The dawn of the new millennium brought forward a whole new era of dynamic and beautiful Final Fantasy adventures for players to explore.
Picking up where we left off, the PlayStation era was winding down and new consoles were emerging every day. The PlayStation 2 was on the horizon, but before Final Fantasy made its entrance on the platform there was still a loose end to tie up. A look back to the old days pf warriors of light that would serve as the era’s closing chapter.
Final Fantasy IX (2000)
At the end of the PlayStation era, Final Fantasy IX served as a welcome return to form and sendoff for the series’ roots.
Following a more traditional fantasy tone and setting akin to the likes of the first entries of the series, Final Fantasy IX brought forward a great deal of nostalgia during its initial release.
There were familiar concepts peppered throughout the game world with Black Mages, Knights, proper dungeons and castles, everything that got left behind in the experiments the series made in the genre of science fiction with VI, VII and VIII.
The story begins with Zidane Tribal and a troupe of bandits who are attempting to kidnap princess Garnet of Alexandria. As it turns out, Garnet wanted to be kidnapped as she was already planning to leave the kingdom anyway, with the Queen of Alexandria readying for war against the other kingdoms of the continent.
Garnet willingly joins Zidane and the crew escapes the city embarking on a journey to have Garnet reclaim the throne in an adventure that spans the world of Gaia’s four continents, crossing paths with the forces of the Queen and the mysterious villain Kuja along the way.
Gameplay changes included an enhanced world map that offered a more party focused perspective, a revived version of the Job System in the form of character classes and the addition of the “Trance System” that built upon the previously introduced concept of limit breaks that allow characters to use new enhanced abilities.
Final Fantasy IX holds a special place in the hearts of those who had kept up with Final Fantasy throughout the 90’s, offering a great end cap for the PlayStation’s library, but things were about to change with the coming of the PlayStation 2.
Final Fantasy X (2001)
The new console generation had been getting into gear when Final Fantasy X made its entrance, showcasing the graphical capabilities of Sony’s new machine while blowing our minds with some cut scenes that were amazing looking at the time and still hold up today to a certain degree.
For the first time the game would feature voice acted characters and fully 3D environments, ditching the pre-rendered backdrops in favor of the new level of detail possible with the PS2.
We could now see the faces of characters render proper expressions, every member of the cast looked like a recognizable human being. Gone were the blocky proportions and novel-loads of text making this one of the most accessible Final Fantasy games thus far.
It was quite the shock at the time and I’m not sure everyone was ready for it.
Voiced dialogue brought some cringy moments and many of the character designs were criticized for being overcomplicated. We were no longer able to live out the characters conversations in our minds and give them our own internal voices, this is a change that still makes waves in other franchises even today, most recently with the decision to add voiced characters to Fallout 4.
With all of that said, Final Fantasy X still managed to impress through sheer visual fidelity and the surprising strength of its narrative.
The plot saw the star “Blitzball” player Tidus as he is sent from his homeland Zanarkand to the unfamiliar yet familiar land of Spira after a cataclysmic event, caused by the monster known as Sin, rocked one of his games.
After awakening to a group of scavengers from a people known as the “Al Bhed,” Tidus joins a crew of guardians that protect a summoner known as Yuna in her pilgrimage to gain the power of the mystical “Eons” so that they can put Sin to rest once and for all.
Tidus and Yuna share a love story that stands its ground alongside other notable relationships in the series and could be considered one of the best developed romances in gaming history at the time. Everything about the two of them felt natural and that led to some extremely memorable moments over the course of the adventure (again including some unforgettable cutscenes).
On the technical side of things, Final Fantasy X introduced the concept of the “Sphere Grid” in place of traditional leveling. With every sphere placed on the grid, characters gained new stats and abilities that could overlap, allowing the player to build their party into any role the saw fit. The Sphere Grid was a great compromise to the Job System and we would see concepts similar to this return later in the series.
The traditional world map was ditched in favor of more focused 3rd person exploration, but this was a double edged sword that made the games progression more linear.
Final Fantasy X also managed to receive a direct numbered sequel in the form of Final Fantasy X-2, but for this retrospective we will only be focusing on numbered titles so I am not going to delve deep into the realm of Dress Spheres and J-Pop just yet.
Even with its shortcomings, Final Fantasy X was a strong opener for the PS2 era, leaving many to wonder where we would go next with all of the new opportunities offered by the new console generation. The answer shocked us all, Final Fantasy’s next adventure would take the player online.
Final Fantasy XI (2002 JP, 2003 NA)
Square sought to push the boundaries of the PS2 even further through use of the consoles new internet adapter. Final Fantasy XI would be the series’ first MMORPG, where players would customize their own heroes and send them to venture forth in the land of Vana’diel.
The game’s story is set after a great war over a sentient crystal with player characters fighting various factions for control of the realm, including the ferocious Beastmen.
There were five expansions released for the game, sending players in a journey that crossed dimensions and parallel worlds. Cross platform play was possible for players on both the PS2 and PC versions of the game, ensuring that the community was always active during the early years.
Many staples that cross the entire MMO genre were implemented here, such as auction houses for a player driven economy and numerous side quests for the player to undertake.
Instead of emphasizing player versus player combat, Final Fantasy XI took a more focused player versus environment angle, making every quest with team members feel distinctly like a co-operative effort.
Final Fantasy XI was well loved and long lived. Many were sad to see it go when the servers shut down in march of 2016.
We were lucky to find out that this would not be the last time Final Fantasy took its adventures online.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
As the PS2 began to reach its peak, Final Fantasy XII was released to critical acclaim, being a fresh breath of air for the series, featuring a new battle system and outlook on exploration.
Final Fantasy XII took some elements from XI’s MMO structure and also attempted to combat some of the criticisms left by Final Fantasy X’s linear story, creating a game with a well realized, well developed world to explore in the land of Ivalice.
For the first time, there would be no random encounters and battles would play out in the moment, taking a different approach to the series’ traditional turn based combat.
The “Gambit System” allowed players to dictate situational actions for their party, making battles practically programmable by having specific characters preform abilities when you need them most.
Players could gain new abilities through obtaining “licenses” in a system that harkened back to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, continuing the trend of making party members more customizable to fit various combat roles.
The Plot revolves around the conflict between the Kingdom of Dalmasca and the Archadian empire. Ashe, the princess of Dalmasca, forms a resistance against the empire after going into hiding during the assassination of the King. The resistance takes the fight to the Archadians, squaring off against their infamous “Judges” with a rag tag team of sky pirates and street urchins.
On that topic, one of the biggest problems with Final Fantasy XII is in how it presents the street urchin Vaan as the games protagonist in its early hours when many other members of the cast do such a good job at stealing the show. As a result, the plot feels a little bit muddled, with its narrative focus being split in so many different directions. No one character of the cast feels like they stand out as a true protagonist, with characters like princess Ashe carring most of the story’s progression.
It’s good to see Final Fantasy XII get the PS4 re-release treatment as I feel like the game is a bit of an odd duck when placed next to the rest of the series with its realistic tone and unique combat system. You will be able to see for yourself when Final Fantasy XII: the Zodiac age hits shelves on July 11, 2017.
That’s it for part 3, keep a look out for part 4 where we take on the Final Fantasy XIII and the titles that led up to where we are today.
Written by: Alex Yorke who is no longer writing for Corecade. Please check out his future work on his Twitter!