PG Retrospective: Final Fantasy
It’s no secret that I love Final Fantasy. It’s one of the longest running and most influential series of role-playing games in history. Still, something I find strange about the Final Fantasy series is that there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground anymore in regards to people’s opinion of the series. Some of this could be the result of shifting sensibilities in the games industry, some of this can be blamed on nostalgia, but whenever Final Fantasy is brought up today, you’ll see a litany of frothy-mouthed fanboys declaring their love for Sephiroth, snobs turning up their noses at the series and it’s fans, or nostalgia-blinded older fans bemoaning the latest entry. Fortunately, if ever there was someone to find the common ground on something, it’d be me. I do love the series, but my experience with Final Fantasy is actually relatively recent. It was only in the past year or so that I actually played all of the games. This, I feel, puts me in a better position to judge the individual games properly, rather than some thirty-year old who refuses to take off the rose colored glasses, or some gun-crazy twelve-year old douchebag. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on each entry in the Final Fantasy series.
Please note that I have not played the two MMORPGs, and so we won’t talk about XI and XIV. I also won’t be covering the Crystal Chronicles games, the Tactics games, or Dissidia. Needless to say, since we are talking about these games, there may be SPOILERS.
FINAL FANTASY I
Ah, the original Final Fantasy, the game that started it all. The game was released on December 18, 1987, and three years later in the States (as a side note, this game was the only NES Final Fantasy to be released in the states). Final Fantasy had a very interesting development. It got its name from the fact that series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi intended his Final game to be a Fantasy RPG before he retired from Square. The art was done by Yoshitaka Amano, and the music was scored by Nobuo Uematsu, both of which would become key figures in the development of future games. The game ended up being very successful, and the rest, as they say, was history.
The original Final Fantasy is one of the most influential games in history- like the original Dragon Quest, it serves as the template upon which Japanese role-playing games were founded upon. Needless to say, some elements of the game feel very archaic when compared to newer games. The story is fairly simplistic- four warriors bearing crystals are called forth to save the world from an evil force. Unlike any other game in the main series, the original Final Fantasy has you choose your four party member’s classes from the outset of the game, and you will use these four characters for the entirety of the game. Many of the mechanics in the original game were fixed in later released in order to bring the game up to speed- for instance, in the original version, characters wouldn’t re-target an enemy if the enemy they had been attacking was killed, instead slashing vainly at thin air.
I do think that Final Fantasy I is a good game, even though some elements haven’t aged well. A formula that established a 20-years-in-the-running franchise is likely to still work, even if a few elements of it don’t anymore. I do have to admit that the simple story really didn’t do it for me after playing so many of the other games before getting around to the original. Of course, it really isn’t fair to judge a twenty-year-old game from the standards of today, and Final Fantasy 1 is still very easy to play, considering how many rereleases of the game are out there. The recent PSP release is probably the best way to experience FF1- it features the most up-to-date translation, extra content, and some truly outstanding 2D artwork.
FINAL FANTASY II
Final Fantasy II was the first of what I like to call ‘the missing three’- the three Final Fantasy games that weren’t brought over to the states upon their original release. It was released in Japan on December 17, 1988, a little less than a year after the original game, but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2003 as part of the Final Fantasy Origins collection for the Playstation. The game has often been released alongside Final Fantasy I in recent years. Final Fantasy II was also the first game in the series to feature predefined characters and an epic story, focusing on four orphaned youths led by Firion and their rebellion against the sinister Palamecian Empire. It introduced several recurring series elements, such as Chocobos, and Cid. Recent released have added a second storyline to the game called Soul of Rebirth, which explored the afterlife of several characters who had died in the main game.
Final Fantasy II is a very unique game in the series, and while it did do a lot of original things, I can’t exactly say that it did everything well. The defining feature of the game has to be its unique character growth system, and this system is where the majority of the problems lie. Characters don’t have a set level, instead receiving statistical bonuses based on their actions in battle and the damage they received from enemies. Their abilities and weapon skill would also power up with use. In theory, this allows for dynamic, open-ended character development in which any character can be used however the player sees fit. In practice, this forced gamers to grind for large periods of time in order to survive even the very first dungeon for fear of being underpowered and undersupplied for long dungeon treks and brutal boss battles (adding insult to injury, you sometimes have to retread through the dungeon you just fought through after beating a boss- in an era before save points, this is excruciating). The original Japanese release had several glitches that made it all too easy to abuse this system, and even in the recent US releases players can just equip two shields and repeatedly punch themselves in the face in order to get stronger. Brutal difficulty and a broken character development system are not easy bedfellows. Other innovations, such as the keyword system, help smooth out the overall package. Still, I would have no problem saying that Final Fantasy II, however admirable its original elements are, is one of the weakest games in the series. In fact, if not for XIV, it’d probably be the worst. Fortunately for Final Fantasy II, being the worst game in a series of really good games isn’t the worst that could happen.
