In the build-up to the release of Final Fantasy 7: Remake, we’re taking a retrospective look at some of the highlights of this iconic gaming franchise from the past few decades. So, sit back, and enjoy our trip down memory lane, filled with plenty of Moogles, Espers, Chocobos, and Cids.
In a world filled with endless negativity, and frankly, enough real-life problems for us to worry about instead, it’s good to focus on the positive for once. Although the Final Fantasy series has had its ups and downs over the decades, the distinctive character of each release means that there are plenty of different reasons why you might enjoy diving into one over the other. So, in this feature, we’ll take a look at what reasons you might have for playing each one of the mainline FF releases. Of course, you’ll have your own personal favourite, and this is by no means a ranking, but rather just a look at the unique positive qualities of each title
Final Fantasy I
Why you should play this FF: The challenge; the creativity available to each run.
Final Fantasy I, especially in its earliest formats, has by far the most difficulty of any mainline Final Fantasy title, not always aided by a plethora of predictable bugs. It also has the feature where you can select any combination of different jobs for your four-person party, meaning that if you want to complete the entire game with four white mages, hey, that’s on you buddy. This freedom in party selection and the added challenge of the game make this title hugely enjoyable for experienced players, challenge runners, and speedrunners.
Final Fantasy II
Why you should play this <FF: The unique leveling system
Final Fantasy II has a unique levelling system that is difficult and obtuse to understand at the best of times, but in short, the more you use a stat, the more powerful it becomes. Hit things with a sword a lot? The more powerful your strikes become. Use healing spells a lot? The better you become at healing.
What was meant to create a more organic levelling experience turned a lot of players off when this title was first released, but if you go into this game with a full understanding of what you will be facing, there are plenty of opportunities to play around and experiment with the mechanics to create a very unique single-player experience. Not suitable for entry-level players in my opinion, Final Fantasy II is a wonderful playground for those who have come to grips with the programming under the hood here.
Final Fantasy III
Why you should play this FF: The introduction to the famous job system
The job system would become a long-standing feature of many instalments in the franchise, and it all started here in Final Fantasy III. Essentially a way of switching roles and classes over time between your set party members, the job system offers a level of variety in combat that just wasn’t found in Final Fantasy I and II. Although Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics expanded upon this formula, and Bravely Default and Final Fantasy X-2 did their own unique thing with it, Final Fantasy III’s job system remains an innovative feature for the franchise and a great place to start getting to grips with it in a simplified form, before moving on to other titles.
Final Fantasy IV
Why you should play this FF: The first decent story in the franchise; the ATB system
Although FF would become synonymous with epic storytelling in years to come, it all started with Final Fantasy IV;, in my opinion, the first title in the franchise to have an actually compelling story and meaningful cast of characters. Still rated by many Final Fantasy die-hards as their favourite in the franchise, the story of Dark Knight Cecil’s redemption towards the light sticks with people for a variety of reasons.
Final Fantasy IV is still, by some measures, the most popular FF title in Japan. This title also introduced something we took for granted in years to come but which was hugely innovative at the time: the Active Time Battle system, or ATB system, where turn-based battles had the element of real-time and reaction timing added to it. While this is simplistic by today’s standards, it is the first link in the chain to the real-time combat systems of Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
Final Fantasy V
Why you should play this FF: The improved job system
Although I feel the job system reached its pinnacle in Final Fantasy Tactics, for mainline releases, it was at its best in Final Fantasy V. Taking what worked in Final Fantasy III, the class switching, and advancing upon that idea, made it even better in Final Fantasy V. Now you could switch between jobs without penalty, and could carry over certain mastered unique skills from one job to another, creating an even more customizable hero. Final Fantasy V also added a range of new jobs and unique series spells, such as double magic and mimic. The cherry on top was the addition of a better story, which while not being as good as Final Fantasy IV’s, was miles ahead of the simplistic quest of Final Fantasy III.
Final Fantasy VI
Why you should play this FF: The huge cast of characters; the late game plot twist; the peak of old-school FF
Final Fantasy VI was the last 2D-sprite based FF in the main series, and acts as the culmination and swan-song of everything that had come before. It had complex themes that were interwoven into the story in ways that had never been seen before in earlier FF titles. It looked as gorgeous as any SNES title could. The villain, Kefka, remains hugely memorable even today. Unlike previous titles, which had a standard “four heroes save the world” vibe, Final Fantasy VI went for a huge ensemble party system, with tons of memorable characters of all different types.
The game is also split into two distinct sections, with the second arising at a point in the plot where any other game might normally have ended, but instead, here everything you knew is turned on its head for the final segment of the game. There will always be a fight between FF fans over whether 2D or 3D was better, and Final Fantasy VI was the perfect way to bid farewell to an era that influenced so much to come later.
