Final Fantasy is a weird series. The mainline games often feel extremely different from one another, and little seems to tie them together as a series. That’s especially true if you compare old games with newer ones. So, I wanted to look at what does tie Final Fantasy games together.
Each numbered entry in the series tells a self-contained story. Final Fantasy VII is not only not a sequel to FFVI, but the worlds also have nothing to do with one another.
If you’re not a gamer, you may find that strange, but it’s a widespread practice among Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs). To build a sense of brand consistency, games of this style reuse mechanics, tropes, themes, art styles, and whatever else its creators see fit.
Final Fantasy pushes the limits of brand consistency. But as you play one of the games, something about it communicates that this is, in fact, a Final Fantasy experience.
That flies in the face of everything I know about branding. You would think that any series with an identity as strong and well known as Final Fantasy would seek to assure players up front that what they’re playing will be exactly what they expect it to be. You’re given a choice of three starter Pokémon from a professor named after a tree in each Pokémon game. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy 7 Remake hides the chocobos, moogles, and tonberry until two-thirds through the game.
Something does tie the Final Fantasy games together, but to fully appreciate it, we must start by setting a baseline for JRPG brand consistency.
Against the industry standard
Dragon Quest is the opposite of Final Fantasy in terms of brand consistency. When you pick up a Dragon Quest game, you know exactly what to expect. Pretty much every entry in the series has the following:
- random battles,
- turn-based battles,
- a medieval fantasy setting,
- art courtesy of Akira Toriyama,
- churches at which to heal and save,
- a pseudo-NSFW “puff-puff” scene.
Games may bring in new features, such as the ability to recruit monsters or a job system, but you can guarantee that Dragon Quest games will be similar to one another. In fact, 2017’s Dragon Quest XI lets you play with a 2D graphical style like the older games in the series. These games are so similar that they apparently could have been made 20 years ago without sacrificing much aside from the graphics.
The one exception to all this is Dragon Quest X, a massively multiplayer online RPG, or MMO for short. But even then, aside from a different battle system and the ability to play with other people online, that game looks exactly like a Dragon Quest game.
Final Fantasy, however, does not have rely on such consistency. Or at least not anymore.
The first three games had turn-based combat spurred by random battles, but FFIV introduced a new system called Active Time Battle (ATB) that became a trademark of the series. Instead of your party all attacking at once, ATB lets characters take actions independently after a short timer expires. It was a huge innovation in the JRPG scene, and it would be a defining factor of Final Fantasy games until FFX did away with it.
Since then, almost every new game has come with a new battle system. FFX introduced the Conditional Turn-Based system in which the timing of each character’s turn is based on their agility. FFXI and XIV are MMOs, so they use their own system called Real Time Battle. FFXII uses a system like ATB called Active Dimension Battle that accounts for the game’s lack of random battles. FFXII uses the Command Synergy Battle system, but it would take 20 hours to explain. And FFXV uses the Active X Battle system, which is basically just real-time combat with some extra features.
That’s just battle systems. As I mentioned, two Final Fantasy games are MMOs rather than single-player RPGs. FXV feels more like an action RPG, and an early trailer of FFXVI seems to indicate that game will also be action oriented.
In terms of setting, Final Fantasy games used to be strictly medieval fantasy until FFVI went steampunk. Then VII and VIII brought us to “science fantasy” worlds, which is science-fiction with magic. From there, everything has been on the table. XVI looks to be a return to the medieval.
Early games featured character art from Yoshitaka Amano and music from Nobuo Uematsu. Their contributions were iconic and set the series apart. But today, while Amano still designs title logos, he hasn’t done character artwork since FFX. Each FF game features some of Uematsu’s music, but he is no longer the de facto lead composer.
You’re probably noticing a trend. Since FFX, nothing has been sacred. Square-Enix has shown a willingness to play with any and every element of the series.
Final Fantasy games are always trying new things
So, what ties Final Fantasy games together? Perhaps it’s a cop-out, but given what I just wrote, it seems that part of it is a willingness to break with convention.
Let’s look at ATB again. It was a substantial change from turn-based combat, which even today is the default JRPG battle system. In 1991, coming up with a new one was unprecedented. No doubt that gave Final Fantasy a reputation as an innovative series.
Later battle innovations have received mixed reviews, but if nothing else, they reinforced the idea that Final Fantasy is not a series that wins over fans solely trough appeals to tradition.
The same can be said about its pivot into steampunk and sci-fi. Phantasy Star did the science fantasy thing first, so it wasn’t exactly an innovation, but it would have been shocking for a previously generic fantasy series to pivot so thoroughly into different source material.
Final Fantasy has traditionally been a quick adopter of new graphical technology too. FFVII broke the mould by adopting 3D sprites, and subsequent entries have sought to make the most of the console hardware they had to work with. For all its faults, FFXIII was a gorgeous game. FFVII Remake is graphically stunning. I was blown away by it, and I played it on the PS4. I can’t wait to get a PS5 in like three years so I can experience it at peak performance.
This is unusual for JRPGs. Maybe you could tell by Dragon Quest XI’s 2D mode, but graphical innovation is not normally a priority in the genre. Visually amazing JRPGs like Octopath Traveller and Persona 5 wow audiences with their style and artistic design, not their photorealism.
Final Fantasy manages to impress with both.
A trailer hints toward our answer
Just about the only elements of the FFXVI trailer that let you know what series you’re working with, aside from the title card, are the chocobos, summons like Shiva, enemies like Malboro, and mentions of crystals. And I think that’s our answer as to what ties Final Fantasy games together.
Each Final Fantasy game features a few nods to tradition, but they’re far more subtle and less foundational than those other series tend to use. Sure, the battle system is always different, but you can bet that you’ll face off against a goofy cactus thing in a desert (Cactuar). Whether the society’s technology is ancient or advanced, the people of the world are riding giant yellow birds (chocobo). There’s a good chance you’ll encounter an ultra-rare black one too. If a character dies, you revive them with a Phoenix Down. A guy named Cid (probably) helps you out.
For a first-time player, all this stuff is part of the atmosphere. None of it really stands out. It’s not until you play your second or third game that you start to notice patterns. And I love that. That minimal approach lets each game stand alone and speak for itself.
I recently played both FFVII Remake, a polished and much-hyped remake of the series’ best-known title, and FFV, a nearly forgotten game that was not released outside of Japan until seven years after it came out. At face value, the games have little in common. They don’t look similar graphically, and they don’t share a battle system. FFVII Remake is intensely story driven, while FFV tells a generic tale centred on crystals. You play FFV for its incredible job system, while you play FFVII Remake for its characters and world.
And yet, both games let you nuke fools with Bahamut. Both feature Chocobos. FFV introduced Tonberry to the series, and you can get stabbed to death by the weird green fellow in FFVII Remake if you aren’t careful. The list goes on.
None of these elements are game defining, but they reassure long-time fans of what series they’re playing. If you know, you know. Otherwise, you’re out nothing and you’ll know next time.
A nice little bow on top
My verdict on what ties Final Fantasy games together: a set of elements shared between at least some of the games. And these elements need not exist in all of them. The Viera race, blue magic, crystals, and conflicts between technology and nature are less commonly used, but their presence signifies that you’ve got a Final Fantasy game in your console.
Each game includes the ones that make sense in its world while ignoring those that don’t. And since each element is fairly inconsequential in terms of gameplay, the game designers are free to push boundaries and try new things that other series wouldn’t dare touch. It’s a weird system, but it works.
What Final Fantasy games have you played? Let me know down below!