Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we will set off on an epic journey to uncover the history of Square-Enix’s flagship intellectual property. Today’s article will cover the series’ core numbered entries, while next week’s follow-up will consider the franchise’s numerous spinoffs. Please be sure to check the end of this article for a roundup of the many articles and videos used in its composition.
Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Where two release years are presented, the first is Japanese and the second is North American.
Table of Contents
- Final Fantasy (1987/1990)
- Final Fantasy II (1988/2003)
- Final Fantasy III (1990/2006)
- Final Fantasy IV (1991)
- Final Fantasy V (1992/1998)
- Final Fantasy VI (1994)
- Final Fantasy VII (1997)
- Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
- Final Fantasy IX (2000)
- Final Fantasy X (2001)
- Final Fantasy XI (2002/2003)
- Final Fantasy XII (2006)
- Final Fantasy XIII (2009)
- Final Fantasy XIV (2010, 2013 – A Realm Reborn)
- Final Fantasy XV (2016)
Video game juggernaut Square was born as a pet project of Masafumi Miyamoto. Employed at his father’s power line construction company Denyūsha following his graduation from University, Miyamoto successfully made the pitch for Denyūsha to branch out into video game development in 1983. Two ambitious young programmers named Hironobu Sakaguchi and Hiromichi Tanaka would be brought on board shortly thereafter, putting their storytelling skills to work within the still-new medium.
Denyūsha’s small games division would release a handful of largely forgotten titles for Japanese personal computers in the mid-1980s before going independent in 1986. Now titled Square Co. Ltd., the studio would begin producing content for a rapidly expanding home console market. Its first effort would be a Famicom port of Game Arts’ Thexder (1985).
Sadly, Square’s early work made very little impact. Commercial success evaded the fledgling development studio, and it was on the verge of bankruptcy by 1987. Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had been promoted to Director of Planning and Development, was assigned the responsibility of creating one final game for the company.
Final Fantasy (1987/1990)
Sakaguchi had been pressing Square to create a role-playing game for several years. His entreaties had been turned down due to the financial risk involved in developing a game in one of the medium’s least popular genres. With the unprecedented commercial success of Enix’s RPG Dragon Quest (1986), however, assumptions about Japan’s video game market had been upended. Sakaguchi received the approval to develop his pet project, a Wizardry-inspired fantasy epic called Fighting Fantasy.
The next step was assembling a team of creatives to bring the game to life. Sakaguchi, like many others, was a fan of Iranian-American programmer Nasir Gebelli and hired him to be the lead programmer for the project; Gebelli’s fame had largely come from his expertise at development on the Apple II platform, but his skills translated well to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The bigger hurdle was his lack of experience with role-playing tropes: Sakaguchi struggled to convey concepts like hit points and turn-based combat to Gebelli, who had previously worked exclusively on action games. Gebelli’s adaptability again came to the fore, as he opted to do exactly what Sakaguchi asked without questioning the underlying logic.
Koichi Ishii was hired by Square in 1987 and immediately assigned the role of planner/designer on Fighting Fantasy. This would be his first role in the video game industry. Ishii was responsible for developing the title’s side-view battle system, which would be among its most significant innovations. He successfully argued in favor of switching from a real-time overhead exploration map to a discrete turn-based battle screen featuring characters depicted in profile when enemies were encountered.
Art design would go on to become one of the franchise’s key features, but the series’ longtime character designer was almost excluded from its first entry. When searching for a person to render characters and promotional art, Sakaguchi was told by Ishii that Yoshitaka Amano would be the perfect candidate. Amano had been working in illustration since the 1960s, and had spent much of the 1980s honing a delicate, Art Nouveau-influenced fantasy style. Sakaguchi dismissed the suggestion out of hand, as he had never heard of the artist. When Sakaguchi provided a handful of sketches from contemporary magazines and newspapers as a reference point for the style he was seeking, however, Ishii confirmed that each had been drawn by Amano. With this timely revelation, Sakaguchi had found his character artist.
Finally, sound direction was handled by Nobuo Uematsu. The self-taught pianist had been working for Square/Denyūsha since 1985, when he had been discovered by an employee of the studio while working at a music instrument rental shop. As with Sakaguchi, his work between 1985 and 1987 had gone largely ignored by the game-buying public. His superlative soundtrack for Square’s last-ditch effort would not only help the game succeed; it would make his name as one of the most beloved composers working in the medium over the following three decades.
The project was soon renamed Final Fantasy as either a cheeky reminder of Square’s impending bankruptcy or a somber reference to Hironobu Sakaguchi’s own intent to leave the industry if the game failed (depending upon who was asked). In either case, the importance of the name hinged primarily on its alliterative quality. “FF” was believed to have an appeal to Square’s domestic market, and every extra commercial boost was necessary to keep the beleaguered studio afloat.
The game would be released in Japan on the Famicom in 1987 and in North America three years later on the NES. A noteworthy remake would follow on the Japan-only Wonderswan Color in 2000, though worldwide audiences would have the opportunity to play this remake three years later on the PlayStation. The 2000 remake would serve as the basis, give or take some minor cosmetic and interface updates, for all future ports.
Per Sakaguchi’s stated goal, narrative was a significant element of the Final Fantasy series from its first entry. Four characters, created by the player at the game’s start, must travel the world restoring four crystals which have gone dim. These “Heroes of Light” each correspond to one of the deteriorating crystals, and together represent the fantasy world’s last hope of avoiding a massive cataclysm. The crystals maintain the world’s natural balance and keep monstrous supernatural forces at bay. It is slowly revealed that this disorder is orchestrated by four powerful fiends collaborating with a sinister man named Garland.
Each of the Four Heroes of Light is assigned a job at the time of their creation. These roles are reminiscent of archetypes established in the highly influential Wizardry (1981), which had in turn drawn from 1974’s Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game. The player can choose from between six jobs, which will determine each character’s skills throughout the game. These include Black Mage, White Mage, Red Mage, Fighter, Thief, and Blackbelt. Midway through the game, each can evolve into a new job following a story event. The six evolved classes include Black Wizard, White Wizard, Red Wizard, Warrior, Ninja, and Monk. Each secondary class is mapped directly to one of the starting classes; player characters are locked into their skillset from the moment the game starts, in much the same way as they had been in Wizardry.
Other games were similarly influential on Sakaguchi’s pet project. Ultima (1981) had introduced the concept of character sprites moving around a gridded birds-eye view abstraction of the world, inspiring Final Fantasy‘s world map. Dragon Quest (1986) had paved the way for console RPGs developed in Japan, but also served as a standard from which Square sought to deviate: the side-view battle system and heavier emphasis on narrative were explicit attempts to distinguish Final Fantasy from Dragon Quest.
Sakaguchi’s gamble paid off. Japan was indeed ready for another role-playing game set in a colorful fantasy realm. Wizardry, Ultima, and Dragon Quest had laid the foundation on which Square’s empire would be built. Contrary to dire expectations, Final Fantasy proved extraordinarily successful in its home territory. Localization for Western audiences would take time, due to the comparatively large amount of text, so the game would not be released in North America until 1990. The even riskier prospect of spending time and resources adapting a text-heavy RPG for a market of unknown interest proved as successful as Final Fantasy‘s original Japanese release had been – audiences bought it in droves and established the world’s first commercially successful international JRPG franchise.
Final Fantasy II (1988/2003)
Hironobu Sakaguchi immediately began work on a sequel once production wrapped up on Final Fantasy. Square would only discover it could fund the efforts once the first game was a hit, but the optimistic team was already hard at work on a follow-up. Surprisingly, the game would not continue its predecessor’s narrative.
An expanded team needed tighter control, so Sakaguchi moved on from the role of planner to director; he would still be the game’s primary creative voice, establishing its plot and characters, but would have the added responsibility of managing a development team. Yoshitaka Amano, Nobuo Uematsu, and Koichi Ishii all remained in their respective roles, establishing a continuity of vision in spite of the game’s new plot. Nasir Gebelli also reprised his role as lead programmer, but was required to leave Japan for the United States when his work visa expired midway through development; Sakaguchi’s team was happily able to relocate to Sacramento for the final months of production. By 1988, Square would release Final Fantasy II to bewilderment among Japanese audiences.
Conspicuously, none of the first game’s characters return. The entire world of Final Fantasy II is geographically distinct from its predecessor. Even the leveling system is updated, as characters would now improve attributes through individual actions (e.g. sustaining damage raises a character’s defense stat, using spells raises a character’s magic stat, etc.). The only elements tying the two games together were overall aesthetic, an identical turn-based side-view battle system, and the continued separation of play into world map navigation, town and dungeon exploration, and discrete battle sequences kicked off at random intervals while moving around world or dungeon maps.
Final Fantasy II‘s plot is stronger than the narrative in Final Fantasy. Characters are defined personalities rather than broad archetypes sketched in by player choices. The primary playable cast includes lead character Firion; archer Maria; monk Guy; and dark knight Leon. Guest characters intermittently join the party throughout their adventure, bringing the team up to five in some combat encounters. The conflict centers on Firion’s efforts to undermine and overthrow the nefarious Palamecia Empire after an inciting confrontation in the game’s opening minutes.
A number of core identifying elements of future Final Fantasy titles would be established in Final Fantasy II. Chocobos appear for the first time as a means of conveyance. These oversized yellow birds had originally been sketched by Ishii, inspired like much of Final Fantasy II by Hayao Miyazaki’s manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1982-1994), and were so beloved by Sakaguchi that they would eventually go on to be the focal point of a spinoff game. A character named Cid is similarly introduced for the first time. Each subsequent game would feature an identically named character – often a mechanic or somehow connected to airships – but every Cid would be otherwise distinct from one another.
In addition to its unique battle mechanics, Final Fantasy II features a conversation system that would not reappear in later series entries. Players can have their characters ask NPCs about certain memorized topics as they explore towns, adding topics to the list as they arise throughout the narrative. This presages future Western RPGs, but would be fully abandoned by later Final Fantasy releases.
The Japanese critical and commercial reception to Final Fantasy II was positive in spite of fans’ surprise over its discontinuity with the series’ inaugural entry. The attribute improvement system was generally seen as an exciting innovation, though later analyses would often highlight the ease with which this system can be broken and exploited by players, upsetting the game’s difficulty scale. Unfortunately, Square opted not to localize it for Western audiences due to the aging NES hardware; with the lengthy gap between initial release and completion of translation, a North American version would not have been available until the early 1990s. By this time, of course, most video game enthusiasts had moved on to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) or SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive.
A 2003 PlayStation port of a Final Fantasy II remake, originally released two years earlier in Japan on the Wonderswan Color, would be the game’s first official exposure to North American audiences. By this time, other role-playing games had made better use of the attribute improvement system and Final Fantasy II consequently lost much of its impact. On the other hand, the dramatic visual improvement ensured that modern audiences did not find its presentation overly archaic. This remake would form the basis of all future ports.
