A project now 10 years in the making, Final Fantasy XV is finally upon us, and it’s looking to be the most one of the most epic and awe-inspiring RPGs ever to come from developer Square Enix. Final Fantasy is a series spanning back nearly 30 years, and so much has happened over the course of those previous chapters that fans new and old may be wanting to take a look back to see how we got to where we’re at now. So, here are our picks for the top five Final Fantasy games you should play to prepare yourself for Final Fantasy XV. And yes, I know it’s tough to complete five full RPGs in about a week’s time—so you can also think of this as a checklist for what to play later if you’ve missed any of these entries.
Final Fantasy VI
While its predecessors also wove tales filled with brave heroes and evil foes waiting to be vanquished, no Final Fantasy before it even got close to the larger-than-life adventure of Final Fantasy VI. Arguably still the most beloved chapter of the series before its move to polygons, FFVI amazed players with a sprawling world that felt fully developed, characters that had real depth and personality, music that seemed unbelievable for the technology at the time, and a story that was unlike almost anything in gaming up until that point. The struggles of Terra and her companions against the nefarious Kefka kept me enthralled all of the way through, and there were moments in the game that are still memorable to this day—such as the infamous opera scene.
Final Fantasy VII
If there’s any one event that I can point to for what made Final Fantasy what it is today, it’s the release of Final Fantasy VII. Just one game before, characters were small sprites, towns and dungeons were crafted in 2D, and combat played out as static side views with little dynamic action. Jumping to the PlayStation and its powerful polygon rendering capabilities, Final Fantasy VII was suddenly a game with three-dimensional characters, impressive prerendered locales, and battles that felt like something you’d see in a big-budget Hollywood movie. Final Fantasy VII was also a game in which Square Enix traded in the more traditional fantasy worlds for a setting that mixed swords and spells with modern towns and technology. The game became a huge hit worldwide, fully opened Westerners’ eyes to the RPG genre, and set the series down a path that would have huge implications going forward—even influencing much later chapters like Final Fantasy XV.
Final Fantasy IX
Following the breakaway success of Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII continued the idea of a more modern theme and cast of characters. While that shift helped bring in a whole new generation of players, some long-time fans who had been around since the earlier days of Final Fantasy lamented the direction the series had taken. In what seemed like a nod of acknowledgement to those fans, along came Final Fantasy IX. With a more traditional style that harked back to the franchise’s earlier days, FFIX gave players an adventure that felt like classic Final Fantasy wrapped in the 3D presentation and cinematics of what the series had become. Indeed, Final Fantasy IX showed me what the series could have been had it not morphed into something different with Final Fantasy VII, and it was an RPG that fans from both eras fell in love with.
Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII is the best Final Fantasy that you’ve never played. Coming right as gamers were getting ready to snatch up Sony’s new console, the PlayStation 3, this late-era PS2 release got lost in the shuffle of the switch to a new generation of gaming systems. It then didn’t help that FFXII came off as a sort of hybrid between the standard single-player chapters of the series and the MMORPG offshoot Final Fantasy XI, which caused confusion among some consumers. However, for those who gave it a chance, Final Fantasy XII was a fantastic game, and even set up elements that will be found in Final Fantasy XV. For example, FFXII featured a more open-world style of exploration, with points of interest and quests dotting the landscape. Also, unlike most other Final Fantasy games, here your teammates were AI controlled, so they felt more like active characters in the story rather than just additional attack turns for you to take. And, there’s good news if you’re curious about Final Fantasy XII but don’t have a PS2 to go back and play it on—a remastered version of the game will be hitting the PlayStation 4 next year.
Final Fantasy XIII
Now, yes, I know—Final Fantasy XIII and its two direct sequels are a very love-them-or-hate-them topic among fans. Square Enix made a major push for its new “it” girl Lightning and the big plans that had been laid for the company’s “Fabula Nova Crystallis” project. The result was a trio of games that delighted some players while repulsing others, simultaneously stretching out the time it took for the next “proper” entry to the series. So why should you play Final Fantasy XIII? Because, more than any other chapter, it will give you a true taste of current-era Final Fantasy, including what may await in Final Fantasy XV. It’ll also be incredibly interesting to compare what was doing in FFXIII with what’s being done in FFXV, as the latter could very well be the make-it-or-break-it release for the entire series going forward. The journey of Noctis Lucis Caelum and his trio of friends may revitalize Final Fantasy’s future-tech fad, continuing it on for years (and iterations) to come. Or, it could be the end of an era, like Final Fantasy VI was, soon to give way to an entirely new twist on the franchise.