2023 was a wild year for gaming, producing some of the best games of the past decade, which all happened to release on top of each other. Games like Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Baldur’s Gate 3, and Alan Wake 2 were released within months of each other, with several other fantastic games sandwiched in between. One of those games was Final Fantasy 16, which, while great in its own right, seemed to miss the mark a bit when it comes to what fans of the series wanted from a Final Fantasy title.
Luckily, 2024 is here, and with it comes what will be remembered as the year the JRPG returned to prominence. The lineup is stacked in this genre, with several titles prepped to make a strong case for Game of the Year. Granblue Fantasy: Relink has already gotten us off to a fast start, and it includes so much of what we thought the next title in the Final Fantasy franchise was going to give us. Let’s check out why this feels like the true Final Fantasy 16 in many ways.
One aspect that has always been true to every mainline entry in the Final Fantasy series has been the presence of a party. While not every game knocks it out of the park in this regard, they all include at least four playable characters that can usually be interchanged throughout the game to keep the gameplay fresh for the duration of your adventure. Final Fantasy 16 eschewed this trend and decided to make Clive Rosfield the main event of the story, which, while fine, caused a handful of issues to pop up.
First of all, Clive has one single weapon throughout the game: a sword. Now, you can buy other swords throughout the game, but they all have the exact same attacks, and the only thing that changes is the look. You can unlock new abilities, but all of the new attacks with the sword can be unlocked in the first 2 hours of the game, leaving the rest of the 58 hours you’ll likely be spending in here feeling awfully samey. Meanwhile, throughout the game, you’ll be accompanied by various characters like Jill, Joshua, and Dion, and while they’ll be fighting alongside you, they are completely unplayable, and you can’t even give them commands in battle like something akin to what the Mass Effect franchise did.
This makes Clive feel like a boring character to play as after a while, and unfortunately, you’re stuck with him. With Granblue Fantasy: Relink, the party is the star of the show, and Cygames wants you to feel that right off the bat as we’re thrust into an already in-progress story featuring this group of travelers. The game itself feels as if early-era Final Fantasy was transferred into the modern era of gaming, and I’m completely into that. Each party member plays completely differently, and even if you get fed up with the base group, crewmate cards allow you to take additional party members along throughout the game, who, while thrown in somewhat haphazardly, all have their own unique playstyles and even comment on story beats during battles, even if they’re left out in the cold when it comes to cutscenes.
You cannot switch party members mid-battle, which is a bit of a bummer, but you’re able to create tandem attacks with Link Attacks and Skybound Arts, which create some incredible visual spectacle and make it feel like you’re actively fighting together. In Final Fantasy 16, Jill is your companion for most of the game, but you can’t interact with her at all on the battlefield. If you fall in battle, she is not there to pick you up, and even though you’ll occasionally see her fire off some magic, you can’t combine forces in any way, and it feels oddly restrictive. With Granblue Fantasy: Relink, if you fall in battle, your party is there to help you up. Your enemies don’t just focus on you; there is an all-out cacophony of chaos going on around you at all times, making the combat seem even more team-based.
Exploration of the World
It is true that Yoshi P had his team watch Game of Thrones season 1 before writing Final Fantasy 16’s story, but it resulted in a world that was incredibly dark and, honestly, not much fun to explore. The pseudo-open-world nature of the game had nothing to offer in the way of rewarding exploration. You could go off the beaten path, sure, but if you did, there was nothing to reward you for your endeavors. Surprisingly, a series that was known for hiding trinkets all over the place if you cared to look had nothing to offer. You would find such amazing treasures like 3 gold after wandering around a somewhat hidden path. It was flat-out bizarre, and there were no secret bosses to find either, another series hallmark.
It led to areas feeling useless to explore and really made what was supposed to be an open-world experience feel very linear. Almost the exact opposite is true with Granblue Fantasy: Relink. The game is broken down into different main quests that are, by their nature, very linear. However, throughout each area, there are hidden chests to collect, alternate paths that reward players with useful loot, and even hidden accessories to find. The areas you get to explore are admittedly small, but they pack so much into these areas that they are ultimately far more rewarding.
Both of these games are easy; let’s get that out of the way. However, Final Fantasy 16 is one of the easiest games of all time. The crazy boss battles are certainly something to be impressed by, but when those bosses offer little to no way to actually defeat you, what’s the point of making these clashes so cinematic? Even if you manage to be defeated in battle, you start the battle halfway through with all of your resources replenished. Outside of the boss fights, normal combat is similarly a breeze, with you being able to stand in front of enemies for a good 3 seconds before they even take a hack at you. The only thing offering any challenge is the hunts, but they are just reskins of bosses you’ve already fought most of the time, and that gets old fast. This series has always been known for having terrifyingly difficult super bosses to contend with, and unfortunately, they were nowhere to be found here. Where is the the Ultima Weapon, the Ruby Weapon, Ozma, etc? Sure, it’s in the DLC now, and likely more when the real DLC releases this summer, but it should’ve been there to begin with, and it wasn’t.
Granblue Fantasy: Relink is far from a hard game, as your team is able to crawl around after being knocked out, allowing you to either self-revive or get picked up by another teammate, which makes combat a bit of a breeze as well. However, what Granblue Fantasy: Relink has is an endgame that is full of challenges. Many have said the real game doesn’t start until you finish the story, and here, that seems to be very true. You might not need to think about party composition during the main game, but once the credits roll, you will have challenge after challenge waiting for you in the form of optional quests. These have you fighting some incredibly tough monsters and effectively turn the game into a Monster Hunter lite of sorts, but it’s all the better for it as it makes all that upgrading you were doing throughout the game seem very much worth it.
The True Final Fantasy
It will not get the attention that Final Fantasy 16 got, but Granblue Fantasy: Relink is a huge achievement in the JRPG genre and should be a title that many developers look at and go, “That’s what a JRPG should look like.” It’s not the deepest game ever, and the story is a bit on the predictable side, but that doesn’t stop it from fulfilling everything we were looking for from Final Fantasy 16 while doing something unique in the process. The only thing Final Fantasy 16 does better is that it doesn’t have a character like Vyrn, who is in the running for worst character in the history of fiction. Small negatives, big positives, it’s time for a new fantasy to take the crown.