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.’