SAN FRANCISCO: At one point in its history, “Final Fantasy” was the pinnacle of video game storytelling and graphics. Each title pushed the limits of the hardware and delivered a satisfying tale full of epic adventure, heartbreaking moments and stunning surprises.
Square Enix lost its mojo around the PlayStation 3 era. That’s when the hardware managed to push out visuals that could handle developers’ imagination. Suddenly, it took much more to impress players than fancy computer graphic sequences or the summoning of the Knights of the Round.
What worked in previous generations seemed dated, and it didn’t help that the combat system was going through an identity crisis. Again as technology advanced, the developers veered away from turn-based combat and sought a battle system that meshed with the epic confrontations they wanted to bring to life.
The right formula
After several entries that felt like shallow missteps, Square Enix’s Creative Business Unit III finally found a formula that feels just right. “Final Fantasy XVI” is an interpretation of the role-playing game that feels right for the moment. The latest entry comes off more as throwback as it returns to the high fantasy setting of the past, but this chapter is more mature.
At first, it seems that “Final Fantasy XVI” was aping “Game of Thrones” with its focus on different nations, politics and adult situations. The campaign throws players into a world where enormous crystals the size of mountains are worshipped without much explanation about the countries or the powerful beings called Dominants, who are people blessed with the power to call godlike entities called Eikons. Each Eikon is associated with an element.
The anime of the summer
Although it may seem like the HBO series at first, “Final Fantasy XVI” is more influenced by anime. That’s evident in the addictive storytelling that follows Clive Rosfield, the eldest son of the archduke of Rosaria. He was apparently born without any powers while his younger brother Joshua inherited the Phoenix, the Eikon of Fire. Clive becomes the First Shield, or protector of his Dominant sibling.
The two along with Jill Warrick, a ward from the Northern Territories, were close friends until an ambush from the Holy Empire of Sanbreque led to the downfall of Rosaria. Joshua died, Jill was captured and Clive was sold into slavery. Everything changes with an unexpected reunion and a mysterious man named Cid Telamon aiding Clive. It begins a journey that upends the world order and leads to the confrontation of an even darker foe.
“Final Fantasy XVI” is separated into 68 chapters that take players through Clive’s life. Like any good anime protagonist, he has a hidden power and players have to extract it from him as he discovers how his fate is linked to the grander drama.
Dedication to action
Square Enix fully embraces the action-heavy combat of games such as “Devil May Cry,” but the developers adapt it to the narrative and “Final Fantasy” touchstones. Clive has powers adopted from his brother at first that allows him to dash around the screen and use powerful attacks. These are essentially spells.
As players advance the campaign, Clive acquires more elemental powers, and players can power up these abilities. Explaining this new “Final Fantasy” in older terms, spells and attacks that players used to choose through menus are now activated with a press of a button but the one drawback is that they have a cooldown time.
Players have to find the right mix of powers because there are six spells and a limited number of attacks and abilities on hand to defeat foes. The limitations create some depth as players figure out powerful combinations to take down bosses and elite adversaries. These tougher foes are powerful and can’t be taken down with a few hits. Players will need to stagger them by wearing them down with attacks, and that opens them up to more powerful combos.
This reinterpretation of the old “Final Fantasy” combat into one that’s more cinematic and visceral works well. Instead of players watching combat sequences in cutscenes as in the olden days, players feel like they’re taking part in the fight and doing it convincingly.
Like any good anime, “Final Fantasy XVI” also features kaiju-like confrontations. The developers turned the summoned beings of past games into Eikons, and the Dominants can call upon their power to transform themselves into these enormous beings. It’s reminiscent of the landmark show “Attack on Titan.”
Meanwhile, the confrontations themselves echoe shows including “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Dragon Ball Super” and “One Punch Man.” The sequences are dazzling showing off the immense of Dominants as they slice through oceans or battle in space. These fights rekindled the awe I felt playing the “Final Fantasy” series in its heyday. It goes to show that “Final Fantasy” didn’t run out of ideas to impress players, the developers needed to find inspiration and the right vision to re-engage players’ imagination and show them what’s possible with the genre.
The only problem is that the campaign’s pace slows down after the second act as players can end up bogged down with side quests, which aren’t too imaginative. The stories built around the tasks are good, offering depth to tertiary characters, but they nearly always end with players killing a creature. In addition, it feels like most of the the crafting items just go to waste or feel superfluous.
Those are small gripes compared to the bigger vision, and that’s a “Final Fantasy” that lives up to the franchise’s lofty standards and impresses fans with a new vision of what the series can be. – tca/dpa