Now let’s turn our attention to recent happenings in the Final Fantasy universe and toward the future with Final Fantasy XVI. ONWARD!
Original Release: 2009, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360
Also Released On: Microsoft Windows, iOS and Android (Streaming)
What it’s about: Let’s avoid most of the proper nouns, or we’ll be here all day. Gran Pulse, the world Final Fantasy XIII takes place on, is a massive world populated by oversized wildlife and danger around every corner. That’s why a group of demigods made Cocoon, a floating haven. Citizens believe Gran Pulse is a living hell, including Lightning, our hero this time around. It’s not long before she and a group of strangers get roped together as servants of a handful of these aforementioned demigods. As two of these strangers are from Gran Pulse, this quest quickly casts doubt on established knowledge as the party is forced into a battle against fate.
How it plays: In another new overhaul, the ATB system remains but works very differently from before. The game centers around using autobattle regularly and controlling a single character, with certain attacks requiring multiple filled ATB gauges. Elemental weaknesses help to stagger enemies, opening them to bombastic and powerful attacks, while tactical decisions are managed primarily by switching classes for your entire party on the fly. This paradigm shift system proves to be an engaging and challenging wrinkle, with shifts required even in basic encounters. The world, however, is definitely smaller. The more linear paths of FFX are taken a bit further here, with few opportunities to backtrack, explore towns, or really do much besides plunge on forward. It’s a choice to set the pace for a chase-based story, though reception is mixed on how well this works. Also, beware convoluted weapon and progression systems, a running theme for the series at this point.
What it brought to the series: FFXIII was the first mainline entry to push the cinematic experience to the forefront, forgoing a lot of Final Fantasy staples in the name of a propulsive story. A more fast-paced battle system would set the pace going forward as the series started to move toward a more action-oriented approach, and a series of sequels solidified that Final Fantasy was moving toward building universes rather than individual games. Also, for good or ill, this was the first game that nearly required an in-game glossary to understand the story fully, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy XIII is one of the most experimental titles in the series, and it lands a lot of what it aims for. The battle system is snappy but offers some stiff challenges later in the game, while character growth is thoughtful. Building out paradigms puts player effort into building teams, preparing for fights, and hot swapping roles rather than choosing specific actions for each character, which can be a fun twist on traditional RPGs. And it’s hard to overstate just how beautiful the game still looks, from stylish character models to new interpretations of classic enemies, from unique weapon models to show-stealing battle animations.
Why you might not: If you’ve heard of this game, you probably know what I’m gonna say. I can’t pretend it’s perfect. The plot requires diving into an in-game glossary to make sense of. While previous games were linear, FFXIII removes even the pretense of letting you explore for most of the game. The lack of direct control over your party can feel stressful for a lot of players. Most of the characters are abrasive for large portions of the game, only coming into their own throughout their own arcs. FFXIII is one of the most divisive games in the series, and it’s hard to fault anyone for finding it not their cup of tea. I’ll be singing its praises in the meantime.
Which version to play: Ah, finally, a game with no significant differences between versions. The original Xbox 360 version had slightly downgraded graphics, but playing it on a Series X|S yields a beautifully upscaled version of the game. Find it on whatever console you’ve got available, and you can’t go wrong.
Original Release: 2013, Sony PlayStation 4, Windows
Also Released On: Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation 5, macOS
What it’s about: Oops, they made another MMO! Final Fantasy XIV is essentially the modern counterpart to FFXI. Set in the world of Hydaelyn, FFXIV focuses on the realm of Eorzea as you (and millions of others) discover your nature as a Warrior of Light, helping the world recover from that time when Bahamut hatched out of the moon and sundered the world. Look, these things happen. In the meantime, you make a character associated with one of three city-states and begin your journey as an adventurer before teaming up with the Scions of the Seventh Dawn. Look forward to fighting dark lords, traveling through time, and occasional dimension hopping… huh. Does that seem familiar to anyone else?
How it plays: FFXIV is to the MMO scene post-World of Warcraft as FFXI is to the MMO scene before it. We’ve entered the world of cooldowns, action rotations, mount collecting, monster hunting, and more. Controls feel more modern this time, including a controller setup for consoles that actually works for all the content on offer. Plenty of jobs can be freely swapped on a single character, each of which evolves in significant ways with each expansion. Oh, and the story is good. Like, really good.
What it brought to the series: In addition to being a genuinely successful MMO in the modern era, Final Fantasy XIV functions as a celebration of everything you love about the series. There are dungeons and raids based around earlier entries to the series, seamlessly transitioning from battles with Ultros to wild conversations with Gilgamesh. And that’s not including crossovers from other series like Dragon Quest, NieR, and Yo-kai Watch! Perhaps most importantly, it brought Square Enix Business Divison 5 (now known as Square Enix Creative Business Unit III) to the developer’s chair. See, Square Enix went back to the drawing board after a disastrous initial launch and rebuilt the game from the ground up with Naoki Yoshida in the driver’s seat. The direction, alongside the standout soundtrack by Masayoshi Soken, would set a new standard for the series. Their work has been so heralded, in fact, that the development team is on board for the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI.
Why you might like it: If you’ve got love for MMOs, there’s a good chance you’ll find a home in Eorzea. Even if you don’t, you might still find something to dig into. The story is meaty, solo play is possible throughout almost the entirety of the main story, and top-tier controller support makes FFXIV feel right at home on consoles. There’s a beefy free trial if you’re not ready to drop money, but FF fans of all levels will find something to love about this world’s lore and character development.
Why you might not: If you’re more of a hardcore MMO junkie, the slower global cooldown rate can leave the pace feeling slower than FFXIV’s prime competitor, World of Warcraft. And despite being a wonderfully welcoming MMO, the game is still an MMO at the end of the day. Expect subscription fees, a measured pace, and a lot of time investment to see all that the story offers. There’s plenty to see, but only if the core conceit can hold your interest.
