Under a Crystal Sky

The Enduring Saga(s) of Final Fantasy

A look at the history and impact of the Final Fantasy series.

In the United States, for many years, Square’s (now Square-Enix) Final Fantasy series was regarded as the premier role-playing game series on consoles. Indeed, until Final Fantasy VII proved that RPGs could sell in the U.S., Final Fantasy was the only console RPG series that mattered. Some people will no doubt point out that many people acquired the original Dragon Warrior via a Nintendo Power giveaway. I ask those people to consider why Nintendo distributed unwanted Dragon Warrior cartridges at the price of $0 back when NES games were a valuable commodity that had to be begged and pleaded for [ 1 ]. To be fair, the actual price was a subscription to Nintendo Power, which cost $15. Still, $15 is far cheaper than the ~$50 a typical NES game cost, even disregarding the value of the subscription.

The story of how Final Fantasy came to be is a fascinating one. Up until this point, Square made a variety of games, including two games (Rad Racer and 3-D Worldrunner) whose main gimmick was that they had a separate “3-D Mode” that you activated by pressing Select and putting on red-and-blue glasses. The games were modest successes but not successful enough to keep Square out of dire financial straits. Its next game would either save the company or sink it. Square originally decided on Fighting Fantasy as the name of the game. The only issue was that, like Dragon Quest to Dragon Warrior, the name Fighting Fantasy was taken by a series of roleplaying books which eventually branched out into board games. The title was changed to Final Fantasy as a result of this. Hironobu Sakaguchi noted, “Those days definitely seemed like end times, but honestly, any word that started with ‘F’ would’ve been fine” [ 2 ].

Being the very last video game Squaresoft intended to produce before bankruptcy, the eponymous Final Fantasy was such a success that it spawned two Japan-exclusive sequels before finally revisiting the U.S. on the SNES.

Of course, that name would prove silly, 15 main games and many, many spinoff games later. Final Fantasy was a revelation compared to its peers of the time. Whereas most RPGs, and many games not in the role-playing genre, had “save the princess” as either the main, or at least a high-priority objective, rescuing Princess Sara was little more than a warm-up in Final Fantasy. Her recovery causes the King of Corneria to build you a bridge; on crossing it, you get a credits sequence, and some text that amounts to, “Okay, now the REAL game starts.”

Despite the plot being a step beyond “save the princess,” it”s still simplistic by today’s standards. Four Warriors of Light have come to the land of Final Fantasy, each one carrying an orb. Only by re-lighting the Orbs and defeating the four elemental fiends can the world be saved. The plot doesn’t twist or turn much more than that, although some of the lore of the world is filled in as you progress through the game.

Unlike Dragon Quest, which has always stuck to a high medieval fantasy motif, or Phantasy Star, which by-and-large opts for a more futuristic aesthetic, Final Fantasy takes its cue from early Ultima games, right down to an end-game time travel plot. There are castles and traditional medieval weapons like swords, but there’s also an airship, a floating techno-tower, and the aforementioned time-travel. In this way, it blends fantasy and science-fiction more so than either of its console contemporaries. 

Final Fantasy is also more directly influenced by Dungeons & Dragons than either Dragon Quest or Phantasy Star. The spell system, in contrast to the other two series that use a single “pool” of Magic Points, breaks the spells down into levels, and gives you a certain number of charges per level (up to nine). The influence from Dungeons & Dragons was so strong, in fact, that Final Fantasy’s bestiary could best be described as “borrowed” from D&D [ 3 ]. Marilith, the six-armed snake creature from Dungeons & Dragons lore, was changed to “Kary” for the initial NES release, and the same goes for the Beholder (changed to “Phantom”). This was likely done because Square knew it was borrowing a little too closely from its inspiration [ 4 ].

Japan Gets Two More Final Fantasy Games

Final Fantasy was a success in both Japan and in the United States. Not long after this, Japan would see a sequel, Final Fantasy II. For whatever reason, though, FFII wouldn’t see official release in the States until the Final Fantasy Origins collection in 2003, which fixed some bugs and enhanced the audio-visual presentation (note that I’ll be using the names of people and places from the Dawn of Souls Game Boy Advance collection). Final Fantasy II’s plot is a step up from the originals. It concerns four orphans whose kingdom, Fynn, gets taken over by the Emperor of Palamecia. The orphans get wiped out by a group of the Emperor’s Black Knights. Three of the four come to in the village of Altair and ingratiate themselves into the rebel movement’s battle to destroy the empire.

