Friday, December 08, 2017

Game-cember List of Favorite Things – Final Fantasy

Since it is December, the month of gift giving no matter what your religious or non-religious affiliations are, I thought I would do something different to celebrate. Every week I’ll be presenting a list of my favorite things! Maybe they will inspire some unique gift giving of your own. Or open up a can of worms and create a debate. Doesn’t matter. My lists. My opinions. Debate away!

It seems fitting that the first list should be something close to my fangirl heart: Final Fantasy. If it weren’t for this franchise, I wouldn’t be a gamer. Even in its early days Final Fantasy provided story, character development, and uniquely dynamic experiences you wouldn’t find anywhere else. They were the first to define video game RPG’s. They changed how we view video games and elevated it to an art form. With music design, imagery, and storyboards that would transform an industry, Final Fantasy represents so much of what I love about video games.

This is my list of Favorite Final Fantasy games. To clarify, I am only going to be ranking the main FF titles, I – XIV, as I have not played 15 yet. Spin-offs, sequels, and off-shoots will not be included. Otherwise Tactics would rule this list and that’s not fun for anyone to read.

Putting these in order of importance was no easy task. I love the franchise. I’ve been suckered in by their marketing tactics one too many times. I can find good and bad in all of the titles. To rank them was a challenge. Entries 8-14 were the toughest.

14 – Final Fantasy II. This game ranks as the worst on my list because it does so much wrong. Bland story. No character development (the game gives you blank slates and you customize your party). And really wacked up battle mechanics that they never used ever again. The only good thing about this game is that it provided a number of the future Final Fantasy staples including the infamous mechanic Cid. The remake is not much better. In fact, it's just as dull. So skip that too!


13 – Final Fantasy III. The funny thing is that my favorite character from Dissidia is in this game: Cloud of Darkness. She has a strange fighting style, but I liked how challenging she was to master. I'm still at a loss as to why she was chosen to represent FF3 in Dissidia, given that she's not in the game for almost 95% of it. Your main target is Xande; the not-quite so flamboyant alter-ego of The Emperor from FF2. When you find out that Xande isn't the real villain but this strange creature controlling him, it feels like the game has set out to ruin your day. You've been built up to fight the ultimate big bad, and then find out it's all a ruse. It destroys the story - that's why this game is only #13.

FF3 has some redeeming qualities. The story is palatable and the class upgrades are much improved from the second game. The mage classes all get an overhaul and become more viable in combat. But the rest of it is meh. It's a game that is fun to tinker with if you're bored at the airport (the remake is available on the DS), but after an hour of running in circles, you'll get bored.


12 – Final Fantasy I. Ah yes. The first. The original. The one and only. Okay so as the distinction of being the first, people will either like it or accept the fact that it gets better. I'm of the latter viewpoint. While I'm loyal to the 'old school' ways, FF1 was a great first entry into the series. When compared to the other games, it's easy to see why this was the first one. This was a game that took exploration and world maps to a new frontier. We hadn't seen a game like this before. Even the dungeons looked impressive. Zelda couldn't compare to the expansiveness. FF1 felt like a visual extension of Dungeons & Dragons. Even going so far as being able to provide some customization to your characters by picking job classes and attributes to assist you on your quest. When the game ends and you fulfill your destiny as the Warrior of Light, it feels pretty darn cool.

The game is not without it's flaws. This was at a time when your party was a blank slate. No personality. No distinctive characteristics beyond their job roles. Most had the same hair color, now that I think about it. Because of this, the story doesn't hold as much weight as it could. You don't feel as connected to your party so if one dies, oh well. No biggie. Use an item and all will be well. That is one of my biggest hang-ups with the early FF titles. Characters. They needed them. Thank goodness it all turned around in FF4.


