I promise I tried.
Even with all the cat piss surrounding Final Fantasy XVI, I really did approach it with an open mind. Sure, Yoshi-P was casting foot-in-mouthaga every time he spoke about it. Sure the game's tone seemed dry and boring. But marketing is its own beast. Maybe I'd be wrong. Maybe there was a good game behind all the weirdness leading up to the game's release.
Lol. Lmao, even.
Final Fantasy XVI is the first game to make me question if something is wrong with me.
Seeing the positive reception to this game in the lead up to its release, and afterwards, made me feel like an insane person. Was I becoming a Boomer at the ripe, elderly age of 28? Was Final Fantasy just not for me anymore? The answer to both of these questions is no. But I did realize that trying to critique games and other media as a Person of Color is fucking awful.
This is because when you're a Person of Color and you see shit that makes you feel bad, commenting on it immediately riles up the ire and anger of people who know better, and people who should know better. Yoshi-P's comments pretty much ruined one of my friendships because I felt like I wasn't getting the support I was hoping for after seeing something so ignorant and hurtful. It is simply Like That sometimes. Even now I see comments from people who, again, should know better, asking me to view the game beyond that lens, because there's "a good game in there."
Barring the fact that there is, in fact, not a good game in there (and we'll get to that), it does serve as a reminder that I'm operating on an entirely different wavelength from an online base of critique that is mostly white, and mostly uninterested in interrogating games outside of the framework of whiteness. And that's rough! Like I said, it makes me feel like something's wrong me. There isn't. But there's a lot wrong with Final Fantasy XVI.
First we'll get into the good stuff. It's a short list.
It feels like Soken is the only person who understood the assignment when it comes to Final Fantasy XVI. I have pretty much zero qualms about the game's soundtrack. It goes a little too heavy on the male choir stuff, but when he's allowed to stretch his legs beyond the fantasy tracks and delve into some synths and electronica, you end up receiving some of his best work. Cid is the only character I truly enjoyed seeing on screen, besides maybe Clive's uncle. And the Eikon battles are the peak of the game, even if they often overstay their welcome.
That's it. I wish I had more positives to list, but every other aspect of the game that could have been good ends up missing the mark in some way. Tainted. Bogged down. I almost don't even know where to begin, but I think I'll start with the aspect of the game that's received the most baffling amount of praise: the plot.
A Song of Snores and Boredom
Final Fantasy XVI thinks it has interesting things to say about slavery and rebellion, but it doesn't. This is a thing I've come to realize is often misunderstood. A piece of media having strong themes means nothing if the narrative based around those themes is delivered poorly. FFXVI understands that slavery is bad and that free will is good. But it also has cliché characters, twists, and campy dialogue - yet never shows any awareness about how tired it all is. There's a distinct lack of self-awareness in how dryly the story is told.
Nowhere can this point be better found than in the female character arcs. Benedikta is a character who could have been interesting but instead is used to fuel the character arc of a man - one of many instances in which the influences of Final Fantasy XIV reflect upon this game. And then there's Jill, Shiva's Dominant. She's a character who is out for revenge, and her arc is so boring, played so completely straight, I was baffled that this game had the same writing team that worked on Heavensward - an FFXIV expansion that already had a great interpretation of Shiva. Final Fantasy XVI doesn't interrogate any of its own themes within its story beats. It attempts to use violence and cruelty to get its point across, but I never felt particularly shocked or queasy. It's all been done before. I can get a more interesting examination of these exact same themes from Gurren Lagann, for fuck's sake.
But that's by design isn't it? Final Fantasy XVI has a story for people who feel like JRPGs are "too anime." It's for people who think Strangers of Paradise is too cheesy. This straight-edged approach is also evident in the game's cinematography and cutscene pacing. It emulates the long pans and drawn-out runtime of a prestige television show. But what FFXVI doesn't seem to realize is that it's not prestige television. It doesn't need to pad out the runtime to fill an hour in the same way. Every cutscene is longer than it needs to be - hell, every pause between sentences is longer than it needs to be. I fell asleep during cutscenes twice, something I haven't had happen to me since I reviewed Valkyria Chronicles in 2017. At least I didn't drop the controller on my foot this time.
I know I call myself a goopy gamer and talk about how I dislike aspects that prevent me from getting to access the gameplay. And that's certainly evident here. But I'm not a troglodyte. I'll watch a cutscene when it's engaging enough. I redownloaded Final Fantasy 7: Remake to, again, make sure something wasn't wrong with me. And despite it being a story I've already experienced and enjoyed, I was immediately swept up in it all over again. No cutscene was too long. Each one felt snappy and used dynamic camera movement to keep me interested. I ended up playing it for 4 hours before I realized that I was supposed to be playing FFXVI. FFXVI cutscenes are what you think a good movie feels like because it's self-serious and features old men sitting around a big table talking about political movements. But FF7R cutscenes are what a good movie actually feels like.
Last point here: I'm actually glad that there aren't People of Color in this game, in retrospect. The way the narrative approaches slavery is so ham-fisted in its fantasy trappings that I simply can't trust Square Enix to approach it with any sense of depth or sensitivity while also included PoC. It's silly to enter a desert zone with Middle Eastern instruments and architecture with nary a Brown person in sight, but I frankly find it better than the alternative.
