The FFIX–XII era saw a lot of change for the Final Fantasy series, not only in terms of hardware to develop for but in story and game design directions as well. This gives us a collection of fascinating and perfectly imperfect entries to look at. This also means that one of them is likely to be a worthwhile personal starting point with the series, so let’s have a look!
Original Release: 2000, PlayStation
Also Released On: Sony PS Vita, Sony PSP, Sony PlayStation 3, Android, Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4, iOS
What it’s about: After leaning harder and harder into modern, more technologically-advanced settings, Final Fantasy IX is a love letter to the games that came before. This time around, main character Zidane is a thief aboard the theater ship Tantalus, whose crew is staging a play to cover their planned kidnapping of Princess Garnet. From those simple beginnings, we meet a cast struggling with their own sense of identity and reckoning with their origins. As they uncover the secrets of their pasts, the world’s secrets open up and unveil just how much more important this meeting is than a simple ransom job.
How it plays: Final Fantasy IX really does try to evoke the classic formula, but it doesn’t leave progress behind in doing so. Sure, you have four-person ATB battles, party members that fit into prescribed traditional jobs, and classic summons doling out big damage. But you’ve also got an ability system that makes you consider whether you equip the best gear or lag behind to learn new skills. There are numerous minigames and interactive bits, including swinging a suspended cage to break free, playing jump rope, or catching frogs to eat. Toss in more extensive diversions like hidden summons, chocobo treasure hunting, and a nearly inscrutable card game, and you’ve got a Final Fantasy that manages to feel both ambitious and traditional.
What it brought to the series: Final Fantasy IX was the final hurrah of so-called traditional Final Fantasy. As series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s favorite entry, it codified how to interweave deep nostalgia with modernized gameplay. FFIX didn’t necessarily change the game, but it showed how best to respect what came before while moving forward. And while it wasn’t new for the series, the game did bring about a notable last: this was the last Final Fantasy game with Nobuo Uematsu composing the entire soundtrack.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy IX is a series favorite for a reason. It brings about many of the most beloved elements of entries that came before while standing on its own as a wonderful, unique RPG. The story is both epic and charming, combining intimate character work and romance with bigger-than-global stakes. The characters are endearing, the progression is satisfying, and the audiovisual package is one of the most charming in the series. In many ways, FFIX isn’t a classic. It’s the classic.
Why you might not: Being a classic can also feel out-of-date for some. Random encounters, slow battle animations, and large environments mean the pace can feel slow for those looking for a more action-packed experience. The super-deformed art style also isn’t for everyone, and those who were attracted to FF by stylish characters might find a flavor here that they’re not interested in.
Which version to play: As with the rest of the PlayStation Final Fantasy games, the modern remaster comes with plenty of quality of life upgrades and nicely upgraded graphics, including new character models. The tradeoff in control is trickier, as the pre-rendered backdrops in FFIX tend to be a bit more twisty and complex, making digital control less suitable. It’s not enough to write off the newer version, but it’s a quirk you’ll need to adjust to.
Original Release: 2001, Sony PlayStation 2
Also Released On: Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Sony PS Vita, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation 4, iOS, Android
What it’s about: Notably the first Final Fantasy to star an Xtreme Water Polo player, Final Fantasy X takes place in the world of Spira, where summoners are the only hope against a terrifying flying kaiju named Sin. The aforementioned sports superstar, Tidus, comes from a high-technology city called Zanarkand, but after a quick visit from Sin he wakes up in a world that seems to be in the distant future. Before long, he’s on a journey with a summoner and her retinue to save the world and figure out exactly why the afterlife seems to be leaking. Suffice it to say: there’s a lot going on.
