Game Description: Dark times have spread over the world of Gaia. Four separate governing nations, some blinded by their short-sighted greed, some persevering in the name of justice, are battling on and off in a deadly game for power. One kingdom, that of Lindblum, headed by the honorable and trustworthy Regent Cid, finally decides to take a stand against the unspeakable massacres by the troops of Alexandria. Enlisting the aid of mere bandits to kidnap Princess Garnet of the Alexandria Empire, for information and interrogation, Garnet and her bodyguard actually join Cid's cause, knowing full well the outlandish recklessness of the governing Queen, who counterattacks with an onslaught of warriors. Thus begins a crossfire that would engulf the world in something far worse than political standoffs. Out of the band of thieves, one boy along with his entourage must battle his way through several awe-inspiring challenges to restore order and peace.
Square's Final Fantasy series was never meant to be a "series" in the truest sense of the word. Unlike the Metroid or Suikoden franchises, for example, the collection of role-playing games released under the banner of Final Fantasy did not follow a chronological progression. Each game had its own self-contained universe and unique inhabitants, who for the most part were not seen again in subsequent titles. With the release of Final Fantasy VII and VIII (in which the emphasis was on dazzling graphics, full-motion video sequences, and characters with modern language and ways of dress), the already tenuous links that held together the notion of Final Fantasy seemed ready to snap. In the opinions of some people, they already had.
Final Fantasy IX was supposed to be the bridge between the old and the new. It was advertised as a throwback to the pre-FFVII style of Final Fantasy—something that would please old-school gamers while still maintaining Square's reputation as one of the chief blockbuster-makers in the industry. The idea that Final Fantasy IX is a throwback is only superficially true, however. It still has the feel of a modern game. Everything is too polished, too neat and tidy, and too easy to feel truly old-school. Nevertheless, it is a throwback insofar as it borrows a great deal of its ideas from previous games in the series.
The word that best seems to describe Final Fantasy IX is "comfortable." Despite the fact that its characters and kingdoms have new names and appearances, they will instantly seem familiar to those who have played previous titles in the series. It makes me wonder how much longer Square is going to be able to keep performing nose-jobs on the same face and introducing it as something new. Apparently the cartilage hasn't collapsed yet, since Final Fantasy X has already been released at the time of my writing this review, and XI is now not far behind.
In Final Fantasy IX we are introduced to Zidane, who, with his nondescript features and monkey tail, probably qualifies as the strangest looking Final Fantasy hero to date. Nevertheless, he is an easy personality both to understand and to sympathize with—important qualities in a hero that we will be forced to stick with for four discs. The other main characters, however, are uneven in their development. Some, like Princess Garnet and Vivi, a young black mage grappling with the meaning of life, have large sections of the plot devoted to them and as such seem very real to us. Others, such as Freya the dragoon and Amarant, a mercenary, seem interesting but are never given enough "screen time" to fully realize their potential. The rest of the playable characters more or less fall into previously established Final Fantasy stereotypes and thus seem rather one-dimensional. There is Steiner, a general of the Knights of Pluto who ends up rebelling against his former establishment (just like Celes in Final Fantasy III); Quina, an odd genderless creature who uses blue magic learned by eating things (memories of Caitsith from Final Fantasy VII); and Eiko, a spunky child with powerful spell-casting abilities (much like Relm from Final Fantasy III or Palom and Porom from Final Fantasy II).
The story, augmented by numerous subplots and video cutscenes, is executed rather well and does a good job of moving from simple to more complex ideas in the later discs. Unfortunately, the story suffers from too many forced and unbelievable plot twists. The antagonist in the first half of the story is Garnet's mother, Queen Brahne, ruler of the kingdom of Alexandria. Brahne has recently acquired a powerful new technology, which has apparently pushed her already greedy and power-hungry mind over the edge to the point where she is attacking the other kingdoms in a bid to take over the world. From this initial threat, a second more sinister villain emerges who goes by the name of Kuja.
Neither Brahne nor Kuja struck me as particularly effective villains. Brahne would have been more credible had she not also been the mother of Princess Garnet. I found the idea that a sweet, honorable and petite girl could have been raised by an evil green-skinned 500 pound brute of a woman to be utterly unbelievable. Kuja was also disappointing. Not as sympathetic as Golbez, nor as fiendishly wicked as Kefka, nor as cool as Sephiroth. Comparisons to past Final Fantasy villains aside however, Kuja still comes up short. We never really get an insight into his mind, perhaps because there is no real motivation for his destructiveness except an "if I can't have the world, then no one can" attitude.