Final Fantasy VII
Why you should play this FF: To see what all the fuss was about
For many people, particularly in the West, Final Fantasy II was FF; the benchmark against which any other title in the series (past and future) would be compared. It’s hard to remember now, but the release of Final Fantasy VII was an event like few others in gaming, and the title would go on to cement its place in gaming- and pop-culture up until the present day.
So many things that became tropes in JRPGs were popularized by Final Fantasy VII, so even if they have been done to death since then, its worth exploring where these hallmark moments in gaming were first seen by many people. Although, by any definitive measure, Final Fantasy VII is probably overrated, that speaks more to how highly it was praised rather than it being a bad game. Aside from the ugly character models in the field, which were substandard by even the game’s original era, the rest of it holds up pretty damn well at this stage, and it remains extremely replayable.
Final Fantasy VII brings together an interesting and dynamic cast of characters, an extremely memorable villain, a dense and layered plot that builds on several of FF’s most popular themes, and hours upon hours of content to engage with. Final Fantasy VII’s enduring popularity is, after all, why it is receiving a multi-episode remake on the scale of which we have never seen before in the franchise.
Final Fantasy VIII
Why you should play this FF: The junction system: Triple Triad
When Final Fantasy VIII was first released, it was extremely divisive for a fanbase that was hoping for more of Final Fantasy VII and didn’t expect such a distinctive shift in art style and gameplay. Final Fantasy VIII’s main gameplay feature was the junction system, whereby magic would be drawn from enemies or created through other mechanics and then attached to player stats, affecting their abilities. The junction system is poorly explained in the game itself, and the way in which levelling affects monsters is similarly badly presented, but once you understand the system, it provides plenty of opportunities for challenge runs and creative approaches to the game that are not possible in other, more fixed system Final Fantasys.
Added to that is the other main feature of the game: The Triple Triad card game. Nominally a side-activity, this game is not only extremely fun, the cards you win can be used to create magic in a variety of ways, removing the need to endlessly grind for magic to junction with. Understanding the card game is essential for getting the most out of Final Fantasy VIII, and side quests would rarely be this important to the core gameplay loop of an FF title ever again. I’m sure even now as you read this, plenty of FF fans can hear the familiar card game music start in their head…
Final Fantasy IX
Why you should play this FF: To experience this love-letter to all past titles.
Final Fantasy IX, launched right at the tail-end of the PS1 era, was designed to spiritually hearken back to the approach of past 2D FFs, while adding in the best features possible of the new 3D era. For example, your party members have relatively fixed classes and roles, you have four on screen in a single battle, Limit Breaks are present but no longer as game-breaking as in Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy VIII, and so on. In the plot, bits and pieces are taken from other titles but brought together in new ways: There is a conflict between technology and magic; there is a plot involving a second world hidden from the first, and the four elemental fiends, etc. Names, places, and people in this game nearly always speak to or reference some other element from a different FF game, but it does so in a way that avoids being just a laundry list of fandom references.
Final Fantasy IX stands on its own, even if you’ve never played any of the other FFs, as a remarkably fun PS1 JRPG, but if you are a long-time fan, you will get so much more out of this title than you might otherwise have. Add to that one of my all-time favourite group of party members, and you have a truly memorable classic of a game.
Final Fantasy X
Why you should play this FF: The Sphere Grid; the approach to themes
Final Fantasy X, the series’ first instalment on the PS2, brought a whole new level of cinematic quality to the franchise. Although the graphics are dated at this stage, and the voice acting is often quite awful, Final Fantasy X still has a lot to offer to JRPG fans today. The first point is, once again, drawn from the game’s unique levelling system. Party members do not have levels as such, but rather earn points which they can use to move around a huge, interconnected map of different nodes and abilities which can be activated over time.
Although each character has a default path, there is nothing stopping you from taking your character wherever you please to create a truly unique experience for your specific run. Want delicate little Yuna to become your heavy physical attacker? Go for it. Added to that was the fact that the game allows you to choose either a basic or advanced grid at the start of your game, and you will have plenty of opportunities to experiment with unique challenges of your own.
The second reason why I find Final Fantasy X appealing is its approach to its themes. Final Fantasy X, despite being set in such a colourful world, is centred around death as a never-ending cycle, and what it would mean to break that cycle. Death is interwoven into every aspect of the world and game in ways that make complete sense for this society, creating a world that feels distinctive believable and possible, even when the PS2 processing power capacity means you can’t see as much detail as you might have hoped.
Final Fantasy XI
Why you should play this FF: If you want to play an FF MMO that is challenging in different ways than WoW; the community
It might be hard to imagine that there ever was such a time, but there were indeed MMOs released before World of Warcraft, which would explore their approach to the MMO genre in different ways, rather than just trying to follow the big leader. Final Fantasy XI still to this day has a devoted following of fans who like it for its distinctive play style. For instance, there are very few random fetch quests, in comparison to other MMOs, and you have the ability to theoretically have all classes on one character, through the Job System.
