Author’s Preface: While this is an old article from the original blog space, most of this rings true still. I was reminded of this piece as myself and my co-conspirator/writer are introducing his wife to Final Fantasy games as well as playing some on our own (he’s playing through XIII at the moment and she just played through VI for the first time, while my husband just started replaying XII). There may be a fact or two below that has become outdated, but I attempted to clean this up and renovate to fit the current status of the series. Enjoy!
The Final Fantasy series is a force to be reckoned with in the gaming world. With fourteen entries in the main series and various off shoots and sequels, there are a lot of games to be considered when trying to choose a list of favorites. Spanning over just about every system since the Famicom and over 25 years, the game has affected a majority of gamers and games, whether directly or otherwise. While everyone has their own opinions as to the best of the prolific series, the following five- six with the Honorable Mention- are the ones that have affected me most and made their way into my apex of the series.
While I feel this doesn’t necessarily need to be said, there are some spoilers below. They are for games that are nearly ten or more years old, but it’s better safe than sorry to mention this.
HONORABLE MENTION: FINAL FANTASY II
Let’s start with the game that just missed being on the list. I’m sure there are collective exclamations about this game being anywhere near a Top 5 list, but I have my reasons.
To get it out of the way early, I am aware that the leveling system in this game is awful. It’s dreadful, easy to exploit, and not a lot of fun. That said it’s innovative. The system set up for what would later be adopted by the Romancing SaGa games, and it was an interesting take on the idea of leveling that made sense. Punching yourself in the face to get stronger, however, was not something Square had premeditated as a ‘strategy’.
Outside of the qualms with the battle system, though, the game has a lot going for it, especially compared to games of the time. The story has defined characters, an intriguing world, and an ever changing squad of side characters, which are just a few reasons that this game stands out. Many of your guest characters met grisly fates to aid you, and the game made attempts to take an emotional toll on the player. For the time, this game was ambitious.
If anything, I feel like this game beats out various others and at least deserves a mention because while it has aged poorly- more so than most of the series- it astounding to see what Square came up with when their game wasn’t a last ditch effort to save their company. The game also has a lot of heart, which is something rare to see in games nowadays. It’s an obtuse reason, but it’s one that has made the second entry of the series stand out to me.
5) FINAL FANTASY IV
I begin this section by stating that the Final Fantasy series became what it is today because of Final Fantasy IV. The memorable characters, the fantastic music, and the wonderful journey you embark on with your party make this game an instant classic. I have fond memories of traveling to the Antlion’s Den to save Rosa, climbing Mount Ordeals to purify Cecil, and choking up a bit when Edward is saved by his love, Anna. In fact, Anna and Edward are probably my favorite couple in gaming thus far. That’s saying something considering how little exposure the relationship truly gets.
One might wonder why this is fifth on my list if it’s such a classic. While my memories of the game are fond, there are definitely some points to the game that I felt the other games did better. The pacing is uneven throughout the game, and while the story that is being told is interesting, certain points sneak up and blindside you. In the positive, that means there are a lot of twists that you don’t see coming, but this can catch you painfully unaware if you aren’t careful.
The characters are all interesting, though some are more fleshed out than others. While this was fixed in Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, it left me wanting to know more. Sure, Rosa is the best white mage in the kingdom, but she doesn’t progress beyond ‘damsel in distress’ long enough to find out what I care about her for. On the flipside, Rydia, another strong female character, gets a character arc only dwarfed by the two main characters’. More recent iterations do a great job of filling in the gaps, though, so Final Fantasy IV has cemented a place in my gaming heart.
4) FINAL FANTASY VIII
Another black sheep, from what I’ve heard and seen, Final Fantasy VIII has a lot going for it- and a few drawbacks, no pun intended. The ‘Draw’ system, much like the second game’s system, is ludicrously easy to exploit, if you know how, and the game’s plot twists in on itself more times than most are comfortable with. Couple those reasons with the ‘future tech’ setting that sits poorly with some folks, and you have a recipe for disaster from the outset.
If you can acquaint to those small irritations, however, you can find that the game has a lot of interesting things to offer. The characters, for as much as the Final Fantasy setting allows, are incredibly real. They’re teenagers. Their problems aren’t just saving the world. They worry about romance, how other people are seeing them, and what their places are in the world they are trying to save. Plenty of people say that the characters have no depth to them, but it’s quite the opposite. The characters are the driving force behind the game and the heart that comes with it.
