Final Fantasy XVI’s Expansions Offer Windows Into What Could’ve Been

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Clive, Jill, Torgal, Joshua, and The Rising Tide's new companion, Shula, standing in a field in Mysidia.

Spoilers for Final Fantasy XVI and its expansions follow.

Rarely has a game confused me as much as Final Fantasy XVI. Though I loved most of my time with it, thanks to its pulse-pounding action, heartfelt performances, luscious visuals, and impeccable score, it undoubtedly faltered. Final Fantasy 16 abandoned its most controversial and consequential storyline—centering a poorly handled slave rebellion—and sidelines some of its most intriguing ones, making for a muddled and disappointing story. Much as I adore Clive, Joshua, Jill, Cid, and plenty of other members of its cast, many of them also feel shafted after performing their function in the story, being reduced to little more than means to an end. Final Fantasy 16 is also dour, which isn’t tremendously different from the rest of the series on its face, but it turns this misery into the entirety of its identity, leaving little room for any other emotional expression in the game.

Final Fantasy 16s expansions felt like an opportunity, then, to right some of these wrongs. At the very least, they could serve as explorations into underdeveloped plot points and characters that the base game marginalized. They were never going to entirely break from the trappings of FF16, of course, but the Echoes of the Fallen and Rising Tide DLCs could atone for the sins of the larger game.

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While I can’t sit here and tell you they’re entirely home runs, the all-too-brief expansions are a window into what could’ve been, and I can appreciate them on that level.

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Echoes of the Fallen didn’t entirely impress me at first, but it represented a decent step forward. It delves more deeply into the Fallen, an advanced civilization that predates the events of FF16 and is referred to time and time again, but rarely ever spoken about at length. You spend a fair amount of that game restoring Fallen technology and fighting Fallen mechs in the ruins of Fallen structures, and yet FF16 treats them with indifference. They’re largely fodder for you to cut through, and while that remains true in this DLC, the massive dungeon at the heart of it at least begins to elaborate on a few of the Fallen’s machinations, plans that ultimately led to them earning the name by which their known in Clive’s era.

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Echoes of the Fallen also culminates in the most ridiculous battle against Omega, a bit of a recurring enemy in the series that bookends the super dungeon in gloriously brazen fashion. The steadily escalating boss gauntlet of the DLC is its greatest asset, reminding me of the infamous eleventh-hour challenges of old-school RPGs. In a game packed with some incredibly stylish encounters, both big and small, Omega is a wonderful bit of controlled chaos that serves to highlight how fun digging into FF16’s combat can be, as well as how gratifying it can be when it lets up a little. Echoes of the Fallen’s precarious positioning as DLC that only unlocks right before the game’s final fight deflates any narrative tension it could’ve had, but that only makes it more of a joyous detour than it is one of consequence.

If there’s a serious knock to be leveled at the DLC, it is that it is so visually dry. The Fallen’s aesthetic is a bland one, and devoting yet another handful of hours to a dungeon in the same palette as ones we’ve seen before isn’t exactly a selling point. For that reason, I’m grateful for The Rising Tide’s completely new environment and shift in tone.

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The recently released Rising Tide expansion closes the book on FF16 with one last adventure and a final(?) eikon for Clive and company to face off against. The DLC takes players to Mysidia, a hidden country to the north of Valisthea—where the primary action of FF16 takes place—which is threatened by Leviathan, a serpent-like deity that I’m sure Final Fantasy fans are more than familiar with. Importantly, this change of locale ditches the grim purple sky of FF16’s endgame for a more verdant and even magical land that recalls the beauty of the game’s beginning areas and hones in on the fairytale quality that Final Fantasy games tend to have.

At the heart of The Rising Tide is a child trapped in time by a curse, and your heroic journey to free them. Clive’s primary thrust throughout FF16 is the destruction of “mothercrystals” that threaten to destroy Valisthea, which sees him repeatedly clashing with Dominants, people who have the ability to summon classic FF summons as weapons of mass destruction called eikons. It’s a heavy and political tale that borrows more than a few elements from Game of Thrones, which means it’s also pretty bleak and harrowing. A lot of the cast doesn’t make it to the end of FF16, which makes The Rising Tide’s departure from this otherwise grim tale so refreshing.

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As an example of FF16’s bleakness, countless of its side quests tasked you with finding people who frequently wound up dead. The most harrowing of these quests charged players with locating a missing “pet” named Chloe. After making the rounds looking for her, I finally found the corpse of a child behind a building, revealing that Chloe was actually the quest giver’s child slave who died. Upon completion of the quest, I stood up and took a much-needed breather from FF16’s oft-stifling darkness. It’s not that it was never in service of a larger point the game was trying to communicate, but I just couldn’t always handle the unbelievably horrible places FF16 went in order to make them.

By comparison, in The Rising Tide I embarked on a quest to kill some Tonberries which had placed a curse on a man in town. In another quest, I collected flowers and delivered them to a man because his wife didn’t know how to introduce us any other way. Another still had me bring my Chocobo over from the mainland and introduce it to a young girl utterly fascinated by Chocobos. These tasks and goals aren’t remarkable or novel, and some are indeed emblematic of FF16’s dire side-quest design sins, but they are at least framed by things other than bloodshed and the loss of innocent life. At the end of The Rising Tide, you face off against Leviathan and save Mysidia, as well as Leviathan’s dominant Waljas, a baby who was turned into a weapon and then robbed of his life when it backfired. The Rising Tide feels like a dream of something better within the game’s otherwise tragic setting.

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And that, I think, is the key to what makes both DLCs work for me. They might be disjointed pieces of the narrative, but they’re ones that I welcome anyway because they simply stand out compared to what’s already in the game. FF16 could’ve taken more cues from these brighter, more challenging and chaotic episodes—which should’ve been worked into the game rather than delivered piecemeal afterwards—earlier in its life. They might be riddled with FF16’s pre-existing decisions, but they also show what the game could’ve been had it picked its influences a bit more carefully, executed on ideas with some more clarity, or even just paced itself better. They feel like elements of a more classical draft of FF16 buried underneath its new facade.

That’s probably indicative of FF16’s greatest issue. It wants to be something else so badly that it kind of forgets itself and the strengths of the series it belongs to. Too often, FF16 stumbles over itself in pursuit of some reputation or status apart from its celebrated lineage. When it does remember and leans into those tenets, FF16 is at its best, and some of those moments can only be found in Echoes of the Fallen and The Rising Tide, which feel like celebratory-if-brief encapsulations of what has made the series endure. I guess my hope now is that they are portraits of the joyous potential of Final Fantasy’s future rather than relics of the past, consigned to be forgotten.

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