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[This is an updated version of a guide we published in 2014. We've cleaned it up for the Final Fantasy series' 30th anniversary!]
Final Fantasy is not that easy to get into. I've been playing for so long now that I forget that sometimes. But watching Jaz slowly work through Final Fantasy Tactics (sorry, Jaz) has reminded me that not everyone has spent 500 hours breeding chocobos in Final Fantasy VII.
For newcomers, Final Fantasy can come off as an almost bewildering web of numbered releases, sequels, and spinoffs. Most will be naturally inclined to start with the original Final Fantasy, but each entry is self-contained and largely unrelated to the next. A couple aren't regular RPGs at all, but full-on MMORPGs.
In that light, I feel like it would be helpful to offer newcomers an idea of where to start. I'll dispense with the introduction to the universe, the themes, and the characters (that's an article by itself). If you want to get into Final Fantay, here's what you should be playing.
"Warriors! Revive the Power of the Orbs!" (Beginner)
I've actually gone back and forth on this one. But after much consideration, I feel like Final Fantasy X HD is the best entry point for the series at large. As with everything related to Final Fantasy, it's sure to be a contentious choice. I'm betting plenty of people will suggest Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, or Final Fantasy VII. But I'm sticking with Final Fantasy X, and here's why.
As RPGs go, Final Fantasy X is simple and relatively straightforward. It's a game that takes you firmly by the hand, rarely allowing you to slip off and become lost. The Sphere Grid, which consists of planting an orb in a slot, looks big and intimidating but is actually quite linear. The battle system is likewise quite easy to grasp, its only real quirk being that you can switch characters in and out at will. It brings you along slowly, taking the time to ensure that you have a firm grasp of its mechanics before moving on.
With those elements and its relatively balanced difficulty—Final Fantasy X is really as hard or as easy as you want it to be—it's kind of the perfect choice for beginners. And did I mention that it's really pretty? I would argue that the HD remaster looks even better than Final Fantasy XIII, if only because of the superior art design.
I'll grant that Final Fantasy X has its flaws. The pace can be a bit slow, and some people are likely to find the protagonist Tidus—an athlete with daddy issues—to be childish and annoying. But Final Fantasy X's ensemble cast is likable enough, and the story is laudable for its scope. Final Fantasy X was made at the tail end of Square's peak, when Final Fantasy was one of the three or four most important franchises in gaming, and it shows in its production values and its ambition.
Final Fantasy X isn't my favorite, but of all the games in the series, I think it's the easiest for the modern gamer to get into. Start with this one.
Final Fantasy XV is also worth trying if you're a newcomer to the series. The first half of the game is an open-world roadtrip (a mechanic that feels very familiar in many games today), and even though the game's four protagonists are a chatty bunch, they're fun to spend time with on the open road. The action-based battle system is also pretty exciting, and it's not too difficult to get a handle on. You shouldn't find yourself stymied by any major difficulty imbalances, either.
The game's story is admittedly a little weird, but even a Final Fantasy beginner should realize every Final Fantasy story is at least a little bit bizarre.
"You Sound Like Lines From a Self-help Book!" (Intermediate)
A lot of people would argue that Final Fantasy IV is the best entry point for the series. I would agree... to a point. Final Fantasy IV is a great RPG; but unfortunately, 16-bit sprites are an acquired taste for some people. It's also harder than you remember. The Four Fiends in particular can be pretty rough for newcomers.
If you really crave that classic Final Fantasy JRPG experience, however, Final Fantasy IV is still an easy recommendation. The original SNES version of the game has a poor translation and was re-balanced to make it easier for North American audiences, so you might want to download Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection off the PlayStation Store and play it on your PSP or PS Vita. There's also a Game Boy Advance version of the game, but it's a bit hard to come by.
Whatever you do, don't play the Nintendo DS version of the game (it's also on iOS and Android) before you try the original. Final Fantasy IV DS is a bit brutal, difficulty-wise. It's tailored to challenge hardcore fans, so it's best enjoyed as a supplementary experience.
Final Fantasy IV is definitely worth playing. It looks pretty dated, and the story is to JRPGs what Commando is to action films (entertaining but cliché as hell), but it can still cook when it wants to. And with virtually no customization to speak of—all of the characters come with preset jobs—Final Fantasy IV moves at a considerably snappier pace than most JRPGs. If you're comfortable with the mechanics, then this game fairly breezes by.
At the other end of the spectrum is Final Fantasy VI, which is a ponderous but epic story about the end of the world. Many fans would tell you that this is the best game in the series. I happen to agree with them. Final Fantasy VI's simple sprites belie a complex story and a strong (if occasionally easy to abuse) battle system. It's also home to the franchise's best villain—Kefka—who is essentially the Joker, but with the power to destroy the world.
One reason I don't recommend Final Fantasy VI as a "gateway" game is that, like Final Fantasy IV, it's kind of hard to find a good version of it. The iOS version is fine only if you're willing to put up with the atrocious sprite art (a problem that plagues the port of Final Fantasy V as well). The GBA version has a superior localization to the original SNES release, but it suffers from inferior music. Don't get me started on the PlayStation port and its load times. Honestly, the best way to play Final Fantasy VI is to get it on the Virtual Console.
I have no trouble recommending Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI to more adventurous RPG fans though. If you're willing to dig up one of the better ports, and you don't mind the lack of bells and whistles, then you're in for a real treat."
"Let's Mosey" (Advanced)
These are the games that I would recommend to people who have experienced some of the more popular Final Fantasy games and are hungry for something more in-depth. I would term entries under this header cult favorites—the games that get a lot of love from critics and hardcore fans but can be a bit of an acquired taste.