Final Fantasy IX resurrects the "jobs" system, where each character has a specific classification and learns skills accordingly (i.e. Zidane the thief, Eikos the summoner, Steiner the knight, Freya the dragoon and Amarant the ninja). Certain skills are inherent to the job and can only be learned by that character, while others can be learned by more than one person. The learning of these special spells and skills is done by equipping certain items and gaining enough "AP" from battles to level up the item and learn the skill.
Besides this nod to the older games, the four-person battle system has been brought back with great results. While in battle, characters can go into a trance that makes their speed increase for a short period. As well as attacking and using magic and items, there is a "skill" command used during the fights where specialized techniques like "steal" and "eat" can be used. The presence of moogles, chocobos, airships and Cid (good old Cid, who appears in a slightly different incarnation as the king of Lindblum in this game) ensures a link with other games in the series.
From an aural and visual standpoint, Final Fantasy IX does nothing to diminish Square's awesome reputation in both departments. With the music, Nobuo Uematsu seems to be entering a renaissance of sorts in which we can hear glimpses of the old pre-FFVII style. Nothing sticks out in my mind as much as the 45-second loops from those old games, but many of the melodies in FFIX came pretty close. Part of the reason may be the general trend in video game music which is heading away from simple looped melodic hooks (which he was a master of writing) into more ambient and atmospheric music in the tradition of films (which Final Fantasy IX also has its share of). If this is the case, then Uematsu has certainly stepped up to the challenge.
The graphics are simply gorgeous. Much has been said about the "return to old-school graphics" in FFIX, but I can agree with this only to a point. The style of the graphics could be considered "old-school," since many of the characters appear cartoonish and exaggerated. Yet these are no 16-bit era sprites. The characters' faces are mobile, seamlessly animated, and full of expression. There are also generous smatterings of full-motion video (FMV) in the game, which kill off any further pretences of the game being "old-school." These video sequences are, of course, stunning. We have come to expect nothing less from Square. What really impressed me, though, was that these FMVs acted as smooth transitions from one part of the story to the next. I didn't feel distracted or impatient by watching these mini-movies, because they always seemed to be leading somewhere important and weren't strung out to a self-indulgently long length.
I finished Final Fantasy IX without too much trouble; it was not an overly challenging game, and granted there were some extra little mini-games that I didn't bother to complete which would have added to the game-time. The mini-games include a variation on the popular card game from Final Fantasy VIII, and another challenge involving riding a chocobo and digging for buried treasure. I must admit that the linearity of the game was rather frustrating at times, as was having to click through hefty amounts of dialogue. But I have come to expect both of these things from Final Fantasy.
What it ultimately comes down to is that Final Fantasy IX doesn't offer very much that is new. The game is more than a little formulaic at times, using rehashed bits from other Final Fantasy games and not taking them any further. On the other hand, I'm glad that Square didn't just throw in some poorly thought out new features just for the sake of being different (such as the magic acquisition disaster in FFVIII), and there's no denying that the game is well-crafted and carefully and thoroughly put together so that it can be enjoyed with minimal frustrations. However, I can't help wondering how much Final Fantasy IX really deserves my praise, and whether I should instead be paying homage to the earlier games in the series for providing so much of its inspiration.
And indeed, as Erin made clear, there is plenty to marvel at. Graphics and cutscenes alike are jaw-dropping and sweepingly cinematic. Uematsu's music is both eclectic and genuinely affecting. The characters are cute, the story grand. And that loving attention to detail which makes the series so revered is undeniably there—from Steiner's comic relief scenes, to the set designs of the cities (one of which is more mammoth and labyrinthine than any I have seen in a console RPG), to the quietly moving moments where our heroes pause to bond with each other over a few draughts of nostalgic and hopeful reverie.
Yet somehow, none of it succeeds at being more than momentarily involving. As one might glean from the patient tone of Erin's review, the biggest thing to write about here is how a series that once contributed to the success of the first Playstation is finally spinning its wheels.
