|Final Fantasy IX - Retroview|
Once More Into The Breeches, Zidane
| Battle System
| Replay Value
| Time to Complete
What makes a decent role playing game? Uniqueness, replayability, gameplay, plot, characters, music, graphics... you name it, at least someone thinks it. No matter what your school of thought, Final Fantasy IX by Squaresoft will most likely appeal to you; I can think of very little to complain about in this game, and very many things to cheer on.
One of the first things an old-school player will notice is that, thankfully, the battle system in Final Fantasy IX is back to 'MP' (after Final Fantasy VIII's overall disastrous draw/junction system), and there is a new system of spells and skills that adds quite a bit of depth to the battles. The 'limit break' maneuvers from Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII are back as well, though in a quite different form; this time, if a character takes enough damage or a particular story event occurs, they will enter into a 'trance'. The character model glows quite beautifully and the character gains access to very powerful spells and extra attacks. Trancing at the right moment in some battles can mean the difference between life and death. The return to a four-person battle party is also very refreshing; also, unlike Final Fantasy V-VIII, where anybody can be anything in the long run, Final Fantasy IX has very specific fighters, healers, mages, etc. Strategically it is about the same level of difficulty, but it also allows the battle system at several points to reflect the current plotline, by altering the effectiveness or availability of certain characters.
The interface is menu-driven, as always, but unlike Final Fantasy VIII, it isn't confusing! It's the same old, same old of Final Fantasy, but there's not much to complain about. Everything is readable, load times are generally bearable, and the game is very playable.
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Music is another huge thumbs up for Final Fantasy IX. The original music is extremely well-composed, and a larger part of the score than one might expect is also devoted to beautiful remixes of older songs. Some of the songs included in this game will bring a tear to the eye of a long-standing Final Fantasy gamer; everything from the standard battle theme bass structure, to remixes of the Gurgu (Gulug) Volcano theme of Final Fantasy I, to hidden tracks like Unne's theme from Final Fantasy III. Several battle themes will sound very familiar as well, though I try not to give TOO much away! As always, the final boss battle themes are heart-quickening, blood-pumping masterpieces, though (also as always) they seem to rely a bit too much on the organ. Similarly, the main theme (Melodies of Life), though beautiful, is somewhat overused throughout the game. Overlooking these small flaws, however, one finds a very complete and powerful soundtrack, even stand-alone. This is Uematsu-san's best score since Final Fantasy VI, in my opinion. The sound effects, unlike the music, are fairly unremarkable. They aren't bad, but they're the same synthy schwing and swoosh in almost every other Final Fantasy game to date. Nothing much to say about that.
Final Fantasy IX has numerous new and unique qualities that enhance the game play. There are also several somewhat amusing minigames, including a new card game similar to Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII. On this card game I have to fault the developers; it can be fun, but it lacks the amount of strategy involved in the first incarnation, as the game seems very random at times. But you are only required to beat the card game (Tetra Master) once, and it is really not hard to do so. Another great feature is the addition of simultaneous events, where you're prompted to press a button at a particular time and you can change views to elsewhere in the game, to see more of the story as an event.
Moving along, the plot and characters in Final Fantasy IX... well, I may be beaten to death for saying so, but quite simply, Zidane blows Cloud and Squall away. All of Final Fantasy IX's characters are very well fleshed-out, very human; for once we have a young hero who -isn't- a giant bundle of angst and neuroses (and who is very much a playa), and a main love interest who has an interesting personality to go with her looks. The comical sidekicks are there, as always, but unlike the Turks, Raijin and Fujin, Biggs and Wedge, etc., they aren't continually fighting the hero, and are dealt with quickly. The main enemy is given a very human personality, with realism and depth rivaling even Sephiroth (though he obviously isn't anywhere near as cool). I can't give away too much about the plot or the characters without spoiling quite a bit of the game, but overall the depth is incredible.
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The translation/localization of Final Fantasy IX is above par, not the best ever but certainly not as bad as, say, Legend of Dragoon. ^_^ There are no real double-take sentences in the game, and all the important stuff gets communicated to the player very well. I can't much complain here... the dialogue is very smooth and flowing, grammatically the game is just about flawless, though nothing too remarkable on the other end, either.
Like most linear RPGs, Final Fantasy IX suffers somewhat in replay value. It's a wild ride the first time, but it's a very plot-driven game. Once you know the plot, once you've seen everything the game has to show, there's not much of a reason to play again. However, if you sped through your first time playing this game, there is a lot more to see! There are numerous side quests that can be explored, many little extras that might make the true fan or the devoted addict want to play again. So this section is sort of a toss-up.
Graphically, Final Fantasy IX blows away any other Playstation RPG, hands-down. The FMVs are of about the same high quality as those in Final Fantasy VIII and Chrono Cross, but the in-game backgrounds, character models, etc. are all of extremely high quality. It truly is the small touches that will blow your mind--when you talk to a character or approach one, whoever you are controlling will turn his or her head to face them. When your characters are extremely close up, the textures barely seem pixelated at all. The backgrounds are not static in many cases, but are multiple parallax (several layers moving seperately to give the illusion of depth). The spell effects are wonderful beyond comprehension. Square has, without a doubt, truly unlocked the full graphical potential of the PSone.
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Like most of the more recent Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy IX isn't all that difficult until the very final dungeon/boss. Unfortunately, the very final dungeon/boss are very much like the more recent Final Fantasy games; annoyingly, frustratingly difficult. My biggest problem with Final Fantasy IX, in fact, is the final boss battle. In my opinion, it could have been entirely cut from the game; it feels -very- tacked on, makes very little sense, and is a very frustrating battle as well. You do fight the villain throughout most of the game as a 'final boss', but only as the second of three battles. The third is with someone(thing?) that you have never seen, met, heard of, etc. before, at all... which severely weakens its impact as the final obstacle in the game. The battle is also extremely frustrating, as your opponent uses one particular move that casts nearly every status ailment in the book on your characters, including instant stone, instant death, and berserk (And why does the instant death tend to favor the attackers, while the berserk the healers? Hmm..). If you can make it through the final battle, you have an ending to look forward to, but that ends up being a large 'if'.
I shouldn't have saved the gripes section for the end, I know it... read through the review a second time! The game overall is excellent, my favorite Playstation Final Fantasy incarnation yet, despite its various flaws. Depending on how many sidequests you go through and how deep you get into the game, it can keep you entertained anywhere from 30 to 60 or so hours. Going back to Final Fantasy's roots brings back many memories for old-school players like me, and the game itself should appeal even to those gamers whose first taste of Final Fantasy was on the Playstation. Try the game--you'll like it.