Upon first impression, Final Fantasy XVI struck me with its darker and more violent tone than anything in the series’ past. It’s not just in the graphic depictions of bloody battles or godlike beings crushing each other to a pulp, but also in the explicit narrative threads about persecution and enslavement. It delves into the death and destruction that follows in the wake of all the political drama and supernatural standoffs. The brutality inflicted upon its victims is laid bare at nearly every turn, sometimes to the point of embellishment, to strike the nerves it wants to hit. But there’s a thematic coherence to it all that melds what happens to the people at the ground level with the fantastical elements that steer their destinies. And within that harsh exterior, glossed with magic and aether, is a gripping story about characters clinging to their humanity, the bonds that give them strength, and the lengths they’ll go to make the world a better place–all told in a way that only Final Fantasy can.

Final Fantasy has always been about reinvention and FFXVI perhaps marks the series’ most drastic shift yet. The combat system veers much closer to a Devil May Cry than Final Fantasy XV or VII Remake, and is a shining example of what an action-RPG can be. Eikon battles initially seem to be just explosive set-pieces but grow into meaningful moments that are as narratively driven as they are utterly impressive spectacles. Through the awe-inspiring battles and emotional cutscenes, I found myself repeatedly asking in disbelief, “Did this game just do this?” as the soundtrack’s beautiful melodies were seared into my memory. However, those peaks are also met with dated design conventions that stick out like sore thumbs, making for some noticeable lulls in the 50-plus hours I spent with the game. Still, I’ll always remember FFXVI for its powerful and stunning moments, for those are the reasons it stands among the storied franchise’s best.

FFXVI is very much about the growth of Clive and the people around him, but story’s initial emphasis on the nations and political structures of Valisthea set the stage for everything that follows. Valisthea is a world plagued by environmental decay and war is fueled by the hunger for resources, which in this case, are the crystals. Because they are a catch-all magical resource, those with the inherent ability to wield magic are abused, subjugated, and treated as property; tools to be used and sacrificed in service of their supposed superiors. Thus, liberation and revolution are the narrative throughlines, and FFXVI heavily leans into these themes, using them as a strong foundation to build every facet of the story and its characters.

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