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Now that Final Fantasy XV is finally out, it’s time to see where it stands with other games in this landmark role-playing game series that debuted in 1987.
Final Fantasy is unique in the gaming world. Despite spanning 15 games, each one is essentially a reboot. They don’t feature the same characters or settings, and many of them bring new ideas about how combat or progression should work in a role-playing game. But some them of the are just … well, better than the others, either because of better combat, story, characters, or progression systems.
Note that I’m only covering the core series here, so we’re not talking about spinoffs like Final Fantasy Tactics or direct sequels like Final Fantasy X-2. Also, there are like a hundred of them, and we don’t have time for that.
Now, let’s get started. I’ll be going from worst to best, judging them based on their overall quality. This takes into design aspects such as accessibility, complexity, art, music, gameplay, and pacing. I’ll also tell you the easiest way you can play them now.
Final Fantasy XI
“C’mon, time to laugh in the face of oblivion!”
Original release: May 15, 2002 for the PlayStation 2
At the time, Final Fantasy XI was the biggest break in tradition the series had seen. Before this, every title in the franchise was a single-player experience. Final Fantasy XI was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game similar to Evequest. It’s also the Final Fantasy I played the least of. Keep in mind that this actually came out a couple of years before World of Warcraft somewhat streamlined the MMO market. Before then, most MMOs were more complicated, as was the case with Final Fantasy XI.
When I played it, I was barely able to leave my starting city. I was often confused about what I had to in order to progress the story or advance my character. Also, while many MMOs are friendlier toward solo players these days, you needed help from friends to do just about anything in Final Fantasy XI.
I regret that I didn’t give Final Fantasy XI more of at try back when it was relevant. I know that a lot of people have fond memories of it. I think it was a good time for people who had a lot of time to invest in the game with a large group of dedicated friends. For the rest of us, Final Fantasy XI was a puzzling MMO that quickly became a relic in a market that soon had to play catchup with World of Warcraft.
Playing it now: While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2 servers shut down this year, you can still buy the PC version on Steam.
Final Fantasy II
“All those who live must some day die. It is our fate.”
Original release: December 17, 1988 for the Famicom
The first Final Fantasy sequel deserves respect for being so daring. Square Enix could have easily made a direct followup to the original with similar mechanics. Instead, Final Fantasy II featured a more prominent story, actual characters (instead of the self-named and created heroes of the first game) and a different leveling system.
That leveling system is the point of contention. Instead of earning experience points from killing enemies, you grew stronger in certain skills just by using them: your strength would grow the more you attacked, your magic would become more potent the more spells you cast, and so on.
The system, however, is easily exploitable. You could get into an low-level fight and continuously attack and heal your own party, quickly raising important stats like defense, attack, magic, and more without risking any danger. This loophole turns Final Fantasy II into an easy game.
It was nice to see a more fleshed-out story compared to the original, but it was still a generic tale about rebels fighting an evil empire (a motif we’d often see show up the in series, but with more flair).
Final Fantasy III
“Why do I get the feeling this is not the safest place to be?”
Original release: April 27, 1990 for the Famicom
Westerners like me only know Final Fantasy III from the DS remake, which updated the graphics and tried to give the four playable characters more personality. But even with this, Final Fantasy III feels like a dated game. Its story and characters felt generic, and the combat was basic. I give it credit for introducing the Job system, which allows you to change a character’s class between battles, but it’s unrefined (no surprise, since it’s Square’s first attempt here).
The story is typical “kids save the world” stuff, and it lacks those special moments that can elevate the series. Final Fantasy III is one of the most forgettable.
“You are the bringer of light.”
Original release: December 18, 1987 for the Famicom
Here’s the original. Sure, a lot of Final Fantasy seems dated, but it was about as epic as gaming could get back in 1987. You could create your own party of heroes, choosing from multiple classes like Warrior, Black Mage, Monk, and more. This amount of choice not only made creating your party fun, but gave you a decent excuse to replay the game and try a different composition.
Final Fantasy’s story was also surprisingly ambitious, starting off as a clichéd fantasy adventure before getting more complex with time loops and other craziness. It can’t compete with the production values and complexities of later entries, but Final Fantasy deserves a lot of love for starting the franchise so strongly.
Final Fantasy XIII
“Since when have heroes ever needed plans?”
