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What is the best Final Fantasy game to date (Sept. 2011)?
What makes a game worthy of the Final Fantasy name? The series follows a trend--usually-which will allow players to predict what to expect when they drop the cash for the newest installment; chocobos, moogles, some guy named Cid, a villain who seriously resents that things have the audacity to exist. However, no trait unifies the series into one definitive idea. Even the most pervasive elements can't be found in some games, and in others it feels like Square hammered them into the story out of obligation.
And then some games just wear the brand name to rake in the cash. I hate saying this, but the series has become a hit-and-miss. Final Fantasy X blew me away with smooth graphics and engaging story. FFXII didn't impress me with a strong story, but I praised the game for its immersive fantasy world. More recently I played FFXIII and felt like a Mario game would have entertained more.
So what games should you buy? Which games should you avoid? Clearly, my opinion won't speak for everyone, but it may help. I hope to work through the features of the series, commenting on the story, battle systems, overall game play, and just how engaged I felt as a player.
Final Fantasy Has Come a Long Way
The original 1987 game broke through new boundaries, bringing a Dungeons and Dragons feel to console gaming. In one way, it surpassed D&D--anyone could play it when their friends weren't available. I consider that the selling point of video games as a concept. Unfortunately, the transition didn't work well. The player had controllable sprites to answer his beck and call, but they don't qualify as characters by any means. D&D's sells itself by allowing the player to be a character, to make decisions, and to personally manipulate the story. That sort of freedom couldn't work a video game in 1987.
For the first three installments, characters fell flat, stories were scattered haphazardly across the map, and villains had little relation to the game and almost no motivation to speak of. However, Square learned that a character independent of the player didn't ruin the story, and the next three games in the series made the name "Final Fantasy" venerable among console gamers.
Final Fantasy IV holds a prestigious point in console RPG history. Rather than blank personalities, the player controls Cecil, the disgraced captain of Baron's Red Wings. It marks the first true story in the series, with a character who experiences conflict, makes decisions, and fights personal battles. The game runs smoothly, introduces the active time battle--a staple for the series, finally making the "haste" spell actually do something--but while it's known for advanced development and having a plot, the story won't likely find its way into literature classes anytime soon. The music, however, is taught as a regular part of Japanese curriculum. FFIV also marks the point when composer Nobuo Uematsu began to make his name known.
Final Fantasy V may not have improved upon the story quality, but it did refine the job system from FFIII into a perfect method for creating customized characters. After this game, the job system became one of the features that fans expected from a Final Fantasy game.
Many people consider Final Fantasy VI to be the eponymous game, that which defines the series. Story development turned into something worth paying close attention to. They toned down the job system--each character has his or her own class, which doesn't change during gameplay--but they introduced a large ensemble cast which worked for this game. Each character's personality is revealed or explained partly through the main quest and partly through side-quests. While no one can truly take the spotlight in the story, everyone has their own moments. The game clearly drew from the successes of previous games while discarding shortcomings. Then Square blended in a slight steampunk element to move the series forward, creating what many consider to be the best game in the series.
I suggest playing it--and the other two. All three games have been released and re-released multiple times, and you can purchase them for cheap online. However, I don't think VI deserves the title of Best in the Series.
The steampunk element of FFVI may have pushed Square in the wrong direction, however, and it quickly began to tone down fantasy elements in favor of science fiction. This leads to Final Fantasies VII and VIII, which fans apparently debate furiously as to which one is best in the series.
Between the two, FFVII beats its successor hands-down. I don't entirely understand how people can even contest that. FFVII strayed from fantasy, and the story occurred in a pseudo-contemporary dystopia, leaning toward a science-fiction world. But I enjoyed it as a good example of science-fiction. It did have problems, yes. The materia system meant characters could easily be interchanged, the only difference being their limit breaks, weapons and armor, and base stats. Plus, the entire second act of the game involved hunting down a madman with no clear motive. The revenge aspect worked for Cloud, but I often stopped to question why the entire cast of playable characters cared enough to drag Sephiroth to justice.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy VIII only compounded those problems. Eliminating base stats, weapons and armor almost entirely, the only thing that distinguished one character from another was their limit breaks, most of which had little use in combat. Weapons existed, but could not be bought or found; however, if you found enough rare items you could upgrade them, making them two or three points stronger than before.
