Final Fantasy IX represents the end of an era as it sums up what many fans of the series had been playing for almost a decade, making it a worthwhile experience.
In the beginning, Final Fantasy IX was developed alongside Final Fantasy VIII, but it eventually took a very different approach as it returned to the style proper of older games of the series. Not only it follows a more traditional setting but it makes many allusions and references to previous titles. Besides the regular recurrent elements (like a man named Cid, airships, magicians with pointy hats, chocobos and the legendary crystals), here you can find many more nods to older games. Before IX, Final Fantasy VII had become one of the greatest and most influential games of all time, and later on VIII was the fastest-selling title in the franchise. So considering this, everybody thought that it was quite unlikely that an important company as Square would have change the formula completely, right? Wrong.
The story narrates the adventure of a young man called Zidane, who is an actor member of a group called Tantalous. What nobody knows is that Zidane and his men are secretly developing a plan to capture Princess Garnett in an upcoming festival in her hometown. During the performance, the company tries to kidnap the princess but they fail as Steiner, the princess’ bodyguard protects her. After a while you find out that in fact, Garnet wants to be kidnapped as her mother, Queen Brahne, has been hostile to other kingdoms for no good reason. Garnett wants answers, and to find them she wants to leave town.
Final Fantasy IX’s story is much more complex than what it seems at first sight, as there are many characters for you to meet, each one with their own motivations. The storytelling is quite rich as it incorporates many feelings and emotions like treason, love, revenge and it expand those much further as the game explores themes proper of modern philosophy like existentialism. Seeking the answers to the complex questions is one of the most engaging things that you can experience in a video game. Many fans and critics complained about the conclusion, the final boss and the main storyline. Personally I don’t think this is the weakest title of the franchise or anything like that, maybe it lacked some of the elements everybody was expecting it to have or maybe it was criticized because it wasn’t the follow-up to VII and VIII everyone thought it was going to be. No matter what, the story is worthy of the Final Fantasy name.
What’s really interesting and refreshing is that the game continuously changes the rules; you are not stuck with only one party throughout the whole story. The possibility of having two parallel conflicts to solve is incredibly engaging as it creates a unique climate of tension. Still, there is a “fake” feeling of freedom as you’re not allowed to pick your party members until much later in the game. Additionally, the new ATE (or Active Time Event) system allows the story to feel much more dynamic as you have many more possibilities during the development of the plot. What’s often weird is that this game has a strong sense of humor, and its peculiar presentation helps a lot. Some of the jokes are quite amusing and are very reminiscent of previous titles, especially Final Fantasy VII. Fortunately, this new approach doesn’t get in the way of the story and it doesn’t ruin its most dramatic moments.
Furthermore, the battle system allows you to control four characters instead of only three. This little detail adds even more complexity as you have one more character to interact with and one more role to fulfill in your party. Fortunately, and thanks to this the battles are much more dynamic, tactical and engaging.
The gameplay has changed a lot since its previous iteration and it seems really consistent and balanced. Besides leveling up, each character earns AP’s (or ability points), these are necessary to acquire and equip new skills. Each character has some specific ones that only he/she can learn, so for example Garnet will learn abilities related to white magic, while somebody like Vivi will be able to cast new powerful spells like Firaga or Silence. To get further skills you may equip certain weapons, armors, boots or rings that let you gain even more abilities. Different items represent different skills so this is the perfect way to balance out your party as sometimes you’ll need to sacrifice an ability in order to use a powerful weapon that doesn’t allow you to gain anything.
Nevertheless, if you equip a new skill and you master it by gaining a specific amount of AP’s, you can use it permanently without having to equip anything else. Also, while some special techniques are proper of certain characters (you can use these by spending magic points), some others are passive and they are really helpful. For these, you may need to assign a specific number of crystals in order to use the ability, this number directly corresponds to the level of the character so the balance is great. Of course this system isn’t as complex as using materia or drawing magic but at least it provides a new refreshing idea that prevents a character from becoming way too overpowered.
Limit breaks are back, but here they are called “Trance”. The trance system is quite simple, when one of your characters receives damage your trance bar fills, once the meter is completely full the character becomes much more powerful and he can launch new devastating attacks. Also, the summoning system is here too, but now the huge monsters are called Eidolons and every time you summon them, they appear onscreen in the most obvious and over-the-top way you can imagine.
As in previous iterations here we have some new minigames as well. The most important one is called Tetra Master, a card-battle game that everyone seems to play. Unfortunately the minigame is really terrible, mainly because it’s unplayable. The tutorial that explains the rules lacks some basic information and for some reason the game encourages you to learn everything by yourself. Still, you are forced to play it only once as part of the story and make sure you have a complete Walkthrough to know what you’re doing or you’ll get extremely frustrated. Also, there are many sidequests where you can find rare items or legendary weapons and even though some of them are probably worth it you can finish the game without doing any of it.
Graphics in Final Fantasy IX are really good and they demonstrate what an old console like the PlayStation One could do. Even after so many years of its release it’s pretty surprising how many special effects it can pull off. The quality of visual detail is superb, each environment is extremely well animated and they blend in seamlessly every time there is an amazing CGI movie to watch.
Final Fantasy XI’s aesthetic is a different story as it tries to appeal older fans. So if you’ve played older games you’ll probably have a sense of déjà vu, but if you haven’t you probably won’t understand any of the graphic references the game makes to them. For example many of the bosses you face on the final dungeon are the ones that previously appeared on the first game, the ones that guarded the crystals. The interactions between characters seem accurate enough, there aren’t many major inconsistencies and it doesn’t feel forced or anything. But you should pay extra attention to the dialogues that have references to previous games as these have been localized really badly.
On the other hand, the audio is not as great as previous games of the franchise. Nobuo Uematsu returned as the main composer, but the music arrangements aren’t as good as they could be. Maybe the whole idea was to make the game sound older on purpose for obvious nostalgic reasons, but unfortunately the only thing it does is make the soundtrack plain and forgettable.
It’s interesting that Square didn’t even know how to release this game, if as a spin-off or if as a part of the main series. But even after so many years after its original release I think the Japanese company made the right choice. This game contains so much more than a simple story, it also managed to incorporate feelings and emotions that fans haven’t felt since the Nintendo era and this is probably the only title that did something like that on the PlayStation 2. If you’re a fan of old RPGs, this polished, aesthetically traditional and engaging game is probably the strongest experiences that sums up more than ten years of “final fantasies”.