The name "Final Fantasy" is so well known among not only the RPG community but the non-gaming world as well. Square's ad campaigns are right up there with those of Sega in the days when they were extolling the virtues of the Genesis, which did what Nintendon't. And so it was with Final Fantasy IX; from their deal with Coca Cola, to their commercials in the US, to their PlayOnline website in which they offered not only a free online strategy guide but a plush Vivi doll as well, Square hyped the latest installment of their popular series of RPGs. But of course hype is rarely proportional to the quality of the product. So the bottom line is, does Final Fantasy IX live up to that hype?
In the castle town of Alexandria, the theater ship Prima Vista and its crew of performers/criminals form a plot to kidnap Princess Garnet of Alexandria. It is decided that, while the rest of the crew is performing the play "I Want to be Your Canary", you, Zidane will sneak in and kidnap the fair maiden from the castle and make your escape. All goes according to plan until you actually find the princess who herself is trying to escape from the castle. She asks you to kidnap her and as you try and make your escape, Garnet's mother, the Queen, damages your ship (to put it mildly) and sends you plummeting into the Evil Forest. From then on you follow Zidane and crew around the world for some reason or another.
The reason I didn't go more in-depth into the story is not because I wanted to preserve it for the reader, though I do try. It's just that Final Fantasy IX's story isn't that great. Everything in it has been done to death, for the most part, in previous RPGs. Good royalty mysteriously gone bad, enigmatic effeminate villain, lost ruins that hold the secrets to the creation of the world, etc. Nothing is really new or novel in FF9 as far as the story is concerned, and that's indicative of one of the main sticking points of the game that will come up again: Square's attempt to make FF9 retro.
What do I mean by making FF9 retro? The Final Fantasy games always have a theme to them. FF5's was friendship, FF 8's was love, and FF9 was memory. At one point or another you've probably heard some old wizened RPG aficionado talk about how RPGs were better in the SNES days and Square was the cream of the crop; that nowadays Square's games don't have that little something that made them king among companies. It seems that those grumblings got back to Square somehow and so they did everything they could to go back to the old days, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing miserably.
One place where they did a less than spectacular job was in the storyline. Apparently Square was under the assumption that if you drew elements from other stories and stuck them all together that you'd get a great plot. Instead they got a mishmash of overused themes and oft-neglected story points. The best example of this is Square's big selling point of the story: the crystals. All the advertisements for FF9 emphasized that the crystals would be back. The crystal gets mentioned once at the end of the game and its purpose is enigmatic at best. In no way does it play a central theme in the game's tale, and it felt like Square threw it in just to get another reference to a past FF title.
Plot elements aside, Square did a wonderful job with character development. From the main character, Zidane, whose mixture of lechery and devil-may-care attitude help put danger in perspective, to the little black mage Vivi whose naiveté and innocence just break your heart, to the gastricly proficient, strange talking Quina, each character has a distinct personality which changes and grows as the game progresses. The strength of the characters is one of FF9's strong points, approaching that of Square's other legendary title, Xenogears, and is what helps ultimately save the plot from really hurting the game itself. That and a lack of angst-ridden heroes.
Helping in character development is the Active Time Event, or ATE system. The ATE system is simply a series of sidestories in which characters' experiences and thoughts are revealed after they split up in a town or other location. Akin to Star Ocean 2's Private Actions, the ATE segments occur at certain times during the game, though unlike Private Actions, they are just vignettes in which the player is unable to affect the outcome. Fortunately, though, these events help expand the player's understanding of each of the characters' personalities, whether it be Princess Garnett bearing the weight of royalty or Vivi coping with acceptance, and each scene will have you clamoring for more. It may be slightly voyeuristic but it just shows the ability of the event crew to reveal the inner workings of the characters.
Continuing on the theme of memory, Final Fantasy IX's gameplay was pulled right out of previous titles, and very well, too. It's so comfortable, so easy to use and, at the same time, so laden with strategy that I recommend Square use it in future installments of the series. Unfortunately they probably won't, so I'll just revel in this one. For anyone who has played any of Square's Final Fantasy games since the days of the Super NES, the battle system should be easily recognizable. Active Time Battle system in which you select your commands, such as attack, item, etc. when the bar fills. Both you and the enemy have ATB bars that fill up over time, and once they're full you or your enemy can take an action. Standard stuff.
There is also the equivalent of a Limit Meter, this time around called a Trance Meter. As you get attacked your Trance Meter builds up. Once it's full that character "trances" and gains access to either new skills or more powerful versions of his/her regular skills. The only problem with Trance is that it takes quite a while for a character to build up his/her trance meter, meaning that using your trance abilities on bosses is dependant upon luck of the draw, unless you decide to fight enemies until you're about to trance, then fight the boss. Unfortunately for me I usually wound up getting hit and trancing on a regular enemy, sometimes right before another character kills the last enemy in the group. And while there is a way to trance faster, it's not awfully helpful.
