Tying Up Loose Ends: Final Fantasy Countdown

Yeah, so I had this “brilliant” idea a few months back that pretty much blew up in my face.  As usual when I start writing something, it ends up as a much bigger project than I originally planned.  Excuses aside though, I hate leaving loose ends open.  Now, no I don’t have the full detailed posts finish for my little Final Fantasy countdown and honestly (and I’m not sure when I’ll complete them…), but I figured I could post the rest of my list and give some brief descriptions.

Why so brief? Well, football season starts this weekend and the Texas Rangers look poised for their first playoff run since 1999.  I might be a huge gaming nerd, but I’m an even bigger sports nerd.  I’m the most active on this site during football season and I love writing about ND Football more than anything (and most of my readers it seems).  So that’s where my focus will be.

Anyways, enough talking, here’s the remaining list.

6. Final Fantasy XII

One of the more adventurous entries in the series.  Square-Enix turned the usual battle system completely on its head and introduced the Gambit system and Active Dimension Battle, allowing for programmable AI control as well as full positioning control of the party in seamless battle.  The system was met with mixed reviews that spanned every part of the opinion spectrum.  Personally, I liked the system a lot, but wished the Gambit system had been just a bit more robust in its AI programming (blame it on the computer nerd in me).

As for the characters and story, it too took a different direction than the rest of the series.  The “main character”, Vaan, really had very little to do with the story.  He is merely telling the story of Ashe and the war she has been thrust in the middle of from his point of view.  Unlike other entries in the series, it is also hard to say who the “bad guy” is.  Although the main antagonist is Vayne, a group of god-like beings, the Occuria, are also revealed to be pulling the strings of humanity throughout history, including Ashe.  Thanks to a “hertic” Occuria, Venat, Vayne is able to obtain the power to fight against the Occuria’s plans; however, the cost of doing so would be a massive war the likes of which the world has never seen.  Eventually, Ashe and company find their own way to stop Vayne, stopping the Occuria’s control of man as well as a massive war.  My general opinion of the story was that it was decent, but short.  I liked that it was something different; however, I felt as if there were several other arcs that could’ve been discovered.

The game also featured a group of side-quests called Hunts that allowed for the player to fight some of the toughest monsters the game had to offer.  This system was a game within the game that unfortunately not too many players fully went into (myself included).  While a great system, the short story does not quite lend itself to any real desire of exploring these fights other to say you did it.

In the end, the game had some absolutely fantastic elements to it; however, the story really brought it down for me.  It wasn’t until the very end until I really felt like I got into it and for me, Final Fantasy games are primary story driven.  That is the main reason this game got drug down on this list.

5. Final Fantasy V

While the story wasn’t anything too special, it was far from horrible.  There were plenty of twists throughout that kept me very engaged in the game.  However, this game will be forever lauded for taking the job system of Final Fantasy III and damn near perfecting it.  Like Final Fantasy III, the player could always change jobs whenever they wished; however, abilities from jobs could be mixed and matched.

This concept alone still makes Final Fantasy V a joy to play and allows for players to take completely different approaches on multiple playthroughs as well as multiple different strategies on how to approach the game.  The system was also beyond simple to grasp, offering very little learning curve.  Not only that, the job system continues to blossom throughout the game, with more jobs unlocking throughout the story (including “hidden” jobs unlocked in side-quests).

With this revamped job system so well woven into a pretty decent story, Final Fantasy V stands the test of time and still stands out as one of the very best in the Final Fantasy series.

4. Final Fantasy VII

This game marked the birth of the “next-gen” or “modern” Final Fantasy game.  Despite this game often being slammed for honestly having nothing more than “rabid fanboys” screaming its praises, Final Fantasy VII took the Final Fantasy series to another level.

Of course, the biggest of these changes was largely visual.  Fans of the series were wowed by the CGI sequences used to tell the story.  The expansive city of Midgar, in which the game’s opening arc occurs, is only but part of a far larger world.  Weapons like Cloud’s massive Buster Sword, Barret’s machine gun arm, and Sephorith’s ridiculously long katana served as quite the eye-popping armament for the game’s cast.

The story itself also is one of my favorites.  Initially, the main protagonist Cloud is a mercenary hired by the small environmental group AVALANCE to help strike a blow to the Shinra Electric Company by blowing up one of their Mako reactors.  Mako, Shinra’s electric invention has caused the city of Midgar to prosper greatly, but the AVALANCE group sees the truth behind the new-found electrical source–it is killing the very life of the Planet itself.

