So, I’m currently working on a campaign journal for the Reign of Winter game, but it’s taking me longer than expected to get used to writing in character again. So, it’s going to be a little while on that one.
In the mean time, I thought I’d talk about one of my favourite RPG video game series of all time. From the title, I’m assuming you guessed what it is, but just in case you missed it, I’m talking about Final Fantasy. I know a lot of my friends have made the obvious “It’s not really a final fantasy if there’s so many of them” joke over the years. I don’t know how true it is, but what I heard about the name was that the original creator of Final Fantasy had intended for it to be the last game he made, his literal “Final Fantasy” game. When the game was unbelievably successful, he decided to continue on.
Anyway, let’s have a retrospective look at the Final Fantasy games (at least the ones I’ve played).
Final Fantasy VII:
I grew up playing these games. Sure, not from the very first one, since my first gaming console (if you don’t count a Commodore 64) was the original PlayStation, which I got in 1997. So my initial introduction to the series was, as I’m sure it was for many others, Final Fantasy VII… and man, it blew my mind. Here was a Science Fantasy story that rivalled the novels I’d been reading for how sheer bloody epic it was, except that this time I was in control of the action and pacing. Sure, to actually complete the story you had to take a set path, but I was free to explore the world and hunt for secrets and mini-games to my hearts desire. When you did decide to finally get back on track, the game was a rollercoaster of action and story. There were moments of victory, like stopping the train before it destroyed the town of Corel; and there were incredibly sad moments as well. The fate of Barrett’s childhood friend Dyne, after he realises that his daughter is still alive and he’s too much of a monster to ever be her father again, was a shocking moment for me. Even more shocking was the end of Disc One, where you catch up to Aeris again (yes, I’m going with the original mistranslation of the name, because that’s what I’m used to), only to have her killed in front of you by Sephiroth/Jenova. I’m going to be honest. That’s the first time a video game has ever made me shed a tear. It’s happened on occasion since then, but it’s a rare thing. Even movies can’t manage it all that often, though books do it surprisingly regularly.
Since then, there’s been a number of spin-offs from Final Fantasy VII, including movies, books and games. The ones I’ve seen and played have been pretty good, including Crisis Core, an action-RPG for the PSP; Dirge of Cerberus, a third person shooter featuring everyone’s favourite optional character, Vincent Valentine; and Advent Children, the direct sequel film. Little hint with Advent Children, unless you’re watching the Complete Edition, don’t bother. It makes much more sense with the huge amount of extra footage. Sadly, the one thing we haven’t seen, and that I doubt we’ll ever see (though I’d love for Square Enix to prove me wrong) is a HD remake of Final Fantasy VII.
Final Fantasy VIII:
In 1999, I got my hands on a copy of the next game in the series, Final Fantasy VIII. Given that at this stage I hadn’t played any of the games prior to VII, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Was it going to be a continuation of the story? Would it use the same Materia system for magic and abilities? The answer to both of those questions was big no. Though it was still set in a futuristic Science Fantasy world, the setting itself was completely different. Gone were the Mako reactors and freedom fighters of AVALANCHE, gone were the material and weapon systems, where you’d just wander into a store and buy weapons, accessories and material and equip it as you saw fit. Instead, this game focused on a team of young mercenaries known as SeeDs (and when I say young, I mean the main characters are all around 17 to 20 years old. Even their instructor is only 19), trained by an the Balamb Garden academy. Their first mission after completing their training is to help a resistance group fighting against the Galbadian government, who it turns out has formed an alliance with the Sorceress. Again, the story was amazing (and full of time travel and body hopping evil sorceresses), and I actually grew to care about quite a few of the characters, even the at times cold-hearted lead character Squall.
