Available on: PS1
With Final Fantasy VIII, Square reached their commercial peak. Although response to the game's very different take on the basics of the Final Fantasy franchise was very mixed, the game sold like bread within its first few days of release. Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and director Hiroyuki Ito, returning from Final Fantasy VI, were faced with the question "where to go from here?" They had built up the Final Fantasy legacy for years, with different stories ranging from the warriors of light seeking crystals to bring peace to the world, to ecoterrorists assaulting a sinister company to prevent their dystopian world's destruction, to lovestruck academic combatants taking on a time travelling sorceress. As Hiroyuki Ito and Yoshinori Kitase were finishing up work on Final Fantasy VIII, Sakaguchi approached them with an idea of a tongue-in-cheek RPG that would pay homage to all the different stories and legacies of the previous Final Fantasy titles - the concept was partly of his own creation, but he had also taken note of fans and other game developers' wishes. After a while, the concept was applied to a game that began to take the form of Final Fantasy IX, the last Final Fantasy game of the PlayStation generation - Final Fantasy X was already in development for the new PlayStation 2. Final Fantasy IX turned out to be Sakaguchi's favourite of all the Final Fantasy series, which is perhaps why he decided to leave all of his beloved franchise in the hands of his trusted colleagues in the near future; he might have believed to have reached his personal climax. Fans were spread into at least three different groups. Japanese fans who knew everything about the series were taken by the game's great humour, especially the allusions to earlier games. Others, who had only played two or three Final Fantasy games before, didn't get the game or the "step back" of replacing the realistic human characters of the previous game with anime princesses, mages and knights, and all the sci-fi marvel with a regular "save the princess, save the world" story - but they still loved the game. The third group just hated the game, as they had equally poor knowledge of the game's true meaning, and to them, Final Fantasy stood for something completely different. They just couldn't feel the game. In my opinion, Final Fantasy IX was a brilliant final chapter of the franchise's massive critical and especially commercial run on the PlayStation, an amazing return to form after the disappointing Final Fantasy VIII, the funniest and perhaps best translated game in the series... in short, it's another definition of Final Fantasy at its very best.
Here's to the old school
A band of thieves disguised as a travelling theatre group is hired by an unknown party to travel to the kingdom of Alexandria and kidnap its princess, Garnet, on her 16th birthday. As the thieves soon find out, it is the princess herself who wants to be kidnapped. Her surprising co-operation doesn't make the actual kidnapping any easier, as she is persistently followed around by her oblivious bodyguard, a middle-aged knight named Steiner, who indirectly causes the theatre ship to crash during the thieves' escape from Alexandria. As Garnet goes missing after the crash, Steiner has no choice but to co-operate with Zidane, an agile and smooth-talking young thief with a crush on the princess, and a sensitive but gifted black mage named Vivi, who ended up on the ship by accident. The more the unlikely allies advance, the more they uncover of the princess' reasons to leave her kingdom behind, and a plot for world domination somehow related to her mysterious inner powers.
Games in the Final Fantasy series are rarely possible to describe using a single word, but Final Fantasy IX is an exception: it is _fascinating_. Forget everything that you learned about Final Fantasy as a game by playing Final Fantasy VI, VII or VIII. Final Fantasy IX might be a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the whole series counting in these three games, but its main purpose is to remind people that the stories of the Final Fantasy universe used to relate to something completely other than political stand-offs and sci-fi. The game is full of obvious references to all the previous games, or strangely familiar nuances that are almost unrecognizable. The plot? Well, it starts out as simple as it can possibly be: save the princess. Yet, it advances fast, and ultimately takes a form that involves a being from another planet plotting world domination, dwarves (RALLY-HO!), dragons, a silver-haired villain with a god complex, four jewels infused with magical power, and of course, a love story - an old-fashioned, well-developed one, not the obnoxious teen romance force fed to us over the course of the previous game. The development of the storyline shadows the development of the Final Fantasy series, don't you think?