Final Fantasy III (1990/2006)
As its localizers were hard at work on moving the original Final Fantasy westward, Square’s staff was simultaneously developing the series third iteration for Japanese audiences. It was to be the final entry released for the Famicom. Nintendo’s Super Famicom would be released in Japan the same year.
Final Fantasy III retained much of the same staff, partially overlapping with its immediate predecessor’s development period. Both Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III began production in Japan and ended production in California due to the work visa hurdles faced by programmer Nasir Gebelli. With knowledge that Nintendo would soon be releasing a new generation of home consoles, Sakaguchi’s team raced against the clock to deliver the series’ third game while it remained commercially viable. The result was the most ambitious entry in the franchise and, indeed, an uncommonly large piece of software produced for the Famicom; its 512 KB retail cartridge would have no unused space when the game went to print.
Gameplay resembles the original adventure more than Final Fantasy II. Players create a party of four characters, each an orphan from the village of Ur. These young pioneers depart their village and the floating continent on which it rests to explore a vast world below. The attribute improvement system is replaced by a standard experience point-based leveling mechanic.
Most importantly, an evolution on the original game’s job system sets a new standard for the genre. All characters begin as Onion Knights lacking any noteworthy characteristics or skills. Over the course of the game, new jobs become available with their own distinct abilities; these include classes which would become series staples, like Dragoon, Summoner, and Bard. Dragoons introduce the jump command, which defers an attack until later for improved damage, while Summoners present the first implementation of the series’ creature-summoning mechanic. This would expand significantly in later entries, but is fundamentally in place as early as Final Fantasy III: players expend a large number of magic points (MP) to summon a powerful monster that casts a spell or uses a distinct ability before disappearing. Characters can also alternate jobs over the course of the adventure as dictated by the player’s needs.
As with Final Fantasy II, no contemporary North American version was released; a Consumer Electronics Show promotional flyer obtained by website Lost Levels suggests that a localization was in production at some point, however. Unlike the two preceding games, a 2D remake was not produced for the WonderSwan Color. A remake of the game in the style of its two predecessors was planned for Bandai’s portable device, but was scrapped when the code proved too extensive to easily adapt.
Square (reorganized as Square-Enix in 2003) then contemplated a PlayStation 2 remake of Final Fantasy III in the early 2000s. The Nintendo DS was released in 2004, however, and Nintendo quickly approached Square-Enix about remaking the game for its new dual-screen handheld device. The studios came to an agreement and Square-Enix reached out to a partner studio – Matrix, which was best known for its PlayStation JRPG Alundra (1997) – to develop the remake.
The vast majority of the gameplay remains intact. Key differences include the recasting of the four main characters as distinctive personalities and a major cosmetic overhaul. 2D sprites are replaced by textured polygonal models designed by Final Fantasy XII artist Akihiko Yoshida and the game’s environments are fully recreated in 3D. Navigation is handled through traditional controls or through a touch interface intended to highlight the unique hardware features of the DS. The graphical improvements proved challenging to implement, due to the sheer number of distinctive models needed to represent each variation on the game’s 23 jobs, but Matrix persevered. Square-Enix released the game worldwide to critical acclaim in 2006.
Final Fantasy IV (1991)
In contrast to the preceding games, the development of Final Fantasy IV is extraordinarily well-documented. Having spent a longer time in development and having had more remakes produced over the following twenty years than any other series entry seems to have left a stronger historical record. John Friscia’s “The Development of Final Fantasy IV”, published by Nintendo Enthusiast, is the most comprehensive catalog of these events and was referenced frequently in compiling my own abbreviated summary.
Surprisingly, two Final Fantasy games were in production following Square’s release of Final Fantasy III in Japan. The first of these was the original Final Fantasy IV. It was being developed for the Famicom, and conflicting reports from Hironobu Sakaguchi indicate that it was canceled either very early or very late in development. The Super Famicom game being planned as Final Fantasy V would replace Final Fantasy IV in the series’ chronology.
Takashi Tokita, a Square employee since 1985, was assigned to be the lead designer on the new Super Famicom version of Final Fantasy IV. A background in drama led him to emphasize the more melodramatic aspects of the series in its 16-bit debut. His history working on previous Final Fantasy games (at a lower level), meanwhile, gave him the context necessary to render his vision of Final Fantasy IV as a culmination of its predecessors’ best components.
With Nasir Gebelli moving on following Final Fantasy III and new visual opportunities provided by significantly stronger hardware, the fourteen-person development team had an opportunity to craft an entirely new approach to the series’ battle system. Strict, turn-based battles were abandoned in favor of a new mechanic known as Active-Time Battle (ATB). This system, created by Hiroyuki Ito in imitation of Formula One racing, sees time moving forward constantly as foes and up to five player characters trade attacks. Sprites remain stationary and attacks are still menu-driven, but real-time battle progression through the use of ever-filling action gauges improves the illusion of momentum. ATB would be repurposed in the following five core series entries, and was so important to the franchise’s identity in the 1990s that Square actually filed a patent for it.
Visual design incorporates an abundance of richer sprites and the Super Famicom’s Mode 7 graphics. Character sprites are more carefully detailed than before, while battle scenes present a full background image rather than the characteristic black backdrops of earlier entries; though a small horizontal slice of scenery had been present in every series entry’s battle screen, representing an abstraction of the surrounding field in which characters were moving prior to battle, this was expanded in Final Fantasy IV to take up the entirety of the background. Five characters can be controlled in battle for the first time, as limitations on individual pixel lines introduced by the Famicom/NES had been eliminated.
Final Fantasy IV‘s narrative is the primary element that sets it apart from its predecessors and competitors. Tokita wanted to create a genuinely operatic adventure and, while it appears simplistic to modern eyes, the resulting story was strikingly ambitious in 1991. Cecil the Dark Knight, employed at the game’s outset by the nefarious Baron Empire, goes on a path of redemption over the game’s 20+ hours. His transition from ruthless general to selfless protector is marked by a bold mid-game transition in which his experience points are withdrawn and his stats are reset to Level One as he evolves from Dark Knight to Paladin; this dovetails with Tokita’s intended theme that “brute strength alone isn’t power.”
A host of other characters join Cecil throughout the quest. These include Kain, a dragoon in the employ of Baron; Rosa, an archer/healer and childhood friend of Cecil; Rydia, a young summoner from a village burned down by Cecil in the game’s opening sequence; Tellah, an elderly Black Mage on his own quest for vengeance; Edward, a romantic Bard; Yang, an expert martial artist; Palom and Porom, a pair of young twin mages; Cid, a widowed airship pilot; Edge, a prince with ninja skills; and Fusoya, an alien. The size of the cast was intended to replace the previous game’s job system, facilitating a wide variety of play styles and party configurations while retaining Final Fantasy II‘s heavier focus on storytelling. Unfortunately, since narrative events (rather than player choice) determine party members at any given time, the system fails to capture its predecessors’ sense of customization.
The game was quite popular in Japan, but its international release posed numerous issues. The absence of any continuity between games ensured that it could easily be renamed Final Fantasy II in North America, but its developers were not confident that players in the United States could understand its more complex battle mechanics. Consequently, unique battle commands were cut for many characters. This made the game simpler, but came at the expense of its distinct identity.
More significant still was the translation, which was subject to both technical and thematic alteration. The script needed to be compressed, as English characters take up more space than their Japanese counterparts, eroding much of the dialogue’s nuance. Strict censorship rules also ensured that direct references to alcohol, religion, and death were uniformly stripped from the script. The result was a serviceable but bland localization.
In spite of these issues, “Final Fantasy II” still performed reasonably well among fans and critics in North America. It inspired a limited flourishing of localized JRPGs on the SNES, appreciably expanding the genre’s fanbase throughout the 1990s. A fully polygonal 3D remake by Matrix Software in the style of their 2006 Final Fantasy III remake was published on the Nintendo DS in 2007/2008. This version’s script was based on a translation first encountered by North American players in the PlayStation re-release of Final Fantasy IV (2001). An epilogue, called Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, was released on mobile phones and Nintendo’s WiiWare digital distribution platform in 2008/2009; this poorly received semi-sequel was packaged alongside the original game and a new interlude in a 2011 PlayStation Portable (PSP) release called Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection.
Final Fantasy V (1992/1998)
In spite of a positive reception by those who played it, Final Fantasy IV fell short of sales expectations in North America. Consequently, its sequel was replaced outside of Japan by Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (1992), a simplified spinoff game made exclusively for Western audiences. The game being simultaneously developed by Hironobu Sakaguchi in Japan, originally called Final Fantasy XTreme, was considered too complex for the comparatively less experienced JRPG fans of North America and Europe.
Final Fantasy XTreme would evolve into Final Fantasy V throughout its production. While the visual design is almost identical to its direct predecessor, its mechanics would represent a major departure from the narrative-heavy Final Fantasy IV. Sakaguchi and new scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase would emphasize humor and deep character customization over melodrama.
The roster contains only four playable characters, which are slimmer in number both from the total roster size of Final Fantasy IV and the number of playable characters during any given battle sequence. A mid-game twist results in one character’s replacement, but the resulting cast still consists of only four individuals. The characters include Bartz, a wandering adventurer; Lenna, a princess; Galuf, an old man; Faris, a pirate captain; and Krile, Galuf’s granddaughter. Each is a pre-defined personality, but their skills are determined by the jobs assigned to them by the player.
Final Fantasy V‘s job system is its most lasting contribution to the series’ history. Using Final Fantasy III as the basis, Sakaguchi’s team iterated in meaningful ways upon that already-engaging mechanic. Players get access to new pools of jobs throughout the game, leveling each character’s expertise in a job up individually by having that character take on the relevant role in battle. Once a particular job-specific skill is learned, it can then be assigned to the character who learned it even after that character switches to a new job. As a result, the player is able to slowly build characters into unique figures capable of multiple jobs’ specialties. A Bard might also cast white magic, while a Thief might be able to use the Dragoon’s jump command once the player puts in enough time. This infinitely flexible evolution to Final Fantasy III‘s job system would be appropriated by later games in and out of the Final Fantasy universe; Square-Enix’s Bravely Default (2013-2015) is the most recent example.
