Well, this is certainly a change of pace around here. My history with Final Fantasy is a weird one. It’s one of those things that’s been constantly around in my life and one that almost everyone I know has strong opinions on, but I don’t have that much attachment to it. I like many of the mechanics and different spins on them the series has tried in its nearly four decades of existence, but of the soon-to-be 16 mainline entries, I’ve only really liked the narratives of three of them enough to finish. I usually chalk that up to ADHD, but at the same time, Kingdom Hearts is Final Fantasy adjacent and I can prattle on about those all day. But those games are anime Star Wars with better dialogue because no one will ever write dialogue as terrible as George Lucas. Back to the subject at hand, the demo for Final Fantasy XVI came out on Monday and I was initially going to give it a try because I found out that the game’s lead combat designer was Ryota Suzuki, formerly of Capcom and one of the designers responsible for the combat of Monster Hunter, Marvel vs Capcom, Dragon's Dogma (we’re getting a new one of those and yay), Onimusha and most recently Devil May Cry 5. That alone made me want to check it out, so we’re talking about that this week.
Calling this a demo feels like it’s doing it a disservice. The contents of the Final Fantasy XVI demo are, for the most part, the game’s entire prologue. That, and a chapter a few hours later with more abilities, makes for a better introduction to the game’s combat. This is big because after the demo is cleared, you can move the save data to the full game. I really like it when demos do this because when the demo ends up being a banger, it makes me more excited to check out the full game. I can safely say that this demo was an absolute banger.
The story included was the prologue, so I’m gonna tiptoe around it as best I can. You take the reins of Clive Rosfield, a chained soldier under the banner of the Holy Empire of Sanbreque. After a particularly devastating routing, Clive finds himself injured and unconscious, flashing back to his time as the First Shield of Rosaria under his father’s rule. What sets XVI apart from the other Final Fantasy games is that it goes super in-depth with the setting’s political climate. It covers the six kingdoms, their use of Dominants, magically empowered humans that can shift into the summons of previous series entries (here called Eikons), their crystal situation (it would not be a Final Fantasy game without crystals or Crystal adjacent items), and how all of the different elements would interact with each other when framed in a semi-realistic manner. It’s less like A Song of Ice and Fire and more like Pillars of Eternity to me because while both have characters interacting with each other five or six layers deep in the setting’s context, the latter has the common decency to both not be insufferably miserable and throw in a gosh dang glossary.
And I’m not joking about that second part. It’s called Active Time Lore and when you pause XVI during cutscenes, it gives you a rundown of the principal characters, the region they’re in, any of the setting major concepts and even the events being discussed. It is SUCH a nice tool for keeping things straight when I need to get a little extra context on things brought up hours ago and I hope it becomes standard in more games going forward. I love it so much. But to loop back to actual character stuff for a quick second, Clive feels like a character I’m gonna really enjoy spending a lot of time with because of his characterization, the performance by his voice actor Ben Starr and the way the prologue pans out has me wanting to REALLY see how the whole thing shakes out. It extends to the rest of the cast in the demo as well, it adds to the sense that the world feels like it’s been lived in, based solely on how they talk and interact with each other. But that’s enough about me praising vague story beats and bang-up performances, it’s time to get to the other half of the demo, the combat.
Final Fantasy has always, for the most part, based on what I’ve played and seen, done its best to change up its mechanics with each mainline entry. From the first ten games and XIII being turn-based, but with different subsystems to shake things up, XII being a JRPG spin on Baldur’s Gate, XI and XIV being MMOs, and XV and the VII Remake series being Action RPGs with some turn-based tactics sprinkled in for flavour, XVI is a straight up action game. Ryota Suzuki’s influence and decades of experience with crafting action-based combat are felt almost immediately. The way Clive moves, swings his sword, and even the way he dodges attacks and casts his magic are all incredibly responsive and in the case of the latter three, have an impact on them. While the enemies in the main demo weren’t much of a challenge, the other part of the demo, aptly named the Eikonic Challenge, more than makes up for it. It places you several hours later in the story and at a higher level and some of the other Eikons to mess around with. These include the use of Phoenix and its command dash, the wind-powered Garuda and her claw attacks that serve as a speedier stand-in for Nero’s Devil bringer from Devil May Cry, and the earthy Titan whose raw power more than makes up for the slower speed gained from equipping him. These serve as a good preview of how the other Eikon powers are going to work moving later into the game and how Ciive can mix and match them.
There’s also still the gamut of RPG elements in the demo because Final Fantasy XVI is still a Final Fantasy game after all. You can equip new weapons and items and there are also special items that give you access to new abilities like more lenient combo timings, automatic healing and automatic assistance from Clive’s direwolf Torgal (who is a good boy and I will be very upset if he dies) among other things. As a means of being essentially accessibility features, I like them on paper, but in practice: being items get in the way of me being able to swap out more interesting gear options. I mostly had them off because I wanted to see what the combat would be like without them and they didn't make much of a difference to me, but your mileage may vary. And then you get into the skill trees, which is where you can upgrade each Eikon’s abilities and that was where I went “Oh so this is where the Devil May Cry stuff is at”. Because I found the Stinger and the goddamn Enemy Step in the base tree and I was so excited to mess with them.
While I can see why oldhead Final Fantasy fans might be apprehensive of the move to full-on action, I don't mind it one bit personally. Between the incredibly interesting setup of the story and the combat that honestly felt more like my speed, I want to see how this whole thing pans out because what I saw and played in the demo sold me on Final Fantasy XVI. Now the wait begins.