Price: $9.99 (PSN)
Final Fantasy IX was the series’ last attempt to return to its roots. It presents a fantastic world with a cast of unforgettable characters, an intriguing world, a timeless story, and a score that captures the heart of all of it. There are no long mantras with the hero pining over their past, no complicated love hexagons, no hair-rippingly frustrating magic draw systems or skill trees to bother with. FFIX is a straightforward game with straightforward characters in a straightforward story. It was refreshing then and it’s refreshing now.
FFIX opens up with birthday celebration of Alexandria’s princess and the Tantalus Theater Troupe arriving via airship upon Queen Brahne’s approval. However, the performance was a ruse to kidnap Garnet, who is less than happy with her “mother’s” increasingly disturbing behavior, and was likewise planning on stowing away on the Troupe’s airship in order to escape her kingdom to meet with Regent Cid in the neighboring kingdom of Lindblum. During their escape, the Troupe’s airship was severely damaged. Unable to maintain their elevation, the ship crashes into the evil forest. The forest’s curse is awakened and begins to petrify itself and everyone in it. The Troupe and Garnet are forced to run for their lives. Unfortunately, only Zidane and Dagger manage to escape.
Zidane, a foundling on the streets, reveals himself as having suffered from amnesia. He has no idea what he is, who he is, or where he came from, but he has a casual, up-beat attitude and has left a lot of his emotional baggage behind him. While put off by his character at first, Garnet grows quite fond of the monkey-tailed thief.
The party escapes to Lindblum but finds Cid in a most regrettable state. Because he was apparently something of a womanizer, he was turned into a bug-like creature. He reveals that he was behind the attempted kidnapping and had hired the Tantalus Troupe to take Garnet in order to remove her from the growing danger within Queen Brahne’s court. During their stay in Lindblum, the party learns that Brahne has begun invading surrounding countries with the aid of a mysterious figure by the name of Kuja. They learn that a neighboring kingdom, Cleyra, is next in the line of destruction. Zidane and some of his companions remain behind to build a defense while Garnet attempts to appeal to Brahne’s better nature. Garnet tries to stop her foster-mother only to have her eidolons (a fancy word for summons) ripped away from her and used for Brahne’s purposes. Cleyra is destroyed by one of Garnet’s former eidolons followed by Lindblum. Zidane and his party manage to rescue Garnet by hijacking Brahne’s ship but they were unable to hold off the queen’s rampage. Garnet, throwing off the mantle of her nobility, decides to go by “Dagger” and throws her lot in with her new companions.
Through the course of FFIX, the war swells and Kuja takes hold of the reins. He poses a far greater threat than Brahne ever could, and in a twist of fate, he holds the keys to Zidane’s mysterious origins. Each member of the party must suffer through personal loss, betrayal, and overcome their differences to pose a united front against Kuja and the darkness sweeping through the world. It’s a fantastic story that allows the player to get their feet wet slowly before tossing them into a storm of chaos that, at this point, they will feel heavily invested in. The characters each have their own dragon to slay before they are strong enough to take the hands of those around them and move forward. Of all the Final Fantasy games,this one has the most satisfying ending that rewards all the suffering and pain that the cast goes through.
The story includes a variety of characters that I failed to mention, mostly to avoid spoilers. Among them is a lovable black mage by the name of Vivi, a dragoon by the name of Freya, Steiner, a knight devoted to Garnet’s protection, Amarant, a loner who speaks very little, Eiko, a summoner, and Quina, who…we’ll just not talk about. The cast is diverse and, for the most part, endearing.
There is a culture, now mostly extinct, that is revealed through the course of the FFIX devoted to eidolon worship. It has parallels to Pagan cultures but there’s nothing too alarming. The bad guys do the majority of the darker rituals within the game, the worst of it involving two clowns extracting an eidolon from Garnet’s body. Overall, any occultist themes are pretty mild.
The violence in FFIX is nothing shocking. Weapons strike enemies in flashes of light, characters do die, and there is massive destruction of entire cities, but there’s very little blood and absolutely no gore. It’s pretty standard for a Final Fantasy game mild by today’s standards.
