The terms “iconic” and “definitive” get tossed around so often that they tend to lose their impact when utilized in a context where they’re truly needed, and I feel like this is definitely one of those situations. Final Fantasy is a name that truly defines an RPG sub-genre all its own, having forged an incredible legacy and reputation over three long decades in the gaming industry.
We generally know what to expect when we see a Final Fantasy title, and those expectations tend to be fairly high with good reason. Square consistently goes above and beyond to deliver us the familiar concepts we know and love in this instantly recognizable, internationally acclaimed series while remaining unflinchingly innovative with every new chapter.
With a remake of one of the most widely acclaimed games in the series on the horizon, it seems only fitting to take a few moments and look over the extensive catalog of titles that have kept us company over the years. While Final Fantasy’s running legacy is one of undeniable success, it can hardly be claimed that every release was just as good as the last. High expectations leave an awful lot of room for disappointment, after all.
We’re sorting and ranking twenty five of these iconic games from worst to best. If we don’t do your favorite titles enough justice, don’t be shy— make sure to give us a stern talking to in the comments concerning how massively overrated Final Fantasy VII was, how totally unfair we were with Final Fantasy XIII, or why Crisis Core doesn't even belong on the list.
Well, I don't suppose this one's surprising anyone. Final Fantasy XIV's launch was a disaster, and long derided as an incredible misstep after the relative success of the series' initial MMO outing, Final Fantasy XI. It's doubtful that any Final Fantasy release to date has been met with such passionate fan backlash.
The game was a broken, buggy, and a disappointing grind fest with a terrible UI and uninspired world design on release in 2010, with players and critics less than timid in pointing these things out. It was so terrible that Square Enix understandably rebooted the entirety of it over the next couple of years. But we'll touch on that later down the list.
I'm usually not one to discourage developers from exploring new gameplay directions as they endeavor to expand the universes attached to well-loved franchises, but boy did they ever get this one wrong.
While I'm always happy to get more Final Fantasy VII content, this third person shooter hybrid played very strangely and struggled to reconcile its core setting with the new gameplay direction. Which is a real shame, with leading man Vincent Valentine being one of the more mysterious and intriguing characters from the original Final Fantasy VII lineup, he had a lot of room for exposition. Dirge of Cerberus simply doesn't make good use of its concept.
They tried really hard to make Final Fantasy XIII an interesting game. They tried three times, actually, with Lightning Returns being the third. While it echoes a lot of the things I felt were both right and wrong with the original game, this particular installment included a mechanic that really ground my gears. It included a time limit for each save file. Granted it's a part of the story, but come on. This is a Final Fantasy game.
The concept of a time limit lends a sense of urgency to rushing through the game, which really goes against the whole Final Fantasy experience in my book. When I think Final Fantasy, I think big, open worlds, hours of exploration, and puzzling out secrets. Turning the whole thing into a sprint just doesn't seem that fun.
Despite being an incredibly beautiful looking game packing some interesting and fun combat mechanics, Final Fantasy XIII sort of doubled down on the rail-bound gameplay and plot direction that seems to run counter to the spirit of the series.
The Paradigm system has its quirks, but honestly, its fluid and entertaining. I just have a hard time with a plot so incredibly linear it all but robs the game of the open sense of wonder that makes for a memorable Final Fantasy experience. Director Motomu Toriyama has responded to similar criticisms by saying that it "becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story" when the player is given so much freedom. But if that's the case, why are so many of the earlier Final Fantasy games so incredible?
This title played more like an experiment than anything else, and it certainly didn't come up short in terms of ambition. That may have been what held it back from being great, however. It simply tried to do too much.
Incorporating strategy elements as well as continuing the action-RPG gameplay trend that many Final Fantasy titles have followed, it managed to pull itself off despite being a bit convoluted in terms of both mechanics and plot. The characters, while distinct, don't really seem to offer much to remember them by. All in all, it's a play worthy game, but nothing to write home about.
Crystal Chronicles did what it was designed to do, which was to deliver a solid Final Fantasy title to the GameCube and pull off an entertaining multiplayer experience. And it managed to do both. Well, sort of. And really only arguably, at that.
The multiplayer implementation was a bit cumbersome, necessitating a system link with the Game Boy Advance that, while neat and novel, was a remarkably poor and cumbersome choice when it came to gathering your friends up for a session. As a result, it's actually incredibly difficult to play Crystal Chronicles as it was originally intended on its original hardware. But hey, points for creativity and art direction.
In terms of PSP games, Crisis Core was a pretty decent, even good game. However, in the context of Final Fantasy games, it was a bit of a mixed bag. The visuals were good, and any narrative that further explores the Final Fantasy VII is going to be welcomed with open arms.
While it succeeds in telling a great story through the eyes of Zack Fair, whose point of view we were sorely lacking in the Final Fantasy VII universe, you can't help but feel how thin the actual gameplay is at points, particularly in terms of the battle system. There's not a great deal of customization, and it begins to feel monotonous pretty quickly. That isn't to say that the plot isn't entirely worth the slog, however.