Which version to play: Really? Take your pick. It’d seem like PC is the only way to play, but the aforementioned controller support really is excellent. In fact, I’ve used it for everything from starting out to endgame raiding. And if it doesn’t suit you well, every system supports keyboard and mouse as well. You really can play where you want, how you want.
Original Release: 2016, Sony Playstation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, Windows
Also Released On: iOS, Android (Pocket Edition), Google Stadia
What it’s about: Noctis is a prince in a modern-looking world, and is out on a roadtrip in his dad’s tricked-out luxury car with three of his best friends/bodyguards. When your biggest concern is your car running out of gas, life is pretty good. When your home country gets sacked while you’re out and you’re left to pick up the pieces of a world at war, well, things get a little worse. Throw in an arranged marriage, some enemy generals with some serious attitude problems, and a few ultra-powerful eidolons who are key to the potential end of the world, and things get a little more complicated. An epic open-world Final Fantasy for a new generation, there’s a lot of lore to get lost in, but at the core is a tale of friendship and humanity.
How it plays: Final Fantasy XV sees the transition to a full action combat system. The pace is a bit less frantic than many character action games, and a wait mode opens the door for more traditional players, but this is still very much a change of pace for the series. Further moving from tradition, FFXV is an open-world game that you can explore from your car, from a chocobo, or on foot. Following waymarkers to quests and subquests is the name of the game, though this hasn’t removed the expected enormous setpieces from popping up regularly. Whether you’re hiding from a mighty behemoth or fighting an enormous eidolon in a beautiful oceanside city, FFXV lives for spectacle. Side activities like camping, cooking, and fishing round out the requisite open-world side activities. On top of that, the food you can cook looks absolutely mouthwatering.
What it brought to the series: An open-world, action-based Final Fantasy is pretty new ground, even without a setting that feels distinctly modern-day. Everything from items to magic has a new in-universe explanation, with potions that are simply energy drinks activated by royal magic as a hilarious example. It gets weird, but the game is utterly unafraid to experiment with any part of the traditional Final Fantasy formula. How much this affects the future of the series is still unfolding, but with Final Fantasy XVI moving fully into character action territory, it’s safe to say that some of those barriers are broken down for good.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy XV is an audiovisual spectacle and it’s unafraid to buck tradition. The combat is a flashy blast. The open world is fun to explore. Even driving around in your car can be entertaining as you collect records of past Final Fantasy soundtracks to listen to as you cruise around. Open world fans can find a lot to love, and those without much use for tradition may find a lot of the experimentation works.
Why you might not: Final Fantasy XV is divisive, to put it simply. The story can be hard to wrap your head around, with pieces locked behind anime episodes, companion novels, and even a feature-length movie. What’s left occasionally feels half-finished, the victim of an unhealthy development cycle that saw a lot of work done and then thrown out. If you don’t like filling in your own plot holes or if all your love for the series lives in its turn-based past, Final Fantasy XV can be a hard sell.
Which version to play: The Royal Edition is what you want. It’s the defacto version of the game, including all of the (pretty enjoyable) DLC, a new dungeon, and a handful of new gameplay mechanics. It’s available on any platform the original is on, and it’s definitely the way to play.
What’s Next – Final Fantasy XVI
Original Release: Sony PlayStation 5
Of course, the party don’t stop. We’ll hopefully be talking about new Final Fantasy titles in 20 years, so we might as well talk about what’s coming up.
Final Fantasy XVI has some time before release as of this writing, but we’ve learned enough to have a decent handle on what’s in store. That is, unless it pulls wild surprises on us, but when’s the last time a Final Fantasy game did that? (The answer is, of course, the last time one of these bad boys was released).
Let’s get the big news out of the way first: Final Fantasy XVI is expected to be the first M-rated title in mainline series history and plans to focus on a much more mature story than ever before. Sure, we can expect the melodrama we know and love, but we can expect a more political story combined with a more grounded cast. Taking place in the world of Valisthea, FFXVI focuses on the six factions ruling the world and the dominants, human avatars of summoned spirits called Eikons that are a major presence in each faction’s military.
But the game’s rating isn’t the only big change. Final Fantasy XVI will be the first game in the series to adopt a full character action style of gameplay focusing on long combos and flashy animations. Of course, expect plenty of options to make it accessible to more traditional RPG fans, but the shift in focus to attract a larger audience will certainly change the game.
Despite the changes, there is a lot of fan faith in the new entry, mainly due to the development team. Square Enix Creative Business Unit III, the team behind the much-beloved A Realm Reborn relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV, is in the driver’s seat. Many key players are working on the game, including musical contributions from the stellar Masayoshi Soken. The prospect of another mainline FF following the pedigree of Final Fantasy XIV is exciting indeed, and it’s easy to expect an incredible experience from a team with their track record. Regardless of the game’s chosen direction, the future of Final Fantasy is looking bright.
That’s a lot of Final Fantasy! But you might be left thinking, “Where do I start in all this?” And the answer, ultimately, is anywhere you dang well please. Heed the words above to determine which games seem fun and which might not work for you, and then pick the one that you find most interesting. Don’t fret playing in order. Don’t worry about older games holding up. There are so many ways to play the entire series, and most of them are wonderful.
My favorite is Final Fantasy IX and I would recommend it to anyone, but hey, who am I to deny the allure of the classic Final Fantasy VII or the more experimental Final Fantasy XII? Even the MMOs can be amazing entry points, if that’s how you play. There are people with every game on this list in their top spot, so it’s not about picking the best. It’s about picking the best fit for you. With Final Fantasy, variety is the spice of life.