Unlike the original Final Fantasy, where your characters were mute protagonists as the plot happened around them, Final Fantasy II’s plot goes deeper, as characters drop in and out of the fourth slot in your party, and people and villages die “for real,” get taken over, get liberated, and so on. Advancing the plot is done by talking to major characters using a keyword system like a mid-period Ultima game or the SNES version of Wizardry V [ 5 ].

The system of advancing your characters has also changed. The idea of the system is “you get better at the things you use,” like a proto-Elder Scrolls. Each weapon type has its own individual level, and the more you use a weapon, the better you get at it. The same goes for spells and stats—attacking more raises your Strength, taking damage raises your HP and Vitality, and so on. It’s a good idea and a more realistic system than the more traditional abstraction of “fight enemies, get experience, get stronger in everything.” The idea, however, falls apart in the execution; where due to quirks within the system the quickest way to advance tends to be to attack your own party members. 

Almost nobody would regard Final Fantasy II as one of the best games in the series. It is one of the most important games in the series in terms of dictating where it would go in the future (to say nothing of the fact that Akitoshi Kawazu, one of the developers of FFII, would go on to incorporate many of its gameplay ideas in the SaGa series, especially the character advancement system). Whereas the Dragon Quest series more or less found an identity and clung to it for better or worse, Final Fantasy II established Final Fantasy as the JRPG series that would constantly span new worlds and try new things with the gameplay, even if those ideas wouldn’t always work in practice.

Final Fantasy II took many years before being released in the U.S. The next game, Final Fantasy III, would take even longer—and indeed, the official releases the States have gotten have been remakes more so than straight re-releases. FFIII kicks off on a floating continent where four orphans explore a cave near the village of Ur. In that cave, they come across a crystal that grants them power and tells them to restore balance to the world. 

Final Fantasy III brings back the concept of important elemental items from the first game. This time, instead of Orbs, there are Crystals which grant various jobs—classes, essentially—to your characters. There are points in the game where you’ll be almost forced to use a specific class to defeat various bosses. It’s also the first in the series to have unique commands in battle beyond just “Fight/Item/Magic/Run.” Dragoons, for instance, have a Jump command where they leave the screen for a time, then deal double damage with their attack when they come down. The experience system from the first game returns, with a few twists. Job Points are a currency of sorts that are spent to switch from job to job. You can also power up your individual classes in addition to your overall level. 

In terms of the scope of the game, Final Fantasy III is the first game to show a world beyond that in which you start. Indeed, the floating continent you begin the game on is a small part of the much larger world you eventually visit. I remember the sense of awe I felt when realizing this for the first time, even though I was a veteran of most of the other FF games released at that time. 

Final Fantasy Returns to the States

The first three Final Fantasy games were released on the Famicom. Explaining why FFIII never got an NES release, Hiromichi Tanaka said: “[…] we were working so hard to catch up on the [SNES] technology that we didn’t have enough manpower to work on an English version of Final Fantasy III—we were just totally focused on developing FFIII and FFIV[ 6 ]

Indeed, Final Fantasy IV would be the first FF on the then-new Super Famicom platform, and the first since the original to see a timely U.S. release, albeit in an altered form. For FFIV, Square sought to incorporate the best elements from the first three games, beginning with the relatively deep plot of Final Fantasy II. FFIV kicks off with Cecil, a Dark Knight and Captain of the Red Wings of Baron, traveling to the town of Mysidia to take its Water Crystal. Feeling remorse for slaughtering some of the villagers, who didn’t even put up a fight, Cecil questions the King of Baron about why he needed the Crystal and gets stripped of his command for his insubordination. He and his friend Kain, a Dragoon, are ordered to go to the Village of Mist, unbeknownst to them to bring a Bomb Ring to the village. From here, the plot twists and turns, bringing in the idea of a second set of Crystals, a sealed cave, and even going to the Moon. 