Much of the development team had remained in place between Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V, though two significant additions were made. The first, aforementioned writer Yoshinori Kitase, was primarily responsible for lending the game a lighter thematic tone than its predecessors had displayed. The second significant addition to Square’s Final Fantasy staff was Tetsuya Nomura, who would get his start on the series by designing monsters for its fifth entry. Nomura would become steadily more important to the company, replacing Yoshitaka Amano as lead character designer in Final Fantasy VII, before moving on to became the primary creative voice on the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
North American audiences would miss out on Final Fantasy V‘s initial 1992 Super Famicom version, but would have the opportunity to play a version packaged alongside Final Fantasy VI on the PlayStation in 1998. Unfortunately, Square’s initial hesitance had been well-founded. Whether due to its inherent tonal difference from other games bearing the Final Fantasy name or its relatively high level of difficulty, many Western fans found it less appealing than Final Fantasy IV or Final Fantasy VI. The game had been the subject of a bold fan translation effort throughout the 1990s, prior to Square’s official North American version, but this seems not to have reflected wider audience preferences. Handheld and mobile device ports would follow throughout the 2000s and 2010s, but Final Fantasy V would never achieve the same critical reputation in the West that other franchise entries enjoyed.
Final Fantasy VI (1994)
Development began on Final Fantasy VI as soon as it ended on Final Fantasy V. Hironobu Sakaguchi was promoted to Vice President of Square and, consequently, had little time to directly supervise the next entry in the series he had founded. He assigned the director role to the two most important staff acquisitions from the preceding two entries: Hiroyuki Ito, the creator of the ATB system, would direct combat development while Yoshinori Kitase, writer for Final Fantasy V, would direct scenario development. Final Fantasy VI was designed to highlight almost every member of its massive playable cast as a main character, dovetailing elegantly with the collaborative nature of the game’s development process.
The setting represents Final Fantasy VI‘s most immediately noticeable departure from earlier titles. Players explore the World of Balance, a steampunk-influenced planet beset by the belligerent Gestahl Empire. This highly mechanized Empire, led by Emperor Gestahl but secretly manipulated by a foppish clown named Kefka, seeks to leverage its mastery of Magitek technology to control the globe. The player initially takes on the role of Terra, a supernaturally gifted young woman brainwashed by the Empire, as she breaks free of Gestahl’s control and joins up with a resistance movement.
A cast of thirteen others join Terra throughout the adventure. These include Locke, a charming thief; Celes, a general in the Gestahl Empire; Edgar, the king of a regional power; Sabin, Edgar’s twin brother and powerful martial artist; Cyan, a vengeful knight; Shadow, an assassin accompanied by his dog; Gau, a feral child able to copy enemy abilities; Setzer, a roguish airship pilot and gambler; Strago, an elderly mage; Relm, a young artist and Strago’s granddaughter; Mog the moogle; Gogo the mime; and Umaro the yeti. The final two are hidden characters who contribute little to the game’s plot, but all others experience major character development across Final Fantasy VI‘s lengthy narrative.
The game mechanics differ little from Final Fantasy IV, while Final Fantasy V‘s job system is fully abandoned. Players still navigate a world map, towns, and dungeons while entering into random battles at irregular intervals. Battles still occur on a discrete screen featuring a side-view of the characters and static enemy sprites, set against a backdrop abstractly representing the surrounding environment. Each character has a distinct skill inspired by job abilities from earlier Final Fantasy games. Some offer new, unique mechanics however: Setzer can spin a slot machine to determine his attack strength while Sabin can input special moves in the manner of a one-on-one fighting game.
Where players might expect the game to come to a tidy resolution, a series of cataclysmic developments upend the entire structure of the planet. The Empire is replaced with a new foe midway through the adventure, as Kefka is revealed to be using the various feuding factions to usher in his own post-apocalyptic world order. Terra ceases to be the plot’s primary focus, and the plot progression shifts towards numerous vignettes highlighting how each character is surviving in the new World of Ruin. Bringing them together and ending Kefka’s reign of terror slowly comes into focus as the characters’ new goal.
Final Fantasy VI stands out as one of the most ambitious RPGs of its era, setting a new standard for storytelling in the genre. This is made possible by a combination of presentation and script. The soundtrack is Nobuo Uematsu’s masterwork, culminating in a simultaneously moving and ridiculous scene set at an opera house. Sprites are appreciably more detailed than earlier Final Fantasy games, expressing the same high level of articulation in and out of battle; earlier releases had utilized simplified character sprites during exploration sequences and more complex sprites in battle. The script, meanwhile, is magnificent in scope and execution. It balances heightened dramatic elements, including warfare and revenge, alongside more intimate stories about personal despair and conflicted loyalties. Humor never remains far from the proceedings either, ensuring that the series’ historical flair for the ridiculous coexists harmoniously with its increasingly epic scope.
Mercifully, Square opted to localize Final Fantasy VI for international audiences after keeping its direct predecessor locked to Japan. The studio employed Ted Woolsey, who had already translated a handful of portable spinoffs, to craft an English script less bland than the one players encountered in Final Fantasy IV. Still under the strict standards of Nintendo of America, Woolsey was obligated to alter a number of references to sex and death. His personal stamp on the text would prove controversial over time, but it was successful in avoiding the dry quality of North America’s Final Fantasy IV localization. The most significant update was the game’s title – as it was only the third core series entry released in North America, it was renamed Final Fantasy III outside of Japan’s borders.
Final Fantasy VI was wildly successful in Japan, selling millions of copies. It was less successful in North America, where the series again fell short of Square’s commercial expectations. It was an unmitigated critical darling, however, populating annual ‘Best of’ lists across the world. Final Fantasy VI was then re-released on the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, Wii, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Windows PC, and mobile devices. Each re-release has its own unique quirks: the PSX version introduces lengthy load times while improving the script, the GBA version fails to adequately convey the soundtrack’s nuance, the Wii and Wii U versions revert to the problematic SNES script, the PlayStation 3 version reproduces the PSX version’s load time issues, while the Windows PC and mobile versions feature a controversial visual overhaul. While none is perfect, all manage to capture and reproduce one of the most memorable games of the 16-bit era.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Between the release of Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, Square explored a variety of new hardware platforms for their flagship property’s next entry. All previous Final Fantasy games had been published on Nintendo consoles, so moving to Nintendo’s next platform would be the logical course of action. Unfortunately, Square’s erstwhile hardware partner would be continuing its reliance on cartridge media rather than switching to the disc media whichhad become standard during the mid-1990s. This had the advantage of fast loading times and comparative physical durability, but presented numerous disadvantages. The biggest problem was a lack of memory: discs could contain hundreds more megabytes of data than cartridges could, dramatically expanding the potential scope for storytelling.
With this in mind, Square decided to move Final Fantasy to Sony’s new home console. Nintendo fans would no longer be able to enjoy the series’ swashbuckling epics without shelling out for a PlayStation. Happily, this ensured that Final Fantasy VII director Yoshinori Kitase had a wider technical palette with which to work. A staff of more than 100 Square employees would be put to work establishing the standard for 32-bit RPGs.
The first major departure from earlier games, foreshadowed by Final Fantasy VI abandoning medieval European fantasy tropes, was a dingy futuristic setting. An early version developed by producer Hironobu Sakaguchi set the game in New York City in 1999, but this was eventually abandoned in favor of a still-fantastical realm that maintained elements of a modern, urban environment. The villainous Shinra Corporation represents cruel industrialization and its deleterious impact on natural life processes.
Life, along with the related processes of birth and death, formed the thematic structure of Final Fantasy VII’s story. Sakaguchi’s mother had died during production on Final Fantasy VI, and he sought to craft a work inspired by the mourning process. Final Fantasy VII would place a greater emphasis on death than earlier entries had done, with Kitase going so far as to write out a major character early in the game’s plot. Freeing the planet from Shinra’s post-industrial monopolization of a spiritual resource called the Lifestream would frame the game’s early narrative.
In classic Final Fantasy style, however, the plot would expand still further from its early hours. Much like Kefka before him, the sinister Sephiroth would be revealed as the game’s true villain. In contrast to the faceless cruelty of mega-corporation Shinra, Sephiroth represents the ambition of a single man to reshape the process of life and death according to his own whims. Character designer Tetsuya Nomura was influenced by the classic rivalry of Japanese historical figures Sasaki Kojiro and Miyamoto Musashi when creating antagonist Sephiroth and protagonist Cloud.
Cloud Strife, the iconic blonde swordsman wielding a ludicrously over-sized blade, would be the player’s avatar in Final Fantasy VII‘s world. Initially mysterious and gruff, Cloud’s complex backstory unravels across the game’s three discs. Final Fantasy VII begins with Cloud partaking in an act of ecoterrorism alongside his colleagues in the resistance group AVALANCHE as the audience is introduced a small but well-developed supporting cast. These include Barret, a vulgar machine-gunner who has the noteworthy distinction of being the series’ first black character; Tifa, a boxer and childhood friend of Cloud; Aerith (Aeris in the original localization), a flower-seller descended from the planet’s mystical Ancients; Yuffie, a ninja; Vincent, a mysterious gunman discovered sleeping in a coffin; Red XIII, a sentient wolf-like beast; Cid, an airship pilot; and Cait Sith, a speaking cat who travels on the back of a robotic moogle. A host of additional characters join the party at one time or another, but none remain for long.
All characters are depicted in 3D for the first time. Three alternative models exist for all main characters, swapped in and out depending on the mode in which they appear. While Final Fantasy VI had standardized character models between field exploration and battle scenes, Final Fantasy VII returns to the disparity present in the series’ first five games. Each character model is a lightly textured set of simple polygons when exploring, a more detailed and realistically proportioned model in battle, and a more extensively articulated polygonal model in pre-rendered cutscenes.
These cutscenes represent Final Fantasy VII‘s most conspicuous departure from its predecessors. Full-motion video (FMV) had become popular in the PC gaming world and disc-based systems throughout the early 1990s, but it experienced a mainstream console breakthrough on the Sony PlayStation. Synced dialogue remained impossible, but expressive character animation and impressive setpieces could now be depicted as pre-rendered computer-generated video sequences. This enhances the opportunities for drama, but is also used to mask loading times between playable sections of the game world. FMV cutscenes would become more controversial in the next hardware generation, but their novelty and utility in the 32-bit era made them a mainstay in dramatic plot-heavy franchises like Final Fantasy.
Exploration of the world itself is no less impressive a leap from Final Fantasy VI. That game had introduced a quasi-3D world map for the first time in the series’ history, thanks to Mode 7 graphics, but the world map in Final Fantasy VII would be fully 3D. Towns and dungeons, accessible while wandering the overworld, are instead depicted as pre-rendered high-resolution images navigated by polygonal character models. The effect is reminiscent of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996). Random encounters occur in a manner similar to all earlier Final Fantasy games, though the battle screen is now rendered in full 3D rather than the side-view to which fans had grown accustomed.
Battles are the least-revolutionary aspect of Final Fantasy VII. The Active Time Battle system remains the primary means by which players interact with opponents. Teams can only consist of three party members at a time, due to technical limitations on rendering more 3D characters simultaneously, but their actions are more customizable than the similarly plot-focused Final Fantasy VI. Materia, a type of stone found throughout the game’s setting, can be affixed to character gear to provide new stat boosts and abilities. Using these stones, players are able to modify their party to reflect their preferred play style.