Here is a game that was mechanically churned out in record time, released only a year after the previous installment, with a selling point of nostalgia—a "return to the series roots"—that was surely intended to camouflage its lack of any risk-taking. The reasons are understandable. By then, the Playstation 2 was already on its way, so no one expected another 32-bit installment in the series anyhow. Also, the poor sales of Final Fantasy VIII were blamed on its aggressive departures from such genre mainstays as a magic point system and the trappings of medieval fantasy. But the thing is, at least Final Fantasy VIII took chances, compelling players to either love or hate its "junction" system (which I personally found versatile and addicting). There is no such riskiness in this ninth installment. Like its bland, smiling mascot Eiko, this game is pure likeability with no depth—as Erin put it, "comfortable."
I do share in Erin's relief over the reinstatement of the four-member battle party. But the battle engine itself suffers from real miscalculations. A new "trance" system subjects the player to a slow, blinding transition to a souped-up battle form where Vivi, for example, obtains the supposedly exciting ability to now—cast two spells per turn instead of one! The enemy encounter rate seems higher than in the past, but the variety of enemies is definitely not, a situation that makes the random battles get unwelcome real fast. The animated summons are more succinct than the infamously sprawling ones of before, but they are also less creative. Whereas the animated summons from Part VIII, for example, at times evoked watching Close Encounters Of The Third Kind on acid, the pyrotechnic sketches this time around recall the uninspired visuals in the Dungeons & Dragons movie. And the fact that an enemy can carry up to three items, each exponentially harder to "steal" than the last, may make this the first RPG in history to teach children the frustrating lesson that sometimes, crime just doesn't pay.
Even plotwise, the nostalgic appeal cannot hide a B-movie thinness. Instead of the manga craziness of Part VII or the haunting unease of Part VIII, Final Fantasy IX is a pastiche of empty references. It reminds me of the story of how two guys in prison, tired of retelling the same jokes, have taken to simply shouting out the number of each joke—"Number 29! Ha, ha! But hey, what about number 63! Ha, ha!"—without any desire to embellish the buildup at all. For example, Zidane has a sudden crisis of conscience where he realizes he is related by blood to his enemy. Shame and angst galore, but for what? He has never caused suffering to anybody, except maybe through his insufferable peppiness. In contrast, earlier Final Fantasy heroes such as Terra, Cloud, or Rinoa had to wrestle with guilt over a frightening loss of control that had led them to endanger their own allies. Another example is the forgettable Kuja. It's bad enough that, as Erin pointed out, he is a villain with no motivation. What I find even worse is that he is precluded from having any tragic stature whatever by a last-minute change of heart, where he suddenly cedes his spotlight to a discontinuous "real final enemy" who is an anticlimactically vapid metaphor for..."evil" itself!
This is not just deus ex machina, where some baffling "act of God" comes to the rescue of a character's life, livelihood, or dignity. It is practically non sequitur: an abrupt change of subject that makes no sense. Why spend four disks building up an epic confrontation, only to replace your final villain with some other entity whose existence has never even been hinted at? The only conceivable reason for this narrative choice is to give Kuja a last-chance redemption. And if that's what's going on here, then Square is basically promoting the old and unfortunate idea that you can indeed win someone over to a different moral point of view if you pummel him into receptiveness first.
Final Fantasy IX is brain-numbingly pleasant, mostly painless, and at times, visually ravishing. But it's also the first installment of the series that I felt little urge to play a second time. Of course, I understand that a newcomer to the Final Fantasy franchise might be quite taken with this one's production values and hints of depth. If you're one of those people, all I can do is look your way, not without envy, and say, 'hey, just wait 'til you play the others.'
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Violence, Mild Language
Parents who were disappointed with the potty-mouthed dialogue and sexual references in Final Fantasy VII and VIII have less to fear with this title. Although the language is still somewhat rough, it's nowhere near as bad as Final Fantasy VII, and the sexual innuendo has been replaced with a more old-fashioned love story.
Fans of the Final Fantasy series should enjoy this game, regardless of at what point they entered the series. FFIX does a decent job of bridging the supposed gap between the old-school pre-FFVII and the newer games, and as such should appeal to anyone who loves the Final Fantasy formula.
Fans of role-playing games may find Final Fantasy IX underwhelming, however. Despite the pretty package, it is quite formulaic and linear. I think female gamers have resigned themselves to there being at least one or two vulnerable healer/magic-user characters in all Final Fantasy games, and this one is no exception. Garnet and Eiko fit this stereotype perfectly, yet the presence of two older, more seasoned and frankly more kick-ass women (namely, Freya the dragoon knight and Beatrix the military commander and swordswoman) help to offset the gender-bias.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will have no trouble playing Final Fantasy IX, since all dialogue is presented in text boxes.