Final Fantasy XV: A Series of Constant Reinvention

“If it’s not new, it’s not Final Fantasy.”

According to World of Final Fantasy director Hiroki Chiba, speaking with Gamer Escape earlier this year, this is the attitude that Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi strove to work by. And it’s a creed that the various teams around Square Enix responsible for the continued development of the brand have maintained to this day, right up to latest release Final Fantasy XV.

The result is one of gaming’s longest running, most successful series that has managed to move with the times across six generations of console hardware and changing gaming trends, plus jumps to handheld and mobile devices. Your feelings about individual installments may vary, but it’s impossible to accuse Final Fantasy of stagnation at any point in its long history.

Let’s delve into the history of the series and see just how it’s developed over time.

Final Fantasy I (1987)

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Final Fantasy (NES)

The legend behind the Final Fantasy series as a whole — and its curious name — is that developer Square was facing bankruptcy in the late ’80s, and the original Final Fantasy was to be its last great hope for redemption. Whether or not the story is true — and there have been a few conflicting accounts over the last few years — it proved to be a massive success, and kickstarted the series that Square would become most closely associated with over the years.

Looking at it from a modern perspective, Final Fantasy I is fairly simplistic, and actually has a lot more in common with Western RPGs of the era such as Wizardry and Ultima than what we now typically regard as “JRPGs”. You have an entirely player-created party, drawn from a selection of available character classes, and said party is entirely mute, devoid of any characterisation or personality whatsoever. You have an open world map in which it’s alarmingly easy to accidentally wander into an area with monsters far too powerful to handle. And said monsters are heavily, heavily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, being pretty much straight lifts of entries in the Monster Manual in many cases.

The game’s homage to Western RPG conventions wasn’t coincidental; it was entirely deliberate. Inspired by aspects of Western games such as monsters having elemental weaknesses, battle designer Akitoshi Kawazu incorporated these features into Final Fantasy, inadvertently setting the template for many a Japanese RPG to follow.

Final Fantasy III is typically credited as the game in the series that gave us the series’ famous Job system, though many of the game’s iconic Jobs were actually introduced in the very first game. Base Jobs that the player began the game with could later be promoted to a more advanced version, though the implementation was still fairly simplistic; there were no Job-specific commands as in later installments, with the only real special abilities available being White and Black magic spells, and some Jobs couldn’t use those at all, making them little more than attack machines.

In another nod to Dungeons and Dragons, spells were implemented not using the Magic Points system we saw in later games, but rather with a quasi-Vancian magic system in which characters had to prepare spells in advance across several different tiers by purchasing them from shops. Each tier, which was limited to three spells, could only be cast from a limited number from each tier per day — a “day” in Final Fantasy terms simply being the amount of time between the party resting at an inn or in a tent, since the game had no passage of time system.

Final Fantasy I is also noteworthy for another reason: it’s been revisited and revamped several times over the years, firstly as a straight remake with improved graphics and mechanics in the PlayStation release of Final Fantasy Origins, then with additional dungeons in the Game Boy Advance Dawn of Souls remake, then with an even more substantial, puzzle-centric dungeon in the PSP Anniversary edition, which also made it to mobile phones. The additional content in these versions was partly an attempt to incorporate conventions from later installments in the series — most notably very challenging “superbosses” — but also as a means to reward longtime fans of the series with a way to experience the game in a new way.

Is Final Fantasy I worth playing today? Yes, absolutely, as a means of seeing the series’ humble beginnings — though the clunky mechanics of the NES original are rather difficult to deal with from a modern perspective, so it’s best to seek out one of the later remakes that smooth out the rough edges. The PSP version represents the definitive version in this regard.

Final Fantasy II (1988)

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Final Fantasy II (PSP)

With Final Fantasy II, we already saw a series unwilling to simply repackage the same game with a different map. Final Fantasy II brought two significant changes to the table: firstly, a greater emphasis on narrative than mechanics (which would become a pattern with even-numbered Final Fantasy games up until VI) and secondly, rather boldly, a complete abandoning of the traditional experience-and-levels progression system.