A reliance on high-resolution static backdrops and FMV cutscenes wowed audiences in 1997, but would prove divisive in the decades to come. Narrative moments when a background is an animated FMV while polygonal characters remain visible (rather than the higher-resolution FMV character models typical of cutscenes) are quite jarring. Polygonal models are also more easily enhanced when modernizing the game for higher-resolution displays, as they are rendered in real-time, so newer re-releases of Final Fantasy VII often suffer from indistinct backgrounds contrasting with improved character models. This result could not have been imagined at the time, but it does leave modern players less impressed by Final Fantasy VII‘s ambitious visual palette than they tend to be with the fully sprite-based Final Fantasy VI.
That impression is confined entirely to the present and future, of course. Critics and fans playing the game in the late 1990s were in awe at what Square had achieved. The comparatively quaint character designs of Yoshitaka Amano were replaced by the less abstract, more realistic proportions of Tetsuya Nomura’s art style. The battle system had remained relatively unchanged, but now featured fully animated 3D party members and enemies. Earlier games’ in-engine cutscenes, populated by 2D sprites, were now thought hopelessly outdated when juxtaposed with Final Fantasy VII‘s dramatic FMVs.
Given the game’s popularity, ports and revisions seemed inevitable. The first of these was a major departure for Square, as it branched out into the PC market. The studio set up a bespoke office in Costa Mesa, California to get the game running on Windows PCs; to do so, a team of between fifteen and twenty people re-coded at least 80% of the PlayStation original to ensure compatibility with PC architecture. Eidos Interactive, recently acclaimed for their debut Tomb Raider (1996) release, was tapped to publish the game. Their efforts were worthwhile, as Square’s experiment with the historically Western-oriented PC audience was met with higher-than-anticipated sales. An in-depth retrospective by Polygon confirms that this port would form the basis for all later versions of the game.
The most noteworthy re-release would be published across Apple iOS devices and the PlayStation 4 in 2015 before making its way to Android hardware in 2016. This version features scaled-up resolutions on backgrounds and character models. Options to alter characters’ health and magic points during battle are present, allowing even players unfamiliar with standard JRPG mechanics to make their way through the story.
Final Fantasy VII‘s next evolution is Square-Enix’s proposed remake. Debuted at E3 2015, a full remake is currently being produced with no estimated release window. A gameplay trailer and interviews suggests that the remake will include real-time action, rather than ATB or turn-based battle sequences, and that environments will similarly be rendered in real-time; pre-rendered backgrounds ceased to appear regularly in mainstream games following 2002’s Resident Evil Zero. The remake seems to have faced challenges, being independently developed by Japanese studio CyberConnect2 for several years before being restarted internally by Square-Enix in 2017. Happily, Final Fantasy VII character designer Tetsuya Nomura is the game’s current director; if it is ever released, it should hew closely to the original game’s vision.
Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
During the English localization process for Final Fantasy VII, Yoshinori Kitase began directorial work on Final Fantasy VIII. This game would be the first in the series with no oversight from original creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. That passing of the torch may account for the uniquely experimental quality of Kitase’s vision.
The visual design is similar to Final Fantasy VII, though a number of enhancements have been made. Character design was still completed by Tetsuya Nomura, but his style had become more naturalistic and confident after his contributions to Square’s Parasite Eve (1998). Nomura’s expressive concept art is translated to the in-game space as full-size polygonal character models, rather than the blocky “super-deformed” style seen in its direct predecessor. According to a June 5, 1998 interview with Kitase, Nomura, and Yuusuke Naoi (art director and CG chief) in Japan’s Famitsu magazine, the characters were designed to be eight heads tall on the field and in battle, harmonizing their appearance between all in-game sequences.
This update to character art design had impacts on the rest of the game. The developers feared that more realistically proportioned characters would render franchise staples like chocobos and moogles jarring, so their designs were similarly updated. Environmental design also contrasted with Final Fantasy VII, as Naoi wished to avoid the gritty darkness which characterized that title. Towns and the countrysides would be full of light and lush colors.
FMVs are among the game’s highlights, for better and worse. Over an hour of cutscenes were created by a team of 35 employees. Full motion capture was used by the team, ensuring that movements and facial expressions are more lifelike than ever. Kitase sought to depict characters as ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, so making players’ relate to them was a key part of the FMVs’ visual design.
On the other hand, Final Fantasy VIII marks the moment where the series began to over-emphasize pre-rendered cutscenes for its storytelling. Square employed film experts to ensure that the cutscenes were appropriately cinematic, implicitly conceding that the language of film was more suitable to conveying Kitase’s narrative ambitions than in-engine cutscenes or gameplay. This was part of a broader cultural movement in the game medium throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, exemplified by Hironobu Sakaguchi’s misguided efforts to produce a Final Fantasy film, and Final Fantasy VIII‘s cutscenes can reasonably be cited as a key moment in the medium’s rocky evolution.
Gameplay mechanics are informed by earlier series entries while offering distinctive experimental touches. Players still navigate their character around a fully 3D world map, explore pre-rendered backgrounds in towns and dungeons, and encounter unseen enemies at random intervals, at which point they are whisked off to a discrete battle screen. The basics of the battle sequences are largely identical to Final Fantasy VII, with dynamic camera angles mitigating the continued reliance on Final Fantasy IV‘s slow-paced ATB system. Only three party members are active in battle.
The key difference between the battle sequences of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII is the junction system. Materia has been eliminated entirely, replaced by the ability to capture powerful Guardian Forces (GFs) and assign these to individual characters. GFs permit characters to make use of specific commands associated with the captured creature and summon it in battle. Spells can be drawn from enemies as well, then cast an allotted number of times before needing to be re-drawn; this consumable spell system replaces the use of magic points. Spells can alternately be assigned to characters to enhance specific stats (e.g. attack, defense, etc.), replacing the use of equipment. Since enemies now scale in strength with the player characters’ levels, effective use of the junction system is the only way to gain an advantage over opponents.
An interesting new addition to the series is a fully-functioning in-game collectible card game. Designed by Kentarow Yasui, Triple Triad serves as a long-term minigame playable in many of the game’s locations. Characters collect cards depicting characters and enemies, then do battle with one another by placing the cards on a grid. This minigame, inspired by the popularity of trading card games among young people in Japan during the 1990s, would itself inspire card games in future series entries.
The narrative is perhaps Final Fantasy VIII‘s most controversial element. The plot centers on Squall, a university student in the game’s fantasy world, and his relationship with resistance fighter Rinoa. They are joined by additional playable characters Quistis, a young university professor; Selphie, an enthusiastic nunchaku-wielding student; Zell, a martial artist; and Irvine, a flirtatious sharpshooter. A secondary plot, which the player experiences at certain points during the adventure, features three other characters: soldiers Laguna (who the player controls), Kiros and Ward. The secondary plot initially appears to be a series of dream sequences, but is later revealed to be past events which occurred in Squall’s world.
Final Fantasy VIII‘s breakneck plot is engaging but convoluted. Any number of contrivances threaten to undermine the player’s willing suspension of disbelief, including an especially unconvincing case of collective amnesia. The developers intended to emphasize the love between Squall and Rinoa against a backdrop of international politics, but the game’s thematic foundation is hamstrung by its intensely abrasive protagonist. Fans appreciated the Final Fantasy VIII‘s presentation but found its narrative and characters less successful than those of Final Fantasy VII.
Sales were very strong, however. Critical concerns over the junction system’s complexity did little to undermine the game’s attraction to consumers. Square’s focus on strong visual and audio design aided an effective marketing campaign, resulting in one of their strongest commercial successes yet. The game’s long-term legacy would be ambivalent, but its operatic trappings and robust character customization options secure it a dedicated community of fans decades after its initial release. Ports have been sadly limited, though, and it remains less easily accessible than its direct predecessor and successor.
Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Development on Final Fantasy IX began before Final Fantasy VIII had been completed. Over the course of the 1990s, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s pet project had grown into a video game institution. Particularly in the United States and Europe, where Enix had ceased regular publication of its Dragon Quest saga, Final Fantasy had become synonymous with Japanese role-playing games. Sakaguchi believed that the franchise’s last game on the PlayStation hardware should represent a celebration of the series’ roots as it bid farewell to the 1990s.
The team was assembled in Hawaii as a concession to so many staff members’ origins on the US West Coast. Unlike the preceding two series entries, writing was carried out directly by Sakaguchi. Similarly, Hiroyuki Ito directed for the first time since 1994’s Final Fantasy VI. Nobuo Uematsu and Yoshitaka Amano were the lead composer and character designer, respectively. In spite of radically revised art design, much of the staff leadership remained consistent with earlier games.
Presentation was heavily influenced by Northern Europe. World design was oriented around Scandinavian culture, and the setting returned from a futuristic dystopia to a comparatively mellow European Renaissance aesthetic. Uematsu went on an extensive European tour seeking to absorb its sound in preparation for his compositions, resulting in a staggering 160 pieces of music being written for the game; 140 appear in the final work.
The resulting narrative reflects its creators’ intent. Gone is the corporate intrigue of Final Fantasy VII and the moody interpersonal drama of Final Fantasy VIII. These are replaced by a comparatively whimsical swashbuckling tale centered on the sky pirate Zidane. As he seeks to halt the militaristic advances of Queen Brahne’s Alexandrian Empire, he is joined by one of the franchise’s most endearing casts of characters: Garnet, a rogue princess; Steiner, Garnet’s overly rigid bodyguard; Freya, a rat-like spear-wielder; Quina, a quirky chef; Eiko, a young summoner; Amarant, an imposing bounty hunter; and Vivi, a deeply melancholy black mage with no memory of his origins.
While the plot begins in a breezy fashion, it slowly grows in complexity and depth. Sorrow becomes frequent as the player encounters Vivi’s past and the fate that has befallen Freya’s lost love. Comedy still remains intertwined with the experience, as Quina and Steiner cut rather amusing figures. Even primary villain Kuja, in a manner reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI‘s Kefka, has moments of absurdity disrupting an otherwise sinister presence.
The battle system shares more in common with Final Fantasy VI than with the preceding two releases. While exploring the field or world map, characters are occasionally interrupted by random encounters. On the battle screen, ATB gauges fill until each character can attack. Limit breaks, special attacks which made their debut in Final Fantasy VII and remained in place through Final Fantasy VII, are still present.
Characters have largely fixed commands, however, inspired by the character-specific skills of Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI; Zidane can steal items, for instance, while Quina can learn enemy skills. The biggest difference from those earlier titles is the ability to learn new sub-abilities from wearing certain equipment for a specified number of battles. Once a character has accrued enough experience points while wearing a piece of armor, an accessory, or a weapon, he or she can permanently make use of certain stat boosts and abilities conferred by that equipment. Materia and junction mechanics are entirely absent.
