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Hands-On with Final Fantasy XVI - All Grown Up
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 01:06am 01/03/23 | Comments
We were invited out to Square Enix to not only play Final Fantasy XVI, but to also meet key members of the development team. Read on for our full thoughts...

When Final Fantasy XVI producer, and Square Enix veteran, Naoki Yoshida, starts presenting to us in the intimate theatre on Luminous Productions’ floor at the company’s Shinjuku, Japan, building, there’s a sense that we’re gonna see something special. CBUIII (Creative Business Unit III) -- the game’s developer, proper -- has taken over the floor of the Forspoken devs’ workspace to present its most up-to-date details for the forthcoming next officially-numbered entry in the franchise -- a game that has promised in teaser form to turn the series, potentially, on its head. Junkets like this barely take place anymore, replaced instead with Teams or Discord presentations and digital one on ones, which are just never as good as IRL opportunities. This is rare air, and as one part of a small Australian contingent invited out to get a first-hand look at, and some hands-on time with, FFXVI, the energy in the room is… palpable.

But that energy isn’t strictly from us as media champing at the bit for more info, it’s from the devs and support teams in the room. From the PRs right through to the game’s creators. They’ve been waiting to share what they have because in the annals and legacy of Final Fantasy -- which is more than 30 years of ever-threatened finality (jokes) -- FFXVI is the series’ most ambitious game yet. And it has the potential to also be its best.


A New Tune

Such lofty praise doesn’t come lightly from this writer, either. I’m not a Final Fantasy guy, per se. I’ve always respected the series from afar and get its ‘teens save the world with Chocobos’ tear, but as a tone and a brand, it has just never reached me.

This entry, however, is serious. It is dark and brooding. Its writing is top-notch. Its voice actors deliver lines with gravity and flourish. It’s a different beast to the more colourful outings of the past, and while FFVII is still often considered one of the heaviest entries in the franchise, I do know enough about that game and its remake to be able to confidently tell you it is rainbow-flavoured puppy dogs to Final Fantasy XVI.

"Gone is any anime-styled characterisation or art. This is high and dark fantasy rolled into one. It’s a game that wears a mature heart on its sleeve...”

And it starts with an edge. A bristled edge from the aforementioned Yoshida-san who really has no time for the term “JRPG” despite his having to use it throughout our time with him and the game. But mostly as a point of difference, in that Final Fantasy XVI is as far from a JRPG as you can get. Gone is any anime-styled characterisation or art. This is high and dark fantasy rolled into one. It’s a game that wears a mature heart on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to get that sleeve dirty. And yes it features Chocobo and other cutesy Easter Eggs, including its own Cid, but what you’re getting with this is, maybe, Final Fantasy all grown up -- a sentence, sentiment and statement that might not sit very well with some. But hey, it practically came from the developers’ mouths.

“I love Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight Returns, and of course Game of Thrones,” Yoshida-san loosely suggests during our presentation, as translated by the game’s localisation director and key Western writer and influence, Koji Fox (who also directed a lot of the Western-first VO and mo-cap and is a rad dude). We’re not supposed to use any of the material from the presentation as directly translated, so that’s not strictly verbatim from him, but the essence and truth of those influences is there. In fact all of the key players throughout our presentation list Game of Thrones and other ‘mature Western games’ they’ve been playing as clear influences on this new Final Fantasy’s direction, and we’re all the better for letting them run with such expansive guidance.

"This is as clear a pivot for the series in its long-running life as I’ve ever seen...”

It is still a Final Fantasy game, for those worried up the back. And the game’s key devs all have Final Fantasy lineage coursing through their veins, but this is as clear a pivot for the series in its long-running life as I’ve ever seen, and as someone who has always let the series exist in its own lane with its own traffic, that I’m as gee’d up for this as almost any other game this year should speak volumes to what CBUIII is crafting here. And for me, one of those key pulls is its acquisition of combat director, Ryota Suzuki -- ex-Capcom alum whose credits include Marvel Vs Capcom 2, DMC 5 and Dragon’s Dogma.

Final Fight, Guy

It’s hard to relay because of the complexity and layered nature of it all, but the combat in Final Fantasy XVI is next-level. It is also very Capcom, only it’s elevated and evolved, as if Suzuki-san had been waiting his whole career to come in and just tear someone else’s shit up.

First of all, it’s fast. Arcade action fast. But it’s deep and layered, and features two main tiers -- human battles, and then battles between the game’s kaiju-styled gods called Eikons (we’ll get to these guys more shortly). But it all starts out simply and familiarly enough with melee and ranged (magic) -- these slowly upgrade as you gain access to new abilities, and these can range from simple jumping through to taunts, downthrust or aerial attacks and everything else in between. (There were 14 in the build I played, but certainly room for more.) You gain ability points to then pour into ability wheels (plural) gained through levelling up and other means to acquire them or bolster existing ones. Abilities are represented by two icons and a star rating out of five that lets you know its effectiveness in both the melee and ranged combat options mentioned earlier, alongside its guard break, or its effectiveness against an enemy's Will Gauge.

