Every main numbered Final Fantasy game tells a new story in a fresh universe, giving each upcoming entry a powerful mystique. That sense is particularly strong with Final Fantasy XVI, which has been teased with spectacular, overwhelming trailers since it was unveiled with Sony's PlayStation 5 in 2020.
The PS5 exclusive lands on June 22, and developer Square Enix lifted the curtain at a New York City preview event with a playable demo build of the game earlier this month. Acting as producer is Naoki Yoshida (AKA Yoshi-P), the charismatic figure credited with reviving massively multiplayer online RPG Final Fantasy XIV. He and his team gave us a primer on the story and world before letting us try out the game for the first time.
World at war
This RPG takes place in Valisthea, a world divided into six nations that depend on giant magic crystals -- one of Final Fantasy's recurring elements -- for energy. As the game kicks off, this energy is badly depleted and conflict is brewing between Valisthea's nations.
It's more of a cold war due to the existence of Dominants -- humans with the power to summon massive magical creatures known as Eikons. Like the dragons in Games of Thrones, the Eikons are basically this world's weapons of mass destruction. Except all the nations have them, and they act as a deterrent to open war.
You play as Clive Rosfield, whose younger brother Joshua has control of the powerful Phoenix summon. After tragedy strikes, Clive is bound to another fiery Eikon, Ifrit, and goes on a quest for vengeance. This causes Eikons to battle each other for the first time, throwing off Valisthea's delicate political balance and creating lots of collateral damage.
Clive's journey will take him through Valisthea's seven nations -- which are divided into segmented open areas rather than one big open world -- with a shifting party of AI-controlled allies as backup (there wasn't much exploration in the preview section though). You'll also be able to dive into the history of Valisthea as much as you wish, Localization Director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox told CNET.
"We have a character that gathers lore; he will tell you about what's going on in the game -- characters, places, history, things like that," said Koji Fox, whose previous Final Fantasy projects include IX and XIV. "It doesn't affect the story, it doesn't affect gameplay, but for those players that want to go deep and find out what happened 200 years ago, why these countries hate each other, you can go and do that."
Dominating the Dominants
The playable section of our demo saw Clive and his ally Cidolfus Telamon (this game's Cid, a recurring name in the series) making their way up a dark tower on the hunt for Benedikta Harman, a spy for a rival nation. Cid is the Dominant of lightning-summoning Ramuh, while Benedikta is linked to terrifying wind elemental Garuda.
Cid has beautifully styled hair and his voice will likely sound familiar -- he's voiced by Ralph Ineson, who appeared in Game of Thrones, Chernobyl and Willow and infuses his character with awesome gravitas. The fiery Benedikta is easily the most striking character design in the preview, and you know she's a baddy because drops the f-bomb.
These Dominants humanize the political conflict, and their differing statuses within their own kingdoms hint at the varying cultures and attitudes across this world. This section occurs a few hours into the game, though there's also a tutorial where you play as a young, fresh-faced Clive to learn the basics of combat.
The dingy tower wasn't exactly a visual showcase for the first PS5 Final Fantasy, which will let you choose between performance and fidelity modes in the finished game. However, this location did offer plenty of opportunities to explore the game's real-time combat system as goons leapt out at every turn. Unlike Final Fantasy VII Remake, you don't control your entire party directly -- only Clive and his faithful canine companion Torgal (whom you can pet).
Tailoring your battles
Basic combat fits neatly in the action-RPG mold, with Clive able to employ a mixture of melee attacks, magic, dodging and blocking. Final Fantasy XVI's battles move much more quickly than those old games though, and combat director Ryota Suzuki drew on his experience developing lightning-fast action game Devil May Cry 5 for this series evolution.
"The most important thing for Final Fantasy XVI was to make a system that is accessible to lots of different types of playing styles; more technical, stylish and for players that are not too into action," Suzuki said via translator. "So we didn't want it to be overwhelming."
Adding to Final Fantasy XVI's accessibility are the "Timely" accessories, which you can equip to simplify certain aspects of combat. These can let you pull off Clive's most impressive combos by tapping the same button (instead of learning specific inputs), allow for easier dodging and make doggo pal Torgal battle automatically.
You can tailor this element based on which ones you equip, giving you a chance to get comfortable with different parts of the combat system at your own pace. The attack one had the most obvious impact, since unequipping it reduced Clive's attacks from visually stunning Devil May Cry-style aerial ballets to basic thrusts and chops -- you'll have to learn a bunch of combos to achieve his most stylish moves normally.
Your magical combat abilities are defined by the Eikon you have equipped, with Phoenix's fire, Titan's earth and Garuda's wind were available in the demo, but it seems like Clive absorbs or copies these from other Dominants as he encounters them (it's likely Garuda's powers were unlocked early for the demo version). Earning experience lets you unlock or improve Clive's elemental skills.
You can also switch between Eikons in battle, essentially allowing Clive to change character classes on the fly. It's an evolution of the beloved job system that debuted in 1992's Final Fantasy V, in which you assigned roles to characters and they learn those job-specific abilities through leveling up.
"It was my wish to take that job system and somehow replace jobs with Eikons, and recreate that system in a full action setting," game director Hiroshi Takai, who worked on the fifth entry in the series, said through a translator.
"Making it something that's very customizable and individual to each player … the Clive they have at the end and the palette they use in that final battle is different for every single person."
Flipping between these elemental powers became increasingly natural as the demo progressed, with the mixture of these and the satisfying dodge system making the boss battle against Benedikta and her Eikon a joy to play. The smooth transitions between gameplay and cutscenes peppered the experience with that classic Final Fantasy melodrama without pulling control away for too long.
Battle of the titans
The final section of the demo took place a few hours further into the game, with Ifrit going up against Benedikta's Garuda in an epic Godzilla vs Kong-style confrontation. It's the kind of sequence that would have been a cutscene in older Final Fantasy games, but XVI makes it completely playable and extremely fun.
This battle felt completely different to normal combat, conveying an awesome sense of primordial power as the Eikons lay waste to an isolated part of Valisthea. Ifrit employs a mixture of beefy melee moves and fiery blasts against Garuda's quick slashes and wind-based attacks. Projectiles also neutralize each other, which is a particularly cool touch.
The developers noted that the gameplay of these Eikon clashes will vary, hinting that you'll have to battle each one differently depending on their elemental prowess, unique attributes and Clive's relationship with the character who's controlling them.
Even with the shift toward action-oriented battles, Final Fantasy XVI looks set to be an emotional roller coaster in the series' grand tradition. Speaking through a translator, producer Naoki Yoshida wants players to feel thrilled and hopeful by the time they're done with the game.
"When those end credits roll and the players experience the whole story, I want them to feel that they can move toward tomorrow, no matter what happened today," he said.