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 IX 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 VIII was an experiment to show where the series
may be headed, Final Fantasy IX attempts to serve as a summation of
where the series has been. And, barring a few glaring missteps, it
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.
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 adds 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 his or her 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 characters'
equipment, making shopping more of a hassle than it should be.
The mixture of old and new continues in the gameplay.
Final Fantasy IX 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, but 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.
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 less 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 fare quite as well. Written by
series composer Nobou Uematsu, the game's soundtrack combines the
more subtle and cinematic style heard in Final Fantasy VIII with the
series' traditional character-specific themes last heard in Final
Fantasy VII. 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 IX 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.
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 Quina, 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
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 importantly, 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 its mid-point, but when the high drama dies down,
players can rely on the tight gameplay, strong characters, and the
more 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 Final Fantasy VIII, 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 rules 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.
Have we met before?
In addition to all of these, Final Fantasy IX 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, it's a shame to see Square take a step backward
toward a piece of the past we'd sooner forget.
But as in the previous Final Fantasies, a few translation
errors can't stop Final Fantasy IX 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 for which they've waited through
the entire 32-bit era. 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
|| 07.07.00|| 11.14.00
|Final Fantasy IX to be second Bleemcast! game
|Disc One screens
(part one, spoilers)
|8 high-resolution character renders
|Instruction manual wallpaper