Monday, 8 March 2010

Final Fantasy: A Retrospective

With the imminent UK release of Final Fantasy XIII looming just around the corner, I thought I’d share my opinions on the Final Fantasy series as a whole (well, from VII onwards anyway. I haven’t finished V or VI yet, though I own both, and I can’t remember much of II III and IV. I may do another article on the first six games some other time, once I’ve had chance to complete them all again). Just a friendly warning before we get started. As I hear often from Jo and Sneeze, I can probably be called a fanboy of the Final Fantasy series. Due to this, this article will probably be a few pages of me heaping praise upon Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu and everything else Final Fantasy related. If you don’t agree with my views, then, well, that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to that (I probably have similar views of games you’re fond of *cough*Mario*cough*). Anyway, now that you’ve been fairly warned, on with the show.

My Final Fantasy experience started in the late ‘90s, probably in ’97 or ’98, when I bought an edition of PowerStation magazine and received a small handheld Final Fantasy VII guidebook. I liked the look of the game (I seem to remember being enthralled by the concept of a World Map you could travel around freely) and decided to get a copy for myself. This was in the days when Final Fantasy VII was the latest big PlayStation release, hadn’t gone Platinum, and you couldn’t find copies floating around on eBay for over £50. Typically, I’ve just checked eBay now, to ensure my facts are correct, and the highest price I’ve seen for VII or VIII is around £30 on a Buy It Now, probably just to spite me or something, or as Sneeze just pointed out due to the recent PSN releases, but I swear I’ve seen eBay lists before where the lowest price I’ve found is £50. Anyway I got the game and started playing, and I fell in love with the experience within about the first hour of gameplay. This was the very first RPG I’d ever played (the PlayStation was my first serious gaming console, since I’m a child of the ‘90s. I did have an Amiga 3000, but I wasn’t such an avid gamer back then, being as I was about 3-4 years old), and there were so many new systems I’d never seen before, such as experience and levelling up, buying new items and equipment from shops and stat-based combat systems. I absolutely loved it. I must have played it through at least 4-5 times before VIII came out.

VIII was released in 1999 and I rushed out to get it instantly. My first reaction was utter shock and disappointment. Where were Cloud and co.? Where was the Highwind and Midgar? Don’t forget, my introduction to Final Fantasy had come with Final Fantasy VII, and at this point I had absolutely no idea about the non-sequential nature of the series. In hindsight, maybe it might have seemed a bit odd to me that I was thrown in at the beginning of a story in the seventh instalment of the series, but I was about 9 years old, and as we all know hindsight offers 20/20 vision. Being a child who didn’t acclimatise to change very well, I wasn’t too keen in the systems in VIII either, since it was so shockingly different from VII. I dutifully played the game through, even though I was a little disappointed, and found the experience significantly harder than I did with VII. Nevertheless I finished it and relegated it to my shelf before putting VII back in the disc drive and grinning like a loon.

2001 brought with it Final Fantasy IX. This time I was a little more prepared for the experience, since I had learnt a great deal from VIII. It took me a little longer to get into IX, probably about 5-6 hours of gameplay, but once I got to know the characters and the story I was feeling that familiar Final Fantasy thrill. Admittedly Tetra Master left me a little disappointed, as in my honest opinion Tetra Master does not compare in the slightest to Triple Triad, but I enjoyed the game nevertheless and was very proud that I could now truly call myself a Final Fantasy fan, since I owned and had completed all 3 PlayStation games.

In 2002, the release of Final Fantasy X completely snuck up and blindsided me. I had just returned from a holiday (in Rhodes, Greece I seem to recall) and went down to Meadowhall shopping centre with my parents to change my leftover cash back into pound sterling. While walking past GAME, I noticed a large sign in the window, proudly declaring the recent release of Final Fantasy X. I was gobsmacked, I hadn’t even realised Final Fantasy X was in the works. Luckily it was my birthday earlier that month, and I managed to appeal to my parents’ better natures and convinced them to buy me a PS2 (I had kind of ignored the big black monolith of a new console, as it appeared to me at that point, up until then. Imagine if I could have seen the PS3 at that point...I dread to think what the PS4 is gonna look like.) I immediately obtained a copy of Final Fantasy X and started playing it immediately. It was like playing VII all over again. I was hooked within the first hour of gameplay, and played it all the way through to the end. Admittedly I got kinda stuck near the end of the game, since I had neglected to grind and had to spend a good 10 hours doing so in order to progress. Final Fantasy X immediately became my newest favourite of the series, not in the least because of Blitzball (once I figured out how to play it that is, on my second playthrough when I actually managed to obtain the Jecht Shot early in the game).

