OnlySP Favorite Games 1 - Final Fantasy series

Our journey through the staff of OnlySP’s 50 favourite games is at its end. Our top three has already seen some horror and some stealth, but the conclusion of the list heads to a monolithic series of fantastic proportions…

Final Fantasy series logo

#1. Final Fantasy (series)

NES, SNES era … and Chrono Trigger, by Mitchell Akhurst

Last year, when we began preparing the 50 Favourite Games project, the Final Fantasy series topped the list by a wide margin. As a telling and hilarious indication of the median age of the OnlySP staff, though, not one Final Fantasy game prior to VI ended up as part of the list.

These games are still incredibly influential, and well worth remembering in the history of Japanese RPGs. The original Final Fantasy was instrumental in establishing the series’s combination of fantasy and sci-fi, distinguishing itself with a more action-packed, side-on view of battles—as opposed to first-person view—and an exciting, cinematic approach to its presentation.

Final Fantasy II gets a lot of ridicule for Akitoshi Kawazu’s experimental approach to its mechanics, but the game’s Star Wars-ian tale of rebellion set the template for many stories in the series to come. Likewise, the third game established the Job system, and by the fourth game (only the second entry released in English), the operatic tone and sense of adventure that would come to define Final Fantasy for decades was well established.

Final Fantasy V is often characterised as the moment the series truly became a franchise. V looked back to the previous entries for inspiration, bringing back the Job system from III and employing a sense of adventure that was not quite as self-serious as IV. This arguably set the cadence of Final Fantasy games responding to one another: this one is more sci-fi, that one is more epic fantasy. This game focuses on noble kingdoms, that game centres on riff-raff rebels.

Then, in 1994, Square released one of the most beloved JRPGs of all time: Final Fantasy VI. The game is emblematic of the early-to-mid-90s boom in the genre, and boasts excellent graphics, as well as the most complex and intriguing narrative of the series yet. However, I also wanted to use this early section as an excuse to champion the other unbelievably good SNES RPG from the following year.

Chrono Trigger combined the style and development personnel behind Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy into a once-in-a-lifetime production that scraps the flaws of both series and somehow only accentuates what makes them great. Similarly to Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger is full of well-designed encounters and dramatic storytelling (including several alternate endings), and is not as lengthy as the central Final Fantasy titles, making it a great entry point for any JRPG-curious who might feel daunted by the bigger games below.

Whichever you choose, these are the cream of the crop. Between Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, Squaresoft ended its headlining SNES output with a bang—but the company’s rise to success was only just beginning. And so, without further ado begins the 3D era of Final Fantasy… 

Final Fantasy VII, by Craig Snyder

Few video games invoke as strong emotions as Final Fantasy VII. The game is capable of turning a casual gamer into a lifelong enthusiast. Until I got my hands on Final Fantasy VII, I did not understand that games with political themes could be so beautiful. I did not know that a game’s soundtrack could nearly bring me to tears, years after beating it. I had no idea that decades later, I would find myself lying in bed at night and watching speedrunners stream the game just so I can relive it.

Final Fantasy VII was concocted in a perfect storm. The game was released in 1997, debatably when television, movies, games, and internet were at or near their peak. VII was the first Final Fantasy game released in 3D, at a time when video games were going through a renaissance that changed the way we experience them forever. This era was several years before SquareSoft merged with Enix, back when it was pumping out games such as Chrono Cross, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, and Xenogears. Making an emotional connection between Final Fantasy VII and such a thriving time in history for games and entertainment is a difficult comparison to resist—but what about the game itself?

Final Fantasy VII gameplay screenshot 1

Many of us will never forget the first time we escaped from Midgar. I remember, and the event came with a rush of adrenaline upon finding that an entire world map was to be explored. The game’s opening made you consider the many hours you had just spent ascending the game’s steampunk-inspired starting city, possibly the greatest JRPG starting location of all time. This prelude is concluded by an iconic motorcycle chase and fight on the bridge against Motor Ball. You can sense the action is reaching a climax, and it is masterfully punctuated by the “Dear to the Heart” track playing right before the party bids farewell.

