Dating back to 1987 the Final Fantasy franchise is definitely one of the oldest still running brands in gaming. To date it’s released fifteen games from the main series alone, not counting many, many spin-offs and related works. Given the sheer amount of content contained in the proper numbered entries, it can be a little difficult to remember which game is which.

And that is why we prepared this brief guide for you, speaking of the crucial innovations each game introduced to the franchise, as well the leading theme and/or story premise. It won’t replace a good Wiki crawl, but it will give you a hint of what you should expect when you look for a mainline FF to buy.

What is Final Fantasy in general?

Final Fantasy for the most part is a series of turn-based (with variations, and exceptions) role-playing games. Each main numbered game take place in a new setting, and features a new cast of characters, although many themes are common, such as magical crystals which form the backbones of magic systems, or represent natural balance.

Frequently the storylines involve rebellions against invading empires or harmful companies, and characters giving their lives to the cause is also fairly common. Some characters of creatures also appear in various versions. For example there’s always someone called Cid, and you can always expect large rideable birds called chocobos to make an appearance.

And, quite obviously, all main Final Fantasy games are made and published by Squaresoft/Square/Square Enix, and they are invariably role-playing games, albeit sometimes with an emphasis on multiplayer experience, and other times on dynamic combat. The RPG elements mostly reveal themselves through the heavy emphasis on telling a story, and mechanical player progression. Usually there are few story-based choices that players of Western RPGs might expect from games in the genre.

Now, on to the main course!

Final Fantasy

Release year:1987

The OG, the first one that was supposed to be the last, if it wasn’t for the smashing hit that it became. Nobody could have foreseen that it would give birth to a decades-spanning, incredibly popular franchise. And all of it began with this humble turn-based roleplaying game in a fantasy world. Too bad it can’t easily be played on modern systems.

final fantasy 1987

And many familiar traits of an FF game are already in here. A large abstracted overworld to explore, distinct locations to visit, and dungeons to plunder. But you also build your own party of four from several classes, such as Red Mage, Thief, or Black Belt. In time, you’ll uncover more pieces of the story, which involves four mystical elemental crystals that must be restored.

Key features
  • Final Fantasy doesn’t get any more classic than this 1987 game
  • Six classes available to your 4-character party
  • Simple, but evocative graphics
  • Classes evolve with experience

Final Fantasy II

Release year:1988

Final Fantasy II wasn’t hugely different from the original game, it mostly iterated on solutions devised for FF1. The big change was in the progression model. Where the original Final Fantasy used classic experience points to see how fast the character advances, the sequel aims for improvement through practice. Use a sword a lot, and you’ll get more strength as well as more skill with it.

final fantasy 2 snes

Crucially, FF2 is also the one that introduced chocobos, possibly the only thing that’s common to all games of the series (except the first). These huge flightless birds are pretty much a mascot of the series, and we have Final Fantasy 2 to thanks for them. As for the story, it features forming a rebellion against an invading empire and build strength for the final clash.

Key features
  • Experimental shift from EXP-based progression
  • Chocobos introduced for the first time ever
  • Heroic fantasy storyline
  • Introduced the back row for casters and ranged fighters

Final Fantasy III

Release year:1990

The third Final Fantasy shook up the class system a little bit. Instead of being locked into a single profession forever and ever, FFIII created a job system allowing you to change your focus at any point outside of a battle. These jobs also came with special non-combat abilities inaccessible to others. And finally, it innovated the Summons, which have become a fixture of future Final Fantasies.

As many Final Fantasy stories do, the third game’s plot revolves around crystals reflecting the balance of natural elements, and around people who would use the power contained within for their own nefarious purposes. The remake for more…modern systems tweaked the prelude to the grand adventure, but otherwise left the original story intact.

Key features
  • The job system lets you change your class freely
  • A really good remake bringing the world into 3D
  • Jobs have unique moves they can use outside of combat
  • UI refined relative to the predecessors

Final Fantasy IV

Release year:1991

After a two-year gap, Final Fantasy IV arrived, coming with a new story about evil spellcasters aiming to use vastly powerful crystals for the purposes of destroying the world. Interestingly, this time around each character joining the protagonist, Cecil the dark knight, had a pre-set, unchangeable class, rather than customisable and interchangeable jobs of previous entries.

Since actual FF2 and FF3 were Japan-only releases, in the Western markets Final Fantasy IV was originally released as Final Fantasy II, a purposefully erroneous numbering later rectified. The story gets quite wild, and characters’ dedicated classes make it easier to write a story around them and about them. The classic summons also play a large part in the overall tale.

Key features
  • Now the protagonist and his companions have predefined classes
  • Intense, interesting story
  • The first incarnation of the Active Time Battle
  • Up to five characters in the party

Final Fantasy V

Release year:1992

Final Fantasy V improved on the Active Time Battle system introduced in the previous FF, adding a simple, yet useful UI element: a meter showing when each character is going to taker their actual turn based on their speed. There’s also multi-classing of sorts, letting characters get access to some abilities of their first “job” (class) even after they start following another.