When the news reached me that there was an actual sequel to Final Fantasy X planned, I nearly fainted from excitement. This was what I’d been hoping for since about ‘97/’98 when I first played VII, a continuation of one of the brilliant storylines. I immediately pre-ordered a copy online (being well versed in the use of the internet by this point) and received the game a day before its UK release (no, not from play.com, from gameplay.co.uk). I got into it immediately and loved it, especially the new dressphere system, since I’m a big fan of job systems in games (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance anyone?) The game received somewhat negative publicity I seem to recall, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless, and thought the story was an excellent continuation of the story of X.

I’ve never played Final Fantasy XI, since, as anyone who has read my article about EVE Online will know, I’ve had plenty of other MMOs to be getting on with. I do own a boxed copy of the game for PC though, which I saw in GAME for £5, and since I had £2.50 on my reward card at the time, I couldn’t resist the opportunity of owning every numbered Final Fantasy game. Maybe Jo and Sneeze are right...

In 2007, with the release of Final Fantasy XII coming closer, I pre-ordered a collector’s edition copy of the game at GAME (or rather my mum did for me). I collected it and brought it home, but that’s where my OCD side kicked in a little. I’ve always had an ambition to play all the main number series of Final Fantasy games back to back in order one day (I consider X-2 to be part of the main sequence, since it continues directly from X, and except XI from the sequence since its online), and I decided that XII was the perfect time to try this. Unfortunately I never got further than IV... The result of this was I never got around to playing XII until recently. I started it once, and got through some of the start of the game, the tutorial part, but then gave in and went back to Final Fantasy, submitting to my OCD side. My most recent attempt to play them all in order ended in disaster this February. I played Final Fantasy through, and started playing Final Fantasy II. I’m a big grinder these days, and I spent about 25 game hours building up my characters’ stats, spells and skills, since the system in II allows this right from the start of the game. I then proceeded to play the game. Unfortunately, I then found that the Final Fantasy Origins version of II that I have has compatibility issues with the PS3, on which I now play PSX and PS2 games, that stops you progressing through the main story. So that was ~30 hours down the toilet. Heed my warning. Always check compatibility issues of old games with the PS3 before you start grinding. It will save you many headaches.

Anyway, after that fiasco, and with the release of Final Fantasy XIII only about a month away, I decided it was at last time to firmly sit on my little OCD demon to stop him complaining and play XII. I finished it this Saturday, the 6th of March, with all 6 characters at level 99 and most of the side quests done. I’d have liked to have finished all the side quests, but I wanted to finish XII before I play XIII (more OCD demons) and I want to play XIII tomorrow when I get it (the first time I will have actually played a Final Fantasy game on its release date), so I decided to finish the game early, then go back later to 100% it. I thoroughly enjoyed XII, even though it seems to be regarded as the weakest of the series. I even quite like the new combat system, even though I am a fan of both the ATB system in VII, VIII, IX and X-2 and the turn based system in X, which seems to be the point of the game that most people complain about. I especially found the connections between the characters to be the best yet. For instance Vaan speaks to Fran, Penelo speaks to Basch, Ashe speaks to Balthier, Fran speaks to Penelo, Basch speaks to Balthier and so on. They all seem to have conversations, which in my opinion develops the characters well and makes you feel more attached to them (but maybe that’s just me), whereas most of the conversations in other Final Fantasy games are between the main character and the other characters (like in VII, most of the characters speak mainly to Cloud, and in X the conversations are usually between Tidus or Yuna and one of the other characters. Obviously there are exceptions, but it just seems to happen more often in XII).

So, which is my favourite Final Fantasy game overall? I said earlier that I relegated VIII to the shelf after playing it the first time, but after playing it a few more times when I was older (and perhaps wiser) than the first time through, I’d have to say that VIII is probably my join favourite along with X (I know that’s cheating, giving two answers, but I really can’t pick between these two, for many reasons such as the development system, typical experience and levels with the junction system, and the sphere grid, the main mini-games, Triple Triad and Blitzball, and the overall stories, which I won’t spoil here). I know VII is widely considered the best Final Fantasy, but I would probably put XII as my second, then VII , then X-2, then IX. In case you didn’t catch that, here they are again in a more logical fashion:
1. VIII and X
2. XII
3. VII
4. X-2
5. IX
All 6 of those games probably rank in my top 20 games ever mind, but that’s probably the order I’d put them in by themselves.

