Final Fantasy XVI (2023)

I’ve been down with Covid again the past week (second infection, I still had a nasty fever and sharp throat pain for several days), while the family is out of town. The downtime did give me the opportunity to play through Final Fantasy XVI.

I should state that I’m not a loyal fan of the series – I was a PC gamer growing up, and have only finished Final Fantasy VIII previously. So I’m viewing FF16 from a relatively casual lens, or rather, as a standalone RPG game (versus other RPGs) and without any franchise-related expectations.


Having said that, even I could tell that FF16 is a departure and perhaps new era for the franchise. To begin with, the combat is a full real-time action-RPG experience, with flashy combos, skills, evades and parries. And even though you are often traveling in a party, in combat you have few meaningful interactions with your companions, and hence the combat is focused on your lead character.

I didn’t enjoy the combat initially, but it grew on me as I unlocked more gameplay and also learnt to work around the rough edges. To start off, I personally didn’t like the input system that was fairly restrictive on when button inputs would register – during an attack animation, there is a long window where all inputs are discarded and not buffered. For me this incentivized button spamming – I found I could reliably do a 4 melee + 1 missile attack combo (one of the first combos you learn) by spamming (at a fixed pace) the melee button 8 times and the missile button 2 times. This is exacerbated by the game’s general enemy design of all enemies being meaty HP sponges – I would assume this is to afford the design space for your active abilities, so that they can do 20-40 times the damage of your basic attack.

In any case, the combat system primarily evolves around boss fights against a powerful solo enemy. Bosses have 2 bars, the HP bar and a “Will” bar (stagger meter). At 50% of the stagger meter you get a mini stagger (5 seconds?), while fully depleting the stagger meter gets you what feels like 10-20 seconds of free attack time. In a typical boss fight I feel I need to stagger the boss 3-4 times.

I remember from FF8 the over-the-top (and lengthy!) combat animations, and that seems to be a tradition that FF16 also maintains. Many of your skills have extravagant presentation that takes over the full screen, during which either time is completely frozen or at a very slow pace so you are rarely at risk of taking damage. And the bosses will also have skills that shower the screen with VFX. It’s clear the “cinematic”1 combat is a design priority here – and I generally bought into it, except in the frustrating edge cases where it takes away gameplay entirely. For example: quite early on I learnt a skill that literally creates a tornado on screen. (This skill is labeled as low HP damage but high stagger damage, and I was interested in building around it.) However, the VFX of said tornado is so dense that I literally cannot see the enemy in it – including what attack animation it is doing.

I also had some other general issues of combat clarity. Sometimes the camera would get in the way, especially when you are up close with a large enemy. And early on I often felt that enemy design was a bit gimmicky when I couldn’t get the evade timing right. What rekindled my enjoyment of the combat was the discovery of a neglected skill that provided a defensive shield (which could also deal damage). Said skill (Will O’ The Wykes, probably overtuned) completely changed my combat flow – it could absolve several hits for me, which provided enough margin for error of my evade timing to make most fights a straightforward affair.


Along with this new combat system, many traditional RPG elements have also been greatly streamlined. While there’s a large cast of characters you frequently engage with in the game, you don’t manage your party. Inventory management is also almost non-existent: yes, there is gear to craft and equip, and accessories and potions to use, but it’s clear they are meant to take up little of your play time. For gear, there are only 3 slots, and at any given point in the game there is clearly one best choice. Accessories (amulets) offer a tiny bit more itemization choice (and is the game’s messiest list to scroll through), but I felt it’s also entirely ok to not tinker with them. And with regards to potions – the game is so forgiving with health potions (when you die in a fight, you restart with full potions) that I’ve never purchased a single one.

That isn’t to say that the gameplay lacks variety or customization. Instead, the game’s equivalent of a skill tree offers plenty of build options, and I felt I only explored a little. At the start of the game, you have a couple of fire-based abilities on top of a basic fire-class utility (which makes you gap-close to enemies to set up melee attacks), and as you accumulate ability points (through combat and questing) you can invest to learn a few new ones or upgrade existing ones. When you progress further, you start unlocking new classes of abilities – wind is the second unlock – which each has 4 abilities on top of a basic class utility. By the end of the game, you would unlock a total of 6 such classes. You can equip 3 classes as your loadout, so in effect your combat toolkit is 3 class utilities and 6 abilities – that’s 9 active skills you are juggling at any given moment. (As a random comparison – Diablo IV only allows 6 skills on your active toolbar.)

