Final Fantasy is the most immediately recognizable role-playing game franchise in gaming history, and although the long-running series has hit a few hurdles over the course of the past few years, it remains an indelible and iconic collection of stories to gamers of all ages.
First hitting the North American market in 1987 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Final Fantasy would continue to be a bestselling brand for the next 30 plus years. Besides the games themselves, merchandise sales of everything from clothing to playing cards to plushies continues to be a moneymaker for Square – now Square Enix – to this day.
For this list we did not consider any of the MMO entries and side games in the series, wanting the main focus to be the core console releases. Without further ado, we present the best, and the worst, main-line Final Fantasy titles of all time.
13) Final Fantasy II
Essentially a revised version of the initial Final Fantasy offering with a new experience engine and an increased cast of characters showcasing a bit more depth, Final Fantasy II never made it to North American shores during the initial lifespan of the NES. Finding life amongst the fan community via translated ROM hacks and later official ports – most notably to the Sony Playstation and later, the PSP – the game found an appreciative audience after many years of waiting.
Though bugs pertaining to stat and hit point grinding riddled the NES version of the game in Japan, said errors were stripped out for the most part in later ports. The story of Firion and friends was a bit trite, ridden with cliches, but it’s hard to hold that against a game in a series known for treading familiar territory.
Deviating from the standard plot trope centering around the crystals and the Warriors of Light, Final Fantasy II marks the first time in the series where each of the characters is named, has a definite characterization, and contributes directly in their own way to the overall plot. For some, this means that the title offers more narrative depth than the other 8-bit franchise entries.
12) Final Fantasy III
Finding itself following in the somewhat predictable footsteps of its forebears, Final Fantasy III suffered a similar fate to Final Fantasy II inasmuch as it did not come to store shelves in North America during the initial lifespan of the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Featuring four characters and a whopping 23 jobs that could be undertaken by each, and bringing back the much vaunted experience point system, Final Fantasy III was a drastic improvement over the experiment that was its immediate predecessor.
Also, Onion Knights.
11) Final Fantasy
Despite being the most primitive of the three 8-bit titles in the franchise, the first game is still the best of the three. From the initial conflict with Garland to the stirring sequence when the party first crosses the bridge to continue their quest proper, Final Fantasy was such a competitor to Enix’s Dragon Warrior in the west that it essentially saved Square from insolvency.
Choosing from a roster including the Fighter, the Black Belt, the Thief, and Red, White, and Black Mages – players were, for the first time, given a real choice as to how the wanted their story to proceed. Nostalgia may admittedly play a part in the rankings for these earliest outings, as this is the only game of the first three to have made it to Canada and the United States during its initial release window.
As a kid, it was ultimately awesome to see your characters not only level up, but also “age” into the adult forms of their respective archetypes. Growing more powerful and changing their sprites to appear more serious and imposing, it truly felt like you had accomplished something of note, and that your enemies had best fear you and your newfound abilities.
10) Final Fantasy XIII
One of the most recent releases in the quintessential JRPG series – but unfortunately also one of the weakest – Final Fantasy XIII tells the story of Lightning and an assortment of her friends and foes. Stoic and strong, Lightning is neither the worst nor anything approaching the best of the primary protagonists common to the franchise or to the wider genre.
The story kicks off well enough, featuring gorgeous graphics and an almost cyberpunk milieu that signals a narrative filled with struggle against authoritarian forces – hearkening back to the smashing success that was Final Fantasy VII – but quickly devolves into jargon-filled diatribes about l’Cie and fal’Cie very quickly. The terms are defined ambiguously and even veteran JRPG fanatics will find the plotting of this game to be tedious and overly obscure. Emotional moments come primarily in the form of flashbacks, many times going over ground already covered by previous characters.
The combat system, a steep departure from previous titles, focuses on so-called Paradigm Shifts, essentially a job system that is conducted on the fly. It will be necessary to frequently shift each character in your party of three to a different role to suit the current conditions of battle. Medics, for example, can heal injured party members while Ravagers work to stagger enemies, making them prone to damage.
Overall, despite the visual appeal and the dynamic combat interface, FF XIII was considered to be a mediocre main-line series entry by many long-time fans. Map linearity and lack of towns or cities was a major complaint, and the story left a lot to be desired. Despite spawning two sequels, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the world of Gran Pulse was simply not grand enough to capture the imagination of most diehard fans.
9) Final Fantasy XV
The most recent and the most action-oriented Final Fantasy title, Final Fantasy XV evokes a divisive reaction from the established series fanbase. On one hand, admirers of the game point to a visceral and immersive combat mechanic as well as the relatively large and open game world as pluses in FF XV‘s favor, while detractors indict the lack of a true magic or summoning system as well as a very rushed final act a indicators of a rushed and ultimately incomplete project.