FINAL FANTASY III
Final Fantasy III holds a special place in my heart, because it was actually the first Final Fantasy game I played all the way through. The game was the second of the ‘missing three’, originally released on April 27, 1990. We wouldn’t see Final Fantasy III stateside until a Nintendo DS remake that was released in 2006. The DS remake served as my personal introduction to the series, and while I can’t really say it’s still one of my favorite RPGs, I have fond memories of my time with the game, and I’m really glad I played it.
Final Fantasy III once again tells a simple story about four young Warriors of Light out to save the world from an evil wizard (the heroes were given names and rudimentary personalities in the remake). The story isn’t really anything to write home about, and in many respects feels like a slightly updated version of the original game. The game’s most important contribution to the series was introducing the legendary Final Fantasy Job system, which allowed you to customize your party however you wanted by picking their class and outfitting them with class-specific gear and abilities. Final Fantasy III also introduced another series staple, the Moogle. The original game suffered from a large difficulty imbalance which made the game infuriatingly hard, and while the DS version may have toned things down a notch, the game is still very difficult. While not quite as bad as Final Fantasy II, much grinding will still be required to survive the lengthy dungeons and ferocious bosses, and there are definitely some classes that overshadow others in their usefulness (in the original game, Sage and Ninja were the only Jobs worth a damn by the end of the game). Still, Final Fantasy III is an important milestone in the history of the franchise.
FINAL FANTASY IV
Final Fantasy IV was originally released on April 19, 1991 for the Super Famicom, and was later brought to the U.S. as Final Fantasy II, six months later. The game has since seen numerous rereleases, including one for the Playstation, the Game Boy Advance, the PSP, and a full 3D remake for the Nintendo DS. It was another huge milestone in the series for numerous reasons. Final Fantasy IV is especially noteworthy in my opinion for its story and characters. If Final Fantasy II was the first game in the series to star predefined characters and tell an epic story, Final Fantasy IV was the first game in the series to completely run away with the concept- after IV, all Final Fantasies would tell epic, character-driven narratives. It told the tale of Cecil, a dark knight in the employ of the kingdom of Baron. When Baron begins invading other nations and robbing of them of their crystals, Cecil begins to question the motives of his king and whether or not it is just to obey his orders. Stripped of his rank, Cecil begins a quest to redeem himself for his past actions, as well as thwart the plans of the sinister Golbez, the man behind Baron’s actions. Final Fantasy IV’s story is, in my opinion, very well told, and as I mentioned earlier it set the bar for the games to follow it. Cecil isn’t the only great character people got to know on their journey across the Blue Planet: there was Rosa, Cecil’s lady love, Kain, Cecil’s stalwart companion who harbors deep jealousy, Edward, the ‘spoony bard’ (gotta love those old-school game translations), Palom and Porom, twin mages from the nation of Mysidia, and more.
Final Fantasy IV also made several gameplay innovations. In this case, Final Fantasy IV introduced the Active Time Battle System, which remains a series staple, and is also used in other Squaresoft RPGs such as Chrono Trigger. Instead of a purely turn-based system, characters would take their turn after a certain amount of time had passed (in the original version, there was no ATB bar to indicate how much time had passed- that would come in later entries). This gave the battles a faster-paced flow and made them a bit more engaging, seeing as you didn’t have all day to make your commands when that dragon could use Fire Breath on you at any moment. Characters had fixed jobs, but learned new abilities or spells at specific levels. Also, the game’s difficulty was fine-tuned so that minimal grinding was required in order to advance, although in my opinion the trip to the Lunar Subterrane near the end of the game does present a difficulty spike. It also was the first game in the series to use save points where players could rest and save their games in dungeons. This game also features one of my favorite soundtracks from legendary series composer Uematsu.
Final Fantasy IV recently received a sequel, called Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, which was first released in episodic format for Japanese mobile phones in 2008, and later for Wiiware and for the PSP as part of the Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection. The game shows what happens to Final Fantasy IV’s characters in the aftermath of the original game, as well as introducing new characters such as Ceodore, Cecil and Rosa’s son. I would encourage any fan of the original to give The After Years a try- it isn’t quite as good as the original, but it is both a faithful homage and celebration of the original game’s strengths, and is is styled like an old-school Squaresoft role-playing game, which many people seem to be asking for Square to make.
FINAL FANTASY V
One could make the assumption that, upon reaching the fifth game in this surprisingly popular series, Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted to go all out with the new game. The resulting game contains a spirit of adventure and celebration, with a promise of more to come. Final Fantasy V was originally released on December 6, 1992, and was the final game of the ‘missing three’. There were several official and unofficial attempts to release the game in the U.S. (who can forget the hilarious mistranslation where the main character’s name was misspelled as ‘Butz’), but the game didn’t officially see a U.S. release until it was brought over as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology for Playstation, and later a revised and upgraded release for Game Boy Advance.
Final Fantasy V tells a more lighthearted story than IV and in many ways feels like a combination of that game and Final Fantasy III. It once again tells a story of four heroes chosen to defend the world from an evil force. When a meteor strike lands nearby him, an adventurer named Bartz encounters Lenna, the young princess of Tycoon. Along with an old man named Galuf and a pirate captain named Faris, the four set out to discover why the world’s crystals are being destroyed. Final Fantasy V takes the ‘crystal legend’ storyline of the original game and III, but tells it with IV’s storytelling panache, making it a still lighthearted yet engaging tale.
