Final Fantasy is a strange series. Its ups and downs over the years have arguably been caused by its most appealing central idea: that every entry is set in a new universe, with new characters and completely different systems. This means the series has sometimes alternated between being an innovator and out-of-date—but it has remained more or less enjoyable for three decades.
At its best, Final Fantasy will give you an adventure you'll never forget, a combat and progression system that you'll obsess over, or characters you'll have a real affinity for. Sometimes, it'll give what might be the best minigame in history. And other times, it'll give you a laughing scene you'll wish you could forget.
With most of the worthwhile entries on PC now—minus I and II, and spin-offs like Crisis Core—we thought it'd be a good time to discuss which mainline games are the best. Since this is an argument that's been going on for years with a lot of near-identical outcomes, we've included an extra factor here—how the games' PC versions turned out informs the rankings here, since it's so inconsistent across the series. Tell us your choices at the bottom, and enjoy.
1. Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age
Samuel Roberts: This isn't my personal favourite Final Fantasy, but it's an impressive, MMO-infused RPG that's the best of them all when it comes to combat systems, progression and how well its art has held up since its original release on the PS2, 12 years ago. Those factors are probably what most players are interested in, and so I feel comfortable calling it the best. It just doesn't have much heart, or a story I like, or a decent protagonist. I like it when Final Fantasy has those things. It does have a British version of Han Solo, though. I'm a big Balthier fan, and if I could be him I would.
Tom Senior: There were apparently a lot of rewrites and story-shuffling during development and it really shows. Luckily 12 has my favourite RPG systems of any Final Fantasy and the fast-forward command added by the remaster means I can blast through zones, level up quickly, and test out new party lineups. 12 has a different appeal to the rest of the series. You can’t really coast through it without engaging pretty heavily with the combat and character building, which can really drag in the first few hours.
Plus the story never quite gains momentum. Final Fantasy has never been good at telling stories about politics, kings and queens. Give me a good party of pals who go on a journey and kill lots of cactuars.
Wes Fenlon: Sam and Tom are nuts: Final Fantasy 12 has probably the best, least cliche story in a Final Fantasy game this side of Tactics. It just, uh, kinda disappears and then completely falls apart in the last third of the game. But before that: great stuff! The world and writing, like in Matsuno's Final Fantasy Tactics, are fantasy by way of Shakespearean tragedy, with a quippy rogue, a dutiful but disgraced knight, and a princess forced to step into a leadership role she never expected. There's some great wartime politics to dig into here, though the throughline never quite explores them as much as it should. But the flavor that story brings sets it so far apart from your typical teens-save-the-world JRPG.
It's also hard to overstate how much FF12's world design—broken up into MMO-like zones, where everything is the same scale, rather than a world map or the disappointing list of locations like FF10's—adds to the believability of it as a place. It feels like a proper world you're exploring, at a level of fidelity no Final Fantasy game had delivered before.
2. Final Fantasy 9
Wes: Final Fantasy 9 is that one game I'll probably wax poetic about for the rest of my life. It just has such heart. It's a game that feels joyously made, celebrating the Final Fantasy series up to that point and the end of Square's insane hot streak during the PS1 era. It's peppered with in-jokes and references that manage to never be obnoxious or exclusionary; if you don't get them, they just add more flavor to a world already overstuffed with personality.
You can take Final Fantasy 9's opening hour as a case study for what makes it special among the series: you'll control three separate characters at different points, and during that time you can freely run around a city collecting tons of hidden items and gil caches, meet characters who will have small, cute narrative moments a dozen plus hours later, kick off a sidequest that lasts the entire game, play a minigame, learn FF9's card game and collect some rare cards, and participate in a wonderfully entertaining fake sword fight that was designed for this one scene and never used again.
That's really Final Fantasy 9 in a nutshell: it's so dense with things to do, with hidden delights, and with creative design that goes above and beyond, it's hard not to be charmed by the sheer love that went into every area. And the PC version will run on pretty much anything. The battle system isn't the best in the series, but everything else more than makes up for it.