In terms of scope, FFIV expands on FFIII by giving you three distinct realms to visit—above ground, underground, and the Moon. It also incorporates the various jobs from Final Fantasy III, albeit not allowing free switching from job to job. Instead, each of the many characters who join and leave your party have a specific job, typically with a unique command (although the original U.S. release, called Final Fantasy II to account for the U.S. not getting the actual FFII and FFIII at the time, stripped many of these commands out). Yang the Monk, for instance, has a Kick attack that hits all enemies at once. Final Fantasy IV also allows a maximum of five characters in your party, rather than the four that had been FF tradition to this point.

Final Fantasy IV was also the first game in the series to move toward a real-time battle system. Instead of “queue everyone’s commands, then watch the entire turn of battle play out,” enemies will continually attack you as you wait for your commands to come up in Final Fantasy IV. This lends a sense of urgency to finding the spells and items you want to use and is a system that would be used in some form for the next several Final Fantasy games. 

Final Fantasy V

The multiple realms concept would also find its way into Final Fantasy V, as well as Final Fantasy VI. FFV would become the third game in the series to avoid the U.S. for a time, first appearing in the PlayStation’s Final Fantasy Anthology with a noteworthy (bad) translation and long load times. The plot of Final Fantasy V once again revolves around four elemental Crystals, whose powers help keep the world in balance. Eventually, the winds begin to slow, and the King of Tycoon, the father of a princess named Lenna (again, there are several translations; I’ll be referring to the Final Fantasy V Advance version in using names), goes to the Wind Palace to investigate. Simultaneously, a man named Bartz is adventuring with his Chocobo, Boco. He finds a recently landed meteorite, at the site of which is a man with amnesia named Galuf. The three go to investigate the Crystals while simultaneously helping Galuf regain his memory. 

Whereas FFIV wanted to be taken seriously despite some ridiculous moments, Final Fantasy V, especially in the Advance translation, approaches its ridiculousness with a knowing wink, and more-or-less asks you from the start “are you in, or out?” This makes itself most evident by Ghido, the turtle sage who makes a Ninja Turtles reference late in the game, or Gilgamesh, who is one of the first examples of a comically ineffectual and yet lovable villain in the series. 

Final Fantasy V is not ridiculous, however, in its advancement system. The game is an expansion of the idea of Final Fantasy III’s job classes, with a few changes. First, once you unlock a class, you can freely switch to and from it at any time. Once again, jobs have their own individual levels, but this time around, you can attach a single learned skill to your character regardless of their class—want a Knight who can also use White Magic? How about a dual-casting Summoner? You can do both of those things, and many other combinations besides. There’s also a Freelancer class whose main strength is that they can equip two abilities instead of one, and gain stat boosts based on the classes that character has mastered. This lends itself to a nearly infinite number of combinations and ways to play the game, and for added replay value, the classes that turn out to be the strongest aren’t the ones you would think on just a casual play through.

While it wouldn’t see an official release in the U.S. until 2000, FFV was influential in a different way: it was one of the first games to receive an unofficial fan translation into English [ 7 ]. This kicked off the fan translation scene in the U.S. As a side effect of this, for a time, role-playing game fans regarded the Super Famicom as the greatest console ever for JRPGs (an equally likely explanation is that the Super Famicom had as many bad RPGs as any other system. Those just didn’t get translated to the Super NES, officially or by fans).

Final Fantasy VI

To this point, the series alternated between a small cast of main characters in the odd-numbered games, and larger ones in the even-numbered games. That pattern would hold in Final Fantasy VI, which midway through the game arguably changes its main character. The game begins with a half-human/half-Esper, Terra, under the control of the Empire. She participates in an imperial raid of the mountain town of Narshe, along with two Empire soldiers who are searching for an Esper rumored to be in the area. The party finds the Esper, but Terra kills the soldiers and breaks free of their control. However, she has amnesia about who she is. Besides Terra, there are a whopping 13 other playable characters, and halfway through the game, the focus (such that it is) switches to Celes, a former general of the Empire who has grown to detest its practices. 

