Final Fantasy, perhaps the most popular Japanese RPG video game series, has been on my mind lately. Part of that is due to the upcoming Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds concert tour stop in Montreal on February 11, 2017, which I hope to go to. However, what really rekindled my interest were the releases of some of the games on PC via Steam last spring, namely FFIX and FFX & X-2. I ended up purchasing both and also FFVI during Steam’s Christmas sale. I spent some time in December and January playing them.
My JRPG experience isn’t very extensive. During the 16-bit era, I had a Sega Genesis, which didn’t have many RPG games (like the SNES did) but I did rent Phantasy Star IV. Despite not knowing what the heck to do (the rental copy didn’t have the instruction manual) I was actually very enthralled with it. I ended up dying in some dungeon all the time because I didn’t know how to heal myself. Before this game, I had zero interest in RPGs but it would be a while before I would play another one.
When I got a Playstation I did eventually buy Final Fantasy VII. If I had never played Phantasy Star IV, I don’t think I would’ve bothered with this game even though if it was a big deal back then. I ended up enjoying the game and it was the first JRPG I beat. I didn’t get FFVIII since reviews weren’t particularly positive about the gameplay at the time. I would return to the franchise with Final Fantasy IX, which I enjoyed even more than VII. Another game I played on PS1 was Chrono Cross. I wasn’t a fan of the story and convoluted history although it has one twist that also affects the gameplay. The best thing about Chrono Cross is its music. It’s one of my favorite video game soundtracks ever.
When I got a second hand PS2 very late into its lifespan, I also got a copy of FFX-2 with it but never got around to looking for a copy of FFX. I do recall when FFX was first shown, it was game I wanted to play. Despite not playing X or knowing much about it, I still enjoyed the story of X-2, flaws and all. Surprisingly, I actually liked the romantic plot line but the tone of the game can be pretty cheesy at times.
Other PC releases of JRPG games I have played were Valkyria Chronicles, Grandia II and FFIV (Steam release based on the 3DS version). I really liked Valkyria Chronicles. It had a strong story and surprisingly engaging yet unconventional strategy gameplay. Grandia II was enjoyable with a more action oriented battle system and the ability to actually engage or avoid enemy encounters. FFIV was not bad but not especially memorable for me but it did feel like a typical FF game.
Now, I’m going to talk about FFVI, FFIX and FFX, the most recent entries I’ve played.
Final Fantasy IX
FFIX was pretty much a joy a to return to and the ability to turn off random battles was great although I think the random battle encounter rate is fine. I appreciated the remastered FMVs and the ability to skip them (although I never did). I was reminded how much of the artistic direction I liked. The music and varied locales made me I wish I could visit some of the places in real life. The different towns like Alexandria, Linblum, Cleyra and Treno feel very lively and are different from each other. There are more fantastical areas like Terra and the final dungeon, Memoria, is really surreal. The world building was impressive in this game.
The story is pretty good and I like how the characters grow and develop over the course of the game. Most of the characters drive the story at different points. Vivi and Freya are my favorites although Freya’s story essentially ends after Cleyra. It would have been nice to at least have an optional side quest with her that involved her past lover. Vivi’s questioning of his existence and mortality as well as coming to terms with his original purpose of destruction is really compelling. Other characters like Eiko, Zidane and Dagger have good moments and arcs. Eiko is particularly funny and the past history between her and Dagger unfolds nicely. Steiner is perhaps played a bit too much for laughs and doesn’t really change much. His romance is a bit shoehorned but still fun to watch. Like others have mentioned, it would’ve been nice to have Beatrix as a permanent member of the party. There are serious moments but also some pretty funny ones too, often due to interaction between the characters. Amarant and Quina are pretty one dimensional with the latter being the most annoying but at least their presence is kept to a minimum.
In terms of gameplay I liked the fixed classes that characters had with some skills in common. It was a solid system but perhaps lacked innovation to make it stand out. I consider this game an ideal starting point for a person who has never played a JRPG.
Final Fantasy VI
FFVI was the next one I played due to it being claimed as the best FF game or even the best JRPG of all time by vocal internet fans. I can see why it might be someone’s favorite but to me it’s certainly not the best game ever or even the best FF game by today’s standards. It mostly felt like a chore to play through large parts of the game. The story or the narrative is nothing special by today’s standards either. It’s simple, fight the evil empire stuff.
