Simplicity is a word you seen thrown around when people write about Final Fantasy IX. They say that is the game that brings the series “back to the basics,” that it is a celebration of the past.
These statements aren’t incorrect, but they undermine the quality and charm of the game. Released in 2000, the game is in so many ways a reaction to the two games that came before it, but it bests its two immediate predecessors with a coherency neither of those game achieved.
Final Fantasy VII was too busy successfully launching the series into the 3D era to mind that the game veered wildly from serious melodrama to a wacky slapstick section where the main character cross-dresses as a female escort as if that was totally normal, and one of series greatest charms is how many crazy, convoluted and silly risks the development team committed to (I’m looking at you, junction system that discouraged ever using good magic and the card game that caught and spread nonsensical rules across the game world like some terrible pandemic). Final Fantasy IX has a story to tell, led by a sympathetic and interesting cast of characters, and every single aspect of the game is designed to support the tale.
Consist of the nice guy thief Zidane and the Princess (Garnett) who begs him to kidnap her away from her kingdom and her worryingly evil mother. Warring kingdoms soon come into the picture and before long the camera pulls even further back and reveals conspiracies and unknown enemies, but these plotlines play second fiddle to the character work. The story is clear from the beginning that this is a character driven plot first and foremost. I love the fact that this game lets the player spend time getting to know the main cast.
We get to see Vivi, the young black mage (who happens to be the most sympathetic character in the Final Fantasy series), learn hard truths while growing stronger and more confident in himself, and we see how his friendship with Steiner, the bumbling idiot knight who’s honestly trying his best, empowers both of them. Every single character, from the dramatic lone wolf Amarant to whatever the hell the giant pink Quina is supposed to be, has a moment where they expand out of the trope they were modeled from in some small way. The story also stays more or less comprehensible in its final acts (with the much cited exception of the last boss), which also works to set it apart from FF VII and FF VIII.
Mainly stays out of the player’s way. Everything works in accordance to JRPG standards. The equipment and leveling systems are quickly and easily explained, and from there you’re set free to start moving the story forward. Want to get your healer new spells? Sweet, just equip them with a new healing rod and they’ll start learning new moves as you engage in more battles. Having trouble in an environment with lots of zombies and ghosts? Redistribute some of your skill points to ‘Undead Killer,’ that should help. If you plan on taking on some of the optional super bosses you’ll have to get more creative and start really exploring how to exploit the battle systems, but if your goal is to just see the ending the game never throws any overly difficult obstacles in your way.
The only real test subjects players to is the amount of time it takes characters to act in battle. I have no idea why battles move at such a sluggish pace. Even when you cast Haste on your party members the battle system has a tendency to take its sweet time doing anything. This problem conspires with the high enemy encounter rate to cause frustration. If all you have to do to defeat a set of weak enemies is hit ‘Attack’ a couple of times it can be extremely annoying when the game insists on turning this into a two-minute affair.
The main quest (somewhere around 50 hours) can almost feel overly long to someone experiencing it for a second (or third or fourth) time, but most of this length is necessary in order to achieve the familiarity with the cast that is such a positive part of the story. There are a couple story diversions that form a midgame lull that don’t really serve a purpose, and while the last dungeon in the game is a visual wonder it’s unnecessarily padded with slightly harder versions of bosses you’ve already encountered.
The Side Quests:
Another criticism is that the game’s side quests while numerous and entertaining, often don’t reward the players with any terribly useful item, which seems like a slight betrayal. About half of the side quests give you semi-useful items that you can obtain through other means, half offer you key items that either don’t affect anything or change some innocuous bit of dialogue later on in the game, and one especially egregious offender sucks up hours of your time with a half-explained card game for which there is actually no possibility of receiving even a useless prize for your troubles due to a glitch. Knowing this ahead of time did not prevent my friends and I from devoting hours to this game within a game, but our stupidity doesn’t forgive bad game design.
The Graphics on the Playstation 1:
For starters, this is still a pretty easy game to look at; that a solid art direction (in this case, a mishmash of medieval fantasy and steampunk) can keep a game playable over a decade after it’s released. The world is vibrant and full of life, and all of its inhabitants have a distinct look and feel that makes it that much easier to invest in them. The game occasionally looks muddy, but it never slows the player down, and these moments are overshadowed by some of the incredible scenes the artists have dreamt up.
The Sound Track:
The game will never sound bad, either, because Nobuo Uematsu, the man responsible for every Final Fantasy soundtrack until XII, can do no wrong. Uematsu’s soundtrack so obviously belongs IX’s world. The melodies and arrangements are simple and modest, alternating between optimism and melancholy as the story ebbs and flows. Each character and town gets music that helps define their personalities (could there be a more fitting theme for a simple village in the middle of nowhere?). You might get tired of the main battle theme by the end of the game, but let’s go ahead and blame that on the painfully slow pace at which battles progress (more on this later). I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout out to the penultimate boss battle song for rocking extra hard.
These small gripes can and should be easily forgiven. I cannot overemphasize how pleasant the game is. Like its main cast of characters, the game is inviting and warm. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the series, has referred to IX as his personal favorite in the series. It is the original vision of Final Fantasy taken to its logical extreme in terms of scope and artistry. It is the ideal gateway drug JRPG: accessible, charming, cohesive and often fantastic.
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