I have a very special place in my heart for Final Fantasy Tactics, so I need you to understand how badly I wanted to love this one. It isn't a bad game by any means, and the essential, Ogre Battle-like gameplay is still well intact.
But the simplified, real-world crossover narrative feels incredibly awkward compared to the original's politically epic story, and falls way short of the incredibly high mark that Final Fantasy Tactics had set in that regard. It's a good game in its own right, but compared to the original it really is just a bit of a disappointing sequel.
We've got to keep in mind that we didn't even see a proper stateside release for this title until 2002. It did see a few updates along the way, but the core game was pretty well dated before reaching mainstream North American audiences that had already been exposed to later titles which had done it better.
All that said, this was still a very important chapter for the series. I mean, it gave us chocobos for one, and at this point you probably have a hard time thinking of the series without imagining those big, yellow horse chickens. The action and skill-based character progression was... well, interesting. But it wouldn't hold as a series staple, to put it lightly. Mixed reception on this particular chapter is understandable.
Dissidia was another attempt to break Final Fantasy out of the RPG box and into fresh territory, this time under the guise of a classic fighting game. The concept is sound— top notch, even. I mean, how does playing out Cloud and Sephiroth's duel in a real time brawl not sound epic?
It really was cool, and fun to boot. While the plot seemed a little forced in order to account for all these fighters from different worlds and universes, I never really do expect great storytelling out of fighter. But with all that said, the Dissidia series is definitely one of the less well known and less played games in the franchise for a reason. It's a decent fighter and an excellent diversion, but it definitely didn't push many boundaries for its genre.
Yes, the old school original fantasy RPG adventure shows its age plenty well. And that's precisely why it doesn't rank any higher. But it gets bumped up a few notches on the list due to the fact that this is where it all started. Credit where it's due, friends. And there's plenty due here.
Credit does have limits, however. While it did introduce this beloved series to the world at large, even the remastered versions may be a tall order for the modern gamer, taken aback by the threadbare plot and difficulty. But for the rest of us, it's just a another stroll down memory lane.
Let's be totally clear that we're not talking about the version of Final Fantasy VI that was released in the States as Final Fantasy III for the SNES. No, we're talking about the original. Although it wouldn't hit North America until 2006 in the form of an overhauled remake for the Nintendo DS, we'll try to take it in context with the rest of the series.
Final Fantasy III was the direct result of Square taking notes during the development and release of its previous two Final Fantasy titles, and it shows in a good way. The vastly improved job system went over well, and the 3D graphics along with other key improvements made in the remake helped this old title bear its age a little more gracefully than most.
Truly direct sequels were once a rarity in the Final Fantasy universe, but it's fast turned into a trend over the past several years. This follow up to Final Fantasy X was definitely one of the bigger, more well received efforts to that end, and the all female leading cast was definitely a fresh take on established convention. But of course, it had issues of its own.
It took a fair bit of criticism for straying even further off base from what longtime fans had come to expect from the series, injecting more action-oriented elements into the battle system and taking a hard left turn into a poppy, more lighthearted atmosphere, parting even further from the decidedly somber themes of preceding titles.
Being honest, Final Fantasy X marked a turning point for the series that I'm not a big fan of. It brought a lot of cool new features and progression mechanics to the table, and I loved that. But the incredibly straightforward, on-the-rails nature of the plot and gameplay in general leave a bad taste in my mouth.
In spite of that considerable shortcoming, the game managed to pack in enough depth, side content and completionist bait to retain a fair bit of replay value. The character work, now featuring voice acted dialogue as a series first, could be hit and miss— well evidenced by Tidus' infamously meme worthy laugh scene. You know the one. But all in all, it's a pretty good time.
The first five numbered Final Fantasy are a pretty interesting showcase of Square's talent when it comes to innovation and improvement, with each title maturing the series' hallmarks while bringing new ideas to the table. Final Fantasy V isn't an exception to this rule, but its contribution seems to fall a little short of the previous four.
Don't get me wrong, the game's great. The characters are great, Faris in particular being a favorite of mine. But really, it kept pace with Final Fantasy IV more than it really polished and pressed forward when it comes to overall design and writing. The story and villain didn't prove incredibly memorable. We did get a throwback to the job system, though.
I don't doubt I could be strung up for this, but seriously, I had to swallow a lot of my pride just to move this as far up the list as I did. It's pretty difficult to argue with how well it resonated with modern audiences, but it's pretty far from being without fault.
The game really did its best to reconcile the old and the new, advancing the more active, action oriented direction that the combat system has been revolving around while bringing a massive, open world back to the forefront. Although the centerpiece of the narrative, the bond between the four protagonists, received a great deal of praise, I feel like it managed to sort of overpower and derail the greater scope of the plot, feeling more like a road trip simulator than an epic adventure more often than not.
