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8/23/2016

All the other Final Fantasies I've Played in a Nutshell

I've been pretty harsh on the series over the years, and especially on its most popular entries, so let's take a look at some of its less-talked-about games by both myself and others!

Final Fantasy 1

A pretty solid game for 1987, giving the player free choice in customizing their party and lending it some substantial replayability.  That said, this was kind of still in the era before console RPGs (and JRPGs in general) became known for having decent narratives, so the story and characterizations overall are pretty minimal and generic.  It also lacks much balance, with the Fighter being far and away the best class for much of the game and the rest being mostly situational.  Still, it had some cool visuals for 1987 and some iconic tunes, so while it may not stand the test of time very well, I can still respect it for what it is.

Final Fantasy 2

I always felt this one was a bit of an underdog in the series, with most people writing it off for its leveling system before really giving it a chance.  Granted, the leveling system in the game is a persistent problem as it's not very well-balanced at all, which leads much of the game being either far too easy or resulting in the party being wiped before getting a single turn with almost no middle ground.  Enemies also typically don't provide enough of a threat to get you to level up, requiring your party members to sit around and attack one another to give themselves HP, attack and magic boosts, which is more than a bit silly (not to mention tedious).  Still, the game has some interesting ideas to it (having to learn and give code words to solve puzzles and advance the story - a bit like the Ultima games in that regard) and the music is honestly some of my favorite in the entirety of the series.  The storyline is also surprisingly captivating for a Famicom game, telling the tale of a group of friends drafted into a desperate guerilla war against an invading empire with plenty of twists along the way.  Not to mention that I feel the Emperor is pretty underrated as a villain; after all, who else is evil and badass enough to overthrow the devil and conquer Hell itself after you slay him and send his soul there?  No other villain I can think of!

Final Fantasy 3

Doubtlessly my favorite of the Famicom Final Fantasies, delivering top-notch visuals and some great music along with a lot of challenge.  This game, in contrast to the second, returns things to a more class-based system, giving the player a wide variety of classes (22 in total) to play with and letting them change up their characters and strategies as the game goes.  While it once again lacks a lot of the balance and fine polish of other RPGs (with some like the Bard and Scholar being almost entirely useless while others dominate much of the game), the fact that you're given so much variety is certainly commendable.  Combine that with a huge variety of vehicles, an enormous world to explore and even a pretty good storyline, and you've got a very solid world-spanning adventure.  Just avoid the stinky 3D remake, as it bogs the experience down with a lot of pointless and tedious grinding.

Mystic Quest

Intended as a "beginner RPG", and it definitely shows with the overall low difficulty level and a slightly more puzzle-based approach to its gameplay, giving it a slight Legend of Zelda bent.  Still, even RPG veterans can get some enjoyment from it thanks to its robust design, eliminating random encounters (all enemies are visible on the map!), clever puzzles and a solid soundtrack.  Not the best of its kind by any means, but worth a playthrough at least.

Final Fantasy 5

Definitely my favorite of the Super Famicom Final Fantasy games.  The story once again isn't the greatest (in fact, it's downright silly), but I always felt that early Final Fantasy's strength was more in its gameplay than in its writing.  The fifth game exemplifies this best, retaining 3's wide and varied class system while also allowing for much character customization - one can mix-and-match abilities from multiple classes to create hybrid characters.  This allows the less powerful classes to be quite useful by giving characters abilities they can use to augment other classes - for example, the Red Mage can only cast low-tier magic, but can also learn to cast two spells in one turn, which the player can utilize with other classes by changing back to them once the Red Mage's skill set is maxed out. Even the default "freelancer" class has its purpose; it has no inherent abilities, but can utilize any equipment and has two free slots to abilities from other classes, making it a good choice for the end of the game.  Really good stuff, and the high challenge level of the game definitely requires you to get good at mastering it.  So why doesn't this one get its due attention?  Oh right, it's not the perfect, infallible, ultimate incredible uber SNES RPG the "real fans" on GameFAQs told them to worship forever and is therefore trash that qualifies its defenders for execution via penile mutilation.  Way to ruin a good game for everyone, fanbrats!

