I'm here to engage in a pretty standard practice: ranking the mainline Final Fantasy series. Although I've been considering this for a while now, Stealth's ranking of the side story games finally gave me the inspiration to get this started. Sure, it's hardly insane or new to rank these bad boys, but I don't often see attempts to rank the -whole- series. Usually, I see arguments over the best entry or the top 5 or something. I'm going to try to talk about the whole mainline series.
However, there are exceptions here as well. I will not be including FF11 or FF14 on this list, as they are MMORPGs. I basically consider them numbered side-games, as the FF series is all about the single-player. I don't include any side games, including spin-offs (numbered or otherwise) to FF4, FF7, FF10, FF12, or FF13. I also don't include 13 because I haven't played it. Chances are, it wouldn't do well, but it doesn't really matter. Consider this an up-to-date list as of 2009 if it makes you feel better about FF13's placement.
Now, before I get started, here is my basic approach. When ranking these games, I consider two factors:
1. Is this game still good/entertaining/interesting?
2. Was it good/entertaining/ground-breaking/innovative at release?
Obviously, the distance between these factors shrinks as you get further into the series. With FF1, retro factors will be more important than, say, FF12. However, I will still consider -current- playability/etc. even with the older games. Don't worry, this will not be a "back-loaded" ranking system.
In general, I've separated games into 7 tiers of quality. Why? Because I there were a fair number of ties, and, given how difficult it is to rank different games or different eras on the same list, I decided not to break those ties. Each tier comes with its own "review score" to give an idea of how I feel about the game. Too often, we tear down games we feel indifferent about in order to build up our favorites. The idea behind this review score is to give some sense for the actual quality of a product, outside of the FF context. In other words, I want to demonstrate that most of these games are -good- even if there are better entries in the series. Finally, without further ado...
FINAL RANKASY 2012, PART 1
Tier 7, Review Score: 7.5
Final Fantasy 2 (NES), 1988
As you can see by the review score, I do not think FF2 is a "bad" game. In a lot of ways, FF2 was a revolutionary entry into the series. It was the first in the series with preset characters, and it was the only one in the series to have preset characters until Final Fantasy 4 for the SNES. It also introduced an interesting conversation mechanic. When you talk to NPCs, you can "remember" important/key words, and use those words with other NPCs at important moments in order to move conversations forward. You also have a rotating fourth slot for temporary characters, which gives you more variety in terms of gameplay and a wider cast of characters to interact with and learn about. This all goes with the strongest story pre-FF4, as Square reaches into its "high drama" bag for the first time. Overall, FF2 is the best NES FF when it comes to story, character, and narrative presentation.
FF2 also came after FF1, which was already quite a force of innovation. I'll say more when I get to FF1, but, suffice to say, FF1 spiced up and retooled Dragon Quest's combat system in a good way. FF2 gains the strengths of FF1's enhancements and adds some of its own on top.
So why is this last? Two words, folks: progression system. The developers at Square decided to play with a new approach with Final Fantasy 2. Instead of leveling with experience points, they implemented a system in which repetition of specific skills causes the improvement of said skills. In a lot ways, it's similar to the system used in Bethesday's Elder Scrolls' games, and it's the direct antecedent to SaGa/Romancing SaGa's progression system. This makes sense, as Akitoshi Kawazu was a main designer for FF2, and he went on to create the SaGa series.
However, while this approach works in some of the latter games, it just doesn't work in FF2 at all. You either grind endlessly for a pittance of progression, or you abuse the Hell out of the system by killing all but one enemy, beating the crap out of your own team, then healing your own team. Boom, you're all Gods now, fit to deal out death and destruction at your whim.
Honestly, when I say this shit is broken, I -mean- it. Abusing the system is incredibly easy, while playing within its imagined confines is difficult and.. well.. not fun at all.
The unfortunate result is a game that isn't fun to play now and wasn't all that great at the time of release. Sure, it had smart innovations and cool, new ideas, but the implementation is just not good enough. Well, at least Akitoshi Kawazu was given the SaGa series to implement his ideas....
(One thing I'll admit is that I haven't played any of the game's myriad remakes. If any of these make substantial changes to the progression system, it could do a lot for the game. Anyone play any of the FF2 remakes?)
