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Final Fantasy IX - Review

Another Fantasy Arrives and All is Right With the World

By: Howard Kleinman


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 10
   Music/Sound 10
   Originality 9
   Plot 10
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 9
   Visuals 9
   Difficulty Medium
   Time to Complete

40-60 hours

 
Overall
10
Criteria

Final Fantasy IX
 

   It has been a solid decade since the first Final Fantasy game graced American shores. The first game arrived and showed us a world we hadn't seen before. The mission was simple; the four light warriors would come and save a world by restoring the balance of four crystal orbs. The game was fairly simplistic with few commands, a small world and a shallow plotline. It became a classic title in a niche genre? Who would have suspected that ten years later, RPGs would be a popular genre and that Final Fantasy would become the world's best selling console RPG series? Final Fantasy IX, the latest installment in the series, is quite possibly the greatest game the series and the genre have seen.

   Those familiar with previous games in the series will slide into Final Fantasy IX's gameplay with little difficulty. The battle system is largely reminiscent of the SNES games, with elements from each game in that system's trilogy. Like Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI the characters all have predetermined classes with individual differences in abilities. Like Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI, your characters learn new abilities by gaining AP. In this circumstance, AP is attached to your weapons and armor. Each piece of equipment has a few abilities attached to it that only certain characters can learn. For example, a certain accessory may teach one character an Ifrit Summon, and another character the Fira spell. When an item is equipped its ability may be used, but when it is unequipped it cannot be used unless the user has acquired enough AP to acquire the ability permanently.

   There are two basic types of abilities, combat abilities and support abilities. Combat abilities might teach Vivi some spells and Zidane some thief skills. Support abilities augment characters' statistics, give them negative status immunities and give them other abilities like "mug" which enables you to damage an enemy while stealing or allowing you to do additional damage to certain types of enemies. The number of support abilities you can use is limited by the number of ability crystals your character has. Each ability has a certain ability crystal cost to equip. Weak abilities, like a minor accuracy upgrade might have a cost of 2 crystals, while an ability like Vivi's Reflect x2, which doubles magic damage when refracted off of a reflect spell will cost more than ten crystals. This system forces the player to decide which abilities are the most important to be used and which are the most cost efficient. This system has a lot of depth while being extremely easy to interface. A simple press of the select button will turn on a help window in which a moogle will tell you everything you could ever want to know. This is quite simply the best character development system seen in the series.


Do not meddle in the affairs of black mages, for they are subtle and have pyromania
Do not meddle in the affairs of black mages, for they are subtle and have pyromania  

   There are some nice gameplay additions to the battles themselves. Most notable is the return of the four character parties. This addition was missed greatly in the last two installments and it was wonderful to see the parties restored in this game. The limit breaks return in the form of "Trances." Trances build through a meter like Final Fantasy VII's system, but it is far slower to fill. When in trance, your character enters a state wherein all character abilities are magnified. The characters will also get their special skills upgraded in some way. Vivi will be able to cast two spells at once, while Zidane will be able to use super powerful attacks that drain a great deal of MP. The fact that trances cost MP make them more balanced than the crushing, costless might of a Meteorain, while still allowing you the opportunity to deal severe damage to the enemy. Overall the Trance system won't scale down the game's considerable difficulty since it cannot be relied on to provide victory. It still is a nice bonus when available and if you can somehow keep your characters alive long enough toe get a trance, it could make the difference in a battle, if not as reliably as in Final Fantasy VII. Summon spells in Final Fantasy IX are abbreviated. The first time you cast a summon spell, it appears in its entirety, but subsequent summons only show the damaging portion of the spell. This change addresses the complaints of many that the summons in the previous two installments were too time consuming.

   Exploration of locations has also been slightly overhauled. Instead of randomly tapping a button in all locations to see if an action can be performed, a small exclamation point will appear in a word bubble above the lead character's head. When the bubble appears, a press of the action button will perform an action. This small addition makes exploration much easier. Another change is the addition of Active Time Events. If the words "Active Time Event" appears in the corner of the screen you can press the select button and see a sequence that's occurring elsewhere in the location. Sometimes you will only be able to select one choice of many and some scenes cannot be seen until subsequent playthroughs. These scenes add depth to some of the characters of the game or give you hints about hidden items and locations. This small frill also adds quite a bit to the game itself.