Exploration of the world is similar to the preceding two games, featuring a fully 3D world map and pre-rendered backgrounds when in town and dungeon areas, but a new feature dovetails with Final Fantasy IX‘s emphasis on relatable characters. Using the Active Time Event (ATE) system, players are prompted at predetermined intervals to tap a button to view a vignette featuring characters elsewhere. These characters are often main cast members, but are sometimes NPCs. The vignettes are typically optional, but serve to flesh out the game’s world and character backgrounds without necessitating lengthy mandatory quests. The second new feature when exploring environments is much simpler – an exclamation point or question mark appears over the player character’s head when an interactive character or object is discovered; this is a minor update, but does improve the efficiency with which players explore the game world.
Triple Triad does not return, but a similar card game debuts in its stead. Tetra Master sees players placing cards in a 4×4 grid as they attempt to overpower opponents’ cards. Play alternates between the player and his or her AI foe, with the winning party taking at least one card from the loser as a prize. Cards can also be collected as rewards from random encounters or found throughout the game world.
Interestingly, Square used Final Fantasy IX to premiere a controversial online platform. PlayOnline launched alongside the studio’s newest tentpole release, and was tied closely to BradyGames’ official Final Fantasy IX strategy guide. These supplementary manuals had become virtually necessary for players seeking to uncover every secret and side quest throughout Final Fantasy‘s increasingly complex game worlds. Unfortunately, BradyGames and Square opted to require a PlayOnline account to access much of the content typically included within the pages of a strategy guide; the physical volume functioned as a series of vague notes which would direct the reader to specific URLs for more detailed information. Though PlayOnline would go on to undergird Square’s future online platforms, especially the community surrounding Final Fantasy XI (2002), this unpopular decision to gate strategy guide content would not be repeated again.
The game itself was more or less unimpeachable, including numerous quality of life elements introduced in the series’ 32-bit era while returning to the much-missed European fantasy trappings of the franchise’s roots. Gameplay systems did little to upend what had worked in the preceding three games, but did open up a new level of customization through its equipment-based skill acquisition mechanics. A major 2016-2017 port to iOS, Android, Windows and PlayStation 4 would update the graphics and add options to alter random encounter rates and game speed, but players had found little to complain about in the original version. Sakaguchi had stuck the landing, closing out his series’ third console generation with a masterpiece.
Final Fantasy X (2001)
Unsurprisingly, the leap from PlayStation to PlayStation 2 would take Final Fantasy on the greatest transition since it had shifted from 2D to 3D in 1997. Announced alongside its predecessor and successor at the 2000 Square Millennium Event, Final Fantasy X would occupy the middle space in a three-part series of titles respectively looking back, looking forward, and looking outward to an entirely new genre. Yoshinori Kitase, who boldly took on the roles of director and producer, was to establish new standards for where Sakaguchi’s series would be going in the 21st Century.
Initial planning centered on two prominent elements: the inevitability of death and the movement away from a European aesthetic. The former was to be emphasized by repeated references to the number seventeen; this is the age of the female lead Yuna, who is accompanied by male lead Tidus on her journey to become the sacrificial offering in an ancient ritual. The focus on seventeen was lost during the development process, but the sense of impending mortality and a distinctive world design would be carried forth into the final game.
Spira, the world in which Final Fantasy X is set, is highly influenced by Southeast Asia. Thailand, Japan, and the South Pacific would be significant cultural reference points for character designer Tetsuya Nomura and art director Yusuke Naora. Even within the broader Southeast Asian palette, sub-character chief designer Fumi Nakashima focused on distinctive visual characteristics to set each game region’s denizens apart from one another. This was an intentional break with earlier series entries, which had skewed towards a European appearance even when branching out from medieval fantasy settings.
Impressively, Spira is comprised of fully 3D polygonal environments. Pre-rendered backgrounds and a 3D world map are abandoned entirely. The camera position while exploring remains out of the player’s control, but it often moves along with the player characters as they move. Early designs for the game retained a world map, but this was eventually cut in favor of a static overhead image of Spira with explorable destinations represented as nodes. The player typically navigates directly from one area to the next, only making use of the world map to identify a destination for his or her airship later in the game.
Toshiro Tsuchida similarly worked to overhaul Final Fantasy‘s battle system. Eschewing ATB mechanics for the first time since Final Fantasy III (1990), Tsuchida and his team implemented a new concept called Conditional Turn-Based Battle (CTB). CTB would resemble the classic turn-based battle mechanics of the series’ first three entries, but with the ability to see and alter upcoming turn order through the use of specific character abilities. For example, casting the spell Haste on a friendly party member would insert turns for that party member throughout the upcoming sequence and reduce the opponents’ opportunities to act. Representing this with a timeline displayed in the battle screen UI allows players to carefully plan out their upcoming turns.
Surprisingly, the team originally intended to revolutionize Final Fantasy‘s battle system still further. Enemies were to be shown wandering Spira’s 3D environments and engaged at will. Combat screens would be eliminated in favor of a seamless transition from field exploration to battle where the enemy had been encountered. Due to hardware limitations, both of these features were cut; the game retained random encounters and a discrete battle screen depicting fights occurring in an abstract version of the surrounding space.
One additional revision to the series’ traditional combat is the way that summoning works. In Final Fantasy X, Yuna can summon powerful beasts called aeons to join her in battle. These are generally acquired throughout the game in plot-based sequences, and replace two of the player’s three characters in battle once summoned; only Yuna remains while the aeon is active. Aeons have their own health gauges and remain active until either recalled or defeated, contrasting with earlier games’ use of summons as an instant effect.
The narrative, much like Final Fantasy VIII, is intended to be conveyed primarily by the main characters’ relationships and reactions to events. Mouths move for the first time in the series’ history, and character models were created using extensive motion capture; this permits more expressive body language and facial expressions. At the same time, voice acting is intended to connect players still closer to the characters they will be interacting with over the course of their adventure.
To maximize the player’s level of investment, and minimize the level of intrusive exposition, the main character is a stranger to the society he explores. Male lead Tidus is mysteriously transported from the futuristic city of Zanarkand to rural Spira while participating in a championship game of fictional sport Blitzball. He meets summoner Yuna and travels with her on a pilgrimage to save the world from Sin, the same massive creature responsible for destroying Tidus’ home and apparently teleporting him to Spira. Sparing the world from another rampage by Sin, unfortunately, requires Yuna to sacrifice herself; though Yuna is resigned to this fate, Tidus becomes passionate about finding a way to forego her sacrifice and permanently end Spira’s cycle of destruction and rebirth.
Tidus and Yuna are joined on their quest by Wakka, a Blitzball player; Kimahri, Yuna’s bodyguard and member of the beast-like Ronso tribe; Rikku, an effervescent young thief; Lulu, a cynical black mage; and Auron, Tidus’ father-figure and participant in an earlier attempt to halt Sin’s wrath. They are opposed by Seymour, a powerful tribal leader seeking to control Sin. The story emphasizes the connection of its lead characters in the face of certain death, along with the theme of challenging one’s destiny.
Game progress is more linear than it had been in recent series entries, but diversions are still present. Sidequests and an equipment-based system allow players to thoroughly customize their characters, while a menu-based skill tree is introduced for the first time. This Sphere Grid permits players to improve characters’ attributes in unique ways, though the level of customization is admittedly reduced from Final Fantasy VIII. The most substantial side content is Blitzball, the sport practiced by Tidus and Wakka. The player is able to recruit a team of athletes and actually take part in the game, which plays out in a hybrid of real-time and turn-based actions; though largely optional (as earlier minigames had been), the player is obliged to play one round of Blitzball to advance the narrative.
Final Fantasy X‘s soundtrack is one of the series’ most innovative. Joined by two additional composers, Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano, Nobuo Uematsu continued to make use of classical and folk elements while exploring new genres. A heavy metal song appears for first time in Final Fantasy history, while three recordings feature vocal performances. The total number of songs falls short of the 140 included in Final Fantasy IX, but the breadth of styles is wider than any earlier game.
Due to a comparatively limited number of PlayStation 2 owners at the time of its release, Final Fantasy X sold less well than its two predecessors. It rapidly achieved the status of best-selling PS2 game, however, assuring Square that the studio had produced another excellent title. International reviewers criticized an inconsistent localization and voice performances, but much of this was down to the growing pains of a franchise adapting to spoken dialogue for the first time. The gameplay remained popular and the narrative was among the series’ most emotionally resonant. HD ports released in the 2010s, accompanied by enhancements similar to those in the ports of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX, confirmed that the game remained popular over a decade after its debut.
Square’s greatest surprise for longtime fans of the series would come in 2003, when Final Fantasy X-2 would be released as a direct sequel to Final Fantasy X. The plot picks up Yuna’s ongoing adventures two years after the events of its predecessor. While much of the game world and character models are based on Final Fantasy X, permitting an uncharacteristically rapid development period, the battle system is heavily altered. Yuna and two other party members (newcomer Pain and returning Rikku) can now alter their abilities through the use of dress spheres, which are functionally similar to Final Fantasy V‘s job system; these are slowly acquired throughout the game, and are accompanied by flashy costume change sequences. FInal Fantasy X-2 would remain somewhat controversial due to the way character arcs from the first game are treated, but was praised for its inventive approach to combat and character customization; it would be packaged alongside Final Fantasy X in that game’s HD re-release.
Final Fantasy XI (2002/2003)
Announced in the same 2000 press conference as Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy XI would be the most experimental core entry in the franchise’s fifteen-year history. Hironobu Sakaguchi was inspired to create a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) while living in the United States during the making of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). EverQuest, the West’s popular MMORPG, was his primarily influence.
Square found the idea appealing and assigned development responsibilities to the team which had produced Chrono Cross (1999). This allowed the relatively complex new title to be developed alongside Final Fantasy X, ensuring that Square would produce a reliable hit even as it went out on a limb with its first MMORPG. The game would be designed and produced by Hiromichi Tanaka, a longtime Square employee who had worked on the first four Final Fantasy titles.
In addition to standard MMORPG tropes, including a persistent online world inhabited by numerous player-controlled characters, Final Fantasy XI was surprisingly indebted to Final Fantasy III and Secret of Mana. The former had been the last series entry that Tanaka had spent a significant amount of time on, while the latter was his first project after leaving the Final Fantasy development team in the early 1990s. He sought to bring the Final Fantasy job system to bear on a fully online world and also integrate real-time action for the first time in the franchise’s history. This was a concession to the fact that players could not pause or stop in-game action, as they were merely logging onto a server that existed for all other players before and after they were present, but also had its origins in Tanaka’s work on Secret of Mana‘s real-time combat mechanics.