Anyway, once again this article has gone on far longer than I anticipated (I’m on my fourth page in Microsoft Word here) so I think it’s about time I wrapped this up. There have been a lot of relatively bad reviews of Final Fantasy XIII so far, but I’m fairly sure I’ll still enjoy the game, as will many of the other fans out there (even if Square Enix did make the god-awful decision of changing the original song to a Leona Lewis song that makes my ears bleed every time I hear it). Expect my first impressions of the game in a few days’ time. Once again thanks for reading (no kitty picture this time), and I look forward to sharing more fanboyism with you in the future.

2 comments:

radiantdreamer said...

hard to believe that after it all, FFVIII was your favorite. For me, it was my least favorite. I couldn't stand the battle system, the draw magic, and the convoluted (and easily breakable) customization/upgrade system.

I broke the game very early on, and by the time I went for my first SeeD mission, I already had over 5000hp, and the second or third best weapons in the game, and I was only a silly level 10.

The story was also nonsensical after disc 1. It was a romantic fantasy love story that simply wasn't possible given the circumstances of what happened early in the game.

Actually, check this out - you may be surprised: http://squallsdead.com

I enjoyed X-2 way more than X. The pilgrimage part was alright, and the characters were fairly fleshed out compared to most other Final Fantasy games, but I still couldn't help but notice the archetypes prevalent through the entire Final Fantasy franchise.

Let's list them:

Angsty Main Character - Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus

Weak Love Interest Healer - Aeris, Rinoa, Garnet, Yuna

Moe adolescent - Yuffie, Selphie, Eiko, Rikku

Dumb brute - Barret, Zell, Steiner, Wakka

Mysterious Caretaker - Vincent, Quistis, Freya, Lulu

Token Beast - Red XIII, Quistis, Kimahri

There are other parallels to list, and they even go as far back as FFII, but I suppose you get the point.

FFXII sort of breaks this, which is why I liked it more.

I'm glad that even though you were introduced late into the series, you are taking the effort to play the older ones. My advice though is not to play the PSX versions of the Final Fantasy remakes. They are the weakest ports ever. You may want to get Final Fantasy I&II for GBA, Final Fantasy III for DS, and Final Fantasy IV for DS. I can't recommend V and VI for GBA though. There were some slowdown issues and such that dampen the enjoyment of the games. However, I believe they are being remade for DS, which I'm looking forward to!

Leonfei said...

@radiantdreamer

I know what you mean about VIII, the story is all over the place and doesn't seem to know whether it's coming or going most of the time (especially on disc 3-4 :P), but the breakable battle and customisation system was something I really like about the game. I love being able to overpower myself through grinding (i.e. drawing 100 of every magic outside Balamb before Ifrit and junctioning it :P), because I see it as a 'legal' way of getting the sort of power that cheating would let you get (I never cheat anymore, I gave up on that about 8 years ago, but I think if I've put the work in to be over-powered why shouldn't I enjoy that same feeling of power? :P)

You know, its odd that you should say that about the older games, because I was just thinking yesterday morning that I should probably try and get hold of some of the other copies of them. I have III for the DS, but I, II, IV, V and VI are all the PSX remakes. I'll definitely keep an eye out for them now, especially since II has decided it doesn't like the PS3...Along which line I'll also mention that I'll probably be getting the PSN version of VIII, since the PS3 doesn't like the 4th disc of the platinum copy I have (my original disappeared years ago unfortunately =(...)

I see what you mean about the stereotypes as well. Like I said in my comment on your blog I don't often look deeper than face value of a game, so I don't usually notice these things anyway. Mind, I have noticed one theme: the 3 main female party member one:
VII: Aeris/th, Yuffie, Tifa
VIII: Quistis, Selphie, Rinoa
IX: Freya, Eiko, Dagger
X: Lulu, Rikku, Yuna,
X-2: Yuna, Rikku, Paine (obviously:P)
XII: Penelo, Fran, Ashe
I'll be disappointed if I ever see a game with more or less than 3 female party members now, since it'll feel like they're breaking with tradition :P