The World of Asian RPGs
No other series of Asian RPGs could ever reach the world-wide popularity of Square's Final Fantasy. Of all Japanese RPG franchises, this is the most beloved one, and in the minds of many players, East and West alike, it became the symbol of the genre itself. Final Fantasy was a standard for many Asian RPG developers, and its influence on the industry was enormous. The original tendencies of the new genre - emotional story lines, detailed backgrounds for characters, cinematic approach and effects - were all particularly typical for Final Fantasy series. Even though those games were criticized by some fans for lack of old-school level-building gameplay and melodramatic plots, each one of them was creatively designed in its own way and offered fresh and interesting gameplay possibilities.
The first Final Fantasy was a strong start for the series. Even though in most ways this first game was the least typical of all, the ability to create your own party freely, assigning different character classes to party members, was an interesting gameplay element that encouraged experimentation and set the stage for the job systems of later games. However, in terms of story line and characterization the game was much less daring, and was hardly a step forwards compared to the first Dragon Quest.
Final Fantasy II was in many ways the first true Final Fantasy game. It introduced such cardinal aspects of the series as a very emotional story line, morally ambiguous characters, tragic events, etc. Although the characterization was not very developed, it was distinct enough to allow the player to care for the characters. The story had to be emotionally experienced rather than concluded from gameplay and conversations. The game also featured a very interesting system, which replaced traditional levels with gradual development of individual statistics through continuous actions of the same kind. While this system was criticized by many fans for being unbalanced, it was still an extraordinary achievement for early Japanese RPGs. The first two games were later re-made for Playstation as Final Fantasy Origins, with nostalgic graphics and more user-friendly gameplay.
Final Fantasy III can be considered a step back compared to its predecessor. Ignoring the tendency to detailed characterization, it once again let you play as a party of nameless adventures. On the other hand, the job system was quite interesting, allowing full customization of the party with various character classes. Graphically "Final Fantasy III" was also very impressive. It remains until now the only Final Fantasy game that was never released in the West, neither stand-alone nor as part of a compilation.
The first 16-bit Final Fantasy was Final Fantasy IV. Gameplay-wise it wasn't a particularly revolutionary game, featuring a traditional system where each character evolved according to his/her set class, but a very important addition was the famous ATB (active time battle) system, which added an element of action into turn-based battles. Story line and characterization entered a new dimension in this installment. Particularly interesting was the characterization of the protagonist and his best friend, continuing the growing tendency of the series to portray inner psychological conflicts of the characters. Topics such as romantic love, jealousy, mind-controlling also found their ways into the genre, becoming one of its trademarks. The story line was very tight, with plenty of events and sudden turns. Rich musical score by Nobuo Uematsu added a lot of atmosphere to the game.
Just like "Final Fantasy III" before, Final Fantasy V was in some ways a step back. The story returned to abstract depiction of battle of good and evil and had very little development. The characters were also less generally interesting than in the previous game. Nevertheless, the emotional characterization prevented this game from going back in time. But its gameplay still outshadowed the story completely. Featuring a refined version of the job system, with many classes and unique techniques to learn, "Final Fantasy V" became the most customizable and open-ended game of the series.
Final Fantasy VI immediately gained recognition as the series' greatest offering. Its main story line was deliberately made simple, to clear the stage for background stories of the characters. Instead of having one main protagonist, "Final Fantasy VI" introduced the concept of collective hero, in which all main characters were given nearly equal importance, and the story line consisted almost entirely of their personal stories. The level of emotions displayed in this game was unparalleled, supported by a strong musical score. The gameplay was also of exceptional quality, combining character classes with free customization and surprising non-linearity. The game is considered by many a pinnacle of the series and of Japanese RPGs in general.
Final Fantasy VII was the series' first installment for Playstation. Utilizing the console's advanced technical capabilities, "Final Fantasy VII" was an important achievement for the genre, establishing the cinematic style of Asian RPGs and influencing the industry more than any other game of its generation. It also abandoned the traditional medieval setting completely, replacing it with a mix of fantasy and science fiction and featuring more diverse styles than ever before. Story and characterization were also very developed, including complex psychological motives, and the gameplay system was nearly as flexible as in the previous installment, with an abundance of various mini-games for diversion. "Final Fantasy VII" remains the most popular installment of the series, and the most popular Asian RPG in history.
In Final Fantasy VIII, the tendency of the series towards cinematic presentation, graphical effects, and melodrama became even more evident. It abandoned the traditional super-deformed graphical style and most medieval and epic references, presenting instead a teenage soap-opera-like plot with supernatural elements. The gameplay also underwent a big change, discarding such concepts as mana points for spells, armor, and money gained in random battles in favor of free customization with the help of magical spells. "Final Fantasy VIII" was the most controversial game of the series, heavily criticized by many fans. However, it was still a very creative installment, its style quite unusual and refreshing for the genre, and the gameplay system decidedly original.
Final Fantasy IX was the most conservative game in the series, deliberately returning to its roots. It went back to a strictly medieval setting, old-fashioned graphical style, and rather simple gameplay system with sharply defined character classes. The story line was also more traditional and resembled a fairy tale. The game was criticized by some fans for being too nostalgic, but its characterization and dialogues were in no way inferior to the previous installments, in fact surpassing them in credibility and detailed psychological motives.
The Playstation 2 era began with Final Fantasy X. Much like "Final Fantasy VII" before, this game exploited fully the capabilities of the new hardware. More intensely cinematic than ever before, "Final Fantasy X" was in many ways a movie-like experience. It was set in an unusual Southeast Asia-like world with sci-fi elements, and its story was particularly intimate, centering completely on the experiences of the protagonist. While the game got its share of criticism for its linear gameplay and abundance of cut scenes, it featured an interesting gameplay system that replaced levels with advancement on a sphere grid and continuous learning of new abilities.
After an online-only RPG received the eleventh number in the series, Final Fantasy X-2 was, for the first time in the history of Final Fantasy, a direct sequel to the previous game, set in the same world and continuing its story. Despite this close relation to its predecessor, "Final Fantasy X-2" was very different gameplay-wise, returning to the job system and free customization of many previous games, and featuring a largely non-linear gameplay with an emphasis on side quests. This kind of gameplay made some fans to refuse to acknowledge "Final Fantasy X-2" as a canonical part of the series. But the innovation was nevertheless a positive decision for the creators of the series. Story-wise the game was also quite interesting, only its musical score being below the usual Final Fantasy quality.
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