July 21, 2013

Chronicles: The Final Fantasy Series

I've been meaning to get this down into blog format for a while, and since Stealth posted his version, I'm now inspired to add my two cents to the conversation. Also I haven't blogged in a while, so this should make for nice filler, no?

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you by now that Final Fantasy is one of my favorite RPG series of all time, and the way the games have changed over the years has had a pretty prominent impact on someone like me, who's been playing since the beginning.
Obviously what follows is my own personal opinion, and I welcome yours as well. I recently blogged about my latest playthrough of V and VI, so if you've read that you'll already know how I feel about them, but I believe I promised a more thorough opinion about the other titles as well.

So without further ado, here is how I rank the current main entries in the Final Fantasy series of games:

14. Final Fantasy XIII -
Okay, here we go. The first time I popped 13 into the system I immediately felt a hole in my heart. I only managed to play for less than an hour before I simply couldn't stand it anymore. This game lacks all of the important entities that make up a Final Fantasy. I dislike the way they handled plot and gameplay linearity, the battle system makes me want to kill puppies, and while the "new-age"-ness of the graphics is great, that really isn't important to me. I didn't care for any of the characters either.
It's a completely different game altogether, and it just happens to be called 'Final Fantasy'. And frankly, I'm offended by that. Square spent decades building FF's reputation and loyal fans like me kept coming back again and again because of the quality of the games and the pillars that made them worth playing, ever since the first installment. XII was a big shock to the system and I was skeptical when XIII was released, and sure enough: nail in the coffin. The story might be great and hell, the game could be amazing, but I'll never know because I can't play something called 'Final Fantasy' that isn't. My standards for a FF are too high, and XIII fails to reach them.

12 - 13. Final Fantasy XIV & Final Fantasy XI -
I'm putting these two together because I haven't actually played either (for more than a few minutes). I don't typically participate in MMOs, and while the reputation surrounding these two appears to be okay, I rank them low because I don't feel like an FF MMO should be considered a main title. I really wouldn't be that bothered if they'd released them as a side game like Mystic Quest or Tactics, and again, it seems like an insult to the series.
My sources tell me that XI is entertaining and challenging. Apart from the fact that you have to pay for it and play online it's a relatively good game.
XIV has been a little less fortunate. It's not a good sign when they need to shut down a MMO and completely redo it. But everyone seems pretty impressed with 'A Realm Reborn'. I'm clearly not the person to consult on quality MMOs, though.

11. Final Fantasy XII -
I'm all for change, but I feel like they took it a little too far in this one. It seems because fans responded well to the new components in X, Square felt it was safe to go and change everybloodything. I disagree. Once again, this game was somewhat painful to play; it really lacks all of the things I love about the previous titles, and while the characters were okay, and the story had a decent pace, it just didn't feel like Final Fantasy to me, and that really dragged down my enjoyment. I didn't love any part of it. It was a stepping stone to the downfall of Final Fantasy.
For what it's worth: really fun to play with a steering wheel made for a driving game. (Result of intoxication, of course.)

10. Final Fantasy III -
Every time I see FFIII on my shelf I think to myself, "man, I haven't played that in ages! I should have a go..."
Every time I beat FFIII I think, "oh. Right. That's why I don't play it...".
There's not a whole lot wrong with this game, it's just entirely underwhelming, and largely regurgitated. An especially boring blow after 1 and 2, it seems like it was possibly just a quicky to shut people up?

09. Final Fantasy VIII -
I know this is a fan favorite, but I really don't feel like it measures up to the others. The beginning makes the game look really promising, but as it progresses the plot just stretches on and on. The story drags and is kind of hard to follow the first time you play, and the characters really aren't that interesting or well-developed. You go through disc after disc of "what the hell is even going on?" and my patience always wears thin. It offers a lot of unintentional comedy, for whatever that's worth…
The game did produce some cool things though: The Gunblade is my favorite weapon, probably ever, but certainly from the FF universe; and Triple Triad is probably good enough to survive as a game of it own, in the real world. Sometimes while playing FFVIII, I just give up at some point and play Triple Triad instead. Overall, still a good game, just not the best Final Fantasy has to offer.

08. Final Fantasy II -
This was the first game where all of the regular aspects of the series were established, so for that it has a lot of sentimental value to me. Basically the first game on steroids. Except the level system. They fucked that up.