A “Will Gauge” is essentially a second meter you tear through to eventually stagger your opponent. This is also tied to Limit Break which allows you to become momentarily more powerful and deliver a high damage attack or flurry, while some larger enemies can become partially staggered when their Will Gauges are reduced to 50% -- often allowing for a Takedown which will further stagger them and leave them open for even more wailing. But a lot has to go right to get to this point. And if a lot of this sounds familiar it’s because it is, and the pedigree is right there on the screen for you to see. But as mentioned earlier, it is combat evolved and not wholly Capcom. This is high fantasy Square Enix, off the leash, with combat that features more than just well-timed parry options or evades that slow time (though they’re there), and this is perhaps best represented in the Eikon Abilities addition.

"You can then switch these out in real-time in battle, which means when you manage to break an opponent's Will Gauge and stagger them, there’s up to nine attacks you can flourish them with...”

Eikons are gods, and you’ll come across them in varying forms and in straight up skirmishes. The team promises that no two Eikon battle moments will be the same which suggests, based on what we played, most of these battles will be story and cinematic-heavy, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Each Eikon has unique powers, and gaining an Eikon means you gain a new ability wheel to invest the above-mentioned ability points in. You can have three Eikons active at any given time for battle, and three attacks from each Eikon. You can then switch these out in real-time in battle, which means when you manage to break an opponent's Will Gauge and stagger them, there’s up to nine attacks you can flourish them with if you’re fast enough.

And then there’s the Eikon battles themselves. These are slightly paired back and slower, with just a small number of inputs that mean you need to be on your toes and reactive, or incredibly aggressive and know your timing windows perfectly. It’s just as you’d imagine or even as you’ve experienced in any sort of kaiju-styled fight in manga, anime or movies -- and they’re brutal. The studio name-dropped all the classics when referencing its influences in these battles too, including Evangelion, Attack on Titan and even Ultraman, much to my delight. And with the game’s seamless cinematic moments that tie into its real-time action with no load times (there are even QTEs tied to some of these), it’s difficult to not drop the “epic” adjective more than once.

"It’s deep and rewarding and not at all difficult to learn from the outset...”

A lot of the above is a mouthful, and some of it might not even make any sense without the gameplay context behind it, but it’s deep and rewarding and not at all difficult to learn from the outset. I found Clive handled really well in all the battles, and while I did have a few low points in my skirmishes against a couple of bosses, it wasn’t something I couldn’t rectify or learn from to emerge triumphant on the other side. There are RPG rules and numbers tied to all of this, including an accessibility option that is baked into the game should you choose to use it, which is essentially a wearable item that autos a number of your inputs and moves, without overly dumbing down the experience.

Honestly, they’ve thought of everything with this, and we only scratched the surface of it all.

A Throne of Knights

When we talk about the game being more mature and darker, it doesn’t mean it has abandoned what makes Final Fantasy such a fan mainstay. A sprawling world is set before you, with numerous factions all at war or at least at each other’s throats over the shrinking resource that is Ether -- pulled from “Mother Crystals” scattered throughout the world. It’s not an open-world game, as Yoshida-san admits the game would need to be in development for a further 10 years to realise such a vision, but it does utilise aspects of modern open-world action-RPGs and will still feature many open areas to explore and discover in.

"The devs constantly called back to the two most recent God of War games as reference...”

There’s a central hub to access the game’s many chapters from, and the devs constantly called back to the two most recent God of War games as reference to how we can imagine it all working (it too was an influence on the game’s evolutionary combat), which is a nice touch. You’ll gain a party as you play through the story, each known as DOMINANTS who have affinities with their cultural Eikons. They all act as support AI though, with the player only in charge of Clive -- though you do get to command your dog, Torgal, in battle sometimes (how often though we can’t say for sure). There’s also crafting and trading and resource management and gathering, which helps flesh out the whole RPG side of things.

In our hands-on time with the game we had just over two hours with a demo-specific build that was tailored for our event, but it was still set some five hours into the game (so a bit after Tutorial) and gave a fairly good indication of cadence and of what to expect gameplay-wise. Exploration for me felt lite-on and I hope as the game opens up more it becomes a more important aspect of proceedings (I have been ever-so-spoiled by open-world games these past few years). But even if this aspect remains lite-on I don’t think it will hold back the full experience from remaining epic and engaging, particularly because the writing we experienced in just a short time was, honestly, exceptional.

Combat is definitely the key thing we walked away most impressed with, but the package on the whole promises a lot and delivered quite a bit in a short amount of time. We’ve also been promised there will be no delays and that the team is currently hard at work on polish and delivering an epic experience come release day.

Stay tuned for more on the game not too long after this item is published as we have more to share, but for now hopefully all of the above gives you a pretty good indication that Final Fantasy XVI is not only in good hands, it might very well be in the best of hands.

Disclaimer: Square Enix supplied AusGamers with flights and accommodation to the event in Japan, however, this article is not a paid-for-comment piece. All words and sentiments are our own and specific to our play experience.

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