Final Fantasy II instead featured a system more akin to what we see in Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series, in which various skills and stats improve the more you use them. Swing a sword lots and you’ll get better at using swords. Block damage with shields and you’ll get better at using shields. Take damage and you’ll get more HP. Use more spells and your spells will get better, but also cost more MP — but likewise, spend more MP on spells and you’ll get more MP.

It sounds fine in theory but in practice it was rather easy to exploit. You could actually beef your characters up to godlike levels in early versions of the game simply by causing your party members to attack one another rather than the enemies; not quite what the designers had in mind, I feel. Later versions lacked this exploit and also reduced the grind somewhat by increasing HP and other stats at regular intervals as well as through their use in battle.

But the mechanics weren’t the star of Final Fantasy II: it was the plot. In stark contrast to the mute protagonists of the first game, II had a cast of characters who, for the time, were fairly fleshed out, with pre-existing relationships and their own motivations. The storytelling was a little hamfisted and clunky in places — particularly towards the end of the game — but the ambition is clear, and, mechanics aside, Final Fantasy II is much more recognisable as a “modern” Final Fantasy than its predecessor.

Despite its original release on NES in 1988, we wouldn’t see Final Fantasy II officially in English until its release alongside its predecessor as part of the PlayStation remake compilation Final Fantasy Origins. Fan translations of the NES version existed prior to this, but this official English version gave us the canonical version of things like character names — most notably the protagonist being known as “Firion” rather than “Frionel” from the fan translation.

The NES version of Final Fantasy II is actually somewhat less clunky than its predecessor and is a lot more palatable from a modern perspective today. However, with superior versions for PlayStation, Game Boy Advance and PSP available — with the PSP version once again offering the definitive, most expanded experience over the original — it’s hard to recommend the NES original to anyone other than the most dedicated of retro purists.

Final Fantasy III (1990)

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Final Fantasy III (PC)

Final Fantasy III marked a return to mechanic-centric gameplay with its introduction of the Job system. This allowed the four party members in the game to switch their Job between battles, thus allowing for a wide variety of party lineups without needing a vast expanded cast of playable characters. The implementation of the Job system in Final Fantasy III was pretty simple compared to its more substantial revisit in Final Fantasy V some years later, but it allowed for an unprecedented degree of character and party customisation.

One of the most noteworthy additions to Final Fantasy III’s battle system were the Job-specific commands. Unlike Final Fantasy IFinal Fantasy III’s Jobs had more to distinguish them than stats and weapon proficiencies; now, each Job had a unique menu command, even if they were unable to cast magic. Final Fantasy III marked the first appearance of series mainstays such as the Dragoon’s Jump command as well as Summon magic; we also saw Jobs more geared to defending the party than attacking, Jobs that could use items more effectively and Jobs that were particularly suited to specific situations.

The Job system wasn’t just relevant in battle, either. Thieves could open certain passageways, for example, while magic-capable characters could cast spells such as Mini, which would sometimes be required to progress through dungeons by fitting through small gaps. These field mechanics made Final Fantasy III’s dungeons a lot more interesting than the simple “fight to the finish” structure of the previous games, though interestingly they wouldn’t make particularly frequent reappearances in subsequent installments.

Like Final Fantasy IIFinal Fantasy III’s original NES incarnation didn’t get a Western release. Instead, our first contact with the series was Matrix Software’s Nintendo DS version in 2006, which featured considerable changes from the original and was far beyond the simple visual upgrade and II received for Final Fantasy Origins on PlayStation. Final Fantasy III for DS was presented in full 3D rather than top-down 2D, and considerably fleshed out a lot of things about the game — most notably giving the four protagonists names, personalities and backstories.

The DS version also modified some of the mechanics in the game. While in the NES original, changing Jobs cost “Capacity Points”, awarded after battle much like experience and gil, the DS version instead introduced a period of adjustment for a character that had changed Job, placing them in a weakened state for a number of battles before they could fight to their full potential in their new role. Both approaches perform the same function — discouraging excessive Job-switching while encouraging players to stick with useful Jobs to level them up — but the DS version does so without requiring grinding to “pay” for a Job switch.

