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A Fantasy Like No Other

The year is 1998, I’m flicking through a gaming magazine and I reach the review section. It’s just a list of games with scores and a point or two. I can’t remember what magazine but they would do full reviews and then at the back have a quick summary of past reviews. I was scrolling through, looking for something new and I spotted Final Fantasy VII. It had scored 94/100 and the comments were all positive. Based on the score, I decided that this was the next game I wanted. While on holidays, my parents brought me to a second-hand book store (they also sold games), where they had a copy. I immediately snapped it up.

Early Days

Let me set the scene for you: I’m young, I’ve just gotten a game based on reviews scores with little to no extra information, and I’ve never heard of a “JRPG”. So, my early days of Final Fantasy VII were a bit of a confusing mess. The intro hooked my attention immediately, it was exhilarating. Then the combat happened. When you’re used to fast paced platformers and action games, a turn-based game is quite a difference.

It was a bit strange but I persisted. The Scorpion boss absolutely wrecked me, but it was all a learning curve. At first, I wanted to cheat (I was young) and there was a code in the manual, “OSXX”. I thought this was a cheat so on a second run, I renamed Barret this. For those in the know, it’s actually a code to unlock a certain materia. When that didn’t work, it was time to go back to the drawing board. I finally powered through, slowly making progress through the slums of Midgar. Then the Shinra building mission happened. It was amazing, storming their Headquarters. I loved it but what occurred in the President’s Office had a huge impact on me, I just had to find out more.

Leaving Midgar was mind-blowing. Having spent what felt like an age navigating through linear streets, the game just burst open. I could explore the World map, although still restricted. As the story unfolded and I met new characters, I became more and more engrossed. The game had its highs and lows but by the time I had finished it, I absolutely adored it and had to seek out more.

A PlayStation Masterpiece

By now, you’ve probably realised I love the Final Fantasy series (the blog is named Renzokuken Gaming after all) so when a new entry in the series was announced, I was excited. I would read about it in magazines, watch videos of E3 (it came with a magazine) and discuss it at length in school. When Final Fantasy VIII was released in 1999, I was amazed by the change in style. The characters were now realistic, your party followed you around on screen and the intro was amazing. The Junction System has become a point of controversy over the years, discouraging the player from using magic in order to preserve stat boosts, but I still enjoyed it. The plot was enjoyable if a little convoluted but the Orphanage is such a strange addition. It really felt out of place. Final Fantasy VIII wasn’t as much of a challenge for me as VII. I was able to progress fairly quickly, with Fujin and Raijin being the first real block followed by Mobile Type 8.

2000 brought perhaps the most crisp looking entry in the series. Final Fantasy IX was such a shift in tone from the previous two. The series took on a more cartoony look, with a medieval setting. The characters and plot felt lighter in tone than the previous two entries. At first, it was strange to me. I preferred the character proportions of VIII, especially when the four discs had Amano’s artwork with the characters having more realistic proportions. The game’s battle system was also a shock. Gone were the days where you could customise your characters to play any role you wanted, now they had set ones with abilities being learned from equipment. I plowed through this game, completing it in two days. At first, I was weary but looking back it is my second favourite in the series and one I think is massively underrated.

A Trip Back In Time

With Final Fantasy VII, VIII and IX out of the way, I began to try and find more JRPGs to play. At this time Square Enix had released several anthologies of games that were never released in Europe. These were Final Fantasy Origins, Dawn of Souls, Anthology and Final Fantasy VI. Excluding Final Fantasy I in Dawn of Souls, these were a real challenge. The two Dawn of Souls games, and later Origins (I purchased it after DoS), were quite different. Final Fantasy I as expected was very basic. The leveling system was standard for JRPGs and magic had to be purchased. The Origins version also came with a difficulty option, that was absent in Dawn of Souls. I enjoyed it, even if it was a struggle to keep my White Mage alive early game. Final Fantasy II was one I would not clear for years. I struggled to get to grips with the level up system but once I understood it, I dragged myself through it. The system is very different to the rest in the series in that you level up your stats based on your actions in combat. The plot has the potential to be great but a lot feels absent. I had to use a Wiki to fill in the gaps. The Emperor, however, is one of the greatest villains they’ve ever come up with.