Final Fantasy IV and V both more-or-less adhere to a three-act structure, delineated by the first time you visit various realms or world. Final Fantasy VI dispenses with this, opting for two clear halves that, structurally, play like two separate games. The first half plays like a rather linear JRPG. The second dispenses with this in favor of a new open-world experience. As mentioned before, there are a total of 14 playable characters. You can collect all of them, or as few as three, or any number in between before moving to the final tower to try and finish the game. While it’s an interesting mid-game shift in tone, the result can come off as losing the plot somewhat; one person I spoke with years ago said roughly, “By the time I got to the final dungeon, I had kind of forgotten why I was supposed to want to kill the final boss in the first place.”

In any event, Final Fantasy VI’s advancement system attaches spells to items (or more accurately, to Espers you equip your characters with). Equipping an Esper causes you to learn spells at varying rates, depending on the Esper equipped. Fight enough enemies and acquire enough Ability Points to get your learn rate up to 100 percent, and you learn the spell. Additionally, some Espers give stat boosts when they’re equipped when your character levels up and sneakily, this is the only way to boost character stats except HP and MP.

As opposed to the earlier games, where spells were either bought or inherently learned at a certain experience level, this allows any, all, or none of your characters to become archwizards or brawlers or some combination thereof. Accessories allow a similar equipping of what were previously class-specific commands to further allow customization options. Final Fantasy VI saw U.S. localization on its release, as Final Fantasy III. Unlike Final Fantasy II, the mechanics of the game are fully intact this time around, although there is some wacky censorship that was characteristic of early ’90s Nintendo of America, such as “Holy” becoming “Pearl” and a “Leap of Faith” that was anything but in the Japanese release.

Final Fantasy VII: Shaking the U.S. Video Game Industry

Super Mario Bros. literally revived the U.S. video game industry. The original Sonic the Hedgehog unleashed a flood of animals with attitude on the gaming market. The seventh Final Fantasy game would be just as influential in the U.S., proving that RPGs could be mainstream. It was also the first Final Fantasy game released on a CD-based system. It was massive, spanning three CDs to tell its story. That story begins with Cloud Strife, a former member of a paramilitary group called SOLDIER, helping out a resistance group called Avalanche with a mission. Avalanche is fighting back against Shinra, a massive corporation with a corresponding amount of political and social influence that doesn’t use that influence for good. Of course, not all is as it seems, especially with Cloud’s past. He, and other members of Avalanche, are drawn into a fight to save the entire world from obliteration.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series to allow you to move through the world in more directions than up/down/left/right. Indeed, it’s the first game in the series to have dimensions in its movement, in that some exits are “further into” the screen. This allows for a number of different perspectives in rooms, adding to the variety of the experience. 

The spell system of Final Fantasy VII involved something called Materia. Any spells were directly attached to the Materia, meaning spells could be transferred from character to character. However, a character who unequipped the Materia lost the spells attached to it. Leveling up the Materia could do one of two things: either unlocking new spells/effects or increasing the number of times the Materia’s effect could be used in a single battle.

In the U.S., Final Fantasy VII benefited from a media blitz not seen for an RPG since the original Final Fantasy got three issues of Nintendo Power coverage, plus its own NP strategy guide. I distinctly remember receiving a video regarding the making of FFVII [ 8 ], and commercials for the game even made it into the movies—my cousin mentioned seeing one during the previews of Seven Years in Tibet. This was the game’s main legacy in the U.S.; prior to this JRPGs were a decidedly niche genre in the States. Final Fantasy VII changed all that, proving that RPGs could sell just as much as any other genre. Accurate sales figures for games are notoriously hard to come by but estimates for worldwide sales of FFVII put it somewhere close to 10 million copies sold worldwide [ 9 ].

Final Fantasy VIII

Given its massive success, it was inevitable that, like the six before it, Final Fantasy VII wouldn’t be the “final” fantasy at all. The next game in the series, Final Fantasy VIII, would prove a bit more polarizing, although it too sold multiple millions of copies [ 10 ]. FFVIII revolves around Squall Leonhart, a prospective member of SeeD, an elite mercenary force. At the onset of the game, the kingdom of Galbadia invades the Dollet Dukedom, forcing SeeD to render aid to Dollet. This also serves as the final exam for Squall and his fellow cadets, which they complete successfully. It soon comes out that a sorceress named Edea is behind the invasions, and Squall and his companions set off to stop her.