It’s interesting to compare the NES and DS versions of Final Fantasy III as they’re much more substantially different games than the first two installments in the series. Both are well worth playing, though do note that there has still been no official English release of Final Fantasy III on NES, so you’ll have to rely on fan translations if you want an authentically retro experience.

Final Fantasy IV (1991)

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Final Fantasy IV (PSP)

Final Fantasy IV (originally known as Final Fantasy II in Western territories owing to the real II and III not getting English releases on the NES) marked the series’ first jump to the 16-bit Super NES platform. Following the established pattern of the series, it de-emphasised deep mechanics in favour of a strong narrative focus, and is one of the most beloved stories in the series thanks to its ambitious attempts to elevate its storytelling beyond simple “save the world from the bad thing”.

With Final Fantasy IV, we had interesting characters with flaws, most notably in the form of protagonist Cecil the Dark Knight, who undergoes a transformation into a Paladin partway through the narrative. Party members come and go over the course of the narrative, each bringing their own particular style of fighting to the mix and keeping things interesting over the course of the complete adventure, and the game certainly isn’t afraid to kill off important characters in surprisingly emotional scenes.

While Final Fantasy IV lacked any sort of character customisation — all characters were fixed, learning new abilities at specific levels — it was still clearly based on the Job system. Besides Cecil’s use of the Dark Knight and Paladin Jobs, we also had Kain the Dragoon, Rosa the White Mage, Rydia the Summoner, Edward the Bard and numerous others. The fact that the party changed according to the needs of the story meant that it was often necessary to adjust your strategies according to who you had in your lineup at the time, keeping things interesting and varied throughout the entire narrative.

Perhaps Final Fantasy IV’s most notable addition to the series was the Active Time Battle system, which would form the basis of the series’ combat mechanics right up until the PlayStation’s Final Fantasy IX, with later guest appearances in Final Fantasy X-2 and the Final Fantasy XIII series. Abandoning the strict turn-based approach of the first three games, Final Fantasy IV instead adopted a system whereby player characters and enemies alike built up an “ATB gauge” according to their speed, and when this gauge was full, they were able to take their turn. The system combined the strategy of turn-based gameplay with the need for quick reactions and fast decision-making typical of more action-oriented games, giving the game’s combat a pleasantly pacy feel without sacrificing tactical depth.

Final Fantasy IV has had several releases over the years. The SNES original was ported to PlayStation and Game Boy Advance, and the Nintendo DS saw a Final Fantasy III-style 3D reimagining. Arguably the definitive version of the game is once again the PSP version Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection, which maintains the 2D style of the SNES original but improves the dated visuals and music as well as expanding the story with additional episodes.

Final Fantasy V (1992)

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Final Fantasy V (PC)

Final Fantasy V is an interesting installment in the series in that it’s one of the weakest games from a narrative perspective, but for many people it represents the absolute pinnacle of mechanics thanks to its reimagining of Final Fantasy III’s Job system.

What makes Final Fantasy V so special is that you can combine abilities from different jobs to effectively create your own custom classes — a feature that Final Fantasy III lacked. While in Final Fantasy III you only ever had access to the abilities of the Job you had equipped, in Final Fantasy V, levelling up a Job sufficiently allowed you to equip its commands as a secondary ability in the menu or as a passive skill. Certain combinations worked better than others, but the freedom was there to experiment.

Final Fantasy V also introduced a variety of interesting new Jobs to the mix, including Blue Mage (who learned abilities from enemies), Time Mage (which focused on time-related buffs and debuffs such as Haste, Slow and Stop) and Mime (whose main purpose was to copy abilities others had performed). Many of these mechanics would return in later installments, though not necessarily as discrete Jobs; Final Fantasy VII, for example, incorporated both Blue Magic and Mime as materia that could be equipped on characters’ equipment rather than as innate abilities.

