Which Final Fantasy should be your first if you haven’t played one yet? We’re looking at accessibility, complexity of gameplay, and how well each game has aged and holds up to modern scrutiny. In Part 1 of this opinion piece we covered the first five mainline Final Fantasy games (you can click here in case you missed it).
This next section will cover the next five mainline games. This makes a perfect checkpoint because the next few games take a departure from what I consider the high fantasy settings of the first five and we get far more steampunk and industrial settings. Starting with Final Fantasy VI we get more high-tech settings.
Quick disclaimer, if I sound biased about FF VI it is because I am. It is my absolute favorite game in the series! FF VI boasts the biggest party size of any mainline FF game with 14 party members and has a strong first half with an even more dramatic second half. Each character feels unique with their own combat gimmick and plenty of game time to explore their history and motives. Celes can absorb magic attacks, Gau can use enemy abilities as his own, Sabin can use input combinations, etc.
You can sabotage your characters later on by over-leveling before you unlock espers / magicite however. Therefore it is recommended to only grind for what is necessary until shortly before the halfway point. The second half of the game has a difficulty spike that can be cruel as even random encounters can wipe you out if you’re careless.
There are also some areas (Magus Tower) that are harder/easier depending on when you take them on. That said from a gameplay perspective I think it makes a decent first FF game if not, at very least, a challenging one! It has one of (if not THE) best stories in the whole franchise and the best villain as well. It’s the last of the 2D games but the pixel art is gorgeous and still holds up to this day.
FF VII (1997) is the grand daddy of the series and the entry that put the series on the map for everyone outside of Japan. It is also the first to jump ship from Nintendo consoles and debut on PlayStation due to the CD’s superior storage format. It cannot be overstated just how important FF VII is not just to the franchise but to the genre as a whole!
FF VII has not visually aged well, in fact I would argue that the previous entries in the series have aged better. This is, in part, why FF VII: Remake exists, but that game isn’t a viable “substitute” to the original FF VII as it only makes up one third of the original and makes significant changes from it as well.
The original game tells a remarkably mature story set in a futuristic/industrial world with themes of eco-terrorism, class warfare, genocide, and other dark themes. The combat sees the return of the ATB gauge and that style of turn-based gameplay. The materia system is very reminiscent of the magicite system from VI but takes it up a notch by allowing you to upgrade materia to teach stronger types of magic.
VII is pretty easy to pick up and the game does a terrific job of actually explaining it’s various sub-systems and is pretty forgiving with it’ difficulty. Modern versions of the game such as the Steam, Switch, and PS4 ports introduce some modifiers that make the game easier and also clean up some of the game’s visual muddiness. FF VII was the entry point for many gamers in the 90s and even early 2000s. I highly recommend it as an entry point if you can forgive the wonky 3D polygons.
FF VIII is very strange in that it punishes the player for actually playing the game. What we mean by that is that it scales every enemy and boss relative to the player’s level. This is highly annoying, but can be exploited. For example you can disable enemy encounters and keep yourself at a low level. This will also keep all bosses at a low level. Inversely, leveling up will make the bosses harder and they will out scale you as you level up. I know, it is weird.
The game has, to the chagrin of many, something called the “junction” system. The junction system allows the player to assign magic to individual stats and boost them. You can draw magic from enemies or the overworld. Furthermore you can equip summons that can do all sorts of interesting things to modify the game, like turn playing cards into items and magic. Oddly enough you can make your party insanely powerful by playing an in-game trading card minigame.
Through this minigame you can collect cards, turn them into rare magic and items, and even create the best weapon in the game before the end of Disc 1. The balance in the game is so wonky, it’s ridiculous. Did I mention it also has one of the weirder stories in the series? FF VIII is a solid game in the franchise and has, arguably, the best music of any FF game. But it is one that I would recommend to avoid until you have several other entries under your belt.
FF IX is, fortunately, a return to a more classic and simplified playstyle. After the futuristic industrial settings of VII and VIII, FF IX feels likes a breath of fresh air with the return of a heavily fantasy/medieval setting. The fan favorite ATB gauge returns and the cutesy/chibi aesthetic is charming in a way. Traditional leveling up is enhanced with a sort of weapon learning system.
Each party member has a fixed “class” and each piece of equipment can teach your party members one (or more) abilities by gaining AP during battle. Once the ability is mastered the party member can discard the equipment and keep the ability permanently. They then put on a new piece to start the process all over again. The difficulty curve throughout the game feels pretty fair and I never felt the need to overly grind for exp just to progress.
The plight of our characters is a fantastically told story; while the individual hardships/growing pains they go through makes them endearing characters. FF IX is, in my opinion, the most accessible of the PS1 era FF games and perhaps the single best FF game to begin with.
FF X is in many ways a rebirth of the series. It is the first entry to debut on the PlayStation 2 and the first to have a voiced cast of characters. X’s setting jumps around from heavy sci-fi to old future and then tropical fantasy. It’s kind of all over the place. This is the 2nd game in the mainline entry to do away with the concept of numbered leveled characters since FF II.
Instead what you have is a system called the Sphere Grid. The Sphere Grid is a massive gameboard of nodes where when any of your party members accumulates enough experience they can move around the board and collect abilities or stat improvements. The Sphere Grid starts off very linear for each character but towards the end of the game more paths open up allowing cross-specialization between your party members.
FF X also features a few battles where instead of attacking the enemy the player can choose alternate actions such as “talking” with the enemy or attacking objects in the battlefield to trigger certain sequences. Instead of using the ATB this game is a true turn-based entry along with a visible turn order so you can strategize.
The story features romance, familial conflicts, and themes that touch upon religion, science, and self-determination. The cast of characters are memorable, and the story will tug on your heartstrings. Square went all out with FF X and it is one of the highlights of the franchise. You can’t go wrong with FF X at all, one of the more modern entries and a great one to start with!
FF VI through X make up the core of the most important entries in the series. This is when Final Fantasy as we know it really came into its own and became more than just a bunch of stats and number crunching but became a whole vehicle for amazing stories and beloved heroes/villains. Stay tuned for the concluding part 3 of this group of articles.