Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Final Fantasy main series, games ranked

I must admit that I had a great deal of fun writing this article. There are countless FF game ranking reviews littered all over the internet and there isn't one that I fully agree with. For ages I've always wanted to write my own but never really had the time, until recently that is. I talk to anyone who listens about what my favourite Final Fantasy games are so I decided it was high time to write my opinions down.

The Final Fantasy series has been a mainstay in my life and my imagination for nearly 20 years, its a series I will eternally love. Ever since I was 9 years old, when I picked up a second hand copy of Final Fantasy VII from Mansfield market for £22 of my parent's money. Money spinning off-shoot games will always show their face but its not those I'm interested in. This review will only be dealing with games from the main series, from the original Final Fantasy back in 1987 to 2014's Final Fantasy: Lightning Returns. I'll also be missing out the online games (FF11 and FF14) for many reasons, the main one being that I have absolutely no interest in them. I played them for the sake of playing them. So strap yourself in and lets take the nostalgic journey through one of Japan's finest exports.

#15 - Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Released 2014 - Playstation 3, Xbox 360

Square-Enix's bastardization of what used to be the proudest and grandest RPG series in the world came full circle with the release of this monstrosity. The saddest thing about it was just how excited I was prior to the release of LR and how I was crushed when I finally played it.

The storyline is both terrible and incoherent. From what I gathered from my half finished experience with the game, Lightning is charged with a mission from God (yes, really) to save the world in thirteen days (I know..) and if she succeeds, her dead sister Serah is resurrected. Somewhere along the way her old comrades have turned evil and its her job to set them right. The only remaining main character from the series who is still on her side is arguably the most annoying, Hope Estheim. A guy with a face you could smash to pieces and annoying voice to match. Hope's job is to drive the 'Ark' which is a sort of ship that Lightning can return to daily to be briefed on her next mission. It's honestly as terrible and ridiculous as it sounds and I really cannot do it justice. 

The gameplay doesn't get much better. Lightning can buy and obtain 'garbs' which she can then equip and customise to use in battle. The battles themselves look very impressive, but are tedious as hell, 9 times out of 10 you'll be hammering the same two buttons until eventually your opponent falls. For those like myself that would grind battles for experience to improve your stats, there's none of that here. Battles give you nothing, save for items that you can give to people or sell. To get stronger you have to 'save' people, which usually involves tedious fetch missions that take way longer than they should. While this nonsense is going on the on screen timer is ticking and at 6am you are automatically teleported back to the Ark to tell Hope about what you've been up to. The actual graphics are brilliant the handful of areas you can visit are grandly designed, but the constant countdown of the clock prevents you from spending much time to explore them. It's a terrible game mechanic.
Lightning still remains one of my favourite Final Fantasy characters and her voice actor throughout the trilogy does a very good job of animating her and telling her story, until Lightning Returns. The voice acting isn't bad, but the script is. It all sounds rushed and isn't consistent with the first two games.
 The game isn't even saved by it's bad guys, who you can usually rely on in previous FF games to at least provide some form of entertainment. The whole thing is rubbish and I gave up about halfway through, literally throwing down my controller in bewilderment and disgust. The less said about Lightning Returns the better.

#14 - Final Fantasy X
Released 2001 - Playstation 2

In my opinion Final Fantasy X was where it all started going wrong regarding the FF series. The first game in the series to be released on the PS2, FFX featured the worst set of characters ever seen in a video game.
We first meet the main protagonist Tidus as his home city is destroyed by a huge beast named Sin. Fast forward 1000 years and Tidus and a summoner called Yuna go on a merry adventure with the aim to eventually defeat Sin. The story is paper thin and is as ludicrous as in Lightning Returns, and FFX does seem to take itself too seriously. At times during playing you'll be left wondering what the point of it all is. One major aspect of the game is a side quest which involves playing a sport called Blitzball, which is essentially underwater polo. Yes, everyone in FFX can breathe underwater. Laughably, even with the constant threat of Sin smashing up the world, Blitzball tournaments are constantly being held. The people of this game clearly have no fucks to give about the coming apocalypse. 

The battles are turn based and don't proceed until you make your choice. You get stronger by means of a system called the Sphere Grid. It's actually pretty cool as each character learns a different skill set for the first two thirds of the game until eventually you learn each other skills, effectively destroying each characters sense of uniqueness. There are some characters you'll choose to ignore completely though, namely Lulu and Wakka. One is a goth carrying a stuffed doll, the other is a Blitzball wielding, spiky haired twat. FFX also suffers from a terrible cast of voice actors, with scenes involving Wakka, Tidus and Rikku best played on mute. I have friends who swear blind that Final Fantasy X is a masterpiece but after countless attempts to replay it I just don't see it. 