Final Fantasy VII gave us the Materia system, a skill and ability system that would help define the series and see iterations in future games. The game gave us the most famous JRPG death of all time, andits atmosphere is juxtaposed perfectly, transitioning from the gritty, run-down sights of North Corel to a vibrant adventure through the Gold Saucer amusement park. VII brought us some of the most challenging side quests and boss battles—I know 20-year-long fans who still have not beaten Emerald Weapon. Truth be told, though, nothing can really express how important Final Fantasy VII is until you play it yourself—and, for first-timers, consider what an experience it was all the way back in 1997.

Final Fantasy VII gameplay screenshot 2

The best news of all is that no matter if you have or have not played the game, everyone will be able to experience it in an all-new way very shortly. No other remake is as anticipated as Final Fantasy VII, and it sent a jolt of electricity through the gaming community when it was announced at E3 2018. Final Fantasy VIII Remake is the Lifestream that fans need after the Meteor-like impact the original game left on us.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, by Daniel Pereira

Any fan of the Final Fantasy VII series holds Crisis Core close to their heart, as the title recreates the magic of the original game with an all new cast of characters. The game takes place years before the events of Final Fantasy VII, as it sets the stage for the story that Cloud and the rest of AVALANCHE find themselves wrapped up in the opening scenario. Instead of the quiet and angsty protagonist Cloud Strife, players take control of Zack Fair, a newly inducted SOLDIER recruit under the guidance of Angeal, a well-respected member of SOLDIER 1st Class. Immediately, fans noticed a stark contrast between Cloud and Zack, as Zack carries himself with passion, and often borderline obnoxious enthusiasm.

In Crisis Core, SOLDIER is a highly influential group of militants who are deployed only when matters are of the highest urgency. With its top three members, Angeal, Genesis, and Sephiroth (yes, you read that right), most challenges that SOLDIER faces are pale in comparison to world-threatening events since these three are legends among their community. What happens, however, when one of these legendary soldiers goes rogue and seek to expose what they value as the truth to the world by any means necessary? Crisis Core tackles this concept as part of its narrative, with Genesis abandoning his friends and rank leading Sephiroth, Angeal, and Zack to hunt him down. Along the way, Zack befriends series favorites Aerith, a young woman tending to flowers in a Midgar church, and Cloud, a low rank Shinra infantryman.

Although Zack began as someone who could make audiences roll their eyes with his over-the-top go-getter attitude, he quickly won them over with his resilience to loss and determination to uphold his honor, no matter the cost. Many events in Crisis Core seek to tug on the player’s heartstrings as Zack is forced to consistently overcome tragedy everywhere he goes. Whether being forced to eliminate the one he called brother or watching as his idol in life loses the battle between good and evil, Zack Fair experiences more hardship than most characters in the Final Fantasy universe.

Few characters in Final Fantasy obtain a legendary status from paying the ultimate price, and Zack Fair has rightfully earned that recognition. Crisis Core’s ending continues its message of pain and tragedy as fans have no choice but to control Zack until his heroic end. The final moments of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII are the most somber of the entire game. Zack delivers a message to Cloud, and tells him that, on his behalf, Cloud will live. Although Zack is barely mentioned beyond this point in the Final Fantasy VII universe, Cloud is the proof that Zack existed. And with that, Zack hands Cloud his Buster Sword, passing on all his dreams with it. This moment is single-handedly one of the most powerful moments in any Final Fantasy title, and it is delivered by a man, who throughout all his life, wanted to be a hero. Yes Zack, I believe you became a hero.

Final Fantasy VIII, by Amy Davidson

For a long time, Final Fantasy VIII was my white whale. Managing to always be on the wrong side of the console war to play a Final Fantasy game, my hopes peaked in 2001 when I picked up a PC copy of Final Fantasy VIII in Bali for roughly six dollars. As one might have guessed, the game did not work properly, crashing in about twenty minutes every time. I did have access to that stunning opening cinematic, though, and I watched it over and over. The detail on that beach! Men clashing swords in an epic duel! A mysterious girl languishing in a field! The game was so different to the 3D platformers I played on the Nintendo 64 or the Myst-type puzzlers we had on PC.