The gameplay was brilliant as well. While the basic mechanics were the same as VII, with battles featuring of a team of three characters in turn-based combat, the implementation of magic and abilities was completely different. Instead of just equipping weapons, you collected parts throughout the game and upgraded them as you found magazines telling you what the new combinations were. Instead of equipping Materia to get your magic and summon abilities, you ‘junctioned’ specific Guardian Forces or GFs (Summons or Eidolons in other games) to each character. Those GFs would then level and learn new abilities as the characters did, allowing them to junction specific spells to their stats in order to increase them, or to refine magic and items from other items within the game. The magic system itself was entirely different as well. Rather than using a traditionall MP resource system, you instead had to use the draw command to steal magic from enemies. Each character could hold 100 copies of 32 different spells, and if you had junctioned a spell to a stat, you had to think very carefully about if you wanted to actually cast it, as it would reduce the stat until you could replenish your stock. While I have to admit that the draw/junction system did lead to some silly situations where I essentially farmed weak enemies for spells, I enjoyed the complexity of it. Being able to set up my characters so that they hit like a truck, while also dealing elemental damage and inflicting status effects was a lot of fun. The limit breaks had been reworked as well, instead of having to soak up a certain amount of damage like in VII, there was a percentage chance that your character would give you the option for a Limit move every turn. As your health got progressively lower, the likelihood of getting a Limit went up, but you had to be on critical health for there to be a decent chance, turning it into a risk/reward scenario.
What really grabbed me about VIII though was the visuals. They’d gone from the blocky characters and environments of VII to highly realistic (given the technology they were working with) world and characters in the space of two years. The other major part of VIII that I enjoyed was Triple Triad, the card game. Deceptively simple to start with, as you started playing around the world the rules would mutate and change. Not only was it fun to play, but you could use the cards to obtain rare items necessary for upgrading weapons and so on. The card game concept was carried over into Final Fantasy IXs Tetra Master mini-game, but sadly they kind of screwed it there, turning it into an overly complicated game with poorly explained rules, and no real benefit to playing.
One thing to note when comparing VIII to VII is that although they both had excellent stories, and somewhat similar settings, VII had a much stronger villain. Not that I disliked Ultimecia, quite the opposite, but it took a very long time before she was revealed as the primary antagonist. VII on the other hand, made it very clear that Sephiroth was your ultimate foe very early on in the game. It made for a stronger drive to actually kick his smug world destroying arse.
Final Fantasy IX:
A year later, Final Fantasy IX hit. Seriously, if I’d thought the shift in mechanics and tone was pronounced between VII and VIII, IX was about to set the entire futuristic science fiction/fantasy setting on fire and dance on its grave. No more realistic characters, no more aloof protagonists. No more being able to essentially setup any character in the same way by using material or junctions. What we had now was a cartoonish world of men and anthropomorphic animals, where the primary mode of transportation are actual airships, and a main character who is essentially a womanising monkey man. This all made a lot more sense to me when I went back and played some of the earlier games in the series, as I realised that it was a throwback to the design from that era.
The gameplay too was completely different. Now every character had their own set role and abilities, and to access new skills, they had to learn them by using certain equipment for a long enough to permanently add them to their list. The Limit Breaks had been replaced by Trance, where after taking enough of a beating your characters would temporarily transform into more powerful forms with higher stats and new abilities (Zidane’s thief Skills became Dyne, allowing for powerful energy attacks; Vivi’s Black Magic became Double Black, allowing him to cast two spells at once). It took a little while for me to shift mental gears enough to actually appreciate the changes, but once I did, I loved it.
Visually the game was stunning, even though they’d moved away from the realistic look of the previous game. The character designs were fun and unique, and the setting was just beautifully vibrant. In terms of story I still prefer both VII and VIII, but it was still a well written and exciting journey. One thing that did irritate me a little though was the incredibly late reveal of the true enemy. Right at the end, you think you’ve beaten the final boss, and you’re about to start celebrating… Wait, no, here’s Necron, the apparently final boss who was somehow summoned by Kuja’s fear of mortality and now plans on destroying all life in the universe. That’s literally all the explanation you get about Necron. Despite that, it’s still a great game and it remains a favourite with me.
The Earlier Games:
It was around this time that I got my hands on the PlayStation ports of the earlier games in the series. I’m not really going to go into detail on them here, beyond suggesting that III through VI are definitely worth a play. The villain Kefka from VI is one of the few who can rival Sephiroth in terms of making me want to beat him to within an inch of his life.