Final Fantasy IV was an epic game that I struggled with early on as I was not used to the levels of grinding needed. The game never really opens up as you follow a linear path throughout but it never feels restrictive. The characters are charming but the fake sacrifices do get repetitive and can diminish the real one that occurs. The game was enjoyable but some dungeons (cough, Lodestone Cavern, cough) felt like a chore. Final Fantasy V added a new concept I hadn’t experienced before – the Job system. You can utilise this to fully customise your team. And speaking of team, you have the same four characters for most of the game. They all have unique personalities, even if Faris’ speech is annoying. It’s a great game that is often overlooked. If you have the chance to play it, I’d definitely recommend it.

Now for the most controversial opinion I’ll probably ever make. I don’t really care either way for Final Fantasy VI. There, I said it. Now, let’s move on. Unlike others, I came to Final Fantasy VI incredibly late so I don’t have the same level of nostalgia and fondness as others. The game is without a doubt the best looking of the 16-bit games. It has a huge cast of characters, each with their own specialties. I think this may be a reason I don’t have as much fondness for it. There are some I adore (Celes) and I don’t care for (Umaro). However, if you invest the time exploring the world, you can discover fascinating back stories for most of the characters (I feel Gau’s is probably the saddest). Game-play wise, it’s pretty damn good and the Magicide system not only ties in to the plot but allows you some level of customisation over your characters.

The Next Generation

Final Fantasy VI came with a demo for Final Fantasy X. The first game in the series that had voice acting. The game looks wonderful, capturing the colourful world of Spira in all its essence. The game replaced the ATB system of previous entries with the CTB System. This allowed you to utilise your entire party in battle, switching them in an out as needed, and adding a new level of strategy. The Sphere Grid is another new addition. It allows you to build the character how you want, either by playing to their strengths or developing all-rounders. One thing that Final Fantasy X does so well is explaining the world of Spira through game-play. Both you and Tidus are newcomers to this world and you discover things together.

Final Fantasy X-2 is the first direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game. It reintroduces Yuna and Rikku, along with newcomer Paine. While the game doesn’t have a vast array of characters, it brings back the Job system in the form of Dress Spheres. The game is also split out into multiple chapters and has multiple endings depending on the actions you take. The combat is solid but I missed the switching party members of the first game. I felt a little disappointed in this one. It’s a fun game but I felt it lacked the scale of the main entries. I’m also not a fan of the Chapter system they implemented (more on that later). However, it was great to revisit Spira and the Dress Sphere system is a fantastic addition to freshen the experience.

Final Fantasy XII sees a big change to the combat system. Turn-based is gone (in a way), replaced by a system that mirrors MMORPGs at the time. You can still directly control your party or set up Gambits for them to follow. These allow you to designate a role to each character in your party/ team. Characters can also be switched in and out during combat. The Sphere Grid is gone, replaced by the Licence Board. Your characters will level up in a traditional manner but you also accrue LP (Licence Points) that can be used to unlock new abilities. Another unique thing about XII is its world. No longer do you explore the whole world, but a section of it. The world itself isn’t unique to this entry either as Ivalice as appeared in Tactics and Vagrant Story. At first, I was unsure of this game. The combat was different from what I expected but it grew on me. The characters range from charming (Balthier) to vanilla (Vaan). I always felt Ashe should have been the main character but that is just my preference. The story is well told and the voice acting feels stronger than X. The cutscenes are stuck in a letterboxed display which is irritating. I haven’t had the chance to play The Zodiac Age on the PlayStation 4 but I am looking forward to it as XII is one of my favourite entries in the series.

A Remake, a Trilogy and a Roadtrip

You’ve probably noticed by now I’m missing an entry. Final Fantasy III wouldn’t be released in Europe until the DS remake in 2007. The game was built from the ground up and added in unique traits and stories for each of the four main protagonists. The elemental crystals returned along with the job system. The game also required you to learn certain spells in order to gain access to dungeons. Aside from your main party, guest characters would join and could help out in combat. This game was difficult and required a lot of patience, especially when leveling up new jobs or ones you normally wouldn’t use. The graphics are impressive for a DS game but I find the cutscenes spread across the two screens a bit distracting.

