Final Fantasy will always hold a special place in a small corner of my heart and a vast space in the timeline of my life. VII completely redefined the nature of console gaming, providing genuine gasp out loud moments, while the animated taster video for VIII still makes my heart beat faster even after all these years, and I was even new man enough to shed a tear or two during the game itself. I have slowly lost touch with Final Fantasy over the years, but Cloud, Sephiroth, Squall and the lovely Rinoa are characters who remain with me. Whisper it, but in a dusty corner of my attic lie my discs of all of the first twelve adventures and their spinoffs, together with a couple of PlayStation 2 consoles, you know, just in case. Let’s just say that those games were, are, and likely will forever remain a part of my life.
What possibilities lie within?
As console gaming has faded and cardboard gaming has taken over, those mighty stories have slowly receded into the background, but here, out of nowhere and with minimal fanfare it seems, comes Final Fantasy: The Trading Card Game. Is this going to be one of those things where my memories have added sentimental attachment to the experiences of the past, or I am going to find my trusty companions in these portable boxes and slowly, surely, lose my financial security as I attempt to collect them all?
Collect them all? This obsession could cost you!
Ah, the money. Let us be clear straight away about the nature of Final Fantasy: The Trading Card Game. What they really mean is that this is Final Fantasy: The Collectible Card Game, because you will have to collect them before you trade them. Personally, the nature of the blind buying collectible model (in which you pay for something unknown) is something I detest and to which I will not subscribe. I would even go further and say that it is a dishonest way of selling your wares, but, hey, it clearly works. At least Fantasy Flight (the other FF in this article) came up with the Living Card Game format, one I dislike slightly less, because in that format you know what you will be receiving in return for your money even if the release schedule is designed to hook you in as quickly and as deeply as possible.
Enough to be getting on with, but much more to come.
Even though the starter decks for Final Fantasy: TCG retail for around £15 or so, you will need to buy two of these to be able to play it against somebody, or instead have a willing accomplice who has already bought into the system, meaning that the cost to be able to have a playable version of the game is around the £30 mark, which is a fair amount for two packs of cards. Each starter deck of the Final Fantasy: TCG will provide you with 50 cards, but also a playmat and rules sheet, and at present you can pick your flavour from Final Fantasies VII, X or XIII. Just to let you know, I have X and XIII for review.
Earth, Wind & Fire? Let’s get elemental!
Each deck is based on a pair of different archetypes, and if you have been swanning around the Final Fantasyverse for as long as I have then these will feel as familiar as your favourite pair of slippers. That’s because if you have been swanning around the Final Fantasyverse for as long as I have you will now be old enough to have a favourite pair of slippers. So the VII deck is built around fire and earth, the X deck around wind and water, and the XIII deck around ice and lightning, and the included rules sheet also comes with a brief guide to each deck and hints as to where its strengths lie.
Playmat is useful, the rules sheet a little less so.
Better still, because these decks are element based they are not exclusively based on their main Final Fantasy games. Each of them comes with cards representing characters from other places and times, all the way back to the earliest games and including Final Fantasy Tactics. The artwork is also directly taken from the associated Final Fantasy game, and although this can mean some incongruity between the pseudo-realism of later instalments and the primitive sprites of earlier encounters, it does at least pull a player back into the world of that particular game. Sometimes it means that the artwork for a single deck can feel strangely disjointed which feels decidedly odd, however elementally similar these adventurers might be.
Not fade away? This is built to last!
I have to come out straight away and say that the card stock for this game is excellent, and that it seems totally resistant to sweaty thumb marks (yes, I tried and so did some sweaty friends!). The decks are smaller than those you would find in a Fantasy Flight game, but they are thick and actually feel as if they are made out of card rather than something that it going to crease after the first shuffle. It is such a rare thing to have cards that genuinely feel as though they are built to last that I feel it is worth pointing it out.
The art style in a single deck can feel curiously disjointed.
Any player who has had more than a passing acquaintance with a Living Card Game or, better still, the omnipresent Magic: The Gathering will feel pretty comfortable with what Final Fantasy: The Card Game has to offer as players take turns to play cards from their hands onto the battlefield, paying the associated cost, activating events and launching attacks that may or may not be defended. So far, so generic.
Attack, defend and summon? It’s a kind of Magic!
Event cards are paid and played from hand (here they are called Summons cards), but the others are either Forwards or Backups and are placed in a player’s first or second row respectively. Cards in the front row can attack or defend while those in the second row act as support and may be used as payment to activate abilities on other cards. A player is limited to five of these support cards, and any cards that are used in a turn, wherever they are on the field, are tapped, sorry, dulled and not readied until the beginning of a player’s next turn.
