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Why every Final Fantasy game is the best AND worst in the series

Why it’s the best FF ever: Take the beautifully rendered graphics and cutscenes of Final Fantasy VII and VIII, but meld them with the aesthetic sensibilities and traditional fantasy story of a classic Final Fantasy game: that’s what you get with Final Fantasy IX. Gone are Nomura’s belts, zippers, and gunblades, replaced with endearing, cute character designs who boast some of the most lovable personalities and surprising development in the entire series. Every character adds a distinct aspect to battle, as well, and the four-person parties are a welcome return to tradition after the three-person groups of VII and VIII. You don’t need to worry about crazy complex systems like Materia or junctioning, either – you’ve got a nice, simple system where you can learn skills from equipment. The charming story, fun battles, and great characters are all accentuated with one of the best musical scores in the entire FF series.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: Oh hey, remember the sophisticated, mature character designs and personal dramas in Final Fantasy VII and VIII? The ones that drew a lot of people into the series and showed how games could be a storytelling medium? Yeah, uh, forget that: we’re going back to a bunch of freakish midgets saving the world. Hooray! The character designs look outlandish and goofy (Good lord, what is with their childbearing hips?), and the fusion of technology and fantasy that made the worlds of VII and VIII so cool are replaced with typical swords-and-sorcery crapola. The lack of a complex skill learning system saps the game of depth, side missions and mini-games are atrocious (Chocobo Hot and Cold is the stuff of nightmares), the cutscenes and summons are still too damn overwrought, and the final boss comes completely out of nowhere.

Personal Take: Final Fantasy IX has the misfortune of being released just as the hype for the Playstation 2 and Dreamcast reached critical mass, therefore ensuring that it would get far less attention than its two PS predecessors. It’s a game a lot of people seem very indifferent towards. You won’t find a lot of people who hate it with the same passion as, say, FFVIII, but you won’t find a lot of folks who are madly in love with it, either. It’s a solid little title with its own charms, but it’s one that, in most cases, doesn’t really provoke emotions either way.

Why it’s the best FF ever: Final Fantasy VII evolved the series for the PlayStation generation, but Final Fantasy X is the game that really took the series into the future. Gone are most of the jagged polygon models and pre-rendered CG backgrounds, replaced with lavishly animated, motion-captured characters and in-engine environments that actually look like their original concept art. It’s a gorgeously designed game with a unique look and style that still holds up today. But that’s not all – instead of reams of exposition through text, Final Fantasy X gives the characters actual voices during story scenes for the very first time. It’s here, too, that the series proves it’s not afraid to reinvent itself for a new generation: gone are archaic RPG holdovers like the world map and the aging ATB combat system. The careful, strategic combat is a refreshing change, and the character-enhancing sphere grid system is oodles of fun.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: If Final Fantasy IX was a return to tradition, Final Fantasy X is basically giving tradition the finger. Gone are series staples like overworld maps and the beloved Active Time Battle system. Forget the fast-paced combat of yore that required you to make smart decisions under pressure, archaic turn-based battles are once again the norm! Tidus is a complete doofus, and not in a good way: he’s cheerfully oblivious until the story calls for him to be the now-stereotypical emo lead. Several of his comrades are either obnoxious or unnecessary – hell, it’s pretty easy to forget Kimahri even exists. And let’s not even get into the exercise in suffering that is Blitzball.

Above: The dialogue? Don’t make me laugh. HA HA HA HA HA!

Personal Take: Square debuted on the PS2 with a bang here. It’s far from my personal favorite FF game, but FFX is beloved in the eyes of many longtime fans. It’s not hard to see why, either: it looks and sounds great, and despite releasing pretty early in the PS2’s lifespan, it still holds up well visually. I didn’t particularly care for the characters and story, or some of the outright awkward events throughout, but the existence of Final Fantasy X-2 seems to suggest I’m in the minority there.

Why it’s the best FF ever: Take every element you love about Final Fantasy – character classes, magic and skills, classic monster designs, a rich and flavor-filled setting – and now make it so that hundreds of thousands of people can all enjoy it at the same time. There is a mind-boggling of content to explore in XI, and the ability to play with others makes every adventure exciting. Numerous classes and character types – and combinations of each – allow you to truly create a unique character that represents you and your personal tastes. Meeting and playing with people online can help forge new friendships, and working together with a group to surmount some of the game’s most difficult challenges is a very satisfying experience. FFXI is constantly supported with tweaks and expansions, as well, meaning that even if things start to grow stale, there’s always something new just around the corner.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: The idea of online Final Fantasy sounded like the best thing ever on paper. Imagine playing something as awesome as Final Fantasy X with friends, enjoying the story and characters and quests together! Yeah, that didn’t happen. What you have instead is a painful grind of an MMO modeled after the days when Everquest ruled the roost. You’d best learn to like an awful interface loaded with menus all over the damn place, because you’re going to need to spend a massive amount of time grinding at your job and sub-job (and let’s hope you didn’t pick one of the crappy jobs!). Be careful not to die, either, as that will actually make you lose some of that hard-ground EXP you fought for. And if you ever decide to try and learn skills like crafting or fishing… those are literal days of your life you will never get back.

Personal Take: It’s incredibly hard to tell a strong story in an MMO, and while FFXI features a lot of the more traditional elements of Final Fantasy, the lack of memorable characters and a saga with well-defined events and climactic points is enough to turn a lot of players off. Plus, there’s the interface, which doesn’t work like any other FF game and is very off-putting… and that whole monthly fee thing. But the game maintains a devoted fanbase, and is regularly updated to this day – so there are still plenty of people out there enjoying it.