Final Fantasy XVI's first 3 hours play like a fantasy Last of Us 1

When I demoed Final Fantasy XVI back in February, I had some questions. The slice I played was very much focused on the upcoming PS5 release’s combat system. I was immediately impressed with how fast and furious it was, bringing a bit of Devil May Cry to the RPG series. That said, there was quite a bit I didn’t see. The story mission I played would only give me a brief introduction to its hero, Clive Rosfield, and the war-torn nation in which the game takes place. I was itching to know more.

I’d get all those lingering questions answered when I went hands-on with the first three hours of the game, which launches on June 22. Rather than letting me test out an arsenal of spells, I’d start with a much less capable Clive with only a few attacks to his name. I’d get to see his full tragic backstory play out through long cinematics with only a few smaller gameplay snippets between. I’d leave my demo session with far fewer question marks, a bit more intrigue, and a couple of lingering concerns that could be alleviated later in the adventure.

If you’re looking for a classic Final Fantasy game, it remains clear that the new installment won’t scratch that nostalgic itch. Instead, what I saw was a pitch-black dark fantasy that reminded me more of Game of Thrones and even The Last of Us. If you can accept that change, you’re in for what seems like an engrossing political drama punctuated by visually stunning titan battles. The game’s explorable world, on the other hand, seems notably more compact than those cinematic cutscenes so far. It’s a tale of two games

Revenge story

The story begins with an introduction to Clive Rosfield, who starts the tale in the midst of a military operation in the desert. I didn’t connect with Clive too much when I first met him in February. I found his generic gruff guy demeanor a bit flat and I still feel that to an extent. But the first two hours of the game go a long way toward building out his history. That’s because Final Fantasy XVI opens with a long flashback that plays like a feature-length film.

Joshua speaks to Clive in Final Fantasy XVI.

Through the course of the cutscene-heavy opening, I’d get a lot of justification for why Clive follows the tortured hero archetype. I’d met him 13 years earlier as a bright-eyed member of a royal family sworn to protect his sickly younger brother, who was destined to become the embodiment of the Phoenix. A bloody inciting incident would not only break Clive’s cheerful spirit but thrust him into a cold life of military servitude. That’s where the present-day tale picks up from.

The storytelling in that introduction is a bit of a mixed bag. Early on, I’m admittedly a little bored as the story walks through a dryly delivered political drama filled with a sea of flat, homogenous characters spouting lore. It’s a slow burn that requires a lot of table setting to get to the emotional meat. Though once it did get there, I was much more captivated. It seems like Final Fantasy XVI is a dense fantasy story that balances larger-than-life mythology with high personal stakes.

It’s perhaps a little cliché to say this, but I can’t help but feel like the team at Square Enix is drawing from The Last of Us a little here. The opening isn’t that much different from that game if I’m looking at it beat by beat. And once I got through that flashback, I was in a familiar storyline where Clive played the role of an emotionless sword-for-hire at rock bottom who unwittingly comes into a protector role shortly after. Whether or not it can freshen up what’s become a somewhat tired string of modern gaming tropes will depend on where the revenge story goes in the final game.

There’s certainly room for it to explore some exciting dramatic territory, too. An early scene has Clive’s younger brother Joshua questioning why his kingdom should have so much power just because of the magical abilities they were born with. That thread about privilege isn’t followed up on immediately, but I hope it digs into that more. Though it would seem somewhat odd to explore societal injustice when we already know that there’s a lack of diversity in its characters, according to Producer Naoki Yoshida.

Throwback design

What continues to impress most about the narrative is its spectacular Eikons, which make this feel like a high fantasy spin on Godzilla. In the intro, I got to see an enormous titan battling against Shiva. It’s an incredible, expensive clash that puts the power of the PS5 to good use. Later, I get to try a new Eikon battle where I control Phoenix in a glitzy 3D shoot-em-up that’s unlike anything else I’ve seen from the game so far. Anytime an Eikon is on screen, Final Fantasy XVI shines.

Shiva floats in the air in Final Fantasy XVI.

There is, however, a notable difference in scope between those sequences and the game between it. In my first demo, I noted that the castle I explored felt a little underwhelming. It was a fairly linear collection of sparsely designed rooms with not much personality. That design philosophy seems to carry through the entire game, which could end up being polarizing for fans.

In the intro, I’d explore another castle that looked fairly identical (though it’s possible it was the same one I’d played in February, but 13 years earlier). I figured the linear nature of it was mostly because I was working through a story-driven flashback, but I’d get the same vibe when I finally got out into the world. My first true mission as modern-day Clive sent me into the Greatwood, a forest location. I figured I’d get more exploration there, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, I was walking through another fairly linear collection of paths with only some small alcoves hiding crafting items.

The more open spaces aren’t much more detailed. I’d eventually reach a similarly sparse hub area with a few vendors and simple side-quests scattered around. Late in the demo, I’d jump forward to a much more open-ended field where I could walk around and explore more, but I can’t say that it was much more intricate. I could go off the main path to fight some loose enemies and find the occasional treasure chest, but there wasn’t much to marvel at aside from grass. The level design I saw felt surprisingly archaic (it reminds me a bit of the original Nier), which seems incongruous with the enormous scope of its grand story.

Clive walks through a field in Final Fantasy XVI.

Of course, everything I’ve seen so far is only from the first few hours of the game. I never expect a long RPG like this to put its more intricate foot first and I imagine its scale and complexity will layer on gradually. I can confirm that’s the case for its combat system, which feels simplistic at first but eventually sings as Clive equips more Eikon powers and spells. I’m hopeful that there’s a slow burn happening here that’ll give the adventure some momentum the deeper it goes.

Though I’m still unsure of how it’ll come together, I still have plenty of reasons to be excited about Final Fantasy XVI. Its combat alone is enough to draw me back in and its spectacular Eikon battles truly seem special. If the rest of the game can keep up with that and deliver a meaty fantasy tale in the process, it should make for a worthy entry to the long-running series. I just hope that the big-budget spectacle of its most cinematic moments spreads out a little further than it does in the introduction.

Final Fantasy XVI launches on June 22 for PS5.

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