The swearing is pretty mild by today’s standards, with none of the more egregious swear words included. The “d” word is dropped frequently and there are some rougher characters with potty-mouths but, it’s nothing we don’t hear every day from the mouths of middle-schoolers who have discovered that they don’t get struck by lightning when they cuss.
The crude humor is mild as well, but there are several implications that are left to the player’s imaginations that push the limits a bit. For example, Zidane is apparently a womanizer. He encounters hostile females on occasion and he’s quick to make a pass at a lady or two through the course of the game. These instances are in optional cut-scenes, however, and are again tame.
The last thing to note in this category is… Kuja. What has been seen—well, let’s just say he wears as little clothing as he can get away with while FFIX still maintainins a T rating. He’s a little hard to take seriously, and his design is pretty provocative.
While there is no open drug use, there are taverns where alcohol is consumed. Some NPC’s can even be considered a little tipsy at times, but there is no heavy focus on them.
Final Fantasy IX is one of those rare games that does not try to turn everything into subjective shades of gray. There is a very distinct line between good and evil with good almost always coming out strong. The good nature of the main cast really shines through and illuminates even the faint but present light inside of some of the major villains of the game.
One major element of Final Fantasy IX that really shines through is the concept of loving thy enemy. Perhaps it sounds a little cliché , but the two major protagonists of the game, Zidane and Garnet, have every reason to be bitter and hateful, most especially of their respective antagonists. Zidane’s counterpart, Kuja, for example, is the root of his problems. Abandonment, rejection, and even the lifelong confusion as to who he was and how he fit in boiled down to Kuja’s actions against him. Instead, Zidane holds no resentment against him. When confronted with Kuja, he actually attempts to reason with him and appeal to his better nature. Avoiding spoilers, his final resolution with Kuja is among one of the most moving moments in any Final Fantasy game. Likewise, Garnet has every reason to resent her foster-mother, Queen Brahne. Instead, she struggles to see the good in the corrupted tyrant and pleads with her to see reason. Like Zidane, her final resolution with Brahne is touching and really captures the genuine compassion of her character.
Aside from the larger over-arching stories, there are more subtle interactions that occur, reflecting acceptance, compassion, and honor. A rag-tag party of social rejects and outcasts find a place with each other. Each has an empty place within themselves that, by the end of the game, is filled by their companions. They overlook their differences and shortcomings and instead build upon one another’s strengths.
Final Fantasy IX plays very similar to earlier installments of the franchise.The player moves across a massive overworld from a top down view. During exploration, there are random encounters with a variety of monsters that grow progressively more challenging as the story moves forward. Exploration is limited by country boundaries, checkpoints, and coastlines at first, but later, the player is able to more more freely.The overworld is also the only other place you can save other than save points. Using a moogle flute that is obtained early on in the game, Zidane summons a moogle (a winged hamster-like creature common to the Final Fantasy games) can save your progress. Most cities, towns, and dungeons will have save points within them as well.
Early on, Zidane and his company can befriend a chocobo (otherwise known as a giant war chicken) that can be summoned anywhere his tracks appear on the world map. The chocobo, Choco, opens up his own series of side-quests in which he can be leveled up to become stronger and more versatile. When you first befriend Choco, he is only able to cross over areas where Zidane himself can walk. However as Choco grows, he can eventually walk over water; \with enough time and effort, Choco is given the ability to fly. This cuts down on a lot of travel time as well as offering a charming little side quest for the player to enjoy. Choco also opens a small mini game called “hot and cold” within his home forest where he pecks at the ground in search for treasure.
Yet fastest mode of transportation comes a bit later in the game when the player gains access to an air ship. Exploration is much faster as travel time is reduced dramatically and random encounters are non-existent while traveling via airship.
Within cities and towns, exploration is a little more linear, but there’s always nooks and crannies available to explore. Some places unlock optional cutscenes that can be viewed when the player is prompted or completely ignored. The cutscenes themselves often add a little more depth to the current morale of the party, a little more background information regarding current events, or are just for laughs. Either way, they’re short and painless and add to the story. Some areas will hold hidden treasures or interesting NPC’s. As with most RPG’s, towns also contain inns where the party can stay the night to recover health, shops where they can stock up on potions, weapons, and armor, and of course there’s the infamous card games.