How it plays: Final Fantasy X marked a significant departure for the series. The ATB system was replaced by the Conditional Turn-Based Battle System, with character actions placed in a viewable turn order, showing exactly when characters will act based on their stats, buffs, and actions. This creates the effect of an ATB system with no waiting between turns and no rushing during turns. Adding to the complexity is the ability to swap in characters during battle without losing a turn. Each character has strengths against different enemy types, rewarding use of your full party. Of course, a complete gamut of new minigames also appears, headlined by a full Blitzball simulator (the aforementioned Xtreme Water Polo), including player growth, player recruiting, and tournaments with in-game rewards.
What it brought to the series: Final Fantasy X broke the classic mold in many ways, starting with significant changes to the battle system, but those changes were popular enough to encourage more change over time. This also saw the migration away from a world map, with more linear area design leading to a focus on cinematic moments over exploration. The world of Spira was such a hit it also introduced something of a mainstay of the series going forward: the spinoff. Sequel game Final Fantasy X-2 followed the further adventures of heroine Yuna after the main game, adding to Spira’s lore and expanding on the challenges faced by a world in great upheaval. Spinoffs would become common for mainline games following this pioneer. Oh, and it was also the mainline game featuring a minor change to the series: full voice acting.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy X is a powerhouse RPG and one of the most beloved in the series. The pace is tight, with the plot driving forward at a pace above and beyond those seen in previous entries. There are plenty of side activities, including some like Blitzball that will keep you busy for nearly the entire game. The battle system is an all-time great, removing the wait from the ATB system without sacrificing the tactical depth. Switching out characters in battle is a game changer, especially as each character is strong against specific enemies and none feel unnecessary (except poor, poor Kihmari). FFX is a clear favorite for many fans and might be for you as well.
Why you might not: Sometimes, those side activities can become overbearing. Weapons with the all-important “break damage limit” ability are tied behind at least one of those activities, several of which may add up to pure irritation for some folks. Mention dodging lightning bolts to any FFX fan and see what happens. The story can also feel hit or miss, with character interactions sometimes feeling far distant from reasonable human reactions. Melodrama generally trumps logic in Final Fantasy, and FFX occasionally takes that to the extreme. Progression systems are needlessly obtuse, and bosses spike in difficulty regularly. It’s a game with as many strengths as weaknesses, so new players should be mindful of recommendations from longtime fans.
Which version to play: The Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster is an easy choice here. Touched-up graphics, bonus content from the international version the West never saw before this release, awesome music (swappable with the originals if they’re not your cup of tea), and the inclusion of the divisive (but fabulous, don’t listen to the haters) sequel make it a hard prospect to pass up.
Original Release: 2002, Sony PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Windows
Also Released On: Microsoft Xbox 360
What it’s about: Oops, they made this one an MMO! Despite that status, Final Fantasy XI still leans hard on narrative in traditional Final Fantasy style. Set in the world of Vana’diel, you take on the role of a citizen of one of three central nations after a world-changing war. Sure, you can expect to do some basic duties to help your nation heal and gain status, but don’t be surprised when you spiral into fighting dark lords, traveling through time, and occasionally dimension hopping. It is still Final Fantasy, after all!
How it plays: FFXI is an old-school MMORPG, emphasis on old-school. Predating World of Warcraft by a couple years, FFXI hews closer to the standard set by Everquest. Long leveling loops, menu-based combat, and losing experience when dying marries with grinding with groups and an overall slower pace. The wildest part of the game, however, is that it’s still live and getting support. Many of its rougher edges have been shaved off with time (including some AI party members for the solo aficionado) and the game is more playable than ever, assuming you are willing to pony up a subscription fee. Oh, and there are jobs. Who doesn’t love jobs?
What it brought to the series: Well, mostly, the fact that it was an MMO. This comes with a robust job system that only grows with expansions, battles that happen on the same screen you explore (a series first!), and the ability to play with friends and strangers. The playable races introduced here appear in future games, including variants on each for the next mainline MMO. The dusty visual style, targeting lines, and enemy behavior out of combat would all return in the future. In fact, it’s easy to draw some direct lines from this game to the next in the series.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy XI tells a satisfying story in a primarily PvE package. Over the course of two decades, the lore has grown enough to invest players deeply into the world. The job system offers over 20 classics from throughout the series’ history, most of which are interpreted in a unique way by the FFXI setting. If you’re a fan of old-school MMOs and want to relive that era with a distinct FF flair, Final Fantasy XI might be for you.