Original release: December 17, 2009 for the PlayStation 3
Final Fantasy XIII is a gorgeous game with a great combat system. It also has the series’ most over-wrought and confusing story. All these years after beating it, I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I remember there was an evil pope or something. It was also a linear game, disappointing fans who enjoyed the exploration and freedom that was a major part of the series.
But, damn, that combat system really was fun. It was still based on turn-based tropes — you couldn’t do an action until a bar filled up. But it was more complex than the typical “attack, attack, heal, attack” loop that many RPGs fall into. Characters had the same attack, defend, and heal archetypes that you’d recognize from MMOs. You needed a lot of strategy to keep your party alive.
It’s a shame the combat came with such a forgettable adventure.
Playing it now: Right now, you can only play Final Fantasy XIII on a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 if you want it on a console. It’s also available for PC on Steam.
Final Fantasy IV
“But anger never bears true strength, and it blinds you.”
Original release: July 19, 1991 for the Super Famicom
This might be the most controversial placing on my list. For many, Final Fantasy IV is one of the most classic RPGs ever. For me, it’s an alright, short game filled with few surprises. Part of my problem is that I played it a bit on the late side, well after Final Fantasy VI and the PlayStation installments. Much of Final Fantasy IV’s charm came from its, at the time, epic presentation. It was one of the first major RPGs in the 16-bit era, and its art, graphics, and music are all a major advancement over the NES days.
It also introduced the active time battle system (ATB) that the series used up until Final Fantasy IX (and still today in spin-offs like World of Final Fantasy). Final Fantasy IV setup the series for success for years to come, but the game itself feels simple compared to what follows. If you do play it, try to avoid that 3D remastering they did for the DS. The game loses a lot of its charm when it ditches the pixels.
Playing it now: The DS version still works on a 3DS. That version is also on Steam, iOS, and Android. You can also download the PSP version, Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection (which also comes with the mediocre sequel, The After Years), on you Vita.
Final Fantasy VIII
“Why do people depend on each other? In the end you’re on your own.”
Original release: February 11, 1999 for the PlayStation
Final Fantasy VIII kind of reminds me of Final Fantasy II. It’s a sequel that could have played it safe after the huge success of Final Fantasy VII, but instead, it dares experiment. Magic works weirdly in Final Fantasy VIII. You get spells by drawing them from enemies, which you could then cast later. You also use spells to augment your own stats.
It’s complicated, which probably turned a lot of fans off, but it’s a rewarding system for those that learn its nuances. Final Fantasy VIII also turns up the presentation, wowing us with some of the most impressive music and cutscenes we had ever seen at that point in gaming.
Playing it now: You can download the PC version on Steam.
Final Fantasy XIV
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
Original release: September 30, 2010 for PC
I didn’t get into Final Fantasy XI, but I’m a fan of the series’ second MMO. Well … kind of. You see, Final Fantasy XIV was actually a mess when it was first released. If it had stayed in that state, it would have easily been on the bottom of this list. But Square Enix remade the game, relaunching Final Fantasy XIV in 2013 as A Realm Reborn.
The new MMO was accessible, beautiful, and featured an engaging story to play through. Today, it’s one of the best MMOs on the market, but it’s also the greatest turnaround in gaming history.
Playing it now: It’s still relatively new game, so you can get it for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PC easily. Here’s the Steam page for the PC version.
Final Fantasy X
“This is your story.”
Original release: July 19, 2001 for the PlayStation 2
People were hyped to see Final Fantasy on the new PlayStation 2, and Square delivered a memorable experience. Like Final Fantasy XIII, it suffers a bit for its linearity, but its story is more memorable thanks to standout characters like the mysterious Auron and the priest-like Yuna.
It also changed the franchise’s combat system for the first time in years, showing players which characters would be attacking in what order many turns ahead. You could also swap party members in and out at any time, making it easier to exploit enemy weaknesses.
Playing it now: Final Fantasy X recently got an HD remaster along with its sequel for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and Vita.
Final Fantasy XV
“So, you are the Chosen King … but you are a second choice, at best.”
Original release: November 29, 2016 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
The newest entry in the series was in development for a decade, but it came out just fine. It’s better than fine, really. Final Fantasy XV is a big game featuring an open world full of sidequests. The combat system takes place in real time, but you still have to use strategy (specifically, knowing when to defend and when to attack) if you want to win.