11 – Final Fantasy XIII. I will defend FF13 as a valid Final Fantasy entry until my dying breath. I think it has a lot of potential but lacked the finesse needed to fully execute the content. It's a lovely game to play through, and fun when you become more involved in the story. The combat is fast-paced while giving the player enough room to breathe and think through strategy. I like that it maintained FF12's visuals with enemies so you can dodge as you see fit. I also liked that the first half was on a linear path. The game's story is so complex that an open world early on would have destroyed the message it was trying to present. It needed to keep players on a simple path to balance out the complex narrative. I find the characters charming in their own ways. Some more then others. The level of difficulty is also a nice surprise. I appreciated the way that the game challenged me to try new battle tactics and swap out party members so I wasn't wrapped up in the same team.

The execution of the game is why this one ranks low. It felt like all the pieces for a great FF title are there, but it was sloppily put together. The voice acting never felt quite right. The character animations always looked stiff or too clean. The environment wasn't engaging or worth exploring when given the opportunity. The story was too in love with itself that it's easy to overlook what's really going on. The coincidences between the characters and how their lives interweave were too scripted. Every aspect of this game was off. A number of these issues are addressed in 13-2, but unless you're fully committed to the FF franchise, you probably skipped that one. FF13 was a game with a lot of potential and didn't follow-through.


10 – Final Fantasy IX. I can already hear the screams of the fanboys. "What? Why is FF9 so low on the list?" FF9's story never grabbed me on the same level as the other games. I felt the plot was too predictable and at times too cliché. The FF formula felt trite. It lacked originality and stuck to it's tropes to the point that I couldn't connect to the game.

What kept FF9 from sitting at the bottom is one thing they did the best: the characters. Plot and characters are my biggest reasons for playing a game. I have never met a more diverse, divisive, challenging, heartfelt, strong cast of characters in any of the FF titles. Zidane, Garnet, Vivi, Freya (and more!) - these characters are worth a playthrough of FF9. The characters and their stories are the saving grace. I wish other FF titles followed this example on how to create memorable characters.


9 – Final Fantasy VII. Again, hush fanboys. It's not #1. FF7 deserves the credit that it has received as being a game that sold PlayStation consoles. While the franchise has been in the Western market for a while, FF7 helped bring it to the forefront of casual gamers minds. If you've never played a Final Fantasy game, you know about FF7. The look and the characters are distinctly Final Fantasy. It ushered a new era for gaming while updating the RPG formula to fit with a more modern audience.

What I like about FF7 is the setting and the ever-evolving story. Just when you think you have a grasp on what's going on, a new layer is added. It all ties in to the theme of life - which was the premise Sakaguchi-san set out for this game. And it fits beautifully. For me, FF7 breaks the top 10 because of it's achievements. But I don't feel the game is polished enough to rank higher. The characters are just okay. The broody Cloud Strife holds so little personality, I was happy in the few moments where I didn't have to play him. The character archetypes are very paint by numbers. It's difficult to become attached to a character when most of them are bland. The story also gets too wrapped up in itself that it looses it's footing. When you figure out who Sephiroth is, that's when it all goes to crazy town. Fan theories aside, it's confusing only to ensure that everyone is corn-fused. I also disliked how the multiple side-stories intercepted each other. I felt like I kept getting pulled out of the main plot too much when dealing with Shin-Ra that I couldn't appreciate what the story was trying to tell me.



8 – Final Fantasy X. Placing FFX was difficult. I feel it's a game that doesn't get enough credit from journalists or gamers. But there are some flaws that kept the game below my top 5 because other FF titles triumphed where FFX failed.

FFX is one hell of a story. On the surface it seems straightforward. What FFX is really about is the corruption of religion. At it's most blunt, you have the sea monster Sin and an organized religion, Yevon, that is one step shy of pulling a full-on Spanish Inquisition. But when it's subtle, my goodness do you get hit with some hard hitting questions. And it has Blizball. Easily the second best mini-game in an FF title.