Players assume the role of Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, heir to the throne of the kingdom of Lucis. Joined by his brothers in arms – Ignis, royal advisor and scientist; Gladiolus, bodyguard and protector; and Prompto, marksman and photographer – Noctis is to wed the oracle Lunafreya in order to make peace between two warring kingdoms. Things go awry when, en route to the ceremony, Noctis finds out that the opposing empire of Niflheim has suddenly attacked Lucis, stealing their crystal and killing his father – the king – in the process.
Personally speaking, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XV a great deal in the beginning, but found my interest waning as the plot wound on. Flat textured water in what could have been a beautiful area in the Galdin Quay was the first indication, to me at least, that the game was lacking necessary polish.
Despite a spectacularly lengthy development window, FF XV was shipped in an unfinished state. The final few chapters, beginning with Chapter 9, start to become more linear and notably much faster in their storytelling. While it is a necessity of open world games to eventually funnel the player character into an increasingly narrow narrative endgame, this approach felt heavy handed and almost entirely transparent in Final Fantasy XV.
Perhaps the most egregious error made by developers at Square Enix with regards to this title was the handling of the World of Ruin, which shows up in the final few hours of gameplay.
Already discombobulated by an artistic and abstract rendition of the villain’s monologue as delivered by Ardyn Izunia, Noctis awakens from a forced slumber many years older than he had been. The world is broken, demons wander roads and the sky is perpetually darkened.
Thinking back to the scenario of the same name in Final Fantasy VI, I was immediately excited by this plot twist, thinking I had perhaps reached the mid-way point of the game, and that I was about to play an even deeper experience in a darker, more difficult world. It was not to be. A facile fight and an hour or two later, and the end credits rolled to little satisfaction. A missed opportunity that Square Enix has attempted, in part, to remedy via various DLC releases.
8) Final Fantasy X
Featuring Tidus, Auron, Wakka, Lulu, and of course the inimitable game of Blitzball, Final Fantasy X was a point of demarcation for the series, similarly to the drastic changes seen when progressing from the NES into the SNES, or the SNES into the Sony Playstation. With this technological shift, voice acting came to the forefront – and Final Fantasy X is the first game in the mainline series to feature a high degree of fully voiced dialogue. While the quality of said dialogue may be questionable by today’s standards, it represented a truly innovative and immersive improvement at the time of the title’s release.
Learning from the successes (and the limitations) of the wildly popular trio of games launched on the original Playstation, FF X did little to reinvent the wheel, instead focusing on making the game more cinematic and visually appealing. Featuring a romantic plot between Tidus and Yuna, a story of an absentee father and a present father-figure, and a world threatened by spiritual and technological “Sin” – this game can be thought of as the ultimate distillation of all that Final Fantasy had accomplished hitherto.
The addition of aeons rather than traditional summons was well-received and a welcome change of pace, allowing the monster to stand in for the party until being defeated rather than showing up as a one-shot wonder. The introduction of the sphere grid was also an awesome addition to the game, allowing players to choose their path to progress in a manner that would shape so many MMORPGs to come, echoing the “skill tree” methodology.
Basic puzzles and somewhat straightforward map designs hampered what could have been a legendary outing for the son of Jecht and company, but it stands as an honored member of the JRPG hall of fame, and was a graphical tour de force when it first hit the Playstation 2 during the Christmas season of 2001.
7) Final Fantasy V
The first game in the series on to appear on this list to have been spawned during the 16-bit era – and yet another title that didn’t make it to our shores initially – Final Fantasy V was a refinement of it’s predecessor’s in some ways and a step back in others. Lacking the sweeping storytelling of Final Fantasy IV, but successfully implementing the jobs system in a much more refined fashion than had been present in Final Fantasy III, FF V straddles a middle ground in terms of quality when it comes to these antecedents.
The plot is very similar to that of Final Fantasy IV inasmuch as it continues to focus on crystals and elemental forces, but lacks the maturity of narrative and shocking plot twists that were staples of the game that had come before it. Bartz, Faris, Galuf, Lenna, and Krile form the backbone of the companions in this outing, and the limited cast certainly hurts the storytelling.
Final Fantasy V also features perhaps the cheesiest villain name in the entire franchise, as the party ventures out into a world of darkness to conquer the menacing X-Death – a name which sounds closer to something one would encounter in a mid 1990s IRC roleplaying chat room or a Quake multiplayer match than that belonging to a fantasy villain.
Check back soon for Part 2 with our ranking of the rest of the Final Fantasy series.
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