If you have never played a game in the Final Fantasy series, somehow managing to avoid exposure to Square Enix's behemoth for its long existence, where would you begin if you were interested in checking out the franchise?
This question has been on my mind for the past several weeks as I've put many hours into a game that I like more than I should, Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy.
Dissidia 012 isn't a game for everybody. It's a game for people who like Final Fantasy. As a devoted fan of the series, I like a lot of things in this little handheld brawler. I like the subtle differences in the way that the different characters play. And I like how the title asks you to play as each of the fighters, forcing you to learn their different styles.
But I also feel alone in my appreciation for Dissidia 012. Most of my friends don't know about Final Fantasy’s fine details. And so, as I have played, I have been mulling over the question of how one might introduce others to this beloved saga.
My initial inclination was to suggest one of the two extremes of the series, Final Fantasy XIII, which is by far the prettiest (and easiest to acquire) or the original Final Fantasy (that has received a fairly nice makeover on iOS), where the series began.
Of course, FFXIII is (rightly) maligned for its linearity and sluggishness, and FFI is a little dry and barebones in this day and age. Certainly, the original contains the essence of everything that comes after it, but I'm not convinced that you can experience what the series has to offer by just playing through it.
If not the original, then which game contains the true essence of Final Fantasy? Some of the titles have strayed further from the franchise’s core experience than others. Final Fantasy II has a really wonky battle/experience system and Final Fantasy VIII has its own issues (as does Final Fantasy XII).
Some might argue that Final Fantasy X, released on a previous-generation system, contains the perfect mix of old and new to introduce someone to the series. The argument has merit, especially when one considers the emotional wallop that the game can pack in its latter stages. FFX, however, could potentially be annoying for someone not familiar with the saga. The voice acting can be grating, and the protagonist isn't immediately likable in his own right.
Here's where I'm going to make a bold claim. I think that if you were to only play a single Final Fantasy, you shouldn't pick it solely on the strength of its story. The best stories in the series don’t necessarily represent the core FF experience, despite narrative being one of the driving forces of these releases. When I talk about the best storylines, I'm referring specifically to VI and VII, which most fans believe have the most mature, complex, and operatic plotlines.
Do I think every gamer ought to experience FFVI’s climax? Absolutely. Do I think that seeing the breadth of FFVII's world is a breathtaking experience? You bet.
But do I concede that it's hard for characters to emote as 16-bit sprites? Yes, probably. Do I think that FFVII's translation is weak compared to some of the other entries in the series? Yep. These games are classics, but they're not without their (what I think are minor) flaws. But, most of these flaws might be barriers to entry for a gamer who has no experience with the series.
Despite not being the best in the series in any single area, Final Fantasy IX is brilliant, and it's brilliant because its components are very strong. The game has a solid narrative, engaging characters, a simple but compelling battle system, and attractive graphics. What's more, Final Fantasy IX shares the spirit of the first five games in the series while also dipping its toes into the complex character evolutions of the later entries.
FFIX also has a lot of little quirks that make it appealing. Having the ability-learning system tied to equipment makes it very compelling to steal new items from bosses. The Active Time Event system gives you windows into the stories of side characters and makes the game feel more like it has an ensemble cast. And anyone who is familiar with the rest of the releases will find tiny nods to other entries hidden in every nook and cranny.
If you happen to be a gamer who doesn't know Final Fantasy, I would encourage you to give Final Fantasy IX (and the whole Final Fantasy series) a try. They are all charming, compelling games that will put a smile on your face and keep you busy for many hours.
If you wanted to get someone into Final Fantasy, which release would you recommend?