So! It’s been nearly two weeks since I posted a new blog entry, and this is due to two (2) separate factors: Firstly, I packed up my whole apartment and moved across town, and secondly, I spent a week in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, communing with nature and restoring my soul.
Ha ha! Just kidding! I played a whole lot of Dissidia: Final Fantasy.
Alright, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I went on some hikes. I saw some sights. But I did manage to fit in some gaming time when I wasn’t hanging out with my family, and I may or may not have stayed up into the night on a couple of occasions because, well, Cloud Strife wasn’t about to win all those battles by himself.
Dissidia isn’t a game for everybody. It’s a game for people who like Final Fantasy. As someone who’s beaten each of them save for V, XI, and XIII, I am particularly susceptible to fan service of this nature. I like the subtle differences in the way that the different characters play. I like that the game asks you to play as each of them in turn and learn their different styles. I like that I can call down a satellite laser as Laguna.
The battles feel like a mix of Power Stone and Bushido Blade, and it’s satisfying both to win a match in less than 8 seconds and to win a long, hard-fought battle of attrition against a foe of much greater level. The RPG elements which are laid atop the combat system are mostly well-executed and add to the fun. It occupies a space somewhere between the blissful simplicity of Super Smash Bros. and the layered complexity of Street Fighter.
This isn’t really a review of Dissidia (or its pseudo-sequel, Duodecim, which is actually what I was playing)– it’s easy to recommend or not recommend the game (“do you like Final Fantasy?”), but more of an introduction to a matter that playing the game for hours on end led me to consider: If you haven’t played a Final Fantasy, if, somehow, you’ve managed to avoid it for the twenty-five years of its existence, if this is true about you and you wanted an introduction… which game ought you to pick up first?
I’ve thought about this for a fair bit now. The initial inclination might be to suggest one of the two extremes of the series: Final Fantasy XIII, which is by far the prettiest (and easiest to acquire, as it’s the only one on current-gen consoles), or the original Final Fantasy, whence the series began (and has received a fairly nice makeover in its port to iOS).
Of course, FFXIII is (rightly) maligned for its linearity and sluggishness, and FFI is a little dry and bare-bones in this day and age. Certainly it contains the essence of all that comes after it, but I’m not convinced that you can experience all the series has to offer just by playing through the original (this from a guy who has the Four Warriors of Light hanging in his bedroom).
Some of the games have strayed further from the series’ core experience than others– FFII has a really wonky battle/experience system, FFVIII had that business with the junctioning, and FFXII… well, FFXII has issues of its own.
Some might argue that Final Fantasy X, released on a last-gen system, would be the perfect mix of old and new for someone to introduce themselves to the series. There’s merit to that argument, especially when one considers the emotional wallop that the game can pack in the latter stages if one is invested in the characters (I think my wife may have cried for fully an hour after finishing the game). FFX, however, could potentially be annoying for someone not familiar with the series: the voice acting can be grating, and the protagonist isn’t immediately likable in his own right.
Here’s where I’m going to make a bold claim: I think that if you were to only play a single Final Fantasy, you shouldn’t pick it solely on the strength of its narrative. The best stories in the series aren’t necessarily representative of the core Final Fantasy experience, despite narrative being one of the driving forces of these games. When I talk about the best stories, I’m referring specifically here to FFVI and FFVII, which most fans of the franchise concede have the most mature, complex, and operatic plotlines.
Do I think every gamer ought to experience the mid-game climax atop the Floating Continent in Final Fantasy VI? Absolutely. Do I think that leaving Midgar for the first time and seeing the breadth of FFVII’s world is a breath-taking experience? You bet.
But do I think that it’s hard to get characters to emote with 16-bit sprites? Yes, probably. Do I think that FFVII’s translation is weak compared to some of the other entries in the series? Yeah, I do. These games are classics, but they’re not without their flaws. Minor flaws, I think– but, importantly, flaws which might be barriers to entry for a gamer who has no experience with the series.
If you were only ever to play one Final Fantasy, you know which one I think it should be?
Yep. Final Fantasy IX.
I’m not about to make the claim that FFIX is the best in the series. As engaging as its story is, it doesn’t nearly approach the pathos of FFVI or even the bittersweet beauty of FFX. Its cast is a lot of fun (Steiner? Freya? Vivi? Delightful!), but it certainly doesn’t have the best characters in the series (take your pick–there are a million good ones).
Despite not being the best in the series at anything, FFIX is brilliant, and it’s brilliant because each of its elements is very strong. It’s got a solid narrative, engaging characters, a simple but compelling battle system and leveling mechanics, and graphics which, while admittedly 32-bit, are almost certainly the most attractive on the system. What’s more, Final Fantasy IX shares the spirit of the first five games in the series while also dipping its toes into the complex character evolutions of the later entries.
FFIX also has a lot of little quirks that make it appealing: having the ability-learning system tied to equipment makes it very compelling to steal new items from bosses, the Active Time Event system gives you windows into the stories of side characters and makes the game feel more like it has an ensemble cast (without the 14-person party of FFVI), and anyone who is familiar with the rest of the series will find tiny nods to other games hidden in every nook and cranny.
If you happen to be a gamer who doesn’t know Final Fantasy, I would encourage you to give Final Fantasy IX (and indeed, the whole Final Fantasy series) a try. They are all charming, compelling games that will put a smile on your face and keep you busy for many hours.
(Final Fantasy IX just happens to be a PSOne Classic, so it’s easily accessible if you have any Sony hardware. Now you’ve got no excuse not to educate yourself!)