Given the long history of video games and the industry’s predilection to pump out sequels at a pace that puts rabbits making babies to shame, it is a wonder that there are so few long standing franchises in the medium. Sure we have Nintendo, who has made its name re-inventing its franchises for each new generation, but once you look past them the number of franchises, minus sports games, with real longevity gets a lot thinner. This makes the continuing relevance of Square-Enix’s series Final Fantasy all the more impressive.
I love the art of storytelling and tend towards games that feed that love, but this wasn’t always the case. When I was growing up we were a Mario and Sonic household. The video games we got were supposed to be appealing to everyone and the only one in the house who had any interest in VG-RPGs was myself. My brother and I would rent a PS1 for a weekend from the video store and I often would pick up FFVII having to restart the game anew every time and get as far as I could in the few hours we weren’t playing whatever he picked out . The only game we ever had that could even be considered an RPG was Ocarina of Time.
It wasn’t until I came back to gaming in the mid-aughts that my love for the RPG truly flourished, but for whatever reason I barely played anything Final Fantasy. I did finally beat FFVII and loved it, but even then I made little effort to go back and play any of the other games. Then FFXV dropped and when I was done playing I was hungry for more so I decided to hunker down and play these games (the fact that several of them were available for cheap didn’t hurt, of course) and have spent a good portion of 2017 up to now playing Final Fantasy games.
So I’m going to look at the Final Fantasy games I’ve played and rank them based on my experiences with each. It is a chance to see how the games as well as myself as a person have evolved over the years.
Couple of points before we start:
1. I haven’t played every Final Fantasy game. This isn’t a comprehensive breakdown of the entire franchise, it’s about my time with the games I’ve played. I do have some knowledge of the other games, but my focus is on the ones I’ve gotten my hands on. I’ve played enough Final Fantasy to comment on the individual games and the franchise as a whole, but I freely admit my limitations in doing so.
2. I will briefly go over my mainstays for each game, but I’m letting you know right now, I don’t give a damn about which characters form the “optimal party”. My style is to focus on the characters I like for either their personalities and/or abilities and the rest can sit in the back and collect dust. It’s just how I roll.
Let’s get started.
8. Final Fantasy X-2
I am honestly super sad to place this game here. I want to like this game so badly, but I don’t and that sucks. After all the time I spent with FFX and the fact this was the first game in the series to feature an all female party I was all on board with the idea of this sequel. As I had the X-X-2 HD re-release I dived right into X-2 the day after beating FFX. Even though I was aware that there was going to be a shift in tone I was still surprised by how much of a departure X-2 was from X. Despite being one of the release images for the game, watching Yuna pull guns felt shocking, but I fell in love with the idea almost immediately. Seeing Yuna having to grow and change since Sin had been defeated and as such being a Summoner was no longer a thing made me happy. That she was palling around with Riku made me even happier. The addition of new character Paine was fine, but I never connected with her as a character. The upbeat pop and funk infused soundtrack of FFX-2 differed heavily from the more somber orchestral one used in FFX and had my toes tapping and it put me in a good mood.
My problem with this game is the same that I have with cotton candy; good for a bite or two, but then I’m sick of it. All saccharine, no substance. After a handful of hours, I threw up my hands and called it good. The gross re-use of maps and inane missions did not impress me. Pushing band members along a corridor into an elevator doesn’t strike me as fun, it strikes me as lazy. I could have forgiven all that if the combat wasn’t garbage. Abandoning the battle system of X, a system I will gush about when I get to that game, for this bastardization of the Active Time Battle system did not work well no matter how I tried to tweak the settings. The whole game felt like busywork. I could not shake the feeling that the game just wanted me to push the X button when prompted every 15 to 30 seconds until I won. It isn’t fun and I have hardly any desire to ever play it again. Great idea, bad execution.
7. Final Fantasy III
FFIII is about as traditional a medieval fantasy RPG and general Final Fantasy game as it gets, which is not at all surprising as the game originally came out back in 1990. Strictly turn-based, the game follows four adventurers tasked by a magic crystal to save the world. Each of the party can change jobs at various points slightly altering gameplay.
