For a hardcore gamer, I can only imagine gameplay will always eclipse the importance of story. Some people can excuse narrative flaws, so long as the gameplay is sufficient.
And gameplay in Final Fantasy has come a long way. Mostly due to the fact that they’ve ended up ditching the ATB system of that dominated the 90’s in Final Fantasy series. We’ve seen more emphasis on gameplay because developers started concentrating on new battle systems. They’ve been evolving towards a more real-time structure. Tabata remarked that Japanese kids didn’t appreciate the challenge, and wanted to include this in the series.
Yet, Final Fantasy’s main appeal has been the narrative. As Sakaguchi once said:
I don’t have what it takes to make an action game. I think I’m better at telling a story.
Most others can excuse gameplay problems, so long as the story is acceptable. But a bad story or gameplay may turn away many fans.
The compromise might be Final Fantasy games moving towards interactive stories. Few developers have embraced the interactive stories to its fullest. Most of the Final Fantasy games simply inject worthless arbitrary choices things like characters asking “Will you help me!?” ‘Yes’ moves the story along; ‘No’ is an endless loop of the NPCs begging you to say ‘yes’.
But fans expect an overall narrative for Final Fantasy stories to compliment their gameplay. The characters development and world building in Final Fantasy games help drive the story and plot.
Of course, as U77654 points out:
There is a difference between the story, the quality of the characters, the relationships between characters, and how invested the characters are in the plot (did they join because of legitimate and logical stated reasons or because the protagonist needed a Black Mage?). Merging all of these into “story” is unfair and can lead to biased discussions. Many games (FF or not) excel in different categories here.
Yet, where would we be without the gameplay?