A mainline Final Fantasy game has always been an earth-shattering event in the gaming landscape. In a genre that’s often strapped so tightly to tradition that titles rarely innovate, Final Fantasy always couples spectacle with a fresh and different take on gameplay. In many ways, it’s a series that pulls its entire genre grudgingly into modern times with each iteration. These games are important in gaming history for that alone and they should be in the library of past experiences of any gaming aficionado that calls themselves a fan of the genre. But, I've got something to admit. Despite professing a certain tough love for the genre, I had never played Final Fantasy X and XII despite investing my time heavily into other JRPG franchises. It was one of those things I always meant to get to but never quite could.
Last month, both games released onto the Xbox Marketplace and I finally had my chance, so I took it. I expected fine experiences that had been eroded by time to the point that they wouldn’t blow me away. I’ve not finished either, but I can already safely say that these titles offer a look into the genre’s past that you really can’t get anywhere else. These are unique experiences bridging the gap between turn-based and real time battles in such a way that is simply fascinating when you know where things will end up with the latest entry, Final Fantasy XV. As I played, I couldn’t help but be struck by how perfectly each game represented a major milestone for the series. But more than that, I was surprised at just how good these games still are.
I see Final Fantasy X as the final representative of the Final Fantasy for the Millennial childhood. The story is draped in grandeur, the style is outlandish and, most importantly, the gameplay is a classic Active Time Battle with a twist. At the time, it was called the Conditional Turn-Based Battle but it's still mostly turn-based where the order of the turns changes depending on what actions you take instead of solely based on your characters' speed. In a way, the game represents everything wonderful about the classic PS1 and PS2 JRPG era.
Final Fantasy XII, on the other hand, marks the start of a new generation of JRPGs. It had a more traditional Action Time Battle system but brought something completely new to the table with a full open world without random battles. If you can see an enemy in the world, you can approach it and fight it without ever going to a dedicated battle scene and that must have been an amazing feeling in Final Fantasy at the time. Couple that innovation with an engaging storyline full of characters that aren't children (they're still teenagers, but beggars can't be choosers) and you've got a recipe for something special.
These games have held up remarkably well and they'd be a great experience if they were brand new today. I've returned to many games from less than a decade or two ago thanks to backwards compatibility and some of them have aged very poorly. Take Fable 1, for instance. I loved that game as a kid and the freedom made the game seen boundless. Today it's stiflingly simple and the supposed freedom only serves to highlight just how limited the game really is. Final Fantasy X, on the other hand, which launched three years earlier, has managed to offer compelling gameplay that would be worthwhile today with nothing but a fresh coat of paint. These games are heralded by many as timeless classics and that's tall praise, but my playtime has shown it might not be unearned.
When I look back at the previous generation, I see a great many games that opted for a cinematic experience of sorts at the expense of gameplay. I can't imagine anyone will want to play The Last of Us in 10 years as it's really nothing more than a foundation upon which to build cinematic storytelling in games with no actual gameplay worth experiencing. Before I'd played these games, I might have thrown them into that bucket as well. After all, Final Fantasy is, for many, a sort of cinematic experience all on its own. The assumption is fair and I wouldn't blame you for holding it, but I can confidently say you'd be missing something special if you didn't give it a shot.
Final Fantasy X and XII are not like Fable 1 or The Last of Us. They're not immune to the ravages of time, but they've weathered the storm better than anyone on the outside might have suspected. They've still got an interesting world, characters worth meeting and stories that will suck you in. But that's true of many other games too. What sets these titles apart is the excellent gameplay that many JRPGs even today strive to surpass, and it's because of that they just might be worthy of the title "Timeless."
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