I'll start with possibly the most controversial entry of them all—Final Fantasy XII, which is championed by our own Jeremy Parish. Released on the PlayStation 2 back in 2006, Final Fantasy XII was a tough sell for many owing to its odd battle system and dark fantasy trappings. More mature than other games in the series, it largely eschewed the anime look for something more in keeping with the western fantasy tradition. Some loved it, and some hated it.
I put myself more in the middle category. I'm not a particularly big fan of the battle system, which is reminiscent of an MMORPG in that it has real-time combat, but isn't quite an action game. But I can't argue with the incredible freedom offered by Final Fantasy XII, nor can I argue with its beauty. As I said, it's kind of an acquired taste, but it's absolutely worth finding a used copy on the PlayStation 2. Or, better still, get the updated Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age on the PlayStation 4. The new License Board makes Final Fantasy XII considerably easier to understand and play.
Final Fantasy V also boasts a hardcore cult audience. Arguably the hardest game in the series, Final Fantasy V demands a certain degree of dedication from its audience. I've tried and failed to finish it on multiple occasions over the years, but I'll get around to it eventually. I almost feel like I'll have to turn in my hardcore RPG fan credentials if I don't.
The thing you have to understand about Final Fantasy V is that while it looks a lot like Final Fantasy IV, it is essentially its opposite. Final Fantasy IV is light on the customization and heavy on the story, where Final Fantasy V is all about its Job System, which is based on mixing and matching classes for optimal damage. For min-maxing stat nerds, Final Fantasy V is pretty much the best game this side of Final Fantasy Tactics.
Rounding out the selection of cult games is Final Fantasy IX, which has the distinction of being creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's swan song with the series. Final Fantasy IX could almost be considered a finale of sorts, as well as a fond look back on everything that had come before. There's a sense of closure to Final Fantasy IX that you won't find in other games in the series. It also happens to be the funniest and best-written of them.
Obviously, a great deal of the enjoyment to be found from Final Fantasy IX is derived from nostalgia, so it's not much of a gateway game. But there's a lot to love about Final Fantasy IX irrespective of one's experience with the series. Vivi, the Black Mage in the throes of an existential crisis, is one of gaming's most memorable characters. And its distinct art and light touch make it one of the purer distillations of the elements that define old-school Final Fantasy. I'm not of the opinion that it's the best in the series—the desperately slow battle system kind of precludes that—but I do admire the love put into its development. It's easy to see why Final Fantasy IX is Sakaguchi's favorite in the series.
If this is the Final Fantasy game you're determined to start with, opt for the Steam or PlayStation 4 version of the game. It looks great, plus there are a few handy features you'll be glad to have. The fast-forward button makes combat much more bearable.
Where's Final Fantasy VII?
I can already see the angry comments now. After all these years, Final Fantasy VII is still the most popular game in the series. Hell, it's one of the most popular games ever. I know it really resonated with me the first time that I played it. But that was also back in 1999. Times have changed since then.
The reality for the majority of PlayStation games is that they haven't aged very well. Many of them were built around the novelty of cutscenes, and Final Fantasy VII is certainly no exception. Even now, it's hard not to get swept up in the sweeping score and the grand summon cutscenes (Sephiroth's Super Nova attack may even be the best cutscene ever—no joke).
But would I recommend it to someone new to the series? Probably not. It's not a bad RPG by any stretch of the imagination, but it's tough to get past the blocky character models, and the story is borderline nonsensical without the aid of the supplementary material. For the record, this is why I'm glad the Final Fantasy VII remake is coming. It won't match the expectations borne of years of waiting, but it will be nice to experience Final Fantasy VII without the kewpie dolls.
Like Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VII also received a modern update for PC and PlayStation 4. Again, if you still want to jump into Final Fantasy with VII, nab it off Steam or the PlayStation Store.
As with the numbered games, the massive number of spinoffs can be a bit overwhelming at times. These are the games that I would recommend checking out.
You've probably heard of Final Fantasy Tactics; but if you haven't, may I suggest that you check out our Game Club? We've been playing it for the better part of a month now, and we've all been enjoying it quite a bit. One of the progenitors of the strategy RPG, its world also serves as a basis for Final Fantasy XII. We go into quite a bit more depth in our discussion; but suffice to say, it's really good.
I also count myself a fan of Theathrythm Final Fantasy, which is a celebration of the franchise's rich musical heritage from its earliest days up until the present. Though not especially deep as rhythm games go, it's a lovely little tribute to the series and its music, and its hard not to get drawn into classic tracks like "Battle on the Big Bridge." It probably helps to have a grounding in the series before you play it, but I don't think it's essential. Good music is good music.
Finally, there's Bravely Default, which is as close as you can get to being an 8-bit Final Fantasy remake without actually being part of the series. If you find that you really enjoy the older entries, then this is the game to get.
Crystallizing Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy has certainly had its missteps of late. Critics and fans love to hate on Final Fantasy XIII, and there has been more than one "Is Final Fantasy Dead?" article over the past year. To say that its controversial is putting it mildly. Really mildly.
But there's a reason that Final Fantasy inspires so much passion in both its fans and its critics. Final Fantasy was a formative experience for many western RPG fans back in the early 90s, and Final Fantasy VII was the game that arguably put the PlayStation on the map. Its roots run deep; and if people criticize it now, it's partly out of frustration because the original games were so good.
That, ultimately, is what makes it worth playing today. No matter your feelings on the later entries, there's no denying that Final Fantasy is as an indelible part of the medium as Super Mario Bros. or Halo. Even now, it's a series that anyone with an appreciation for gaming history should play. And hey, they're still pretty fun, too. I can't think of a better reason to pick up a series that continues to inspire so much passion after all these years.