Combat works much the same way as it did in previous Final Fantasy games though thankfully, FFIX took the best of its predecessors and left the weaker aspects out. No more is the teeth-grinding agony of Final Fantasy VIII‘s magical draw system. Now, you can build characters how you’d like using points gained in battle. They can learn skill sets, magical spells, and passive abilities. As they grow in level, your characters gain points that they can put towards skills. Some skills cost as little as 3 points while others will cost a lot more. These skills alter how they perform in battle and what kind of strengths they’ll exhibit. What’s better is that these abilities can be turned on and off so you can better prepare yourself for the sort of enemies you’ll face. For example, activating Bird Killer as an ability means that attacks dealt to bird monsters will be more effective. Some abilities will unlocked as the character levels up, others will be available only to certain characters. This forces you not only to doctor your individual characters to the situation, but your party as well.
Each character specializes in one type of weapon, but there are dozens of varieties of the weapons available. Weapons can be found in shops, treasure chests, or obtained after defeating a boss. Zidane’s ultimate weapon, for example, is obtainable only if the player can find the hidden boss of the game and defeat it. Ironically, this boss is the most difficult enemy in the game and the weapon it drops makes the official final boss much easier.
Along with weapons, a variety of armor sets can be found to further boost the party’s defensive capabilities as well as their resistance against certain kinds of enemies and attacks. It’s always a good idea to keep a few sets of both weapons and armor available rather than selling them off. Some weapons have elemental properties that are more effective against certain kinds of enemies while others’ properties will actually heal the enemy!
Finally, the combat itself is a standard turn-based style. The player chooses how each of the party members attack (or sets them on auto if they’re confident enough in the battle’s outcome) and the turn commences. Characters can attack, defend, cast spells, or use items in combat. As the characters accomplish successful attacks or spells, they slowly build up energy that can later be released in a specialized state called Trance, this game’s version of Limit Break. Trance increases physical attacks by 1.5x (save for Steiner, who is more powerful) and opens up attacks exclusive to the trance state. Along with that, the characters’ physical appearance alters slightly. The most noticeable alteration is in Zidane where he seems to become more feral. And pink..scary! One thing to note, is there is at least one enemy that can enter into a trance state so it’s something to defend against as well as work up to. Trance is best saved for boss battles and difficult encounters, but because the characters enter into the state after a certain amount of battles, it can be difficult to time a trance state just right.
While revolutionary for their time, the graphics in FFIX are a little dated. That said, it doesn’t take a long time to adjust to the graphics. They aren’t choppy enough to be a hindrance or a distraction; it’s just difficult to look at FFIX in an age where in-game graphics are nearly photorealistic. That said, the graphics are impressive for a PlayStation 1 game. The characters have fluid movements and emote very well, even in battle.
The cinematic cutscenes, however, hold up. The 3-D anime style may not be for everyone with exaggerated features such as large heads and feet, but regardless they’re very well done. The characters show a lot of emotion, even in the most subtle of smirks, a bob of the shoulder, or a slight glance. The epic scenes depicted in the cinematic cut scenes are magnificent. The pacing is amazing, even for the short snippets that we get. There’s no dialogue or voice acting, but the expressive way that the characters react is more than sufficient.
The score is beautiful and is composed of old favorites such as the Final Fantasy main theme (available during the continue screen) and the Chocobo Theme (available while riding Choco) as well as newer songs such as “You’re Not Alone” and “A Place I’ll Return to Someday.” It’s a fantastic score, composed by Final Fantasy icon, Nobuo Uematsu. Even if you decide to skip on the game, I highly recommend at least one listen to the soundtrack.
Final Fantasy IX is my favorite of the Final Fantasy games. It calls back to an old, familiar fairy-tale feel from the sci-fantasy setting to the cast of diverse other-worldly characters while introducing enough fresh elements to own the story to itself. The characters are generally light-hearted but can grow serious when the occasion calls for it. Where previous installments focused a lot of the game around the lead’s emotional state, Final Fantasy IX focuses on the story. The characters are strong enough to persevere through their trials without crippling moments of self-pity. The story doesn’t try to over-complicate itself or send the player on an emotional rolleroaster. It’s enjoyable, fairly challenging when it needs to be, and a much-needed call back to the game’s roots.
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