The characters and the gameplay are my biggest issues with X. Wakka and Lulu are hands down, some of my favorite characters. I enjoy their banter and insight as well as how dynamic their combat abilities were. But the other characters were just okay. They were not as memorable or worth engaging in. The gameplay can best be summed up as linear and slow. FFX returned to the turn-based combat system. While great on strategy, this wasn't a game that required a wait time. It was too easy to hit attack repeatedly and move on to the next fight. The restricted landscapes also didn't add to the atmosphere, making it clunky and sometimes awkward to achieve your goals.


7 – Final Fantasy V. Final Fantasy V is a silly game. You need to have an open mind to get through it.

That's it. I think it is a really silly Final Fantasy title. It will make you laugh. It will make you question your sanity. You will wonder why you are playing it at all. And then a moment happens. You'll realize it's just stupidly fun and you'll keep on playing. It's not the best cast of characters and the story is decent. But you'll keep playing because it's fun.


6 – Final Fantasy XI. I spent a good 7 years of my life in FF11. Vana'diel was a second home to me for quite some time and I'll never be able to forget it. The first Final Fantasy MMO has a good mix of classic FF elements with modern RPG finesse. You got one hell of an evolving story that somehow stayed cohesive, even after so many expansion packs. I'm still amazed that I managed to keep up with all of it. FF11 was not like other MMO's and relied heavily on you interacting with other gamers. Until more recent updates, it was near impossible to do anything in the game on your own. You had to have companions/party members assisting you. While the forced parties seems like it would have backfired, it didn't. FF11 managed to create a good balance between content and difficulty; many players have formed life-long friendships over the harshness of the Dunes. What kept me in FF11 for so long was the story. I left after finishing the Wings of the Goddess expansion, and the ending nearly had me in tears. It was too damn beautiful for words and damn you SE for making me care! *shakes fist*

The downside is, as most FF11 veterans know, is that this game is rough. Only the strong survived and if you were not good at your job, you better find a new one. Because this game offers you 0 forgiveness. If you died you lose XP. Depending on how recently you leveled, you were subject to a potential de-leveling. Crafting something? Well hopefully you're a high enough skill because you can lose everything in your synthesis if you fail that craft. Need to get around the world? Well if you don't have White Mage leveled, you're going to have to take the airship (which you have to wait for up to 20 minutes in real time to use) or pay a White Mage to teleport you and run to the nearest city. Cities didn't have direct teleports! It was rough being and FF11 player for a long time...but the rewards were well worth it.


5 – Final Fantasy VIII. This game is f-ed up and that's what makes it beautiful. I know FF8 tends to get blasted as "the bad one" from the PlayStation era, but it has a solid story line, good cast of characters, interesting landscape, and time travel DONE RIGHT. Square loves to time travel, and they usually suck at it. In FF8 it worked. It made sense. It wasn't a gimmick. I think this game doesn't sit as high on the list for gamers because it requires your full concentration. The story runs on two timelines. The plots match up, but it's easy to feel lost if you're not giving the game your undivided attention.

The cast of characters are far more likeable then FF7. Even Squall, with his broody mcbrooderson self, has some personality. Certainly well above Cloud. The bad guys are straight up cool. Witches from another time who want to mess up the world because they can. The landscape is amazeballs. The world feels rich, detailed, and lived in more so then any other FF game at the time. And of course the best mini-game ever: Triple Triad. One could easily get sucked in to this beast for hours, if not days. PlayOnline, the FF11 portal, had a Triple Triad game and it was always active.

The biggest flaw with this game is the combat. It sounds great on paper, but not so good in practice. It was called the "Draw" system where you could take moves from your enemies to use later. You can also equip Guardians (Summons) to help boost your stats and provide you with different bonuses. You can make it through 98% of this game without having to draw a single thing because your gear and summons are enough to work through battles. The sh*t part to all of this is that none of this matters in the last boss fight. All your Guardians are killed. Your equipment shot to hell. You have to rely on the abilities and spells you drew from past fights to make it through. It is one of the most difficult boss fights and 100% aggravating because the game tricks you into thinking Draw was a harmless, fun mechanic. This still frustrates me to this day.


