As a young gamer raised on a diet of platformers, sports sims and shoot-'em-ups, Final Fantasy VIII was a revelation to me. It was my first introduction to the bewildering world of JRPGs, and its blend of exquisite cutscenes and intense tactical battles opened my eyes to the sheer cinematic possibility of video games.
It was my gateway drug to the likes of Chrono Trigger, the Fire Emblem games and, of course, the other titles in the Final Fantasy series, making my adventures with Squall and company a profound and pivotal part of my gaming life.
Over the years I've had similar moments of discovery, but none as powerful as my first dive into the Final Fantasy rabbit hole. None, at least, until I encountered the original geeky card game, Magic: The Gathering.
First released in 1993, Magic casts players as dueling mages battling with powerful spells and armies of monstrous creatures. It's strategic, nuanced and gloriously complex, and it's given rise to other games like Pokémon, Legend of the Five Rings and digital upstart Hearthstone, all of which brought their own distinct approaches to card-based combat.
As a card nerd and a JRPG fan, the Final Fantasy Trading Card Game sounds like it could have been made specifically for me. Designed by former professional Magic player Taro Kageyama, it's recently been released to Western audiences for the first time, and it promises to combine the deep, brainy, competitive gameplay of MTG and its followers with characters from the iconic video game series.
But enticing as that might sound, the idea left me wary. Was this a genuine attempt to capture the spirit of the Final Fantasy franchise in cardboard form, or just a cynical attempt to milk money out of a successful IP?
On first inspection, FFTCG seems suspiciously like Magic with the serial numbers filed off. Like Magic, it sees players build personalized decks filled with units that attack one another on a tabletop battlefield. Like Magic, it uses different types of color-coded resources to dictate which cards players can bring to the table. And like Magic, it features spells that can kill off units or boost characters' strength—although they're represented by familiar Final Fantasy summons like Ifrit, Odin and Shiva.
If these similarities aren't already enough, the two games share near-identical turn structures, and some of Final Fantasy's character abilities are lifted directly and unapologetically from Magic. But while it might be tempting to dismiss FFTCG as a shameless rip-off, it introduces some real and significant changes to Magic's formula—and along the way it manages to fix the one problem that MTG fans universally acknowledge as the game's biggest flaw.
It's difficult to understand just how much of an improvement Final Fantasy is until you've experienced Magic's dreaded mana-screw for yourself.
Magic relies on players drawing specific cards to generate mana—a kind of in-game currency used to cast spells or summon creatures. Fail to draw enough of them, and you'll be left unable to do anything while your opponent walks their way to an uncontested victory that's no more fun for them than it is for you.
Final Fantasy, on the other hand, lets players generate resources by discarding cards from their hand. It means that you'll be able to do something on every turn, ensuring that you're never completely shut out of a game.
It's difficult to understand just how much of an improvement this is until you've experienced Magic's dreaded mana-screw for yourself. And it's not the only thing that Final Fantasy does differently.
FFTCG tweaks its combat system to allow more tactical options, with units of the same type combining to make joint attacks. It simplifies its victory conditions, removing the need to keep track of players' life totals. And it unleashes some unpredictable effects when players suffer damage, meaning that what looks like a golden opportunity to attack can come with unexpected consequences.
But while FFTCG has plenty to recommend it, it's impossible to overlook the fact that it feels much more like an attempt to fix problems with Magic than anything identifiably rooted in the Final Fantasy series. Yes, it features familiar characters, and yes, they come with in-game powers that sort-of reflect their roles in the original video games, but there's none of the unfolding narrative or developing character arcs that kept me shut in my bedroom as a teenager, glued to my PS1 controller. Stripped of its story element, Final Fantasy feels a little empty.
Here's the thing, though: I'm going to keep playing.
Because while FFTCG may fall short on the narrative front, in other respects it scratches a lot of itches that will be familiar to JRPG fans. If you've spent hours on your console configuring characters and experimenting with spells and equipment, you'll probably find it similarly rewarding to craft a deck from hundreds of available cards, optimizing every element of its design. If you've fought the same boss battles time and time again with different tactics and party configurations, then you'll appreciate the strategic possibilities offered by different combinations of characters and special abilities.
This appeal isn't limited to Final Fantasy, though. If you're a JRPG player, I'd argue that you should try out a host of different card games. From the endlessly enduring Magic: The Gathering to the cyberpunk dystopia of Android: Netrunner and the bloody intrigues of A Game of Thrones, there's a universe of stories and strategy out there to discover.