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Monday, October 26, 2020

Tiermaker Funtimes: the Final Fantasy games (that I've played)

Admittedly I'm not a HUGE fan of the Final Fantasy series, but being a follower of classic RPGs, it's pretty much inevitable that you'll play at least one or two; it's such a prolific name and they span so many genres and platforms that it's impossible to not play one sooner or later.  So, for this list, I'll give my thoughts on games in the series in the chronological order of their release, then give them an S-F ranking on the list.

Final Fantasy (1) - 1987/1990 (US)

The original, still widely regarded as a classic, a trendsetter and one of the first great Japanese RPGs to reach western shores.  It was also still very much in the era where the Wizardry influence was evident - many enemies are direct lifts from that series (which in turn were lifted from D&D) and it's a relatively slow-paced, turn-based experience with heavy emphasis on following clues and solving puzzles, but a minimal overall narrative.  Still, you could customize your own party with any combination of six classes, which was pretty cool at the time, and it was definitely one of the best looking RPGs on the system - enemy sprites were huge and detailed, and the world did its best to not look like it was broken up into distinct tiles.  Not my favorite one to play, but considering how good it was in the period it came out, it still gets an B rank.  It's also had several remakes since, and while basically the same game at its core, those are generally much more polished than the original release and fix most of its prominent bugs.

Final Fantasy II - 1988

Regarded as the first major black sheep of the series by many, and it's a sentiment I largely agree with.  I can give it some credit for at least attempting something new with its leveling system, as well as being the first to feature non-silent protagonists wrapped up in a personal and tragic story, but... it's just not very fun at all.  The difficulty in the game rises by huge leaps, particularly for bosses, so you can easily steamroll everything in a dungeon and then get stomped by the boss at the end without even being able to damage him.  The leveling system was a novel idea, but it mostly just comes down to a lot of really tedious grinding.  Mostly in the form of sitting around hitting your own teammates to power up HP, Strength, Intelligence and Spells all separately from one another, which can literally take hours to complete.  Dungeons are overly long and seemingly built to be tedious rather than legitimately challenging; they're all just long hallways full of fights, strewn with "trap" doors that drop you in the center of a room with high-leveled encounters every single step you take, making them feel much more like a twisted gambling game than a test of skill and endurance.  It's just a bad time all around, especially in the original Famicom release where raising some stats lowers others.  This one just barely squeaks into D-tier, and that's because it has some nice music and the story hits some surprisingly grim beats that few other games in the series match.  The open-ended design and randomized stats would later be used to better effect in the SaGa series, at least.

Final Fantasy III - 1990

After the not-so-great reception of II, Square decided to get things back on track with the third game, returning to the class system of 1 and massively expanding it.  You begin the game as the lowly Onion Knight class and quickly unlock most of the first game's iconic classes, but once you get a ways in you soon learn that there's a lot more going on.  In fact, there are now a whopping 22 classes to customize your party with, and you can change between them more or less freely throughout the game (though they do mostly force you to utilize the newest ones you're given, as equipment for the "old" classes suddenly becomes quite scarce as soon as you're bestowed a new set).   It does still suffer a bit from uneven difficulty and forced grinding in places (particularly toward the end), but I still had a lot of fun with the game - it looks and sounds excellent, the classes give it a surprising amount of variety and it was the first to feature proper side-quests, as well as the series' iconic summons.  It's fun, but definitely outshined by later games in the series; still, I think it's B-worthy.  The 3D remake is C-tier, though, since it's somehow much grindier than the original Famicom release.

Final Fantasy IV - 1991

The one that's gotten more updates, remakes, ports and re-releases than any other in the series by a wide margin.  Honestly, though... I've never really been a fan.  While the game desperately wants to achieve an epic, Star Wars-esque storyline, it never really came together for me; every character just came off as a cliche and never really grew much beyond a few plot points and basic traits, plus the constant attempts to shoehorn "twists" into the story just get contrived and annoying to the point of farce.  The game introduced the series' iconic ATB combat system, though here, there are pretty substantial delays in most actions - casting powerful spells or summons results in you having to wait several seconds before it finally kicks in, leaving a character wide open for the interim and usually getting them killed.  Not to mention it has the unpleasant effect of making the extremely-frequent random encounters take far longer than they should; particularly near the end when every enemy seems to have tens of thousands of HP, inflicts every nasty status in the book and is guaranteed to wipe at least one character every turn.  Square really wants it to be thought of as a beloved classic, and to some people it is, but to me it's a D; its story is just too try-hard and it's much more of a chore than it is fun to play.

