Final Fantasy IX

5
Scale
 

   In a very real way, the Final Fantasy series has always paid homage to its past. Each new sequel brings fans back to see the latest iteration of Cid, to hear the new mix of the Chocobo theme, to witness yet another eclectic collection of plucky heroes save their world from a would-be god. The games have always maintained their continuity through myriad of references, both subtle and obvious, reaching all the way back to the first Final Fantasy on the NES. So when Square announced that Final Fantasy 9 would serve as kind of coda to the series thus far, the most obvious question is whether this sort of reminiscence is even necessary. But if last year's radically different Final Fantasy 8 was an experiment to show where the series may be headed, Final Fantasy attempts to serve as a summation of where the series has been. And, barring a few glaring missteps, it succeeds.

   The most obvious result of this look to the past for inspiration is cosmetic. Gone are the modern trappings of the previous Playstation installments, replaced with the castles, wooden airships, and big-headed characters of the series' earlier days. While those who prefer a more medieval setting for their RPGs will undoubtedly be pleased, what really matters is that Square has managed to create yet another world with its own unique look and feel.

  Final Fantasy gets medival on you
All this and gorgeous FMV

   Each locale on the planet of Gaia is gorgeously rendered in the game's storybook style, while each maintains its own identity. The rendered backgrounds stand among the best on the Playstation with a high level of detail and, more importantly, interaction. When you come across and area or item that can be interacted with an icon will appear over the character head, making the search for "hotspots" much less of a chore. It's a small touch, but one that add further detail to an already well-developed world.

   More interestingly, the game offers an entirely new approach to town exploration with Active Time Events. When entering a new town for the first time, the party will often split up as each character heads off to do their own thing. While exploring the town on your own, an ATE message will appear on the screen. Picking one on the available events will give you a brief glimpse of what another character is up to. It's an interesting system, and helps to flesh out the game's characters, but it's not without its problems. When the party is split, you no longer have access to the other character's equipment, making shopping more of a hassle than it should be.

   The mixture of old and new continues in the gameplay. Final Fantasy 9 combines the best graphics the Playstation has to offer with a battle system that has more in common with the earlier games, than the flexible and complex mechanics of the last two installments. Each of the game's major characters has access to a special set of skills that only he or she can use. All the old Final Fantasy favorites return, from Blue Mage to Monk, and the result is a tighter and more streamlined battle system. New skills are learned from the game's equipment. Each weapon, accessory, and piece of armor yields multiple abilities that can be permanently acquired by earning Ability Points in battle. However, not all characters can equip each item and even then, the available skills can only be learned by an appropriate character. Some skills, such as new attacks and spells, become active immediately, while others must be equipped by allocating magic gems the characters earn from leveling up. It's a simple yet flexible system that guarantees each character's uniqueness, but still provides for plenty of customization.

BOOM!
Look out behind you!
 

   The only real drawback to the system is that if you miss an important skill early in the game, you're forced to equip your character with underpowered items to pick it up. However, this is balanced by one of the most welcome returning features of older games: a four-character party. Though adding an extra character may sound like a small change, it adds immeasurably to the strategies one can employ in battle. Beyond this, Square has addressed some of the complaints of the last two games. The much-criticized summons have been toned down, both in usefulness and length, and the Trance system is a frequent, but more fair, version of limit breaks. All of this leads to one of the most brisk and balanced battle systems of any recent Final Fantasy.

   The music doesn't quite fare as well. Written by series composer Nobou Uematsu, the game's soundtrack combines the more subtle and cinematic style heard in Final Fantasy 8, with the series' traditional character-specific themes last heard in Final Fantasy 7. But while technically impressive, the end effect may be a bit too subtle for its own good. You're left with the distinct memory of liking the soundtrack itself, without really being able to remember any of the songs.

   But by far the best way that the game harkens back to past titles is in its characters, storyline, and overall tone. Many fans were less than pleased with the serious, angst-ridden tales of the last two games, and Final Fantasy 9 seems to have been put together precisely to please them. The story itself is a fairly traditional tale of a fight against an evil empire that escalates into a struggle against a much larger foe, but it's held together by some of the most well-developed and likable characters the series has ever seen, as well as a much lighter tone and welcome sense of humor.