FFIII was the second Final Fantasy I ever played (the first as stated above was FFVII). I had also beaten my first turn-based JRPG, Dragon Quest VIII, reigniting my interest in this style of game and was looking looking for an RPG to play when I finally got a Nintendo DS. FFIII was a game from a much loved series that had never been released on in America, so I was chomping at the bit to get at the remake when it came out in 2006. At first I liked it, but the experience began to fall apart when I was over halfway done and it dawned on me that I wasn’t invested in the characters or their journey, playing the game not out of enjoyment, but because it was there. Not caring about what is happening in a game does not encourage one to continue to play it. Dragon Quest VIII was bursting with personality and had spoiled me to the point where FFIII felt basic and flat.
Looking back, my disappointing experience with FFIII was a driving factor in me not giving other Final Fantasy games a chance when initially released. Why bother if they were going to bore me like this game had. Perhaps it is more than a little unfair to expect more from a game from the NES days, but hindsight, as always, is 20/20. FFIII ranks higher than FFX-2 solely because I’m indifferent to it, where as X-2 actively annoyed me.
6. Final Fantasy XII
Supposedly, according to the developers at least, Star Wars was not a direct influence on the game, but there is too much of a certain long time ago in a galaxy far, far away for me to buy that.
The closest games I’ve ever played in relation to FFXII’s combat are those from Bioware’s Dragon Age series. The twist here is the Gambit system, which allows you to set up and prioritize character action in battle. I played the updated HD version The Zodiac Age and I think this is the only way to go here. Being in HD is nice and all, but the real reason I recommend this over the original PS2 release is the addition of turbo mode and the ability for characters to have two jobs allowing greater customization. I used turbo for most of this game since once I got the Gambits set up there is little need to do more then move the characters towards an object or enemy occasionally imputing a direct command when needed and if I had to do all that at regular speed I would’ve quit the game out of boredom. The streamlined combat eliminates busywork and means the player only has to engage with the game as much as they choose to.
People mock FFX’s Tidus for being a whiny dumbbell main protag, but he’s got nothing on Vaan. Vaan is an insufferable prattling asshat for most of the game, but the big problem is that he isn’t even the true main character of FFXII (Princess Ashe is) or all that important to the plot. The game desperately tries to push the idea that Vaan is central to the plot which is at direct odds with the story it is telling. Vaan is meant to be the Luke Skywalker analog of the story, the plucky kid that becomes a hero, but being unlikable and unnecessary stops that effort right in its tracks. At least Tidus was integral to FFX’s story!
My favorite Star Wars character is Han Solo, so of course my run focused on the sky pirate Balthier, and his bunny-eared Chewie, Fran. I used Basch as the third party member for the first half of the game, but then switched to Penello, not out of any love of the character, but because I had made her a white mage and needed the healing coverage. All Vaan got to do was sit in a corner and think about what he did.
FFXII’s gameplay is too on rails for my taste and I don’t think I’ll ever come back to it. Unfortunately, the more I tried to do myself and not rely on Gambits the less fun the game was to play. Still, it was fun while it lasted and I think any lover of RPGs should give it a chance.
5. Final Fantasy XV
FFXV more then any previous Final Fantasy pulls from the Americas in regards to its look and culture, most notably the Southwest region of the US, but there is also several Central American and even Caribbean touches that can be found within the game. It was a fun and refreshing take on things that I enjoyed immensely. The combat for this, the most recent game in the series, has left any semblance of turn-based combat in the dust, instead opting for something more like the Kingdom Hearts formula. While individual leveling occurs with the gain of EXP there are also multiple skill trees that can provide new abilities for individual characters as well as the entire party. It’s a satisfying system and rewards competent play, but it doesn’t provide as many opportunities of being strategic and tactical as the traditional turn-based approach. I also think they should have integrated the gambit system from FFXII so that the player could feel more in control of the party members they were not directly controlling.
Since your party is the same a majority of the time, picking preferred characters isn’t really a thing with this game. Let’s just say that despite being as angsty as they all are, Noct and the Chocobros (Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus) are all likable characters save Gladiolus in that one section where he and Noctus are fighting. In that part Gladdy-Daddy needs to shut the hell up.