Final Fantasy V - 1992

5 goes back to the classic class system once again, though with a pretty cool twist this time.  Each class now has multiple special abilities to learn and utilize, and you can mix and match them between each other to make your own custom classes.  Knights that can cast magic, Summoners that can equip armor or use swords, and Ninjas that can wield axes  are just a few of many combinations you can create.  Classes have more variety too, introducing several new ones like the Berserker, the Samurai and a personal favorite in the Blue Mage, who learns various useful (if mostly situational) abilities from enemies.  The core gameplay is much improved too, featuring much better pacing and dungeon gimmicks that tie in well to class abilities rather than just being drawn-out and tedious.  V's story isn't great, but it also doesn't take itself particularly seriously either (especially in the GBA port), so it doesn't grate on me nearly as much as IV's.  It's just a fun game in general and easily my favorite of the 16-bit Final Fantasies, so it's an A for me.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest - 1992

A controversial one for sure; the US got this one in lieu of Final Fantasy V, in no small part because of the perception that the lackluster sales of earlier Square games was because RPGs were "too difficult" for western audiences.  So Square, ever the altruists, made a simple "RPG for beginners" to ease us into the finer points of the genre and get us ready for the real thing; a good idea, if somewhat misguided.  Mystic Quest is still a decent game in its own right, with some nice graphics, creative dungeons and a good soundtrack, but any serious RPG fan will have no trouble completing it and even most beginners will barely hit any snags along the way.  I enjoyed Mystic Quest for what it was, but the fact that we didn't get 5 until many years later as a result of this one's release kind of hangs a dark shadow over it.  It gets a C.

Final Fantasy VI - 1994

This, to me, is Final Fantasy IV done right.  Mostly.  While I still wasn't overly invested in the story (though for different reasons - it wants to be a dark tale but mostly just comes off as absurd and campy), it is a much better paced one that works in some of the "action movie" beats that would become a key element of Final Fantasy VII and later games in the franchise.  The gameplay here is vastly improved as well, with much polish added to the combat system and a lot of the useless abilities from IV cut out.  The characters are still mostly based on the class system from earlier games, and there are a lot of them - fourteen main characters in total, in fact.  Each gets a unique ability that lends itself well to experimentation and gameplay variety, though they all share the ability to cast magic after a certain point in the story through the Esper system, which kind of homogenizes them a bit more than I like.  It's got some good dungeon gimmicks too - probably my favorite is the final dungeon, where you have to swap between parties to open paths for one another, lending it a well-crafted puzzle element. Even a few of the story beats are surprisingly inspired (like the one with the Figaro brothers - little surprise as it as penned by Soraya Saga, who would later become famous for Xenogears and Xenosaga).  Gameplay is fun and even surprisingly challenging in places, but like most games in the series you just start to rely on a few overpowered spells and abilities after a while, which severely hampers the challenge.  It's good, but I don't really see why it's considered the end-all be-all by so many fans.  Still, I'll give it a B.

Final Fantasy VII - 1997

The late '90s were really when Playstation became the king of the scene, and that was in no small part thanks to several prominent companies jumping ship from the Nintendo and Sega platforms to it.  Definitely one of the most prominent examples was Final Fantasy, and in particular its seventh entry, which billed itself as an epic movie-like experience with a "cast of thousands" - exaggerated marketing, but not by as much as you'd think.  The game definitely felt more grandiose in scale right from the get-go, showing off the new science-fantasy tone with its sprawling CGI setpieces, full-motion video scenes and minigame-laden gameplay that lent it a more actiony feel, even if the core gameplay was pretty much the same as its 16-bit counterparts.  It wasn't the series' strongest in terms of design - in fact, most of it is comically easy - but the materia system was nevertheless a cool turn, letting you combine different types together to get beneficial bonuses.  The storytelling also works in elements of cyberpunk, horror, suspense and mystery in surprisingly competent fashion, making for a game that tries to do a lot and surprisingly mostly succeeds.  The problem, though, was that it was too successful - for the next decade or so almost every video game, anime and media franchise in general tried to rip off elements from it, which diminished its impact and long-term appeal more than a bit.  Still, for what it brought to the table at the time and how influential it was, it has to be a high A.