Another feature that many fans prefer is the lack of a duty finder – if you want to find a party, you need to engage with people yourself and bring them to a dungeon or quest area. While this made things more time consuming, many people still speak of the long-term friendships they made by having to engage with other players in this way. Although its servers have been closed on consoles, Final Fantasy XI is still playable on PC, for anyone aiming to dive into this content-rich, distinctive MMORPG. Don’t expect it to have all the quality-of-life features that other more modern titles do, but you will find a community eager to help and assist you in getting started.
Final Fantasy XII
Why you should play this FF: The License Board; the Zodiac Job System; the gambit system; the hours and hours of additional content
FFXII is certainly one of the most distinctive FFs, gameplaywise, with its blend of real-time and turn-based combat.
Basically, Final Fantasy XII takes place in an open world with all enemies and allies visible, where you can set up your party members to take certain actions automatically through what are essential macro commands, but which are titled “gambits” here. This allows for a high level of creativity about how you set up your party and requires you to really thing about how you go into battles. Although you can get through the base game easily enough with limited understanding of the system, a higher level of thought can create truly game-breaking combinations of gambit set-ups for any of the harder optional content.
Speaking of optional content, Final Fantasy XII has tons of it, from a series of hunt quests, to weapon crafting, to minigames, to optional bosses and Esper quests. The post-game can last easily as long as the main quest itself. And if that was not all, Final Fantasy XII also has a very interesting system for acquiring skills and abilities – the License Board. This is a board of different tiles, where you unlock your ability to use certain magic spells, abilities, weapons, and armour by activating a certain square on the board as you travel around.
In the original release, this was the same board for all characters, but in the re-released Zodiac Age version, now each character can select up to two “Jobs,” each of which provides a different area of the License Board for them to use. Much of this is quite dense if you’re starting a game for the first time, but all these levels and depth of character customization means that Final Fantasy XII has exceptional depth to its replayability and gameplay.
Final Fantasy XIII
Why you should play this FF: The dense lore and worldbuilding
FFXIII was intended to be part of a multi-game universe, including three different games, and while that didn’t quite pan out as intended, it meant that the developers had a dense and developed mythos that they could include in Final Fantasy XIII (and its later two direct sequels).
It can seem quite daunting when you first jump into it, with tons of terminology and codex entries to read through, as well as many unique JRPG-ish terms invented for this title. But if you stick with it, there develops in this game a very distinct feeling that there is so much more to this world than you are directly aware of, creating a feeling of mystery and wonder. Many of these mysterious plot points get fleshed out in Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns, so if Final Fantasy XIII catches your eye, you have two more titles to engage with for even more details of this world, its gods, and its demons.
Final Fantasy XIV
Why you should play this FF: The hundreds of hours of content; the easy-to-access MMO gameplay; the compelling story
Final Fantasy XIV, despite its dishonourable origins, has become a juggernaut of an MMO, with hours upon hours of quality content for any MMO or JRPG fan to enjoy. The Realm Reborn base version currently has three expansions released for it, and altogether you could easily spend a couple hundred hours from start to current patch. Final Fantasy XIV has adapted some of the quality-of-life features of more recent MMOs, making it easier to find parties and do public content, and it also has a range of social features to help you make friends in-game.
As far as MMOs go, it is comparatively easy, and therefore more accessible to all audiences. This is not to say that there isn’t challenging raids and content, just that the general main questline of the game is possible to complete with public groups. It also maintains the one noticeable benefit of Final Fantasy XI, which is that all jobs can be unlocked on one character, if you so wish. What has always appealed to me about Final Fantasy XIV most of all is how it handles its story, which blends the classic adventuring of many FF titles with deep and complex riffs on themes and tropes that have come before.
The most recent expansion, Shadowbringers, has one of the most compelling villains I have come across in any game whatsoever. A word of warning: the content takes a bit of a dive in quality between Version 2.1 and the start of Version 3, but if you can stick it out (or buy a skip) you will be enthralled by everything else that comes.
Final Fantasy XV
Why you should play this FF: The open world; the experience of brotherhood between party members
Final Fantasy XV was an ambitious title, perhaps too ambitious for its own good, but the end result has given us two very good reasons to play this title. The first is the true open world, a first for the series, which is gorgeous to explore and filled with all kinds of wonderful details and elements of wildlife. Final Fantasy XV is one of the best games to go and use the in-game photo mode in for hours, just soaking in everything the world has to offer. The second main reason to play this title is the interactions between the main party members: unlike other FF titles, Final Fantasy XV only has four main party members, all present in most instances of the game.
Each one has a unique and distinctive personality which is conveyed effectively to the player through everything you do, in battles, sidequests, and just hanging out. Much of the game feels like one extended camping trip with your best friends, and it’s very easy to grow attached to at least one of them, if not all of them and they’re dynamic together. The DLC packs for this game also offer each party member a moment in the sun and are well worth playing. The party interactions elevate much of this game beyond what it would have been otherwise