It's finally here, folks: the last entry in my series retrospective. I'll be honest, around this time I was really beginning to feel some fatigue towards the series. I had started this journey in July of 2017, and at times I feared that I'd be unable to complete the series in time. However, once I hit the PlayStation 2 era, I felt a new resolve swell up in my chest. With only four games to go, I booted up my PlayStation 4 and began my tenth epic quest.
Tidus and Yuna
I remember being a kid when the PlayStation 2 took America by storm. At recess, us poor kids would gather around and listen to stories from our financially stable peers about this state of the art console, along with the amazingly beautiful games that came with it. I always wanted a PlayStation 2, but it wasn't until the winter of 2001 that I truly needed one. Enter Final Fantasy X, the first entry in the Final Fantasy series on the PlayStation 2. I was floored by the (at the time) lifelike graphics and the (at the time) amazing voice cast. Final Fantasy X seemed more like a movie than a game to my young mind, and I needed it badly. Unfortunately, I was just a child and had no income of my own. By the time I received my own PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy X was over half a decade old, so my interest had really waned. So, what's it like playing such a historical game in 2017?
First and foremost, I'd like to state that the version I played for this feature was the PlayStation 4 remaster, so I understand that I'm experiencing a more polished version of the original release. However, despite the obviously upgraded graphics, the game still feels like a "classic" Final Fantasy in terms of gameplay. Turn based combat is still the main attraction, yet small additions serve to smooth out the experience. For example, rather than the active time battle system from previous entries, Final Fantasy X actually allows players to see the flow of battle at any time, adding an extra element of strategy to each battle. Alongside this altered battle system is the ability to switch out party members in the middle of battle. Now, I can't speak for other RPG series before this time, but for the Final Fantasy series, this was a revolutionary ability. Now, players could adapt to battles on the fly, easily exploiting enemy weakness and subbing out critically wounded characters whenever need be. It also made having an equally leveled party very easy to sustain, as all a character needs to do to gain XP from battle was perform a single action. Personally, this is my favorite battle system in the Final Fantasy series. It builds on an already established system and does nothing but improve it.
Speaking of systems, you can't talk about Final Fantasy X without mentioning the Sphere Grid. Before playing Final Fantasy X, I was aware of this new system, but I had no idea it had completely replaced the level up system from previous entries. For those unfamiliar with it, the Sphere Grid is a large grid system that contains every stat upgrade, ability, and spell found within the game. Players acquire ability points, or AP for short, from battles, rather than experience points. Once enough AP is gained, characters gain a Sphere Grid level, allowing said character to move farther along the grid itself. It took me awhile to accept this change in systems, but once I started to see the results of my grinding and how customizable the system could potentially be, I found myself greatly enjoying it.
Earlier in this feature, I mentioned how Final Fantasy X seemed more like a movie than a game to my child brain. Playing through it now as an adult, I have to say that this sentiment still holds true! I'm not sure if it's the upgraded graphics or the addition of a fully voiced cast, but something about Final Fantasy X just screams "Feature Presentation." Whether this enhances or hinders the game itself is up to each individual player, but I for one enjoyed it. I also feel it's worth mentioning how much of the main story focuses on love. I'd even go as far as to say that Final Fantasy X is the most romantic entry in the series. While other entries feature romantic subplots, so much of Final Fantasy X is dedicated to Tidus and Yuna's interactions, it almost feels like a romance film first and a fantasy game second.
My only real gripe with the game is how linear it can be at times. While there are side quests and collectibles to be found throughout the land, your destination and goal are set directly in front of you for the most part. While I don't feel a full open world is truly necessary for the game, it would be nice to explore more of Spira at my own discretion.
Also, Blitzball is dumb.
Final Fantasy XII Concept Art
I still remember being perplexed when Final Fantasy XII originally released. It had a style that was completely new to me for an RPG. Instead of using anime styling like I was used to, it featured a much more realistic style in a gritty fantasy world. I had actually played a bit of this one when it was originally released for the PlayStation 2, but it was hard for my young teenage mind to comprehend this new game. Now, as a grown man, I can safely say that Final Fantasy XII was years before its time and is by far one of the more interesting additions to the series.
For the record, I played the remastered Zodiac Age version for the PlayStation 4 in regards to this feature. In terms of the story, Final Fantasy XII is vastly different from its predecessors. Gone are the days of fighting nigh-immortal monsters bent on world destruction. Rather, we experience a much more political story, focusing on relations between countries and the effects of war on common folk. Personally, I really appreciated this change in storytelling, especially after playing so many Final Fantasy games in quick succession. I'll admit the story does have its low points, especially when considering how certain party members factor into the story at large. Personally, I liked Vaan as a character, but I can understand why some players had issues with him. Balthier or Ashe would have made more sense as the main character, but I feel like Vaan really brings in the "common man" point of view, functioning more as a window for players unfamiliar with the world.
Where Final Fantasy XII really shines is in its combat and gameplay. Rather than functioning like a traditional turn-based RPG, Final Fantasy XII incorporates combat similar to that of an MMO, where basic attacks happen automatically in real time and skills and spells must be cast on a separate cooldown timer. The best comparison I can think of is the more recent Xenoblade series, and frankly, I feel like the system fits very well into the game. Rather than transition to a separate "arena," if you will, battles all take place on the world map. I feel like this detail helps reinforce the more realistic setting of the game. This title also introduces the License Board and Gambit System into combat. Unfortunately, I can't speak to the exact specifics of the License board featured in the original Final Fantasy XII, but I'm very familiar with the Zodiac Age version. In essence, the License Board functions similarly to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, as players can more easily customize exactly how their characters advance throughout the story. Adding Job Classes in Zodiac Age really helps enhance the customization level, though being unable to change a character's class did make me somewhat nervous when first choosing. Fortunately, once you have access to the entire party, you'll also be able to have full access to each class.
