With Final Fantasy XVI on the horizon, many people are looking at the Final Fantasy franchise for the first time. So let’s try and explain what Final Fantasy is and where to start.
Playing the Prelude
The outplayed joke here is how can it be a Final Fantasy if there are so many of them. But considering that the franchise is gonna celebrate its 35th anniversary this year we could say that Square-Enix had a good run with it so far. There are countless Final Fantasy titles there, some of them frequently make the top 10 lists of the greatest video games of all time and we can say with certainty that it left quite a legacy behind.
But recently Final Fantasy is something that quietly went away, they still make these games. Several a year actually, but in the general discussion, it feels like it’s been taken for granted. So if you’ve never had any contact with the series, this article is for you. If you’ve fallen out with the series, maybe this can serve as a reintroduction. Before we get into all those funny recommendations, let’s do a quick history lesson!
Final Fantasy is the brainchild of Hironobu Sakaguchi and was born from his love for classic computer RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry. According to mythos the name Final Fantasy was chosen because it was his last-ditch effort before he went back to university. And while the truth is probably somewhere between there and the fact that the name Fighting Fantasy was already taken, it is that first story that gets told. Final Fantasy was released on December 18, 1987, and was a massive success a sequel was ordered.
The thing with the first Final Fantasy is just, it was never meant to have a sequel. So the second game took some ideas from the first and rebuild itself from the ground up. A new story, new characters, and a world to explore. This trend would lead to 15 mainline entries and several spinoffs that are either their own thing or use some of the numbered titles as a jumping-off point.
Today it is really hard to define what Final Fantasy is because Final Fantasy can be whatever its makers want it to be. If you are not against the idea of Final Fantasy there ought to be one title out there you’ll probably love. You’ll find everything from extremely technical JRPGs to hack n slash action games or MMORPGs. Stories that are homages to classic fairy tales to cyberpunk dystopia. The only certain thing is the magical chime of Nobuo Uematsu’s Crystal Prelude.
So let’s make a list of all the Final Fantasy games you can check out! Generally, most of them are worth playing but some will probably come off as dated by today’s standards.
Final Fantasy V
I will admit, the first 5 Final Fantasy titles are not that much different from another. If you play them in release order today, you’ll see the teams behind it toying around with different ideas and slowly figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Of those games, Final Fantasy V is probably the best. Not only is the Job system and combat in this game amazing, but it is also a clean and fun adventure all the way through.
Unlike the later games, Final Fantasy V keeps things simple. You play a group of heroes led by the adventurer Bartz to slay the evil Exdeath. It is probably the closest to Tolkien the series ever got. Good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, the dark side against the light. But what stood out even in 1992 is the quality of writing behind the characters. Everyone is a fleshed-out person and there is a fun group dynamic between all the characters.
But Final Fantasy V’s standout feature was the job system. Which allowed all the characters to switch their combat job to the players liking. Instead of just leveling up your characters, you’re leveling up your character’s jobs. Increasing the level of a job will also grant additional bonuses that you get to keep forever and carry over into other jobs. That can be extra status points or new abilities. There are 22 jobs in total in the game that every character has access to, which means you can get creative with the setup of your party. Just now that a full party of Blue Mages is objectively the best choice.
Final Fantasy V was most recently made available as part of Pixel Remaster with upscaled visuals and the orchestral soundtrack for PC and Mobile. If you want to play it on a modern system, this will be your best choice.
Final Fantasy VI
After Final Fantasy V was the height of the clean-cut JRPG, Final Fantasy VI was when the series really honed in on its ability to tell stories. The fun fantasy sci-fi gave way to a grim steampunk dystopia. The moment you boot up the game for the first time, you’ll notice it is something special. A cinematic intro in which the music slowly swells while we get introduced to the first playable character, Terra. While Final Fantasy VI scrapped the job system from Final Fantasy V, it beefed up its playable cast of characters. There are 14 characters in total that’ll join your party as you go on a globe-trotting adventure to save the world.
Compared to earlier titles, Final Fantasy VI feels a lot more mature. It takes place in a world in which magic died out completely and an evil empire is slowly taking over the world. But what makes Final Fantasy VI so special and why it will frequently top best Final Fantasy lists is its cast of characters. The group has a dynamic that shifts as the story progresses, characters have often very difficult relationships with one another and Final Fantasy VI takes its sweet time exploring that.
Combat is also a step up from Final Fantasy V, every character has a defined job and their own gameplay gimmicks to work with. Often you’ll have to deploy multiple parties of characters, spread across a town or dungeon. And you’ll have to figure out how best to pair them up. Also, did I mention that you can German Suplex a train in this one?
Final Fantasy VI was also part of the Pixel Remaster and received a slight visual overhaul as well as the orchestral soundtrack from the Distant Worlds concerts. It is currently available for PC and Mobile.
Final Fantasy VII
Even if you had never much experience with Final Fantasy, chances are that you know about Final Fantasy VII. It is hands down one of the most influential games of all time, it was literally one of the first triple-A video games and even the most hardened of critics will admit that it’s transcendent. Okay now that I have finished the required gushing, let’s get to it. Final Fantasy VII was the first 3D Final Fantasy and Square Enix’s last effort to bring the JRPG genre to the west.