There's a lot to be unpacked here. This was the first single player, mainline title to totally abandon random encounters and explore an almost entirely new battle system, which actually worked out rather well. This newer, more three dimensional combat system went miles as far as really breathing new life into the series. And this iteration of Ivalice certainly was heavy with content.
However, the plot really didn't hold together too well, so deeply mired in politics that it fell a little flat by the second half. The "license board" method of character progression felt a bit cumbersome and awkward, and the characters themselves ranged from delightfully intriguing, like Balthier and Fran, to incredibly annoying, such as leading man and war orphan Vaan.
There were a lot of good ideas at play here, from the interesting and fresh take on the combat system and summons to the eerie and deeply cerebral plot. However, it was definitely one of the more polarizing games in the series.
There are flaws, certainly. The hard turn into a very young adult themed narrative, sudden embrace of realistically rendered characters and locales, and awkward magic system did little to fend off criticism. The big issue, really, probably stands in its proximity to Final Fantasy VII. It seems like VIII tried really hard to capitalize on the success of its big brother's stylistic direction, and conversely, resulted in a lot of unfair comparisons.
The ninth numbered installment reads like a love letter to the origins of the series while managing to pack in just enough modernization and quality of life improvements to resonate with its audience.
The return to its high fantasy roots, no-frills open world exploration and refreshingly classic equipment and progression systems, sprinkled with a few modern twists, are particular high points to be appreciated here. The only downside I can think to mention is that while certainly a decent throwback to the classics, the plot doesn't particularly shine, feeling a bit predictable and formulaic in spite of a varied and lovingly rendered cast.
It's hardly fair to mention the absolute trainwreck that was Final Fantasy XIV without bringing up the remarkable comeback story it laid the groundwork for. The story here definitely is one for the ages, but I'll do my best to give you the skinny of it.
The transition was nothing short of masterful, tied to several in-game events and updates that culminated in an apocalyptic event known as a Calamity. What emerged from the ashes was, for lack of better terminology, a much better game. New and revamped progression mechanics, a vibrantly redesigned world, and new content barely scratch the surface in terms of the steps taken to ensure that Final Fantasy XIV was, truly, A Realm Reborn.
I think that this is where things really started to come together in terms of memorable characters and impressive storytelling. It was gripping, deep, and character-driven as opposed to the more "broad strokes" style of the previous three games. And all this glosses over the introduction of the ATB battle system, greatly improving the pace of combat.
While the lack of a job system did remove some player freedom, we received a cast of unique and personality forward characters that I'd gladly take in exchange. The adventures of Cecil and company were rife with juicy drama and emotionally gripping character arcs that would become a definitive, and necessary, component of all future Final Fantasy titles.
Placing one of the MMO entries of the series this high on the list might rub a few people the wrong way, but this game did a lot for the franchise. It showed us that you really could take the world of Final Fantasy online in a big way, and helped to really break MMORPG's into the console market.
To make the long story short, it's everything we love about Final Fantasy meeting everything we love about MMORPGs, great RPG gameplay and engrossing stories experienced alongside real people in a persistent, online world. That's a big thing, if we need to state the obvious. It may not hold up very well against more contemporary MMORPG selections, but it was the first game to take Final Fantasy online. And it did so in incredibly fine fashion.
I'm sure a lot of you would rather see this title take the top spot, and I can't pretend to not understand why, honestly. This really is the game that launched the Final Fantasy series into legendary status, cementing it as a household name for the years to come.
This title took stylistic risks that paid off in a big way, entirely embracing a futuristic, science-fiction spin on its classically high fantasy elements. The story and cast are simply unforgettable, with Cloud, Aeris, and Sephiroth being instantly recognizable even by non-fans. The nostalgia is as heavy as a bag of bricks with this one, which is why so many would rate it as the best Final Fantasy game of all time.
Again, likely another controversial pick on my part, but the world of Ivalice as seen in Final Fantasy Tactics is nothing short of artistry. The incredibly massive scope of the narrative elements is extraordinary, absolutely rich with the drama and political intrigue surrounding main character Ramza's epic tale of betrayal, loss, and thankless redemption.
The strategic battle system is deep and satisfyingly complex, fusing elements of Ogre Battle and the Final Fantasy series so well that you'd swear they were made to be together. Really, this is no less of a Final Fantasy game than any other title that introduced fundamental changes to mechanics, and you're doing yourself an extreme disservice if you've passed it up on those grounds.
Oh, yes. We put Final Fantasy VI right here, on the top. Because that's where it belongs. Following titles would see greater commercial success, sure, but this is the game that really showed the gaming world what the series was capable of in terms of impressively deep, expansive content, and truly epic storytelling. In a nutshell, there's almost no end to the ways in which this game paved the way for Final Fantasy VII's unprecedented success.
The extensive cast is incredibly well realized, with each character feeling distinctly human as they struggle through the bleak, dystopian narrative. Side plots, optional content, and secrets practically litter the world map, and the familiar progression mechanics are streamlined without feeling cheap or watered down. Also, Kefka's a much more compelling and memorable villain than Sephiroth is. Change my mind.