The system of advancing your characters in Final Fantasy VIII is one of the most unique in the series, and the most “out there” relative to the rest of the series since FFII. You don’t buy or “learn” magic spells at all. Rather, you draw them out of enemies or from specific sparkly spots in the world. Each draw gives you a certain quantity of that spell. Furthermore, by utilizing Guardian Forces (essentially this game’s version of “Espers”), you can junction spells to your stats, making yourself stronger. While there is the traditional kill-enemies-to-get-experience-to-level-up system in place in addition to this, the game isn’t clear about the fact that doing so causes enemies to scale in level with you. Counter-intuitively, this makes a low-level game, where you junction crazy spells to your stats but don’t actually kill enemies to level up, the easiest way to get through it. As with FFII, the concept is a novel one, but the execution has some issues.

Final Fantasy IX

Regardless, as the Famicom was the platform for the first three Final Fantasy titles, and the Super Famicom held FFIV through FFVI, the PlayStation would wind up with its own Final Fantasy trilogy. Final Fantasy IX would, in many ways, be a love letter to the previous eight games in the series—“The Crystal Comes Back” was the tagline on the back of the box. Like the rest of the series, it wouldn’t be directly related to any of the other games in it, although references to the previous games abound within. 

The main character of FFIX is a young thief named Zidane Tribal, who is a good deal more happy-go-lucky than Cloud or Squall. Zidane is a part of a band of thieves called Tantalus, who masquerade as a theatre troupe. They kidnap Garnet, the Princess of Alexandria, and the game proceeds from there. 

The advancement system in Final Fantasy IX revolves around equipping weapons to learn abilities. Besides Experience Points, you’re given a bank of points to equip various learned abilities and each ability takes a certain number of points to equip. Some of these abilities are passive, while others are tied directly to your equipment.

Final Fantasy IX was released to much critical acclaim—indeed, while an American FF fan will probably name FFIV, FFVI, or FFVII as one of their favorites, FFIX has the highest Metacritic score of any Final Fantasy as of this writing [ 11 ]. FFIX also has a unique place in gaming history, as it was responsible for one of the worst official strategy guides ever released. The game, and its guide, were released in 2000, a time when it became clear the internet was not going away as a source of video game strategies and hints. As such, strategy guide companies tried to figure out how to compete with it or incorporate it into their guides. One result, manifested in the FFIX strategy guide, was something called “PlayOnline.” In practice, what this meant was that the entire guide was vague capsules of hints with “Go to PlayOnline and enter Code X for the strategy!” It was bad enough that, when a box set of the FFVII through FFIX strategy guides was announced, one of the selling points was “we’re re-doing the FFIX guide to actually be useful” [ 12 ].

Final Fantasy X and X-2

Also in 2000, the PlayStation’s successor, the PlayStation 2 was released. That meant a new Final Fantasy game would follow soon enough, and in 2001, Final Fantasy X was released. The 10th “main” game in the series revolves around Tidus, a star Blitzball player for the Zanarkand Abes. A creature called Sin attacks Zanarkand during a Blitzball tournament, destroying it. Tidus awakens in a land called Spira, where he learns that Zanarkand was destroyed 1,000 years ago.

Yet another dramatic leap forward, Final Fantasy X (since rereleased with its sequel in HD) was the first in the franchise to feature Voice Acting, when launched on the Playstation 2.

As with every other Final Fantasy game, the system of character advancement this time around is unique. The characters have a Sphere Grid. Beating certain enemies, or finding them in chests, gives you Spheres. Acquiring experience gets you Sphere Levels, which let you move around on the grid to place Spheres. These can increase your stats or give you new moves and abilities. The trick is that all the characters occupy the same Grid, although they start off in different places on it, roughly corresponding to their “class”—Lulu, for instance, begins in a place on the grid with a bunch of black magic spells and stat increases for them. With enough patience, you can create a small super-clone army by moving everyone along the entire Grid.

Final Fantasy X is also the first game in the series to feature voice acting. This isn’t necessarily for the best—utter the words “laughing scene” to a group of Final Fantasy fans if you enjoy sowing chaos—but it is another step in the evolution of the series. 