The story involves the fate of two planets, between which lay ancient evil of the sort that was impossible to defeat and thus had to be sealed away in the past. And it worked, until a tragedy happened. The story is fun, with twists and turns, as Final Fantasy games typically have, although with active party limited to four characters at a time, you might have to make some choices.

Key features
  • The second iteration on the Active Time Battle system
  • Multi-classing through sharing certain abilities between jobs
  • Dual experience: regular experience points and job-related Ability Points
  • 22 jobs altogether to pick from

Final Fantasy VI

Release year:1994

FF6 changed the theme a little bit, moving away from classic fantasy trapping towards other aesthetics. This time it fell on steampunk to be the leading theme, with a vaguely 19th century-style technology, and society. But it also has a lot of magic in its history that’s being unearthed by an unscrupulous Gestahl Empire.

Final Fantasy VI has a huge number of playable characters, fourteen of them, to be exact, and that’s not counting episodically controlled characters. Unfortunately an active party can only hold four characters, so you’ll either have to stick with your favourites, or reshuffle the squad a lot to try all configurations. Especially since each character has some talent unique to them.

Key features
  • Over a dozen characters to join you on your journey
  • Exploration on foot, by airship, and on a chocobo
  • A change of style from classic fantasy to steampunk
  • New and returning summons

Final Fantasy VII

Release year:1997

Final Fantasy VII is probably the best-known Final Fantasy game to date, with over twenty years of spin-off games, movies, and short stories. Of course, the audience was more than welcoming, and has been asking for a remake for years before Square Enix budged, and the first part of the resulting next-gen remake scheduled to land in March 2020.

Cloud and Sephiroth became icons of the franchise, 3D graphics, first used in FF7 became a standard in the series, and the story, with its twists and shocking events resonated with millions over the years. The fan adorations also means that it was ported over to modern systems, so there is little technical excuse not to play it and see what’s the fuss is all about.

Key features
  • First Final Fantasy to use 3D graphics
  • A stylistic defining point for the series
  • Ecologically-minded storyline
  • Big swords, cybernetic limbs, magical clones, and fallen civilisations

Final Fantasy VIII

Release year:1999

Final Fantasy VIII followed the 3D punch of it’s predecessor, and delivered consistent designs for its cast of characters, rather than two distinct designs for exploration and battles. It also redesigned the magic system (replacing mana points with consumable spells), recontextualised summons as an element of character customisation, and turned Limit Breaks into last resort attacks at low HP.

The story follows one Squall Leonhart, accompanied by friends and allies, most of which are fellow SeeD soldiers, an elite military force. Like all Final Fantasy stories, this one is going to be quite dramatic, with the added complication of time travel being a major plot point. FFVIII was a great follow-up to Final Fantasy VII, and has become a classic in its own right.

Key features
  • An unmistakably Final Fantasy storyline
  • New magic and weapon improvement systems
  • Summons are integrated into story and other game systems
  • Smaller, but more characterful cast of characters

Final Fantasy IX

Release year:2000

After a few technologically-minded entries, Final Fantasy IX was something of a comeback to the original themes of the franchise, embracing pure fantasy once again. This time around the protagonist is one Zidane Tribal, a thief pretending to be an actor. The poor guy had no idea that a simple princess kidnapping would place quite so many problem in front of him.

FF9 went back to having preset character classes, which is some cases, such as Vivi, tie into their stories and themes. There’s also a new system related to previous games’ Limit Breaks: a Trance mode, which changes certain options into more powerful options if a character receives enough damage. There’s also a limited 2-player co-op, with each player running two characters during battles.

Key features
  • A return to fantasy themes after more technologically-minded entries
  • A new take on the limit break system
  • Equipment is more important to progression and skillsets now
  • A curious positioning-based card minigame „Tetra Master”

Final Fantasy X

Release year:2001

It’s the one with Blitzball, and, by consequence, Tidus. It’s also the one that has actual voice acting, instead of text boxes, and one that instead of Europesque fantasy or Europesque something-punk settled for sunnier inspirations: South Pacific, Thailand and Japan. The island-based setting is reflected also in Blitzball, which is an underwater sport taking place in a huge hovering sphere of water.

Final Fantasy X was the first fully 3D instalment, ditching the pre-rendered 2D backgrounds of previous FF games. As a result, there’s no split between world map exploration and discrete locations, since FF10 everything has been unified. It’s a great game, with great twists, and memorable characters. It was also the first FF to have a direct game sequel. Fully recommended.