The Gambit System is the second big gameplay change in Final Fantasy XII, and let me say, I'm very upset that this system hasn't shown back up in any other Final Fantasy game. As most RPG gamers know, depending on friendly A.I. to save your skin in battle is usually a recipe for disaster. Thus, the Gambit system was born, bringing tactics to a whole new level in Final Fantasy. With the Gambit System, players are able to create custom commands for A.I. party members to execute when certain conditions are met. For example, rather than having your White Mage spam healing magic throughout a battle, you can create a Gambit for them where they will only cast a healing spell on a party member when said party member's health goes below 50%. The number of gambits one can create is insane, allowing players to avoid constant micromanaging during battle. This system is fantastic and works so well in practice, I genuinely don't understand why it hasn't appeared in more recent games.
Like I mentioned before, I really feel like Final Fantasy XII was ahead of its time. Many of the gameplay systems were unheard of at that time, and frankly, I feel like such drastic changes scared off a lot of the potential player base. It's fortunate that we got a remasterd version in the form of The Zodiac Age recently. With this new release, there's really no excuse for gamers to ignore this entry. While these changes may be off-putting at first, I promise it'll be an experience you won't regret.
Final Fantasy XIII Key Art
If you're familiar with the Final Fantasy series, I'm sure you're also familiar with the controversies surrounding the thirteenth entry in the series. I'd like to say that I had a different experience when I played the game, but some flaws are just too big to ignore.
The story comes off as very convoluted at times. Players are often hit with a large amount of information at once, then go through a long stretch of time before anything happens again. It's a weird pacing issue that plagues Final Fantasy XIII throughout most of the game, especially when it comes to character development. Most of the party members are one-dimensional, and while they do expand and show more personality eventually, most casual players have already turned off the game by the time these events happen. Again, another pacing issue that the game suffers from.
Combat isn't horrible, but it's really nothing to write home about. Through the Crystarium system, which functions like a less impressive version of the Sphere Grid or License Board, playable characters can switch between classes on the fly in battle. These classes are similar to other RPG classes, with the Sentinel functioning as a Tank, and the Ravager being a damage dealing class. While this system sounds good in theory, it tends to be more lackluster in reality. More often than not, players tend to stick to certain classes, as customizing a character with other class abilities doesn't offer many benefits. In other words, it's too simple of a class system.
In my opinion, I feel like Final Fantasy XIII was a game created out of hubris. At the time, Square Enix really was the "king of the castle," if you will. They had such a revered series, it's hard to imagine that they could do any wrong. It just feels so half-assed, and while I can't speak for the following two entries in the XIII trilogy, Final Fantasy XIII just left a bad taste in my mouth.
Final Fantasy XV Art
And here we are, folks: the latest entry in the Final Fantasy series. It's kind of hard to post a retrospective of such a recent game, but I feel like the honeymoon period for Final Fantasy XV is over, and now we can really look at the game with a critical eye.
After playing through twelve previous entries in the Final Fantasy series, I have to admit that the more action-oriented combat of Final Fantasy XV was a refreshing change of pace. Yes, it was a drastic change for the series alongside the open world exploration, but maybe a drastic change is what the series needed? More than once throughout this journey, I experienced fatigue and mild boredom in certain entries. I love RPGs, but sometimes they can get stale, ya know? Not to mention, Final Fantasy XV still maintained some of the tactical elements from previous games, especially when applying elemental and weapon weaknesses against enemies. The Ascension system also adds a nice level of customization to skills and abilities, though it's nowhere near as in depth as the Sphere Grid and License Board.
Story-wise, I feel like Final Fantasy XV starts off really strong, but gets a bit convoluted towards the end. I understand that the game was patched after launch to include new cutscenes for end game content, but it still felt a bit bewildering at times.
The downfall in storytelling can really be felt after summoning Leviathan. The open world of the early game is taken away, and the party is forced down a more or less linear path towards the end. I will admit, however, that the despair in these last few chapters is very intense. We see the party doubt each other and their goal of saving the world. It's a really dark turn that we don't see often in Final Fantasy games.
At first, I was a bit wary with how small the main party was. But after playing for a few hours, the relationship between the main party is made crystal clear. These characters truly care for each other, and if you have the opportunity to play through the DLC episodes focusing on the other characters, these relationships shine through even more. If you haven't read it yet, fellow staffer Nick Ransbottom wrote a fantastic article on the relationships between these characters!
All in all, I feel like Final Fantasy XV is still a solid entry in the series. While its story may feel lackluster at times, the gameplay alone makes up for it! And with another set of DLC on the way, it seems that Final Fantasy XV is set to keep improving.
As the dust settles, I feel a bitter happiness swell over me. This adventure has been tough, and at times I felt like it couldn't be done. But now, I'm almost sad to be done with this series. Final Fantasy earned its title as one of the greatest RPG series for good reasons. I'll truly treasure all of these stories for as long as I can remember, and if I've managed to convince even one person to check out the series, then I'll consider this a successful article.
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