Final Fantasy V is notable for three reasons. First of all, it revamped the ATB system, making is so you could see whose turn was coming next for the first time. Second, it introduced the series’ first recurring boss, Gilgamesh. The primary gameplay draw was the return of the Job system, with notable improvements over III’s iteration. It was now possible to master the twenty-two jobs (more were added for the Advance version) with a streamlined method of multi-classing. As Jobs leveled up, new abilities were earned, and those abilities could be used alongside any Job a character used. When a Job was mastered, though, all the innate abilities of the mastered job could be utilized by the character’s jobless Freelancer state. This allowed players an unprecedented level of freedom in how they customized their characters, and it is this method that has served as the template for Final Fantasy class systems ever since.
Final Fantasy V was, sadly, the last game that Hironobu Sakaguchi would personally direct. He would write the stories for Final Fantasy VI and VII, and produce all of the games up until his departure from Square in 2001. Don’t think that Sakaguchi’s lack of directorial duties meant the series would diminish, though- the best was right around the corner.
My review can be found here
FINAL FANTASY VI
Final Fantasy VI was released in Japan on April 2, 1994, and later in the U.S. on October 20 under the name Final Fantasy III. The game was originally released for the Super Famicom, but like its predecessors it has seen numerous rereleases. For me, Final Fantasy VI is a game where the developers were firing on all cylinders, bringing all of their imagination to the table to create a true masterpiece. Uematsu’s score for the game contains some of his best work, Yoshitaka Amano’s character designs are vibrant and distinct, the story and characters are fantastic, and the game’s visuals are among the best on the platform. Uematsu even spoke about VI’s development while working on Final Fantasy XIV.
"I still remember when, during the launch party for Final Fantasy VI, the notoriously unforgiving Mr. Sakaguchi gave a speech. “Thanks to every one of you — we have created the best game in the world! No! The universe! Thank you!" he cried. There were tears on my face. Those tears made me realize just how much I had invested myself in the project. I hope that the Final Fantasy games forever continue to be a source of joy not only for the fans, but for the developers as well!"
Final Fantasy VI initially seems to tell another version of the timeworn Final Fantasy tale of a group of rebels fighting to save their homeland from an evil empire. Beneath this surface, however, is one of the most engaging stories ever told in a video game. In a steampunk-styled world, the Gestahlian Empire is harnessing the power of Magitech in a campaign for world domination. Central to the conflict are the Espers, powerful demi-gods who wield magic and are thought to be myths. A half-human and half-esper girl named Terra is freed from her enslavement by the Empire, and joins the rebellion as they seek magical armament in order to properly combat the Empire, and the sadistic villain Kefka. 1000 years previously, magical war devastated the land, and it is feared that such a conflict may arise again. While Terra could be described as a protagonist, in truth Final Fantasy VI has no real ‘main’ character- every party member who joins you in the game is a well-rounded and developed character. Characters like Edgar, Setzer, Celes, Shadow, and many others all have their own motivations, backstories, personality quirks, and each gets their own turn in the spotlight, particularly after a second-half plot twist that I don’t dare spoil in the rare possibility that a reader hasn’t played this wonderful game.
Final Fantasy VI’s character development system is the Esper system, which is sort of a cross between the Job system and the Junction system from Final Fantasy VIII. You eventually start obtaining the powerful Espers in the form of Magicite which can be equipped on a character. Each Esper can teach a number of spells (that characters learn by winning AP in battle), be summoned into battle, and some of the also provide additional statistical bonuses upon leveling up, such as additional Strength or MP. In addition to standard equipment, characters can also equip two Relics which often provide unique abilities. Final Fantasy VI was also the first game in the series to regularly allow you to choose your party, rather than using whatever characters were available. Many characters also have unique gameplay segments that take advantage of their preset specialization, such as a minigame in which Locke the ‘treasure hunter’ steals enemy uniforms to sneak through an occupied city. In addition, Final Fantasy VI technically introduces the series’ trademark Limit Breaks in the form of Desperation Attacks, powerful attacks that may trigger when a character is in critical condition.
Final Fantasy VI isn’t my favorite game in the series, but in all honesty, this is the best game in the series. The story and gameplay are both top-notch, both for their time and for the series as a whole. Final Fantasy VI marks the end of an era for the series as well, as the jump to 3D began soon after.
FINAL FANTASY VII
Work on Final Fantasy VII began in 1994, soon after Final Fantasy VI was completed, initially intending for the game to be another 2D game. However, development on that version went under as the significance of Chrono Trigger’s development grew, and several elements from this scrapped version of Final Fantasy VII, such as a New York City setting and a character named Edea, were later used in other Squaresoft projects Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy VIII, respectively. Sakaguchi wrote the original script, with ideas for a ‘detective story’, although elements from this script such as the city of Midgar were used in the final game. As development resumed in 1995, it became clear that the game would need to be on the CD-ROM format, which led to Square breaking off its long-standing relationship with Nintendo and developing Final Fantasy VII for the Sony Playstation. With a budget of over thirty million dollars, the developers began making the first 3D Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy VII was released on January 31, 1997, and later on September 7, 1997, to great critical and commercial acclaim. It has since become the highest selling game in the franchise, with over ten million copies sold, and remains one of the most iconic role-playing games of all time.