Final Fantasy Tactics - 1998

The first spinoff of the series that really evolved into its own thing, spawining both the Tactics subseries and the greater Ivalice Alliance setting, though I didn't know until years later that it was more or less a remake of Yasumi Matsuno's earlier title, Tactics Ogre.  Regardless, it had me hooked right away - the grim storyline and complex characters reached depths that no other game in the series (sans maybe 7) had even begun to approach, and it had more than a few genuinely shocking moments.  The gameplay was brilliant too, with surprisingly good AI and some very tough battles throughout that all but required mastery of the game's mechanics.  Not the least of which was a vastly improved version of Final Fantasy V's class system - not only could you mix and match each classes' core abilities, but you could carry over reaction, movement and passive abilities too, letting you create some truly unique and powerful combinations.  Its overall balance does get a touch ridiculous toward the end - basically just boiling down to a clash of the glass cannons - but that's true of almost every Final Fantasy.  This is easily my most replayed game in the series and quickly cemented itself as one of my favorite games of all time, so I have to give it special attention.  S-rank for sure.

(Oh, and skip the crap War of the Lions remake. OG for life!)

Final Fantasy VIII - 1999

Square was on top of the world after VII and seemingly intent to take advantage of that as much as they could - Cloud became a new icon in gaming and appeared in tons of other games (including Final Fantasy Tactics and even had a tie-in with the fighting game "Ehrgeiz") and they were continuously pushing new graphical boundaries, with each of their games redefining standards for CGI animation.  8 blew us all away from the trailers, showing off amazingly well-rendered characters and cutscenes with little context but suspiciously showing little actual gameplay.  Then the game came out and we quickly found out why they abstained from showing any of its actual substance; because there simply wasn't much of it to show.  It was a far cry from any Final Fantasy that came before in design, and nearly all of it for the worse.  Game design somehow became too grindy and anti-grind at the same time; you're required to tediously draw magic in small increments and then attach it to individual stats to boost your stats, but leveling up the traditional way just powers up all of your enemies and does little to benefit you directly.  Because of the junction mechanic, casting spells is basically just a waste of time, so every single fight boils down to spamming summons (which double as free HP buffers) and limit breaks (which you can use infinitely at low health), quashing any feeling of challenge or satisfaction in combat.  The writing is cliched, full of enormous holes and makes little logical sense, with plot points seemingly picked up and dropped at total random, setpieces that feel ridiculous even by the game's own shaky logic, and the protagonists being total boneheads who are bailed out by constant deus ex machinas.  The characters are immensely dull, unlikable and obnoxious, lacking any feeling of emotional depth or even any real personality; at least, not the kind that doesn't make me grate my teeth every time they're onscreen.  Even the music - a staple of the franchise from the first game - is terrible; other than the catchy battle theme, it's all low-key elevator music or just repetitious and irritating. Triple Triad was a decent diversion for a bit, but even that stops being fun once all sorts of asinine rules start becoming introduced and winning anything just becomes a matter of pure luck.  Basically, every element of it beyond its polished visuals is an irredeemable mess that just left me wondering "VII was so good; what the hell happened here?".  Not just a letdown at the time, but still one of the most disappointing followups to a classic I've ever experienced to this day.  I can't even force myself to replay it to laugh at the incompetence because of how terribly put together every element of it feels and how much of a slog it is. It's an F.

