Final Fantasy IX – PlayStation
Platform: Sony Playstation
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square EA
Release Date: November 13, 2000
Nerd Rating: 9/10
Reviewed by Paladin
I absolutely love this game with all my heart and everyone in the world should play it.
And that’s my opinion when I’m not being biased.
It probably helps that I went into this game with no expectations. Following in the footsteps of FFVII and FFVIII, IX was faced with the difficult task of differentiating itself from its predecessors while retaining the inventive, revolutionary spirit that set the other two apart. VII paved the way for the future of RPGs by showing that they could tell an in-depth story with interesting characters and fun gameplay without limiting itself to the medieval theme that characterized the genre in the past. VIII took it a step further with improved graphics, more involved gameplay and further advanced technology within the game.
For better or for worse, RPGs had changed and every company out there was racing to emulate the new style. Square, the company that started this revolution in the first place had the rare problem of a product being too good. How do they top they’re own massive success? The decision was made to take the franchise back to its roots. I heard about none of this when the game came out because Final Fantasy IX also had to compete with the release of the Sega Dreamcast. In short, FFIX was forced under the radar and its reception was mediocre at best.
I was fortunate enough to play IX for the first time well after its release, when the fanfare surrounding VII had died down and I was simply looking for a new RPG to play. With no preconceived notions in my mind I was able to form my own thoughts with zero outside influences and it has since become one of my top five favorite video games ever made. I firmly believe that anyone who knocks this game needs to take off the VII nostalgia goggles and give it another try.
After the emotional plots, futuristic setting, and complex gameplay of the last two games, the essential idea behind IX was to make a current version of the classics that had made the series so popular in the first place. In the spirit of games like FF’s IV, V, and VI, and even earlier titles such as FF’s I and III, IX features a more basic story and characters and focuses on telling them well. Gameplay has also been simplified (a welcome change after the nightmare that was the Junction System.) FFIX also may have more clever references to past titles than the entire rest of the series combined.
When considering whether or not to play this title, don’t let words like “basic” and “simple” fool you. They only mean that this game isn’t an emotional roller coaster. It’s not a kids game by any means, but you know who is good and who is bad, the melodrama is toned down, and nuances of gameplay are less complicated, yet still fun, and the characters have their own problems without moping all the time.
Each character has their own pain to overcome and, in my opinion, IX handles this better than the past two. FFVII had great characters but they were mainly there to support Cloud. For instance, when you first arrive in the town of Corel, Barrett has his big moment of confronting his past, but that’s it. Nothing more is done with his story. Yuffie has her one big moment in Wutei and then nothing, Red XIII has his one big moment in Cosmo Canyon…etc. VII’s characters have interesting stories, but not much is done with them afterwards. (The less said about VIII’s cast, the better.) In IX, each person who joins you has ongoing issues to face that rear their ugly head more than once. Dagger has to prevent her home country of Alexandria from starting a war, except that the Queen is her own mother who has apparently lost her mind. Steiner, Captain of the Knights of Pluto, is constantly torn between his stern commitment to duty and his loyalty to Dagger. Zidane grew up on the streets as an orphan and has had to live his life as a thief, yet despite this hardship he maintains an upbeat and positive attitude that, besides being a breath of fresh air after Cloud and Squall, proves invaluable to keeping his teammates going. This makes for extra suspense when he discovers his true identity and he finds himself at odds with his allies. And who couldn’t love Vivi? The little Black Mage that Could. The iconic design of the Black Mage returns in this one with Vivi, who is shrouded in mystery at first and seems so timid that he wouldn’t hurt a fly, yet a hidden power rests within him that he hates using, but must. His storyline may be one of the best in FF history. Point being, these characters are more developed than in past titles and get many moments to shine and come full circle in this game.
The story follows a straight path, but also allows for some wiggle room with plenty of surprises along the way. Plot is nothing special: after years of peace the kingdom of Alexandria is suddenly trying to take over the world. Zidane is paid to smuggle Princess Garnet (Dagger) out by her Uncle Cid, but it turns out that Dagger wanted to leave anyway. Adventures ensue, it turns out there is a lot more going on than everyone thought and, stop me if you’ve heard this one, the fate of the world is at stake. I’ll admit this is one area where I’m torn. The first half of the game is spent covertly avoiding the Alexandrian army while trying to warn other nations of their hostility. Whole cities fall to their might, mother must face off against daughter, and the plot gradually thickens as a sinister agent acts behind the scenes. Add to that the colorful cast of characters that join you and you’ve got a recipe for success. The first half of the game is so much fun. Monster design is inventive, environments look incredible, and those awesome 64 bit graphics are at their best in this game.
On the other hand, the game succumbs to some old habits once the third disk does in. The story begins to take a turn that isn’t terrible, but it gets more complicated without adding any interest and the “will they or won’t they” nature of Zidane and Dagger’s relationship begins to wear thin. I still have a blast playing through from beginning to end but the first half of the game is definitely the more enojyable as far as story goes.
However, the gameplay more than makes up for that. I love the Materia system in VII, but after a bit all of your characters become interchangable, with only the Limit Breaks to set them apart. I eventually got to the point where I was more focused on learning spells than progressing the story. (Again, it’s best not to mention the battle system for VIII.) IX gives us a nice, turn based system where characters learn spells and techniques by equipping items. Say, for instance, an accessory gives you the “Antibody” technique that negates Poison. That technique is yours for as long as you have that item equipped. After so many battles, it’s yours permanently and you can move on. Some techniques can be learned by all, but some can only be acquired by certain characters, such as Vivi learning the Black Magic spells or Dagger and Eiko learning White Magic and Summons, called Eidolons. It may sound limiting at first, but I found it nice to be able to pump your characters up by grinding, but no matter how strong you become strategy is still a factor as not everyone can learn the same stuff.
Some other factors fall short, like the Chocobo Hot N’ Cold minigame that powers up your Chocobo to the point where he can go anywhere, but only after hours of aimless digging. While I love the more colorful and positive nature of the game, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t seem cartoony at times, especially the character designs. However, none of this is enough to bring the game down. The renewed simplicity of the story, characters and gameplay suck you in right away, not to mention Nobuo Uematsu’s incredible soundtrack. Every song stands out and amplifies the atmosphere with a subtle precision. (Fun fact: Uematsu has gone on record as saying FFIX is his personal favorite FF soundtrack.)
IX feels just like an FF game should, but does so without rehashing the past. I could go on about it for hours, but, bottom line, I’m glad I didn’t listen to all the naysayers who never came back to this title after their initial attempt. If every RPG strove to be like Final Fantasy IX, they’d all turn out great.
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