4 – Final Fantasy XII. FF12 is one of those games where you either get it or you don't. Since it's HD re-release, I've been happy to see people willing to give it a shot. On the surface it doesn't look like a Final Fantasy title. It has a very different aura to it. But inside it is one of the most epic stories you will ever play.

FF12 can best be summed up as the child of 'Star Wars' and Final Fantasy: Tactics. The latter is important as FF12 takes place in the same world as Tactics. The story focuses on a young man who dreams of becoming a sky pirate. Through an odd set of circumstances he and his companion find themselves in trouble and are rescued by real sky pirates. They save a princess. Find the wise mentor. Go through the "I'm your father/brother" thing. Blow up a big death machine. It's a love letter to 'Star Wars.' I don't remember anyone losing a hand though.

The scenery is stunning. This is the exact opposite of FFX and provides you a full open world experience. There are zone lines and limitations on where you can go, but FF12 feels like the most expressive games in it's world building compared to it's predecessors. You can see the mobs on the screen for the first time and determine your battle plan. Do you fight or flee? The Gambit system is also really freekin' neat. If you are all about party customization, give this game a shot. You can micromanage your team down to "when should X cast this spell."

With the exception of Balthier and Fran, the characters are just okay. Not as bad as other games, but not exactly thrilling. The original battle system was slow so it did take time to move through areas - with the HD version they have a warp speed button. It looks ridiculous, but it will save you hours of walking. And I'm bummed at how little we were able to see the cities. We get a few corridors, some shops, and that's it! They look so impressive on the outside and we never have the opportunity to explore. Those are my biggest gripes with this game.


3 – Final Fantasy XIV. If you watched my Twitch stream at least once, this should not come as a surprise that FF14 ranks pretty high on my list. When it was first released, this game was not impressive. Easily one of the worst titles in FF history. But with version 2.0 they changed everything and it became a game everyone wanted to play. At 11 million subscriptions and rising, it is the game for FF fans, by FF fans.

If I had to pick one thing that I love about this game it would be the scenery. I feel like I can get lost in the landscapes for hours taking photos. Areas that I've explored dozens of times still capture my interest. Flying through some of the 3.0 zones (Heavensward) I find myself always ready to take a screenshot. I can't help it! The world continue to evolve with each update and I love getting lost in it. There are a load of other wonderful aspects to FF14, but for the sake of limiting the text spam I'm keeping it down to 1 for the rest of the list!

The cons: it could use more endgame content. Also a /sigh emote.


2 – Final Fantasy IV. When I try to describe how enchanting FF6 is to those who haven’t played, I tell people to go to YouTube and look for the opening cutscene. Start at 3:40 for the good stuff. Watch that and you’ll get it.

May as well watch the Opera Scene too while you're at it.




1 – Final Fantasy IV. Was there a doubt here? If you’ve seen my past lists on favorite games, you know FF4 is always at the top. In all fairness, 4 and 6 tend to switch places. I think it depends on my current life situation. Sometimes it feels like FF6 is the best. Other times it's 4. And 4 has been my favorite for several months.

FF4 is one of those games that grabs you and doesn't let go. It's the first in the franchise to put names and personalities to your main party. What you may think is the standard good v.s evil fare quickly transforms into following the stories of your eclectic group. It's not one story, but multiple stories about how each person changes with their journey throughout the game. Cecil is easily the most distinctive of Final Fantasy characters. He starts out on the bad guy's team. Somehow we have to empathize with him, support him and his actions when he's a bad guy! His transformation to the light side is emotionally impactful that you can feel the depth the developers went to, to make this a moving game.

This is one of the few titles I played as a kid where I felt that games had a purpose. By no means is FF4 perfect, but it always stands out as one of the best in my mind. The writing, the unique cast of characters, the dynamic landscape, the fun boss battles, the amazing music - some of the flaws can be overlooked when you have a story that grips you in such a way. If you have a DS, this is a must pick-up game. Voice acting optional.

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