These two things are what matter most in a game to me. And they matter more when it comes to RPG’s and especially Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy games are known for great stories or great gameplay. But only a few have both. Three of them, in fact.
In this feature, I will walk through each Final Fantasy (minus spin offs, sequels and that online thing) and tell my thoughts on each game’s true strength: story or gameplay.
Final Fantasy I
Obviously, this one has better gameplay than story. The story is barely there and serves only to give you something to do. The are no individual characters in the game, you name your party and choose their classes. This level of customization is what makes gameplay win out. Want to have 4 black mages? Go ahead. 3 thieves and a red mage? Have at it. Trying out so many different styles made me play this game over and over when I was a kid. Great gameplay, although dated and a poor story.
Final Fantasy II
Ugh. Story wins, hands down. What was it about? I don’t remember and I don’t care. It was nothing groundbreaking, I assure you. So why does story win over gameplay? Because the gameplay was the worst in the series. Here’s how you leveled your party: want to increase HP? Have a character be damaged. Over and over. Whatever you do, is what increases. So if you want a higher Cure spell, keep casting and don’t stop. It was the kind of game where you keep some poor Imp alive for 45 minutes, casting Cure on him, attacking your own party just to level your stats. What a bore.
Final Fantasy III
Story is once again typical RPG fare, but the game introduces the Job System and what a joy it is! Switching from job to job, learning new abilities and finding new strategies is what RPGs are made for! I don’t like how at the end of the game, you are pretty much forced into certain classes in order to succeed, but it doesn’t detract from the core gameplay experience.
Final Fantasy IV
This is one of only three games in the series that excels in both areas. The gameplay, the first to introduce Active Time Battle, where the AI doesn’t wait for your turn, they just pound away on you while you decide what you will do, is so fun. There is not a lot of customization as each character is set in their job class already, but they come and go so often that the party is constantly in flux.
Plus, since your Black Mage can’t fight as well as your Paladin or Dragoon, actual strategy is needed to win the battles. And the story, which spans the world, plus a moon and the underground realm, is full of humor, melodrama and lots of twists and turns. Never assume anyone is dead. One of the true greats of the series.
Final Fantasy V
Another case of a lackluster story, standard as can be, but great gameplay. It takes the Job System used in FFIII and expands upon it greatly. This is a game that I found to be very hard, but once you find those sweet combinations of job abilities to use, it becomes a cakewalk. Probably the best gameplay in the series, only the story keeps it from attaining true greatness.
Final Fantasy VI
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that this is my all-time favorite game. And it is the second FF to have a great story and great gameplay. The story is about an Empire and a rebellion. Sound familiar? Yeah, but it takes a lot of turns and in this one, the villain actually succeeds in devastating the world. The main reason the story is great, though, is because of the characters. With 14 playable characters, it has the most variety of all the FF games. Plus, they are fun and diverse and some are plain awesome.
Even if one character is more powerful, you might not take them with you just because you want that lovable moogle, Mog in your party. The gameplay is also great. By the end of the game, everyone can use magic, but they are not clones of each other. Each one has a unique ability that only they can use. Sabin can use martial arts attacks, Mog dances and Shadow can throw weapons and ninja stars. All this makes for one hell of a lot of fun when making your party.
Final Fantasy VII
This one is going to get me in trouble. Good story, so-so gameplay. The story of Cloud and Sephiroth is loved by gamers the world over. I loved it when I first played it, as well. Looking back, I find it to be a little convoluted for my taste, but the reason it wins out here is simply because the gameplay is so very bland. The Materia system involves a whole lot of random battles in order to learn new skills and spells, which would not be such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that every party member is identical.
Cloud may be stronger than Yuffie, but other than his Limit Break, there is no reason to have him in a battle instead of her. This I didn’t care for even when I first played it. It made battles lose any strategic value since all you had to do was spam Knights of the Round and Bahamut. Good story, but lacking in gameplay.
Final Fantasy VIII
This is one where I really don’t know which is better. The story is decent, kind of confusing and I hate when the villain at the end turns out to be someone you haven’t even heard of until that moment. The new Junction system, once you get the hang of it, is pretty fun, but its rough to sit through those way too long summon animations. I think story wins out on this one for that and for having to draw magic from monsters. Keeping some flan alive to steal 99 water spells is not what I had in mind when I signed up.
Final Fantasy IX
Another great game that I love. The gameplay wins out here, as the story, which I have mostly forgotten, is good, but not great. I love the Ability system and the return of job classes. These add a strategic element which the past games were missing. Being able to add abilities was a small level of customization, but it was a nice touch. A truly underrated game.
Final Fantasy X
Spira was a unique world that was created in this game and the whole concept and history of it played into the story. I very much enjoyed the story, even if Tidus was a pain in my ass (and ears). But the reason the gameplay is not as good is the much vaunted Sphere Grid. We were told it would allow unlimited personal customization…which it did…but only at the end of the game, practically! You had to traverse the whole path set out for your character and only then were you able to go on your own path. Sure, if you took the time to find certain items, you could have done it sooner, but that was too much of a pain for most people.
Plus, the battle system was annoying. Want to level up Auron? Better hope there are no flying fiends nearby because he can’t hit them, making him useless. You have to actually find the right enemies that characters can kill in order to make them useful. Which sucks. Don’t get me wrong: great game, just not compared to others in the series.
Final Fantasy XII:
The third and final game to have both great gameplay and a great story. Sure, the story is a little like Star Wars, but at least they steal from the best. Plus, the story is about nations at war, with epic battles, not a bunch of emo teens with crappy hair running around whining and saving the world with equal ease. The gameplay, however, is stellar. This made me love Final Fantasy again after a somewhat sour taste left by FFX. The Gambit and License Board, which eliminated random battles, added a ton of strategy to the game and let you make your character however you wanted, is exactly what was needed. This game gets a lot of crap, but take it from someone who has been there since the beginning: it’s amazing and better than most games in the series.
And there you have it. So you know, I prefer gameplay to story, because even a great story can’t overcome crappy gameplay. What do you guys think of this topic and of my opinions regarding this revered franchise?