As the game goes on, it becomes clear Shinra had their hands in a few other questionable technological practices.  Their elite fighting force, SOLDIER, were infused directly with Mako, and in some cases, subject to genetic experiments.  And thanks to finding the remains of an ancient being known as Jenova, they were able to create soldiers whose abilities were practically super-human.  Although this little practice eventually creates the main-antagonist, Sephorith, who, in events before the game, snaps once he finds out about the horrible experiments that created him and sought to destroy life on the planet with a meteor.  He believe if he placed himself at the center of this massive strike, the Lifestream, the true source of Mako energy, would attempt to heal the Planet and he would be able to merge with this power to become a god.

The combination of an iconic villain,  amazing graphics, some of the most memorable music in the series, actually killing off one of the main characters in the game (SPOILER: ARIES DIES), and a story that has spawned three additional games and a full-length movie help to place this as one of the best Final Fantasy in the series.  Several other additions such as the optional “Weapon” super-bosses, the virtual playground that was the Gold Saucer, and the Limit Break system helped to set this game apart as well.  Even the materia system was a simple, yet effective way to customize each character in a different fashion.

3. Final Fantasy X

If Final Fantasy VII defined the “modern” Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy X defined what a “next-gen” Final Fantasy should be.  With yet another graphical quality jump, Final Fantasy X was also the first Final Fantasy to feature full voice-over.  For the most part, the voice-overs were pretty good for a first attempt, even if it did create on of the most awkward scenes ever.

Final Fantasy X also took a big risk with its battle system.  The now traditional Active Time Battle reverted to a completely turn based battle, even to the point of being able to see the order of who would attack when (including enemies).  On top of that, the player was free to swap members in and out of the party at will in the middle of battle.  Much to my surprise, this system worked flawlessly and actually made me use more of the cast in battle than I usually ever do in a Final Fantasy game.

The story as well was very well done as well, despite the games major drawback of having one of the most annoying main characters ever (seriously, Tidus. Is. AWFUL.).  Tidus is trust into a strange world and seemingly is tossed back in time, going from being a blitzball superstar in the technology advanced Zanarkand, to being in a small beach village without a single machine in sight.  He finds himself in the middle of an epic struggle between a large monstrous entity known as Sin and the rest of the people of the world, Spira.  He learns that this struggle has gone on for several centuries, and the summoners of the land train and hope to defeat Sin to give the people of Spira a 20 year “Calm”.  However, this Calm is temporary as Sin returns yet again after each 20 year period.  Not only that, the defeat of Sin means a summoner must call their “Final Aeon” which, in turn, takes their life.

As the story progresses, Tidus falls in love with the summoner seemingly destined to bring about the next calm, Yuna.  Tidus not understanding the ways of this strange world tries to figure out a way in which he can save her, as well as returning home to Zanarkand, whom everyone keeps trying to tell him has long since been a wasteland.  The game’s climax hits once the party finally arrives at Zanarkand.  Tidus learns it was indeed destoryed, learning that he hasn’t been thrown back into the past, but rather the future.  Later on, he finds out the Zanarkand he knows was nothing more than a dream of the Fayth whom remembered the old days.

The surprises don’t end there.  Although Tidus knew for some time, thanks to another party member Auron, that Sin was his own hated father, Jecht, is was never clear how this happened.  As Yuna reaches the end of her pilgrimage, all is revealed.  She must choose someone to become her Final Aeon to destroy Sin; however, doing so would cause that person to become the monstrous beast in 20 years.  It is at this point, it becomes clear that the religion of Yu Yevon they all followed and sacrifices that all summoners had made was nothing more than a vicious cycle of control that had no point.  Yuna refuses to create her Final Aeon and chooses to find a different way to destroy Sin without sacrificing herself or her friends.

Eventually, the party goes directly inside of Sin, meeting up with Tidus’ father Jecht.  Father and son eventually reconcile; however, Jecht says that he still must be destroyed, otherwise, Sin will never die and he will eventually become Sin completely, soon having no memory of who he is.  With this knowledge, the party is then forced to face off against Jecht’s Final Aeon form.  His death cripples Sin internally and is destroyed; however, their work is still not done.  Upon Jecht’s death, the entity known as Yu Yevon begins possessing each of Yuna’s aeons one-by-one, forcing the party to destroy all of them.  With nowhere left to run, Yu Yevon finally appears in his true form and the party destroys it, ending Spira’s scourge forever.  Doing this however, destroys the dreaming Fayth, causing Tidus to disappear from his love for good (until Final Fantasy X-2 comes along and shits all over this ending).

