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  • Ranking the Final Fantasy Series

    May 29th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    Before I move on to my next series of articles, I want to look back at the franchise I just wrote 18 articles about over the period of eight months. Today's article is a ranking of the main entries in the Final Fantasy series, from best to worst. I have also included a few of the more high-profile direct sequels in this list as well, but spin-offs and side-stories have been left out.


    A few things to note before we get started: I have not included Final Fantasy XI or XIV on this list for two reasons. First, being MMOs I think that they're fundamentally too different from the rest of the main series to be easily comparable, and second, I haven't played either game, so I can't really comment on them in terms of quality either.

    I can practically guarantee that you will not agree with this list, to at least some extent, and that's fine. Almost everyone I know has a different opinion on how the Final Fantasy games are ranked, but when you do eventually disagree with this list I'd encourage you to let others know in the comments how you would rank them instead. 


    14. Final Fantasy II

    Final Fantasy II was a title that perhaps suffered from its lofty ambitions. Hironobu Sakaguchi didn't just want to make the same game again following the success of the first ever Final Fantasy, and as a result it was home to numerous interesting but ultimately flawed experiments in regards to its gameplay. The leveling system is perhaps the most notable of these, effectively dropping a traditional experience based leveling system in favour of one where each character's attributes increase based on actions performed in battle (so, for example, by using physical attacks a character's strength would increase). 

    The idea behind it was interesting, but in reality it was very cumbersome and easy to abuse. In practice things like your health increasing by enemies doing damage to you is too unreliable a way to improve characters. Additionally, because of the game's relatively high difficulty, you're likely to have to spend a lot of time just running around the world map grinding out character stats, making it a chore to play. The story and characters are a slight improvement over the first game, and the music is good, but there really isn't much of a reason to go back and play this entry unless you really want to experience all of the games in the series for yourself.


    13. Final Fantasy I

    The first Final Fantasy still retains a lot of its charm, even today, but there's no denying the fact that it really hasn't aged all that well. I would still recommend playing through it once for anyone who has become invested in the series, as it is genuinely interesting to see where the series began and to identify those elements that have been in place since the very start.

    Regardless, the story, while fairly complex for the time, is very basic and straightforward by today's standards, and the gameplay is pretty much the epitome of a traditional turn-based combat system. The music is good and it's fun to hear some of the series' most iconic tunes in the game they first appeared in. 


    12. Final Fantasy III


    Final Fantasy III is the first game in the series that still contains some genuinely great elements even today. The first two entries are very much relics of their time, but thanks to the introduction of the job system FF III holds up much better than its predecessors. The story and characters still remain on the simple side, largely due to the limitations of the hardware Square was working with at the time, but the gameplay and music make this one worth playing.

    It's certainly not without its flaws, though. The difficulty can spike quite suddenly at times, requiring some extensive leveling from the player to get through certain parts of the game. The final boss is especially notorious for this; I had to spend roughly an hour just running around a single room fighting monsters before I was sufficiently levelled to survive against the final boss, despite the rest of the final dungeon having been fairly easy. Another notable annoyance is the inability to save anywhere except on the world map, which can become quite irritating in longer dungeons.


    11. Final Fantasy XIII Trilogy


    I decided to treat the XIII trilogy as a single entry on this list because the three games effectively tell a single continuous story, and they also share a lot of similarities in terms of gameplay and other elements. Each title does have its unique strengths and weaknesses, but when it comes to overall quality I think they balance out quite evenly in the end. Visually they still hold up, although curiously the graphical quality actually decreases with each game.

    Still, there's no doubt that these are among the weakest entries in the entire series. Final Fantasy XIII began the trilogy on shaky ground, and the sequels were playing with a handicap from the beginning, as they had to somehow fix the problems the first game created while still progressing the story in a way that made sense, which they were never quite able to do. They're decent, but that's the best I can say about them. The biggest problem throughout the trilogy was the poorly told story which wasted much of its potential by not being able to properly convey the more interesting aspects of the game's world and history.


    10. Final Fantasy X-2


    Final Fantasy X-2 was saved entirely by its battle system. Almost everything else about it was worse when compared to its predecessor, including the story, characters, and music. The graphics are slightly better, but the rest of the game is a massive disappointment. To this day, however, Final Fantasy X-2 features the best implementation of the job system, and together with the battle system it makes the game worth playing.