#13 - Final Fantasy II
Released 1988 - NES

FFII was not originally released outside of Japan, which confused the hell out of UK and American fans. Their version of FFII was actually FFIV (it gets better, their version of FFIII was actually FFVI) so when Final Fantasy II was finally released to the rest of the world a lot of it's charm had long since worn off. The ideas in the game were probably revolutionary for it's time but sadly had been done better and smoother in later games.
The premise was very similar to it's predecessor. You control a group of four people who you can equip with weapons, armour and spells, roam a world map, get stronger and eventually take down the big bad guy. While that doesn't sound so bad, FFII was massively let down by it's level up system. It isn't a simple case of battling enemies for experience, here you level each stat up separately. 

But it isn't as easy as that. Stats like strength and weapon affinity are levelled up the more attacks you make which is easy enough, but your defence and health level up by getting attacked and nearly dying. It's absolutely ridiculous and makes for a very frustrating adventure. Another negative of FFII is the sheer difficulty of the game, magnified with the retarded level up system. In fact, the only way to progress through the later stages of the game is to exploit the self-harm tactic - basically you enter a battle, attack yourselves and your friends to oblivion to raise your health and defence stats, win the battle, rinse and repeat. Yes it's a cheap trick but its your only hope of surviving the mentally steep difficulty curve. Not an enjoyable game to play at all. 

#12 - Final Fantasy X-2
Released 2003 - Playstation 2

I probably deserve a royal beating for placing this higher than FFX but hear me out. 
Final Fantasy X-2 is the first direct sequel in the series, set after the events of the original game. You control Yuna and Rikku from the previous game as well as new recruit Paine. Cue a ridiculous amount of girl power as the group aim to resolve political unrest among the world of Spira before it leads to war. The story and premise of the game is laughable and doesn't make all that much sense, but FFX-2 prevails over FFX for the simple reason that it wears it's silliness on it's sleeve. It's just a fun game and it knows it.

The sphere grid is gone, replaced with a more traditional level up system of Win Battle - Level Up. The battle system has also returned to a more active style, you take your turn when your turn comes around and enemies attack freely, meaning you haven't got time to fuck about and analyse each action like in the original game. I've preached for many years that the battle system in FFX-2 is one of the finest I've seen in any modern day RPG. It was fast paced and it wasn't a button bash affair like it is now. It was exciting and you do wonder why Square-Enix felt the need to mess around with it so much with future releases. 

When you're not ripping enemies to shreds you're roaming the world of Spira collecting 'Dresspheres' which you use to effectively change your class. Each character can equip them all resulting in a collective skill set and individual design changes. Each character also has a specialist Dressphere that only they can use. Think of it as a Pokemon evolution - these special Dresspheres turn each character into a tank complete with super powered moves and stats. It's exciting stuff. 

#11 - Final Fantasy XII
Released 2006 - Playstation 2

I'm now in the territory of Final Fantasy games that aren't terrible but aren't great either and of all of those, I'd have to put FFXII as the lowest ranking.

This game somehow matched FFX on the annoying main character scale, this time giving us Aladdin-wannabe Vaan and telling us this brat is stuck with us for the rest of the game.
The story is deep. Really really deep. It's the highest end of medieval politics, civil war and territorial unrest and I couldn't possibly sum it all up in one paragraph.
Along the way you meet up with the rest of your group. Balthier is one of the few interesting characters, whereas Penelo is instantly forgettable. 

The battle system reflects the one in FFXI (The first online title in the series) where by you travel around the environment freely, choosing to attack or run at your leisure. Of course enemies can chase you once aggravated and attack you back. You can control one of three characters in battles at any one time, the other two will act depending on pre-set tactics and triggers. It's like lemmings just on a higher scale. The game itself received very high praise and has sold very well since it's release and as a standalone RPG it is very deserving of this praise. The sheer bulk of the game and the deep political nature of the story can easily escape you though and it was very tough for me to immerse myself in any way. I still have a 124+ hour saved game for this which I really should get round to finishing some day. Maybe after some intense meditation and a fuck load of coffee.