Some other features that stand out are the Triple Triad card game and the Junction system. Triple Triad is just a blast. Even people who don’t like the game admit as much. On top of the fun of the game and collecting the cards, you can use the cards to get synthesis objects for weapon upgrades, items to learn spells, and abilities. It’s incredibly utilitarian. The Junctioning system, while complicated at first, is a fantastic way to personalize your characters or make them incredibly powerful. With enough time putting spells into slots to raise your Strength, Spirit, and Vitality among others, your party can be tearing through monsters left and right.
The game may have a bad reputation, but outside of one other entry on this list, it is the most human. Plenty of the characters’ problems seem pithy, and a few instances (like the orphanage and the surrounding events) seem a little hackneyed and coincidental under a microscope. Not as coincidental as Cloud happening to run into the one Ancient left in the world or the entire cast of the sixth game surviving the fall of the world. It’s something you have to suspend your disbelief for, and if you can get into the game, it’s a worthwhile experience to be had.
3) FINAL FANTASY TACTICS: WAR OF THE LIONS
Being the only game on this list not of the main Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions is also the only remake of a game on this list. There are plenty of reasons for that. First, the original game was poorly translated. Plot points were missing and some of the dialogue was laughable. The new translation is what thrusts this game not only into a good light but into becoming one of my favorite games of the ever expanding series. Adding other characters from the Ivalice series (which includes XII, Tactics Advance, and Tactics A2), a few new classes that seem right at home, and taming the dialogue also sets this game apart. The cut scenes are gorgeous on top of all of that. This game fulfills becoming the quintessential version of this game, which only needed a few shortcomings fixed before going from decent to great.
The story of the game is convoluted. While that was a detriment to a game like Final Fantasy VIII, it is a boon to this game. Political intrigue stains everything the player sees, and characters suffer from conflicts like class oppression, betrayals, and misinformed ambition often enough to sate the player’s curiosity. Alongside the immersive story, the game’s battle system is addictive, adding the Job Class system from past games to a turn based system on a grid. Being able to control some story characters and some personalized characters draws the player even more into the world. It is a long and sometimes frustrating game, but it is a very interesting game and held my attention longer than many.
If I had my druthers about this game, it would be that it can be a bit heavy on the fan service and heavy handedness with its messages. My real issue is with the inclusion of Cloud Strife as an optional character which feels forced to let people who drooled over Final Fantasy VII relive their enjoyment with that game. The game does fan service well in most other respects though. In the story, there is also a lot of talking about how awful the upper class is, how terrible gods are, and while it makes the game and characters very interesting, there are a few times where the game bludgeons the played with the ‘subtext’ that it is trying to produce. These issues really are miniscule, though, especially since one is just an optional character. The game is well worth tracking down in the Playstation Portable version for an expansive and thought provoking iteration of a classic.
2) FINAL FANTASY XII
Practically a sleeper hit of the series, Final Fantasy XII bring much more to the table than it would appear at first. My one issue with the game- and I really do mean the one issue- was the Gambit system. I admit, it was a huge part of the game, but I didn’t hate it because it was a bad system. The system itself actually made the game very intriguing. Above all else, though, it was time consuming. If you put one Gambit into the wrong place, your party was set to fail unless you were ready to jump in and intervene. Since that was easy enough, though, it wasn’t as big a problem as it could have been.
Another entry into the Ivalice Alliance games, the story of this game is not grandiose. You don’t go to the moon, the world doesn’t end, and you don’t wind up in another world. You are placed in a mundane city on the bottom rung of the class ladder, and you fight rats for money to get by. The bad guys have various shades of gray, the good guys aren’t always the righteous epitome of good you might see in other games, and while fantastic things like magic and monsters exist, even the final boss doesn’t feel like it is to scale with others like Kefka, Sephiroth, and Zeromus. This is a great thing. The game makes you feel like you are a set of cogs in one big machine- and you’re the cogs that are trying to set that machine on the right path.