But I'm also kind of lying, because there is one dark-skinned guy. Kupka continues the long-standing SQEX tradition of having a PoC-coded character that's just the worst. It's extremely weird that the only character with a hex code that isn't #FFFFFF is a huge, irredeemable asshole, but it's par for the course at this point isn't it? We'll just slot him in right next to Ansem and keep it pushing. I honestly have nothing to say that hasn't already been said. I doubt anything is going to change here.
All of the above I pretty much expected from FFXVI. I was, if nothing else, expecting a game with a mediocre story but an engaging combat loop. It's the fact that the moment-to-moment gameplay also sucks that pretty much broke me.
Devil May Character Crisis
I love Spectacle Fighters (also known as Character Action, but I like the former term more). I play Metal Gear Rising once a year, and have Pure Platinumed pretty much every Platinum game. I know my way around a Stinger. I mention all this because every time I talk about how bad the combat in Final Fantasy XVI is on Reddit, I'm told it's because I'm probably not very good at the game. I promise you I am.
Cool combo huh? So much potential in this combat system, am I right? Wrong. The only reason I can even do all of this is because I have the enemy set to infinite health.
If this was an actual fight, the enemy would have died around the third or fourth hit. And that pretty much sums up FFXVI's combat issues in a nutshell. It's a game that gives you plenty of tools to fight but barely allows you to use them in any interesting or expressive ways. By the time you get Titan's abilities, things open up a tad, but still not enough to make me want to stick with it for a large chunk of time.
Larger enemies take longer to beat but don't do much to let you go shmazy with the combat system. In fact, you get to do even less, because bosses aren't juggleable in any way. As such the loop becomes "use Garuda to deplete the stagger bar -> activate limit break -> burn through every ability that isn't on cooldown -> repeat." It would have been cool if staggering an enemy allowed you to launch them. "You've shattered the enemy, now style on them." But you can't, so instead you smack the meatiest piñatas known to man for a couple of minutes, over and over again.
Final Fantasy XVI is a game that's too scared to go full Spectacle Fighter and risk alienating its RPG fanbase. But it's also too scared to go full RPG, which is why the only strategic options available in that regard are "which stat stick makes my numbers go up more." It ends up being the worst of both worlds. There's nothing new here, nothing that intrigues me or makes things click together in a satisfying way like Kingdom Hearts 3 or FF7R or Strangers of Paradise.
I've seen a lot of debate about how Final Fantasy XVI isn't a Final Fantasy game because it's an action game. But that's not true. Final Fantasy XVI isn't a Final Fantasy game because it's not interested in trying to set a standard for other games to follow. It's a game that doesn't introduce anything novel. That's what Final Fantasy is to me. And yeah, it doesn't always work. But at least it's interesting. Instead, FFXVI is content with playing it safe and following the standards of other games - even though it doesn't do that very well either.
Baby We Were Born to Run (Slowly)
Much has been said about how FFXVI is a big deal because Yoshi-P is working on it. Setting aside the fact that the man has reached an annoyingly lionized status on par with Hideo Kojima, you can certainly feel the influence he and his team have on this game's pacing. And I don't mean that in the positive sense.
Final Fantasy XVI has the exact same flow as a Final Fantasy XIV expansion. It has crescendos that lead into the lowest of lows. Just replace FFXIV's crescendos - dungeons, trials, and raids - with XVI's crescendos - Eikon battles.
The lows, however, are exactly the same. The point where FFXVI beat me was after a truly incredible boss fight against Titan. After it was over, I was immediately sent on a series of fetch quests. I talk to a lady, the lady tells me the guy is over there, I slowly jog over there, the guy isn't there, I slowly jog back, the lady tells me to go somewhere else, I slowly jog there, fight a few enemies, and complete a quest. Then I do it again, and again, before the next big moment.
This sucks. Not every moment of a game needs to be the game's biggest moment. But most of Final Fantasy XVI feels like clocking into your 9-5 while you wait for the weekend to approach. There's an obscene amount of busy work. And just like Final Fantasy XIV, I found myself skipping through cutscenes with boring, dry dialogue I could literally predict before it appeared on screen. There's a - if not great - at least good 20 hour game buried somewhere under FFXVI's 40 hours, but it's buried too deep.
Final Fantasy XIV gets away with this bland style of play because of a decade of goodwill and the fact that it's a genre known for this exact type of busy work. FFXVI is not an MMO, and shouldn't feel like one. Yet here we are.
Get Me Out of Here
That's pretty much the summation of my thoughts on Final Fantasy XVI. It's a game that let me down in ways I didn't think was possible.
I don't think this is a game that will age well. It currently feels like the love for it is a reflexive reaction toward people who dislike action games. FFXVI's greatest sin isn't that it's using a new genre. Its greatest sin is that it's boring. Its characters are boring. Its narrative is boring. Its action is boring. And when it comes to video games, boredom is a sin I can't personally forgive.