Final Fantasy VII features a cyberpunk setting that was, at the time, the most technologically advanced setting the series had seen. To this day, it amazes me just how much Square was able to do with the Playstation hardware, as the city of Midgar and the larger world of Gaia is one of their most fully realized settings, and also one of my favorite blends of science fiction and fantasy. The game also features some of Square’s most famous characters, such as Cloud, Barret, and the evil Sephiroth. The story has a somewhat eco-friendly message, as the evil Shinra Electric Power Company drains away from the life force of the planet in order to power its city, and mercenary soldier Cloud Strife and a group of eco-terrorists known as AVALANCHE are out to stop them. Cloud must deal with the mysteries of his hazy past, all while stopping the plans of both Shinra and former Shinra soldier Sephiroth, who has an even more sinister objective in mind.
Final Fantasy VII makes the most of its transition to 3D, and although the graphics haven’t aged very well, the exaggerated anime art style does help make things smoother- again, I won’t blame an old game for looking like an old game. It was the first game in the series where Tetsuya Nomura served as the character designer instead of Amano, a trend that has continued throughout the series. Nobuo Uematsu’s score for this game is the stuff of legends, with iconic songs such as Aerith’s theme and One Winged Angel. The game also remodeled VI’s Desperation Attacks into the Limit Breaks, character-specific skills that could be used once they had taken enough damage. It was also the first game to limit your active party to three characters. Once again, Final Fantasy VII has a unique character development system known as the Materia System. Materia are colored orbs made from the planet’s energy, which allow the user to link directly to the natural powers of the planet- an in-universe explanation for why magic exists. Characters can slot Materia into their equipment for various statistical bonuses and losses, and also gain the ability associated with that Materia. Materia level up, and as they do the ability associated with that Materia powers up. Because it’s the Materia that grows in power, these abilities can be swapped between characters without penalty. This system doesn’t give you quite the level of freedom you might think- characters still have preconceived specialties, so a character like Barret won’t be as good a spellcaster as, say, Aerith- but it’s a nice system nonetheless. Final Fantasy VII is arguably the game which popularized the role-playing genre, and as such several elements of its story and its gameplay (such as insanely difficult optional bosses) are still replicated to this day.
Now, I do want to address some of the criticisms leveled against Final Fantasy VII by ignorant people (no, if you don’t like the game, that doesn’t make you ignorant. If you don’t like the game and you make THIS excuse, you are ignorant). Many of the series’ more enthusiastic detractors point out VII as the beginning of the end for the series, citing that game’s ‘emo’ characters and penchant for cinematics (which were, at the time, gorgeous, and still nice to look at today). Some particularly misguided individuals have had the audacity to blame this on the series bringing in a new demographic, specifically ‘anime fans’. Now, I do like anime. I’m not in line with the weirder aspects of the fandom, but I enjoy Death Note, I grew up on Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh, and I’ve even been known to watch some Naruto and Bleach (at least, before they went to absolute hell). These elements aren’t even specifically part of Final Fantasy VII- they’re in the older games as well, although they’re not as noticeable due to the technology they were made for. It’s a ridiculous accusation, really. “What’s this? A Japanese game contains elements from Japanese culture and Japanese art? Perish the thought!” If somebody criticizes these games for being for ‘anime fags’, they aren’t being clever. They’re being petty, and honestly downright pathetic. Like it or not, Final Fantasy VII was an incredibly influential game which brought newfound attention to the Final Fantasy series, and to the genre as a whole. Final Fantasy VII is still a pretty good game today, too, even if some elements aren’t quite as shiny and new as they once were.
My review can be found here
FINAL FANTASY VIII
One thing that I always respect Square for is that they try new things with their key franchise. It would have been easy for Final Fantasy VIII, riding off of the success of VII, to just be a carbon copy of that game. However, Square stuck to their guns, and Final Fantasy VIII remains one of the most divisive entries in the series thanks to its multiple divergences from series tradition. Today, it’s quality is still debated (thanks in no small part to a certain review by an inexplicably popular douchebag with a large group of gullible fantards), and while I do think the game has its fair share of problems, I honestly still like it, despite myself. It’s far from perfect, but it remains one of the most unique games in the series.
The game was directed by Yoshinori Kitase, who had also directed and co-wrote Final Fantasy VII. Together with returning character designer Tetsuya Nomura, they came up with an idea for a story where the characters were all the same age and for a world of high technology. This led to the focus on the military academies and a ‘school’ setting. Final Fantasy VIII would also have a lighter feel to its world rather than the grimmer and darker setting of VII. Indeed, Final Fantasy VIII’s setting is my favorite things about the game- it’s a little less cyberpunk than VII, coming across instead like a more magical version of today’s world. The game would also contrast between two different parties, one of an experienced group of soldiers who worked together, and another inexperienced group who did not yet understand the value of friendship and teamwork. Nomura’s character designs reflect his desire for more realism in the game, and are more realistically proportioned when compared to prior games. On February 11, 1999, and later September 9, Final Fantasy VIII was released. It became one of the fastest-selling games in the series, earning fifty million dollars in the span of a few months.