Story and quests

FF16’s story is melodramatic, over-the-top and perhaps overlong, and fits my limited impression of the franchise. It has a M rating, so the tone is quite dark. It is a bleak fantasy set in a land near end-times, and it is about a group of heroes who are literally trying to save the world. There is ample amounts of tragedy, and there is a heavy-handed theme about systemic discrimination (class-based / race-based) and the injustices of slavery. Oh, and there’s a dose of Game of Thrones (a land of six nations with ample palace intrigue, politics and wars). It’s all very on the nose (but that isn’t to say I disliked it – I thought it was sincere and consistent).

The narrative is delivered through quests, which are divided into main and side quests. The mechanics of side quests are often straightforward and repetitive – fetch quests are common – but it’s clear there was real effort in their writing. I felt the game established quite early on that side quests are not to be missed – they provide important background on characters, advance significant side plots, and a few even unlock important mechanics such as the mount system (I’m curious if it’s possible to have missed that quest entirely…). Memorably, the game also does a good job keeping track of Chekhov’s guns from earlier quests – there was a “filler” quest where you collected some garments for a character, and they asked you for your color preference of a dress. I thought the game had forgotten about it, but towards the very end of the game, through dialog your love interest gives you a present calling back to this earlier choice.

I did feel the game had issues with the pacing of releasing side quests. This is tied to how they are unlocked based on the state of the main quest progression. If the main questline is flowing really tightly, there may not be a good window for a while to inject half a dozen side quests. It’s also exacerbated by the fact that as the story goes on, more side characters have been introduced, which naturally affords more side quests. This combines to create a very awkward pre-finale moment, where story-wise you are bidding farewell to loved-ones to go on a mission of (likely) no return, but on the map you see almost 10 new side quests pop up (and indeed, some new ones show up after you’ve done a few). I ended up spending a good 3 hours just clearing those side quests.

There are few more points of narrative dissonance with quests. For one, any side quests portray a sense of urgency (something bad is about to happen, you need to get there ASAP), but of course from a game mechanic perspective nothing is going to happen until you get there. Secondly, you need to just accept that “it’s a game”: when the main plot has you stuck somewhere, most of the time you can easily open up the world map and teleport anywhere (go back to base and buy some stuff? Do a side quest since you are feeling like it?).

These are not unique to FF16 of course, but it does get a bit hilarious and ridiculous when you have 5-10 side quests stacked up, and your presence is urgently needed everywhere and all at once. (At least the game is self aware about this – quite a few times you make a not-too-subtle comment about your “impeccable timing”.)

One last thing about the story – clearly there was a lot of effort invested in the setting, and the game developed not one but three features to present it. During cinematic scenes, if you pause the game you can call up an “active lore” page which shows you the characters featured in the scene and some simple intro to who they are. And then in your base, there are 2 characters dedicated to showcasing the world – 1 provides access to the compendium with entries on all characters, landmarks, enemies etc.; the 2nd gives you a people chart of all the characters for the current “state of the realm”, as well as a war map style world map explaining the major current events. I generally enjoyed those features and spent quite a bit of time going through them.


All in all I enjoyed FF16, and my impressions of it got more favorable the longer I played. I speculate it’s the product of a team aware of what their focus is – exciting action combat, cinematic presentation, and an epic story with a large set of characters. Given the ambition of the scope in these areas, they made meaningful cuts in others (gear, open-world style map etc.). I’m not surprised if some fans are unhappy with the set of choices here; I personally feel the dev team did a great job.

  1. Speaking of “cinematic”, the game also literally has a series of QTEs (usually during the “big” boss fights) called cinematic strike (hit attack fast) / clash (spam attack) / evasion (hit evade fast). Those are so over-the-top that I had to appreciate the game’s dedication.

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