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Final Fantasy IX - Review

FFIX proves that old concepts can still be fresh

By: Jimmy Avistetto


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 9
   Music/Sound 7
   Originality 6
   Plot 9
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 6
   Visuals 10
   Difficulty Easy-Medium
   Time to Complete

35-50 hours

 
Overall
number
Criteria

Final Fantasy IX
 

   Ironically, the lack of originality in Final Fantasy IX is the greatest part of its appeal. Square covers no new ground with this latest Final Fantasy; instead, they take the best aspects of previous games in the series and blend them together, mixing the lighthearted fantasy of the first few games in the series with the grand presentation of Square's more recent RPGs. Gone are the highways and skyscrapers of Final Fantasy VII, the military townships of Final Fantasy VIII; Final Fantasy IX is set in a world where dragons and goblins litter the landscapes, where queens and regents rule in grand, majestic palaces. The friendly creatures known as Moogles, virtually absent from the last two games in the series, make a grand return here, as do the Crystals which have traditionally been so integral to each game's storyline. Long-time Square fans are sure to love the game from the opening scene, but Final Fantasy IX's inviting setting and intriguing characters make this a game that can safely be recommended to most any RPGamer.

   One of the first things that players will notice about the characters is just how different they are, stylistically, from the cast of Final Fantasy VIII. In keeping with the theme of bringing Final Fantasy back to its roots, Square hired comic artist Yoshitaka Amano, character designer for the Final Fantasy series prior to Final Fantasy VII, to design the characters for Final Fantasy IX. While none of the characters move or act in a particularly unrealistic way, they're all designed in a deformed, anime-like style. The main character, Zidane, has a tail; the black mage Vivi is a short fellow in a blue robe, with an oversized wizard hat that prevents all of his face, save for his signature glowing eyes, from being seen.


Encounter in the Ice Cavern
Encounter in the Ice Cavern  

   But what's truly remarkable about the characters of Final Fantasy IX is each character's personality. Artistic style aside, Final Fantasy IX's characters are still some of the best that Square has ever created. Vivi is so incredibly likable, you may find yourself actually standing up and cheering for him; and Steiner serves as an excellent straight man to Zidane's wisecracking humor. With the exception of the character Quina, the party you assemble throughout the game fits together extremely well. Each character's personality plays off the rest's, reminding you at all points that Zidane and his friends are, above all else, a team.

   This is further emphasized by the excellent dialogue throughout the game. The quality of Square's localizations has steadily improved throughout the PlayStation's life cycle, and now it culminates with Final Fantasy IX, their best effort yet (save for this past summer's Chrono Cross). The game's script flows smoothly along, with few to no awkward or incoherent bits of dialogue. Each character's personality comes through clearly, which makes the game's character development all the more effective. Also, in keeping with the lighthearted tone of the game, much of the dialogue is surprisingly humorous. The first hour of the game in particular is very enjoyable, in which a popular play opens in the kingdom of Alexandria.

   Further complementing Final Fantasy IX's presentation are its gorgeous visuals. It isn't simply that the game's prerendered backdrops are breathtaking, nor that the color pallette is wide and diverse, resulting in lush, vibrant environments. Each town and/or dungeon possesses a modicum of style and originality unlike anything to date in the Final Fantasy series. In the small village of Dali, children run and play on cobblestone pathways leading up to a big windmill; an old lady pulls weeds out of a field nearby. In the city of Lindblum, wooden buildings line roads of clay and stone while air taxis fly by in a scene reminiscent of a psuedo-futuristic Venice. It's all done extremely well and it's quite a sight to behold, especially on the original PlayStation.


Gorgeous FMV cutscenes
Gorgeous FMV cutscenes  

   Unfortunately, the beautiful prerendered backdrops also work against the game in some ways. Not only towns, but dungeons also consist of prerendered backdrops, with little interactivity. This results in relatively simplistic puzzles, and short dungeons. Completing most dungeons is generally a simple matter consisting of solving a few simple puzzles, such as flipping a switch to turn a platform around, or finding a key to unlock a particular door. While Final Fantasy IX does feature more interesting and enjoyable dungeons than its other PlayStation brethren, longer dungeons and more challenging puzzles would have been a welcome addition.