Tier 6, Review Score: 8.0
Final Fantasy 8 and Final Fantasy 12
Final Fantasy 8 (PSX), 1999
Boy, I bet I just pissed off two of the three people that will ever read this. Yes, next to last is a tie.. between FF8 and FF12. Keep in mind, I'm giving an 8/10 to both games. I don't think they're "bad." They're just not terribly great for Final Fantasy games.
Let me start my talking about the good aspects of FF8: ____________
Nah nah, I kid, I kid. There are some legitimately good elements. The presentation is great, with a solid mixture of cinematic cutscenes and good, dramatic music. The art design is quite impressive, especially when character models are contrasted with, say, FF7. The battles, themselves, are pretty standard affairs. Nothing terribly broken there.
However, FF8 manages to bollocks up just about everything else. Let's break this down into two elements: 1. Characters and story, 2. Progression
In better FF games, the characters have interesting backgrounds that are slowly revealed through character development and new story arcs. Who's that guy? Oh shit, he's a ninja! He'd kill his mother for a nickle! Oh, it turns out that...*insert spoilers*, and you find out through a series of random dream sequences! Well, who is that guy over there? Oh, he just loss his family when a villain poisoned his castle. He fights to redeem their memory and make the world a better place. How about this one? He's a "treasure hunter" (i.e. - thief), who is trying to bring life back to a loved one....
In FF8, all the characters have the same, boring background. Who's that guy? He grew up in an orphanage. Who's that girl? She teaches here. Also, she grew up with the guy in the orphanage. How about that guy? He works here, and he grew up in the same orphanage. And that girl? Ditto. And him? Ditto. Ditto. Ditto. Dittodittodittodittoditto.
Jesus, what a terrible decision.
Also, on top of the lack of a proper background, all of the characters are lame. Zell? Why he's a silly guy! He wears crazy clothes! Selphie, well she's a silly girl. Sometimes, she's clumsy, and she's super girly! The teacher chick? She's a teacher! AND a chick!
Of course, none of this compares to Squall. Squall is officially the worst hero in a major RPG. Seriously, this guy makes pretty much everyone else look like Hero of the Year. He's an asshat.
So, yeah. The characters in this game are uninteresting and all share the same backstory. I bet that saved the developers a lot of time. Probably the only interesting character in the game is Laguna. It's sad when the best thing you have going is a largely unconnected side-story.
The story is better, on average, than the character set, but it's not night and day. The story is passable. At first, it looks like there might be some interesting political stuff happening, but, no. That's not in the cards. It's an evil wizard (sorry; sorceress) who plans to.. mash time together. Or something. It doesn't really make any sense, and the motivations of the villains are highly suspect. Still, it's typical RPG fare. Evil villain wants to blow everything up. You need to get MacGuffins and stop her. With good characters, I think they still could've made something with this general storyline, but, alas, it was not meant to be....
2. Okay, here is where I have my real problems with this fracking game: the progression systems. Much like FF2, FF8 goes out of its way to completely change every facet of progression. Also like FF2, it fails miserably.
Here are my major problems:
a. Spell system and junctioning
I hate the spell system in this game. It basically turns spells into glorified items that you have to steal from enemies. It took all the "magic" out of the experience for me (ha... ha.... ha), as nothing magical ever felt permanent. You never got the same sense that you finally perfected your glass cannon Black Mage. Instead, you got a cool item.. that you can use. Once. Then you need to get more. I guess this is -entirely- opinion-oriented (as is this whole Rankasy enterprise), but I really disliked this system.
Junctioning, I was more okay with, but I was never quite sure what its role in the game was supposed to be. I play pretty far in the game without even glancing at junctioning, and the game never felt difficult (I'll get back to this below). However, if you abuse junctioning, you basically auto-win the game. Honestly, like FF2, this seems like a poorly thought out experiment in progression.
b. Difficulty curve
This game's difficulty curve makes no damn sense. I made it halfway through disc 3 with my highest level character in the low 20's. I remember having a somewhat hard time on a boss, looking up a FAQ, and realizing I was -over twenty levels below the recommended level-. Wow. Honestly, I was so shocked that I almost stopped playing there.
