This makes sense. In the role-playing game genre, the Final Fantasy series is king because it creates big-budget fantasy soap operas. It’s just that in the past, it has focused on younger characters: Games critic Joshua Rivera once observed that the Final Fantasy series is young adult novels brought to life with stylized Japanese fantasy visuals. The grandiose set pieces in “Final Fantasy VII” in 1997 were a milestone in video game storytelling.
“Final Fantasy XVI” — which The Washington Post played for a four-hour preview in Manhattan this month — breaks its pattern of teenage heroes. Instead, it centers on Clive Rosefeld, a 30-something soldier beaten down by the weight of expectation and tragedy. He’s blessed and cursed with the bloodline of an Eikon, a magical godlike being who controls the elements, and there appears to be a struggle for power among several factions. The plot beats seem to hinge on political palace intrigue. A tragic beginning sounds like a rote way to begin any fantasy epic, but this one also feels infuriating, thanks to sudden, dynamic shifts in Clive’s relationship with those closest to him. Modern Final Fantasy games tend to meander in the preamble, but “XVI” starts with explosive set pieces and drama.
For the uninitiated, every Final Fantasy game is a new. unrelated storyline with different characters in different realities, with only some shared thematic elements, such as the magical gods and spells, and oftentimes the animals, including the Chocobo, large birds that function like horses. Like Clive’s heritage, this disconnection is both a blessing and a curse: The series stays on the cutting edge of innovation but is maddeningly inconsistent.
In the 16th title, we also see the most drastic change in gameplay in decades. It almost completely sheds the role-playing foundations it popularized since the first game in 1987. Gone are the slow, methodical, menu-driven systems — what we have in 2023 is instead a pure action game. The new combat designer is Ryota Suzuki, who worked on the celebrated character action game “Devil May Cry 5” by publisher Capcom. I played four hours of “XVI,” and I would often forget I wasn’t playing a Devil May Cry game. Clive even speeds up his run the longer you move, similar to Devil May Cry’s characters.
In 2005, Square Enix produced the film “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children,” which continued the story of the most popular title in the series. The movie’s fight sequences are still heralded today as some of the most beautifully choreographed in 3D filmmaking, and Final Fantasy’s creators have been chasing that same high in its games. Several games in the franchise have experimented with battle systems that replicate that film’s highflying, balletic battles, sometimes at the cost of player interactivity. Meanwhile, the Devil May Cry series had been creating such kinetic sequences in video games for years, so it made sense to finally merge that design philosophy into Final Fantasy.
All this has been an attempt to broaden audiences for the Final Fantasy series, which usually sets a high bar for presentation and graphics fidelity but doesn’t match it when it comes to sales figures. Expectations for this new project were heightened after Square Enix tapped producer Naoki Yoshida, famously called Yoshi-P, to steer it. Yoshida famously rescued the online game “Final Fantasy XIV” from disaster, remaking the entire game after it was initially pulled from store shelves due to a horrendous launch and reception. Now, “FFXIV” boasts 20 million active players a month, making it the biggest online role-playing game in the world.
“Final Fantasy XVI” goes even further to appease the casual player. From the very start of the game, players are given the option to use special bracelets that, when they’re deployed, turn the experience into an essentially self-playing action game. One bangle lets Clive pull off dozens of fancy attack combinations when you simply press a single button, while another lets him avoid practically every attack without even touching the controller. I used all of these bangles as part of my preview, and it does indeed make proceedings easy and breezy — I began to nod off during battles.
But eventually those training wheels are removed, which makes the battles engaging, crunchy and busy again. Button combinations make the game feel closer to “Street Fighter 2” than a traditional Final Fantasy game, allowing strings of attacks with magic, Eikon powers and sword slashes. All of this is embellished with the Final Fantasy signature of colorful particle effects, turning every encounter into a fireworks show.
“Final Fantasy XIII” is the most controversial of the series, mostly thanks to its linear gameplay. Most of the 2009 game’s world design consisted of straight hallways, with almost no way to deviate off the main story. Its poor critical reception sent the series into a decade of uncertainty. The 15th title, from 2016, opened up its world for more exploration — but was lambasted not just for its haphazard plot structure, but also its unengaging, simplistic combat. It’s unexpected that “XVI” is again simplifying the world and the action.
The game funnels players down linear paths, accessed via markers and nodes on a larger map, making it more like “Super Mario World” than any fantasy game. But to acknowledge its open-world roots, the game features “field area” nodes, larger playing areas with secrets, tucked-away monsters and stories. There was only one available during my four-hour session. It was pleasant, with a lilting, melodic tune that recalls the series legacy of memorable musical scores. It had the most fun fights, partially because I stumbled upon them on my own. It also helped that this was the only section of the game with other characters fighting alongside you, controlled by AI.
“Final Fantasy XVI” is reportedly about 35 hours long. I wonder how the game strikes the balance of focusing on linear combat hallways while trying to stay true to the series legacy of large, explorable worlds. But at the very least, its story promises to move fast and hit hard, all the while looking like the prettiest video game money can buy.