   While exploring dungeons, battles come randomly and rapidly. Unlike recent RPGs such as Chrono Cross and Grandia, enemy encounters in Final Fantasy IX are completely random; the enemy can neither be seen beforehand nor avoided. Considering that enemy encounters occur quite frequently, this tends to become annoying, but fortunately the battle system is more enjoyable than in recent installments of the series. Final Fantasy IX allows up to four characters in a party at a time, instead of three, and also features a refined version of the same turn-based combat system that the series has used ever since its fourth incarnation. While this system does nothing new, it is the best version of the Final Fantasy battle system to date. The Draw/Stock/Junction system from the previous Final Fantasy game does not make a return here. In its place is the Ability system-- similar to the Esper system seen in Final Fantasy VI. Abilities, such as spells and resistances to status ailments, are embedded in weapons and armor. Equipping a character with a weapon or piece of armor that has an embedded ability gives that character access to that ability. Following a battle, the character will gain Ability Points along with experience points. Gain enough Ability Points and the current ability will be "mastered", meaning that the armor/weapon containing it can be removed without the character losing the ability.

   Each character is remarkably balanced, as well. Character classes are predefined-- a black mage cannot become something else-- and specific types of weapons, armor, and spells are geared towards characters of a particular class. They can only be used by the character of that class. This character specialization system helps to keep your characters balanced, so that battles never have to degenerate into a pattern of selecting "Attack" for all characters in a party.


Zidane and friends
Zidane and friends  

   Limit Breaks have been updated to the new "Trance" system. Previously, as a character took damage in battle, his/her Limit meter would begin to fill, and when full, a super-powerful attack could be performed. The new Trance system works the same way, except that when the Limit meter fills, the character automatically goes into Trance mode. In this mode, special attacks ordinarily not available can be performed; regular attacks are more powerful, and spells more effective. Each time a character executes a command while in a Trance, part of that character's Trance meter drains. When the meter is empty, when the battle ends, or when the character is killed, the Trance is broken. Trance attacks can come in very handy during difficult boss battles; in moments of desparation, a powerful Trance attack can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

   Outside of dungeons and battles, there's plenty to do in Final Fantasy IX. Moogles play a very important role in the game; they are scattered throughout the world, to be found in towns, dungeons, etc. Moogles allow the player to save a game in progress, and to use tents. Most moogles also participate in a worldwide postal system called MogNet. Occasionally, a moogle will ask the player to deliver a letter for him/her to another moogle somewhere in the world. Another mini-game involves finding treasure; it can be used to earn new abilities for Chobobos. Foremost among all of Final Fantasy IX's diversions, however, is the "Tetra Master" card game-- a somewhat less complex variation of Final Fantasy VIII's "Triple Triad" card game. Most townspeople play the game, so it's easy to find an opponent, but winning can be very difficult. Although on occasion games seem to be decided based more on luck than anything else, Tetra Master is still very fun.

   While Final Fantasy IX offers the player a number of different ways in which to waste a lot of time, the game itself is relatively short. A good player, rushing through the game, could finish it in roughly thirty to thirty-five hours. However, the length of the game is hardly a drawback; what's presented here is a full, complete game that leaves little more to be desired. As with the other games in the series, however, Final Fantasy IX is fairly easy. The lack of depth both in the battle system and in the dungeon design make this a game that can be won with patience alone. To be fair, though, the various aspects of the game are presented so well that few things in the game are more challenging than they should be.


Running through a forest
Running through a forest  

   Managing each character's Abilities will be key to winning many battles, and Final Fantasy IX's interface makes it simple. Upon gaining a new ability, simply go into the Ability screen (which can be selected from the in-game menu screen). The character will have a set number of Ability Points which can be allocated among the different abilities. For example, say Vivi has twenty Ability Points, and has the Auto-Life, High Tide, and Antibody abilities available. Auto-Life will resurrect him if killed, so that gets equipped, at a cost of twelve Ability Points. There are eight points left, and High Tide will use eight points. If it is equipped, Antibody cannot be used. Many more Abilities than these three will become available throughout the game, so it's important to manage them well.

   As with the previous two games in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy IX features far fewer memorable music tracks than its Super Nintendo predecessors. Although the music in Final Fantasy IX is still excellent from a technical standpoint, the soundtrack as a whole doesn't carry the emotional weight of Xenogears or Final Fantasy VI. While there are still a number of standout tracks, most of Final Fantasy IX's music is built around the atmosphere of each scene. It works quite well inside of the game, yet won't warrant a soundtrack purchase for most gamers.

   Final Fantasy IX has nearly all the cards stacked in its favor. While the actual gameplay in the Final Fantasy series is showing its age, the presentation and character development has improved with each game, and with Final Fantasy IX it's stunning throughout the entire game, right up to the truly amazing ending. To combine fresh new gameplay with this kind of presentation is an incredibly thrilling concept, and as Square prepares to move the series now to the PlayStation 2, they may perhaps be doing just that. So, in essence, this could be the last traditional Final Fantasy game. If so, then this era ends on a proud, high note; for not only is Final Fantasy IX the best Final Fantasy to grace the PlayStation, it may very well be the best Final Fantasy to date.






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