While Final Fantasy V is one of the most fondly regarded installments in the series today, it took a very long time for us to get an English version. Localisation was attempted and cancelled several times after the original Japanese launch in 1992, and ultimately we wouldn’t get to see an official English version until 1999 in North America and 2002 in Europe. Prior to this, the SNES original was one of the first complete fan-translation projects, driven by frustration at the continual cancellation of official localisations. Today, meanwhile, arguably the definitive way to play is the Game Boy Advance port; there’s also a version for mobile phones and home computers, though many fans dislike the rather ugly updated 2D visuals and interface of this version.

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

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Final Fantasy VI (PC)

The last game in the series to be released on the 16-bit Super NES — and one of the most visually striking games on the platform — is also one of the most well-regarded installments. Boasting unprecedented scale and ambition for a 16-bit RPG, Final Fantasy VI is regarded as one of the most prominent poster children for the supposed “golden age” of gaming towards the twilight of the 16-bit console era.

And with good reason. Boasting an enormous ensemble cast — notably without a single clear “protagonist”, unlike previous installments — Final Fantasy VI is a spectacular, moving, engaging experience that blends excellent storytelling (including one of the franchise’s most memorably loathsome villains) with solid, interesting mechanics to produce one of the series’ finest moments.

Final Fantasy VI’s mechanics blend elements of IV and to create characters that are recognisably unique from one another, but customisable in their own right. Each character has their own unique ability — for example, Locke can steal, Edgar can use tools, Sabin can use fighting game-style button combos to unleash Blitz attacks — but can also learn magic by fighting with Espers equipped. Each Esper can teach a character a different selection of spells, and can also be used as Summon magic in their own right. In this way, you can either bolster a character’s weaknesses with magic, support their strengths further or attempt to turn them into a jack of all trades.

As an even-numbered Final Fantasy, however, the emphasis is very much on the narrative here, and Final Fantasy VI is noteworthy in this regard for the main villain actually succeeding in their ambitions for once; the latter half of the game is spent dealing with the consequences and attempting to clean up the mess of the ruined world rather than trying to save it from disaster. Actions earlier in the game also impact these latter sequences; characters live and die according to your actions, and because the cast are all so well-developed, it really hurts to lose one of them.

As dark as Final Fantasy VI is at times, it’s not above moments of good humour and warmth. Perhaps most notably, the game brought us fan favourite Ultros, a perverted purple octopus-like being that has shown up in a number of subsequent games as well as the Kingsglaive companion movie to Final Fantasy XV. And at the other end of the spectrum, the game’s famous “opera” scene remains powerful and impactful to this day, even with the relatively primitive sound technology used to bring it to life.

Final Fantasy VI had an official English release on Super NES as Final Fantasy III, then later got ported to PlayStation and Game Boy Advance as Final Fantasy VI. Like Final Fantasy V, there’s also a mobile and PC version which drew some criticism for its rather ugly updated art and interface, though this is by far the most easily accessible version these days.

Final Fantasy VII (1997)

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Final Fantasy VII (PC)

For many fans, Final Fantasy VII was their first port of call with the series. In moving to Sony’s CD-ROM-based PlayStation platform, the franchise was able to realise considerably grander ambitions with regards to presentation and storytelling, and the result was, at the time, regarded as something of a watershed moment in gaming.

Chief among the aspects that caused critics and the public alike to regard Final Fantasy VII as something new and special was the degree of emotional engagement it engendered in its players. These were well-defined, interesting characters who developed over the course of the complete adventure, each with their own arc, and, of course, That Notorious Moment At The End of Disc One was, for many people, the first time a video game had ever made them cry.

Final Fantasy VII’s strong characterisation and writing weren’t actually anything particularly new for the series, which had previously seen particularly strong narrative-heavy installments with IV and VI, but the move to the fashionable PlayStation platform — which was partly responsible for the growth of gaming out of a niche interest activity into the important part of mainstream culture it occupies today — brought it a significantly wider audience, many of whom had no ideas that games could be about telling wonderful stories as well as about killing aliens or soldiers.