Final Fantasy IX - 2000

As most franchises do after a misstep, Final Fantasy IX went back to basics, breaking away from the science-fantasy angle for the most part and reverting to plain fantasy, taking place in a world largely similar to the 16-bit games and matching their graphical styles, albeit in 3D (and somewhat more cartoony and exaggerated).  The gameplay was rolled back to that as well, with characters fitting firmly into the series' archetypal classes, though with a few new twists - learning skills through equipment being a prominent one, and retaining something like the Limit Breaks in the Trance system (though it's much harder to abuse them now).  Still, for an homage game, it successfully avoids a lot of the pratfalls those fall into - there are plenty of references to earlier games, but they aren't distracting, and it successfully avoids feeling like a retread even though it hits a lot of suspiciously familiar story beats.  Even the writing and characterization is amazingly good; far beyond what I'd come to expect from Hironobu Sakaguchi (and even more surprising considering how god-awful The Last Story's characters were).  Its combat can be a touch slow for my liking and it does have a very abrupt tonal shift at the end that feels rather out of place, but for the most part, a legitimately great RPG.  It gets an A from me.

Final Fantasy X - 2002

Another one where I just had to ask "what were they thinking" almost every step of the way.  Like 8, it makes a strong first impression with its presentation; visually the game was absolutely stunning for 2002, with a staggering sense of scale, well-animated characters and even surprisingly good VO (again, for the time).  But on a gameplay front... well, that's a much different story.  The game feels less like a sprawling fantasy world and more like a linear hallway, with virtually no opportunity to explore or interact with much of anything until the late stages.  The leveling system is overhauled once again, though definitely for the worse. The "Sphere Grid" at first seems like an interesting idea, letting you travel down different paths to take your character's growth in different ways, though it isn't long before you realize that this is a fool's errand; you can either continue down the path of say, a Fighter, and become really good at that, or branch off into another portion and end up being mediocre at two or more things and therefore making your character useless (unless you spend even more time and experience to backtrack and fix it).  The overall premise is the same self-serving anti-religion rhetoric you hear from every angsty seventeen-year old with pirated copies of Fight Club and Twilight of the Idols, and every major player in the plot is a nuanceless straw man fitting into that tiresome narrative too.  The writing only gets more contrived and stupid as it goes on, spending half the game setting up rules and the latter half breaking all of them with no satisfactory explanation ever given for how or why.  The characters are the worst offenders, though, ranging from bland to just plain unlikable, withholding key information until thousands get needlessly killed or just making incredibly flippant, insensitive remarks at the sight of tragedy or anything held in any degree of reverence because this game has a disingenuous message to peddle so it can sell more copies to douchebros who found the one true path to salvation in the collected whinings of EnlightenedInfidel1488. The side quests are not just the worst in the series, but probably the worst I've seen in any game to date, just boiling down to hours upon hours of grinding and frustration with no worthwhile payoff.  Dodging lightning 200 consecutive times, playing over 200 matches of the incredibly boring Blitzball, or my personal "favorite", dodging birds on a chocobo that doesn't respond to the controller and shooting for a time below 0.0 seconds (I literally stomped the disc in half after getting fed up with that one; no joke).  However, in spite of its myriad flaws, it does at least have some redeemable elements that prevent me from immediately giving it an F.  Combat has a few interesting twists, particularly in boss fights - teleporting between platforms to avoid attacks, knocking a boss off a cliff to defeat it instantly, or activating objects around the arena to hit them with a devastating blow and weaken them, to name a few.  Being able to see the turn order in advance and use moves that alter it was a pretty cool strategic element too, even if it was done years earlier (and better) by Grandia. The game is at least impressive on a cinematic level, with a lot of dynamic camera shots in boss battles and creative setpieces throughout, playing up the "movie-game" angle in an effective fashion that was pretty fresh for 2002; much as I dislike the art style, it nevertheless managed to impress with sheer spectacle on several occasions.  The script, bad as it is, at least feels like it went through some kind of editing process and had a lot of the superfluous fat trimmed before they committed it to code, which puts it a leg up over Final Fantasy VIII; that game felt like half a dozen unrelated scripts stapled together, with one ludicrous nonsequitur scene and setpiece after another, and it just completely took me out of it.  Finally, even if most of the cast was insufferable and the plot reads like someone's whiny-ass Livejournal, I found that the one character the game constantly sets up as "the unlikable jerk" - Jecht - was actually the best written character in the game, showing a surprisingly complex arc and a true element of tragedy.  He goes from an abusive drunkard who's jealous of his own son to a worldwide hero to finding out that he's an unwitting pawn in destroying everything he ever knew and cared about, denying him any of the validation he wanted and ultimately making him realize that the only way he can find redemption is to set himself up for defeat by his son's hand.  That's honestly a great bit of writing; if the rest of the game around him were as inspired and came together as well as that element did, I'd probably give this one a considerably higher grade.  But as it stands, it's a D.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - 2003