VIII’s story is, for me, where the majority of the game’s problems are. While I do love the setting and the broad strokes of the story, it’s in the characters where Final Fantasy VIII fumbles. Specifically, the game focuses far too much on the character arc of protagonist Squall Leonhart, to the detriment of everything else. While this does mean that the game has a (sort of) strong protagonist, Squall becomes a black hole for everyone else’s character development. Hardly any of the party members receive any attention throughout the narrative, and even Rinoa, his love interest, is pretty vapid. It doesn’t help that Squall and Rinoa’s romance takes up roughly 80% of the main story, and is completely irrelevant for most of that time. Even the villainous Ultimecia suffers in the long run, and she is given almost no motivation for her actions. While I understand that one of the game’s main themes is ‘growing up’, and I suppose Squall does have a good character arc, the rest of the story just isn’t up to snuff.
Final Fantasy VIII has a great deal of unique gameplay features that set it apart from its peers. The most controversial is the Junction System, the game’s character development system. Basically, by Junctioning a ‘Guardian Force’ (Final Fantasy VIII’s version of the classic Final Fantasy summons) to a character, they will be able to learn specific abilities from that GF. Alright, so that part’s kind of like the Esper System. Here’s the bad part. Because enemies level up with the party, the only way to become strong enough to beat the game is to abuse the Junction system. You do this by Junctioning magic spells to your stats. Certain spells give different increases to various stats. You can also junction magic to your elemental or status resistances in order to make your character stronger against those types of attacks. Now, here’s the biggest problem with this system- it’s completely broken. It’s far too easy to abuse this system and the GF abilities, stockpile hundreds of spells, and subsequently break the difficulty over your knee, because literally nothing will be able to kill you if you Junction properly. The second problem goes hand in hand with this- you absolutely need large amounts of any given spell in order for it to be worthwhile for Junctioning, and gathering this magic is a painfully tedious process. You also spend far too much time fiddling about with menus making sure your Junctions are all set. Other, less controversial additions include leveling up every 1000 experience points, the method for summoning (a lengthy attack animation that follows a brief charging period during which a GF can take damage or even be killed outright), the lack of magic points, a complex card-battling minigame called Triple Triad, and a new method of triggering Limit Breaks.
All that aside, though, while Final Fantasy VIII does have many flaws, it also has many strengths. Nobuo Uematsu’s music is better than ever here, and the game is still very good looking, even more so than VII. The game’s numerous FMV sequences in particular are visual feasts. All these elements and more make Final Fantasy VIII one of the weaker games in the series, but still a very unique experience.
FINAL FANTASY IX
After the radical departure from series tradition that was Final Fantasy VIII, Square hadn’t decided whether Hironobu Sakaguchi’s new side project would be a mainline series title or a ‘gaiden’ spin-off. They began working on three Final Fantasy titles simultaneously, one of which that was then the ‘true’ follow up to Final Fantasy VIII, and an online game- both of these would eventually grow into Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XI, respectively. It was decided that Sakaguchi’s little side game would now be the ninth entry in the Final Fantasy series. The game was intended to be a homage to the series’ past- unlike the heavy science fiction elements of VII and VIII, this game would return to the more traditional fantasy setting, and have a more lighthearted story to boot. Sakaguchi has said in interviews that Final Fantasy IX is his favorite game in the series, because it is “closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be.” Final Fantasy IX was the last game in the series to be released for the original Playstation, and was released in Japan on July 7, 2000, and in the U.S. on November 13, 2000.
Final Fantasy IX’s story and character designs are all homages to the more lighthearted style of the older Final Fantasy games, and in my opinion it often comes across as a 3D version of Final Fantasy V- the same lighthearted atmosphere and spirit of adventure returns, but Final Fantasy IX also tells a very good story with interesting characters. When Brahne, the queen of Alexandria, declares war on the other nations of the Mist Continent, her daughter Princess Garnet attempts to escape her mother’s grasp and uncover the truth behind her actions. Accompanied by her loyal knight Steiner (whose seriousness is played for laughs), she is ‘kidnapped’ by a bandit group called Tantalus, and monkey-tailed thief Zidane Tribal. Zidane, Garnett, Steiner, and a host of other colorful characters must stop Brahne and uncover the motives of an arms dealer named Kuja. The style and tone of Final Fantasy IX are indeed very reminiscent of older games, but the story is still very well told and as engaging as ever. Several of the characters are interesting, but one in particular, Vivi, takes the cake. Donned with Yoshitaka Amano’s classic Black Mage design, Vivi is a young and naïve boy who discovers that Black Mages are manufactured by Alexandria as mindless weapons of war, and embarks on a quest to discover his true origins. The story is fleshed out by Active Time Events, brief cutscenes that reveal what is going on in locations other than where the characters currently are.