FFX would also be responsible for another evolution in the series. Despite there being ten “mainline” games to this point; none of those games had anything to do with each other plot-wise. In 2003, though, Square would release Final Fantasy X-2, the first direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game. Oddly, the game takes a very different tone from the original. Final Fantasy X has a serious tone throughout, whereas FFX-2 may be described as “the best Charlie’s Angels game ever,” which is admittedly not a high bar to clear. Regardless, your roster in FFX-2 consists of three characters—Yuna and Rikku from the first Final Fantasy X, and a new character named Paine. In the wake of the end of Final Fantasy X, various political factions have sprung up, vying for control of Spira. Yuna, meanwhile, is on a quest to find someone she thinks is Tidus, seemingly locked in a prison.

In keeping with the less serious tone, you learn abilities in Final Fantasy X-2 by playing dress-up. Throughout the game, you acquire items called Dresspheres. These items change the costumes of your playable trio, and each Dressphere has skills, spells, and status changes associated with it as well. Mixing and matching these, and equipping the proper Dressphere at the proper time, is how you advance through the game.

As for the game structure, FFX-2 is mission-based, and most of the missions aren’t actually required to finish the game: think of the second half of Final Fantasy VI, and expand that to a full game, and you have the basic ratio of “required missions to total missions” in the game. 

Final Fantasy Enters into the MMORPG Scene

A year before FFX-2 in Japan, Square would bring out the next title in the “Roman numeral” series. This one, though, would be an MMORPG, released on both the PC and consoles. Final Fantasy XI takes place in the world of Vana’diel, a world created as a playground for gods and children. The world contains five enlightened races that the gods have set against one another, adding a sixth race, the Beastmen, to keep them in constant conflict. 

To try and resolve the conflict, you move about the land of Vana’diel, taking on either “Missions” to advance the main story, or “Quests,” essentially side missions to fill out some of the backstory. As you complete these, more open up, similar to most MMORPGs.

Where the game differs from a lot of MMOs is in its Final Fantasy-styled job system. Many MMOs lock you into a single class when you create your character. Final Fantasy XI, on the other hand, lets you freely change to any jobs you’ve unlocked. At the start of the game, this is six “standard jobs,” and “extra jobs” become available by completing various quests. These are standard Final Fantasy fare—White Mage, Summoner, Dragoon, Ninja, and so on. Another way FFXI sets itself apart is in its concept of a “Support Job.” Besides whatever main job you have equipped at a given time, you can also equip a second job, which will give you the abilities of that job at half the level of your current main job.

While the system of combat is in the vein of other MMORPGs, the fact that Final Fantasy XI’s combat is on the same map as the rest of the game, in real-time, would influence later games in the series. Final Fantasy XII released in 2006, would wear the influence in a number of ways, to the point that people have called it “an offline MMO” when attempting to describe its gameplay [ 13 ].

Final Fantasy XII takes place in the world of Ivalice. The first character that you play as is a Aladdin-esque street urchin named Vaan who lives in the city of Rabanastre, located in the kingdom of Dalmasca, which is situated between two warring empires, Archadia and Nabradia. Two years before, Dalmasca was assimilated into the Archadian Empire, and Vaan’s brother was killed in the war. Seeking his own small measure of revenge, Vaan resolves to break into the palace and take back the spoils of conquest that Archadia confiscated. In the process, Vaan meets Princess Ashe, who was thought dead two years earlier, and the story of the Archadian Empire’s invasion unfolds from there.

In most RPGs, you play as some kind of chosen one, or other entity who is the catalyst of/in the story. One way FFXII draws influence from MMOs, though, is that Vaan is effectively a sidekick, or a bystander in a larger story. Along the way, besides the princess, one of the other characters you meet is a captain of the forces of one of the empires.

The real-time fighting from Final Fantasy XI carries over here, as do the enemies being on the same screen as what you explore; in previous entries, you would suddenly be thrown into an encounter that would take place on a separate screen. Now, if you want to adjust tactics in the middle of a battle, you need to be even faster about it, lest a given monster rip you to shreds while you’re dilly-dallying through menus.