|Vivi is one of the most endearing video game|
For the most part, you'll be controlling several different parties in their own scenarios, kind of like in Final Fantasy VI. Some characters are out of commission for very, very long periods of time, and it isn't until the end of Disc 2 when you can decide your party for yourself for the very first time, and that time there's only one character that inevitably gets left behind. Usually, you travel in a group of four like in every game that came before Final Fantasy VII - the developers really pushed PlayStation's capacity to its limits. In another blast from the past, playable characters show up several tens of hours into the game and on later discs, instead of joining your party in the early goings, or in small groups of people. This of course leaves more developmental space for some characters than others, but the developers did their very best to bring out the flesh in all of the cast. Smoothing out the process of character development is ATE, Active Time Event (clever), a series of optional scenes that allows the player to see what passive characters are doing while your active party is out on a quest.
In its own way, the cast of Final Fantasy IX is the ultimate in its demanding league. This might have something to do with the fact that the characters are so deeply influenced by characters that we all love, but I believe it's because of some unique refinements made on this game and its story's behalf. At first, the game doesn't have a main character of any kind. It's kind of like in the first Final Fantasy game, once it kicks off; you have two thieves, a black mage and a knight searching for a princess. The story quickly evolves and already during the course of the first disc, the main character of the whole ordeal seems to change all the time, due to the different scenarios, at least. Nearing the end of the game, Zidane, who you've been controlling for the most part of the epic adventure, is indeed confirmed to be the prime motor of your group, and the individual whose very origin is the source of all the events taking place on Gaia, and who bears the strongest links to the main villain(s) of the story. Before saying too much, I'll just introduce you to the main cast. Since Final Fantasy IX is a traditional Final Fantasy game in 3D, the traditional classes are brought back, however they're still not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the game - counting out some suggestive pieces of dialogue - probably because they have proven to be very restrictive in the past.
Zidane Tribal is a Thief, very similar to Locke Cole in Final Fantasy VI - kind and helpful without any particular reason, especially towards women. He's also a reverse version of Cecil, Cloud and Squall; he starts out really friendly and carefree, but goes through some very dark self-searching phases in the later parts of the game, and needs to decide on where his allegiance lies. Captain Adelbert Steiner is a Knight, hard to compare to any character of the past but he strikes me as kind of like an unlikely mix of Cyan from Final Fantasy VI and Barret from Final Fantasy VII - he's unspeakably stubborn and loyal to his kingdom, so loyal that he has lost a good amount of common sense while in servitude. He has but one cause in life, and he's willing to sacrifice absolutely everything for it. His constant banter with the razor-sharp Zidane provides us players with some of the greatest laughs we ever had in this whole series; once again, praise the translation.
Together, Eiko Carol and Vivi Orunitia are like Palom and Porom in Final Fantasy IV. First of all, they're both children. One's a White Mage, one's a Black Mage. One's loud and openly selfish, one's a lot more controlled and thoughtful. They develop a strong friendship after a rough start, which makes the subliminal connection to the mage twins even more noticeable in my view. Alone, Eiko is very similar to Rydia from the same game, as she's a child summoner from a village that was destroyed by fire and has strong, conflicted emotions towards her "saviour". Vivi shares some of Rydia's mental traits, such as fearful denial of his great powers, although alone he is all but a living testament to the Black Mage class in the first three Final Fantasy games.
The incredibly hot - in a cutesy anime sort of way - girl formally known as Princess Garnet til Alexandros, but who is referred to as Dagger most of the time, is a White Mage and I guess she could be most easily compared to Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI. She's constantly doubting herself, she's not necessarily who she and everyone else thinks she is, and she goes through the most devastating self-searching phase and multiple crises in the game... so devastating that they actually affect her performance in a negative way during gameplay, which is quite cool on paper. In look, she could be Tifa's twin. Grr. Hot.