   The mini-games, which many have come to expect from the series are quite present, and are one of the game's few disappointments. Final Fantasy IX uses a collectable card game called "Tetra Master." While Triple Triad was well integrated into Final Fantasy VIII with an interesting set of rules variations and the ability to modify cards into items, Tetra Master is largely useless with few rewards. What's worse is the fact that the card game itself is very muddled and hard to understand. The instruction manual does little to make sense of the game. Overall, Tetra Master felt like a weak attempt to recapture the greatness of Triple Triad, but falls flat. The Chocobo Hot and Cold game is a little better than Tetra Master. While it works very well in the smaller digging grounds like the Chocobo Forest and Lagoon, the larger world map quests are largely annoying. The specificity of item placement is ridiculous, and the hot and cold "Kweh!?" hints simply aren't specific enough to help you find the item. I spent a good twenty minutes looking for some items when my Chocograph seemed to match my map screen 100%. The other mini-games, which are far less detailed are interesting diversions, but little else. Considering I don't play Final Fantasies for the mini-games I don't consider this a major point against the game, but those who loved Triple Triad or Chocobo Racing might be disappointed.

   Visually, Final Fantasy IX is the best on the Playstation. The graphics, while less realistically proportioned than those in Final Fantasy VIII, are simply beautiful to look at. The Full Motion Videos are just as impressive as those in previous games and do just as much to advance the story. The pre-rendered backgrounds are beautiful and give each location a unique feel. The characters are well-animated and pixellate far less frequently than they did in the last two installments. The world map is also highly detailed with phenomenal mist and light effects, which give the world a greater feeling of life than the maps seen in the last two games. Considering the fact that the PSX Final Fantasies have been pushing the system's power to its very limits, the fact that the graphics are better than expectations is simply astonishing.


Another enormous and detailed world awaits...
Another enormous and detailed world awaits...  

   Musically, Final Fantasy IX is another masterpiece from Nobuo Uematsu. The return to older style battle themes and victory fanfares are highly entertaining and highly welcome. The towns all have their own themes, all of which are highly appropriate and add to the visual greatness of the locations they represent. After a brief hiatus in the more cinematically inclined Final Fantasy VIII, character themes return, with several variations of each. Even more interesting is Uematsu's occasional blending of two character themes to make a great effect within the characters' relationship. The villain themes are also well executed filled with driving drumbeats to demonstrate the villain's power. The decision to fully orchestrate most of the FMV was brilliant and well executed. Emiko Shiratori's rendition of "Melodies of Life" is simply beautiful. This is simply the best vocal song ever heard in a video game.

The storyline of Final Fantasy IX is very well done. The plot itself is filled with a great deal of twists and turns that will keep even fans of the deeply complex Xenogears guessing. The storyline begins with an attempted abduction of Princess Garnet of Alexandria. Zidane, a member of a band of actor/thieves called Tantalus, discovers that Garnet actually WANTS to be kidnapped. Garnet wants to understand why her mother, Queen Brahne, has become aggressive and is attacking neighboring kingdoms. Vivi, a black mage, and the ever-loyal Alexandrian Knight Steiner travel with the two in a quest that becomes far more than it seemed at first.

The great strength of the story is its characters. The characters are all well developed and quite likeable. The relationships between the cast members are just as well developed as they were in Final Fantasy VIII. Of particular note is the big brother/little brother relationship that develops between Vivi and Zidane, this type of relationship is rarely seen in RPGs, and seeing it so well executed is a tribute to the talent of the writers at Square. The villains of FFIX are also fantastic. Few villains are so tragic, yet so easy to hate.


Four Character Parties!
Four Character Parties!  

The translation and localization themselves won't slip by fans of the last two games in the series. The dialogue is fantastic and adds greatly to the flavor of the characters in the game. What is mildly frustrating is the fact that the references to previous Final Fantasy games. Fans of the US Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV Easy Type in Japan) will be disappointed to see dwarves shouting "Rally-Ho!" A certain boss from Final Fantasy I is also mistranslated from the US release and might make a fun reference disappear. These complaints are ultimately minor when compared to the great fluency of the dialogue in English, but it is of note to long-term Final Fantasy die-hards.

In summation Final Fantasy IX is as close to flawless as we are likely to see in an RPG. The game will provide 40-60 hours of quality entertainment at a solid level of difficult that will make players actually do something more than use a single command for the entire game. The fun innovations and the compilation of what has been best in the series to date make this the RPG of the year. No self-respecting RPGamer should be without a copy of Final Fantasy IX.







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