Final Fantasy Tactics:
Here we are. My undisputed favourite game in the Final Fantasy series, and it’s not even one of the main titles. Final Fantasy Tactics. Not Tactics Advance, the GameBoy versions. No, the original. This game was my first tactical strategy RPG, and I’ve loved the genre ever since. The sheer level of customisation available within the game by using the Job system. It’s got infinite replay value, since there’s no way you can ever learn all of the different job and ability combinations you can put together. The story was epic, the gameplay involved (obviously) large amounts of tactical thinking, and it was just non-stop fun. Sadly it never got an official release here, which means that the PlayStation store doesn’t bloody offer it for me to buy. Oh, the Japanese and the North American store have it, but the Australian/European one won’t ever get it. Same problem I have with the first Parasite Eve game, and The Legend of Dragoon (though more on that later).
I did eventually manage to pick up the PSP re-release of the game, retitled Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. It’s… good. Translation has been fixed up, there’s some improvements, and new FMV cutscenes, which are fairly nice. But it has it’s problems. Somehow they screwed up when porting the engine over, and now special abilities that involve any slight increase of load on the graphics processing (as in all magic, all supernatural skills and most item usage) causes an irritating amount of slow down on the game. It’s only a few seconds longer each time, but when you consider that we’re talking about abilities that will often be used every single turn, it starts to get irritating. Still, it gets me my fix, and that’s the important thing.
Final Fantasy X:
I actually didn’t get to play this one until years after its release, since I didn’t own a PS2. I played a bit of it when my ex was living with me, as she brought her PS2 over, but at the time I was fairly busy and didn’t have a lot of time for gaming. I’ve not yet finished it, since I’m going to be getting the HD release that they’re doing for PS3 of it. It was a return to the realistic looking characters (with a few exceptions), and again had the extremely pretty settings I expected of it. One thing that irritated me was the voice acting… the characters voices just grated on my ears until I felt like screaming. I honestly wish they’d stuck with just dialogue boxes, but I suppose we’d moved beyond that by this point.
Final Fantasy X-2:
Otherwise known as “Final Fantasy: Pretty Princess Dress Up Game”. I played it briefly. Then took it out of the PS2 and never put it back in again. I hear it’s getting bundled with the HD release of X, so I might look at it again then. I doubt my opinion will much change.
Final Fantasy XII:
Although it kept the realistic character designs, it was back to a very straightforward fantasy setting, this time in a mostly desert environment (from what I saw of it anyway). I liked the story, I liked the setting, I loved the graphics. But damn it, I hated the Gambit combat system. It was enough to stop me playing it within the first ten hours, because I just couldn’t bear the thought of going through the whole game like that. Which is a shame, because I thought the game had a lot going for it otherwise.
Final Fantasy XIII:
The first multi-platform (at least at release) Final Fantasy game ever, and the first to arrive on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Again, we’re back to the Science Fantasy setting, and keeping the realistic look. In fact, this game is unbelievably pretty to look at. I also had a lot of fun with the battle system, though at times it did become a bit repetive (people saying that it was a “Press X to win” system weren’t far off the truth, but there was more to it than that). Hell, I even loved the story, which a lot of people seemed to dislike. But, this game had some major problems, including the fact that it was, for most of the game, a bloody corridor run. Seriously, you look at the maps and it’s essentially a one way street from start to finish. Oh, sure, it opens up at one point, maybe four fifths of the way through the game. Problem is, at this point the difficulty level just spikes beyond all reason as well. The other major issue was that, unlike the earlier games where you would learn about the world while playing it, XIII just threw ridiculous amounts of information in an in-game encyclopaedia and let you read about it as much or as little as you wished. At some point I’ll go back and finish it, but at the moment I’m not particularly keen. That said, I did love some of the characters. Lightning and Sazh were a lot of fun. Hope irritated me beyond belief, which was made worse by the fact that he could essentially be turned into the best character in the game mechanics wise, essentially forcing you to use him. Fang and Vanille… I don’t know if I’ve ever heard more irritatingly put on Australian accents, which I find surprising given that I seem to recall hearing something about Vanille’s voice actress actually being Australian. Apparently actual Australian’s don’t sound Australian enough for the people making games and movies.
Final Fantasy XIII-2:
Another spin-off game. I haven’t had a lot of time with this one yet, but I imagine that I’ll be starting to actually rush my way through XIII and XIII-2 very shortly when XIII: Lightning Returns gets released. From what I can see, it fixed a few quibbles I had with the combat system, and introduced some pretty awesome ideas. A lot of the game seems to revolve around time hopping to try and set things back in their proper order. There were a few oddities though, mostly cosmetic things, like the fact that Serah’s moogle companion is actually her weapon. Seriously, that thing just turns into a bow. I’m not sure why, but that irritates me a little. It’s still a very pretty game, and seems less linear than XIII was, but again, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to delve into it yet.