The game’s attempt to be more like an MMO manifests itself in a couple other ways. One is the introduction of “Gambits,” where you instruct your party members to follow a set of tactics, and they take actions automatically as a result. It’s certainly one way of simulating being in a party of MMO players and hoping for the best in terms of the actions they take. The other MMO-esque addition is the introduction of “Hunts,” where you’re tasked to kill a specific monster independent of the game’s main plot; doing so and reporting to the person who sent you on the hunt in the first place will get you a nifty reward of some kind. Enemies themselves very rarely drop currency, called Gil, in Final Fantasy XII; rather, they’ll drop loot that you can sell at shops for Gil.

The game’s system of advancement has changed once again, as with every Final Fantasy. This time around, besides your traditional levels, you acquire License Points that are used to unlock spaces on a License Board. Unlocking spaces accesses new ones, typically an advancement on the space you had previously unlocked. This goes for everything from spells to techniques to weapons and armor. Yes, you need a license to equip things. You also need to purchase spells and techniques before you’re allowed to use them, in addition to having the relevant license.

Final Fantasy XIII

The battle system used in FFXII would be refined further in the next installment of the series. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system completely removes direct control of any characters besides the party leader. Additionally, the loss of your party leader, regardless of the status of the rest of your team, is an automatic Game Over. In return for this, you can switch your party members’ classes on the fly using the Paradigm system. A Paradigm in the FFXIII context is a set of classes for your team and swapping to a different class set is called a Paradigm Shift. Swapping back and forth between offensive and defensive-minded Paradigms during long battles is a key to keeping your main character alive. 

Advancing your characters in FFXIII is done using the Crystarium, which bears similarities to the Sphere Grid in FFX. Each character, though, has their own Crystarium rather than everyone having the same sphere grid to build off. Like in FFX, you move along these on a path, but unlike FFX, you advance on the Crystarium by collecting Crystagen Points, essentially this game’s Experience Points for your characters. The actual term “Experience Points” in the game is reserved for your weapons and accessories. You don’t level up these in battle, though. Instead, you gain the ability to improve them via components that you earn in battle. Different components give differing amounts of experience depending on what you’re upgrading. Much like Final Fantasy XII, it’s very rare that you’ll directly gain Gil, as the game expects you to sell spare components or weapons to obtain it.

The story of Final Fantasy XIII [ 14 ] revolves around two regions—the main, upper world of Cocoon, and a lower world called Pulse. When a person encounters something called a Pulse Fal’Cie, they are branded and become a L’Cie. L’Cie are given a Focus, or a mission to complete. To the people of Cocoon, though, being marked as a L’Cie is effectively a death sentence—failure to complete a Focus causes a person to become a Cie’th, basically a zombie. Completing the Focus grants the L’Cie eternal life but also turns them into a crystal statue, placing them into an “I-Have-No-Mouth-and-I-Must-Scream” scenario.

It gets worse. Because of Cocoon’s fear of Pulse and the L’Cie, anyone who so much as potentially meets a Pulse Fal’Cie is treated as an enemy of Cocoon. When a Pulse Fal’Cie is discovered in one of Cocoon’s major cities, its citizens are rounded up in something called The Purge, ostensibly to be deported to Pulse. The game begins by swapping between the perspectives of several people destined to be purged. Two of them, Lightning and Snow, have a common goal, rescuing a L’Cie named Serah, who is Snow’s fiancée and Lightning’s sister. But not everything is as it seems regarding the Purge, and Serah may not be in as much trouble as Snow and Lightning think [ 14 ].

Whereas Final Fantasy XII offered an MMO-esque open-world experience, FFXIII keeps the experience tightly on-rails for much of it. You’re pushed ever-forward, many times without so much as the option to go back even to the area you just left. A side effect of this is that the game is focused on moving the narrative forward as well, which will appeal to that segment of RPGers who focus on the story in an RPG or, alternately, those who mainly enjoy building their characters’ strength.

