Ranking The Final Fantasy Series
The Final Fantasy franchise has a massive dedicated following, and gamers all have their favorite installments. The best and worst entries are often debated among friends and fans, with no clear winners. Everybody seems to have an opinion, so here's mine.
I've been playing Final Fantasy since the original's release on the NES, and have played every installment in the series. That doesn't make my opinion more valuable than anyone else's, but it does put me in a position to compare and rank the games based on my experiences. Keep in mind that these are my personal rankings, not some official Game Informer stance on the subject.
Note that this list only covers the 14 core Final Fantasy games. Extensions (Final Fantasy X-2), spin-offs (Final Fantasy Tactics), mash-togethers (Dissidia), and unreleased titles (Final Fantasy Versus XIII) aren't included. Ranking everything bearing the Final Fantasy name during the franchise's nearly 25 years would be a daunting task, so I'll just stick to the main numbered titles. Plus, remembering projects like Dirge of Cerberus just depresses me.
On that note, what better place to start than at the bottom?
14. Final Fantasy XIV
To call Final Fantasy XIV's development and release "troubled" would be charitable. Calling it a "train wreck" is more apt, considering that even Square Enix president Yoichi Wada declared that the game "greatly damaged" the Final Fantasy brand. Normally, I'm against judging a game until I've given it a fair shot, and I haven't played Final Fantasy XIV long enough to level any specific complaints against it. However, of all the games on this list, this is the only one that I have no desire to play under any circumstance. So, by default, it goes in last place.
13. Final Fantasy II
Because it wasn't originally localized and released Stateside, I didn't play Final Fantasy II until it was packaged as part of Final Fantasy Origins on PSone. By that time, I had already finished Final Fantasy VIII, and stepping backwards isn't easy. I don't have anything against playing older titles, but the dumb leveling system and dull story in this entry fail to immerse players in the world or the combat. Nostalgia is a powerful force when it comes to ranked lists like this, and I think Final Fantasy II might have placed higher if I had played it in its proper time and place.
12. Final Fantasy III
Similar to Final Fantasy II, this entry didn't release in North America on its native system. Instead, we got our first official release with the Final Fantasy III remake on DS. As a series enthusiast, this game is interesting because you see early forms of ideas before they were refined and included in later games (like the jobs of FF V), but the storytelling and pacing just aren't up to the standards set by other Final Fantasy titles. I'm pretty sure FF III marks the first appearance of Moogles, though, so that's worth something.
11. Final Fantasy XI
Final Fantasy XI was my first MMO, and in a time before World of Warcraft, I was amazed by what the genre offered. The game sets aside the narrative-driven experience most players associate with the Final Fantasy name, but it still feels like a true entry in the series. Even though I never got to the high-level content, I still spent just as much time immersed in Vana'diel as I did with any other FF installment. I stopped playing this before WoW even released, and once I saw how much hassle Blizzard's title eliminated from the MMO grind, I never went back. However, for a few short months, I absolutely loved Final Fantasy XI.
10. Final Fantasy IX
Following the high-tech settings in FF VII and VIII, Final Fantasy IX brings the series back to its roots, relying on high fantasy, classic visuals, and a story about a crystal. The throwback works well thanks to the fantastic ensemble cast – Steiner and Vivi stealing the spotlight away from supposed protagonist (and dude with a stupid tail) Zidane. The story starts great but gets progressively crazier due to Sephiroth-wannabe villain Kuja. As the last entry on the original PlayStation, FF IX pushes the system to its limits; I remember being floored by the spell effects and summon animations, though combat moves too slowly for my taste – even with the battle speed cranked up.
9. Final Fantasy V
Two words: Job system. This versatile and complex aspect of Final Fantasy V allows players unprecedented control over their party members' abilities. I could talk about other commendable parts of this game, like the story and the soundtrack, but my enjoyment (and this game's ranking) is based solely on building and customizing a party of unstoppable warriors. Earning new jobs and trying out different combinations are the incentives that keep you going through this adventure, though the characters and plot are nice bonuses on the side.
8. Final Fantasy
I have to give fair credit to the game that started it all. Yes, the story is practically non-existent, the four main characters don't speak, and you can only save from the overworld. However, considering that Final Fantasy was one of the early building blocks of an entire genre, it's importance to recognize how much the game accomplished. Successfully translating concepts from paper-and-pencil tabletop games (like D&D), Final Fantasy brought an epic adventure to life for me in a way that was previously only possible in my imagination. This game is responsible for kindling my lifelong affinity for role-playing games.