There's not one, but two Shadow/Vincent influenced bad-asses in our merry troupe. Freya Crescent is a Dragoon, now relocalized as Dragon Knight. She's like a woman in a trenchcoat version of Kain's (Final Fantasy IV) armour. It's hard to find a comparison, but she has some Vincent in her in the sense that they're both looking for a lost love, which is their only soft spot in contrast to their tough, soft-spoken, kind of rude nature. "The Flaming" Amarant Coral is a Monk, and an epitome of his sort - an extreme version of Shadow, if you will. Amarant starts out as a villain, but it is revealed in due time that he's actually pursuing the party out of pure curiosity of the human nature, since he doesn't have one. He's openly rude, even inhuman at times, he loves to start fights, and perceives some extremely volatile situations as merely amusing. It's no secret that I absolutely love this guy. I just wish they'd given him a bit more screen time and dialogue. Can't have it all, I guess.
Last but not least in our cast of playable characters (I can't believe how long this review has been already without one word about the specs of gameplay!), is Quina Quen, who is the mentioned classic filler character in the vein of Gau. He's (or she's?) a Blue Mage, and for the most part, an optional character. You will, however, want to keep Quina close as long as possible, since (s)he is the source of some of the greatest comic sidekick shite in the game. (S)he eats, all the time, and the only reason why (s)he even bothers to leave his/her beloved swamp to save the world with the party, is the possibility to learn of all the different food around the world. His/her method to learn Blue Magic is also based on this endless appetite.
|That is some serious subliminal messaging, right|
there. Speaking of which... take note of the
numbers carved on the sides of the fountain.
OK, well, I've analyzed the plot and the characters and made enough references of my own to the earlier games in the series, so now it's time to go over the game itself. First I'd like to say that like Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy IX has a lot of flaws, but it's the kind of game that should be reviewed as a whole experience based on what the player primarily feels for the tens of hours that just slip by while he's entangled in this fascinating story. I will go over the game's pros, as well as its notable cons, but I want to make it perfectly clear that Final Fantasy IX is nearly a masterpiece, even if it sinks incredibly low at its worst. Read on, and perhaps you'll get the idea.
Final Fantasy IX was one of the last major titles released on the original Sony PlayStation, and as you might know, it was produced in conjunction with Final Fantasy X, set for release a year later on the new PlayStation 2 system. When Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VIII came out, people firmly believed that these two games explored and sealed the outer limits of the PlayStation's capacity. They were wrong. Final Fantasy IX spans four discs, just like the previous game in the series; yet, it sports EVEN better graphics, more impressive technical specs from all standpoints and more FMV cutscenes. The discs, however, are relatively short, each is about 5-10 hours long on a casual playthrough; the game pays back for the short length of the storyline and its supposed linearity with a vast amount of free exploration on the later discs, sidequests and minigames. All that is on show in this game, and the capacity its different gameplay features take up, makes its length totally comprehensible; the game looks PHENOMENAL. It still looks fantastic - it's the one game in the whole series released before Final Fantasy X that I would never care to see remade. It's colourful, smooth and stylistically grand. The best looking game on the PlayStation, bar none.
The music is comprised of many tracks that Nobuo Uematsu seems to have intentionally written to kind of remind us of some classic Final Fantasy tunes, yet they're still very different and fresh. For example, the bass-driven intro of the battle theme featured in games I-VI returns after six years of downtime. If you listen to the melodic title track carefully, and add in a little more tempo, you might find that it bears a slight similarity to the battle theme of Final Fantasy II, which is my favourite out of all the battle themes in the series. Last, some songs are taken straight out of earlier games. The new president's welcoming march from Final Fantasy VII makes an appearance, as well as a song from the still obscure Final Fantasy III. The original music composed for the game is nothing short of amazing; definitely a huge step up after the arguably lackluster soundtrack of Final Fantasy VIII. The emotional folk tune "Rose of May" is probably the best known song, and definitely a favourite of mine as well. "Melodies of Life" is the nearly mandatory vocalized song.