Final Fantasy XIII is probably one of the most divisive entries in the series. Some adore the game and others loathe it. Personally, I think it’s a good game but wouldn’t be my favourite. The game looks stunning and the music is amazing. The combat is a bit of a mixed bag. The paradigm system is intriguing but only being able to control one character in battle presents issues with how the Game Over mechanic works. Doom is one of the most annoying parts of the game. It is designed to make sure you don’t take too long in battle but I think it feels cheap. One issue many cite is its linearity. Most games in the series are incredibly linear (Final Fantasy X for example) but they manage to break up the play through towns and mini-games. Sure, this could be explained away by the party being on the run but other games still break up the play while your team is being chased (Final Fantasy VII for example). The issue I have with it is how the lore is presented. It is done through text boxes or even Cie’th Stone Missions. I think Final Fantasy X presents it better by having you “be” Tidus and you discover the world as he does. Enough negatives, how about some positives. The characters are fun and interesting (yes even Hope), the combat is enjoyable once you get to grips with it and the Stagger mechanic adds a whole new dimension to the game.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 has you revisit Gran Pulse and play as Serah this time. The Paradigm system is back but now they’ve removed the party leader death – Game Over system which is a huge improvement. On your quest, you’re joined by Noel and can recruit monsters to fight along side you. At first I wasn’t a fan of this as I prefer having unique characters but it really does add to the game. You can spend hours just trying to find one monster. The time travel mechanic is also a nice addition as you can experience different locations at different points in time and its interesting to see how they change. These areas can also bring about a ” Paradox” endings. These are fun little distractions and can take some time to find. Overall, this is my favourite entry in the XIII trilogy. I just wish it had more Fang.

Lightning Returns is probably my least favourite entry in the series. I sadly gave up on it after a while. It has some great locations, excellent music and it’s nice to see the characters return. I didn’t care much for the leveling system. You gain experience through completing missions and this made me just skip battles all together. The timer was also incredibly annoying and I found myself casting Chronostasis a lot. The time mechanic does have some benefit in that certain missions are only available at certain times. The garb system is also a nice addition but I would’ve rather had a full team than just Lightning. I will play it again some day and who knows, maybe my opinion will change.

I was hyped for Final Fantasy XV. I watched the YouTube anime, the film Kingsglaive and followed it closely online. I played through every Final Fantasy (except XI and XIV) in the build-up to it (and it took me ages). I finally got it on Christmas Day 2016. It did not disappoint. The combat felt smooth, the characters were likeable and clearly shared a special bond, and the music was amazing (especially Florence + The Machine’s cover of Stand By Me). The game, however, was not without its flaws. The side quests were filler (something which Square Enix still has an issue with), the world could feel empty at times, magic was somewhat redundant and the story was all over the place. The updates and Royal Edition managed to fix a lot of these problems as well as adding in new content. The three companion DLCs were fun, each coming with their own play styles, but it is annoying that you have to exit out to the menu to play them rather than through the story. I still haven’t tried Ardyn’s DLC yet but I am looking forward to it as he is an excellent antagonist.

The World of Online

I have briefly dappled in the MMORPG games. Final Fantasy XI was actually my first experience of the genre. I didn’t really care for it. I found the grinding excessive, especially when looking for mission items. I don’t think it helped that I didn’t know anyone playing it. Final Fantasy XIV was a different story. I really enjoyed it, which was helped by knowing people already playing it. The world looks stunning and the grinding is a lot more toned down. Mission items are now a lot easier to find so you can steadily progress through the game. The dungeon system is interesting and it makes sure you have a proper balanced party. I did manage to finish the base game but sadly I haven’t returned.

A Reunion

What better way to round off my experience with the franchise than by going back to where it all began… or a Remake of that game. Final Fantasy VII Remake was probably the game I was most excited for since Final Fantasy VIII. I got my copy a lot later than everyone else as the store I had ordered it from was closed as a result of Covid-19 and I had to order it from Amazon instead. I did manage to avoid spoilers while I waited, which was some challenge. Seeing Cloud hop off that train caused memories of my time with the original game to come rushing back.

Final Fantasy VII Remake does a lot well. The characters are fleshed out and the minor ones from the original game are given significantly bigger roles. The world looks beautiful but does have some texture issues. The music is amazing and does a great job replicating the original. The combat is much improved on XV, with abilities and magic being easy to utilise. The only issue I had with the combat was the AI sometimes felt off. The side missions range from interesting to annoying fetch-quest, an issue Square Enix just can’t seem to get right. Some chapters are bloated but never to the point of pure annoyance, and others are magnificent extensions on the original. The plot is a wonderful recreation of the original up to a point but I think I’ll leave it at that. While the original will always be my favourite, the Remake is definitely worth playing even if you are a newcomer or a veteran of the series.

A Legacy

What were your experiences with Final Fantasy? Are there any JRPGs you’d recommend? Let me know.

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