Why you might not: Okay, so if you’re not a classic MMO fanatic, this is gonna be a harder sell. The game felt a little dated and hard to control back when it first launched, and while improvements have been made, it’s still the same core game. Controls take some getting used to, and punishing mechanics are not for the faint of heart. Plus, the current subscription price is not far off from the price for the much more modern Final Fantasy XIV, making it a pretty hard sell. Unless you’re utterly convinced this game is for you, there’s a decent chance it’s not.
Which version to play: In the current era, your choice is pretty much PC or bust. Whew! Easy one!
Original Release: 2006, Sony PlayStation 2
Also Released On: Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4
What it’s about: Sometimes, the evil empire has already won. Protagonist Vaan lives as a street rat in the occupied city of Rabanastre, listening to (but never believing) the words of a “kind and caring” empire that continues to assure new subjects of fair treatment. For Vaan, losing his brother to betrayal in the war against this invading army breaks his trust for authority. But a chance meeting with a couple sky pirates and a definitely-not-princess opens the opportunity for freedom. Of course, what is freedom without seeking out the lies of your imperial enemy and fighting for the freedom of those still stuck in its grasp?
How it plays: Final Fantasy XII brought a massive overhaul to the single-player branch of the series, but the changes are a little less extreme than they seem at first glance. Battles are no longer strictly turn-based but still work on the ATB system of older games. However, these battles happen seamlessly as you explore large, open areas teeming with hostile wildlife, treasure, and hunts to bring down for some quick gil. AI scripts called Gambits control your characters’ basic actions, though you can drop in to manually issue orders whenever you need to. In practice, it mostly removes the attack-spamming of prior entries while allowing you to set conditions to use skills that are otherwise considered too niche for regular use. In towns, classic Final Fantasy is on full display, though equipment uses an oddly roundabout system where you must purchase licenses to use specific pieces of gear. It’s a dense game, to say the least.
What it brought to the series: Final Fantasy XII showed up to prove to fans that Final Fantasy could still experiment wildly with the format of the game while remaining fundamentally Final Fantasy. New systems feel in many ways like precursors to games like Xenoblade Chronicles, but a lot of the weight of minigames and side content from Final Fantasy X was trimmed down here. Perhaps most important, however, is the setting. FFXII takes place in Ivalice, the world introduced in Final Fantasy Tactics and continued in Vagrant Story. This was the first time the mainline series explicitly set a game in an existing universe, opening up the series to broader potential for crossover. It’s also one of the most visually stunning games of its generation, a benchmark that the series tries to maintain to this day.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy XII is a bold game. Its new systems work wonderfully if you’re willing to engage with them, as gambits serve primarily to abstract away “the boring bits” of turn-based RPGs and open you up to higher-level strategy and character building. The license board requires you to make decisions about the role each character will fulfill. While each character leans toward one or two possibilities, you can mold anyone in any direction you please. After all, who doesn’t love giving the teen girl an enormous broadsword?
Why you might not: For some, the experimentation proved to be a bit much. Some feel gambits take away from the more direct feel of control other games in the series offer, and the more grounded world of Ivalice means the story and characters can feel flat compared to prior games. Ultimately, it’s a game that asks you to meet it halfway, and not everyone will jive with that.
Which version to play: I love it when we have an easy recommendation, and here it’s simply got to be Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Again the game includes changes introduced in a version of the game we never received, but these are more impactful ones. The unified license board is replaced by job-specific license boards, allowing you to mix two jobs per character and more meaningfully make role and build decisions for your team. Combined with the improved graphics and music you’d expect, it’s by far the best way to play the game.