Despite my legitimate annoyance for the game’s main protagonist, the story was still solid enough to have me enjoy it.  With a solid battle system, simple leveling system (even if you could eventually make clones out of everyone), and a rather fun take on the limit break system with overdrives, this game raised the bar once again for Final Fantasy titles.

2. Final Fantasy IX

Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII took a very modern approach to not only the game, but the stories, weapons, and settings were all very modern in nature.  To say it was moving away from settings and stories that felt very much not Final Fantasy was an understatement.  Therefore, with Final Fantasy IX it was time to go back to basics.  The crystal made it’s return into the story (and the game’s logo) after a two game (and arguably three game) absence.  The time setting was back to a more medieval age.  Non-human characters were trust back into the mix, including Vivi who was among a group of black mages that were an homage in style to the original Final Fantasy sprite.  The character’s themselves were not proportioned in any life-like way as they all looked very much like a 3-d versions of sprites.  Finally, all characters reverted back into traditional Final Fantasy jobs that could not be changed and the battle party was back to the more traditional four character setup.

The move worked, brilliantly–a modern Final Fantasy could indeed have that “old school feel”.

The battle system tossed in some of the old with some of the new.  The ATB battle system made its return yet again, with each character having separate special abilities depending on their static job.  The twist though was that abilities could be both equipped and learned.  As opposed to previous games in which you needed to hit a certain physical or job level to learn certain spells and abilities, in Final Fantasy IX, you simply needed the rest piece of equipment.  Said abilities could still be learned permanently by earning enough AP through battle; however, it was not required.  This allowed the player to still customize their characters in a very unique way: learning everything possible, learning only essential abilities, or learning nothing and changing equipment/abilities as they go.  The limit break system also made its return, this time bearing the new name of “Trance”, a transformation that allowed for powerful new abilities to be unlocked for a few rounds.

As usual with the games this far into the countdown, I’m a huge fan of the story.  The plot itself is fairly standard for the Final Fantasy realm: one person seeks to take over everything, we find out someone else is pulling the strings, and then said person seeks to rule/destroy the world himself.  There are of course a few twists specific to this game.  World domination is sought by Queen Brahne, adopted mother of the female lead, Garnet, who uses the classic summons (in this game called Eidolons) in order to literally wipe entire cities off the map.  It is thought that a “weapons dealer”, Kuja, is pulling the strings; however, in a surprising move, Brahne tries to eliminate Kuja to keep everything for herself and Kuja promptly destroys her.  Soon, the party learns that a man/android named Garland (hello again old Final Fantasy reference) from a strange world called Terra was giving orders to Kuja.  However, Garland turns on Kuja and abandons him, telling him he forgot his true purpose.

Once the party arrives on Terra, that purpose is explained.  Terra was dying, and the planet’s survival called for the assimilation of another planet, and that target was Gaia, the party’s home world.  Garland saw how Gaia continually warred so he created a species called Genomes to house the assimilated souls of the Gaian that the Terrans could take over.  However, war stopped, so he created another Genome to incite massive war on Gaia, Kuja.  However, he created Kuja as mortal, and created Zidane, the game’s main character to eventually replace Kuja.  Jealous of this, Kuja kidnapped Zidane and abandoned him on Gaia, one of several acts of rebellion that eventually caused Garland to turn on him.  Angered his creator betrayed him, Kuja mastered the power of trance and destroyed Garland and eventually Terra.  From the grave, Garland warned Kuja his plans of world domination were worthless as, unlike other Genomes, Kuja was created mortal, hence the need for someone like Zidane.  Tossed into a further rage, Kuja sought to destroy everything if he could not have eternal rule, seeking to destroy the center of all life in the universe, the crystal.

Zidane and company eventually track down Kuja and stop him; however, his death spawns a mysterious godlike-entity called Necron whom, witnessing Kuja’s desire to end all life determined that all life eventually seeks death.  Therefore, it was going to be so kind and stomp out all life in the universe to stop what it saw as a pointless cycle.  One of the toughest boss battles in any Final Fantasy series begins, and the party eventually defeats their last surprise foe.