07. Final Fantasy I - 
The one that started it all. Thankfully Nintendo saw the value in this game and brought it to North America to change the lives of kids like me. This game is by no means the best the series has to offer, but it's chock full of memories and it's fun to revisit once in a while and remember how this whole thing got started. It's a prime example of effective use of music in a video game, too!
Also, YoshiCy, my other magic half Heidi and I make the best party ever. (twitter joke)

06. Final Fantasy IV-
Another fun take on the story of the crystals. Again, not a particularly outstanding entry but it offered more than its predecessors and was a much need step in the right direction after III. Most of the characters in this game either annoy me or creep me the hell out (Tellah), but the game was much more complex than the previous titles and it was neat the way they incorporated different parts of the planet and an artificial moon (insert Star Wars joke here…) to keep things fresh as you clock dozens upon dozens of hours in this world. There were a number of twists and emotional moments in IV and that seemed to set the bar for narrative in future titles.
I will mention that I didn't love the DS remake of this one. I found it awkward to play and the voice acting is absolutely hilarious (and therefore detrimental).

05. Final Fantasy VII -
Once upon a time, FFVII was my favorite game of the series. I adored it. It was shiny and new. I shared it with friends. I turned people - even girlfriends (which seemed much more rare at the time) - into gamers with this game. Suddenly, FFVII was EVERYBODY'S favorite game. No one ever shut up about it. Everyone had to dress up as Tifa. Square started making sequels (kinda) and movies; my phone never stopped ringing from people asking me for strategies and advice and to explain things. And just like that, I started to hate FFVII. I got so sick of it. I stopped playing it.
That said, this is one extraordinary game. It was the first released with 3D graphics instead of my beloved sprites, which was a huge (mostly good) shock to FF fans as it gave the series a promising future. The story is relatively simple but outstanding, the characters are exciting and diverse, the battles are fun and the materia system is one of the best things to happen to Final Fantasy. The game also strikes a chord with the real world; there was a deep believability in VII and that was kind of a first for the series and a lot of gamers. It was a welcome change in pace for these games. For those concerned, I've since made up with VII and will continue to play it again and again.

04. Final Fantasy IX - 
Alright now to the really good stuff. I like IX because at the time I felt like it had everything a Final Fantasy could offer without ruining it. IX was a nice return to the fantasy style games after VII and VIII which were kind of modern/futuristic, it was nice to see castles and royalty and a kid with a tail. The characters in IX are arguably the most interesting; an extremely diverse group - and quite large at that - FFIX is the only game in which I actually use most of the available characters evenly instead of picking the best three and leveling them while neglecting the rest. Even the bad guy in IX is deliciously creepy. The game is pretty long but I don't care, that story eats me alive every time. It's obvious that the people who made this game poured their hearts into it, and spent a long time making it perfect. And it is.

03. Final Fantasy X -
This might come as a surprise to you, after my rants about the newer games and my clear allegiance to the retro style. FFX - being a game the moved the series to yet another new system - came with another bout of shock and excitement: new graphics, new capabilities and voice acting! It's a recipe for disaster but luckily it was handled fairly well and the game is a complete masterpiece. Possibly the most compelling FF story to date with an amazing cast of characters and the whole tone of the game was a nice change from game after game of the dark, serious guy and his werido friends fighting the predictable bad guy. I'm more than happy to overlook the changes to the gameplay because everything else about this game is wonderful and I feel like classic FF is still there. Also a relatively quick RPG (for me, anyway) which led to my habit of replaying X at least once every year. I think I can do it entirely from memory now but it still entertains me. Unfortunately, things got ugly after that, and FFX is the last entry I consider a playable Final Fantasy.

02. Final Fantasy VI -
I'm running out of good things to say about these games. Feel free to visit my earlier blog for more talking points but in short: best villain, moving sense of purpose, diverse catalog of characters, incredible design, memorable tunes, amazing plot development, classic gameplay and Ultros. Good times.

So that leaves... drumroll please:

01. Final Fantasy V -
I tend to go a long time between playthroughs of FFV, and then every time I play I fall madly in love with it again. I'm so enamored with the story; the characters are humble but charming; the bad guy is a complete pain in the ass; there are plenty of other challenges; so many unexpected gameplay introductions (coming from previous titles) and dragons! DRAGONS, PEOPLE.
FFV is easy to get completely sucked into. I clock hours at a time without even noticing and I can't truly say that about the other games. V was also the last in the series to adhere to the "crystals" theme and the job system was finally perfected in this entry, it played a crucial part in beating the game. Incredible design on the developers part!
Endless fun. You should play it. So should I!

So there you have it. Hopefully now you better understand why I'm so temperamental about the newer releases and my skepticism toward the upcoming FFXV. The trailers for XV don't show a lot of promise for me, and I consider the series pretty much dead now. I feel like it's been a downward spiral since X. But not to fear! There are 10 wonderful installments to keep me entertained and a handful of side entires as well.

So how do you rank Final Fantasy?

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