Meanwhile, Final Fantasy VII’s gameplay offered an interesting blend between characters with preset abilities and full customisation. The game lacked a Job system, with characters instead having access to abilities from “materia”, gems that they inserted into their weapons and armour. This means that any character could use almost any ability in the game, although the individual characters were distinguished from one another through their powerful Limit Break abilities. These character-specific abilities could be used whenever the Limit bar was filled by taking damage in combat, and varied from extremely powerful attacks to strong heals or randomised, chance-based effects.

Final Fantasy VII was also notorious for its lengthy Summon magic sequences. While these had been introduced in the earlier games, they had largely been little more than powerful spells in which the summoned creature appeared as a sprite on the screen. Final Fantasy VII changed all that, however, giving each Summon their own unique animation, several of which went on for several minutes. These spectacular animated sequences form some of the most iconic moments in the game that have frequently been referenced and reused in future installments — of particular note is the lengthy Knights of the Round summon, which forms the basis of Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward’s final boss, and the ridiculously overblown Bahamut Zero summon, which is recreated almost shot-for-shot at the end of a mission in spinoff title Final Fantasy Type-0.

Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

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Final Fantasy VIII (PC)

After Final Fantasy VII, swathes of new fans were clamouring for something special from the next Final Fantasy, while series veterans were interested to see what would happen next.

1999’s Final Fantasy VIII is one of the most divisive entries in the series because, despite superficial similarities to Final Fantasy VII in terms of presentation and interface, its fundamental gameplay and structure was very different indeed.

The new gameplay mechanic introduced in Final Fantasy VIII was known as the Junction system. Here, magic spells that players acquired by “Drawing” them from enemies and locations around the world could be “junctioned” to each of the characters’ stats, buffing them in various ways. Junctioning magic to stats was of significantly greater importance to progression than the character’s overall level, which was all but irrelevant by the end of the game, and players quickly found that certain spells in particular made it possible to create ludicrously overpowered characters that could flatten almost anything in the game in a matter of seconds — although the presence of superboss Omega Weapon, which requires careful thought with regard to nullifying status effects and immense damage, does suggest that the designers were somewhat ready for this.

Narratively, Final Fantasy VIII had a different focus to its predecessors by eschewing the usual “hero’s journey” structure in favour of structuring its narrative and much of its gameplay around the mercenary force SeeD that the protagonist Squall and many of his party members are part of. The game even went so far as to not provide money drops from battle, instead dishing out a “salary” to the player at regular intervals according to their rank, which could be passed by taking tests based on knowledge of the game and the world in which it was set.

Final Fantasy VIII’s plot drew criticism for a number of convoluted aspects and a nonsensical ending, but the highlight of the experience was never intended to be the overall “big plot”. Instead, as the game’s logo makes abundantly clear, it’s primarily a love story between protagonist Squall and leading lady Rinoa, who is introduced early in the plot, and this aspect of the game in particular was a big success, with some wonderfully emotional moments throughout.

Final Fantasy IX (2000)

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Final Fantasy IX (PC)

Aware that some fans had bounced off Final Fantasy VIII due to its radical changes to the formula, the promise behind Final Fantasy IX was for the series to return to its roots. Final Fantasy VIII’s realistically proportioned characters would be abandoned in favour of more stylised characters that bore more of a resemblance to the super-deformed sprites of the 8- and 16-bit incarnations of the series, and the sci-fi/fantasy blend that VII and VIII in particular had brought to the forefront was pushed back in favour of a return to a more traditional fantasy world. Even the battle music had hints of the classic themes from the first six games.

The result of all this was one of the most fondly regarded installments in the entire series, and a fitting swansong for the original PlayStation era.

Final Fantasy IX incorporated the same Active Time Battle system that had been used since Final Fantasy IV, and also included an ability learning system somewhat akin to the Espers system from Final Fantasy VI, only with abilities being learned from equipment rather than summons. It also featured the unique character abilities and Limit Break-esque Trance mode from Final Fantasy VII, and several of the characters were clearly based on the classic Jobs of yore — Zidane was very obviously a Thief, for example, while Freya was most definitely a Dragoon, and you can’t get much more Black Mage than Vivi.

