Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Final Fantasy IX is the third installment of Square’s flagship series to hit the Sony PlayStation, and it is the final chapter to appear on the multimedia giant’s debut console. In the lexicon of most RPG fans, the term “Final Fantasy” has come to be nearly synonymous with the word “quality”, and for most, Final Fantasy IX likely won’t do a thing to change that opinion. With a brilliant storyline and well-executed gameplay, Final Fantasy IX ranks as perhaps the best PlayStation Final Fantasy yet, as well as one of the year’s top RPGs to date.
In Final Fantasy IX, the kingdom of Alexandria is one of 4 primary nations ruling over the world of Gaia. Although Alexandria had previously enjoyed peaceful relations with its neighbors, its queen, Brahne, has recently begun to order attacks on her neighbors. Confused and threatened, Cid, the monarch of neighboring Lindblum, hires a group of indigenous bandits to kidnap Garnet, Alexandria’s princess. By abducting Brahne’s daughter, Cid hopes to decipher the Queen’s intent and perhaps gain a bargaining chip.
As this opening suggests, Final Fantasy IX’s storyline begins amid a flurry of excitement, and it does a great job of maintaining the interest of players throughout its entire length. Final Fantasy IX’s plot is not
only its biggest strength, it’s perhaps the best that the series has yet seen. From an event-based standpoint, the storyline is brilliant, retaining player interest through good pacing and riveting sequences. Like past Final Fantasy games, there is no short supply of emotional moments.
Character development is also excellent. Nearly all of the playable characters in Final Fantasy IX exhibit distinct personalities, and the primary characters do grow during the course of the game. Final Fantasy IX even uses some noteworthy innovations to aid in the character development.
Unlike most RPGs, which play primarily from the viewpoint of a single protagonist, Final Fantasy IX shifts play viewpoints with unprecedented frequency. Although players will still probably spend the most time playing as main character Zidane, they should expect to play from the viewpoints of nearly all of the other playable characters for significant periods of time.
In addition, Final Fantasy IX introduces the Active Time Event (ATE) system. Whenever your party enters a town, its members have a tendency to split up and explore the location independently. Although the game continues to be played from a single character’s point of view (usually Zidane’s), at certain points, an Active Time Event alert will appear on the screen. If you choose to view the ATE, you can see what the character involved in the ATE is doing. Viewing certain Active Time Events can influence which other ones you get to see later on, so a bit of replay value is added on to the game.
Although the shifting play viewpoints and the ATE system may sound disorienting, they’re actually not. The sequencing and timing of both are cleverly placed so that there is little if any confusion for the player. And because the shifting play viewpoints and ATE system allow you to view the interactions of your characters more than in other RPGs, you gain more insight to their personalities and emotions.
Fans of the predominantly medieval settings of the pre-PlayStation Final Fantasy games will also be pleased to know that Final Fantasy IX takes a step away from the more modern settings of Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Castles, dragons, and traditional Final Fantasy character classes such as black mages and dragoons all carry a heavy presence in the newest installment of the series.
Another noteworthy aspect about Final Fantasy IX’s storyline is that it displays much more of a sense of humor than the palpably dour previous PlayStation Final Fantasy games. Zidane is essentially a more rambunctious version of Final Fantasy VI’s Locke, and it’s entertaining and believable to watch him act his adolescent age.
Final Fantasy IX also presents perhaps the finest ending in the series to date. Instead of rolling long sequences of substantially vacuous FMV, the scenario writers elected to tackle plot elements in the ending, which is what this reviewer prefers to see. A resolution is reached for each major character in the game, leaving a strong feeling of satisfaction for those who see the game through to the end.
Unlike its predecessor, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX doesn’t utilize any revolutionary gameplay systems. Proponents of tried-and-true RPG play mechanics will be happy to hear that the draw system is nowhere to be found, and that magic points are back. Enemies are randomly encountered. Battles are turn-based, with the turns generated in real time. In battles, magic, skills, and items can all be used to combat enemies or aid allies.
Final Fantasy IX does make up in execution for what it lacks in innovation. Commands are crisply executed in combat. The difficulty balance is also excellent; Final Fantasy IX is perhaps the most challenging FF game since the initial offering in the entire series.