Life went on, and I forgot about that fascination until about ten years later, when I was lucky enough to buy a dusty old original PlayStation with the full set of Final Fantasy games for a song. Knowing this was gaming fate, I set aside all my plans to see if Final Fantasy VIII lived up to my childhood hype.

Final Fantasy VIII is a weird game. After the bombastic success of Final Fantasy VII, following up with something similar would have been easy—to reuse the assets and quickly succeed with another grim-dark future dystopian tale. Instead, Square Enix took its time, creating a game with a distinctly different look, feel, and tone than its predecessor. A distinct graphical upgrade over Final Fantasy VII (except perhaps for the moment where Squall is ‘the best looking guy here‘), the world in Final Fantasy VIII is colourful and lively. Squall and friends train to be mercenaries in a giant domed garden, a kind of flying botanical Hogwarts. The world is a place of magic and wonder, but also of cities, cars and ’90s fashion, more of an alternate-history present than future setting.

The dichotomy continues in the game’s plot. Final Fantasy VIII begins as a very grounded tale, showing the adventures of an average guy as he ventures out into the world after graduating from mercenary school, making friends and falling in love with the mysterious Rinoa. By the end of the game, we have had events of mass amnesia, sorceresses compressing into themselves, and a quick trip to outer-space for good measure. The story is completely insane, and perhaps the reason a lot of gamers dislike this entry in the Final Fantasy series. While I agree the plot has some weaknesses, in particular lacking a villain as iconic as Kefka from VI or Sephiroth from VII, the story is also unlike anything I have played in an RPG before or since—it is a strange tale, but also touching, containing the best developed romance in the Final Fantasy series. Squall starts out emotionally-constipated and gloomy, as all ’90s protagonists had to be, but as he spends time with Rinoa he slowly opens up to become a more fleshed-out character. Rinoa is also my favourite female lead in the series, a friendly but determined woman with a strong moral compass and a dog she can launch at enemies.

Final Fantasy VIII gameplay screenshot 3

Combat was completely revamped in Final Fantasy VIII, a bunch of new mechanics overlaying the traditional turn-based system. Equipment upgrades are a thing of the past, with improvement of statistics achieved with magic instead. Guardian Forces, the summonable creatures of this title, act a bit like Pokémon, with the ability to level up and learn new skills. Most importantly is their ability to sap magic from enemies for the player to use for their own purposes, ‘junctioning’ it to different stats like attack or health points. The interface is a little fiddly, but the system is really interesting, and I enjoyed rearranging and optimising my magic and monsters to get the best combination; it hits just the right balance of injecting new gameplay elements without changing the system entirely.

Final Fantasy VIII is the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. The game varies wildly in tone, lacks a strong villain, and is overstuffed with ideas, but I love it all the same. VIII delivered on that mysterious promise made so many years ago, and I look forward to experiencing it all over again in the upcoming remaster.

Final Fantasy X, by Mitchell Akhurst

What an odd place to be for a new-gen addition to the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy X‘s immediate predecessor was sort of a last hurrah for the Hironobu Sakaguchi Final Fantasies. IX had been a return to cute characters and medieval magic, marketed with the tagline “the Crystal comes back,” after two entries that explored cyberpunk and timey-wimey romance, respectively.

But Final Fantasy X was not a project without the old guard. Rather, this was Sakaguchi’s final game, not IX, and so works as the capstone of all that came before—while also pointing to the franchise’s jumbled and divisive future. I love Final Fantasy X for being this nexus of change; mixing the science-fantasy, iconoclastic vibe of VII with the sweeping romance of VIII and the inspiration of various other Square games of the late 1990s.