Very little of the resulting game was identifiably Final Fantasy. Jobs were largely drawn from Final Fantasy III, moogles and chocobos were present, and spell names followed the same convention as they had in earlier series entries. The franchise’s characteristic operatic narrative and character development, on the other hand, were almost fully absent. When combined with the inability to control a full party and a Western-influenced real-time battle system, fans could be forgiven for thinking that this game had little in common with its predecessors.
The game world of Vana’diel was the largest in Final Fantasy’s history. Six city-states are spread out across multiple continents, each representing a diverse range of biomes. Players create a character for the first time in a core Final Fantasy title since Final Fantasy III, though the character creation mechanic is more similar to the series’ debut entry. The player selects a job from among several options – Warrior, Monk, Black Mage, White Mage, Red Mage, or Thief – while also choosing the gender and race of their avatar. Races include Humes, which are analogous to humans; Elvaan, an arrogant elf-like species; Galka, a belligerent warrior race; Mithra, reclusive woodland hunters; and Tarutaru, cute little sprites blessed with magical aptitude. Playable Galka are always male, while playable Mithra are always female. Each race aside from Hume has specific stat bonuses and stat penalties, encouraging players towards specific jobs if that race is selected. Tarutaru, for example, have high MP and intelligence combined with low HP and strength; a Tarutaru will typically be a magic-user in battle, then, rather than a melee-oriented fighter.
Jobs function similarly to how they had in Final Fantasy V. Six options are open to start, as had been the case in the original Final Fantasy, but numerous additional jobs open up as the player continues his or her adventure. Players can switch jobs to utilize different skills and modify their role in party combat. A player can take on a support job that maxes out at half the level of his or her primary job, permitting the simultaneous use of two job classes’ unique skills. A Level 20 Elack Mage, for example, could use white magic by selecting White Mage as a support job; the White Mage support job would not be able to surpass Level 10, however. As this suggests, players gain levels in job classes rather than overall. Final Fantasy XI‘s leveling system, unique among contemporary MMORPGs, allows greater character customization at the expense of time investment: because all jobs start at Level 1, a player will need to take on relatively uninteresting quests to gain experience points when he or she transitions to a new job.
Final Fantasy XI‘s narrative is inherently less compelling than its immediate predecessors, as player characters are all avatars rather than predefined characters with distinct backstories. It focuses on the fallout of an international conflict two decades before the start of the player’s adventure; this war between Vana’diel’s three major nations and the beastmen, led by the Shadow Lord, caused devastation across the world. The player must complete missions for his or her character’s home nation (and eventually other nations) in order to fight the beastmen and a resurrected Shadow Lord before the cycle of destruction repeats itself. Much of the plot concerns the player attempting to overcome political obstacles in bringing Vana’diel’s lands together in common cause. This reflects the game’s broader theme of collectivism, contrasting sharply with the more individualistic narratives of earlier Final Fantasy games.
As with other MMORPGs, group dynamics form the backbone of the combat system. Any given character has access to a set of skills limited by his or her job, so defeating more complex foes requires players to form parties of up to six player characters. Melee classes are expected to draw enemy aggression away from ranged fighters and mages, who focus on dealing damage or healing the group. Six-person parties can join other parties to form even larger groups called alliances, which are necessary to complete the game’s most difficult optional sidequests.
Unlike earlier Final Fantasy titles, a monthly subscription must be paid to maintain access to the game. This is common in MMORPGs, as the developers sustain servers and regularly add new content. Still, it introduces concerns over the degree to which level progression speed functions as a commercial decision rather than a game design choice. Expansion packs released over the following decade introduced new regions and challenges, ensuring that the experience rarely grew stale for loyal fans. These include Rise of the Zilart (2003), which was included for free in Final Fantasy XI‘s North American release; Chains of Promathia (2004), which introduces forty new areas; Treasures of Aht Urhgan (2006), which adds jobs Puppetmaster, Corsair, and Blue Mage; Wings of the Goddess (2007), which lets players adopt jobs Dancer and Scholar; Vision of Abyssea, Scars of Abyssea, and Heroes of Abyssea (all 2010), which provide access to challenging new high-level regions; Seekers of Adoulin (2013, Japan-only), which opens up a new continent called Adoulin alongside jobs Rune Fencer and Geomancer; and Rhapsodies of Vana’diel (2015), which concludes the decade-long narrative. Due to platforms changing over time, some of these expansions were not made available on the game’s original PlayStation 2 hardware; players would need to access Final Fantasy XI via Windows PC or Xbox 360 for the fully expanded experience.
Servers for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 versions of Final Fantasy XI would be shut down in 2016. Incredibly, the Windows edition remains active as of writing in 2018. A rebooted mobile version is ostensibly being developed by Square and Korean studio Nexon at the moment.
The game’s legacy is fascinating. Many long-time fans of the franchise avoided it, frustrated that such an experimental title had been released as a core entry in the series. Many new fans took their place, however, and Square announced in 2012 that Final Fantasy XI had become the most profitable Final Fantasy game. It introduced fully 3D open-world exploration and enemies roaming the map for the first time, and the franchise would never again go back to classic random encounters in a core Final Fantasy title. In spite of its controversial status among series loyalists, as well as its profoundly non-traditional mechanics, Final Fantasy XI would leave a lasting impact upon Hironobu Sakaguchi’s franchise.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
The gap between Final Fantasy XI and its successor would be lengthy, establishing a new norm for the series. No game so far had gone through the struggles that plagued the development of Final Fantasy XII. Square was in a state of major upheaval following the Japanese release of Final Fantasy XI, and that would have an impact on the next game in their flagship franchise.
Much of this upheaval was tied to the public failure of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). Sakaguchi had spearheaded production on the film from Hawaii, where he had been leading Square Pictures since 1997. It had been intended to be the world’s first photorealistic CGI film, featuring a virtual actress who would go on to appear in future movies. An all-star cast had been assembled, driving up the cost of the already-expensive science-fiction movie still further. The resulting movie would have virtually no connection to the Final Fantasy series.
In the end, The Spirits Within was a commercial flop and plunged Square into economic freefall. The studio merged with its erstwhile competitor Enix (creator of the Dragon Quest series of JRPGs) to form Square-Enix in 2003. Hironobu Sakaguchi departed the company under a cloud of shame in 2004, establishing Mistwalker studios the same year. Final Fantasy would need to carry on under a newly reorganized studio without its original creator.
The series’ next game had already entered pre-production several years earlier under Final Fantasy Tactics (1997/1998) director Yasumi Matsuno and Final Fantasy IX director Hiroyuki Ito. Matsuno brought his world of Ivalice along, setting Final Fantasy XII in the same fictional universe as spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics and unrelated game Vagrant Story (2000). Ito had invented the ATB combat system a decade earlier and sought to move away from Final Fantasy X‘s CTB mechanics. Due to health concerns, Matsuno would be replaced as director by fellow Final Fantasy Tactics alum Hiroshi Minigawa while his executive producer role would be filled by Saga Frontier (1989) creator Akitoshi Kawazu. Though Sakaguchi would be uninvolved with the next Final Fantasy, its creative leadership had a strong foundation in Square JRPGs.
Major overhauls to combat formed a key part of the game’s unique identity. The developers of Final Fantasy X had intended to feature enemies walking around in the field, rather than random encounters, but their inexperience with PlayStation 2 hardware had prevented this; several years distance and techniques pioneered while making Final Fantasy XI ensured that Final Fantasy XII‘s staff could accomplish this long-standing goal. At the same time, they sought to eschew certain constrictive level design elements of the linear Final Fantasy X.
Again influenced by Final Fantasy XI, along with AI monster control in Final Fantasy IV, Ito’s new Active Dimension Battle (ADB) system involved programming party members to battle independently of player input. Players control a single character, but direct up to two allies’ actions using Gambits. These Gambits are scripts created by the player in the game’s menu and assigned to each character, determining how they react to and engage with opponents in combat. Commands could be simple, like having a character consistently target the weakest foe, but could also be complex. Players could program a melee fighter to inflict some elemental weakness on an enemy while also programming a mage to cast spells on enemies inflicted with this condition, for instance. New Gambit rules become available as the player progresses through the narrative, allowing the player to build extraordinarily complex battle scripts by the game’s conclusion. This system proved divisive, allowing programming-oriented players freedom to tinker endlessly with battle mechanics while irritating fans who were seeking a more traditional experience after Final Fantasy XI.
The narrative went through at least one major revision during the lengthy development process. Grizzled soldier Basch was originally intended to be the lead character, but this focal point was eventually shifted to a young thief named Vaan. Fans attributed this to executive meddling and the departure of Yasumi Matsuno in 2004, but a 2017 Polygon interview with developers Takashi Katano and Hiroaki Kato suggests that the change was actually made earlier in development. Whatever the case, this had the odd effect of making the main character less connected to the game’s sweeping political drama.
During the opening hours, Vaan becomes swept up in an international conflict between the Archadian and Rozarrian Empires. His home city-state of Dalmasca is annexed by Archadia and he joins rogue Dalmascan princess Ashe on her quest for independence from the oppressive Archadian regime. Along for the ride are Basch, the aforementioned disgraced knight framed for the assassination of Dalmasca’s former king during Archadia’s invasion; Balthier, a swashbuckling sky pirate; Fran, the Chewbacca to Balthier’s Han Solo; and Penelo, Vaan’s childhood friend. All six can be heavily customized to fulfill roles similar to classic Final Fantasy jobs.
The world itself is much more open to navigation than earlier entries had been. Players are primarily gated from regions they are not supposed to explore by aggressive, high level monsters. It is not possible to easily sequence-break the game, as linear plot events must occur to move the game forward, but players can find themselves wandering the rich countryside of Ivalice with few clear restrictions.
Areas remain separated by loading screens, as the game’s native PlayStation 2 hardware is unable to render wide-open spaces. Final Fantasy XII‘s world map, like that of Final Fantasy X, is a static image on which players can select their destination once an airship is acquired. The party otherwise navigates slowly through geographically diverse terrain at ground level. Architectural influences are primarily Mediterranean, with members of the development team traveling to Turkey for artistic inspiration; India and New York City similarly function as architectural touchstones.
Two years after its intended release date, Final Fantasy XII was published for the PlayStation 2. A critical and commercial success, the game would inspire a revised version called Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System in Japan. This iteration enhances character customization by dramatically expanding the license board, which is used as a skill and stat upgrade tree for each character; each of the twelve new license boards corresponds to a classic Final Fantasy job. The revised version would then form the basis for Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, an HD remaster published on PlayStation 4 and Windows in 2017-2018.
