The picture above is my collection of mainline Final Fantasy games (excluding spin-off titles like Theatrhythm), which should hopefully be a good indicator that I’m a big fan, in fact this videogame series is one of my all-time favourites and along with The Legend of Zelda it houses some of my most played and highest rated games. As part of my blog’s monthly theming, I’ve decided that May/June is my “Final Fantasy Month”, and to kick it off properly I thought I would post about two of my very favourite games in this wonderful series. Rather than these being reviews however, this is really just a short retrospective article before I get into the nitty-gritty of reviewing the games that I’m actually playing through this month. At the time of writing, I’m knee-deep in both Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call on 3DS and Final Fantasy Type-0 HD on PS4, with reviews of both these games coming later in the month.
During the 16-Bit era of console gaming I was firmly embedded in the Sega camp (with occasional forays into Nintendo territory whenever going around a friend's house) so when the Sega Saturn was released, heralding the birth of 32-Bit consoles, I picked one up and shunned Sony's PlayStation nonsense despite its incredible popularity. I managed to keep this up for quite a while too until one day when I purchased a magazine and feasted my eyes upon the sumptuous screenshots of Final Fantasy VII for the first time. I was blown away by how awesome this game looked. When it finally hit UK shores and was released in shops nationwide I caved in and picked up a Sony PlayStation, and felt dirty that I'd betrayed my beloved Sega. But, by the time I got to the end of Final Fantasy VII's three discs, I didn't care anymore. For me and many others, this seminal videogame was our first real experience of a huge and sprawling JRPG. Sure, there had been many similar games before, especially on the Super Nintendo, but this game was a breakthrough event in the west and firmly established this videogame series as one to be reckoned with.
My previously short childlike attention span was completely destroyed by this game, I can't remember ever being so absorbed within a videogame story before, I put so many hours into levelling up and perfecting my characters for their final battle. The presentation of Final Fantasy VII was also simply ground-breaking at the time, not only because of its highly detailed pre-rendered environments, but also the CGI cutscenes lavishly produced in a real cinematic quality. Previous entries in the series, and JRPGs in general, had used two-dimensional sprite-based graphics for battles and storytelling, often with very little animation aside from some special effects. Final Fantasy VII introduced fully three-dimensional and dynamic battle scenes, with expressive character models and some awesome visual effects, which reached their zenith during the epic-scale boss fights and magical "summons" that could be called upon. The cutscenes too benefitted from this new graphical showcase and characters really came alive in this game, letting you heavily invest in their stories.
As I'm writing this blog post I'm actually listening to orchestral versions of the soundtrack, which was also just amazing, and still is despite its electronic nature. Many tracks such as 'Aerith's Theme' and 'One Winged Angel' are absolute classics of videogame music, still loved and performed live all these years later. However, regardless of the technical and auditory merits, the lasting impression from this game really comes from its story. The narrative of Final Fantasy VII is still one of the best ever written for a video game, and was completely unique at the time for the way that it told not only the grand (and cliché ) tale of saving the world, but also contained heavy themes of environmentalism, genetic engineering, post-industrialisation, and other deep thematic content. The characters, both playable as well as NPCs and antagonists, were so well developed in terms of their backstory and psychology that it really made you invest in their personal journey. Also, this was the first video game that ever reduced me to tears. I don't feel an ounce of shame admitting this, as anyone who played Final Fantasy VII back in the day will surely understand; before the first disc is even complete you will have had your heart strings tugged on and then torn from your insides, and I'm a real sucker for tragedy.
Final Fantasy VII kicks off at a good pace, introduces you to its core characters, and gets the plot underway before throwing you into some fairly lengthy and difficult cinematic fights. After what seems like a decent amount of play-time you are eventually expunged from the opening city of Midgar and given free rein to explore the world at large, with accompanying JRPG overworld map and side-quests opening up. Not only do you have the sprawling narrative to tend to but there are also lots of ancillary missions, activities and hidden easter eggs to find; the sheer volume of content was absolutely through the roof and players have been known to put in around one hundred hours just breeding 'Chocobo' (giant flightless birds) in order to get the “Knights of the Round” materia. Materia are small glass-like orbs, which are used in game for equipping spells and abilities on characters, and this system remains one of the best ever used in Final Fantasy, in my opinion. Sure, it lead to some utterly broken combos if you min/maxed the endgame, but this was part of the fun and a good reward for those willing to invest in the game fully with their precious time.
I popped my original Final Fantasy VII PlayStation discs into my PS3 a couple of years ago and had another blast through the game, and while the battle system just doesn't hold up compared to modern entries in the series (after Final Fantasy XIII's hectic fast-paced affair the original PlayStation games feel like they're in slow motion!) and the graphics have obviously aged an *awful* lot, the story and characters remain classic. I was still gripped and enthralled with the narrative of Final Fantasy VII because, despite the aging of the medium, some stories are truly timeless. So beloved were the characters of this videogame that Square decided to make a motion picture sequel called Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children to try and cash in on the nostalgia and good-feeling generated by the anniversary of the game, which coincidentally also lead to a load of spin-off games, prequels, etc. All of them obviously paling in comparison to the original, but it was still nice to see some returning characters rendered fully with modern technology.