The newest installment of Square’s most popular series also streamlines combat a bit more than its PlayStation predecessors did. The Active Time Battle bar now runs during spell and summon animations, saving some time during battles. In addition, summon animations have been shortened. A summon spell will run through the full course of its animation the first time you cast it, but subsequent castings of the spell present with an abbreviated animation sequence, with the full animation recurring only intermittently after the initial casting.
Most prerendered RPGs do a poor job of letting the player know what he or she can interact with in the backgrounds. Final Fantasy IX does a great job of circumventing this problem. Whenever you stand near something you can interact with, a question mark or exclamation point appears above your character’s head. This proves to be extremely useful, especially since there are a lot more background objects to mess with in Final Fantasy IX than in FFVII or FFVIII.
Although Final Fantasy IX’s gameplay strength is in its execution, it still runs into some significant problems here. The encounter rate in most dungeons is annoyingly high; it’s roughly twice that of the typical traditional RPG. Compounding this problem is the fact that battles take a long time to begin. It typically takes 14-20 seconds from the initiation of an encounter to when you can actually start issuing commands to your characters. Needless to say, this is highly irritating and detracts significantly from the gameplay.
Having the Active Time Battle bar run during spell animations does save some time; however, it creates the new problem of allowing pending actions to stack up on each other. Therefore, it’s conceivable that when you issue a command to a character, he or she won’t perform it until over a minute later. In battles against enemies that strongly counter your attacks if you attack them at the wrong time, this delay can be disastrous.
Even though Final Fantasy IX isn’t revolutionary, it still utilizes some gameplay features that allow it to stand out a bit. Unlike past PlayStation Final Fantasy games, you can now send 4 characters into battle at once. In addition, the front and back rows in combat from Final Fantasy IV have been reinstated.
Magic spells (including summons), other attack abilities, and support abilities are all learned through a system somewhat reminiscent of the Magicite shard system used in Final Fantasy VI. In Final Fantasy IX, playable characters generally gain abilities from any piece of equipment that they can wear, and these abilities are accessible as soon as the equipment is put on. At the conclusion of battles, AP that is awarded automatically goes toward abilities inherent in the equipment worn. When enough AP is gained for an ability, the character then has access to that it even if he or she takes off the piece of equipment that carries it. Some equipment can be worn by multiple characters; these pieces tend to confer different abilities to different characters.
Magic spells and other attack abilities are very similar; once characters have access to them, they can be used as long as the character has enough MP to execute them. Support abilities, however, aren’t as immediately available to the characters. Each support ability, learned or unlearned, requires a certain number of stones to be placed in its slot in order for it to be active. Because each character has a very finite number of stones (more are gained as characters level up), players will be forced to choose which abilities to keep active, and which ones to leave off. Fortunately, stones can be reused; if you remove stones from a certain ability’s slot, you can place them in that of another ability.
Final Fantasy IX also utilizes a more involving chocobo system than past Final Fantasy games. You get one chocobo throughout the entire game; whenever you call for a chocobo, it’s the same one that shows up every time. A nice touch, though, is that you can build up this chocobo over the course of the game. By playing a digging mini-game, you can level up your Chocobo as well as find items that upgrade him to another color. As Final Fantasy veterans know, different color chocobos can traverse different types of terrain, giving players access to unexplored and secret areas.
Moogles were scarce in previous Final Fantasy games on the PlayStation; they make a grand return and are almost ubiquitous in Final Fantasy IX. They act as save points, allow you to use tents, and sometimes they even act as shops. In addition, there’s a Mognet feature that allows you to deliver letters between the many Moogles scattered throughout the game. Delivering letters can give you tips such as game strategies, and later on in the game, you can even gain useful items and equipment from being the lackey of these creatures.
Much like Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX features a card game. And like that of its predecessor, the card game is mainly meant to be an entertaining diversion; you can collect cards by winning, but it has little impact on the actual game.
Like most Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy IX is very strong in its control. Your onscreen characters move in 8 directions, and a dash button helps them move along quickly through the maps. Commands are responsive, and the menus are extremely well organized. Perhaps the only significant weakness in Final Fantasy IX’s control is that the collision detection is noticeably off in some background locations.
