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(3.5 stars)

At times over the last month, playing “Final Fantasy XVI” has felt like the world’s most important task. The urgency of the background cantata with a booming all-male chorus paired with some of the most impressive digital pyrotechnics in video games moved me to tears, overwhelming my senses of sight and sound.

Those moments make Square Enix’s “Final Fantasy XVI,” which comes out this week, a must-play title, and it secures the series legacy as exemplar of big-budget cinematic storytelling. The game was intentionally designed to be a roller coaster, and its low moments hit some lows, as I’ll discuss later. But its biggest scenes are at a scale rarely seen in any medium, dwarfing that of even 2022′s epic “God of War: Ragnarok,” and reminiscent of the little-known but explosive “Asura’s Wrath” from 2012. Some fights seem to threaten the very nature of existence, the earth buckling beneath beautifully choreographed dragon-on-dragon violence. They make “Avengers: Endgame” look like a brawl at a Walmart.

Every Final Fantasy game in the series, which began in 1987, is a unique world with new characters, but they all share themes. Like many titles before it, “XVI” is an allegorical tale about the environment. Magic, or aether, is a finite resource offered by four Mothercrystals, and those born with magical abilities are often mistreated and used as tools. Among the population of Valisthea, certain bloodlines will birth Dominants, people who hold godlike power over elements like ice and fire. Various nation states deploy Dominants like weapons of mass destruction, and their true nature as building-sized beasts evoke Godzilla, the original Japanese metaphor for nuclear fear.

The player character, Clive Rosfield, is a Dominant and becomes a tragic victim in the struggle for magical resources, betrayed by those who would love him. His journey includes discovering why Dominants exist at all, and why the land is being drained of its magic. The plot’s strength is establishing these mysteries with refreshing coherence. Past Final Fantasy games famously struggled here, and “XVI” producer Naoki Yoshida said in an interview with The Washington Post that the developers intended to correct this.

‘Final Fantasy XVI’ feels like the series drank a dose of ‘Game of Thrones’

“Personally I would say that past stories weren’t particularly hard to understand, but obviously I do recognize that they have a certain reputation for lots of convoluted, esoteric terminology. It’s a bit of a meme online,” said Yoshida, also known as Yoshi-P. “‘FFXVI’ does contain its own unique terminology, but what we’ve tried to do in the early stages of development was to make sure these could be easily compared to real-life elements. Aether is like oil. The Mothercrystals are like an oil field, which makes it a bit easier to understand.”

In this, his team succeeded. The game implements an “Active Time Lore” system that players can activate anytime during the story to read a Wikipedia-like entry of the story elements on the screen. But even without this function, this is the most coherent plot in a Final Fantasy game since the 1990s, with sharp portrayals of character motivations, and vivid distinction of multiple conflicts.

The fights between key characters aren’t just spectacle for spectacle’s sake. When Clive screams at his opponent, “You’re not the only one who has seen their world fall apart around them,” the line hits because the emotional stakes in that conflict are already spiked deep into your heart. Actor Ben Starr as Clive leads an incredible collection of voice talents that elevate the proceedings, including Nina Yndis (“Peaky Blinders”) snarling as the villain Benedikta Harmon, and Ralph Ineson lending a rich Yorkshire accent for the delightful Cidolfus Telamon, leader of a group rebelling against the systemic addiction to magic. Coupled with sharp dialogue writing and convincing animation, this is easily the best-acted Final Fantasy game ever made.

The script initially feels inspired by “Game of Thrones” machinations, but the game will eventually reveal itself to be classic Final Fantasy storytelling, with all of its predilection for melodrama and characters who wear their emotions on their sleeve. Good, because this is a series core strength. But a common series failure is struggling toward the final stretch. Without saying too much, the game’s mysteries are compelling, but their resolution relies on genre tropes and does little with them. Even if it starts strong, the story burns itself out toward the second half of the 35-hour journey, with little to do besides meander toward a predictable end.

Compounding that issue, the game has uneven quest design, with some objectives threatening to undermine the drama of the core storyline. A late-game main objective involves going to the beach and collecting five rocks. Some side stories amount to little more than “defend the village from monsters.” Although these quests are meant to add more color to the tapestry of cultures, they feel like trivial busywork in the shadow of the overarching plot.

The world itself is drab, with washed colors, but when the roller coaster reaches its peaks, splashes of color heightens the sense of awe and wonder in contrast. In a world drained of magic, finding the magic is all the more special. The map design is an echo of 1990s layouts in classic Square titles such as “Chrono Trigger,” with small, separate areas presented in high detail. The play space of Valisthea doesn’t allow for much exploration, but colossal backdrops showing waterfalls and cavernous rooms offer powerful illusions of scale, much like those old games.

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The game’s biggest gameplay triumph is also its wildest departure from past games, as it leans all the way into the action genre, eschewing the methodical, statistics-based, menu-driven gameplay of legacy titles. The game’s combat director, Ryota Suzuki, is renowned for creating tremendous action games, with Capcom’s “Devil May Cry 5″ often cited as the best in the genre. He’s also a virtuoso in playing games — in an early June demonstration of the game, he defeated a high-level enemy with the artistry of a classic rock guitar god.

But Suzuki designed the fighting to be played not only by skillful players but also those who just want to enjoy the story. The game allows players to wear bangles so that they can achieve flashy combination attacks by simply pressing a single button and evade enemy attacks without pressing anything.

Suzuki, whose previous work includes classic Capcom fighting games, has boasted in interviews that “Final Fantasy XVI” is his masterpiece, and he is correct. Controlling Clive is like driving a super car, with impeccable balance and responsive handling that inject sensations of power in the driver.

“The game designer needs to have the skill to analyze … what moments in combat do players find the most exciting, what moments do they get annoyed with,” Suzuki said. “They also need to look at the perspective of those who aren’t so good at that kind of gameplay. What do they find difficult, what trips them up?”

Even when the game’s objectives don’t provide exciting context, Suzuki’s combat systems ensure the experience is never less than thrilling. The action is a perfect pairing to the majesty of composer Masayoshi Soken’s score, which upholds the series’s legacy of the best composed music in the medium, ranging from loud, face-melting cantata pieces that echo Carl Orff’s “Carmina Fortuna” to mellow, synth-driven tracks that conjure memories of classic Square games like “Secret of Mana.” The game’s battle theme will be stuck in your head for weeks, when you’re faced with any daily moderately challenging task.

The whole “Final Fantasy XVI” experience will stay with you as well. There’s a reason I’ve played through its story twice. Even if genre-savvy players don’t find anything new, “Final Fantasy XVI” remains an eloquent, sturdy work that achieves almost everything its creators hoped. It is not the most innovative Final Fantasy ever made. It’s just one of the best.


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