Keep in mind, this wasn't my first rodeo. I beat FF1 at the age of 7. Before trying 8, I had played 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. I didn't grind, but I also didn't avoid grinding. The way the game ranked monster difficulty to your level, the massively abusable junction system, the abusable summon system, and other flat out mistakes in design create a system which -just doesn't work-.
c. Items and money
Hey remember when half of the fun of RPGs was raising money and buying cool new weapons? Say goodbye to both. Who needs the fun of earning money, when you can just run around and get paid automatically?! Personally, I always find test-taking to be more fun than killing monsters. That's why I spend my time on a test-taking blog, instead of a video game blog.
Seriously though, progression in this game is fracked. There's no fun; no real customization beyond junctioning; crappy magic system; terrible way of making money; watered down item system; and the play balance on leveling is just completely broken.
So, overall, FF8 has a mediocre story, bad progression elements, bad characters, and the worst main hero ever. Why is it higher than FF2? Honestly, the FF2 progression system is far more thoroughly broken than the progression elements in this. The progression elements in FF8 are -functional- but not well designed. In FF2, I'd argue that they aren't even functional.
Relative to other games, FF8 is still good. The graphics and artwork are great. The battle system is mostly untouched. The presentation of the story is great, even if the story is mediocre. And there's a lot of fun things to do, including the card game. However, it falls far short of other entries in the FF series.
Final Fantasy 12 (PS2), 2006
If anyone ever reads this, this is the ranking that I really expect to get me into trouble. People seem to really love this game for some reason, and it continues to be well scored and well-reviewed. Let me be up front and say that I -played- this damn game for over 90 hours. I saw everything it offers. I understand what it is and what it's trying to be. Don't respond by saying I didn't play it through, because I did. However, at the end of the day, these are all opinions. The things in FF12 I consider weaknesses, you may well consider strengths. My opinion does not make your opinion less valuable. If you disagree, feel free to post below or create a counter-blog, and we'll move forward from there.
In short, I'm not a fan of this game, and I really don't understand the praise it gets. Let me break this down into four sections: Characters/Story, Battle System/Summons, World, Progression.
I was actually a fan of FF10 (I'll say more about this later, of course), so, when FF12 was getting close to release, I was absolutely ecstatic. On top of this, FF12 was coming from some of the talent that worked on FF Tactics and Vagrant Story! In addition, the story approach seemed more in-line with FF Tactics (medieval politics, war, history), and it even shared the same world! If FF Tactics was part of this list, it would be tied for second place, so, suffice to say, I was excited. I even preordered the Collector's Edition. I also remember when I started playing FF12, how the story seemed to be setting itself up for some FFT-style craziness. What's this Empire? There was an invasion? And an assassination? What's the real story here? How are these polities connected?
Long story short, the only part of Tactics that 12's story really echoed was the final chapter of Tactics.. where everything became standard RPG nonsense. After setting up high politics, I realized about halfway through that the big shift in tone was never coming. Instead, we were gearing up for a MacGuffin chase in order to destroy the Big Evil that threatens the world. **rollseyes*
Truth be told, I think they still could've hit the ball out of the park with this story if it wasn't for the characters. Honestly, there is -one- interesting character in this game, and his name is Balthier. Despite spending over 90 hours on this game, I honestly can't even tell you much about the other characters. I remember Vaan and Penelo were really annoying. Fran looked silly but was pretty boring otherwise. Honestly, looking through the characters and story, it's incredible how much of this I seemingly blocked from my memory. Keep in mind, I have fresher memories of games I haven't played for a longer period of time, such as FF4, FF6, and FF7. I even remember more of FF8 than FF12, which is.. sad.
It's hard to sum up my thoughts on this, but perhaps this is close: FF12 seems like it has an interesting story, but it doesn't quite pull it off. Also, the characters lack character, except for Balthier. Balthier, admittedly, is a badass.
2. Battle System/Summons
"You know what I want in my single player console RPG? A battle system based on MMORPGs!" - Nobody ever ever
Long story short, I hate, hate, hate the damn battle system in FF12. It's just boring and lame. There's no strategy. There's no thinking. Hell, there's usually no -input-. For 90% of the battles I fought, I just walked around in circle while my characters did whatever the Hell they wanted. Even in boss battles, I only made slight adjustments to the formula.