Graphically, Final Fantasy IX’s area maps retain the polygonal-characters-on-prerendered-backgrounds style that the series adopted upon its arrival on the PlayStation. The backgrounds are even better than those of FFVII and FFVIII; they maintain the same painstaking level of detail, but they contain more animation and look a bit less hazy, so they clash much less with the polygonal characters.
RPG fans who didn’t like the realistically proportioned characters of Final Fantasy VIII will be happy to see that Square has returned to superdeformed characters for the newest installment in the series. And the change to superdeformity doesn’t hurt one bit; the characters in Final Fantasy IX are among the most detailed that the series has seen. They do get blocky up close, but they animate smoothly, with little struggle to maintain cohesion as they move.
The battle graphics don’t fare quite as well. The backgrounds are polygonal in the battles, and while they are improved over those of the past 2 Final Fantasy games, they do get blocky up close and struggle a bit to maintain cohesion as the camera pans around. Because there are many close-ups of characters in the battles, the characters appear blocky much of the time in battles, too.
However, the spell effects are spectacular. Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII are the games that have set the standard for spell effects and summons in RPGs, and those in Final Fantasy IX are every bit as impressive, utilizing a variety of lighting effects and great camera work to achieve their unsurpassed level of excellence.
The CG movies are just as amazing, if not more so. The quality of direction in these is unprecedented, and combined with the high quality of the art and the minimal graininess, it helps set Final Fantasy IX as the new pinnacle of CG movies. The sequence showing Bahamut’s attack on Alexandria has to be seen to be believed.
Like that of its predecessor, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX’s world map turns out to be its least impressive visual area. The drably colored world is noticeably blocky, with choppy animation and scrolling. Fortunately, Final Fantasy IX excels enough visually in other areas to help distract players from this mediocrity.
The character designs in Final Fantasy IX are reasonably appealing, though not among this reviewer’s favorites. They do suffer from a lack of originality, unfortunately. Main character Zidane looks somewhat like a cross between past Final Fantasy heroes Squall and Cloud, and leading lady Garnet bears a striking resemblance to both Tifa and Rinoa. Even when the characters don’t look like someone out of a past Final Fantasy game, they don’t necessarily look unique; summoner Eiko looks like the offspring of your pet cactus from Legend of Mana and Leon from tri-Ace’s Star Ocean: Second Story.
Over the years, the Final Fantasy series has rightfully earned a reputation for musical excellence, presenting some of the finest soundtracks that game music has yet seen. The Final Fantasy V soundtrack ranks in this reviewer’s all-time top 10 to this day, and even though Nobuo Uematsu’s last 2 offerings weren’t as brilliant as the works that preceded them, they were still strong overall, and they each contained a few songs that can legitimately be considered among the greatest in game music history.
So it comes as a huge shock that Final Fantasy IX’s soundtrack is almost invariably lackluster. Most of the tracks are reasonably pleasant to listen to, but they fail to be memorable at all, sounding either like the more droning tracks from the last 2 Final Fantasy games or like generic medieval background music. Rumors have suggested that Uematsu was seriously ill when he composed this soundtrack; after hearing it, I’m a bit more inclined to believe them than I was before.
The soundtrack does have its bright spots, though. The battle theme begins with the warmingly familiar eighth-note sequence than the Final Fantasy faithful have come to know and love, and then builds up quickly with an intensely symphonic melody. The airship theme is compellingly reminiscent of the main themes from the Super Famicom triad of Final Fantasy games. The Gurg Volcano theme is an arranged version of the same brilliant theme from the first Final Fantasy game. And the spectacular final boss theme ensures that Final Fantasy IX won’t be the first Final Fantasy without a truly elite song.
Final Fantasy IX’s sound effects are strong, from the boom of explosions to the cries of defeated enemies. They are actually quite reminiscent of those in Final Fantasy VIII, with many monsters making identical noises in both games. Like all Final Fantasy games, there is no voice acting in Final Fantasy IX.
Although Final Fantasy IX is by no means perfect, its riveting storyline, strong gameplay, and impressive visuals make it a must-have for any RPG fan. Don’t miss out on this one.