The controversial sequel to the first Final Fantasy Tactics, which retains its turn-based tactical gameplay and a handful of familiar elements (and many that would later be integrated into the Ivalice universe proper with XII) but retains little of its dark tone or heavy atmosphere. I still found quite a bit to like in it, though;  it's definitely not wanting for content with over 300 missions to finish, a wide variety of races and classes and items to mess with and even a multiplayer mode.  The story is also interesting in its own way, delving into the meta elements of its concept in a clever fashion and making it one I wanted to see through to the end.  Like most, I also wasn't a fan of the Judge system (imposing semi-random and irritating restrictions on actions you can take in any given battle), but I powered through anyway because the story and overall design had me hooked.  If you go in expecting a straight sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics you're going to be let down, but if you judge it on its own merits you've got a pretty solid game with a lot to offer.  I give it a B.

Final Fantasy XII - 2006/2007

Another game set in the same universe as Tactics?  And it's written by Yasumi Matsuno again?  I was on board right away just based on that.  But, then I also found that the gameplay had been drastically overhauled, doing away entirely with a separate combat screen and incorporating the ATB into a system that's mostly real-time, but can be paused to select specific actions a la Baldur's Gate (and even lets you program character AI yourself with the Gambit system - a great idea considering Square's previous attempts at AI-controlled allies were questionable at best).  They even managed to do something akin to the Sphere Grid, but in a much better fashion, letting the player pick and choose individual abilities to customize characters to their liking (even moreso in the Zodiac Age version, which give 12 different "class boards" to mix-and-match abilities from).  The game is also shockingly open after the ridiculously linear 10, letting you explore nearly the whole world at your leisure and discover a huge variety of sidequests and hidden secrets.  Great stuff.  But what surprised me more than anything was how grounded the story was - for the most part, it's a relatively personal tale of two kingdoms at war, with a ragtag band of rebels trying to reclaim their kingdom from an invading force.  That personal touch was something I felt almost every prior game in the series lacking, and it really drew me into this one.  It's not a flawless game, but it captured my imagination like few other games in the series ever had, so I'll still give it an A.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII - 2007

Final Fantasy VII was a game-changer, and since its release, Square desperately tried to capitalize on its popularity and expand on its story, usually with pretty god-awful results (see Dirge of Cerberus on PS2 or Advent Children Cashin).  Crisis Core was a standout, though, finally giving us some more insight into one of the original game's biggest mysteries - the elusive Zack Fair, whom Cloud modeled himself on.  Being a prequel, it's also set during another period mostly alluded to - Midgar's war with Wutai - allowing us to see more of that firsthand, as well as earlier events in many of the protagonist's lives.  Gameplay is relatively simple action fare, but still fun - blocking, dodging, casting magic and taking down waves of enemies with combos, as well as dealing with the ever-present factor of the "Digital Mind Wave"; basically, a limit break that's always active and constantly changing things up.  Giving you temporary boosts, summoning creatures, calling down magic, et cetera are now governed by a constantly spinning slot reel, and adapting your tactics on the fly is a surprisingly fun wildcard element to what would otherwise be a pretty mundane action experience.  It may not hit the plateau of being one of Square's best, but it's the closest they came to recapturing VII's magic for a very long time.  It's a high B.

