Wednesday, December 28, 2022

My "Favorite Final Fantasy" Rankings, 2022 Edition

The results of a recent Final Fantasy popularity poll, held in honor of the franchise's 35th anniversary, were being passed around the Internet recently, with most discussion homing in on FFX's Wakka ranking as voters' second-favorite character. The poll, conducted by Japanese streaming service NicoNico, with a small sample size and clearly influenced by memes of the moment, was no more authoritative than any of the numerous other surveys routinely run by gaming publications and fan forums. But it did remind me that my personal rankings have not been updated in over 12 years, during which time I have played a few newer entries, while some of my feelings on older ones may have changed or evolved. I've also decided to do away with separate lists for "story" vs. "systems," acknowledging that one cannot practically separate the experience of the one from the other. Which brings us now to my 2022 edition of "Omega Warzard's Definitive Ranking of Numbered Final Fantasy Games":

  1. IV
    • Final Fantasy IV is always the one I hold up as the ideal entry point into the series. This is because it exemplifies the qualities I personally have most enjoyed in any Final Fantasy: a well-paced narrative, a dramatic story, and battles that challenge me just enough to give me pride in my victory. The last time I did a ranking, I considered IV's story dated. It is not deep, but neither do more recent Final Fantasy games feel written for adult audiences, and the layers of convoluted nonsense they have added instead have actually helped IV age better by comparison. The gameplay, at first glance, might also seem the simplest in the series—it's the only Final Fantasy with almost no party customization options—but the satisfaction comes not in augmenting your units into godlike killing machines, but in puzzling out how best to play the hand you've been dealt to overcome the most thoughtfully designed boss battles.
  2. IX
    • While earlier games tried to push things forward, IX's combat deliberately regressed to a simpler form of the ATB system, and in that aspect felt more dated than all the older games. The frequency of the fighting made the journey a bit of a slog, so if you play one of the more modern ports that offers boosters to trivialize or even bypass battles, don't feel too proud to take advantage. Because the rest of the experience is essential—from beginning to end, one of the cleverest and most consistently compelling stories and most lovable casts of characters in any video game. Perhaps the only other negative about the experience is that, because the quality of the writing is so high, you'll feel obligated to play with a guide at all times, for fear of missing out on anything.
  3. VII
    • VII is a lot closer to the earliest games in the series, both by release date now and in the feel of its gameplay loop, than it is to XIV or XV, or to other modern RPGs. In its own time, both convention and comfort abounded in exploring its dungeons, flying across its overworld, and cutting down foes via its menu-based combat. Yet its world felt like something truly new and original, boldly ambitious in its art direction and subject matter. The story was not merely escapist fantasy, but treated games as a legitimate medium for its creators to earnestly express philosophy and spirituality, albeit it also opened the door to, and itself set one foot in, the pseudophilosophical nonsense that would later pervade and all but sink the JRPG genre.
  4. VIII
    • It's less an opinion than a matter of historical fact now that VIII's torpid narrative was the biggest stumble in the series up to that point. In contrast, its fast-flowing combat, accentuating almost every onscreen action with a timed button press, was the ultimate expression of the ATB system (at least perhaps until FFX-2, which I've never played and which doesn't count). And the journey did wrap up a lot stronger than it began, with the most exhilarating final boss theme and then the most satisfying ending cinematic in the series.
  5. VI
    • In hindsight, this was 2D Final Fantasy "Endgame"—the culmination of all that had come before. After IV, the series was the recognized leader in video games as a storytelling medium, and expectations were at a fever pitch for the next step forward. VI more than lived up, with a story that was bigger and writing by far more mature than its predecessors. At least, that's how I would have described the first half. The back half took a huge swing, quite literally wiping out everything that had worked so well up to that point, and it remains, to my mind, one of the great unfulfilled promises in gaming.
  6. XIV
    • This is a hard one to rank, since it continues to grow and evolve, with each major expansion almost but not quite a full story unto itself. The current base game, A Realm Reborn, is tedious and uneventful, and would probably rank closer to the bottom of this list. Heavensward (which is as far as I've played) is what earns XIV its place here. It offers possibly the weightiest climax of any Final Fantasy, though it cannot be properly appreciated in a vacuum apart from A Realm Reborn.
  7. I
    • Dated, certainly, but still elegant in its simplicity, largely because the original classes were so well and purely defined. No subsequent tank or DPS classes or characters have so wholly embodied their roles as the original warrior and monk respectively. It's fun even just to theorycraft about how different party compositions can be made to work in this game. And if it is perhaps a tad grindy, well, it probably still takes less time to get through than every other entry on this list.
  8. V
    • The job system was certainly more robust than ever, and there was great satisfaction to be found in mixing abilities from different classes to yield lethal combinations. But quite a lot of jobs were quite frankly redundant—too much the same as or worse than other jobs. The bloat makes it less accessible than I, and the story, while passable, is fairly generic JRPG, lightyears behind its immediate predecessor's diverse cast of heroes and antiheroes.
  9. X
    • The introduction of voice-acted and motion-captured cutscenes was both thrilling and jarring, as Tidus and friends presented as more starkly cartoonish than, ironically, the super-deformed characters I had grown up with. But the story still delivered some signature emotional highs, bolstered by composer Nobuo Uematsu's last major contributions to the series. The battle system was immaculately tuned and strategic, to the point of being exhausting.
  10. XV
    • Grand and effectively moody but nonsensical in its plot. The systems and mechanics were too numerous and complex for how unrewarding it felt to ever stray from the main road.
  11. II
    • Some later remakes/remasters made the notoriously unbalanced leveling system a lot less grindy. Freed of its punishing aspects, it becomes a serviceable JRPG of its age, with a just compelling enough story, though nothing to warrant a detour but for series completionists.
  12. III
    • I played about 20 percent of the 3D remake before hitting a wall. It had some charm, but ultimately felt like a bitter intermediate stage between I and V—less elegant than the former, less flexible than the latter.
  13. XII
    • I only sampled a small portion and found it grueling. I do know the characters and story, though not with fondness.
  14. XIII
    • I have not played this yet, nor am I very familiar with the characters or story. What I gleaned of it via Final Fantasy Record Keeper seemed senseless and convoluted.
  15. XI
    • I will likely never play this archaic MMORPG.