    Perhaps the main reason X-2 is such a disappointment is because the idea actually had a lot of potential to it. Going back to a world that was supposedly saved in the first game to discover that just because one thing was solved doesn't mean that everything's going to be fine from then on is a very mature and original narrative angle. A story about new factions rising to fill the power vacuum left by the events of the first game sounds interesting on paper, but the execution just wasn't there.


    9. Final Fantasy V


    Final Fantasy V is the first truly good game on this list, with its main drawback being the relatively underdeveloped main characters and a story that lacks the kind of depth that was already present in the previous Final Fantasy games. Both of these aspects are still decent but somewhat unremarkable compared to much of the rest of the series. The true star of Final Fantasy V is its job system.

    Taking what Final Fantasy III innovated and improving upon every aspect of it, Final Fantasy V contained what was at the time the deepest battle system in the entire series, a distinction it would hold for quite some time. This also once again showed that Hironobu Sakaguchi was willing to keep experimenting with the series' formula even after finding success with previous entries. Speaking of which.


    8. Final Fantasy IV


    This is where ranking the series starts to become really difficult, to the point where I can easily see any of the games from this point on being a lot of readers' favourite in the entire series. Final Fantasy IV was the first entry that, in my opinion, could be considered genuinely great, especially for its time. It was also the point at which the series grew up and began tackling more complex storylines and characters.

    Being the series' debut on the SNES, FF IV was a notable upgrade on its NES predecessors. Naturally the audiovisual quality was improved, but the stronger hardware also allowed for much greater narrative depth as well, which definitely paid off. Final Fantasy IV was essentially the beginning of the golden age of Final Fantasy, which lasted at least until the early 2000s. Many later games in the series have since surpassed it, but this is the one that paved the way for the masterpieces that would follow.


    7. Final Fantasy XV

    I can see this being a somewhat controversial placement for Final Fantasy XV for some people, given the numerous criticisms that have been laid upon it since release, but in my opinion the latest entry in the series proved to be a very good game in the end. It falls just short of being truly great and there are a number of shortcomings, but it does so many things so well that ultimately the flaws don't really hurt it all that much. The main issue for me was its pacing, which saw vast sections of the game contain little to no story progression, while at other points the players is shepherded forward without any chance to deviate from the set path.

    Regardless, the story is very good, the gameplay and battle systems highly enjoyable, although the latter does take a while to get used to, and the music composed by Yoko Shimomura is excellent as well. The strongest aspect of Final Fantasy XV, for me at least, is its characters. The four main characters become genuinely likeable and memorable, with well written and fleshed out arcs that progress over the course of the game. It also has the one of the most enjoyably evil main villains in the entire series, and the best one since at least FF X.


    6. Final Fantasy XII


    Often considered the odd one out when people talk about the series as a whole, Final Fantasy XII was made with an almost entirely new team in charge compared to its predecessors. Notably, Yasumi Matsuno was initially slated to write and direct it, but was eventually forced to step down due to health issues. However, his original concept for the story remained, taking place in the world of Ivalice he had created for Final Fantasy Tactics several years earlier. This was also the first of the main numbered Final Fantasy games that lacked a notable contribution from Nobuo Uematsu towards its score (he only composed the main theme, while Hitoshi Sakimoto handled most of the rest of the score).

    Final Fantasy XII was a definite departure in others respects too; it features a very different style of gameplay, music, story, characters, and even visuals compared to any of the previous titles. However, for the most part this works in the game's favour, and generally the aspects that don't hold up so well are changes made to the game after Matsuno's departure. Most famously, the addition of two new main characters in the form of Vaan and Penelo weakened the overall experience somewhat, as even at their best the two are largely inconsequential to the story. Still, most of Final Fantasy XII is excellent, and although it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the series' best titles, it's well worth playing through.


    5. Final Fantasy VII


    The title that essentially made Japanese RPGs a mainstream genre for a brief moment in the late 90s and early 2000s almost by itself, Final Fantasy VII has since been regarded as one of the greatest games of all time as a result. However, to me, it has never quite been the best the series has to offer. Although it is undoubtedly a great game in its own right and can easily be considered a masterpiece, there are nonetheless a few other entries in the series that I rank slightly higher.

