saying how much I truly loved the early hours of Final Fantasy XVI.

I’ve touched on much of this segment at length in my Final Fantasy XVI preview and in great detail in the Final Fantasy XVI demo impressions, so I won’t drone on, but I believe FFXVI has one of the strongest video game openings since The Last of Us. In fact, I’d say the first fifteen hours of the game are nigh-on pitch-perfect.

FFXVIStunning PS5 visuals

It’s certainly here where the story’s pacing feels tightest. In the first few hours, primary protagonist Clive Rosfield goes from child hero to magic-wielding slave to reluctant accomplice to an outlaw, and if we want to slow things down, we need only push the pause button and dive into some Active Time Lore. The early story also piles on boatloads of political tension and more than a few sweepingly dramatic twists, all of which serve to draw us into the world of Valisthea and keep us interested in its fate right to the very end.

It’s also here, in the early game, where Final Fantasy XVI’s combat truly feels at its best. That’s not to say it ever feels bad at some point — on the contrary, FFXVI’s combat is hands-down the thing I loved most about the game. Perpetually tight, responsive, varied, and legible even with some of the most dazzling combat effects money can afford, the combat brims with polish and never stops feeling exceptionally good.

Final Fantasy XVIFinal Fantasy XVI's exceptionally stylish combat.

It just also happens to feel at its best early on, when the slow ramp-up in player abilities is matched by the relatively consistent health of the enemies, prompting the player to use a little bit of everything in their arsenal to get results and keep the flow of damage coming. This is when the game feels most like an accessible take on the expressive combat of its main inspirer, Devil May Cry, and it works incredibly well.

However, halfway through the game, the player will eventually start to lean more on their abilities than their sword to deal damage. Then, by the game’s final hours, the reliance on cooldowns rather than combo chains has FFXVI feeling more like a MOBA with strong dodge mechanics. It’s definitely a really good MOBA — maybe the best ever made — but it’s a MOBA nonetheless.

The tight pacing of Final Fantasy XVI’s story in those opening fifteen hours also keeps us moving from one cutscene-generous action stage to the next, and so it’s here where you’ll feel FFXVI’s stunning PS5 production values hit hardest. Flawlessly rendered characters populate an array of beautiful and diverse locales, and things only get more impressive when monstrous Eikons (powerful beasts that Clive and several other characters can transform into) show up to level the place.

As the story progresses, the spectacle of the cutscenes somehow manages to keep ramping up and up — though after that 15-hour mark, the heavy hitters start to pace themselves out a little wider. It’s also around that same point in the game where Final Fantasy XVI starts ramping up the side content, and while you might be tempted by the promise of stronger weapons and more story threads, I think my experience would probably have been better without it.

Final Fantasy XVIJill, at her coolest.

Final Fantasy continues to battle with itself

Early on, I gave Final Fantasy XVI’s side missions the benefit of the doubt. When you’re first introduced to Cid’s Hideout, your main hub for the game, and are offered two side missions — one in which you fetch wood from a guy across the hall, and one in which you give soup to three guys in the same room — I thought to myself: fine. After all, it was early days; maybe the game was just introducing players to the concept of side missions very, very slowly.

At the 15-hour mark, I wrote a simple note: “Side missions — will they get better?” By the end of the game, I eventually had my answer: “No.” I have a high tolerance for piecemeal world-building, but the lifeless side mission design in FFXVI practically begged me to start skipping dialogue scenes just to wrap it up and claim the items faster. I mean, I was hardly expecting the game to reach The Witcher 3’s high standard for RPG side mission design, but I at least thought it couldn’t get worse than Final Fantasy VII Remake — how wrong I was.

Final Fantasy XVIOne of the long Chocobo treks for the next side missions.

I can’t think of a single example of a side mission that wasn’t some combination of “go to a thing/person and press X” and “kill enemies.” Not a single side mission that had more than two base elements, with the exception of the occasional dialogue prompt that changed absolutely nothing. In comparison, Like A Dragon games at least have comedy and the odd quiz. Final Fantasy VII Remake at least had rhythm minigames and tested your memory of secret stashes.

That’s not to say there is zero optional content worth playing in Final Fantasy XVI — far from it. For example, there are secret optional stones (“Chronoliths”) scattered throughout the world that challenge you to beat waves of enemies with a limited moveset — these are fantastic and really show off the versatility of the combat. There’s also Arcade Mode, which scores players in a mode that basically turns the game fully into Devil May Cry, which is also excellent.

NektarNektar, the Mog-father.

There are also Hunts, which are the only bits of good side content that affect the main game and allow you to earn better equipment for Clive. Locked until around the 15-hour mark, Hunts let you battle stronger versions of bosses and mini-bosses encountered throughout the campaign. They also let you do some actual exploring, as the monsters aren’t marked on your map at all.

Hunts feel like a perfect fit for FFXVI due to its heavy lean on combat, though if you want additional story content, you’ll have to stick with the remarkably dull side missions. This feels a little bit like a missed opportunity on Final Fantasy XVI's part, as we know from playing other RPGs like The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt that blending monster hunting and storytelling can be a real winner for bonus content.

FFXVISome tough beasts need slaying.

If you don't fancy this additional content, then it can be avoided, but shouldn't we hope for better? One of the biggest draws of playing Final Fantasy games (or any fantasy or sci-fi game, for that matter) is losing yourself in another world and getting to piece together how it all works as you play. The world of Final Fantasy XVI is incredibly well-realized, and if you can stick with those side stories, you can uncover a few hidden depths of that world — but should we really have to endure MMO-level A-B-C quests to explore those depths? I don’t think so.

