Final Fantasy IX Review
by Jason Venter
You know it's a good year when you look at the store shelves and have a hard time deciding which two or three fantastic RPG's you want to take home. The year 2000 has been one of those kinds of years. But for the Final Fantasy fan, the choice has never been simpler. Despite the fact that there are numerous excellent RPG's coming out all the time now for the various systems (even the N64 has recent hits like Majora's Mask and Ogre Battle 64), one title stands head and shoulders above the competition: Final Fantasy IX.
We've all been waiting for this one a long time. Not just since Final Fantasy VIII, but since Final Fantasy VI. That's because not since Final Fantasy VI has there been such a fantastic entry into the Final Fantasy series.
There are so many ways to start this review. That's because there are so many great aspects about this game. From the graphics to the game play, from the storyline to the number of options available to the persistent gameplayer, Final Fantasy IX is a veritable treasure trove of console RPG bliss.
As the game opens, you watch a small boat being tossed about on the sea. It's a beautiful FMV with names appearing on the screen with the watery backdrop. By the time you've played through the many adventures contained on these four discs, you'll want to find the people behind those names and kiss them repeatedly. Okay, slight exaggeration there. But not by much.
Eventually, you'll get into playing the game proper. And you'll watch--and play a role, in places--as Princess Garnet Til Alexandros is kidnapped from her home in Alexandria. Thus begins a long series of events. You're carried along the whole time, taking action at the appropriate places, for the first hour or two. I've heard some complain that you're just watching the story and that you don't get to do anything. That's simply not true, however. You're in control a good percentage of the time, whether it be through a mini-game that lets you present a sword duel for an audience, or if you're fighting opponents in a play.
At any rate, that doesn't last long and you soon enough find yourself in a different location, faced with your first adventure. Those who love stories will notice that the story never falls behind. At any given time, in any given dungeon, you can know you're furthering the fantastic story that drives this game. I really can't go into the story far without risking a spoiler, for that very reason. Every single event has some effect on something that will happen shortly thereafter. Even when a character is wandering about and you wonder why the heck you're watching this, you'll see within a few hours of play.
Story. It has been inevitably woven within each Final Fantasy title since the sixth in the series. With each installment, you get more and more of a feeling that you're watching a cinematic film. And that's certainly true in Final Fantasy IX. At first it worried me. But then I realized that this is hands down the best Final Fantasy story we've yet seen, and you have more control throughout it than on any Playstation game in the franchise before it. So while it's true that this one feels more like a fine movie than any Final Fantasy game which has preceded it, that's actually a good thing, for once.
Part of the reason you'll feel like you're watching a movie, besides the plot-heavy events, comes in the form of an extensive amount of video. There's the opening one, of course. In fact, the first disc seems the shortest of all, and that's entirely due to the sheer number of movie clips you watch. And trust me when I say that Final Fantasy video clips have never looked better. At least, not within a game. One of them in particular will stay in your mind long after you've worked through to the end of the game. Pure brilliance. The second disc has a lot of video, too. The third, however, contains very little. And of course you know the fourth one has a lot of video.
What this all means is that the discs are all about the same length, though the third is perhaps a bit longer. Because of this, you won't see discs grow progressively shorter. For some reason, that bothered me in the past. It's not an issue now, though.
With so much video, you might think that the developers wouldn't be able to create a graphical look as fantastic as the one in Final Fantasy VIII. And to a certain extent, that's true. Some have noticed that the look for FFIX is different from that in the one before it. Characters are now 'deformed.' You'll instantly notice that they have quite large heads, scrawny bodies, and so forth. If this bothers you, there's no getting around it. You'll see it throughout the whole game, and to some extent, in the FMV. But I would urge you not to let that get in the way of your enjoyment. Because graphics are fantastic, here. You simply have to see them to believe it. Towns have never looked better, and more detailed. Each location you visit has a distinct feel, whether it be the towering walls of Lindblum or the deep caverns that run under the Mist Continent.
And sound. Every Final Fantasy game has music composed by the same man. He's back for Final Fantasy IX, too. The problem I see is that he's not in top form. Not quite. While I feel I can reasonably say the music here is the best since that in Final Fantasy VI (I especially like some of the more 'bouncy' music in some of the towns and when some characters are present), I can't say it comes close to giving the music in that revered title a run for it's money. Nothing begs you to stand still and just listen. On a more positive note, however, the battle music sounds suspiciously similar to that in Final Fantasy VI. The first time I heard it I thought it was going to be the same, but after the first few notes it bounces away and becomes its own.
That covers the graphics, sound, and general presentation. But what about general ease of play? After all, such things have always been important. No matter how nice a game looks and sounds, you can't enjoy it if the control schemes, layout, and so forth are clunky. For perhaps the first time in the franchise on the PSX, Square has kept that in mind. Have they ever! Magic spells are easily learned without a ton of micro-management, and you can equip weapons to learn new skills. Each character can learn new skills from different weapons, so many times you will let a character use one weapon until he or she learns a skill, then pass it on to the next.
Yes, that's right: each character has individual skills. Some share the same abilities, of course, like the useful trick of automatically using a potion after taking a hit. But as was the case in Final Fantasy VI, there are some moves only a specific character can master. Zidane, the main character, is the only one who can use Dyne skills and theft skills.
But that's two skills, you say. And you're right. Each character has two specific skills. Sometimes this isn't fantastic (Vivi the black wizard, for example, only gets the ability to cast a second spell in a single round), and sometimes it is. But your second skill is like a limit break, in that you can only use it when a character is in a trance. Essentially, a trance happens when you've received a certain amount of damage. As you might expect, a gauge on the screen keeps you informed of when you're about to enter that special state. When you do, you can almost count on an easy victory over the foe at hand... if you can keep that character alive and in his trance. Eventually, the trance will wear off (and it always does when a fight ends). Still, it's usually enough to give you the victory.
Since I've not talked about character individuality, another of the game's best points, I might as well do so right now. Characters are true individuals, here. Zidane is a strong-willed, determined fellow with a good knowledge of the way the world works. Princess Garnet Til Alexandros is an extremely responsible person who doesn't want to accept the emotions that develop for Zidane. Steiner is a man who forces himself to put duty first. And on down the list. It's really exciting how Square makes those characters develop and expand throughout the adventure.
That leaves only one area uncovered, then: the side game. It seems like every Final Fantasy title on the Playstation has had some sort of side game. On Final Fantasy VII, it was the snowboarding. On Final Fantasy VIII, it was the card game. And in Final Fantasy IX, it's... the card game. But the card game has changed. I never really got into the one in Final Fantasy VIII, but there's no way you can avoid the game this time around. For one thing, there's a place where you must play and win in order to proceed through the game. But more importantly, you'll want to collect all 100 cards in the game. Playing in an arena is the best way to do that. I've spent a few hours on the card game alone, and it's truly easy to learn but difficult to master. Brilliant.
In fact, the word 'brilliant' could easily describe the entire game. Square took the best of the old and it combined it with the best of the new. They truly did. And while some might expect that mean a hodgepodge of conflicting elements, the opposite is actually true. Final Fantasy IX is a stunning testament to the fact that the series is far from dead. It's just now coming to life!
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