Magic returns to a more traditional role in FF9 from FF8. It's straightforward casting with certain enemies being vulnerable to certain elements, etc. Comforting to say the least. Summon monsters, on the other hand, are handled beautifully. Square finally addresses one of the biggest complaints about the FF series on PlayStation, namely the horribly long time it takes for the Summon animation to finish. In FF9, the first time you summon a monster, called Eidolons, it goes through its full animation in which the Eidolon appears and proceeds to blast the enemy in the Eidolon's particular milieu. Most of the time after that, summoning only shows the last part of the animation. It's also less powerful. So while you don't have to sit through lengthy spell animations anymore like in FF8, you actually WANT to sit through them because each time the Eidolon comes out to play, it causes more damage than normal. I thought it was a novel idea, and I hope that Square keeps this in mind in future FF games.
As far as the other mechanics of the game, FF9's "system" as Square likes to call it is an Ability system in which weapons, armor, and add-ons that your characters equip give them special abilities, like the Espers in FF6. Furthermore, if you earn enough Ability Points while wearing said accoutrements, you'll be able to equip those abilities without having to have those weapons and armor equipped. That doesn't mean you can employ all those abilities at once, however. Each ability has a corresponding number of gems it takes to equip. Gems are crystals each character accumulates as they gain levels. The more gems you have, the more and better abilities you can equip.
Abilities come in two forms: support abilities and active abilities. Support abilities are those that are employed automatically when you equip them. Abilities such as Auto-Reflect (which puts you in a permanent state of Reflect during battles) and Bandit (which adds to your ability to steal items from enemies) fall into this category and are applied automatically. Support abilities would be things like magic spells or special skills which require you to select and make use of them in battle, often times using up MP. What's even better is that almost every ability is useful at one time or another in the game, whether support or active. And once you get a certain ability you can increase the amount of AP you get after a battle, making the process of acquiring skills much easier. Truly enjoyable.
Towns and dungeons are the same PlayStation FF fare, with Square's graphic artists presenting rich, prerendered backgrounds to explore. Shops to shop at, people to talk to, graphics to ogle, it's all good. There's also a novel feature that I loved and dub the Exclamation System. The Exclamation System goes into effect whenever your character is near an object you can search. That means treasure chests, barrels, bookcases, walls, you name it, if it has treasure or a trigger you'll see a little exclamation point pop up above your head, cueing you to press the X button and search. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of finding all the hidden items, and yet I still missed some! Anyway, it's a great feature and every RPG should use it.
Of course, no review of FF9 would be complete without mentioning the card game, Tetra Master, at least in passing. Much like in FF8, in FF9 you have the ability to walk up to many people and play the worldwide card game, Tetra Master. Through beating enemies or finding treasure you gain cards with which you play this game. Each card has defense and attack stats and you and your opponent take turns placing cards on the 4x4 grid, battling for supremacy of the board, a'la Othello. Whoever has more cards at the end of the game gets to take a card from the loser's deck. It may not sound too complicated, but it's definitely got the element of strategy. It's also completely useless and can't really get you anything, though there is one point in the game where you HAVE to play. Otherwise, a pleasant little distraction but nothing worth spending a great deal of time on.
The other mini-game I need to mention is Chocobo's Hot and Cold. When you finally find that staple of the FF series, the Chocobo, you can go with him into the Chocobo Forest and play Chocobo's Hot and Cold, a game in which you have a set time limit to search an area for treasure using the Chocobo. As you search, the Chocobo will give you verbal cues indicating whether you're getting closer or further from the treasure's location. When you find it you have to peck at the ground with your beak until you dig it up. Each treasure found gives you a certain number of points as well which, in turn raises your beak level so you can dig stuff up faster. Aside from the mundane treasures you can also dig up items called Chocographs, which give you clues as to where to find treasure troves on the world map itself. These treasures are usually great and can be a big help in the game. I had a great time with this mini-game and spent at least 10 hours on it with my friend, more than I can say for Tetra Master.
All in all the gameplay is balanced extremely well, aside from a tough difficulty curve near the beginning of the game. And with all the mini-games and side quests I had a great time just searching out new things to do. One of Square's better game systems.