There are some intriguing characters but they often leave and rejoin at different points in the story so you don’t really get attached to any of them. As you progress through the story, some characters actually have little or quickly diminishing influence on the story. Characters like Locke, Saban, Edgar and Cyan who seem important at the beginning don’t really serve any significant role in pushing the story after reuniting in Narshe. Later in the game you’re only forced to actually recruit one out of the four before fighting Kefka for the final time. Terra and Celes are the main characters that drive the story but Terra is optional to re-recruit. Gau, Strago and Relm could’ve been removed with little to no effect on the story. Setzer is a plot device for his airship essentially. Shadow is also mostly a plot device who barely appears at all.
This leads to another issue. The characters are mostly all side characters and thus don’t really get much development or growth during the game. Some of them have interesting backgrounds but I’d hardly call them super deep and in many cases some scenes are miss-able if you don’t have so and so in your party at a certain time or placed in optional side quests.
The game is also praised for the villain, Kefka, winning at some point but he does so by moving some statues, which seems awfully convenient. There are a couple of memorable moments like Kefka’s victory and the opera scene. The opera scene and kidnapping are also pretty contrived. These pivotal events in the story are essentially based on coincidence. The characters and story have a lot of potential but I mostly found it to be unfulfilled or at least over-hyped.
For me the weakest part of this game is the world itself, which is dull. Towns and castles look similar to each other and aren’t very interesting. Most locations have nothing that makes them stand out. A significant portion of the beginning of the game is spent in boring caves. I do like the music in the game at least. I can definitely see how it influenced later games in the FF series.
The gameplay is fine but the random battle encounter rate is absurdly high, which quickly becomes annoying when all you want to do is just walk to the next location. Thankfully, the Steam version has an auto battle feature. The fact that all characters can learn all magic reduces their gameplay uniqueness.
Final Fantasy X
FFX was visually stunning back when it was released and manages to look pretty good today with its remastered graphics. The world of Spira has some really beautiful and magical looking locales. It’s shift to a more Southeast Asian inspired setting was a nice change from previous games. I was, however, disappointed that we never really got to see modern Zanarkand. The loss of the world map is unfortunate but it didn’t severely hamper my experience since I hate getting lost and wandering around aimlessly. However, many of the different locations are way too linear in their layout.
The story touches on some more sophisticated themes involving religion and discrimination. The characters are interesting and diverse. Auron even if he’s a bit stereotypical ends up being pretty interesting and multi-layered as his backstory and motivation are revealed. He definitely has a strong story arc. Wakka and Lulu have their history of course although I would say Lulu doesn’t really change or develop much over the course of the game. She is more like an encyclopedia who gives Tidus info about the world of Spira. Rikku is a fun character although I wish she was reintroduced earlier into the game and with less voyeuristic camera angles scanning her entire body. Kimahri is Kimahri.
Tidus and Yuna go through pretty emotional arcs over the course of the game. Tidus can be a bit annoying but he acts as a good foil to the rest of the cast as the outsider who questions certain things. I even found his hate for his father and the way it was handled to be effective. Even though I found the romance too conveniently set up, I have to say the scene between Tidus & Yuna at Lake Macalania and then the ending scene between them never fail to elicit an emotional reaction from me. It’s sad even if it comes as a result of a weird explanation of Tidus’ background. Some of the voice acting is hokey but it has memorable characters.
There were some interesting changes to the gameplay that streamlined certain aspects. For example, there are no tents and you automatically get all HP & MP restored when interacting with a save sphere. Status effects in battle don’t persist after the battle is over. KOed members will come back with an HP of 1 after a battle is finished. Being limited to three party members in battles felt like a step backwards but that was somewhat remedied by being able to freely switch between members. Learning abilities via the sphere grid was also an interesting idea but maybe could’ve been better executed with more branch choices.
I’m glad I finally got the chance to play this game. I found it to be a worthy and enjoyable experience. It’s not as much of a departure from the Final Fantasy style as I originally thought it would be but it is fairly different than other games.
Overall, out of the FF games that I’ve played, IX remains my favorite in the FF series. The FF games don’t have the best stories ever but they have memorable characters and creative worlds that immerse you into their lore and mysteries, no matter how weird some aspects may be. Can’t say I have much interest in more recent FF entries including XV but I definitely want to see how the FFVII remake turns out. Although I think the FFVI has the potential to benefit way more from a remake. It has some good characters and the world might be more interesting with better graphics to convey it.