That’s all of the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played. There’s been some good times, some not so good times. But overall I still love the series, and no matter what you can almost guarantee that as long as I own a system they’re being released on, I’ll be in the stores buying them on day one. The exceptions for me were Final Fantasy XI and XIV, as they’re both MMORPGs, and I have literally zero interest in playing them. I play video games when I don’t want to deal with other people. Social gaming for me is local multiplayer for the very few games that support it these days, or RPG and board games.
I think the biggest indicator of how good these games are, or at least the original PlayStation and earlier ones, is that the first thing I did when my ex gave me my PS3 as a present wasn’t to load up the new games she’d got for me. Instead I hooked it up to the internet and proceeded to download Final Fantasy VII and play it for hours upon hours. VIII, IX and the earlier games soon followed. Add that to the fact that I own ridiculous amounts of Final Fantasy shirts, as well as a replica of the Lionheart tag from VIII (in the form of a pendant) and a Shinra Company Badge from VII, and you can see that the series has had a lasting effect on me.
There’s a few other games that deserve a mention here though. They may not be Final Fantasy games, but they’re all related in some way or another.
The Legend of Dragoon:
This was Sony’s attempt to compete with Final Fantasy, and it was glorious. The combat system was more involved (allowing you to perform combo moves if you had good enough timing), the storyline was fantastic, and it was generally a really pretty game. Sure, it may not have been as stunning as Final Fantasy VIII, but it had a striking appearance. I seriously can’t believe that Sony have just let this one fade into obscurity. There’s been a massive fan outcry asking for a remake, a re-release, or a sequel, but nothing ever happens.
I’d still be playing this game today if it wasn’t for one major issue… it never got a release on the European/Australian PSN store. Now unlike Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy Tactics, this isn’t because the game never got released here originally (and even that’s not an excuse these days with the PSOne Imports titles being released). This game was released world wide, and did pretty bloody well. But for some reason we don’t get it. The Japanese do. So does the North American store. But we miss out. For no bloody good reason. Even the “Sony may not want to pay licensing fees” argument doesn’t hold any water, because it’s Sony’s goddamn intellectual property anyway. I’ve all but given up hoping for this one to be released on PSN, and I’ll probably just end up having to get an emulator to play it… but I’d love to be proven wrong.
Final Fantasy for the Xbox 360, because Final Fantasy XIII was released. One of the original creators of Final Fantasy worked on this game, and believe me, it shows. The artwork, the setting, the story, the characters. All of it was brilliant. It had a really unique industrial fantasy look to it, and the gameplay was a lot of fun as well. Combat had a few little touches to make it more interactive, like being able to boost damage if you had a good sense of timing, and the system of the immortal characters learning their abilities from the mortals (who each had a more narrow role) was really well thought out. I also loved the concept of the Thousand Year Dream, a series of memories in the form of short stories that could be reawakened within Kaim, the amnesiac immortal main lead character.
Sadly my 360 broke before I could finish this game, but I want to play it badly enough (along with a few other 360 exclusive titles I own) that I’ll be replacing it when I have some spare cash.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together:
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together was the game that directly led to the creation of Final Fantasy Tactics. I didn’t really know much about it until I saw it had been re-released on PSP, and grabbed it. While the storyline is less epic than Tactics, it allowed for a more open story where you can explore a bit more. Definitely worth a play.
Front Mission 3:
Final Fantasy Tactics with Mech Warriors. That’s not really doing it justice, but it’s the easiest way to describe it. Again, another tactical strategy game with an epic storyline (or in this case, two storylines depending on an early decision you make), and a hell of a lot of customisation.
Sadly the latest Front Mission game was a rather lacklustre shooter, and I don’t think we’ll be seeing another game in the series, at least not in the form of a strategy game. On the plus side, this one did get a release on the PSN here, so I can still play it.
Written while listening to the soundtracks for, and sometimes playing, Final Fantasy VII, VIII and IX. That’s right, I play them side by side. Usually I throw 10 hours or so into one, then move onto the next.