Final Fantasy IX’s gameplay is also a return to form of sorts, bringing back traditional level ups after VIII’s level scaling antics. IX’s character development system isn’t all that complex, which is refreshing. Characters can obtain new abilities with their equipment, and after enough AP is earned, that ability is permanently retained. This encourages players to hold on to weaker equipment in order to earn every ability, although it does invite a fair bit of grinding at times when abilities start to get expensive. IX’s other major addition is the Trance system, which unfortunately is the worst Limit Break method in the series. Characters enter Trance Mode after enough damage has been taken, a powered up state with much stronger abilities, but unfortunately, because the player cannot control when Trance activates, it all too often is wasted on weak enemies, and it takes far too long to build up for it to be reliable.
I do love Final Fantasy IX, and one could make an effective argument for it being the best of the Playstation entries. I don’t personally share that view, because while Final Fantasy IX is a great throwback to a series I adore, the story is good, and the music and graphics are some of the best on the Playstation hardware, I just don’t like it as much as other games in the series. I don’t really know why, even though I think it’s a great game nonetheless. Final Fantasy IX, unfortunately, marks the end of an era for Final Fantasy. While I have never seen the dip in quality that many Final Fantasy detractors claim exists, Final Fantasy IX is the closest a main game in the series has gotten to recapturing the spirit of the classics in a long time, and for that it deserves recognition.
FINAL FANTASY X
While I know I said earlier that Final Fantasy VI is the best game in the series, in truth, my favorite has to be Final Fantasy X. And to this day, I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it’s just that the gameplay was really, really fun. Maybe it was the interesting story. Maybe it’s just because it was the Final Fantasy VII of my generation, the game that we all grew up with. Final Fantasy X, admittedly, isn’t a perfect game, but it’s still a fantastic entry in the series.
Final Fantasy X’s development began in 1999, along with Final Fantasy IX and XI- the idea being three games with wildly different offerings. Final Fantasy X would be the first game in the series on the Playstation 2, featuring full voice acting and three dimensional backgrounds. The game’s design was meant to be heavily Asian, when compared to the more European design of the prior games. The topography, character design, and musical score are meant to invoke a more Asian feel. The story of Final Fantasy X went through several revisions, but was eventually centered on the water-filled world of Spira, and focused on some very deep religious themes. Due to hardware limitations, some of the ideas present in early beta versions of the game were not kept, such as seamless entry into battle and full manipulation of the camera. On July 19, 2001, and later December 17, Final Fantasy X was released. It immediately became another highly successful and critically acclaimed game, successfully bringing the series into 3D. While some people criticized the game’s linearity (a criticism also levied against the recent Final Fantasy XIII, which is arguably less linear than X) and the uneven quality of the voice acting, Final Fantasy X still went on to sell over eight million copies.
Final Fantasy X begins and ends in the futuristic city of Zanarkand, where protagonist Tidus resides. One day an ocean-dwelling monster named sin attacks Zanarkand, and when Tidus awakens he is in another world called Spira, in which Zanarkand was destroyed 1000 years ago and Sin terrorizes the land. In order to figure out what happened and how he might get back home, Tidus ends up on a pilgrimage with a summoner named Yuna, whose duty is to sacrifice herself so that Sin might be temporarily vanquished. The story of Final Fantasy X, in my opinion, is very well-told, with the aforementioned religious themes and Tidus and Yuna’s developing romance being much better realized than Squall and Rinoa’s. The other characters, including the silent guardian Auron and Tidus’ missing father Jecht, are also very interesting and well developed. The dialogue and voice acting don’t always carry the story as well as they should have (the infamous ‘laughing scene’ comes to mind), but overall, it’s a very good story. The ending, in particular, is positively heartbreaking.
Final Fantasy X is the first game since IV to not feature the Active Time Battle System, instead using a more traditional turn-based style. Once again, you control a party of three, but you have as much time as you want to select an action. A handy turn count shows who is next in line for an action, and you can switch who is in your party at any time, making battles very strategic. Final Fantasy X also features the Sphere Grid, its character development system. By moving along a grid of spherical ‘nodes’, and using spheres to power them up, each character can obtain stat bonuses and new abilities. While each character is initially limited to their own section of the Grid, eventually it all opens up, allowing any character to move into other sections of the Grid and theoretically learn everything in the game. This makes the Sphere Grid one of the most open-ended character development systems in the series, and one of my favorites. Overdrives, the new Limit Breaks, were also improved by allowing the player to choose the manner in which they were charged, instead of always charging when a character took damage. Summons played an integral role in the story, and in combat, for the first time in the series, they could be controlled by the player. Final Fantasy X also used numerous CG sequences to complement its already stunning visuals, and Nobuo Uematsu teamed up with Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu to create one of the most diverse soundtracks in the series. The haunting notes of ‘To Zanarkand’ are particularly memorable.