Going into gameplay, let's go into field work first. Besides the fact that most of the game is scenario-based and you will have to manage several different parties on different quests up until the point they permanently join forces, the game basically plays out like any other Final Fantasy game. The cities are huge, complex and fun to explore, once again a sign of the newfound desire to exploit the PlayStation as the cities were relatively small and/or tube-like in the two previous games. Same goes for the dungeons, they're a bit more like actual dungeons in the vintage RPG sense than before, in actual size, at least. A new feature that you'll be introduced right after assuming control is what I like to call the "!?" system. An exclamation mark appears above your character's head each time you find a treasure or another item of interest. The question mark gives you multiple choices of action, like "Pull lever", "Push lever", "Leave it alone". I shit you not: there's TONS of stuff in this game, found just by examining every corner and edge in the game - some really good stuff at that, like thousands of gil just lying around, excellent equipment, cards for the new card game, or key items for sidequests. I see this cornerhounding as one of the greatest unique features of Final Fantasy IX. Why? 'Cause I have done this in every other previous game, I still do, and usually it makes no sense or difference. For example, in this game, you can fill several categories of cards in your inventory without having to play a single game. ...Which would be a relief, at that. More about the new card game later.
The vintage shops are back, after that awkward self-service in Final Fantasy VIII, in which the weapon shops were replaced with instructions for weapon remodelling and item shops that all sold the same materials. However, this system has been somewhat fused to the classic shop 'til you drop style. The item shops sell the same stuff throughout the game, however their variety expands as you progress, to more efficient healing items. There are shops which sell weapons and armour, but very few accessories. Accessories are mostly found in the field, and they're also synthesized. SYNTHESIZED is the new word on the street. Synth shops are kind of like unified weapon/armour/accessory shops, in which you have to pay some small amounts of gil to gain access to more powerful equipment, but you'll also need parts for them - weaker pieces of equipment. This is how the system of Final Fantasy VIII should've worked. There's a dastardly amount of different equipment in this game, and there is a very obvious reason for that, revealed in due time. However, for the most part synthesizing everything on sale is extremely easy, since running out of money in this game is very unlikely, and all the synth shops are so close to weapon and item shops. If you're missing something you need for synthing, you can simply write yourself a shopping list, backtrack a few steps into the closest store, buy everything you need and return to finish up the forging of your new toys. As an idea, the synth shop is amazing, and luckily, the developers realized this and continued to work on it in the later titles.
The battles are a lot less tedious than in Final Fantasy VIII, and summoning, as important as it turns out to be for the storyline's sake, is not nearly as important in battle as it was in the previous game - all but crucial, to be frank. However, the party is extremely slow to follow your commands. It might be an intentional old school thing, I don't know; it's not that big of a problem, but it takes some getting used to in many ways. The enemies are a fine mix of the most disturbing original enemies ever seen in the series, as well as some bonafide classics such as Ochu, Bomb, Sahagin, and of course, the little bastard Goblin, who shows up in a few different forms. Something that might prolong the battles even more than the occasional halt your party comes to in taking commands, is the series of catches the game throws in your face. First off, stealing. Most enemies carry regular items such as Potions, Ethers and Phoenix Downs, but the bosses, there are nearly no exceptions, carry weapons and pieces of armour (four at maximum) that you might not see on sale in any shop for the next ten hours. Zidane can "see" these items upon gaining the Detect ability, and seeing an item like Mythril Sword in the beginning of the game is an opportunity just too tempting to pass, depending on the player, of course. However, success rate in stealing is no longer based on mathematics, but solely on luck. This means, that if you've got a knack for looting stuff, you might find yourself fighting a real bastard for an hour even though you could've easily finished the job in two minutes, just because he won't let go of the final item in his possession... which is usually the most valuable one.
The second catch is Quina's Eat/Blue Magic ability, which is very helpful at a point in the storyline in which you have nothing but your items to depend on if you want to cure or protect yourself. Learning Blue Magic is relatively hard. Quina learns new spells by eating enemies while they're in a critical state. You have to keep track of the enemies' remaining HP and figure out marching orders and strategies for dozens of them (there's a LOT of different Blue Magic) to be able to eat them. Yeah, it's fun, but it's less fun when there are small, annoying enemies that can cast a status effect beyond your control, like Berserk, on Quina, and therefore piss on your opportunity to get a blue spell that might or might not exist. It's not fun fighting these little bastards over and over again, over one spell that might not even have any actual use, it's just there for completists. Moreover, little bastards that are overkilled by even a slightly stronger physical attack, which forces you to use mages to attack if you want to take advantage of their abilities.