The graphics in FF9 are, for lack of a better term, wonderful. The polygon characters are beautifully detailed, though drawn in a super-deformed style to fit with the whole retro theme of the game. They all animate beautifully both in and out of battle, drawing a page from Chrono Cross's smooth character animation. Hideo Minaba, the art director of the game, did an excellent job of creating a fantastic world full of impossible airships and cities that were, nonetheless impressive. Yoshitaka Amano, famous for his work on Final Fantasy 1-6 and Kartia, returns to do some image illustration for the instruction booklet and I was pleased. While previously not a big fan of Amano's style, I've since developed an appreciation of it and was happy to see his artwork return to the series.
As stated previously, the towns and dungeons are all pre-rendered backgrounds and look beautiful. In addition they are meticulously detailed and provide lots of places to use the Exclamation System. The overworld is all 3D polygon models and looks beautiful for the most part. The only problem I experienced was the slow draw-in time when in the presence of mist. Otherwise it was fine with good detail and enough special effects, such as the day to dusk to night regions of the map, to keep me entertained and impressed.
What impressed me the most about the graphics, however, has got to be the excellent CG cutscenes in the game. Square doesn't hit new heights with the CG in FF9 (FF8's was probably better quality) however both the volume and direction of the movies were staggering. First of all, there were tons of cutscenes on all the discs, sometimes making them shorter than I would have liked, but nonetheless enjoyable. Then there's the aspect of the quality of the movies. Smooth, clear, fluid, these are just some of the words I could use to describe these gems. However, the best word would have to be emotive. What the plot fails to do the movies do in spades. From the awe-inspiring opening movie to the heartwarming ending, Square's movie staff outdoes themselves in their ability to convey emotion. Add to that the seamless melding of in-game graphics and CG movies and you have one of Square's best productions to date. I can't wait for the Final Fantasy movie now.
Now we come to music… oh boy. I love Nobuo Uematsu dearly, really I do. His compositions are among the best in the history of videogames, certainly RPGs. That being said, the music in Final Fantasy 9 is mediocre if that. Unimpressive would be a better term really as the majority of it didn't impress me at all. Though all the pieces fit their areas well, they just aren't inspired. The battle music is rather tiresome and flat and the overworld's heavily synthesized theme gets played out really quickly. Throughout the game I would often mute the sound and listen to some MP3s instead, just to avoid aural boredom.
The problem is that Mr. Uematsu, like most of the FF9 production staff was going for a retro feel, trying to tap into what made the soundtracks of the first six games so great. Unfortunately, he did this by simplifying the compositions to give a feel of the sort of limited scope of the NES and SNES games. Strangely enough, he missed the point of his own previous work in that the compositions in the first six games were so good because they were deep in spite of the limitations of the hardware. They pushed the boundaries of the hardware, employing echo and complex melodies, which, though short, were instant classics. All that was done in FF9 was to simplify the score a'la the Final Fantasy 4 Minimal album, which I also didn't care for.
There are a few exceptions, however. "Melodies of Life", sung at the end of the game, is passable and actually enjoyable. It doesn't punctuate the game, however, which an ending song should do. Also good were the Chocobo theme, which used a ukulele and gave riding the Chocobo a bouncy, happy feel, Treno's theme which evoked memories of the Auction house from FF6, and the Hilde Garde 3 theme, which was exciting and slightly reminiscent of the Blackjack theme from FF6. I expected more from Nobuo, however, and I sincerely hope that his genius returns in future compositions.
The sound, like the music, was also uninspired and dull. Sound effects were annoying, slashes and such sounding like electricity and most everything else sounding like samples from an outdated synthesizer. Again, an attempt at retro that just comes off sounding pathetic when the high technology employed is so underused.
On a final note, the control in FF9 is very good, for the most part. Controlling Zidane with the directional pad is simple as pie, and the controls should be no sweat to anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game in the past. Plus, using my new analog controller made playing Chocobo Hot and Cold a snap. The only problems I had with control were controlling the airship (it handles like a Dyson Sphere), walking in certain dungeons that had odd paths to follow, and choosing to defend or change rows, which required holding left or right while pressing X. Otherwise the control was smooth enough for my liking.
So overall Square came up with a fun little title here. How dare I say that about a Final Fantasy game, you Squareophiles might decry. Well, Final Fantasy no longer holds the appeal it once did just by name alone. A Final Fantasy game is just an RPG, and it has to prove itself on its own merits. Final Fantasy IX is a fun game with great characters and graphics and lots of secrets. It's four discs long, and has anywhere from 35-60 hours of playtime depending on whether or not you pursue all the secrets, but it's by no means epic. That being said I enjoyed Final Fantasy IX and recommend it to any RPG enthusiast, if only for the very retro feel of the game system. Now to see how Final Fantasy X will turn out…
|The CG movies are some of Square's best to date, and the direction is brilliant.
|This time around you don't have to sit through drawn out summon spells, but you'll probably want to.