Andy Kelly: I didn’t love the return to a medieval-influenced fantasy setting in 9 as much as some people. This is my least favourite of the PlayStation era, even though it’s arguably a better game than 7 and 8, at least mechanically. I do love the story, though. There are some great moments, usually involving sad-eyed black mage Vivi. And the cities are among the series’ grandest, particularly Lindblum. Also, it has the best world map theme.
3. Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn
Steven Messner: There is no modern Final Fantasy more in touch with the series' roots that Final Fantasy 14. Despite being an MMO (which understandably will turn some away), FF14 is a sincere love letter that captures all of the whimsy and drama of the earlier entries in the series. It's a shame that you'll have to endure a painfully dull level-up process, but once you get to the later chapters of A Realm Reborn and into the exquisite Heavensward and Stormblood expansions, Final Fantasy 14's story begins to rival some of the series' best. In between the usual MMO grinds, there's an emotional, character-driven story of betrayal and revolution all set in a more medieval fantasy aesthetic that is a welcome departure from the spikey-haired, leather-clad look of later Final Fantasys.
Fortunately, Final Fantasy 14 is a damn good MMO to boot. Its endgame can be a little repetitive, but everything from the dungeons and raids to the crafting and job system are so beautifully realized and fun that I'm not pulling my hair out waiting for the next update.
4. Final Fantasy 7
Tom: At this point it feels like Final Fantasy 7 has been dismantled, digested, and rendered down into a puddle of memes, and I struggle to detach the game from powerful feelings of nostalgia for the many hours I spent extracting every secret from that world map. However, I really think the story holds up. It’s tangled at points, when you start getting into supersoldiers and mistaken identities, but the broader descent into a terrible doomsday scenario is very effective, and the apocalypse is marshalled by perhaps the series' greatest villain. Sephiroth starting Cloud down through the flames of Nibelheim is one of the best moments in any Final Fantasy game.
It’s a rich RPG, full of so many optional elite pursuits. The Weapons that appear later in the campaign roam the map, ready to be challenged as soon as your gear and party were strong enough. Don't fancy that? Breed and race Chocobos in the Gold Saucer, or go and find the secret party members Yuffie and Vincent. It’s an old game now, but it still feels huge and ambitious.
Andy K: I don’t care what anyone says: Final Fantasy 7 is still good. I play it every couple of years, and always find it just as captivating as the first time. I think the variety is a big part of it. There’s such a wild mix of visual styles, moods, set pieces, and activities here, from the melodramatic and serious to the totally absurd. One minute you're fighting a giant mechanical scorpion, the next you're trying to out-squat a wrestler to win a powdered wig.
The world is great too. Every location has its own distinctive personality, from the high-tech militarism of Junon, to the cosy sands of the Costa del Sol. And I love how the arrival of the meteor transforms the mood of the game, with NPCs getting new dialogue to reflect the coming apocalypse. It's a proper big, exciting adventure, especially when you unlock the Highwind airship and can explore the map largely unrestricted.
5. Final Fantasy 10/10-2
Andy K: I remember being disappointed with 10 when I first played it, because it got rid of the explorable world map that I loved in 7, 8, and 9. Instead you'd just pick locations from a map interface, which is nowhere near as compelling as actually walking around yourself. The world map was such a Final Fantasy icon that I'm baffled they got rid of it.
I enjoyed the game overall, but this change meant I never really felt like I was on some grand journey. The world didn't feel as convincing somehow, like a series of disparate places artificially strung together. There were some great locations in there, though: particularly the rolling hills of the Calm Lands and the stormy Thunder Plains.
Samuel: This is my favourite Final Fantasy game by a long way. Blitzball is a great minigame that connects well with the main adventure, once you understand how it works, and the way the game explores religion is pretty risky for a mainstream RPG. It also has a progression system and end game that can keep you playing for tens of hours afterwards. The PS2 version came out at just the right time for me to fall in love with it (I was 14, basically), and I play it every three or four years.
I also disagree that getting rid of the world map was a bad thing—FF10's world is a little too linear and paves the way for 13's long corridors, but it does feel strangely real to me, in how much personality there is in individual places like Kilika, Luca or Guadosalam. The fact it has no major cities, because this unstoppable force keeps destroying them, neatly explains why it's a world mostly made up of small tropical settlements.