7. Final Fantasy XII
One of the great things about this series is that it reinvents itself with each entry. Final Fantasy XII is a drastic reimagining of combat and progression for the series, and those changes have earned FF XII legions of devoted fans. Personally, I wish this one had stuck a little closer to the series' comfort zone. While the game is well-executed and adheres closely to a clear vision for its design, that vision is too broad and undirected for it to contend with the heavy hitters on this list. I love the license grid and gambit system conceptually, but in practice, they bring the pacing to a grinding halt as you spend your time in menus tinkering. It doesn't help that the story seems more concerned with its own subtle political machinery than delivering a captivating tale…but Fran and Balthier are there to save the day.
6. Final Fantasy XIII
If FF XII is too open and unfocused, Final Fantasy XIII swings in the opposite direction. Many gamers complain about its linearity, but that wasn't really a problem for me. My chief complaint was how the story made no sense whatsoever. So, how does an RPG with a lousy story rank #6 on this list? The battle system. FF XIII has my favorite battle system of any Final Fantasy title, hands-down. Instead of micromanaging individual actions, you have the satisfaction of guiding the flow of a kinetic, ever-changing encounter. I don't even care that the plot falls apart, because as long as I'm fighting something in FF XIII, I'm happy.
5. Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy VIII has its fair share of detractors, but I'm not one of them. I love the idea of an elite student strike force, and the plot does a great job delivering on that concept. I also enjoyed the way the relationship between Squall and Rinoa developed – which is really more the game's focus, as opposed to the threat of world destruction. People like to complain about the need to draw magic from enemies, but the Junction system (which allows you to augment your stats with spells) is a fun way to customize your characters, especially if you're interested in optimization and overpowering your party. Many elements of FF VIII aren't what people were expecting from the Final Fantasy name, especially on the heels of FF VII, but it's still one of my favorite RPGs on the PlayStation.
4. Final Fantasy VII
Cloud! Sephiroth! Materia! Everyone loves Final Fantasy VII, and with good reason. It set the standard for the RPGs of its generation and introduced jaw-dropping cinematic sequences as rewards for progressing through the story. The grim world controlled by a mega-corporation, the rebels fighting against them, and the iconic villain all contribute to making FF VII one of the most fondly remembered games in the series. Maybe there's some subconscious "it's super-popular so I like it less" pushback going on in my head, but for all of the great things in this game, not even Sephiroth has what it takes to break into my top 3.
3. Final Fantasy IV
This was the game that made me realize that games are capable of telling nuanced stories, with compelling characters and conflicting motivations. It also made me realize that airships are totally awesome. Final Fantasy IV has a dark knight, a spaceship shaped like a whale, and a fun turn-based battle system. Cast members rotate in and out of your party as the story demands, forcing you to change your strategies and adapt to new abilities. It has emotional moments, an outstanding soundtrack, and two badass old dudes who are powerful mages. All of these elements combine to form a nearly perfect storm of RPG mechanics and conventions that make FF IV a game I can always play and enjoy.
2. Final Fantasy X
From a storytelling perspective, Final Fantasy X is the most sophisticated entry in the series to date. Themes like journey, family, and duty constantly weave through the main plot, delivered through characters that feel right at home in the sad and desolate world. The introduction of voice acting makes the experience more immersive than ever, and the bittersweet soundtrack helps make Spira the most believable Final Fantasy setting. Unlike some other installments, the story doesn't fly off the rails towards the end, either; it stays focused and delivers an extremely satisfying payoff because of it. The battle system adds an action queue, so you can see when your allies and enemies will act, allowing more strategy than typical turn-based combat. Rarely can a game fire on all cylinders the way that FF X does, nailing everything on both gameplay and narrative fronts.
1. Final Fantasy VI
Not only is this my favorite Final Fantasy title..it's my favorite RPG, period. I've gushed about it before, and played it so much that I know it backwards and forwards. Even after all the time I've spent with Final Fantasy VI, I never get sick of it. The cast is so good that I can't pick a favorite character…Sabin, Edgar, Locke, Terra, Celes, Cyan, Shadow – how can you choose? Plus, most of them have unique abilities, so each one stands out in the turn-based encounters. The memorable moments just keep coming: the intro with the Magitek soldiers approaching Narsche, flying the airships in Mode 7, the end of the world, not to mention Kefka and his manic laugh. The structure of the story is the best of both worlds (wah wah), with a linear and story-driven first half followed by a freeform and open second half. With a story that deftly mixes humor and emotion, stunning and unexpected twists, and rock-solid gameplay mechanics, no other role-playing game can compete with Final Fantasy VI.
That's it for my favorites. Discuss yours in the comments below! If you want to hear more Final Fantasy-related debate, check out our special edition Final Fantasy podcast.