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Monday, July 15, 2024

Final Fantasy 16 Hands-On Preview

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I remember being awestruck as a teenager by the way Shadow of the Colossus dwarfed my protagonist with its titanic creatures. That feeling of man-versus-mountain generated by the PS2 classic is something I’ve rarely experienced since. But at a recent hands-on event for Final Fantasy 16, it happened again. I felt that awe, that sense of colossal scale. But this time, rather than being a poetically beautiful battle, it was an explosive homage to anime warfare.

The two-hour demo was, according to developer Square Enix, “a special version made for media to experience, and contents may differ from the final version.” Pulled from around five hours into the story, the combat-focused segment contained a trio of boss battles that showcased Final Fantasy 16’s ambitious approach to scale. The first of these – a showdown with a spy named Benedikta – was a traditional human versus human clash that embraced the dexterity of this entry’s new real-time action combat. But it was the two other, much grander fights that really caught my attention.

Final Fantasy 16 sees a number of kingdoms caught up in a war over magical crystals. Key to this war are Eikons, colossal monsters that – if you’re a Final Fantasy fan – you may know better as ‘summons’. In most previous games in the series, these deity-like creatures were effectively elaborate magic attacks, but in Final Fantasy 16 they are vital components of the plot and act as major boss battles across protagonist Clive’s journey. One such Eikon is Garuda; a 20-metre tall bird-like creature, summoned by Benedikta, that wields the power of wind.

As I dodged and weaved around Garuda’s legs and wings, deflecting blows that would kill a normal man, the battle called to mind scenes from kaiju movies and anime like Attack on Titan. After dealing enough damage to stun her, I could fire a magical grappling hook into her jaw and yank her head down to the ground, opening her face up for a chain of hugely damaging attacks. There’s something inherently exciting about fights this large, and Final Fantasy 16 seems to be fully committed to going as big as it possibly can.

Each swing of the sword reminds you that Final Fantasy 16’s combat director is Ryoto Suzuki, best known for his work on Devil May Cry 5 and Dragon’s Dogma.

That’s not to say the game’s strengths are only in these gigantic boss fights, though. Much of the demo saw me storming through a castle while cutting down a whole garrison of swordsmen in the grittiest combat of Final Fantasy’s 36-year history. Clive strikes with fury, impaling and even stomping on enemies that have fallen to the ground. That’s not to say all the fantasy has been drawn out of Final Fantasy, though. Far from it. Magical abilities frequently coat the screen with vibrant particle effects. It’s all a bit overwhelming at first, and the arcade-like UI that constantly spits out damage numbers is an ugly contrast against the world’s otherwise handsome art. But, as I settled into the systems, I found the blend of action and tactical abilities rewarding. It particularly came alive in the rapidly paced battle against Benedikta, who pushed me to make use of all of my many skills.

Clive is a nimble fighter, and each swing of his sword reminds you that Final Fantasy 16’s combat director is Ryoto Suzuki, best known for his work on Devil May Cry 5 and Dragon’s Dogma. Fights feel fast, layered, and incredibly flashy. The core fundamentals are pulled from Japanese action classics – dodges, parries, uppercuts, and combo attacks – but built atop this is a magic system that sees you channel the power of different Eikons to unleash powerful special attacks.

Final Fantasy 16 – Story Trailer Screenshots

I had access to the power of three Eikons; the fiery Phoenix, the winds of Garuda, and the earth-shattering magic of Titan. Only one Eikon’s abilities can be channelled at a time, but a quick press of the left trigger cycles through each summon on the fly. You could fire a blast of Phoenix flames, for instance, before quickly swapping to Garuda to launch your target into the air with a hurricane-like spin, and finally switch to Titan to finish them off with a charged power attack that strikes downwards with stone fists. Each Eikon ability has its own cooldown, so hot-swapping between them mid-fight and managing their wait times provides a light tactical edge to each clash. I’m interested to discover what tactics will be unlocked as Clive gains the power of even more Eikons, and I hope they feel as distinct as the three I’ve used so far.

If you’re accustomed to Final Fantasy’s more relaxed days of picking attacks from a menu and find all of this somewhat intimidating, you may find solace in Square’s novel approach to accessibility. Rather than difficulty options, there’s a collection of five rings that bestow combat-easing effects. The Ring of Timely Evasion, for instance, will make Clive automatically dodge most incoming attacks, while the Ring of Timely Strikes will perform elaborate combos with just one tap of the attack button. There are utility-focused rings, too, including one that issues commands to Clive’s dog, Torgal, who can provide attack and healing assistance. With the combat already sufficiently layered, I can imagine even skilled players may also opt to skip the pet micromanagement.

These rings will hopefully mean fans of varying skill levels will all be able to enjoy Final Fantasy 16’s clashes, which are made all the more dramatic by the way your attacks can seamlessly blend into cinematics that showcase a particularly cool strike or evade. These moments are coupled to a button prompt, and while I’m generally averse to QTEs in combat, Square Enix seems to have made it work. The slick presentation made each of the boss battles feel like momentous fights rather than interrupted melees. The overall sense is that Final Fantasy 16 will let us be directly involved in the outrageous, anime-like battles typically reserved for cutscenes.

That’s never more true than in what is likely to become Final Fantasy 16’s flagship battle mode: Eikon versus Eikon. When Clive summons an Eikon you’re put in direct control of them, and each of these explosive clashes between gods are promised to be a unique experience with bespoke mechanics. The third boss fight of the demo – a beatdown between Garuda and the fire demon Ifrit – was something akin to a nuclear-powered wrestling match. Compared to Clive, Ifrit is a very simple fighter, with just a scant few brawling abilities. But this brawl makes full use of that blending between cutscene and gameplay to convey Ifrit’s immense heft and strength; each time I’d land a blow on Garuda a new animation would trigger, my favourite of which was dragging my foe face-first across a rocky landscape. It was a shallower combat experience compared to controlling Clive in the clashes with Benedikta and Garuda, but I can forgive that if the spectacle proves this wild each and every time.

Playing through three very different boss fights, as well as carving my way through dozens of regular soldiers, has left me with a lot of hope for Final Fantasy 16. But this demo was purely combat focused, meaning I’ve yet to see much of its RPG credentials. This demo’s generic medieval castle setting barely had any exploration opportunities, feeling mostly like a stonewalled route toward the next boss. But as previously mentioned, the contents of the demo may differ from the final version, and so I hope when more is revealed we’ll discover it has environments that are much more compelling to explore. Because should the story, exploration, and characters live up to what I’ve seen of the combat so far, then Final Fantasy 16 will be a JRPG worth being excited about.

Matt Purslow is IGN's UK News and Features Editor.

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