By today’s standards, its presentation comes off as a little long-winded and self-indulgent. But for a game released in 1997, this was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. And for the most part, its lovely pre-rendered backgrounds and quirky combat hold up. It is one of the early examples of a video game being truly ‘cinematic’.
What makes Final Fantasy VII above and beyond is its stories, themes, and characters. There is a reason why you can look up thousands of Youtube video essays and written homages in magazines like GQ. A wise man once said that Final Fantasy VII visited us and left its luggage in our living room and 25 years later, people are still unpacking that luggage. It’s the kind of game that could only be created in its place and time, and somehow all its unrefined touches by a development team that was figuring out how to make a 3D Final Fantasy make it even more endearing.
I’m gushing again, aren’t I? Anyways! The story of Final Fantasy VII revolves around the mercenary Cloud Strife who teams up with a group of environmental terrorists to take the fight to his former employer, the mega-corporation Shin-Ra. Who is harvesting the planet’s life force in order to create energy and stomp out everyone who opposes them. That’s pretty much all I’m willing to tell at this point because meeting the cast of characters and exploring the world of Final Fantasy VII is one of its best aspects. Go play it. Even if you have no interest in Final Fantasy, you owe it to yourself.
Final Fantasy VII in its original form (as an HD upscale) is available on pretty much every modern system. The game is also currently being remade with one of three parts being out right now. The Final Fantasy VII Remake is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC with the second part coming to PlayStation 5 in later 2023. Personally, I’d recommend playing the original first because the remake is technically a remake but is also a reenvisioning of the original and something you’ll appreciate more after playing the original.
Final Fantasy X
While not as transcendent as Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X is probably as important to the franchise. It was the first time the series came to the PlayStation 2 and Square Enix really brought their A game in terms of presentation and design. While the other two PlayStation One titles still experimented with visual styles and structure, Final Fantasy X came out with unmatched confidence and a certain kind of mastery in those aspects. And if you look at the HD versions of the game today, you can see that they still hold up. It just shows how timeless its style is.
In Final Fantasy X you take on the role of Tidus, a professional athlete who finds himself in a strange world trying to make sense of it all. Unlike previous entries that drew inspiration from western fantasy, Final Fantasy Xs mythos draws heavy inspiration from all kinds of eastern religions, spiritualism, and cultures. As much as I like to gush about Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X was the game that set a new standard for storytelling, visuals, and presentation. Something that you’ll still see in games to this day.
Of course, Final Fantasy is nothing without its combat system and Final Fantasy X boasts a timeless one. Its turn-based combat that allows the player to manipulate the order of attacks with certain abilities. This is combined with the ability to change party members out on the fly during combat and that very character as a defined role within the combat system. All of this is only enhanced by the sphere grid which replaces the leveling system. Think of it as a skill tree but also a board game. Sounds weird but it allows for interesting choices and the ability to customize your party to your liking.
Final Fantasy X is available on all modern platforms with an HD remaster. That also included the sequel Final Fantasy X-2 which also received a visual overhaul.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Don’t like single-player games? Well, there is the second critically acclaimed MMORPG in the franchise, Final Fantasy XIV. Currently one of the most popular MMORPGs on the market today and deep into its 4th expansion Endwalker. If you want a game that will take over your life, Final Fantasy XIV is the game for you.
While people usually don’t associate MMORPGs with great storytelling, I’m happy to tell you that Final Fantasy XIV is just built different. Since its story is designed to go on for a long, long time Final Fantasy XIV gets to stretch its wings and really go into world-building and characters. Playing through one expansion feels like watching an entire season of prime TV only that it never ends. One of its biggest strengths is the way it weaves its gameplay into its narratives, every single piece of side content is contextualized and grounded within the world of Final Fantasy XIV.
That just comes on top of it being a very good MMORPG with a lot of stuff that can keep you occupied for the rest of your natural and unnatural lifespan. XIV is often likened to a theme park and it is definitely a Final Fantasy theme park before anything else. Unlike other games of the franchise, Final Fantasy XIV loves to indulge in references and callbacks to its franchise. This can range from reenvisioning iconic locations all the way to recasting alternative versions of fan-favorite characters within their own mythos.
And the thing is also, even though Endwalker wrapped up Final Fantasy XIVs ongoing story, the game isn’t over yet. The end of one journey is just the beginning of a new one. So if you play through the entirety of Final Fantasy XIV you’ll get one of the most realized worlds in all of gaming and one of the best stories ever told in a video game. The only thing you need to sacrifice in return in a casual 300-500 hours of your life. Trust me it’s worth it.
Final Fantasy XIV is available on both PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC, and Mac OS. If you’re not sure about the time commitment yet, don’t worry. There is an extended free trial that allows you to play all the way up to level 60, including the Heavensward expansion. That’s around 100ish hours worth of content for free! Besides giving up on your social life that is.
If I’ve done my job here correctly, you now have a bunch of Final Fantasy titles to try out or at least take a look at. Generally, all the titles in the main series are well worth playing but I tried to keep this list to what I would consider essential entry points. If you like one, chances are high that you’ll love the other titles just as much. If some of these aren’t to your liking, however.. play Final Fantasy IX? Oh or you could get into the spin-off titles, I really hope they’ll remake Final Fantasy Tactics Advance sometime an-
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