Narratively, Final Fantasy IX was one of the most operatic of the series, featuring larger than life villains and epic, apocalyptic conflicts that threatened to tear the world apart. It frequently lampshaded its operatic aspirations — mostly through the main cast members having some connection to a theatrical troupe — and was a game that knew how to have fun with fantasy while still telling a compelling, serious story in its own right.

For many, Final Fantasy IX is the pinnacle of the series, and the very definition of what it means to be Final Fantasy. And yet for all its homages to classic Final Fantasy, it’s clearly its own thing in its own right, with a strong sense of identity to distinguish it both from its predecessors and from what would come next.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

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Final Fantasy X (PC)

Final Fantasy IX was always intended as the end of an era, but it wasn’t until the series jumped to the next generation of Sony consoles that it became apparent exactly what that meant. Final Fantasy X, as it happened, was one of the most radical reinventions the series had seen since the introduction of Active Time Battle with IV.

Gone was the world map-location structure, replaced with a trek across a realistically proportioned world, resolutely linear until the very end of the game, at which point you could easily revisit locations using one of the series iconic airships.

Gone was the Active Time Battle system, replaced with the Conditional Turn-Based Battle mechanic, in which turn order was fluid according to the actions you took — certain abilities would take longer to perform and delay a character’s subsequent turn, while others could impact the enemy’s turn, too.

Gone was the need to pick a party of three and leave the rest behind; Final Fantasy X made it so that every character was useful in different situations, and so that they could be switched in and out of combat each turn at will.

Gone, even was the traditional experience points and level-based systems which, aside from a brief disappearance in Final Fantasy II and being largely irrelevant in Final Fantasy VIII, had formed the backbone of the games’ various progression systems since the very beginning. The Sphere Grid instead offered a more abstract form of progression that, optionally in its Expert format, could be used as a means of completely customising characters to fit specific roles in the party.

Final Fantasy X was a very different experience from its predecessors, yet it too is a particularly fondly regarded installment by many thanks to its strong story and characterisation and abundance of memorable moments. It is also noteworthy for being the first game in the series to receive a direct sequel in the form of Final Fantasy X-2 — itself a radical reinvention of the conventions set in place by its predecessor.

Final Fantasy XI (2002)

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Final Fantasy XI (PC)

Making a mainline installment in the series into a massively multiplayer online RPG was a ballsy move, but the Final Fantasy team pulled it off by creating an experience that blended the traditional grind-heavy experience of EverQuest-era MMOs with the strong narrative focus of the rest of the Final Fantasy series.

Despite being an online-only game in which players created their own protagonist rather than playing as a pre-scripted character, Final Fantasy XI managed to feel authentically Final Fantasy through a combination of its visual style, its excellent soundtrack and its interesting story, which incorporated a wide variety of interesting characters and villains for the player character to interact with.

Mechanically, Final Fantasy XI featured a combat system that was somewhere between turn-based and real-time, in which player and enemy attacks were automatic but with large gaps in between them, in which could be weaved various abilities and weapon skills. There was a strong focus on cooperation between players, with the most powerful moves in the game — Skillchains and Magic Bursts — requiring a great deal of coordination and concentration between all members of the party. Relying on other people rather than controlling an entire party was a new experience for many players, though successfully pulling off a Skillchain was as satisfying as unleashing a powerful Limit Break in an earlier installment.

Final Fantasy XI also saw a return to the Job system, which had been left dormant since Final Fantasy V aside from a brief (but excellently implemented) appearance in spinoff game Final Fantasy Tactics. Players could switch Jobs any time they returned to their character’s residence, though each Job had its own level and progression that started from 1 when equipped for the first time. The game also offered players the ability to mix two Jobs together in a similar manner to Final Fantasy V, allowing players to take advantage of a complementary Job’s stat boosts and abilities.