Final Fantasy XIII - 2010

And then, as from 7 to 8, we go from one of the best games in the series to the absolute worst.  XIII was, I suppose, Square Enix's attempt to prove that graphics trump writing, characterization and even gameplay, as all of those are at their absolute lowest point ever.  Too bad we were well into the Michael Bay Era by this point and everyone was beginning to realize that a badly written and directed movie with ten billion dollars in CGI doesn't magically even out to a good movie, nor does it redeem a game with less thought put into its design than a late-era piece of Atari 2600 shovelware. The dialog is back to the obnoxious, disjointed and grating style of 8's, the story can't even keep its own internal logic straight (a character literally dies in one scene, only to return later with absolutely no explanation), and the gameplay is some of the most braindead shlock I've seen in any game, let alone a Final Fantasy; literally all you do is swap between one of a handful of "Paradigms", which just means you block, attack, use healing spells or cast the same attack spell over and over again until you switch, only occasionally hitting the brakes to use a potion.  Your AI-controlled help is utterly stupid to the point of being worthless; they'll just flatly refuse to heal you 75% of the time, and if the character you're controlling drops, it's an instant game over, no questions asked.  The worst part, though?  It doesn't even work as the "cinematic experience" they so desperately wanted - battles look exactly like any given turn-based entry in the series, having the characters stand toe-to-toe and trade blows until one falls down, and the "actiony" cutscenes are just plain boring, with no decent pacing, staging or camerawork and an over-reliance on flashy techno-crap and aurora effects that you just get sick of after you've seen them more than once.  A complete failure of design on every level, it's a strong F.

Final Fantasy Type-0 - 2011

Set in the same universe as Final Fantasy XIII, but thankfully not sharing its gameplay, Type-0 is an interesting idea, having you control a squad of thirteen classmates as they undertake various missions to liberate cities and even the odd large-scale real time war battle.  Still, I can't help but be disappointed by a lot of things about it - characters are given little development (not even interesting names; they're all just number allusions) and, aside from differing equipment and a few recognizable hints of the series' job system, they aren't particularly distinct in gameplay style either.  Hit detection is a bit weird in general, with frequent clipping through enemies and terrain, and missions get to be very samey after only a short while, with a general lack of direction to its story and gameplay quickly dragging it down.  Still, when you go from a god-awful game to a mediocre one, you've still seen significant improvement.  This one gets a D.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 - 2012

Seemingly learning little from the first game other than "we can churn out any piece of trash we want and still earn a profit on it", XIII-2 came out two years later, shoehorning QTEs and multiple timelines into the proceedings just because it could.  Though, I will admit, it does at least do a somewhat better job of what the original intended to do, with more action-driven setpieces for combat (seen right away in a pretty spectacular aerial-to-horseback battle with the big bad), some more gameplay variety in the form of puzzles, and a bit more of an exploration element, with larger maps and the ability to recruit monsters to your team.  However, all the other faults still remain - the bad AI, the over-reliance on graphics to cover for a lack of interesting content, and the atrocious writing and characters spin it all down into the toilet and it never recovers.  It's marginally better than the first, but "marginally" doesn't cut it; it's still an F.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII - 2014

Making two irredeemable games is one thing, but not knowing how to let a bad idea die is another entirely.  Beginning life as an offshoot of the Valkyrie Profile franchise (another I'm not particularly fond of), Lightning Returns at least promised an intriguing concept - having 13 days to redeem the world before its end - but when you still can't be bothered to fix what was fundamentally broken to begin with, it's really just all for nothing once again.  Terrible writing, bland characters, atrocious acting, and gameplay that is slightly reworked but no better than the braindead fare that defined the first two XIII titles make this one triply painful to endure.  The Fabula Nova Crystallis universe will always stand out in my mind as Final Fantasy's biggest and most expensive failure, and among that already low standard, this one stands out as the worst for failing to learn from two previous disasters and just trucking on like nothing at all is wrong.  The lowest of the low, it's a hard F.

World of Final Fantasy - 2016

Another homage game in the series, combining various story elements and characters from all of them into one larger world and putting two new protagonists at the helm, capturing the franchise's iconic monsters and making into allies, not unlike the Pokemon series.  Still, despite that, the game has some charm - it doesn't just retread things point-for-point, and its gameplay, while obviously inspired by the old games, adds some new twists.  Probably the most prominent is the Stacking mechanic, wherein you literally form a tower from large, medium and small monsters (with the two main characters able to swap between different sizes) and combine all of their stats and abilities together.  Cute idea, but with a drawback - enemies also rely heavily on this tactic, as well as the tactic of toppling - taking too many hits in too short a time without defending causes your tower to topple and break back into its base components, leaving you with a gaggle of weak units that usually get taken out in a single hit unless you very quickly stack them back up (which assumes you manage to survive the long stun period that follows a topple).  This gets more than a bit irritating as you're almost always outnumbered and outgunned by your foes, so fights just turn into a long and frustrating sequence of getting toppled, regrouping, hopefully sneaking in an attack between and so on.  The game has a great sense of humor and pays homage to the series without feeling like a cheap retread, but its gameplay is more frustrating than fun.  It gets a C.