  Characters
A likable cast

   In fitting with the games traditional bent, each of the characters embodies a familiar Final Fantasy type, but with enough unique detail and personality to keep them distinct and real. Garnet is a spunky princess, but she's also horribly naïve and sheltered. Steiner, the stereotypical virtuous knight in the service of a less than virtuous kingdom, is so pigheadedly committed to his duty that it seems he'll never acknowledge his queen's evil ways. The womanizing thief who serves as the game's lead, Zidane, has a mysterious past, but he's also expressive, kind, and a refreshing change of pace from the moody heroes of the more recent games. Comic relief Quena, the hermaphroditic chef, may only be adventuring for "delicious tasties," but s/he stands as one of the most unique, and funniest, Final Fantasy characters ever. Vivi, the young black mage, who at first seems to be flimsy excuse to throw in a visual reference to the very first Final Fantasy, grows into the most well developed and emotionally compelling character in the game, as well as its thematic centerpiece.

   Of course, as with any Final Fantasy, there are a few elements that fail to come together. The dragoon Freya and tough guy Amarant never develop much beyond their initial introductions, the supporting cast isn't nearly as strong as previous titles and, more seriously, the villain is the sort of campy, placeholder baddie the genre has long since outgrown. In addition, the story itself tends to drag a little at the mid-point, but luckily players can rely on the tight gameplay, strong characters, and the humorous, lighthearted tone of the game to see them through.

   Or they can simply pursue some of myriad side-quests and mini-games for which the series is famous. None of these are terribly important to the story (a lesson Square has yet to learn), but they do provide ample distraction. As in FF8, a massive globe-spanning card game has also been included. Unfortunately, due to confusing rules and slim rewards the game isn't nearly as compelling as it should be. After receiving their initial cards, players are told to figure the rule of the game out for themselves and, after a few losses and the realization that nothing can really be done with cards, most will likely give up. However, the other side-quests, which range from delivering mail for Moogles to treasure hunting with Chocobos, are well done and will keep compulsive gamers busy long after they should be on their way to the final showdown.

Garnet cosplays a White mage
Have we met before?
 

   In addition to all of these, Final Fantasy 9 contains another diverting mini-game that you can play on your own: spot the reference. Thematic, visual, and musical allusions to the series' past show up everywhere in the game, some as obvious as a familiar white cloak, others more obscure. Unfortunately, many are further concealed by a sloppy localization. The bulk of the translation is excellent, complete with natural, flowing dialogue and Square's newfound love of odd dialects. But, while the creators of the game may have had an encyclopedic knowledge of the series past, its translators obviously did not. Many of the clever references and in-jokes have simply been lost to the translation; others show up in a mangled form to be deciphered by FF-savvy players. None of these instances is huge or game destroying, but they all are careless, disappointing, and dull the effect of a game that is intended to be a salute to its own history. Considering how high expectations for a careful translation have risen recently, often by Square themselves, it's a shame to see the company take a step backwards toward a piece of the past we'd all sooner forget.

   But as in the previous Final Fantasies, a few translation errors can't stop Final Fantasy 9 from being a great game. As the last Playstation installment, it's a title that is not only capable of standing as a homage to the series itself, but standing out with some of the most memorable characters, scenes, and gameplay the series has yet seen. Though fans of the new direction the series has taken in the last several years may be turned off by the return to the traditional, for many this will be the Final Fantasy they've waited through the entire 32-bit era for. Considering Square is convinced that the future of Final Fantasy lies online, all gamers are urged to pay their respects through this brilliantly executed tribute to its past.


Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
 
Final Fantasy IX
Developer Square
Publisher Square EA
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (4)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Release Date  07.07.00
 11.14.00
News
Roundtable with Final Fantasy IX staffers
Media
Disc One screens (part one, spoilers)
Artwork
8 high-resolution character renders
Other
Instruction manual wallpaper