Die-hard role playing gamers in their twenties and thirties have lived through years of the Final Fantasy franchise, arguably one of the richest and most satisfying series in the RPG world. In March 2010, we were treated to the release of Final Fantasy 13, the latest in the epic series. To truly understand the impact that Final Fantasy 13 has on its fans, one has to look back to the games that came before and shaped the legend that is the Final Fantasy franchise.
Final Fantasy games usually centre around a hero, a young protagonist who is out to save the world in some spectacular fashion. Spiky blonde hair tends to be an indicator that you are looking at the hero in Final Fantasy games, but it is not mandatory. Graphics are usually stunning, with epic cut scenes and game production budgets that rival major Hollywood pictures.
I started playing the series, as most gamers did, with Final Fantasy 7. Since then, the series has taught me important life lessons, such as don't get too emotionally invested in a character build, demonic hockey players really do belong in a fantasy game, and if you try really, really, hard, you can get Cloud and Barrett to go on a date on the Ferris Wheel in Final Fantasy 7.
Final Fantasy 1-6
The games that came before the epic #7 instalment were remarkable in their own right and introduced many of the basic concepts of the role-playing game (RPG) genre. The first three were launched for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The first was released in Japan in 1987, and in North America in 1990.
Attack, Summon, and Magic are the three seminal gameplay choices that run through the entire Final Fantasy series. While the concepts were not introduced in the Final Fantasy games, they were certainly made popular. Players could use infinite combinations of the three basic systems to win battles. Arguably the most interesting aspect of Final Fantasy gameplay is how to combine the three systems for the best results, and each instalment of the game introduces a new and interesting battle system.
Final Fantasy 2 was the first instalment to feature the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which allowed players a happy medium between real-time and turn-based battle. Sony understood that players wanted action, but also needed time to use their complex battle system. The ATB allows for that, and it has been used in multiple installments of the series.
Final Fantasy 7
The Final Fantasy series is also widely known for its open-ended gameplay, although different instalments in the series have more of this than others. The most popular Final Fantasy releases were 7, 10, and 12, and each of those had open-ended gameplay at some point in the storyline.
Final Fantasy 7 was the first Final Fantasy game to make use of the advanced graphics of the Playstation, and many people purchased a Playstation just to play it. The story centred around Cloud Strife and the "big bad", Sephiroth. It was the first FF game to employ 3D game graphics.
The storyline and open-ended gameplay combined to make it the most popular game in the franchise history up until that point. The world was so open-ended, and the gameplay so complex, that you could go back and try different character builds and it would play through as an entirely different game. Like many gamers, I got it wrong on the first try and went back through a few times before I could finally defeat the really huge bosses in the game.
Final Fantasy 10
Final Fantasy 8 and 9 were fun romps, but unremarkable to most FF fans. By the time 10 came out, Sony was in danger of losing the huge fan base that it had built up with Final Fantasy 7. They knew that they had to pull out all of the stops to replicate their FF7 success. They did it with Final Fantasy 10, with a story and gameplay that was arguably even more open-ended and complex than FF7. They took the excellent graphics developed in 8 and 9 and married them with a game that once again, you could go back and play multiple times without getting bored. Once again, you became emotionally invested in the development of Tidus and his quest to save the world from his father, Sin, who became a giant evil whale. Life in Final Fantasy land is never boring.
The gameplay was markedly improved through replacement of the ATB battle system with a Conditional Turn-Based Battle System (CTB) and a Sphere Grid for development of abilities. The Sphere Grid trumped the materia system introduced in Final Fantasy 7 as a highly tweakable character development system that allowed the player multiple choices for a flexible character build.
Final Fantasy 12
Final Fantasy 12 carried the Final Fantasy 10 torch after a brief interlude with FF 11, an unremarkable RPG version that was released for Playstation 2. While the Final Fantasy MMORPG's have their fans, the franchise has always been more successful with the single-player entries.
The character development system was now a license board, a system that was a bit more linear than the Sphere Grid, but still fun to use and customizable to about the same extent later on in the game. The battle system eliminated random encounters, which was nice in terms of knowing what to expect but was less challenging for the die-hard gamer.
Final Fantasy 13
Final Fantasy 13 takes all of the basic elements that Final Fantasy fans love and serves them up in an HDTV-ready experience that people with older, CRT televisions just will not be able to appreciate. While gameplay is much more linear in 13, the game is really designed to be as pretty as possible. Also remarkable in FF13 is how you seem to be playing in what would previously be considered a cut scene.
FF13 also shows promise in expandability. While the folks at Square haven't hinted at any downloadable content for the game, it is easily expandable if they choose to go that route.
FF13 also tips its hat to its predecessors with various cues on character design and sound. Music at the beginning is very similar to Final Fantasy 12 temple sequences. One of the main characters, Hope, looks remarkably like a younger version of Tidus of FF10. The battle system feels a bit like the combat in X-2, the childish sequel to FF10, only this is a grown-up version that allows you to micromanage character interactions and drop them into different roles (tank, healer, warrior) depending on the battle. While the voice acting is remarkably sub-par in some places for such a highly budgeted game, it is a minor quibble. The electro-ambient soundtrack is a joy to listen to throughout the gameplay.
When racked up against its predecessors, Final Fantasy 13 comes out on top as a standalone game that may not be quite as open-ended as the rest, but is still an absolute joy to play due to the visuals and combat system. Hardcore open-ended gameplay fans may be disappointed, but they should still get the game for the ultimate HDTV Final Fantasy experience.