At the time of writing, Final Fantasy XI is still up and running and more friendly to solo players than ever thanks to its “Trust” system which allows players to recruit AI-controlled party members rather than relying on other people. However, it’s noteworthy among the series alongside fellow MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV for having an “expiration date” at some point in the future — one day the servers will be turned off, and no new players will be able to experience the story of this particular Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy XII (2006)

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Final Fantasy XII (PS4)

For those who didn’t play Final Fantasy XI — usually on the grounds that it was a subscription-based MMO, and they didn’t want to get involved in that sort of thing — Final Fantasy XII felt like one of the most significant shakeups the series had seen since X. Veterans of XI, meanwhile, simply nodded and went “Yep.”

Final Fantasy XII adopted a very similar combat system to XI in that it wasn’t turn-based, didn’t have a separate battle screen and allowed free movement during combat. Taking direct control of a single character at a time, the player could issue orders to their party members during combat or “pre-program” the way they would behave using the excellent Gambit system. This was a straightforward but powerful “If… Then…” system in which you set various trigger conditions and actions for the characters to perform if those conditions were met.

Again like XI, Final Fantasy XII featured a non-linear open world structure split into discrete zones stratified by level. The story naturally moved you from one place to another as you progressed, but at many points in the game you were free to run from one end of the world to another, and indeed the game’s most substantial sidequest, The Hunt, demanded that you investigate every inch of the game’s substantial world to track down your various marks.

Final Fantasy XII was also noteworthy for having a superboss with an obscene amount of hit points that takes well over an hour to defeat.

Narratively, Final Fantasy XII shares an aesthetic and background with Final Fantasy Tactics and stablemate Vagrant Story by being set in the world of Ivalice, though the ties between the games are mostly thematic and stylistic, and no knowledge of the other games is required to enjoy Final Fantasy XII. It was also noteworthy for having a playable protagonist who was not, in fact, the main character of the story; popular legend has it that the main characters in Final Fantasy XII are in fact Basch and Ashe, while protagonist Vaan was added primarily out of concern that young Japanese players would find it hard to relate to older characters in leading roles.

Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

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Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

The series’ first foray onto PlayStation 3 was applauded on its release for being technically impressive, well put together and one of the most visually spectacular installments the franchise had ever seen, but has become fashionable to bash over the last few years, largely on the grounds of its perceived linearity.

In fact, Final Fantasy XIII has a lot in common with Final Fantasy X in terms of structure: the first half of the story is indeed very linear, as in Final Fantasy X, while the latter part of the game opens up considerably with a lot more freedom to explore and take on various challenges in whatever order you please. The game’s linearity in its early hours is actually a direct reflection of its narrative, whose core theme is how difficult it is to defy one’s fate once you’ve become embroiled in something.

Final Fantasy XIII’s progression system bears a passing resemblance to Final Fantasy X, too, featuring a node-based grid that players progress through in order to unlock various abilities and stat bonuses

Where Final Fantasy XIII does differ considerably from X, however, is in its combat, and despite a return to Active Time Battle, it’s another radical reinvention of how the series does things.

The interesting thing about Final Fantasy XIII’s combat is that it de-emphasises the micromanagement of characters from previous installments in favour of considering the “big picture”. Rather than treating each character as an individual, you need to consider your party as a single entity, switching its roles on the fly through the Paradigm Shift system in order to respond to the flow of battle.

Many critics in recent years misinterpreted this shift to managing the overall strategy of the battle as a whole rather than manually inputting each and every command as an oversimplification or “auto-battling” — not helped by the game’s frequent use of the term “auto-battle”, it has to be said — but in practice, Final Fantasy XIII’s combat is simply too frantic and busy to make micromanagement possible. Instead, the Paradigm Shift system allows you to switch easily between defending against powerful attacks from enemies, buffing allies and debuffing enemies, or going for an all-out assault on the enemy.

Likewise, the oft-criticised first 20 hours of the game, which are often described as a “20 hour tutorial”, are actually designed in such a way to make the player abundantly familiar with all the possible combinations of party roles and complete Paradigms before letting them loose on completely free progression. It’s impossible to make a “broken” character in Final Fantasy XIII, in other words; those much-maligned first 20 hours give each party member a role they are particularly good at before allowing them to take on other specialisms later in the game, with every character ultimately having the ability to perform most roles.