    Countless different moments, characters, and other elements from Final Fantasy VII have become iconic, not just within the series itself, but gaming in general. Aerith's death, the burning of Nibelheim, songs like 'One-Winged Angel', the iconic characters, and many other aspects are still burned deeply into the minds of many who have played the game, and for a good reason. It may not be the best entry in the series, but Final Fantasy VII most definitely deserves its status as one of the most popular games ever made.


    4. Final Fantasy VIII


    This is probably another ranking that will be quite divisive. Final Fantasy VIII had and still has a very mixed reception among Final Fantasy fans, with some loving it while others consider it among the weakest games in the series. Final Fantasy VIII had the unenviable task of following the game that for millions of people was their introduction to both the series and the genre in general. I generally see it as practically equal with Final Fantasy VII, although as you can see by this list ranking, when forced to choose between the two then VIII just barely wins out.

    Many may have expected Square to retain the style of VII to capitalize on its popularity, but true to series tradition the development team once again decided to head in an entirely new direction. The gameplay was given a significant overhaul, the story and characters took on a completely different tone and style, and even the visual style saw a notable change as well, leaning even further towards a futuristic look than VII. Final Fantasy VIII is a game that will likely forever divide the series' fanbase, but in my opinion it is one of the finest titles in the long-running franchise.


    3. Final Fantasy X


    At the time of its release Final Fantasy X represented a massive shift for the series in many ways. It was the first entry to feature voice acting, the first 3D title to not use pre-rendered backgrounds, and it was the first time the main series took most of its influence from something other than European legends, technology, and folklore. With FF X Square decided to look towards various Asian cultures for inspiration and this can be seen and heard in nearly every aspect of the game, from the look of its various locations to the music composed by Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Junya Nakano.

    Final Fantasy X may very well feature the best balance between a great story and enjoyable gameplay in the entire series. Its battle system is certainly still among the series' best, adding as it did a surprising amount of depth to the classic ATB system by allowing the player to swap out characters at will during battle. The game's tactical depth shines especially in the more difficult battles it puts the player in, where utilizing the various tools available becomes paramount to succeeding. This, coupled with memorable characters and a wonderful story, as well as some of the greatest moments in the franchise's history, makes Final Fantasy X one entry that everyone should at some point play.


    2. Final Fantasy VI


    Final Fantasy VI was the first true masterpiece in the series, building upon the excellent foundations laid by FF IV a few years prior. The music, characters and story are impeccable, and were used to create some of the greatest moments in video game history. Among these are the opera house sequence, Kefka's poisoning of Doma, and the breaking of the world halfway through the game. With this entry Square took its storytelling skills to a new level, putting together a genuinely emotional storyline with a cast of excellently written characters, each with their own arcs that made all of them feel unique and interesting. This includes Kefka, who is generally considered one of the greatest video game villains of all time.

    While Final Fantasy VII was the game that made the series break through in the west, VI was for many the game that made them fall in love with Final Fantasy in the first place. There is a reason why its popularity has endured through the last 23 years, and it is still seen by many as the series' finest outing thus far. For me, it just barely loses out on the #1 spot, but this is most definitely a game that any fan of RPGs should make a point of playing at least once.


    1. Final Fantasy IX


    Final Fantasy IX is the only entry in the series where my complaints are mere nitpicks; it is, overall, a magnificent game on every level. My main nitpick is that it is slightly too easy, with even the most difficult bosses providing a relatively tame challenge when compared to other Final Fantasy titles. The story and characters are my favourite in the entire series, the soundtrack is excellent, the game's visual design is superb, and the numerous callbacks to past Final Fantasy games create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia.

    Final Fantasy IX also served as something of an end of an era for Final Fantasy, being the last series entry on the original PlayStation, and the last before it would go through some fairly significant changes with FF X, such as the inclusion of voice acting and fully 3D environments. It may be a nostalgic look back at the series as a whole up to that point, but it is also an exceptional video game in its own right and I have no problem calling it the best entry in the series.


    And that's my list. I'm sure you will disagree with some, or perhaps most of it, so let us know in the comments section below how you would personally rank the Final Fantasy series, or just share some thoughts on your favourite entry. As always, thanks for reading.

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