Beyond just the basic plot, all the characters are rather well developed as well.  Zidane has his mysterious past as a Terran, as well as his love for Garnet.  Garnet struggles with her past as one of the last surviving summoners, as well as her responsibilities as a princess and later queen.  Vivi struggles with the meaning of his life and existence itself, seeing as he was one of many mass-produced black mages.  Those are just three of the major examples that stand out, and the game does a fantastic job in allowing the player to get into each character.

In the end, Final Fantasy IX did a fantastic job of paying homage to the classic games that came before it while creating a fantastic universe with a great story and fantastic characters.  The game play was extremely fun, allowing hardcore grinders and more causal players alike several different paths in which to play the game.  If you have a PS3/PSP and a PSN account, this game is available for $9.99.  If you haven’t played it, buy it now.  Seriously.

1. Final Fantasy VI

And now we finally hit the end of the countdown that lasted months instead of a couple of weeks with the game I consider the pinnacle of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy VI.  The gameplay was simple, grab your party of four with each character having a unique ability.  Beyond that, you could further customize your characters by choosing which magic spells they could learn and enhance their stats for the first time ever through accessories.  The plotline itself was also very simple: there’s an evil empire hell-bent on world domination through the control of magic.  One psychopath in said empire completely upends it and his rule of terror must be stopped.

In this game though, the difference is in the characters.

Starting with the game’s villain, Kefka is unlike the other villains in the Final Fantasy series.  He doesn’t just seek god-like power, he obtains it.  He doesn’t try to destroy the world, the flat out does it.  He doesn’t dream of ruling the world, he does, and with an iron fist at that.  In the second half of a game, there is even a cult that worships him.  He kills people with no remorse, poisons an entire castle against direct orders and killing some of his own men in the process, burns another one for insulting him, kicks his own emperor off a floating island to his death with no hesitation, and with his god-like powers, he punishes any city he deems disobedient with his “Ray of Judgement” — yes he is his own personal Death Star.  Remember that line Alfred had in the Dark Knight that some men just want to see the world burn?  That’s Kefka.  On top of that, his laugh is easily the most memorable of all sounds in the serious — even with limited sound technology, you knew the guy sounded like a maniac.

As for the heroes, Final Fantasy VI had an ensemble cast of fourteen characters, two of which were “hidden” characters which was a first in the series.  For the first time in a Final Fantasy game, these players could be swapped in and out of the party.  In several points of the game, you needed to form three parties to safely traverse dungeons or survive certain battle events, another first in the series.

In the first half of the game, you meet each of these characters (save for the two hidden ones), and get a basic rundown of each one.  However, after Kefka sets fire to the world, the game moves away from its main protagonist, Terra, to Celes, whom is on a deserted island with her former colleague, Cid.  The second half is then broken down into a series of side quests that reunite the party.  Each of these quests dive deeper into each character as you learn about their pasts and deeper struggles that they don’t bother to mention during the first half.

For instance, Locke, is at first a seemingly carefree treasure hunter who appears to have quite the thing for Celes.  Later on you learn he became a treasure hunter in order to find a legendary treasure to revive his love, Rachel.  We come to learn that Locke attempted to prove his worth to her father by exploring a dangerous cave with her; however, a bridge started to collapse beneath them and Rachel shoved Locke out of the way, nearly falling to her death in the process.  Although Locke nursed her back to health, the fall caused a case of amnesia and she remembered no one.  Rachel’s father was furious and kicked Locke out of the village.  A short time later, and imperial attack destroyed the village and killed Rachel in the process.  It was for this reason Locke hated the Empire.  We also come to find that he initially saved and vowed to protect Celes earlier in the game because she reminded him so much of Rachel.

Locke’s back-story is just one of many that are explored and despite the sheer size of the cast, they are all done quite well.

The sheer depth and size of the game is flat out amazing, especially when you consider it was released in the SNES era.  Along with having a solid story and amazing character depth unparalleled in a Final Fantasy game, the game introduced the Coliseum, the first location created for the sole purpose of a consistent side-game.  “Desperation attacks”, a random, powerful attack unleashed when a character was at low health, was the birth of the Limit Break system and its spin-offs.  The game also featured multiple endings whose length would change depending on how many people to gathered together again in the second half of the game.  To top it all of the game contains some of my favorite and most memorable moments in any Final Fantasy game, most notably the scene at the Opera House (best video game scene of all time, prove me wrong), Kefka’s destruction of the world, and an epic gauntlet of a final battle forcing the player to take on three challenging bosses before finally facing off against Kefka.  This game holds the number one spot for a damn good reason.