The Legacy Continues

As Final Fantasy XI was a resounding success, Square-Enix would try and re-create the online magic with Final Fantasy XIV. Released in 2010, to say that lightning did not strike twice would be an understatement. It was one big reason that Square-Enix cut its profit forecast for that year by 90 percent [ 15 ]. FFXIV had to be scrapped, re-built from the ground up, and re-launched as FFXIV: A Realm Reborn. This launch went better. A Realm Reborn takes place in Hydaelyn, a world composed of three continents. The continent the game centers around is called Eorzea, whose history revolves around periods of turmoil (called the Umbral Eras) followed by ages of enlightenment (the Astral Eras). At the game’s onset, events setting the Seventh Umbral Era into motion have taken place, and it’s these events that your character, playing as one of six races, is thrown into. With several expansions under its belt, A Realm Reborn has a vibrant player base and is often considered to be a prime example of the subscription-based MMO, easily eclipsing other titles like World of Warcraft in popularity.

Despite criticism for its embrace of real-time combat in lieu of prior systems, Final Fantasy XV has been wildly successful, spawning novels, a movie and more.

Besides these main games, and the most recently released open-world Final Fantasy XV, numerous other games bear the Final Fantasy name. Some, such as Final Fantasy Tactics (a turn-based strategy spinoff), Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord (a tower defense game), and Final Fantasy Record Keeper (an Android/iOS game where you fight series of battles and recruit numerous Final Fantasy characters), are “official” spinoffs. Other games were branded with the Final Fantasy name in the U.S. for the purposes of selling more copies (the SaGa series was called Final Fantasy Legend for a time, and the first Seiken Densetsu/Mana game was titled Final Fantasy Adventure). In addition, besides the already mentioned X-2, other “mainline” games have received sequels/additional games in their world-Final Fantasy XIII received two additional games, and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years takes place in the world of FFIV roughly 20 years after the original FFIV. Meanwhile, The Final Fantasy VII Remake reimagines classic FFVII story and gameplay through the lens of modern next-gen consoles.

One final note about Final Fantasy’s influence is the way that it has come full circle. Whereas the first game was very influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, particularly the magic system and bestiary. Later editions of D&D, while still accommodating a variety of play styles, have shifted to a more combat-heavy focus with how skills and magic work in particular (contrast this approach with the infamous Tomb of Horrors, which, for all its sadistic difficulty, was not combat-focused at all. Indeed, it had a note near the start saying “THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE, AND IF YOUR GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY.”

Teased for over a decade, with prior iterations such as Crisis Core and the film Advent Children, Final Fantasy 7 Remake has stirred both acclaim and controversy, given certain unexpected creative decisions. Nevertheless, it’s been a resounding hit.

For almost 30 years, Final Fantasy has been a marquee name in Japanese-style RPGs. With its new entry making waves for its open-world style and many of the older games finding re-release on either services such as PSN, or new mobile ports, it seems safe to say that it will continue to be a marquee name for years to come.


  1. “Being the very last video game Squaresoft intended to produce before bankruptcy, the eponymous Final Fantasy was such a success that it spawned two Japan-exclusive sequels before finally revisiting the US on the SNES.” Screenshot. Final Fantasy 2. NES.  Square, 17 Dec. 1998.
  2. “Yet another dramatic leap forward, Final Fantasy X (since rereleased with its sequel in HD) was the first in the franchise to feature Voice Acting, when launched on the Playstation 2. Tofoli, Douglas Flickr.com. ‘Final Fantasy X (1920 x 1080)” https://www.flickr.com/photos/141973883@N05/27905570371/ 
  3. “Despite criticism for its embrace of real-time combat in lieu of prior systems, Final Fantasy XV has been wildly successful, spawning novels, a movie and more.” Charnsitr. Shutterstock.com “BANGKOK, THAILAND – OCTOBER 30, 2016: The New Final Fantasy XV with PS4 Joystick on November 30, 2016”. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/bangkok-thailand-october-30-2016-new-526577002
  4. “Teased for over a decade, with prior iterations such as Crisis Core and the film Advent Children, Final Fantasy 7 Remake has stirred both acclaim and controversy, given certain unexpected creative decisions. Nevertheless, it’s been a resounding hit.” Urbanscape. Shutterstock.com “Bangkok, Thailand – Oct 25, 2019: Final Fantasy VII Remake advertisement backdrop with gameplay demo screen, shows in Thailand Game Show event (TGS 2019)” https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/bangkok-thailand-oct-25-2019-final-1557225851

Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.


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