Final Fantasy XIV (2010)

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Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC)

Final Fantasy XIV was the series’ second foray into the massively multiplayer online sphere, but unlike Final Fantasy XI was a total disaster on its original launch for a variety of reasons. What happened subsequently was nothing short of remarkable, however; rather than shuttering the game permanently and hoping no-one ever spoke of it ever again, Square Enix brought in a new team to completely revamp the whole thing and start again from scratch.

The result was 2013’s A Realm Reborn, which used the failure of the game’s original incarnation — and its apocalyptic destruction at the hands of recurring summon monster Bahamut when the servers shut down — as backstory for a completely new experience.

Like Final Fantasy XI, A Realm Reborn features an intoxicating blend between traditional MMO gameplay and progression and a good old-fashioned Final Fantasy story. And A Realm Reborn’s story was good, incorporating numerous nods to past installments in the series while telling its own interesting tale with some beautifully written George R. R. Martin-inspired prose and dialogue.

Bolstered by the success of A Realm Reborn and the positive reception it had received from both critics and the player base, Final Fantasy XIV went on to receive its first expansion in the form of Heavensward, which continued the story into new parts of the world and was considerably more ambitious in its scope. The various updates for Heavensward also were more prone to experimenting with different types of gameplay than the traditional multiplayer dungeons and raids, with perhaps the most notable deviation from the original formula being the randomly generated (and Tactics Ogre-inspired) Palace of the Dead dungeon, some 200 floors deep.

Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy XIV was once again a reinvention of the formula. Unfolding in real-time with a strong emphasis on dodging enemy attacks, the game nonetheless maintained a feeling of turn-based combat thanks to a global cooldown on abilities that was considerably slower than its peers in the genre such as World of Warcraft. This allowed for movement-heavy combat that didn’t require frantic button mashing, though high-level play still demands a strong degree of skill and timing for maximum efficiency.

There are plausible fan theories that Final Fantasy XIV acts as a nexus for all the other Final Fantasy worlds — a theory given some credence by the appearance of Final Fantasy III’s Crystal Tower and World of Darkness as a side story — but these have yet to be proven or disproven by the team behind the game, who typically keep their cards quite close to their chest.

What Final Fantasy XIV does offer, however, is a plethora of fanservice for longterm Final Fantasy fans, particularly through the introduction of a new take on Final Fantasy VII’s Gold Saucer, and through the humorous, light-hearted “Hildibrand” quests, which feature guest appearances from recurring character Gilgamesh and everyone’s favourite pervy octopus from Final Fantasy VI, Ultros.

Final Fantasy XV (2016)

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Final Fantasy XV (Xbox One)

And so we come to today, and the latest installment in the series — a game that some people have difficulty regarding as a “true Final Fantasy” thanks to its real-time combat, modern day setting and small playable cast.

And yet as we’ve seen over the course of our exploration of the series’ long history, there is no one game that you can point at and say “this is Final Fantasy“, because this is a series that has radically reinvented itself to various degrees with each and every installment, and even more so if you take into account the numerous spinoff titles, too. There is no single definition of what Final Fantasy is, so it is all but impossible to say with authority that something is not Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy XV is as much a Final Fantasy as the very first game in the series is. It’s very different from the first game in the series, too, of course, but then that’s always been one of Final Fantasy’s most defining characteristics: “if it’s not new, it’s not Final Fantasy.”

We’ll look more into the specifics of Final Fantasy XV and its own particular reinvention of the formula in the next few articles.


More about Final Fantasy XV

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4 thoughts on “Final Fantasy XV: A Series of Constant Reinvention”

  1. I just got around to reading this. Fantastic stuff. A comprehensive historical retrospective like this should basically be required reading for any yahoo who thinks that he/she is qualified to review an FF game in any sort of professional capacity.

    As we’ve often discussed. XII is my favorite FF, for reasons too numerous to list. Not only are Basch and Ashe technically the main characters of the narrative . . . there’s also a delicious theory out there that they, and your party by proxy of following them, are also technically the villains of the story. My anticipation for the upcoming remaster on PS4 has reached a fever pitch.

    Like

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