Anyone who knows this series knows the story of how, like a hero finding the source of power he needs to defeat a villain, an almost aborted company saved itself at the 11th hour with a little game called Final Fantasy. It was an evolution from Dungeon and Dragons that has gone on to spawn over 15 titles to its franchise. Fans are eagerly awaiting Final Fantasy XV (due out this year). While there have been countless reviews of everything from best villains to greatest video game moments, this will take a leisurely stroll through what I consider the best the series has to offer. At best it will lure in new fans. At worst, it may shed a light on why fans are so passionate.
The original game was a turn-based adventure with some of the best that the fantasy genre had to offer; pirates, dragons, elves, and angry unicorns. An entire world was waiting to be explored. For those that were fortunate enough to play this during its original release, there was little to compare with building the bridge and seeing that majestic title screen. It set the stage for storytelling and battle systems to come. Four more games graced the consoles, each building on the successful foundation of the original. However, when Final Fantasy reached it’s 6th game (Final Fantasy VI in Japan was Final Fantasy III in the US), they achieved something truly special.
Most Final Fantasies are known for their music, this is no exception. The opening has a wonderful track that sounds driven and weary at the same time. What follows is a cast of characters with complicated back stories that create a clear motivation as to why they fight (minus some optional characters). The style has a Europe circa World War I feel to it. Everything is industrial and a bit run down in this world where technology and magic co-exists.
Art plays an important part in this (fitting in with the European vibe) as the heroes find themselves in an art museum as well as an opera house. One of the most memorable moments is where you play spy and go undercover as an opera singer.
There are so many heartfelt moments from a feral boy and his father who almost reconnect; a man who went insane and threw his son into the wild and forgot about him. There is a soldier who must deal with the death of his wife and son in a heartbreaking quest. Not to mention the emotional reunion of all the characters, including one who has suffered so much that she resists joining her friends.
Make no mistake, FFVI isn’t weak when it comes to the action. We have artillery vehicles that shoot magic, creature summoning, a moogle who can take a spear and do multiple attacks in one move for 9999 damage, and more. I particularly like that each character is distinct in their appearance as well as what they can do, and even react to battles in their own unique way.
If you’re a right brain kind of person, this installment is ripe with emotional and creative touches. It is possibly my favorite of the series for it’s balance of strength and vulnerability, as well as its style and landscape.
No FF fans lose their sh** more than FFVII fans when they hear the names Cloud, Tifa, Barrett, or Aeris (dear lord, don’t bring up Aeris). FFVII, in my experience, are the most rabid when it comes to defending a title from the series. No other title in the series can boasts having such highly anticipated movie, is replayed more, or is on more gaming lists than FFVII.
To understand this, you have to know a few things. FFVII marked the big move from Nintendo to Sony Playstation. So old fans of previous games bought it and people who wanted to see what this new console could do bought it. For some, it was the first RPG game they played.
FFVII provided a severe upgrade in graphics, but didn’t lose any of its storytelling or character layers. Cloud, an ex-soldier now mercenary for hire, is at the eye of the storm. However, the roster of heroes is as impressive (if not more so) than FFVI, due to each of them having a fully realized back story that links them all together…even the optional characters! Standing in their way is one of the most loved villains, Sephiroth. His cool demeanor while doing unspeakable acts, his long white flowing hair, and the way he works that sword are trademark. Personally, my favorite back story is that of Nanaki. I have cried twice in a FF game. Nanaki (or Red XIII as he is also called), travels on a brief but emotional journey to discover the truth about his roots and at the end we are left with a sad revelation. Most people, however, were stunned and horrified at the demise of one particular character. Any fan will know who I’m talking about.
FFVII’s appeal comes from the characters who are so diverse that there is someone for every type of gamer. That appeal also comes from one bad@ss weapon system that allows for a slew of moves, protections, and attacks. It was here that the summoning of monsters became a spectacle all its own. Selecting this ability during a battle meant being greeted with what felt like a never-ending performance before you were given control again…and no one complained.
This game was also a clear battle of environmentalists versus industrialists. I’m not sure that has ever been achieved so successfully. Far from a perfect game, the storytelling was more ambitious than anything before and provided one of the most recognizable soundtracks in the series. It had so many side quests and secrets, that the options of how to play the game were gratuitous. Those elements alone deserve respect.
There are many hardcore fans of titles that I won’t mention in this article. Each game (even the worst of the series) has something to offer. When you’re talking about 15 versions from a series, you cannot avoid debate about what is worthy, the best, or essential. I say this because I am skipping VIII and IX.