Final Fantasy X is also unique in that it spawned the first direct sequel in the series, the somewhat awkwardly named Final Fantasy X-2, which was released in 2003. X-2 brought back the ATB system and introduced Dresspheres, a class system that allowed characters to switch Jobs in the heat of battle. Final Fantasy X-2 was the first Final Fantasy to be released by the then-newly formed Square Enix merge, and it’s a rather controversial entry. The gameplay is great, but the story is much more lighthearted, and not always in a good way. It doesn’t really have much to do with X initially, starring Yuna after the end of Final Fantasy X, but focusing on an all-girl party and having an upbeat, eccentric style. The oversexed redesign of the characters and the often goofy story were honestly pretty terrible, but all in all, I feel that X-2 is just a harmless experiment, nothing more.
FINAL FANTASY XII
The world of Ivalice has been used before in other Square games. It was introduced in Final Fantasy Tactics, and later used for Vagrant Story, the Tactics Advance games, and for Final Fantasy XII. Yasumi Matsuno, creator of Ivalice, was originally set to direct and produce Final Fantasy XII, but had to bow out midway through its development due to health reasons. Hitoshi Sakimoto composed the music, although uematsu did contribute to the score with the ending theme ‘Kiss Me Good Bye”. Final Fantasy XII had a development of five years, the longest in the series’ history. A demo was released in the U.S. alongside Dragon Quest VIII (the Dragon Quest series having been picked up by Square as part of the merger), and Final Fantasy XII was finally released on March 16, 2006 in Japan, and then in the U.S. on October 31, 2006. It has since sold 5.2 million copies, making it the fourth best-selling Playstation 2 game of all time.
Final Fantasy XII occasionally seems to get an undeservedly bad reputation from many gamers (less so of late). For me, there’s only one thing about the game I don’t like- Vaan, easily the most annoying protagonist in the series. Like Tidus before him, he’s supposed to be a blank slate that allows the audience to receive exposition, but Vaan has pretty much zero contribution to the overall story, which isn’t even about him. Everything else- and I mean, everything else- is great. The story, much more focused on political intrigue (standard for Yasumi Matsuno’s work) tells the story of Dalmasca, a small kingdom caught in the crossfire of two warring empires, the Archadian Empire and the Rozarrian Empire. When Archadia attacks Dalmasca with the intent of expanding its borders, the young Lord Rassler goes out to fight them off, only to be killed and for his newlywed wife, Princess Ashe, to commit suicide out of grief. Rasler’s loyal captain, Bosch von Ronsenburg, is later convicted of murdering the king of Dalmasca at a peace treaty signing with Archadia, and so the Archadians occupy Dalmasca. Years later, a young street urchin named Vann gets caught up in a rebellion led by the former princess Ashe, who faked her own death. With the help of a pair of Sky Pirates, Balthier and Fraan, and the dishonored Basch, they set out to free their homeland from Archadia and put Ashe back on the throne. Now, I’ve heard criticism against XII that says the politically charged storyline takes the plot away from the characters, but I very much disagree. While Vaan and his childhood friend Penelo are some of the most boring characters I’ve ever witnessed, Basch, Ashe, and especially the wisecracking Balthier more than make up for it. The characters also have really good dialogue, with some of the best writing I’ve seen in the series. The story does slow down considerably during the middle portion of the game, but overall, Final Fantasy XII’s story is excellent.
Like every game in the series, XII has unique gameplay elements. One of the most often criticized is the combat system, which seamlessly integrates with the areas you explore and is in real-time. This Active Dimension Battle system still runs similar to the ATB system, but with customizable AI commands called Gambits and the free-flowing combat, Final Fantasy XII resembles other MMO-inspired RPGs (or, indeed, most WRPGs). Honestly, I don’t understand the whining about this. Final Fantasy XII brings the series forward while retaining what made the games great- which is exactly what people want from the newer games, right?
Final Fantasy XII’s character development scheme is the License Board. By spending License points earned in battle, characters purchase tiles on their board, which enable them to use new weapons and armor, spells, and abilities. It’s not as open-ended as other character growth systems out there, and it is kind of annoying having your equipment restricted by your Licenses, but overall the system works. My only major complaint with the License Board is that it pretty much requires you to build all your characters the exact same way, so that they will retain their usefulness. Limit Breaks return in the form of Quickenings, powerful attacks that consume all of a character’s MP, but can be chained together to deliver devastating combos. Summons return as well, once again known as ‘Espers’, and again can be controlled during the battle alongside their summoner. Final Fantasy XII does feature a fair bit of grinding, seeing as your non-active party members receive no experience. The game’s graphics are top-notch, as is to be expected from Square, although I don’t like Hitoshi Sakimoto’s music as much as Uematsu’s. It would be another four years between the last Final Fantasy on Playstation 2, and the first for the current generation of consoles.
FINAL FANTASY XIII
Final Fantasy XIII is one of the most fiercely debated titles in recent memory, even though it’s been almost two years since its release. While it was well received by critics and sold quite well, many people take issue with the game’s numerous departures from series tradition. Like with VIII before it, it’s a controversial game, and I understand that some people may not like it. The fact is, though, it’s still a very good game, I enjoyed it very much, and unlike VIII, most of the gameplay changes it made actually worked. Keeping that in mind, here is my synopsis of the most recent entry in the Final Fantasy franchise.