But Final Fantasy XV four friends are its core. You only control Noctis, but his three buddies join you for special attacks in a combat system that flows like a choreographed battle from a movie.
The game does suffer from pacing issues toward its end, but the actual ending (without giving anything away) makes up for it. You can check out my full review if you need more convincing of Final Fantasy XV’s greatness.
Playing it now. It’s new and out for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Final Fantasy VII
“I’ll be going now. I’ll come back when it’s all over.”
Original release: January 31, 1997 for the PlayStation
Final Fantasy VII is one of the biggest hits of its time. Some have reacted to its popularity by claiming that it is overrated. That’s not true. Final Fantasy VII is one of the most ambitious games of its time, offering a rich story, big world filled tons of side activities (like raising chocobos), and more memorable and iconic moments than almost any other digital experience.
Sure, its polygons look dated, but Final Fantasy VII is still an accessible RPG that can wow players with its emotional moments. And it still has plenty of depth, especially with the fun materia system for magic, which has you level up spells separately from characters.
Final Fantasy XII
“With each passing day, the world finds new and exciting ways to kill a man.”
Original release: March 16, 2006 for the PlayStation 2
Every Final Fantasy game brings about changes, but Final Fantasy XII felt like an even bigger departure from tradition (outside of the MMOs) than ever. For the first time outside of Final Fantasy XI, battles take place in real time. Final Fantasy XII plays more like a Western RPG, like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You may pause the action and think about your attacks, and you no longer have to worry about random battles.
You control one character at a time, but you may setup how your teammates would behave with the complex gambit system. You may for example, tell a character to only cast a healing spell if someone were at less than half of their health. You may then order these commands based on importance. So, if someone were dead, the command to revive them would be placed ahead of the one to attack an enemy.
For some, the gambits are too confusing, but I love how much strategy they provide.
Playing it now: Just like Final Fantasy X, a remake of XII is coming out for PlayStation 4 and Vita sometime in 2017.
Final Fantasy V
“Enough expository banter! Now we fight like men! And ladies! And ladies who dress like men!”
Original release: December 6, 1992 for the Super Famicom
Remember the Job system that Final Fantasy III introduced? Final Fantasy V makes that sucker sing. Your may change your four characters’ classes between battles, but they also keep some abilities they learned from other Jobs. It becomes important to figure out which classes would work best with each other. It’s an awesome leveling system, so much so that Square Enix brought it back for the recent Bravely Defaut series.
Final Fantasy V also has memorable characters, like the ridiculous villain Gilgamesh, who would become one of the series’ few reoccurring cast members. But my love for this game really does come down to that fantastic Job system. It’s my favorite progression system in the series.
Final Fantasy VI
“Why do you build, knowing destruction is inevitable? Why do you yearn to live, knowing all things must die?”
Original release: April 2, 1994 for the Super Famicom
Final Fantasy VI is one of the most epic stories in gaming history. Its large cast of characters, maniacal villain Kefka, timeless score, and memorable scenes give it the kind of clout in our industry that those in the film world would reserve for something like Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane (yup, I just went for the obnoxious Citizen Kane comparison).
It’s one of the most gorgeous 16-bit games ever, showing us a dying world that mixes classic fantasy tropes like castles and magic with technology like robots and trains. The opera scene is one of the first times a game let music take center stage, while a mid-game event completely stunned players by actually enabling the villain succeed in taking over the world. Final Fantasy VI is one those games that everyone should play at least once.
Final Fantasy IX
“Doesn’t it feel nice to let yourself go under the stars?”
Original release: July 7, 2000 for the PlayStation
Final Fantasy IX has everything I want from the series: a fantastic score, memorable characters (like the young mage Vivi who has to learn about morality), and over-the-top, beautiful cinematics. It’s also the last game to use the ATB battle system, which is the kind of combat I think of first when I hear the words “Final Fantasy.”
I don’t mind when Final Fantasy takes its setting into more sci-fi or modern places, but it does feel more comfortable when you get to play in a more magical world like Final Fantasy IX’s. Square designed it as a callback to the franchise’s earlier days, with references to previous games. Sure, it’s fan service, but it’s fun stuff for mega fans of the series like me. This is role-playing perfection while retaining all of the classic Final Fantasy fixings.
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