Quina can learn Blue Magic easier with the use of Cook, which brings us to Trance, this game's equivalent of a Limit Break. OK, so let's take a brief trip back in the franchise. In Final Fantasy VI, Desperation Attack, as Limit Break was known back then, was a very rare occurrence and it rarely happened at a moment it would've had some true use. In Final Fantasy VII, DA became Limit Break, it gained its own meter which filled each time a character took damage, and it could be carried over from battle to battle as long as the character didn't die, but with the cost of his/her normal physical attack. In Final Fantasy VIII, using Limit Breaks admittedly became way too easy. The characters could randomly use Limit Breaks instead of normal physical attacks as long as their HP remained critical; the Limit Break could easily be accessed by skipping the character's turn until it appeared. Well, Trance is wholly different. The Trance meter fills each time the character takes damage. Check VII. It can be used instead of a physical attack, which is however stronger than usual. Check VIII. It can't be controlled in any possible way, and it can't be carried over to another battle in any way. You might find yourself blowing a housefly to oblivion with Solution 9, 'cause you have no choice. Check bullshit. Trance is useless. OK, so if you're in luck, you may reach Trance in a very difficult boss. Especially Zidane's Trance state is very useful, he has some amazing special attacks, while some characters like Steiner just unleash stronger normal attacks than usual. But, since Trance is "do-it-now-or-repent-later", it kind of breaks up some fine plans from time to time. Trance can be used as long as there's some hostility left in the Trance meter, in other words you can unleash two or three attacks under Trance's influence at a time. Be aware, though, that EVERY action and turn you take under Trance's influence counts; if you use a Potion, it counts and depletes the Trance meter. I have found great uses for Trance, especially in Zidane's case... but I think I can count them by using five fingers. And finally, just that one finger. Trance sucks. Why couldn't they just bring back the Limit Break from VII?
|Hey, mogster. There a toilet around here?|
As long as you have a certain weapon, armour or accessory equipped on a character, you can make use of the ability/abilities (auto or command) that they're assigned to teach that character, but they aren't permanent until they have been learned via gained AP. After learning a command ability, the character can use it at any time, but auto-abilities, such as immunities to certain status effects, HP/MP+, the ability to use a Potion whenever the character takes damage, and so on, will have to be equipped. Of course, you can't build a superman who's immune to everything right off the bat or an unstoppable killing machine. Equipping abilities is managed by different kind of AP. Let's say Zidane has 37 of these kind of points. Some better auto-abilities might consume tens of points. The characters cannot exceed the limit assigned to them, but it can and will increase along with their experience level. Assigning abilities is very easy at first, it's a no-brainer that you want everyone to be immune to Poison/Venom, but it gets hard really fast, as the different abilities keep piling up. At some point, you might want to keep your party in good balance by, for example, making one character immune to Trouble (a new status effect, EXTREMELY annoying), Zombie and Poison, one to Slow and Stop, one to Confuse and Temperature (another new one), one to Stone and Blind, and so on. It's pretty cool, all in all, but demanding to do efficiently. Believe me, Final Fantasy IX is not nearly as easy as it might seem at first.
Saving is a little different than before, as well as the use of Tents in general. Tents can be used in battle to heal one character, but there's also a handicap inflicted as punishment. Therefore they should be used as a last resort in battle, and in my view, only where they're supposed to. Enter moogles. You will encounter many different, more or less amusing moogles on your trip, and they're in charge of saving and your safe camping. The moogles also run a mailing system called Mognet, and of course, you're their assigned mailman. Delivering all the different mail between moogles is kind of a sidequest, but more of a humorous filler for completists. On the world map, which you'll reach in a couple of hours into gameplay, you need to use a Moogle Flute to summon Moguo, who manages all the saving and camping on the map. There are a few more special moogles in the game. Stiltzkin is a wise traveller that might sometimes accommodate you with a few items for a set price, a few regular moogles run a Mogshop that sells both items and equipment, and finally, we have a moogle called Mene who runs his own business in a couple of secret locations around the world, involving chocobos.
