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

Why it’s the best FF ever: When you bring one of the most respected directors in the Japanese game industry to make a game in one of the biggest, most beloved RPG series of all time, you wind up with an installment that’s unlike anything else before or after. Final Fantasy XII tones down the world-threatening crises to instead deliver a more down-to-earth saga of turmoil and strife amongst kingdoms and their rulers, cutting out a great deal of the melodrama and emo-angst that the series had become notorious for. Each member of the party is very personable in a way characters from other FF games aren’t, and they all get their chance to shine as part of the story.

The battle system has undergone another radical shift to a quasi-realtime system, eliminating random battles entirely and allowing you to engage in a seamless combat experience. Despite you only assuming direct control over a single character at a time, you can issue direct commands to your teammates, as well as set well-defined parameters for their behavior with the Gambit system. You’re also able to customize everybody as you choose with the use of the License Board. FFXII not only plays great, but looks and sounds great, too; the game’s visual design is among the best on the PS2, and the soundtrack puts a new spin on a lot of familiar FF motifs.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: After giving us a Final Fantasy MMO, Square-Enix goes back and gives us… a single-player game with MMO-style combat. Oh boy, just what we asked for! And hey, remember all the epic Final Fantasy stories where the fate of the world hung in the balance? Well, this time you get… politics! Because those worked so well in the Star Wars prequels, right? Hell, the alleged lead character basically gets shuffled off to the sidelines early on the in the story – which goes to show how much the creators cared about some of the cast. You never would have guessed that the director went nuts and left the project considering how disjointed some of the game elements are.

But it’s not like you actually have to play the game, either – abusing the License Board will give everyone access to the best weapons and armor the game offers, and with the Gambit system and a bit of programming know-how, you can make the game play itself while you kick back and watch everybody kick ass.

Personal Take: FFXII is definitely one of my personal favorites – I’ve been a fan of Matsuno’s style since FF Tactics, and seeing him put his own spin on a mainline Final Fantasy game was a real treat, even if it did drive him nuts and force him to abandon his baby. The Zodiac Job System edition of FFXII – which is, sadly, Japan-only – refines the License Board and improves an already great game significantly. I can understand how it can turn off a lot of players, but I found it to be one of the freshest, most enjoyable installments in the series.

Why it’s the best FF ever: In an era when Japanese-made RPGs are facing increasing criticism, a series like Final Fantasy needs to reinvent itself to remain fresh and relevant. Final Fantasy XIII takes this idea to dramatic extremes and delivers one of the most unique installments of the franchise yet. Eliminating distractions like cities allows a new approach to RPG storytelling, which keeps players constantly engaged in the events and battles unfolding with few interruptions. The gameplay – particularly the intense, challenging battle system – finds new ways to keep players on their toes by making them change their strategies constantly, as well as by gradually introducing more and more new elements to combat as they progress further into the story. The linearity serves its purpose, too - by the time you’re dropped into the more open world of Pulse, you have learned – and likely mastered – all the elements of combat you’ll need to succeed. And getting to the more open environments is a reward in and of itself; can you think of a prettier world in any game yet made?

Why it’s the worst FF ever: Remember that old meme about the internet being a series of tubes? That is almost literally what Final Fantasy XIII is for the majority of the game: straightforward areas with few secrets and next to no deviation from a set path. Hope you weren’t attached to things like towns and chatting up NPCs, because you won’t be seeing any of that here, either. You might have heard the battle system is deep and rewarding, but does that really matter when it takes almost 20 hours to unlock its full potential? You can complete most games in the amount of time it takes for FFXIII to “get good.”

Above: Pretty cool battle system… 20 hours into the game

Personal Take: Talk about divisive! Much like VIII, XIII is a real love-it-or-hate it sort of deal. Some have argued that if the game wasn’t an FF title, people wouldn’t be so critical of it and accept its style of gameplay and presentation on its own merits. But that also proves a point: players have come to expect certain established elements in a Final Fantasy game, and when you eliminate them, you’re going to leave a lot of people disappointed. FFXIII was a very long time coming, and it seems it wasn’t worth the wait for a lot of people. Maybe XIII-2 will turn things around?

Why it’s the best FF ever: …yeah, you know what? We got nothin’.


May 4, 2011

Alright, internet – let’s settle this once and for all

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