As a technological showcase for the PlayStation 2, X leaped forward in the cinematic ambition that had driven the entire series since the original Final Fantasy: making use of voice acting for the first time, comparatively complex cutscenes, and 3D backgrounds that the camera could duck and weave through as players traversed the world.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy X lacks the overworld map that helped make the worlds in previous entries feel so massive; and the game also scrapped the Active Time Battle (ATB) system that defined Final Fantasy since the SNES, instead opting for fully turn-based combat. These big changes result in a game that feels like it could be another series entirely, if mainstays such as chocobos, cactuars, and airship pilot Cid were removed.

In and of itself, though, Final Fantasy X is fundamentally a fantastic fantasy yarn, with rich thematic material, lovable characters, a beautiful Southeast Asian/Polynesian inspired universe, and magnificent monster designs that hold up even better than their PlayStation counterparts. For young Mitchell, this holistic approach to an epic, entertaining adventure is what drew me to the entire Final Fantasy series.

The subsequent departure of Sakaguchi from Square made X the last of a particular breed in the Final Fantasy franchise. Following X, both XI and XIV have attempted to continue the Final Fantasy legacy with gusto, but as online-only multiplayer games they play nothing like the other entries. XII and XV have neither turn-based battles nor the holistic epicness of Final Fantasies past. 

XII is a quite good, if compromised, Yasumi Matsuno game (of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story), and XV is a divisive, permanently unfinished Hajime Tabata game (of Crisis Core and Final Fantasy Type-0). Meanwhile, the one actual successor to Final Fantasy X emerged from a troubled development to permanently break the Final Fantasy fanbase—but Damien speaks for Final Fantasy XIII below.

Final Fantasy XII gameplay screenshot 1

Final Fantasy XII, by Daniel Pereira

Final Fantasy XII will always hold a special place in my heart because of the unique feeling it presents while playing. Most titles prior presented the protagonist as either the leader of the merry band of misfits, or someone who has risen in ranks due to the respect gained along the way. Final Fantasy XII takes this concept and turns it on its head. Despite featuring Vaan as a poster boy in most marketing material, Final Fantasy XII contains a story that features no main protagonist of its six party members, even if Vaan’s perspective is sometimes taken. With the game’s combat and exploration seamlessly blended together, players can choose their own front man as they play through the story. If one finds Vaan to be too obnoxious, they can sideline him the entire time, with him only making an appearance during cutscenes and in cities.

Something is unique about Final Fantasy’s consistency involving a band of rogues travelling together and fighting for freedom, and Final Fantasy XII is no different. Similarities can easily be drawn between the stories of Final Fantasy XII and Star Wars: A New Hope. Although they are not exactly the same, narrative beats can be linked between the two: Vaan can be likened to Luke Skywalker as both are commoners who dream of one day becoming a pilot; Balthier and Fran are clearly representations of Han Solo and Chewbacca; and Ashe holds some resemblance to Leia. Even the story holds some resemblance with the Empire taking control of the land and the Judges taking on its enforcer roles.

What also contributes to the uniqueness of Final Fantasy XII is how it asked audiences to interact with its characters and combat. Further adapting on Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid Final Fantasy XII’s job system sees players assign key jobs/roles to characters that will serve as their permanent position throughout the game. This system allowed for unique team composition as only three characters can be playable at a time. Players who choose to make Balthier a Machinist or a White Mage will have a very different experience to those who cast him as an Uhlan or Bushi.

All of these archetypes compliment the combat of Final Fantasy XII which saw a departure of traditional turn-based combat known to all mainline Final Fantasy’s before it in favor of a modified engine that Final Fantasy XI Online was built on. Upon first playthrough, players will immediately notice the difference in combat, as it emphasizes real time mechanics and mobility along the battlefield. By providing players with more freedom and movability in combat, Final Fantasy XII solidified itself as the turning point in the series’s modernization of gameplay and style. Although this playstyle does not seem revolutionary to us in 2019, Final Fantasy XII took risks by taking an engine that was built for online play and turning into a single-player only RPG.

Final Fantasy XIII gameplay screenshot 1

Final Fantasy XIII, by Damien Lawardorn

Confession: Final Fantasy XIII is the only mainline franchise entry that I have played to completion. I have dabbled in others, but time and circumstances have prevented me from truly embracing them.