|Our gorgeous damsel in constant distress.|
Also relating to the infamous Ozma in a way I will leave to your own exploration, is the inclusion of friendly enemies. There are two kinds of friendly enemies. The other one's a version of an enemy called Ragtime Mouse, who hosts a pop quiz, asking you totally random questions about the history of Gaia - answers are usually found on plaques and statues scattered around the world. Upon answering correctly, you get some gil and good spirit. The other kind is a series of notably different versions of enemies, asking you for some items, like Magic Pot demanding an Elixir in some Final Fantasy games. Upon fulfilling their wishes, they shower you with lots of AP, and if you're able to find and please them all (some of them are well hidden), you'll at least have a chance against Ozma. These kind of small things make Final Fantasy IX so fascinating, despite of its faults. Of course, we're almost done, but haven't gone over the most serious fault of the game yet. That, my friends, regardless of your personal opinions on the matter, is Tetra Master.
Tetra Master replaces one of Final Fantasy VIII's greatest strengths, the magnificent and beneficial Triple Triad card game... with a semi-fun, but utterly useless and in relation to that, quite damn force fed card game that you luckily MUST play only once during the storyline. Whereas it was damn fun to collect those Triple Triad cards, travel around the world looking for the most rare ones and on top of all, gain some irreplaceable traits by trading the cards for some amazing items that increased your chances against even the hardest bosses in the game, Tetra Master is of no benefit. It is a method of passing time, lots of it, and nothing else. Rare cards show up at a complete random. Cards can also be found, gained from battles, Hot 'n' Cold and by doing well in some other, minor minigames. Unlike in Triple Triad, where every card had predefined points and traits, in Tetra Master it's completely random. Two versions of the same card can be completely different, including their "HP/MP", which most of the time makes no difference - it's still random whether you win or lose. I don't want to go to the specifics of the game and how it works, you can check the rules up from somewhere else if you wish, but basically it's quite similar to Triple Triad. It's just the randomness and non-benefit that make it so damn dull; it's still annoyingly addictive, of course it is, if you're a completist trying to get all of the hundred different cards, but if you're like me, you'll feel somewhat guilty of challenging people into a game. It's so based on luck and random chance, that I can't help but wonder why in the hell this game overshadowed the excellent Triple Triad and went on to become a free online game on its own for the next decade. Well, it's not as bad as Blitzball when it comes to minigames on a relative forefront in a Final Fantasy game, I'll give it that.
|Alexander and Bahamut solving their differences, |
or actually their masters' differences. Make no
mistake about it: the game is candy to the eyes,
even after ten years.
Despite almost taking a dive every now and then and not quite being able to live up to the best of the games it pays tribute to, Final Fantasy IX keeps a TRUE fan - not just an avid player of Final Fantasy VII and VIII - in a stranglehold. So maybe you didn't quite understand it when it came out. Have you gotten familiar with all the remakes of the old games that have surfaced during the decade? If you have, I suggest you dig up Final Fantasy IX and see what you think of the game and its "childish" story today. I've always liked the game; but nowadays, I can almost mention it in the same sentence with VI, VII and X. An absolute gem, a true haymaker from the final days of Sony's firstborn.
Graphics : 9.8
Sound : 9.4
Playability : 9.0
Challenge : 9.1
Overall : 9.2
A quick remake of the game was rumoured in 2001, but soon scrapped. Square designer Takeshi Arakawa has said he would love to make a sequel to the game.
Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's favourite Final Fantasy game.
Only two of the playable characters are undisputedly humans.
Vivi Orunitia makes an appearance in Kingdom Hearts II as a possessed Struggle competitor.
Zidane Tribal (voiced by Bryce Papenbrook) and Kuja (voiced by J.D. Cullum) are rivals in Square Enix's all-star anniversary game Dissidia - Final Fantasy, released on the PSP in 2008.
The Final Fantasy Wiki has a quite comprehensive (yet not perfect) list of all the references made to earlier Final Fantasy games here.