I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. The game is worth playing--just maybe not as often as the rest. Replacing weapons and armor, the player will find the junction system, which requires you to use magic to buff up your stats. Except you need summon monsters to gain junction abilities--imagine if you started a game with no equipment and had to fight battle after battle for the right just to equip armor or a weapon, and then it took a half hour to get an average power sword by stealing it piece by piece from your enemy.
The junction system also limits your stats by making it dependent on spells which may not be available for two and a half discs of the four-disc game. The bottom line is that while you can play through it, when you reach disc three and find your characters doing critical hits that barely do 500 damage, you know you're using a broken battle program.
Again, I do recommend it, just not as fervently as the other games in the series. Junctioning is a fascinating concept, and the card game certainly captivates me longer than I'm willing to admit, but with a broken battle system and a story that relies very heavily on coincidence and one-time writer's convenience plot devices, it can't come close to Best in Series.
So Which One is the Best Already?
Even I can't say for sure which game I think tops the rest. Final Fantasy X has a marvelous story, and even X-2 is worth playing once if you hated Tidus. Final Fantasy XII doesn't dazzle anyone with its plot, but it provides an immense fantasy world, and a highly refined battle system that has only been criticized by people who don't fully understand it (being able program your own AI, and to also override that programming, makes battles much, much faster, and having them occur on the world map makes the game feel more realistic.)
I refuse to recognize XIII as a Final Fantasy game. I don't know what Square was thinking when they eliminated towns, shops, airships, plot, villains you actually get to fight, and a story that makes sense in favor of recycling characters from previous games so they could run blindly down a narrow corridor picking up items that barely have any value at all and occasionally throwing in a cut scene that may not say "something is happening" so much as "look how pretty the PS3 is." That game is utter garbage, and made me question my allegiance to the series.
I have to say my favorite game is a toss-up. Although many would refute me, one game that slipped silently under the radar seems to capture the essence of everything I ask a fantasy genre RPG to offer. Final Fantasy IX, developed at the same time as VIII, originally was planned to be released as a spin-off. However, they consciously dug back through their previous games and pulled the best elements out of them. You can't walk three steps without hitting something from a previous game: Mt. Gulug, Garland, multiple worlds, black mages with pointy hats, a dramatic scene where everyone on the planet comes to help you fight the villain at the end. But they managed to blend the good together seamlessly, and my personal favorite antagonist, Kuja, appears in this game.
While not being especially menacing (actually, he's rather effeminate), he displays an honest human emotion that inspires him to annihilate existence--fear of death, and the conscious realization of his own mortality.
For me, Final Fantasy IX captures everything that is "Final Fantasy" and places it in nice, four-disc medieval setting with unique characters, simple gameplay, and lots and lots of moogles.
For my money, no game beats the original Final Fantasy Tactics. This game concentrates on a highly developed battle system and the ability to customize characters like never before. Battles require more than pressing "X" to constantly repeat the same attack. Strategy, formation, and even outsmarting your opponents make this game far more engaging than any of the mainstream games. While job classes never fully went away, Tactics revives the system from FFV and gives it a makeover. Rather than giving characters a single ability learned from a previous job, each character has the option of mixing the job's primary skills and perks with a secondary battle ability, counter skill, and move bonus.
While we'd expect a tactics game to put all its energy into the battle system--like the poorly-designed Tactics Advance games--The original FF Tactics draws every battle together in a tightly-written story. Nothing slips into the game without reason. Deception and trust revolve around character interactions, and the protagonist finishes the game having learned the flaws of social hierarchy and manipulation of the weak by the strong.
Graphics lack style, cut scenes don't live up to today's standards, and some battles will significantly try your brainpower, but if I had to put money on it, the original Final Fantasy Tactics (also known as "The War of the Lions") reigns supreme as the pinnacle of Square's flagship series.