#10 - Final Fantasy XIII
Released 2009 - Playstation 3, Xbox 360

It was an exciting time to be a fan of Final Fantasy. Square-Enix had released a tech demo of the potential of the PS3 prior to this game's release and the graphics looked incredible. The demo showed Lightning and her party moving about a battle screen freely, attacking enemies and casting spells at will. It looked incredible. The finished product wasn't quite as impressive as the demo but it was still pretty damn good. The story consists of two opposing worlds. Lightning and gang travel from the lower world to infiltrate the higher world in a bid to destroy the higher power and bring peace to the lower world.
One negative of Final Fantasy XIII is the linear aspect of the game up until the 'final battle'. You essentially move from place to place, fighting enemies and watching lengthy cut scenes until you beat the last boss and watch the credits. Oddly though the game then opens up and you are able to traverse the game world at will, fighting newer, stronger enemies and facing tougher challenges while strengthening your party. The only shame is that it takes until after you defeat the game to finally fully play the game. 

The game has an impressive roster of characters, with the exception of Hope who only exists to whine and bitch throughout the whole story. One major criticism of the game was the repetitive nature of the battle system. The attacks look flashy and it's all very easy on the eye, but the actual execution is mind numbing. Mostly you'll be pressing X over and over. Some big battles require a little more strategy, but not much more. After battles you gain CP which can be used to learn skills and unlock six different classes which can be used by all six of your characters. Some characters are more effective at some classes than others so it does give you something to think about when choosing your party. This game turned many long time fans against the series and I can sort of see why but I personally found it to be a very enjoyable game, if at times a little tedious.

#9 - Final Fantasy VIII
Released 1999 - Playstation 1

I never really know where to place this because I have a different experience with each play through. Final Fantasy VIII was massively successful commercially upon it's release. It was the top selling game in the United States, UK and Japan and is also the fastest selling Final Fantasy title to date.
It's easy to see why too. The graphics are incredible considering the date it was released. The story is deep and rich and each main character serves a purpose within the game. FF8 is four discs of hardcore RPG action and for many is a fan favourite.
For me though, the fun lasts until around disc 3, around a particular plot twist that ends up with you being blasted into space. It didn't make much sense at the time and it still doesn't make sense now. There is also a part of the game in which absolutely nothing is happening and you're left wandering the world map wondering where on earth you need to go. There are also dream sequences that are just plain silly and there are just too many times in the game when the story loses focus. 

The battle system is the traditional style used for many games in the series. You take your turn when it comes round and enemies can attack when it's theirs resulting in smooth and action packed encounters. As well as weapons and spells, you can call forth huge beasts called Guardian Forces (or GFs for short) to do your bidding. Each GF's attack sequence is like a short movie and some border on the ridiculous (see video for Eden's attack CGI)

#8 - Final Fantasy III
Released 1990 - NES

Like it's predecessor, FF3 wasn't originally released outside of Japan, not until the Nintendo DS remake in 2006. However it's an overall better game and I can still find myself playing the original and enjoying it even today.
The story follows four young orphans who after investigating an earthquake near their hometown are then entrusted with powers from a talking crystal. The crystal then tells them the world is in danger and only they can restore balance. It's a simple premise but equally as epic.

Graphically it's much the same as the first two games. However enemies and characters are more detailed and this game really did push the capabilities of the NES to the maximum. The music (composed by Final Fantasy series stalwart Nobuo Uematsu) is stellar and remains to be one of the strongest game soundtracks of the entire FF era. 

The best thing about FF3 though is it's revolutionary class system. With every talking crystal you encounter on your journey, you are given new classes to master. Each character can master every class meaning there are limitless possibilities on how to set up your party. Final Fantasy III was also the first game to incorporate summons which have since been a mainstay throughout the series.

#7 - Final Fantasy XIII-2
Released 2011 - Playstation 3, Xbox 360

The second game in the FF13 trilogy is placed so highly because it's also the strongest of the three.
The game is centred around Lightning's sister Serah and her aim is to travel through time resolving paradoxes and set the timeline straight. It's a very cool concept and you get to see environments in different timelines, something I've always loved about games with similar mechanics.

