The screen erupts in a kaleidoscopic explosion of flame and light. Massive monster fists bash against one another endlessly, unrelentingly, each with the heft of a thousand wrecking balls. Fatigue sets in as I punch buttons furiously, determined to blast my opponent into oblivion. I’ve been craving this showdown for hours, and I refuse to give any quarter.
The latest installment of Square Enix’s decade-spanning series gets its hooks in you immediately and never lets up. The stakes are consistently high, the scenery is always breathtaking, and the combat system is nothing short of fantastic— whether you’re battling bees on a sidequest or chipping away at Titan himself. It’s the best mainline entry in the series since the PS1 era.
A Song of Fire
Final Fantasy XVI takes place in the medieval-inspired realm of Valisthea, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Westeros in Game of Thrones. Rival nations jockey for power — and for control of the Mothercrystals, massive sparkling mountains of ore that function as both a source of energy and magic. It’s the most obvious of several intriguing thematic throwbacks to the 8- and 16-bit eras of the series, where sparkling gems determine the fates of mankind.
Our story follows Clive Rosfield of Winterfell (erm, Rosaria), a nobleman turned mercenary who’s hellbent on getting revenge for a calamity that removed his family from power and left his brother dead. His journey will place him on a collision course with Valisthea’s Dominants, gifted warriors who are able to wield the power of legendary monsters known as Eikons.
From there, it’s an action-packed roller-coaster ride for the next 40 hours. This is not one of those sprawling epics that take five hours to get off the ground — FF16 all but tosses you out of a plane within its first 20 minutes. Like the early Final Fantasy games, plot twists and betrayals come thick and fast, and there’s a sense of urgency and forward movement that would be impossible in a sprawling open-world experience. For series diehards, there are loads of Easter eggs all over the place, particularly references to FF4 and FF6, but you don’t need to have played any of the previous games to enjoy this one.
The less you know going in, the better.
Producer Naoki Yoshida has repeatedly said that FF16 is a more “mature” Final Fantasy. And it is. This game is violent, foul-mouthed, and full of what my mother would call “adult situations.” For the most part, it all works remarkably well.
But when it doesn’t, woof. The game hits a number of brown notes in its characterization of women, and no one gets it worse than Garuda’s Dominant, Benedikta Harman. An attempt to make her a Cersei Lannister figure falls abysmally short, making her come off as more of a horny reality TV villain than a political power player. It’s a bummer, but thankfully most of the game’s remaining cast manages to stick the landing.
The Final Fantasy series has always been a showcase for Square Enix’s boundary-breaking visuals (Like hair physics!), and FF16 is no exception. The showstopper Eikon battles will no doubt get the most attention here, with their lavish, trippy pyrotechnics. Each one is totally unique, and it’s here where the influence of the God of War series is most apparent, with brutal, yet visually stunning acts of violence on a mountain-pulverizing scale.
Everywhere you look in Valisthea are beautiful things to behold — moldering castles, spindly spires reaching up toward the sun, and hero-dog Torval’s happy smile. Like the HBO series that partly inspired it, FF16 is often dark, but impeccable lighting and textures ensure what’s on-screen never feels muddy or washed out. And Valisthea isn’t all like Winterfell. The city of Sanbreque, with its gleaming white towers and Sistine Chapel-esque murals, is simply breathtaking. So too are the terraced saltwater pools that gleam in the continent’s sun-drenched desert. Ditching the open-world mechanics of FF15 in favor of a more linear progression enables the environments to feel fully realized and lived in, rather than vast and empty. Though I did find myself wishing dungeons had more nooks and crannies to explore.
Character designs are another standout. Final Fantasy XVI spans three eras in Clive’s life, encompassing roughly eighteen years. We see numerous characters grow and change over that time, getting new outfits, new hairstyles, and sometimes new scars. Naturally, pretty much everyone is ridiculously good-looking and has amazing drip.
Mark my words: FF16 will be the game that launches the most ships this year.
Final Fantasy XVI makes two major changes to the series’ core formula. Whereas most previous Final Fantasy games allow you to control two to four additional party members, here you control only Clive — along with simple inputs for your loyal hound, Torval. This is likely an outgrowth of the other major change — ditching any semblance of turn-based spell-slinging for combo-driven combat. At first blush, FF16’s fights feel like God of War, Devil May Cry, and even Yakuza.
Clive steadily gains new Eikon abilities that allow you to customize your playstyle. You can mix slow and powerful blows, speedy strikes, ranged magic attacks, and good old-fashioned sword slashes. Or you can focus on just one of those things. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it will take some getting used to if you’re not accustomed to managing parries, dodges, and ability cooldowns. To make the combat more approachable, the dev team included several accessories that automate dodging and combos. But these items take up accessory slots that could otherwise be used for other stat or ability enhancements, creating an unfortunate opportunity cost for an accessibility feature.
Throughout its 35-year history, the Final Fantasy series has constantly reinvented itself — sometimes more successfully than others. The combination of God of War, Game of Thrones, and SNES-era Final Fantasy games seems like it just shouldn’t work. Yet somehow, it lives up to all of those lofty inspirations. Final Fantasy XVI is a rousing triumph, honoring the series’ history while blazing a bold new path for the future.
Final Fantasy XVI launches June 22, exclusively for PlayStation 5.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.