As such, the duty falls to me to discuss—perhaps even defend—the indefensible, the bastard child, the disappointment.

High expectations rode upon the release of Final Fantasy XIII. Its pre-release footage rewrote what real-time gameplay could look like in 2010, and Square Enix pushed it hard. Once upon a time, the company planned for the game to be the foundation stone of a new subfranchise, Fabula Nova Crystallis.

However, individual entries were plagued with delays and development issues and, though the looks links between themes and lore persisted amongst the final products (XIII, Type-0, Agito, XV), Fabula Nova Crystallis was largely forgotten.

Most of those problems came later, though.

In the beginning, there was Lightning. Later to become a deity, she began life as a soldier, a stoic Cloud Strife-like figure who found herself bound to a task decreed by the gods. Alongside a diverse group of similarly cursed characters, she set out to discover and fulfil her destiny. While the lore was too dense to make a whole lot of sense (especially when the direct sequels expanded upon it), the party dialogue was sometimes brilliant in the way it showed how different people react to the same situation.

Lightning accepted her fate. Others rebelled. The game was always at its best when it was at its most human.

For many critics and fans, though, that was not enough. The quality on display might have been undeniable, but innumerable objections were raised about the structure. Final Fantasy XIII came in the midst of a paradigm shift in the RPG genre. Developers such as BioWare, Bethesda Game Studios, and FromSoftware were leading that segment of the gaming industry forward through open or interconnected worlds, high player agency, and deep mechanics.

Square Enix instead doubled down on narrative. The result was, for the most part, a hyperlinear experience. The game funnelled players down one beautifully rendered corridor after another, all in service of moving the story forward with as little friction as possible. The problem was that the combat was too anaemic to support the style.

The much-vaunted ATB returned, but players could control only the leading party member. Strategy came from the Paradigm system that allowed characters to change their roles and tactics, but, essentially, combat boiled down—even more so than in other entries—to “press X to win.” For all its faults, the system did go on to inform the more robust and engaging battle systems in XIII-2 and Lightning Returns, even though they each had flaws of their own.

Final Fantasy XIII gameplay screenshot 4

That Final Fantasy XIII opened up towards the end went a way towards washing the foul taste out of the mouths of many. Once Lightning and her crew trade the floating microplanet of Cocoon for the verdant fields of Gran Pulse, things changed. The world may have been void of humans, but it was rife with high-level enemies and gorgeous vistas that justified the previous twenty hours of slogging. The freedom was not to last; as the party raced towards its fate, the jaws of linearity tightened. By then, this constriction hardly mattered. If you had gotten that far, you were going to see the adventure through to its conclusion.

Was it all worth it in the end? Was the idea of ordinary people overcoming the odds and the realisation that hope really does spring eternal worth all the problems that plagued Final Fantasy XIII? I think so. As a series amateur, my view may not account for much, and, sure, XIII failed to do anything truly new with the franchise. If anything, the game was an out-of-touch regression in many ways.

But sometimes, you need to go backwards to go forwards. The mistakes of Final Fantasy XIII gave Square Enix the wherewithal to improve in its sequels and the courage to try something totally different for XV. And maybe, just maybe, something of those lessons have carried forward and helped to shape the Final Fantasy VII Remake into the new classic that it promises to be.

The Future

The next event release in Square Enix’s flagship series is Final Fantasy VII Remake, that covers not the entire original game but the first story arc set in the dystopian city of Midgar. A remake may not be as exciting as a brand new entry, but we still eagerly await the game with the same hopes as this year’s Resident Evil 2 remake. Perhaps after that, Final Fantasy XVI can come along and really shake up the series (maybe even be good enough to appear on a 50 Favourite Games list).

In the meantime, thank you so much for joining us on our almost year-long journey into our favourite single-player games of all time! You can check out the full, completed list here.

What are your thoughts on our list? Any changes that you would have made? Be sure to let us know in our community Discord channel, and follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

OnlySP Staff
Single-player games coverage. Every day.

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