There is always a surge of excitement whenever SquareEnix announces something related to Final Fantasy VII, as many people are still clamouring for a high definition remake of the game. I think that the popularity of this particular entry is a “had to be there at the time” type of deal though: the battles are slow and clunky, the materia system is too open to abuse, and modern videogame conventions would simply change too much for Final Fantasy VII to be recognisable anymore. As a classic videogame, you need to overlook these shortcomings and play Final Fantasy VII for the *amazing* story arc and characters; these elements are ultimately timeless and need no updating.
When Final Fantasy X was originally released, I'd been out of the videogaming loop for a while, mostly playing miniatures and board games instead, and it took another classic game in the Final Fantasy series to suck me back in. I remember picking up a PS2 console pretty much just for this game, as I couldn't resist it after seeing the sumptuous screenshots and reading all the glowing reviews in magazines. What I didn't expect was another absolute classic in the making, and another unforgettable videogame narrative experience, which I'll always remember. Final Fantasy X is personally even more special to me than most other games because I played through it while attending university; and I will always cherish the escape it gave me. When the stress was piling up-and-up, I’d pop onto Final Fantasy X and let the world and storyline enthral me, and I spent many hours absorbed within its splendour.
Once more, for a videogame in this series, it's all too easy to espouse the technical merits of the game, especially in the context and time of its original release. The graphics were a *massive* step up from those of the previous console generation: gone were the pre-rendered backgrounds and instead three-dimensional environments allowed you to move through them and the camera to follow. The level of detail, the colourful art design and the raw power of the graphics engine itself were just incredible at the time, as was the shift to an almost fully voice-acted game, which brought the characters to life like never before (even if the performances are a little rough and corny sounding now). The music was also mind-blowing and some of the tracks in Final Fantasy X remain some of my absolute favourites in videogames, such as the haunting and beautiful “At Zanarkand”. The random battles were still loaded separately from the overworld of course, but they were now even more dynamic and action packed, the special effects even more explosive, and the bosses truly monstrous. My personal favourite encounter is still the summonable boss 'Anima', which I had an awesome statue of in my student house.
I will always have fond memories and a soft spot for the traditional JRPG gameplay of Final Fantasy X, especially the battle system, which to this day remains quite unique within the series. Rather than the filling of active time-bars to dictate when certain characters could take their actions, this instalment had a turn-based system similar to a strategy game, or a board game (you even get a list down the side with every participants turn order). The layer of deep strategy that this added, as you could mess about with the sequence of turns by casting certain spells or using abilities, completely absorbed me. Some of the boss fights in particular were very lengthy as a result of this, and the sense of achievement when you finally realised the sequence of events needed to emerge victorious with your team alive was outstanding. However, and similar to Final Fantasy VII, the real beauty of this game despite the overwhelming levels of polish in all areas was once again the amazing story.
The tale told in Final Fantasy X is almost unrivalled in Japanese video games, both in terms of the main narrative and in relation to the themes and ideas that it explores over the course of your playthrough. This time ’round, there are lots of musings over the devastating effects of war, something very close to the Japanese psyche, and often explored in anime and movies of that country. Some truly memorable characters emerge from this game too, and again they are so well realised that it’s hard not to completely invest yourself in their plight - despite some occasional slip-ups in the quality of voice acting (or perhaps because of it, after all this is before the series started to take itself a bit too seriously). The relationship between the two protagonists, Tidus and Yuna, is one of my favourites. Theirs is one of the best love stories in videogames, and the tragedy of their narrative touched me very deeply, especially sitting in my room late at night, lights off completely transfixed on those final closing hours. There’s an ending theme tune that still cuts me deep whenever I hear it, and the overwhelming tragedy of it all spurred me on to pick up the sequel Final Fantasy X-2 for some sort of final positive closure, which you kind of get, but not really.
About a year ago now, they released a special HD version of Final Fantasy X onto PS3 and PlayStation Vita, with another updated PS4 release emerging at the time of writing this article. I picked up the Vita release a few months back and it’s in the backlog to hopefully play through later this month, providing I get through the other games in my queue. I'm very much looking forward to diving back into Final Fantasy X once again, and it’ll be a delight to relive these characters stories after all these years – hopefully it still holds up. I’ve launched the game on my PlayStation TV just to see how the game looks with a fresh coat of paint and it looks very promising indeed. The only thing I wish they would include is an original Japanese language track for the game, as well as the original soundtrack; the HD remaster features a rearranged score, which has proven quite controversial with long-time fans of the game. It’ll also be interesting to play through some of the extra bonus material that’s been included with the remastered edition, although my old PS2 copy already had a lot of the ‘international’ tweaks to the game, such as the Dark Aeons.
Final Fantasy X is fondly remembered as a highlight of the series for very good reason, and it’s still one of the best entries in this epic videogame franchise. Great characters, solid gameplay that still holds up well due to the strategic turn-based nature of combat, and a deeply rich story combine to make this a *true* classic. As a sucker for tragedy, the moving narrative of Final Fantasy X is something I’ll never forget, and it remains a firm entry in my hall of fame; I’m looking forward to playing it again. And again.