The graphics are absolutely amazing, with each character receiving a design overall to fully maximise the potential of their respective consoles. The voice acting cast is also the finest of any FF release. FF13-2 keeps the class system from the previous game. Serah and new recruit Noel can equip any one of 6 classes and can actively switch between them in battles. The third character slot can be filled with any enemy you successfully catch. You can also level up and give this enemy new skills. Each enemy belongs to one of the six classes and any one of 3 can be used and freely switched in battle.
Battles have also been overhauled since FF13. The fast paced aspect is still there but this time you are required to use a lot more strategy, with more emphasis on class and enemy changes being the main method of winning battles. Square-Enix were joined by fellow RPG heavyweights tri-Ace in development of this game and anyone familiar with the battle system in the latter's roster of games will definitely see the resemblance between those and Final Fantasy XIII-2.

#6 - Final Fantasy VII
Released 1997 - Playstation 1

Ah, everyone's favourite. Have I committed the ultimate sacrilegious act by not placing this game at number 1? Well remember this list is entirely my current opinion and I've tried not to let nostalgia blind my overall judgement.

FF7 won all sorts of accolades and awards upon it's release. Many consider this to be best game of the PS1 era, some even say one of the best games EVER. I'm not denying that FF7 is a wonderful game and deserved to be praised for it's ideas but it isn't without it's flaws.
The game follows mercenary Cloud who joins a resistance called Avalanche who aim to topple the power hungry antagonistic corporation Shinra. It gets heavy as the story progresses and there are twists and shocks as well as one of the most memorable death scenes in any video game. 

The music is brilliant and I've since listened to the game soundtrack to death. The battle system is fluid and some of the boss battles are actually quite challenging. But what about it's flaws?
Well the first one is one that so many people overlook, it's graphics. Now I don't want to be one of those arseholes that demands that graphics make a good games. I couldn't give two shits about 1080p resolution or what the framerate speed is. But in Final Fantasy VII it just looks too cartoonish at times. The battle sprites are competent and the CGI sequences are okay but outside of battles characters are missing noses, mouths and fingers.

The backgrounds are all pre-rendered and they look great but the objects you interact with look clumsy and heavily pixelated. Again I'm not saying this is a bad thing but it's hard to deal with the seriousness of a loved one dying when the character in question who's talking about it only has two giant blue eyes on their face. Another problem was the translated dialogue from the Japanese version. There are times when the dialogue simply makes no sense because the translation is so bad. I still love FF7 and still play it often but it is by no means my favourite in the series.

#5 - Final Fantasy V
Released 1992 - Super Nintendo

This is the good stuff. I've lost count of the amount of times I've started a new game on Final Fantasy V and not surfaced again until days later. The SNES era of Final Fantasy games was something of a golden generation (all three SNES FF releases feature in my top five) and this is right up there indeed with any other RPG released on the console.

The story followed Butz (renamed Bartz in re-releases) and three others who traverse the world in search of crystals that grant them powers in the form of new classes. It's a very similar premise to Final Fantasy III, except it's done a lot better here.

Firstly, there's a whole lot more classes to equip. Here though, each level up with a class grants a bonus - usually a stat upgrade or a new ability. When a character has mastered a class or you just feel like switching, you are then able to equip any skills and perks from a previous class. This grants you limitless possibilities to tinker with your party. Each class design is unique to each character too.

Between the solid RPG story, traditional level up mechanic and expansive class system, Final Fantasy V remains not just one of my favourite FF games but also one of my all time favourite RPGs.

#4 - Final Fantasy
Released 1987 - NES

The one that started it off. The most interesting thing about this game is it's inception. In 1986 a team of 7 members of Square headed by Hironobu Sakaguchi began work on a project that Sakaguchi himself admitted would probably be his last. If the game bombed, he claimed he would quit games altogether and go back to university, thus where the title of the game comes from. Thankfully the game was well praised and thus the beautiful franchise we see today began to bloom.

The story was simple. You control four characters dubbed The Warriors Of Light, each carrying a different elemental crystal. You journey throughout the world defeating four elemental fiends to restore the crystals to their former glory and save the world. A common concept used through the Final Fantasy series. Indeed, future FF games still continued to use allusions from this game. 

One aspect of Final Fantasy was it's introduction of the class system. when starting the game you choose the class of each one of your four heroes. You can go for a well balanced team of two attackers and two mages or be absolutely mental and choose four thieves, it's up to you. Whatever your choice was though, that was what you were stuck with. During the game you can equip your team with weapons, armour and magic based on their class.
Another thing I love about FFI is it's soundtrack. The selection of music considering the small cartridge size of NES games was staggering and many have been remixed throughout the years for future FF releases, in particular the opening theme and battle music. Above all else though I just love the classic aspect of it. You're playing a game that could well have put Square out of business had it not have done well, and instead spawned one of the world's biggest gaming franchises. 