The whole macro thing would've been fine if, say, you could still impact the battle in other ways. Like, say, FF7 Crisis Core, I could see myself enjoying a bit of action in the RPG formula. Rolling away from attacks, finding good ground, and responding appropriately. I could deal with macro if it was on top of this format.
However, instead, it's the worst of all worlds. Your characters basically do whatever they do no matter -what- you're doing with them. I could be running Balthier all over the place, but he'll still be attacking the same, using magic the same, etc. as if I wasn't doing anything at all. Except for melee weapons, there's no -space- in this damn battle system. This wouldn't be a problem if your primary role in battles wasn't to.. move your characters through space. Truly.. I don't get why people found this battle system acceptable. It'd be one thing if I was playing an MMO, where this system maps well onto the needs of having many players take actions simultaneously in a centralized, digital environment. However, I just don't see the upside.
Also, summons are incredibly, incredibly useless in this game. Feel the power of my.. summon.. which just replaces my party.. with one entity barely as powerful as they are individually. Seriously, screw up city, all around.
3. World: FF 12 is simply not well realized as a world. The cities are boring, with none of the typical fantastical awesomeness from the series. I mean, seriously. Go play FF10 for a while. Run around the cities and dungeons. Then do the same in FF12. Notice how everything is boring, and how there's nothing interesting to see? Strange. The cities also lack NPCs that say anything meaningful. Sure, you'll get some content here and there, but it's usually framed in the most soulless, uninteresting way possible. Most NPCs, if they say anything, will give you meaningless, trite nonsense. There's really nothing of substance in any of the cities to make this world feel dramatic, interesting, or real.
The dungeons are even worse. Play the dungeons for any of the games from FF7-FF10. Notice how the artwork on the backgrounds is done to make things look epic and fantastic. They draw your eyes. Now play the dungeons in FF12. Notice how your perspective removes anything of note from your point of view. Also, notice how the dungeons feel randomly generated, even though they are not, in fact, randomly generated. Seriously, this was a very underwhelming showing for Square's staff. None of the locations have any character at all.
FF12 has better progression systems than, say, FF8 or FF2. However, there are still flaws. Most notably, it doesn't appear that there is any incentive to engage in anything but "jack of all trade"-style progression. Pick one weapon for each character (preferably with no overlaps), then pick up all the cheap great skills. Since starting skills are so cheap, there's really no reason not to get them for everyone. Sure, there is a bit of customization past that point, but it's hardly substantial. Really, when it comes to the leveling system, I don't hate FF12's. I just think it had more potential that could've been reached.
Overall, FF12 just feels like a whiff from Square. Lackluster characters, standard storyline, underwhelming atmosphere and world-building, and lame, lame, lame battles. I probably would've been a lot more open to everything else if the battles weren't so sub-par, but there you go.
Still, the overall presentation of the game isn't bad. There's a -huge- amount of content in this game, even if you just want to run through the main storyline. The broad thrust of the story isn't bad; it just doesn't set out into new territory as I thought it might. Really, with better writing and more interesting characters, the story would've been fine, probably. The biggest problem by far is the combat. If you can get by the combat, the game is definitely playable for RPG fans.
FINAL RANKASY PART 1, FINAL THOUGHTS
I basically reviewed FF2, FF8, and FF12 as individual games. Briefly, here are my thoughts on why they're ranked as such.
FF2 is okay, but the progression system is so thoroughly broken that I thought it had to be the bottom. I think it would be unfair to say any FF game is worse than FF2, when it's nearly unplayable. FF8 and FF12 form the bottom of the "playable" FF series to me, personally. Neither games adds a lot to the old formula, but what these games add... tends to subtract from the core experience. In FF12, the new battles killed the fun, while, in FF8, the retooled progression system took the wind out of the game's sails. I also think both games lack interesting characters to bring more depth to their relatively standard storylines. However, at the core, I think all three of these games have problems with gameplay, which is more damning than storyline. I mean, sheesh, I loved FF10, and FF10, arguably, had characters -at least- as annoying and bad as FF8 and FF12. However, more on this will wait for a later session....