Final Fantasy XV (2016/2018) 

A relatively divisive game (in the Final Fantasy series?  Unheard of!), and while I can see why it gets heavily criticized by some, I found quite a lot to like in it.  The characters are what really roped me into this one; all of them are just fun to be around, and seeing their personalities bounce off one another throughout each story beat (and even just while exploring or driving around) makes it an engrossing adventure.  There's a true sense of camaraderie between them every step of the way as they overcome adversity, face personal tragedy and just try to make the best of a bleak situation.  Even the villains are excellent, providing a truly menacing air despite operating in the background much of the time (and lacking any flashy transformations).  Combat is relatively simple, but effective; while you mostly rely on a designated Attack and Defense button, mastering the finer points of timed attacks, weapon swapping and parrying is what will truly make it into a captivating experience.  Gameplay-wise it's an odd mixture of linear segments and open-world, with much of the game having you explore the countryside at your leisure and completing a ton of side-quests every step of the way - not just battling monsters, but fishing, finding cooking ingredients, upgrading weapons and your car, and partaking of tons of minigames.  Beyond a certain point, though, it's almost entirely just a straight road to the end, which isn't nearly as fun to experience (and definitely one of the game's weakest moments is its shoehorned attempt at a stealth/survival horror segment.  Thankfully, this is skippable in the Royal Edition).  I was even pleasantly surprised at the quality of the DLC,  which managed to mix up the gameplay in a unique way for each character and and flesh them out even more. Episode Ignis actually made its titular character into not just my favorite character in this game, but one of the best Final Fantasy characters, period.  But I think what sells me on it more than anything else is that it makes up for XIII's failings in style.  Not only does the game look fantastic, with a more realistic style and the series' iconic monsters and summons being the best they've ever looked, but its setpieces and cinematic beats all land perfectly and never feel overdone or superfluous.  The soundtrack is equally fantastic, with an epic orchestral sound that perfectly captures the high stakes of every situation and lends it the feel of a grandiose saga.  Again, it's a game with some prominent flaws, but all of its high points knock it out of the park and more than make up for the weaker parts.  Royal Edition gets an A; standard's a mid-to-low B.

Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition (2018)

As the name implies, Pocket Edition is a scaled-down version of XV designed primarily for mobile devices, recounting most of its plot (and even having most of the voice actors reprise their roles) but trimming its gameplay down to basics - tapping to move and counter attacks, maneuvering around much smaller maps, and cutting most of the driving and sidequests to provide a more concise experience.  Not much else to say about it; if you just want a brief plot recap of the game or don't have a higher-end machine to play the full FFXV, it does a serviceable job.  It's a B.

Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020)

It took 23 years for us to get the first third of the long-teased Final Fantasy VII Remake, and I have to say that they took every effort to make it worth the wait.  The game looks utterly fantastic, with virtually no recycled assets and every inch of Midgar looking as it should - a cyberpunk dystopia whether its populace realizes it or not.  All the familiar characters return, though given much more depth and having their stories expanded on in surprisingly logical fashion, with many new subplots and intricacies not really given much attention in the original game.  Gameplay is a definite changeup, going for something actiony while still emphasizing the ATB elements of the original for your big damage-dealers and spells; it fits surprisingly well, though it can also be frustrating at times as enemies love to gang up on you and constantly stuff your moves, making you waste meter and quickly knocking your HP down to nothing while you're powerless to stop them.  Boss battles are massive in scale and surprisingly intense for the same reason, really feeling like an over-the-top action movie without becoming overwhelming.  Addressing my main complaint about the original, the cast now feels very distinct, too, each having a unique gameplay style that one can tweak through materia and equipment changes.  It was clearly made not just as another cheap cash-in on a classic, but by people who are just as passionate about it as long-time fans and did their best to have it live up to the original's legacy.  I don't think it quite hits the peak the original did (few things could ever hope to, however), but it's still a great game.  Solid A.