#3 - Final Fantasy IV
Released 1991 - Super Nintendo

The first Final Fantasy game to be released on the super powered SNES console and perhaps one of the finest RPGs released on it. There is so much I love about this game. The roster of characters is faultless, the story is one of the richest tales of any game of the last 25 years and the soundtrack is just phenomenal. Nobuo Uematsu has seldom composed a bad song but here he pulls out all the stops.

I could spend all day listing what I love about FF4, but I'll try and keep it to a few paragraphs. Firstly the character development. Few RPGs give you such an intriguing bunch of people and provide grounds with which to engage with them as much as in this game. The retribution of main protagonist Cecil, his feud with Kain, his romantic link with Rosa and the sibling rivalry between twin mages Palom and Porom are just some examples.
The story is incredibly engrossing as well. What begins as a simple fetch mission for the king leads into a quest to save not one but three different worlds, all traversable by various means of transport, not least a giant flying whale.

The battle's utilise the famous ATB (active time battle) system that has been used in the majority of FF games. Basically time flows for your party and enemies alike and ensures a seamless, constantly flowing encounter. Your party will gain experience from each encounter and in turn level up and learn new abilities.
The game's primary antagonist Golbez is expectedly demonic and really tries to fuck your team up with each encounter. It's essentially everything you could ask for in a RPG and I'll never get bored of playing it. FF4 is one of the finest games to ever come out of the 1990's. 

#2 - Final Fantasy IX
Released 2000 - Playstation 1

Oh ho ho. FF9 is so damned good it just brings me to tears. To think as well that I initially wasn't that crazy about it. My childhood must surely have been a bucket of shit. 

Final Fantasy IX features a cast of characters so rich and deep in detail that it's a pleasure to watch their development. Main character Zidane may look funny, but he really comes into his own as the story progresses. Steiner and Quina are two of my favourite characters from the series too. The graphics are absolutely gorgeous. Each environment is beautifully crafted and really shows off what the Playstation could do.

One interesting aspect of FF9 is how there is never a set antagonist, not until near the end of the game. You spend the majority of your journey fearing evil at every turn. At certain parts in the game your party is split and this provides you with opportunity to control every character and witness them reacting and developing affinity with each other. The game is never in danger of taking itself too seriously either. At one point in Final Fantasy 9 you require an airship to undergo a particular quest but the lead engineer cannot make one as he's just been turned into a frog. A frog with a moustache no less.

The bond between Zidane and love interest Dagger is one of the finest and most natural of any video game. It's so impressive that Squaresoft opted to replicate it in FFX, albeit not as effectively.
Battles are fluid and the level up system is simple. You also learn abilities from any weapons and armour you equip. The CGI sequences are gorgeous and the soundtrack is equally as good.
You'd really be hard pushed to find a better game on the original Playstation that Final Fantasy IX. Squaresoft head Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi has exclaimed that FF9 is his favourite game from the series.

#1 - Final Fantasy VI
Released 1994 - Super Nintendo

Honestly what else could it be? Final Fantasy VI is hands down the greatest RPG ever created.
I fell in love with FF6 instantly. Having been too young to play this when it was released, my first experience with it was via an emulator. By that time I'd already mastered the Playstation era of the series and was working my way backwards to the franchises roots. I was impressed with all of them but this one hit me the hardest.

The game features fourteen permanent playable characters, the most of any game in the series. But even with the vast amount there is not one that feels like just a filler character. You witness each member develop and become their own person as the game progresses. Each one has their own strengths and unique abilities but all can be taught the same spells.
The story is what I most love about this game. It has everything that a good RPG needs - drama, suspense, love, war, loss, good and evil. 

FF6 also features one of my favourite video game baddies. Whereas most RPG antagonists want to destroy or own the world usually for wealth, fame or because of a grudge against the protagonist; Kefka opposes you purely because he can. He literally tries to destroy the world for the sheer fuck of it. It's the ultimate anti-cliche of the RPG gaming world.

Final Fantasy VI took every good concept of previous releases and piled them into one cartridge, producing a game that is both visually stunning and engrossing to play. It's placed in countless 'best game' lists and many RPG purists consider it one of the biggest triumphs of the genre. Whereas my list of FF games took me a long time to decide the final ranking, Final Fantasy 6 was always going to be number 1. It's one of the best games I have ever played and I'll still be playing it even if both my thumbs fall off and my eyes become fully square.

Words by David Dring

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