Final Fantasy X is always a polarizing title. Love it or hate it, I would argue that it is the most beautiful of the series. There are heavy Eastern influences that can be seen in the costumes, the buildings, the cultures, and rituals used in FFX. Every location is startling perfection from the sun-bathed waters that surround a lot of the cities to the dark and haunting caves. Especially early on in the game, I feel like I’m on vacation and find myself simply enjoying the lush scenery.
A game with awkward moments spread throughout (such as the bizarre voice work and often cheesy dialogue), it accomplishes a greater sense of culture. The story centers around a woman, Yuna, who sets off on a pilgrimage to acquire the powers she needs to battle a destructive force known as “Sin.” Through this journey, we see how these characters deal with death, religion, religion infringing on politics (and vice versa), and even how clothing helps build this fantasy world. One of the most beautiful scenes (thank to the music, design, and animation working together) is when Yuna has to perform a dance for the first time, to send the souls of the dead where they belong. Again, this game is beautiful.
There is also one of the most tragic love stories in the series between the true main character, Tidus, and Yuna. The way their love develops is acceptable enough, but what it goes through is the real kicker. Once the truths begin to reveal themselves, we have to take a moment to process. THAT is good storytelling. It was enough so that FFX became the first to have a true sequel (Final Fantasy X-2). The other characters has bits of story, but it really boiled down to Tidus and Yuna.
I also found the battle system and weapons quite creative; one guy uses various volleyball-type items as a weapon and our black mage’s power is determined by the type of doll she carries (each doll is a nod to well-known FF characters). Ultimately, though, any character could acquire and use almost any power (except summoning) which was a little disappointing, as was the ability to change the names of the characters. I always liked using friends names for the main characters.
This is a hot game, full of magic and wonder and exploration. It transports you, and almost every hero is like-able (unlike some other characters from other games like Cait Sith or Quina). Despite an awkward step into voice-acting, the rest of it was a visual and emotional dance for most fans.
FFXII is rarely used as a symbol for what the series is. It has its share of fans, but the overall attitude was stale compared to previous releases. This in part, due to the main character, Vaan, (who often came across as pointless to the main story) and some would say due to the extreme change of the battle system. I would wager that the lack of “joy” in the characters or story could carry some of the blame as well. Humor was always present in the other installments, reminding us to have a good time and create a roller coaster of emotion. As it stands, FFXII is a bleak drama with characters too focused on their woes to provide appropriate levity. Still, it has its charm and positive qualities to make it a good game.
First, we have yet another creative and inspiring setting; somewhat of a French or maybe more Italian Renaissance vibe with a little bit of steam punk worked in for an edge. It is draped in artistry.
While Vaan was something of a last minute decision because they wanted the first controllable character to be young, it worked against them. Many fans would have preferred the original lead, Basch to carry the story. Vaan was an orphan who has a loose tie to the story (but one you could omit without much being sacrificed). Basch was a disgraced knight accused of a crime he didn’t commit. His character carried more weight. Another fan favorite, Balthier, is a sky pirate that would have served as a suitable lead as well.
The plot is interesting and exciting, but much more mature than in previous games. Political and social warfare is in the backdrop with characters so determined to right the wrongs and are styled to be cerebral, that we leave behind quirk and humor. I like the maturity, but miss the moments of light-heartedness.
The games also suffers from monotony. You find yourself battling the same creatures over and over for quite awhile. The “mail system” is cute but not engaging. The battle system itself does away with turn-based fighting, and instead allows you almost a real time scenario. You can also assign what characters will do automatically during a fight. This was the moment I noticed that there seemed to be a little less for me to do in terms of the battle. You set things up and can sit back and let it do the rest. I prefer to be more involved.
If you have patience and focus, you may love the story (that feels genuine and historical). If you didn’t care for turn-based battles of the past, you may love the path this game takes. Either way, XII was a game with good and bad, but much like Vaan, didn’t leave as big of an impression as it should have.
There are a few honorable mention moments from other games that I’d like to point out. The opening FMV from FFVIII was a stunning display. It also did a great job (much like FFX) of creating melodramatic moments between the villains and heroes. FFII is responsible for my first video game cry, when powerful twins Palom and Porum sacrificed themselves to save the other characters. It also has one of the best transformations of a character when Rydia and Cecil mature into their full-warrior selves.
Overall, a subject like Final Fantasy can be rather esoteric. It may be difficult to absorb the game simply by reading about it. These games are achievements and have made a large impact on the gaming world. I attribute that to storytelling, diverse characters, and engaging game play. Every fan will have a different take on each game. What works for one does not work for another. I consider Final Fantasy to be one of the great escapes of our current culture.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention FFXIII. I haven’t finished it so I didn’t feel it fair to discuss it…along with the sequels or spin-offs. That could take forever and there are adventures to be had!