Key features
  • The first voice-acted entry of the series
  • Flexible progression allowing for substantial customisation
  • Interesting and slightly convoluted story
  • Blitzball is a minigame that ties strongly into the storyline

Final Fantasy XI

Release year:2002

Final Fantasy XI was an odd one, and the full responsibility for this oddity fell on it being an MMORPG, of all things. Unfortunately, the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 went dark in 2016, the PC version is still trucking along, seventeen years later. As a game that also launched on consoles, it has controller support, and reportedly it works better than the mouse+keyboard combo.

Due to it being an online game, the combat system had to change, now allowing characters to move around, and making timing an important element. Player characters could be from one of five playable peoples, including hulking Galka or diminutive Tarutaru, and the game features a job systems known from previous FF games, rather than a single, unchangeable class.

Key features
  • The first Final Fantasy MMORPG
  • Several very distinct races to play as
  • Still playable after 17 years
  • Several expansions which enriched the game’s setting

Final Fantasy XII

Release year:2006

FF12 was the first singleplayer Final Fantasy to ditch entirely the random encounters, which would previously drag you out of exploration for a quick battle. This time you knew exactly what fight you’re getting into. The game came in several versions, changing how progression worked, with the Zodiac Age being the final version of the License Board system.

The story follows a street urchin, Vaan, who stumbled across a high-stakes political intrigue, two sky pirates, and a disgraced knight, in what was to become the most fateful evening of his life. The magicite, a magic-giving substance is back, as are Espers and summons, and the inevitable skyships, which by that point had been a staple of the franchise for years.

Key features
  • Gambit system lets you customise NPC ally behaviour
  • Dynamic positioning and ATB-based actions
  • Progression in the form of a gradually uncovered License Board
  • Story of betrayals, intrigue, and magic, with a fight against an unjust ruler as a theme

Final Fantasy XIII

Release year:2009

Final Fantasy XIII went back to the full-on science fiction aesthetic, at the time long since abandoned. Its protagonist is Lightning, a former soldier now acting against the government. The officials aim to commit genocide of people who came in contact with a mysterious Pulse, a world beneath the floating city which acts as the game core setting.

The battle system changed a bit, now visualising time in the form of slots which can be devoted to certain actions. The more powerful an ability, the most slots it takes. There are six playable characters, each with their own summoned creature, which can fight alongside them. FF XIII forms the backbone of the Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy sub series.

Key features
  • The first of a smaller series connected by a common theme, the Fabula Nova Crystallis
  • Revamped Active Time Battle system
  • Several Paradigms defining the behaviour of the player character’s companions
  • New graphics engine: Crystal Tools

Final Fantasy XIV

Release year:2010

Final Fantasy XIV story is one of substantial reversal of fortune due to hard work and open mind. When FF14 launched in 2010 it wasn’t particularly well received, but rebooted with 2013’s A Realm Reborn version it turned out to be one of the best MMORPGs in recent years, with a compelling storyline, cool gameplay, and some really, really impressive cinematic trailers.

Your class is tied to the weapon you use, and can be changed without much fuss when you decide to pick up a new weapon. It’s a variation on the job systems from previous FFs, and it works quite well in practice. There are also classes which focus on crafting and resource gathering, fuelling the player-driven economy of the game and supplying the more battle-oriented professions.

Key features
  • A substantial improvement between the original release and the 2013 reboot
  • You can change your class at a drop of the hat
  • Epic-scale storyline
  • Three large expansion packs: Heavensward, Stormblood, and Shadowbringers

Final Fantasy XV

Release year:2016

At the time of writing, Final Fantasy XV is the last Final Fantasy release, at least as far as new games are concerned, because Final Fantasy VII remake looms on the horizon. Originally FF15 was supposed to be a part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis miniseries, but ultimately became a game of its own, toward the end of a prolonged development.

final fantasy xv battle

The story follows a young prince and heir to the throne Noctis Lucis Caelum, and his three companions and protectors. They embark on a journey to possibly reclaim Lucis’ throne from the invading Nilfheim empire, and fulfil his destiny connected to the worlds deities and a mysterious disease called Starscourge which turns people into demonic monsters.

Key features
  • There’s a feature-length stand-alone CGI movie serving as FF15’s prologue
  • Real-time, action-based battle system making FF15 into more of an action RPG
  • You only control Noctis, his companions are AI-controlled
  • Context-sensitive Summon system

Main series is not the end

There are many, many other games outside of the main series. Some come as full-on sequels, continuing the storyline in the same world with a fully and partially changed main cast. Others are spin-offs removed from the main storyline and focused on a single character, but otherwise set in the same world. There are even crossover games, like Dissidia Final Fantasy, a fighting game where representatives from many FF games come to blows on a shared arena. And that’s before we count anime, manga, novels etc. enriching the lore and storylines of some instalments of the franchise.

Thus concludes our look into the core Final Fantasy experience since the series’ inception in 1997 to its current state: Final Fantasy 15 is the latest new release, and we’re awaiting the first part of the Final Fantasy VII Remake to come in March 2020.