Preview: Hands-on with 'Final Fantasy XVI'

'Final Fantasy XVI' arrives on PlayStation 5 in June. — Square Enix/TNS

I’ve played every single Final Fantasy game since the storied FF VII (which came out, what, a half-century ago? Yes, that long). And I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game quite like this.

I’m midway through my demo of Final Fantasy XVI, which arrives on PlayStation 5 in June. And at the moment, this feels very Pacific Rim. I’m playing as a giant fire-wielding behemoth, Ifrit, taking on a massive, long-limbed bird, Garuda. It’s a slugfest battle, a brawl, a wrestling match-type showdown.

These are not typically terms you’d ever associate with the Final Fantasy franchise. But when FF XVI arrives later this year, it will signal a transformative moment for the storied series. Way back in those FF VII days, Final Fantasy was a classic turn-based Japanese role-playing game, a showpiece in the rise of JRPGs into the American gaming mainstream. But last few FF releases have pushed the franchise toward reinvention, veering away from the franchise’s turn-based routes to embrace increasingly action-oriented gameplay.

With Final Fantasy XVI, this shift seems set to arrive at its completion. I’m playing as Clive, the game’s protagonist, and he’s a helluva sword-wielding slasher, crushing foes with speed and precision. This is a game that feels more God of War or Devil May Cry (figures, since combat director Ryoto Suzuki has a DMC background) than classic Final Fantasy, with battles that test my reflexes more than my strategic prowess.

It’s a satisfying, fast-paced experience, managing to feel like something completely new (because it is) for Final Fantasy, while still retaining enough FF DNA to make it work. In fact, it forces you to rethink the critical pieces of Final Fantasy's DNA. And the turn-based nature of previous games was always only a part of that DNA.

FF XVI strips that away, but it magnifies (and still reinvents) other tentpoles to the franchise. Case in point: Summons. If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy, you’re familiar with Ifrit, the fire-powered demon who’s almost always been one of the first summons you’d get in the game. Decades ago, he did massive damage with a single button-press, and other FFs let you briefly take turn-based control of him.

In Final Fantasy XVI, Clive becomes him. The why and how of this are to be revealed in the main game, but near the end of my demo, Clive transforms into Ifrit to take on Garuda. It’s not a simple press-a-button-and-watch battle, either. I fight Garuda (another human, Benedikta, transforms into her) twice, and early on, I try to go aggro. I eventually settle in to a blend of ranged attacks and careful efforts to close the space and land a few blows. The entire battle is enjoyable, retaining the look and feel of Final Fantasy, and the epic texture that summons have long carried.

This is a game that feels more God of War or Devil May Cry (figures, since combat director Ryoto Suzuki has a DMC background) than classic Final Fantasy, with battles that test my reflexes more than my strategic prowess. — Square Enix/TNSThis is a game that feels more God of War or Devil May Cry (figures, since combat director Ryoto Suzuki has a DMC background) than classic Final Fantasy, with battles that test my reflexes more than my strategic prowess. — Square Enix/TNS

These are not called summons in this game, though; instead, they’re Eikons. And in FF XVI, they seem set to be your boss battles. Clive can still “collect” them (this was always one of my favourite FF traits), but he’ll be able to use their magic without summoning them, switching between spells and attacks from each one. In the demo, he can access Ifrit’s attacks, as well as Garuda’s wind powers and Titans earth powers.

The large-scale transformations, however, do not seem like they’ll be available for usage at your whim in the game. Instead, Clive becoming Ifrit seems story-driven. This will take some getting used to, because I’ve always loved the majesty of summons in Final Fantasy. But those summons can also be overpowering in the latter stages of the game; this seems set to keep the action controlled and challenging throughout.

The other tentpole of the franchise that’s swiftly apparent in FF XVI is the depth of storytelling. And this may very well be the most key element of the franchise. Those Eikons are key elements in a war among a host of kingdoms, all vying for Mothercrystals. Those crystals can grant kingdoms aether energy, so the kingdoms fight. The Eikons are key to this; each country has a Dominant, a person who can wield magic and transform into an Eikon.

Yes, that’s a lot to follow, but this is the Final Fantasy way, and it provides plenty of motivation and impetus for Clive’s journey. Clive has his own personal story, too (he’s not a Dominant, although he can wield multiple Eikons in battle), and you’ll experience the world through Clive in a blend of flashbacks and current sequences.

This won’t be a lonely journey though. Even though I control Clive for the entire demo, I’m joined by Cid (OK, Cidolfus), the Dominant of Ramuh. And it certainly seems like I’ll run into others on my quest, too. Cid battles alongside me early on in the demo, just as I’d expect in a Final Fantasy title.

A lot of this feels very Final Fantasy, and yet the game seems prepared to ease viewers into its more action-focused rhythm. Truth be told, FF has been working up to this for several titles, but this game still might be jarring for some. To that end, FF XVI offers a variety of ways to customize and simplify the battling experience.

These aren’t difficulty levels; instead, you’ll have several rings you can equip, each offering a varying degree of assistance in the fast-paced battling experience. One lets you pull off combos with ease, while another makes dodges automatic, and another helps Torgal, your dog and faithful companion throughout the game, essentially autopilot himself in the most useful ways. These are great assists for newbies, although I’m not sure they’re necessary for most experienced gamers; about halfway through the demo I took them off and had far more fun with the precision of the action.

And that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed about Final Fantasy XVI: It still promises to be a ton of fun. This is nothing like FF VII, or even FF XIII, which seemed to herald how the franchise was working to evolve more than a decade ago. But it is terrific fun. And it’s a blast to play as Ifrit. – New York Daily News/Tribune News Service

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