Final Fantasy XIII (2009)
The delays in Final Fantasy XII‘s production cycle would ensure that its successor was similarly pushed back. Final Fantasy XIII was originally scheduled for release on the PlayStation 2, but that plan became unworkable as the new hardware generation began in earnest. The series’ reputation by this point hinged on cutting-edge graphics and, given the broader trend of JRPGs abandoning HD home consoles for portable devices in the late 2000s due to prohibitive development costs, Square-Enix was not willing to be perceived as outdated or slapdash when it came to high-definition visual design. Final Fantasy XIII was pushed back and re-designed from the ground up for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles.
This decision would have serious consequences for the team working on the game. Led by Motomu Toriyama under producer and series veteran Yoshinori Kitase, Final Fantasy XIII‘s staff would encounter numerous roadblocks getting their vision from conception to execution. They designed an entirely new game engine called Crystal Tools, but its application was hamstrung by executive insistence that it be designed for use in multiple series with extraordinarily diverse gameplay systems. Similarly, the game was drawn in very different directions by a team that lacked a unifying goal prior to its development of a playable demo released in early 2009; in spite of the game being in production since 2004 and having a trailer published in 2006, Final Fantasy XIII would only coalesce in the two years immediately preceding its release.
The visual design of the final game is striking, and was universally lauded by contemporary critics. Characters are significantly more articulated than earlier protagonists. Facial animations and body language is based on extensive motion capture, dovetailing with an abundance of voice-over to produce the most lifelike characters in the franchise’s long history. The setting is similarly beautiful, with the vast majority of the game taking place in the highly detailed science fiction cityscape of Cocoon.
Cocoon is a floating continent ruled by the theocratic Sanctum. Sanctum prohibits contact with Gran Pulse, the world below, and at the game’s outset is purging its population of people believed to have been corrupted by this terrestrial landmass. The lead character’s sister Serah is among those being purged by Sanctum, and she renounces her status as a government soldier to fight back against Cocoon’s oppressive regime.
Protagonist Lightning joins a fairly small list of female lead characters in the Final Fantasy series. Even so, her design was primarily inspired by Final Fantasy VII‘s Cloud Strife. Lightning would prove to be one of the more universally beloved elements of an otherwise divisive game. Other playable characters include Sazh, a middle-aged airship pilot with a chocobo chick dwelling in his hair; Snow, Serah’s fiancee and Sanctum resistance leader; Hope, a child whose mother falls victim to Sanctum’s purge; Vanille, an optimistic young woman who narrates the game; and Fang, a spear-wielding warrior.
Character customization and battle mechanics are tightly integrated. The player can customize Lightning and her companions’ skills and stats through a menu-based skill tree called the Crystarium. The skills and stats determine each character’s ability to perform one of six roles in battle; these are similar to jobs from earlier Final Fantasy games. At any given time, the combination of character roles forms a paradigm. Final Fantasy XIII‘s battle menu includes the ability to shift paradigms, altering the role of each character to suit the current situation. 86 total combinations are available.
Paradigms and roles form the foundation for Final Fantasy XIII‘s Command Synergy Battle system. Like Final Fantasy XII, the party can encounter enemies wandering the field map; unlike that game, however, play moves to a discrete battle screen once the player character touches a foe. At this point, battle occurs in a turn-based style reminiscent of the ATB system in earlier Final Fantasy games. The key difference is the segmentation of a character’s action gauge into subdivisions; allowing the gauge to fill further grants the ability to execute multiple commands or stronger commands demanding a higher number of action points.
As in Final Fantasy X-2, though, the player can alter his or her character(s)’s role(s) on the fly. Lightning begins the game alone, but can be joined in battle by up to two AI-controlled companions’. Winning battles confers Crystogen Points, which allows the player to advance his or her characters’ skills using the aforementioned Crystarium menu. Summoned creatures return, but are highly mechanized and fewer in number than most preceding series entries.
The battle system would be praised as Final Fantasy XIII‘s most thoughtfully composed element. Visual design was similarly lauded. The game’s narrative and exploration, however, were heavily criticized. Beginning in medias res, Final Fantasy XIII‘s plot is comparatively challenging for players to engage with in its early hours; an in-game encyclopedia serves to deliver critical world-building and context, reducing the burden of exposition within cutscenes while increasing the likelihood that players will find themselves confused.
Exploration suffers from the opposite problem. Prior to an event midway through the game, Lightning and her companions are bound to an uncharacteristically linear series of environments. No towns appear, as the developers believed that they could not design these to be as visually engaging as less-populated spaces. The resulting effect, according to contemporary critics, is that the game often feels like walking down a series of hallways punctuated occasionally by combat or a cutscene.
Sales were strong in spite of a mixed reception, leading to two direct sequels. The first of these, Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2011/2012), features Serah and a new character named Noel as its protagonists. Time travel plays a significant role as Serah and Noel seek to find the missing Lightning. Combat is very similar to Final Fantasy XIII, though free-roaming monsters are replaced with random encounters. During battle, monsters can actually be captured and join the party. World design is overall less linear than Final Fantasy XIII.
The conclusion to the Lightning Saga, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII , was published in Japan in late 2013 and in other regions in early 2014. Set a full 500 years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the plot follows Lightning as she attempts to save various characters from an impending apocalypse. As in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000), this involves the completion of a variety of sidequests within a limited period of time. World design is fully open and features multiple towns; this was a direct response to criticism of Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning gains stat and skill improvements as she completes quests, granting greater combat strength. The game’s 13-day time limit can be extended by gathering Eradia, a metaphysical resource that represents the burden lifted from NPCs as they are aided by Lightning.
Final Fantasy XIII had originally been pitched as the first in a sub-series called Fabula Nova Crystallis, but hitches in developing for new HD hardware deferred this dream and rendered a long-term series prohibitive without extraordinary fan investment. Two additional games intended for the Fabula Nova Crystallis sub-series would evolve into distinct Final Fantasy titles during the mid-2010s: Agito XIII would become a handheld spinoff called Final Fantasy Type-0 (2011) while Versus XIII would slowly transform into Final Fantasy XV (2016). Final Fantasy XIII had made its mark as the series’ divisive initial foray into HD hardware, with three total releases to its name, but the next Final Fantasy game would manage to offer an even more controversial experience.
Final Fantasy XIV (2010, 2013 – A Realm Reborn)
If Final Fantasy XIII had represented Square-Enix’s flagship IP stumbling, Final Fantasy XIV would represent its subsequent fall and struggle back to its feet. The concept was straightforward: Hiromichi Tanaka would produce a follow-up to the franchise’s first MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI. The genre was less popular than it had been in the early 2000s, with World of Warcraft (2005) dominating the market and most competitors adopting a free-to-play model in an attempt to attract fans away from Blizzard’s juggernaut, but Square-Enix believed that it could succeed where other studios had failed. Tanaka’s experience leading development on Final Fantasy XI made him a natural choice for the project leader on Square-Enix’s newest title.
Unfortunately, five years in development (2005-2010) would not be enough time to resolve the issues encountered by and indeed generated by Tanaka and his team. Later retrospectives suggest that the staff’s pursuit of visual fidelity over gameplay mechanics and a lack of familiarity with contemporary MMORPG trends doomed their work to failure. Whatever the cause, Final Fantasy XIV would be released on Windows PCs in September 2010 to the series’ harshest critical reception in over twenty years.
Much of the gameplay is similar to Final Fantasy XI. Players choose an avatar’s gender, race, and physical features. At this point he or she begins his or her adventure in one of several main cities – each associated with a specific race – and sets out on an initial story quest. Story quests make up the majority of the game’s narrative content, though players can take on general sidequests or levequests. The latter provide larger rewards and are associated with guilds joined by the player character, but limited by restrictions imposed on how often new tasks can be accepted. Completing quests allows the player to accrue experience points, items, and faction loyalty with a variety of in-game social groups.
In spite of this relatively reliable structure, Final Fantasy XIV was beset by numerous issues upon release. Technical problems resulted in frequent server crashes, while an overly high level of visual polish and lack of optimization resulted in poor overall performance. A maximum of twenty characters can appear on-screen at any time, guaranteeing that the game’s scale remains relatively small in spite of the genre’s emphasis on large teams and enemy hordes. Finally, a challenging user interface and anemic quest structure kept players from enjoying the game even when it was working as planned.
The staggeringly poor critical reception and dismal sales led Square-Enix to reassess how its most popular series was being handled. After a series of apologies and a public admission by Square-Enix President Yoichi Wada that the Final Fantasy name had been irreparably damaged, Hiromichi Tanaka was replaced by Naoki Yoshida as producer/director; Tanaka, who had been with Square since its earliest years, would announce his departure from the studio in 2012. A planned PlayStation 3 port of Final Fantasy XIV would be put on indefinite hiatus and subscription fees would be suspended as Yoshida sought to overhaul the game.
It quickly became clear that revisions were not enough to improve the shaky foundation established by Tanaka and his staff, so the game’s servers were shut down in Fall 2012. An in-game event closed the previous chapter of Final Fantasy XIV‘s fictional world and set the stage for its reinvention. This apocalyptic scenario, called the Seventh Umbral Calamity, sees the emergence of series regular Bahamut from the moon and the ensuing destruction of much of Eorzea, Final Fantasy XIV’s setting.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn would be published on Windows PCs and PlayStation 3 worldwide in August 2013, little less than a year after the deactivation of Final Fantasy XIV’s original servers. Yoshida and his team had done the seemingly impossible, recreating Eorzea from the ground up within an entirely new game engine. While Yoshida would admit in a 2015 interview with IGN that the trust between Square-Enix and its fans had been shattered by Final Fantasy XIV’s careless design, he hoped that this relationship might be rebuilt by a team focused on delivering the best persistent world yet encountered in an MMORPG.
To that end, he was wildly successful. Offering extensive windows into the new game’s development through a series of candid blog entries, Yoshida broke down the barrier which traditionally existed between large Japanese video game studios and their customers. By the time that A Realm Reborn hit store shelves, skeptical fans were once again willing to take a chance on Final Fantasy. They would be richly rewarded.
A Realm Reborn carries over many of the basic gameplay elements of the original Final Fantasy XIV, though these are heavily refined. Players can now take on numerous new jobs through use of an Armory System, in which their class is determined by the equipment they are using; this flexibility reduces the likelihood of boredom and also ensures that updating one’s job can only be done when a player has enough equipment to make the new build viable. Character progression and customization is as extensive as any entry in the series’ long history, befitting a game in which players are expected to maintain interest and subscription fees over a multi-year period.
The interface has been rebuilt upon the foundation of Sony’s XrossMediaBar. This design, which had first been used on the home screen of the PSP console and then refined on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, provides a wide range of options and choices without cluttering the screen at any given time. Effectively nesting mini-menus behind a horizontally-aligned central menu, Yoshida’s adoption of the XrossMediaBar facilitates the navigation of complex interlinked systems using a controller or keyboard and mouse. A Realm Reborn’s visual design is toned down slightly from the original Final Fantasy XIV– to improve performance – but is more thoughtfully crafted overall.