Trophy Tactics: Final Fantasy XVI

As the developers alluded, Final Fantasy XVI's platinum trophy is at least an 80+ hour grind. This largely comes down to the hidden trophy 'Fantasy, Finally', which requires the player to beat the game a second time on "Final Fantasy" mode — FFXVI's extra hard new game plus mode.

You'll also find completing all the side missions to claim the 'curiosities' gifted to you by your friends a considerable time sink. Most of these you'll gain from completing side quests, particularly those broken into several parts, although you'll have to chase some NPCs (like Charon) if you want to obtain hers. There's also one final curiosity you achieve from completing all the Chronolith trials, so if you're left scratching your head over that one like I was, that's what's up.

The rest of the trophy list is perfectly manageable, although the 'Masterclass' trophy will also require the player to do a little grinding — remember your abilities carry over to Final Fantasy mode, so cut the grind down a little with your second playthrough. You can also complete all the side quests on your second playthrough, so if you would rather enjoy the story the first time around and then grind for trophies later, that's absolutely an option.
Final Fantasy XVIBarnabas, the baddie.

Successfully shaking up the formula

As I said, I was gripped and elated by the end of Final Fantasy XVI’s story, and I think that largely stems from what a tremendous job the writers did at establishing the story and its characters. No matter the plot twist or shift in core party members, I still found myself largely engaged in Clive’s story and I continued hoping for a positive ending for him, Jill, and the wider cast right to the very end.

Though if I’m being honest, I was definitely enjoying the story more whenever one of the larger-than-life bad guys came on screen. Rival dominants like the romantic meathead Hugo Kupka and the utter monster that is Clive's mother, Anabella Rosfield, are just extremely entertaining to watch. They’re hardly the deepest characters by any means, but they bring a spark of dramatic joy to every scene they’re in, and they often bring out the best emotional responses in our heroes too.

Final Fantasy XVISigh.

As I was playing, I felt myself wishing we could see these characters more often. This want only became stronger as the sheer number of side missions meant I was watching four times as many cutscenes with Martha the Innkeeper than I was with Barnabas Tharmr, one of the game's primary antagonists. As the game’s length got further stretched out and the game's focus got further divided, I found tiny fragments of disappointment lingered over the moments I enjoyed most in Final Fantasy XVI.

For example, I love that Final Fantasy continues to be one of the few examples of a big-budget video game series with some honest-to-goodness romance in it, and Final Fantasy XVI is no exception. At times, what we get here is great — the main romance has a few strong moments, and there are a couple of scenes with two gay lovers that absolutely steal the show. It’s just a shame that so much of this gets overshadowed by the happenstance of the plot, and that for all the game’s extra content, there are so few side missions that focus on letting us get to know the characters more personally.

JillBest buddies.

This same lingering disappointment with the game’s focus trickles into the gameplay as well. I truly appreciate how much fat FFXVI’s designers trimmed from the experience. It proves that the series doesn’t need status effects, or a million one-time-use items, to still feel like Final Fantasy. Yet it irks that the best reward we ever get from exploration is crafting resources — fragments of something fun that we can cash in later, but can’t interact or have fun with in any way.

Of course, I’m only left disappointed by these near misses because Final Fantasy XVI comes so close to delivering them — a feat that deserves celebrating in itself. Some games can’t even reliably run without crashing on release, yet I never encountered a single glitch or bug in my time with FFXVI. The game ran buttery smooth throughout, delivering a gorgeous feast of visuals, and so again I feel a little ungrateful for saying “hey, this is great, but I think it could still be better.”

Final Fantasy XVIThere are truly some explosive scenes in FFXVI.

In many ways, Final Fantasy XVI presents a dramatic and exciting new page for the series, showing us that Final Fantasy still wants to toy with the RPG format even today, 36 long years on. The reason we started playing Final Fantasy in the first place was because we wanted bigger games that offered more than anything else, and that’s as true today with Final Fantasy XVI as it ever was in the PS1 glory days.

However, Final Fantasy XVI also shows us that the series is still stuck in other, less obvious ways. For all the PS5's power, we’re still playing missions that feel like they were made for a limited portable release, and if I criticized it in my Crisis Core Reunion review, I'm sure to criticize it here too. Despite the series’ focus on storytelling, we’re still not pushing far beyond what has come before — continuing the work of the last wave of games without pushing beyond it. None of these qualms stop FFXVI from being a great game, they just remind us that there’s still so much more room for the series to grow.

EikonAnother fantasy.


Summary

When it takes risks, Final Fantasy XVI soars — its new, more mature story and elegant full-action combat in particular truly breathe new life into the franchise. While some gameplay holdovers from past titles hold it back a little, Final Fantasy XVI is at all times an exceptionally accomplished video game and a perfect return to form for the venerable franchise on PS5.
8 / 10
* Lee played 65 hours of Final Fantasy XVI and collected 43 of the game's 50 trophies. He played the game in Frame Rate mode and had 'Combat Focus' enabled for the entire playthrough on PS5. TrueTrophies was provided a code for this game by Square Enix.
Lee Brady
Written by Lee Brady
Staff Writer Lee keeps one eye on the future (Shadow x Sonic Generations), one eye on the past (PS1, PS2, and PS3 games), and his secret third eye on junk he really likes (Final Fantasy, Sonic, Kingdom Hearts). A PlayStation fan since childhood, he loves nothing more than to scrutinize PS Plus and PS5 player data.
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