Final Fantasy 9

A lot of fans (myself included) were let down when Final Fantasy opted to drop its class system almost entirely and just turn the game into something a bit more simplistic and story driven.  9 is seemingly an attempt to reach a middle ground between the older and newer fans, retaining the cinematic experience of 7 and 8 while also returning to something more fantastic and class-based.  While the characters' classes are fixed here, they also have a touch of customization to them thanks to the ability system.  This allows characters to do things like gain resistance to certain status effects, counter physical attacks, get Trances (Limit Breaks, essentially) faster, get more HP, and so on.  One can also change up these abilities at any time by redistributing points, which results in the player frequently having to find a middle ground between raw strength and being well equipped to resist whatever the boss throws at them.  The game also provides a good challenge, giving enemies enough punch to prove a threat while not also allowing the player to become overpowered to the point of inanity.  Unfortunately the game also suffers from a lot of the problems of the other Playstation Final Fantasies - namely overly long spell animations, lengthy unskippable cutscenes and an encounter rate that can best be described as "atrocious".  Still, 9 is a pretty solid game overall and arguably the best of the PS1 games.

Final Fantasy Legend 1/2/3

I think everyone knows by now that these are actually rebranded SaGa games, but since we're talking old school Final Fantasy here, I'll mention them anyway.  SaGa was always more of an "experimental" series than Final Fantasy, attempting to combine elements of western RPGs into the mix as well as a heavy emphasis on luck based elements - to that end, stats are gained randomly after battles, your Mutant characters randomly gain and lose enemies, and your monster characters seemingly change from strong to weak forms (and vice versa) on a whim, forcing you to constantly re-adapt strategies in order to make your way through.  This is also not helped by the fact that nearly all items in the game are limited-use, forcing you to keep a hefty supply of them around and save your best stuff for when you're really, absolutely sure you need it.  Still, the strange sights and wild storylines make them worth a visit.

3 is a changeup for the series, though, doing away with much of the random elements and playing more like a traditional RPG (albeit still with some SaGa elements attached - characters can become Robots, Monsters or hybrid forms by installing parts or eating meat).  Once again, though, it's worth playing for its storyline, which feels a bit like an early precursor to Chrono Trigger thanks to its time travel elements.

All three games also have some outstanding soundtracks for the Game Boy platform, so that definitely makes them worth a look as well!

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Tactics is easily my favorite game under the Final Fantasy label, perfectly combining elements of political intrigue, deep gameplay and challenge together into an unforgettable experience (no surprise considering it was masterminded by the extremely talented Yasumi Matsuno).  So when it came time to create a sequel, how did they botch it as badly as this?  The class system is still there, sure, but where's everything else?  The story is now cartoonishly lame, the gameplay lacks any real challenge (I played as a solo White Mage and never once came close to losing) and there's virtually no interesting characters at all.  But in a half-hearted attempt to introduce challenge, they now impose arbitrary 'rules' on matches like not using knockback moves or not casting specific spells; doing so causes that unit to be removed from the field immediately (and nets you a game over if it happens to be one of your main characters).  It doesn't add any real challenge to the game, just frustration; my one and only Game Over was when I got a critical hit, knocked an enemy back on a no-knockback rule, and got my main character removed from the field.  FFT is still one of the greatest RPGs of all time, but its sequels are simply not worth the time or the money.

Kingdom Hearts

A crossover between Disney franchises and Final Fantasy styled ones sounded good on paper, but what we ultimately got was more akin to Mary Sue Fan Fiction: The Game as your characters just step into the scripts of various Disney films and fight their villains with little variation on the original plot.  Well, except for the introduction of a vague evil force called the "Heartless" headed up by a generic evil Final Fantasy villain with no genuine character or interesting backstory.  It is a bit fun to see so many familiar characters in one place and the gameplay is decent action-RPG fare, but there's really not much else to it beyond nostalgic fan appeal.

Kingdom Hearts 2

Take an already thin concept and spin it out to the point of asininity?  Don't mind if I do!  That's the entire design process behind Kingdom Hearts 2, which just adapts more Disney films (and a lot of the same Disney Films from 1...) into another game.  But while the original at least had some thought put into its dungeon designs and boss battles, Kingdom Hearts 2 just quickly devolves into a button mash fest, encouraging the player to spam over-the-top cinematic attacks constantly to do heavy damage to bosses and wipe out minor enemies en masse.  The story also takes an even dumber twist as the Heartless are revealed to have humanoid counterparts called "Nobodies" who retain much of their humanity but have no feelings, causing them to be behind all of the game's events in an attempt to regain their humanity.  Oh, and Sora and Kairi have Nobodies even though they're not Heartlesses because... reasons I guess, buy the next fourteen games in the series to find out!  This was the point when Kingdom Hearts - and Square Enix as a whole - truly became a parody of themselves.