I've never really loved Final Fantasy 10-2, honestly, with its straight-to-VHS-style follow-up story about lovers from 1000 years ago or some bullshit, but when I played the PC version a couple of years ago I had a new appreciation for it. It was the first Final Fantasy game with an all-female cast and it has a very different, fun energy to 10. It's almost like 15 in how the friendships at the heart of the game are a big part of why it's an enjoyable journey, even if the overarching story is bad. Square Enix completely redid the combat and progression systems, which they really didn't need to do to get people to buy this direct sequel.
I also liked seeing the world of Spira several years later, with new locations and additions to existing ones, as well as granular bits of new story that tell you what happened to all its characters. I wish there were fewer recycled assets and I don't love the musical numbers, but hey, not every Final Fantasy game is going to be my thing. I liked listening to developer Nina Freeman talk about the game on this podcast. She makes a good case for why it's better than I thought it was back in 2004.
6. Final Fantasy 15
Tom: I love the idea of the roadtrip RPG and FF15, in its best moments, strikes a perfect tone. You get to guide your four good lads through a lazy summer, beating up wildlife for cash. After the constraints of 13, the open world feels enormous, and it's extremely pretty.
I miss the depth and character building of previous games, but some extraordinary animation work means the combat always looks flashy, even if you’re not really doing very much. Also, the food. My god, the food.
Samuel: This is how I feel—a cynic would say this is a game of nothing more than empty spectacle. But how can you not enjoy that journey? It's like the opposite of Final Fantasy 12: endearing, full of character, and the combat is stylish but has little going on beneath it. The story is...was there a story? The king is killed, and you come back and kill the guy who is your relative from thousands of years ago, who now sits on the throne speaking in a British accent. Is that right? Anyway, who cares when the summons look this cool:
My favourite thing about FF15 might be the hidden Pitioss Dungeon, a combat-free puzzle labyrinth which sparked a Dark Souls-level lore investigation from dedicated players (read the Reddit thread here). It's apparently been debunked somewhat by the FF15 team and the game's DLC, but I choose to believe it's real because it's better than much of the game's actual story, and makes me wonder which elements of the cancelled Versus 13 made the cut.
Andy: I love the breezy road trip feel of 15. It's an infectiously sunny, colourful game, and the bond between the car boys is quite convincing. But as an RPG it left me cold, which is almost entirely the fault of those utterly banal sidequests. Everywhere you go you're being given tasks to complete, but they're flatly written, unexciting, and tedious. I could have ignored them and focused on the main story, I suppose, but I hate having uncompleted quests in my log. So I just quit the game and never returned.
Samuel: I agree that most of its sidequests are terrible, although I do like the hunts. Fewer but better quests should be how Tabata and company make side content in their next RPG.
7. Final Fantasy 8
Tom: The first quarter of the game, culminating in that assassination attempt, is absolutely banging. The plot drifts off in weird directions from there and eventually collapses into a succession of giant plot holes. It's a great ride, though. Squall is kinda Cloud-lite, but at least he gets to have a romance, and his rivalry with Seifer is engrossing.
It's as large and involved as 7, and full of secrets, but for me it's a touch forgettable. The gardens are beautifully designed, but I don't feel as connected to those places as I did to Cosmo Canyon, Junon, and Midgar. I liked the combat, though, including the magic junctioning system and ludicrous summons.
Andy K: There’s a lot I love about 8. The understated art design. The downbeat, melancholy tone. That beautifully atmospheric music. Triple Triad, of course, which remains one of the best minigames of all time. The weird characters. Hell, I even love the junction system, which is undeniably weird and clunky, but fun to experiment with.
The story seriously goes off the rails in the final act, it can be overly melodramatic, one of the twists is a real eye-roller, and the way enemies scale to your level is kinda annoying. But otherwise I think it's one of the best, most interesting, and most subversive Final Fantasies. It's the Alien 3 of the series, and I mean that as a compliment.