Unlike most of its competitors in the MMORPG genre, A Realm Reborn features a surprisingly rich narrative. It begins in a manner similar to Final Fantasy XIV, with the player character undertaking relatively banal quests in his or her race’s starting city, but eventually reveals the player character’s role in an ongoing war between Eorzea’s free states and the encroaching Garlean Empire following the Seventh Umbral Calamity. To complete the plot, the player character must visit all of Eorzea’s free states and interact with a variety of competing political factions.
Much of the game’s plot can be accessed by a player going solo or working with a team of other adventurers. The adaptable narrative framework casts the player character as a distinct figure within the story during cutscenes, so each player has the impression that his or her unique avatar saves Eorzea from disaster. Raids, in which a player explores a dungeon and typically battles a visually spectacular boss enemy, are the only portions of the game which require a multi-person party. These are among the game’s most engaging sequences, however, so the player seeking to play entirely solo will likely have a comparatively boring experience.
Against the odds, A Realm Reborn would finally establish Final Fantasy as one of the dominant names in the MMORPG genre. 14 million subscribers would join the online game by August 2018. According to Yoshida, much of this success can be attributed to the bond of trust successfully re-established between Square-Enix and its customers through open dialogue, along with a monthly subscription fee; the free-to-play model adopted by many competing MMORPGs, Yoshida believes, results in a lower expectation of quality by players and an unstable resource pool for the studio behind the product. The commercial and critical success of two expansions – Heavensward in 2015 and Stormblood in 2017 – as well as a 2014 port to PlayStation 4 seem to support his conclusion. Though Square-Enix discontinued support for the PlayStation 3 version in June 2017, the increasingly popular Yoshida plans to release a new expansion called Shadowbringers on all other platforms in 2019.
Final Fantasy XV (2016)
As Hiromichi Tanaka was beginning production on the multiplayer Final Fantasy XIV in 2005, groundwork was simultaneously being laid for the series’ next single-player experience. Tetsuya Nomura, the visionary behind Square-Enix’s popular Kingdom Hearts franchise, was assigned the role of director and character designer on Final Fantasy Versus XIII. This upcoming game would be revealed in a pre-rendered trailer released alongside Final Fantasy XIII’s debut trailer at E3 2006. Though it was intended to be part of Square-Enix’s projected Fabula Nova Crystallis series of games – all inspired by the same central mythos and theme while remaining otherwise distinct – six years of development would slowly erode its intended connection to Final Fantasy XIII.
Tetsuya Nomura had conceived the game as a much darker experience than typical Final Fantasy titles or, indeed, his own Kingdom Hearts series. Seeking to leverage the Crystal Tools game engine and PlayStation 3 hardware to depict character emotions more realistically than ever, Nomura intended to explore a more personal story than he had had the opportunity to create while working on Square-Enix’s bigger tentpole releases. Final Fantasy Versus XIII’s unique role as a spinoff seemingly offered Nomura more latitude to see this vision through to completion.
Unfortunately, the troubled development cycle of Final Fantasy XIII would hamstring the project from its earliest days. As Final Fantasy XIII was moved from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3 and was heavily revised, staff reshuffling was necessary within Square-Enix; Nomura’s team was regularly pulled away from Versus XIII to aid employees working on Final Fantasy XIII and its direct sequels. In spite of several trailers trickling out of Square-Enix during trade show events, development on Versus XIII would only begin in earnest during September 2011. The game would be rebranded in 2012 as Final Fantasy XV due to Square-Enix’s abandonment of its planned Fabula Nova Crystallis sub-series.
By 2012, of course, the PlayStation 3 was nearing the end of its life cycle and Sony was preparing to release its next hardware generation. Square-Enix concluded that releasing the next Final Fantasy game for an aging console would be a poor business decision. Nomura and his staff moved production to the PlayStation 4 and a new game engine called Luminous Studio, throwing away roughly 20-25% of a finished version in the process. With the project in its greatest period of turmoil since work began in 2006, and inspired by the recently released theatrical version of Les Miserables (2012), Nomura briefly considered turning Final Fantasy XV into a full-blown musical. Despite claims by Square-Enix President Yoichi Wada to the contrary, rumors of the project’s cancellation began to circulate.
Promotion for Final Fantasy XV began anew in 2013, with Hajime Tabata being brought on as co-director and then sole director following Tetsuya Nomura’s 2014 departure from the project. Inspired by the directness of communication pursued by Final Fantasy XIV’s Naoki Yoshida and seeking to mitigate further rumors of development trouble as the project entered its eighth year, Tabata controversially opted to reveal his team’s ongoing work through a series of blog entries. His efforts were successful and fans once again began to believe that the game might eventually be released. A demo version called Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae was released in 2015, confirming that the game was finally in a playable state.
Final Fantasy XV was released worldwide for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on November 29, 2016. To avoid the extended episodic content release cycle that Square-Enix had engaged in with Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII while still delivering an epic narrative, Tabata supervised the production and release of several supplementary materials known collectively as the Final Fantasy XV Universe. The most important of these multimedia tie-ins were a feature-length CGI film called Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV and an anime titled Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV. Several mobile and home console spinoffs were similarly released in the year preceding Final Fantasy XV’s publication. To fans’ consternation, critical plot details and relevant context could only be experienced by collecting all supplementary materials. Even so, critical reception to Final Fantasy XV was generally positive.
The game features a characteristically heavy emphasis on the personal journey of its protagonist Noctis, crown prince of the in-game Kingdom of Lucis, joined by his friends Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto. All are caught up in an international conflict when Lucis’ king, Noctis’ father, is assasinated amid an invasion by neighboring Niflheim. Noctis’ plans to wed a princess named Lunafreya at the game’s outset are disrupted by the Niflheim invasion, though Lunafreya becomes a central figure in his efforts to retake his father’s throne. The story is designed to imitate the style of a road movie. Controversially, Final Fantasy XV represents the first Final Fantasy game to feature an exclusively male party of main characters.
Like Final Fantasy XIV, Square-Enix’s latest release allows the player to explore an open 3D world. The vast planet of Eos, which consists of four nations, serves as Final Fantasy XV’s setting. Throughout his or her adventure, the player has the opportunity to navigate multiple continents through on-foot travel, a car heavily featured in promotional materials, and even an airship; the latter represents the first time that the player can freely navigate a Final Fantasy game using a flying vessel since 2000’s Final Fantasy IX!
Combat occurs without transitioning from the field to a separate battle screen. Fights are heavily inspired by Tetsuya Nomura’s Kingdom Hearts series, with the player directly controlling only a single character and being aided in real-time battles by up to three AI-controlled allies. Final Fantasy had conclusively made the shift to action-RPG combat.
Following its release, a suite of paid downloadable content (DLC) was announced for Final Fantasy XV. These episodes were to focus to specific characters and shade in details that had been absent from the core game. In addition, as a response to criticism over some seemingly incomplete late-game storytelling, Tabata took the reins on developing free updates intended to to fill in narrative gaps. Though players who invested in Final Fantasy XV at the time of its release could access the DLC and updates as they were published throughout 2017, new players could obtain the complete package in March 2018’s Final Fantasy XV: Royal Edition. Still more expanded content was announced for 2019, though these plans were largely abandoned with Tabata’s departure from Square-Enix in late 2018.
Final Fantasy is one of the video game medium’s most enduring intellectual properties. Since its inception in 1987, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s ambitious saga has attracted fans worldwide and popularized the Japanese role-playing game sub-genre outside of Japan. The series has outlasted Sakaguchi’s directorship, the studio that originally produced it, and indeed the century in which it debuted. Development hurdles have regularly challenged its ongoing release schedule, but all have been overcome with time. One can only speculate on how Final Fantasy will adapt to a changing environment and grow throughout the next thirty years.
- GameTrailers – Final Fantasy Retrospective (Video)
- IGN – Travis Fahs, “IGN Presents the History of Final Fantasy” (Text)
- Forbes – Ollie Barder, “Akitoshi Kawazu On His Journey From The Final Fantasy Games To The SaGa Series” (Text)
- 1UP – Kevin Gifford, “Hironobu Sakaguchi on Final Fantasy I‘s Roller-Coaster Development” (Text)
- IGN – Andy Corrigan, “Final Fantasy II: A Retrospective” (Text)
- Kotaku – Jason Schreier, “Final Fantasy II Retrospective: The Black Sheep of the Series” (Text)
- IGN – Nix, “TGS 2006: Square on Final Fantasy III” (Text)
- Kotaku – Jason Schrier, “Final Fantasy III Retrospective: Hope You Like Losing Progress” (Text)
- GamesRadar – Heidi Kemps, “Takashi Tokita on the legacy of Final Fantasy IV” (Text)
- Nintendo Enthusiast – John Friscia, “The Development of Final Fantasy IV” (Text)
- US Gamer – Kat Bailey, “The Top 25 RPGs of All Time #25: Final Fantasy V” (Text)
- AV Club – Anthony John Agnello, “Final Fantasy VI explores human pain through its shattered geography” (Text)
- Kotaku – Jason Schreier, “Final Fantasy VI Retrospective: Simply The Best” (Text)
- Polygon – Matt Leone, “Final Fantasy VII: An Oral History” (Text)
- Kotaku – Jason Schrier, “Final Fantasy VIII Retrospective: The Greatest Love Story” (Text)
- NeoGAF – Mama Robotnik, “The lost art of Final Fantasy IX” (Text)
- Siliconera – Spencer, “Final Fantasy X‘s Original Idea and Other Reflections by Yoshinori Kitase” (Text)
- IGN – Staff, “Final Fantasy XII Q&A” (Text)
- Polygon – Jeremy Parish, “The making of Final Fantasy XII” (Text)
- US Gamer – Kat Bailey, “How Final Fantasy XII‘s Development Troubles Presaged a Tough Decade for the Series” (Text)
- Gamasutra – Staff, “Behind the Scenes of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIII” (Text)
- Polygon – Philip Kollar, “Final Fantasy XIV killed by Square Enix’s stubbornness, reborn by a new approach” (Text)
- IGN – Luke Karmali, “Meet The Man Who Redeemed Final Fantasy” (Text)
- Eurogamer – Simon Parkin, “Finishing Final Fantasy” (Text)
- Finaland – Gamescom 2015: Interview Hajime Tabata (Text)
What is your favorite Final Fantasy game? How about your favorite character or summoned creature? What about your favorite development hurdle – there were so many – or quirk ironed out through updates? Let’s discuss below!
Don’t forget to join us next week as we walk through the spinoffs of the Final Fantasy series. There are more than a few. The article will go live at 9:00 AM EST on January 13, 2019, right here at Franchise Festival.