FFXV wasn’t the game it should have been when it launched. With a troubled development cycle and the need to get something out before doomsday, Square-Enix dropped the game before it was ready. The day-one version and the version people can play now have drastic differences in gameplay and I consider every addition an improvement. The only version I would suggest anyone play is with all the updates and DLC and that’s only if they’ve watched the prequel anime and the movie, Kingsglave, all of which provide information that ought to have been in the damn game in the first place.
It feels weird to day that you should play a story-based RPG that isn’t all that good at telling its story and is the primary reason why it doesn’t rank any higher on this list. However, there is a lot to love here, the fun of cruising around with your buds killing monsters along with some fantastic character turns more than makes up for this games ineptitude in the storytelling department.
4. Final Fantasy VI
Confession time, I have yet to beat FFVI. Before you get out the pitchforks and torches let me explain that there is a very good reason as to why I’ve not finished one of the most beloved RPGs ever. Being between jobs and with what money I could spare already committed to the soon to be released FFXV, I resorted to something I am normally against, and used an emulator. I’m a big proponent of making sure to pay for my games so I felt extremely guilty any time I fired it up so despite having completed a a majority of the game, the second FFXV came out, a game I had actually paid for, I stopped playing FFVI. I’ve recently bought the PS1 Classic version on PS3 and am playing through the game properly.
FFVI was where Final Fantasy came into its own and it is arguably the most influential game in the series. Every Final Fantasy since has some element of FFVI in its DNA. It was the first game to not have a medieval setting, instead melding both steampunk and sci-fantasy elements into its world for a more modern feel, a seed later entries would grow and expand on. The cast has grown from cardboard cutouts found in earlier games to actual characters with arcs and personalities with Locke (my favorite Thief), Celes, Setzer (favorite Gambler), and the brothers Edgar and Sabin being my personal favorites. The battle system remains mostly unchanged from FFIV and the introduction of the Active Time Battle system, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Kefka is one of Final Fantasy’s best baddies and the comparisons to him and the Joker are quite apt. A seemingly comic side villain at first, seeing just how unhinged this evil jester is as he destroys the world is captivating and his mocking laugh is second in pissing gamers off only to the vile chortle of the dog from Duck Hunt. If you play only one Final Fantasy game from the NES-SNES era make sure it’s FFVI.
3. Final Fantasy IX
FFIX is a love letter to the franchise up to that point and caps off the PS1 era of Final Fantasy. it blended the established iconography and traditional medieval high fantasy setting of the early games with the more extensive world building and contemplative psychological character examination of the later entries. The result is a whimsical charming game that has stood the test of time.
FFIX at points breaks the party up so that players get some time with all of the characters, also there is the Active Time Events which are optional story beats for each character when a bunch of them are at a town, city or other major location. The ATE make each of your party feel like their own person and that they have lives and goals outside of whatever the major objective is at the time. The ATB system makes a return and although this game catches some flack for having one of the slowest ATB gauges in the franchise, it never bothered me at all. When I did have the full party available my all-star team was Zidane, Vivi, Freya, and Garnet/Dagger. I have a lot of love for Steiner too, and will probably swap him out for Freya when I get to my second playthrough.
Since I brought the little guy up, we have to talk about Vivi. Vivi is easily the best Black Mage of the series and one of the greatest characters these games have ever produced. His tragic yet life-affirming arc is one of the high spots in all of Final Fantasy.
I played the HD re-release on my PS4 which has some nifty optional tweaks and cheats that you can turn on and off, and while that’s nice and all, if a person has an old PS1 or PS2 around and want to play this game old school their experience will be just as good.
I came to this game at the right time, had I not already played III,VI, VII, and even XV I would not have been able to appreciate and be impacted by this game as much as I did. Gamers don’t need that history to get this game, folks making this game their entry point to the series will be fine and will find the characters and setting entertaining on its own, but to get the most out of FFIX you need to have played at least one or two of the games that led up to it. It takes the game from good to great.