Samuel: Final Fantasy 8 is a big favourite of mine, but it loses points for having worse audio than the PSone versions, even now, though you can mod the original soundtrack back in. This week I had to sign in through Square Enix's store just to play the damn game on Steam, which is dumb. I love the junctioning system and the combat, though, and this game offers a ridiculously melodramatic but engaging story.
It also has one of my favourite 'secrets' in the series: the Deep Sea Research Facility in the middle of the ocean, where you fight Bahamut and Ultima Weapon. Exploring the depths of that place is like a horror movie. Check out the first minute of this to see what I'm talking about:
8. Final Fantasy 6
Tom: The PC port hideously reworks the fonts and reduces the pixel sprites to bright, blotchy characters. It's awful, because otherwise FF6 is an absolute treat. Great characters, a strong sense of humour, and a surprisingly dark world full of steam engines, mechs, and an oppressive empire desperate to capture the power of magic for itself. The starting character, Terra, has the rare ability to cast spells, and as she flees the empire's phalanxes of hunter mechs she teams up with characters like the roguish Locke, a ninja called Shadow, a king with a chainsaw called Figaro, and more.
The characters are fantastic, but 6 throws some insane turns into its story that I won't spoil. Great game, shame about the port.
Samuel: Same feeling. I love this game, and I had the PSone version many years ago, which wasn't too bad (minus the loading screens). If the PC version was the best one, it'd undoubtedly be ranked a lot higher than this in our list.
Wes: This is not the best way to play one of the best games in the series, as Tom alluded to. It's full of an energetic charm that Square would only really achieve again with FF9, but still manages to deliver some heart wrenching moments with tiny little sprite people. And what a boldly freeform game! Even without a job system, you can pretty much do anything you want with any character after a certain point, and explore much of the world in whatever order you prefer. Also, modders have thankfully fixed some of the PC port's most egregious issues, so it's possible to clean up the graphics and return the original sprites to their proper place.
9. Final Fantasy 13
Samuel: Even if it takes a while to open up, I like the paradigm shift system in Final Fantasy 13, and how it encourages wholesale on-the-fly changes in tactics. Even if you spend most of the game walking through a corridor, it is at least a consistently beautiful corridor. 13's PC port was pretty lousy at launch, and I haven't tried it since then, because it wants to eat a monstrous 60GB of my hard-drive space. FF13's soundtrack is one of the best in the series, though, and even if its story is overwrought and lacks likeable heroes, I've still got some affection for it.
Tom: The paradigm shift system is cool, it feels fast and fluid once you’re fighting enemies tough enough to warrant using it properly. I can't really forgive all the corridors though, and I found a lot of the squad annoying, especially Hope. The lack of freedom feels like such a retrograde step after 12 and you need a glossary to unpack what's going on between the fal'Cie and the l'Cie.
Wes: A genuinely great battle system is wasted on a mess of a story that confuses a deluge of proper nouns with an interesting plot. Combat with a full party is an absolute blast, so of course Final Fantasy 13 spends most of its first 15 hours refusing to let you just play the damn game with a full team. It's one of the worst starts ever in a genre known for slow beginnings. But hey, at least it does get better from there.
10. Final Fantasy 4 (or 5)
Samuel: I've got a soft spot for 4, which is the point at which you can trace back all the modern Final Fantasy games, with its increased focus on story and setting over the simpler FF3. I love the character designs—this is where these heroes and villains became iconic. I can't say I love the 3D edition of it that's come to PC, though, which is based on the DS port from almost a decade ago. The Game Boy Advance edition that I used to own looked a lot nicer, though this 3D version does have a phenomenal opening movie (see above).
Wes: This is when Final Fantasy figured out it wanted to be a series of epic adventures: it was Square's stab, at the time, of channeling an anime plot into a bunch of sprite characters. It's worth playing just to see the roots of what would become grander adventures in FF6 and FF7.
If you don't love Final Fantasy's melodrama, swap Final Fantasy 5 in, here. Like FF6 it has some hideously reworked sprites on PC, but that Job system is so good, there's still an annual event where people get together to replay the game all these years later.