Of course, this means that each turn of Final Fantasy is an exercise in balance. You can go all out for an attack, but that will leave you unable to defend in the next turn and any undefended attack automatically results in a defeat. Lose seven battles, whether you choose to defend or not, and that’s it, your game is done and you get to totter home with your fantastical tail between your legs.
Starter decks are based on elements but they can be really difficult to tell apart.
Get ready to read! Text is testing!
Final Fantasy plays out as a quick and fairly streamlined game of back and forth brinksmanship in this way for half an hour or so, and the tight win condition means that games rarely go on longer than this, so it is a good choice for a quick head to head encounter, but there are negatives, and they are too large to ignore. While each starter deck comes with a lovely set of cards, a playmat, a list of cards and a rules sheet, the rules themselves are an absolute pain to get to grips with, even if the game itself is simple enough to grasp. On a single double-sided fold out sheet there are clauses and sub-clauses tucked away here there and everywhere, and although there must be some kind of method in the madness, it makes seeking clarifications as tricky as finding your way out of a Confusion spell.
The ability text on the cards is also tiny, and the icons that show what you need to pay are so small as to be close to indecipherable. On more than one occasion my fellow players and I were even unsure what colour a particular icon was – Ice, Water and Lightning are very close to each other – and it made smooth play of the game very difficult indeed. Players would be well advised to buy a magnifying glass alongside their chosen starter deck of Final Fantasy.
Icons are tiny and function solely on a quantum level. Maybe.
Is it different enough? Or is it simply a remake?
The real flaw of Final Fantasy, though, is not one that is apparent either in the components or in the initial gameplay. Rather it is that despite its hugely powerful possibilities, Final Fantasy is late to the collectable card game party and to play this game properly, as with Android: Netrunner or Summoner Wars, you need to have another player who is as keen to invest time in the game as you are. Critically for Final Fantasy, they will probably have to purchase their own deck, whereas Android, Summoner Wars, Revolver and the likes of Ashes: Rise Of The Phoenixborn get you up and running right from the start. Rather like in the Final Fantasy games themselves, you can find yourself roaming landscapes for hours, starter deck in pocket, before you stumble across the person who can interact with that particular item.
This is a real shame, for I love Final Fantasy, and those I played alongside also love Final Fantasy. Between us we have spent countless hours roaming those virtual worlds, but none of us has felt drawn enough to this game to become fully involved in it. Fatally, this game also simply does not conjure up any feeling of a Final Fantasy environment apart from those interminable random battles that eat up a player’s time while wandering from city to city.
Get the feeling of random battles! But without the exploring..!
Get into this game and for a price you can unlock deck building and tinker with your deck to get exactly the combinations you need, but Android has been doing this with huge success for years now and shows no sign of stopping. Final Fantasy is going to have to go some even to begin to compete with that behemoth, and as a shuffle-up-and-deal experience it has some way to go to beat Revolver or even something like Tristan Hall’s 1066: Tears To Many Mothers, which was initally a print and play.
Deck construction is there is you have the time and money…and opponents.
All the above mentioned games also go further than the simple fighting premise, from hacking and building mainframes in Android to moving through various environments in Revolver to fighting over goals in Omen: A Reign Of War. Final Fantasy, in its static setting and with its focus purely on the fight, feels curiously out of date by comparison, decidedly rudimentary despite its ambitions, and lacking in the added dimensions of its competition.
To dive in or not? Is there enough Fantasy here?
Having said that, it does what it does with decent enough efficiency, and if you are the kind of Final Fantasy fanatic who loves a head to head card based tussle and know somebody of a similar mindset then this will certainly be something you could get to explore. For this reviewer and, I suspect, for many others, it simply does not do enough that is different, new or exciting to warrant long-term investment of time and money which is presumably what the publishers are after.
I am a Final Fantasy fanatic, love a head to head card based tussle and know people of a similar mindset, but this game is just not exciting enough even for me to keep, and that is a real shame. The card stock is top notch, the play is easy and elegant once you have worked out how to read the rules in the right order, and, of course, it’s Final Fantasy…but it is just another card game in a genre chock full of them, and players will need to spend to get the most out of this. Rarely have I felt my expectations for a game so comprehensively underwhelmed, so it warrants only a disappointed 6 out of 10 from me and that might even be generous as I really wanted to give it more…
Now, if you’ll excuse me for the next couple of years, I need to fire up the PlayStation and remind myself what led me here in the first place.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.