2. Final Fantasy X
I have a love-hate relationship with this game. I love the underlying message of this game of need to question authority and the perils of blind allegiance to any religion, government, or philosophy, but the downside is that until the characters learn to think for themselves you have to watch them be naive, petty, ignorant, and more than once outright racist (I’m looking at you, Wakka), and live in a world (Spira) that promotes this kind of thinking. I spent a solid portion of this legit angry at various members of the party for their shortsightedness and lack of independent thought. They aren’t bad people, they honestly don’t know any better and watching them then become aware of the problem and then do something about it is where the true heart of the game lies. My anger was proof that I was invested in what was going on in this game, that the story mattered. It’s a journey that is as rewarding, as it is frustrating.
This is also the point where the games got a lot more linear, limiting exploration to a minimum, but I was always so engaged with the story that this bothered me very little. What did bug me is that the side content and temple puzzles are annoying bits of crap that needed a lot more work. I can look past the optional side content but those damn mandatory temple puzzles grind on me with how poorly designed and not fun they are to play.
The battle system however, is the best in the franchise. Ditching the ATB meter this installment goes back to traditional turn-based action with a quick swap function as all characters have strengths and weaknesses against different enemies. This works to vary up the battle and to make sure the player makes use of the entire party. As such I have no preferred party as everyone gets their time to shine. The MVP of my team however, and vote for best White Mage of the series, is Yuna. Once I got my head around what she could do she became the most useful and hard-hitting member of the team. Despite Tidus’ ramblings about this being his story, it is in fact, Yuna’s so the fact she became the best member of my party is fitting.
I played the HD re-release, but as long as potential gamers make sure they pick up the International version of the game, which has more options in customizing your characters using the sphere grid, I see no downside in getting the PS2 version of the game.
FFX is a game of highs and lows. All that I love about it I adore with a deep passion, but it is also plagued with some rubbish material in there as well. In the end the light does outshine the dark and anybody willing to put in the work will find that love it or hate it, the game made them think.
1. Final Fantasy VII
It’s become cliché to put FFVII at the top of lists like this, but for me to give it anything less than the number one slot would be dishonest. I love this game and consider it one of the best I’ve ever played, period. Sure there a bit of nostalgia of being the first Final Fantasy I ever played as a kid, but it was 2014 before I went back and beat it at which point I was an adult well into my thirties. Nostalgia goggles is not why FFVII is ranked here.
Everyone agrees Cloud is the posterboy for not only FFVII but the entire franchise. He’s my favorite main character, sword-wielder, and Warrior/Knight in the series. FFVII also has my favorite Blackbelt/Monk in Tifa. FFVI’s Sabin may famously suplex trains, but with the complexity of her character I’ll pick Midgar’s ass-kicking bartender every time. My main line-up is always Cloud (obviously), Tifa, and whatever third character I want to use at the time.
Thinking about it, I’m actually surprised I like FFVII cast so much seeing that they are all emotional messes that do horrible things to the people around them. Hell, they start the game as terrorists! What saves them is that the game does a great job of showing why they are the way they are and as bad as the things they do at points are the player is always able to understand from an emotional standpoint why they made that choice. The game never excuses their behavior, but we can sympathize with it. Watching them grow into better people is the highlight of the game and I’ve yet to find a game in the series that handles character progression better.
Sephiroth works so well as the antagonist for the game because he is used sparingly but his presence is felt throughout the story. Jenova’s baby boy is a looming shadow that haunts the party, especially Cloud as they desperately search for him. Sephiroth isn’t as all that deep when you think about it and the developers wisely saw his limitations as a villain and knew that less was more.
Combat is standard ATB fare, with the exception of the introduction of limit breaks to the series. While the cast does does all fit into classic Final Fantasy jobs and are best suited to those tasks, the beauty of Materia slots is that the player can decide to ignore all that and build the characters to fill the role they want them to and then, if they don’t like something a swift Materia swap and that character’s role can be entirely different. Stick to the established roles or go for more hybridized options like I do.
Long and short of it, everything for me just works. The music, characters, plot, setting, and most importantly gameplay, FFVII is just that damn good.
Square-Enix is working on a remake of FFVII and I’m so afraid they are going to screw this up. I don’t care if they add new ways to play the game as long as they also include a way to play it the traditional way. It is a great story with great characters that remains relevant to this day. Final Fantasy VII well and truly is a masterpiece worthy of any gamer’s time.
All images are © Square-Enix