All of the characters are likeable and have their own motives for being a part of the story. Ashe is probably one of my favorite characters in the entire series, and the rest of the cast isn’t far behind. The characters show vulnerability and strong personality, and the addition of voice acting brings the game to an entirely new level (as can be said with other games in the series that employ this feature). I felt connected to the cast as the game went on, and I cared about what happened to them, even as the final credits rolled.
The Mark system is engaging, as well, and adds a level of depth to the game’s world. Traveling through the terrain, spying on your target, and figuring out how best to deploy your characters and their abilities is a lot of fun, and the system worked well enough to appear in later entries of the games, as well.
The last great point about the game is the License Board. While it is more effective in the earlier stages of the game, it allows you to define your characters as you see fit. If you want Basch to be your White Mage, you can have him follow the License Board along the White Mage path. Penelo is your brawler? Great. Line her up with weapons and heavy armor and let her go to work. Admittedly, the system lifts almost directly from the Sphere Grid used in Final Fantasy X but feels more open ended in the long run.
The game is engaging, and it truly feels like its public image suffers from how mundane everything feels. In contrast, I think it’s one of the most interesting games because of that fact. Would I go back and play it again? Probably not, though that’s more because I sank over 100 hours into the game the first time I played it. With that said, I sank over 100 hours into the game. I can’t say that about any other game.
1) FINAL FANTASY VI
I feel like my number one pick is no surprise. Final Fantasy VI was the first game in the series that I finished. I’ve played through the game five times, at least, and I’m now playing through the remake on the Gameboy Advance. I have the strategy guide ferreted away somewhere, and Celes Chere, Terra Branford, and Kefka Palazzo stand tall as my favorite heroes and villain in gaming history. Quite honestly, the game sparked my love for the RPG genre.
Nearly everything about the game is perfect. The pacing is even, there is a fantastic mix of linearity and open world exploration, and the cast is the largest of any game in the series. They aren’t just cardboard cutouts, either, as they all have a backstory and key points in the game. The game has plenty of stereotypes, but they extend beyond the stereotypes more often than not. Like most of the games in the early half of the series, the game does suffer from translation issues (Locke comes off as a dirty liar about his past, for example). Truthfully, though, the games shortcomings end there.
The true genius of this game is that the villain wins. Despite the heroes and their best efforts, the villain triumphs, and the second half of the game involves the characters picking up the pieces of a broken world to rectify the ambitions of a now god-like madman. Not to mention that the villain is static in his mindset. Kefka is a force of destruction from start to finish, and while he’s occasionally quiet or out of the picture, he is unapologetic about his intent and his demeanor. He is evil, and even with his backstory that may illicit some sympathy, the game does little to have you feel bad for him. He is not one-dimensional. He is one step ahead at all times, he kills wantonly to achieve his goals, and he wants to rule the world.
On the other side, you have the heroes. Terra, who spends the first half of her story being manipulated, becomes more human than she really is, questioning her emotions, her life, and her abilities. Celes, a strong woman in her convictions, goes against her empire, stands as the final attack against Kefka’s initial rampage, and after attempting to kill herself in despair, seeks out her friends and comrades to strike back against what she could have become if it were not for her conscience. The other fourteen or so characters all have conflicts and trauma that they rise above, as well, to find their way back onto their paths. The stories are better than most novels could ever introduce.
Even in my most current playthrough, I was being introduced to secrets and side quests that I had no idea existed, and I have been playing this game on occasion for almost twenty years. The game gives you plenty of things to do that are not directly related to the story, which is a nice break that is needed in a forty or so hour game. Defeating the eight dragons, playing around at the Coliseum, and finishing storylines are all nice deviations. Not to mention that the game has more memorable scenes than you can shake a Moogle at: Mario and Draco at the Opera House, the resolution to Locke’s storyline, and the opening of the Esper Gate are among tens of scenes that are fondly remembered by fans of the series. The music is top quality, the graphics are innovative for the time; there isn’t much to complain about for this entry of the game.
I could go on for hours about how Final Fantasy VI is a masterpiece bordering on art, but I think my point has been made. There are a plethora of reasons this game has remained at the top of my list for Final Fantasy games, and I’m sure it will remain there for a very long time.
(All images were taken by me or are credited to http://finalfantasy.wikia.com )