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Square Enix has not embarked on such an ambitious endeavor since Final Fantasy X back in 2001, and Final Fantasy XVI is a testament to their aspirations. With a grand and focused narrative that spans over 50 hours, players will witness a reimagining of Final Fantasy's RPG foundations. However, not all of Square Enix's lofty goals are fully realized, resulting in a game that, while exhilarating, may not captivate fans quite like its predecessors.
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Earlier this month, Square Enix generated significant buzz by releasing a demo of Final Fantasy XVI, allowing players to experience the game's opening two hours. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The game undeniably begins with a bang, immersing players in a dazzling clash between two Eikons, powerful superbeings known as Summons in previous Final Fantasy installments. Additionally, players are introduced to the main character, Clive, and embark on a pivotal childhood journey that involves Clive's transformation into an Eikon, culminating in a tragic event involving his brother Joshua.
However, these impressive spectacles mask one of Final Fantasy XVI's central flaws. From a combat and gameplay perspective, the initial 15-20 hours are somewhat sluggish. While Clive eventually acquires a diverse range of abilities, most of them are learned through story events that occur in the game's latter half. Consequently, players may find themselves repeatedly mashing the square button to execute generic combos during the initial stages.
The level and world design further compound the issue. Final Fantasy XVI is a linear game, and while not every game necessitates an open world, the sense of restriction is palpable. This is particularly evident in the early sections, where levels are thinly disguised corridors. Clive finds himself in battle areas, dispatching low-level foes, then proceeds through narrow corridors or jungle paths to reach the next battle area where a boss-like enemy awaits. Rinse and repeat.
It is by no means a bad experience, but it lacks a sense of excitement. Square Enix relies heavily on the strength of the story to propel players forward during these initial hours. To their credit, they largely succeed in creating a captivating universe, provided players possess an affinity for high fantasy with a touch of anime melodrama.
Final Fantasy XVI commendably maintains a tight narrative. The game begins with Clive's quest to uncover the truth about his brother and, like all fantasy epics, escalates to the point where the entire world is at stake. One of the game's greatest strengths lies in its gradual escalation, with each quest incrementally raising the stakes and expanding Clive's story. Consequently, players can immerse themselves in the lore of Valisthea as Clive's journey unfolds.
Though Valisthea is a richly layered world with warring nations and mysterious blight, Clive's motivations remain clear throughout his quest. This clarity contributes to the narrative's focus, even amidst its grand and frenetic nature.
However, this focus comes at the cost of extensive cutscenes. Moreover, many quests, even in the later stages of the game, can feel mundane: travel to a location, interact with three villagers, and engage in combat against generic enemies. These moments serve to establish pieces of the narrative puzzle, maintaining cohesiveness until everything eventually converges, but they can impede the overall momentum.
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One of Final Fantasy XVI's commendable aspects is its tight narrative structure. The game begins with Clive's quest to uncover the truth about his brother, and as is typical of fantasy epics, the story gradually escalates to a point where the fate of the entire world is at stake. Square Enix skillfully crafts quests that progressively raise the stakes, allowing players to immerse themselves in the lore of Valisthea as Clive's journey unfolds.
However, this focus on the narrative comes at a cost. The game features a significant number of cutscenes, and many quests, even in the later stages, involve mundane tasks such as traveling to a location, talking to villagers, and fighting generic enemies. While these moments serve to establish pieces of the overall narrative puzzle, they can slow down the overall momentum of the game.
To assist players in navigating the intricate lore of Final Fantasy XVI, the game introduces "Active Time Lore" (ATL). By holding down the center button, players can access journal entries that provide additional information about the on-screen events. For example, if Clive is engaging in a conversation with his brother Joshua in their family castle, ATL will present reports on Clive, Joshua, and their home nation of Rosaria. This feature serves as a digital encyclopedia that players can refer to multiple times throughout the game.