Final Fantasy XIII began development as a Playstation 2 title, but was later moved to Playstation 3 as the first next-gen Final Fantasy game. Series producer Kitase has since revealed that the early concept for the game had been thought up as far back as 2004. The overarching theme for the game was ‘a future/fantasy world’ and ‘people fighting against fate’. The game and it’s female protagonist Lightning were revealed at E3 2006, and since that time the game would undergo several shifts in gameplay style. Director and writer Motomu Toriyama (who had also directed Final Fantasy X) has stated several times that Final Fantasy XIII’s story was the primary focus of development, which could contribute to these numerous gameplay shifts. In 2008, it was revealed that Final Fantasy XIII would no longer be a Playstation 3 exclusive, but would also be developed for Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and the 360 version would be exclusive to the American and PAL regions. According to the developers, Final Fantasy XIII had a very problematic development due to a ‘lack of unified vision’, also revealing that the game’s core elements hadn’t been finalized until the playable demo released with 2009’s CGI film Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete. Finally, Final Fantasy XIII was released on December 17, 2009 in Japan, and later on March 9, 2010 in the United States. The game was well-received critically, and has since sold 6.5 million copies worldwide. While the game has received a polarized reception from fans (primarily due to the game’s linearity when compared to its predecessor, XII), it was a remarkably successful title.
Final Fantasy XIII told the tale of two worlds- the spherical world of Cocoon, and the world of Pulse that Cocoon floated over. Ruled over by the Sanctum, and protected by magical beings called Fal’cie, the people of Cocoon live in constant fear of Pulse invasion. When a Fal’cie from Pulse is found inside Cocoon, the government begins a Purge of any citizens that may have been tainted by the outsider. Lightning, a former soldier, and her companions manage to escape the Purge, but end up being branded as L’cie (Fal’cie slaves) by the Pulsian creature. Haunted by a fate that they don’t understand, six people from different backgrounds must put aside their differences and unite, not only to save Cocoon, but themselves. Now, I’ve heard the complaints about XIII’s story, and honestly, I find them to be quite ridiculous. The characters each undergo a miniature arc before the halfway point of the game, which is where they start working together and the final part of the story begins. The game explores many elements of Utopic societies and the drama of the characters, which ends up making for a very rich story. The voice acting is really good, and while some of the dialogue can be cheesy, it’s no less so than other games in the series (and considering the story was written by the same guy who wrote X’s story, it’s hardly a surprise). Some people might have had a hard time keeping some aspects of the lore straight, but in all honesty it isn’t that complex.
Final Fantasy XIII’s gameplay is actually a little more on the traditional side when compared to XII’s giant leap forward. The game once again used the ATB battle system, although in XIII multiple actions can be selected per round, with an ‘auto-battle’ feature available in order to make things easier. You only control the party leader in battle, which isn’t so bad except that you lose the fight if that character dies, regardless of how many characters you have left, which I feel is something of an oversight on the developer’s part. Returning from X-2 is the ability to switch classes on the fly, known as a Paradigm Shift. You have six customizable Paradigms you can choose from, each one switching the class of each party member you have. There are six character classes with various abilities, although none of them are returning classes- Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Medic, Synergist, and Saboteur. Combat in XIII is very fast paced and requires you to learn what Paradigms are necessary to win each fight, although since you can retry every lost battle and you are fully healed after each fight, this is made simple. XIII isn’t an easy game, but with the proper strategy it becomes a very fair challenge. XIII’s character growth system, the Crystarium, is similar to the Sphere Grid from X. Characters can level up in their own set of three classes, although later in the game it opens up and they can grow into all six available jobs. Each Crystarium is a straightforward set of stat bonuses and abilities, and more are unlocked when certain milestones are reached in the story. Of course, the main criticism leveled against XIII is how linear it is when compared with other games in the series (or, by some more ignorant types, our superior western games, because as we all know, hurr durr Japan is so queer and wrong. Seriously, I’ve mentioned before how racist some gamers can get, but it’s still ridiculous), but honestly, if it doesn’t actively break the game or get in the way of what you’ll actually be doing, I don’t see it as a flaw, just a quirk. The game does take its own sweet time in opening up, but it’s well worth it when it does. It helps mentioning, too, that Final Fantasy XIII is an absolutely gorgeous game, easily one of the best looking video games ever made.
Well, that’s my retrospective on the Final Fantasy series, one of my favorite video game franchises of all time. Looking ahead, there are several more games coming soon (a sequel to XIII and an action RPG from the Kingdom Hearts team, among others) that I look forward to. Maybe someday I will be the same as those whiny gamers, bemoaning how Final Fantasy XVIII is so inferior to the glory days of Final Fantasy XIII and wondering why those gosh darned fancy-pants Japs never do anything right. Maybe the sky will fall and I’ll win the lottery, while we’re dreaming. Being open-minded has allowed me to experience a wonderful series of games, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.