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Final Fantasy IX
The Final Fantasy series — as the name might imply — began as a purely fantasy setting with a diverse cast of warriors, mages, and a host of other RPG fantasy archetypes. While VI dabbled in steampunk-esque magic-technology and its sequels VII and VIII both delved entirely into futuristic sci-fi/fantasy worlds, Final Fantasy IX was a return to form for Square, a throwback to the traditional swords-and-sorcery themes featured so heavily in the earlier games in the series, along with a resurgence of the classic archetypes such as Black Mage and Thief.
Fortunately for Square, the gambit was a huge success — released near the end of what many would consider to be the golden age of JRPGs (the era spanning the SNES and PlayStation 1), IX paints a stunningly gorgeous world full of colour, life and character. Loaded with enough nostalgia to appeal to fans of the older games in the series, the game is still easily strong enough to stand on its own merits even for one who has never experienced a Final Fantasy game before.
This Review: PlayStation (2000)
Near-Identical Versions: PlayStation 3 (2010), PlayStation Portable (2010), PlayStation Vita (2012), PC (2016), PlayStation 4 (2017)
Game Length: 40-50 hours
Critic Rating: 92% aggregateThe aggregate critic rating is based on independent review scores from several other websites.
The tale begins with Zidane, a rogueish lad with a monkey tail and a quick wit, conspiring with his fellow gang of thieves — masquerading as a theater troupe, Tantalus — to kidnap the Princess of Alexandria and hold her to ransom. Meanwhile, a young and rather timid black mage named Vivi is distraught to discover that his ticket to see Tantalus’ play is a fake, and tries to find another way to sneak in to watch. These and a number of other characters meet in unlikely ways and band together to begin a quest of political intrigue and betrayal, escalating rather predictably into a struggle for the fate of the world itself.
While the plot isn’t terribly dense, the writing and character development are fantastic, there’s plenty of good humour to break up the serious moments, and the world is charming enough to quickly draw the player in. It very firmly places both feet in familiar ground and sticks fairly unabashedly to the old-school Final Fantasy formula — almost certainly an intentional decision, as the game is clearly a celebration of the series’ earlier history.
The cast of characters fit into the archetypes of many well-known Final Fantasy jobs from previous games, though their well-written characters shine through and give them all distinct and unique personalities. Each character is unique and engaging, and much of the game’s humour derives from the constant conflicts between Zidane and his companions.
A significant step up from its predecessors, the visuals in Final Fantasy IX are nothing short of superb, and some of the best graphics you’ll ever see on the original PlayStation. The pre-rendered backgrounds are richly-detailed and varied, aided by animated elements both in the foreground and background, while the character models are expressive and thoroughly charming. The world itself is beautiful and varied, from the Qu swamps to the desert town of Cleyra, there’s always something new to see and explore, and while the game world certainly doesn’t break any ground in terms of originality, it fits firmly into the classic Final Fantasy style. Despite the low native resolution of the PlayStation, the game is a visual treat from start to finish, backed up by a perfectly capable (if fairly unremarkable) user interface.
The soundtrack is where this game truly shines the brightest — in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s some of Nobuo Uematsu’s finest work. The rich and detailed world is complemented perfectly by an unforgettable soundtrack — some of the most stand-out tracks include Rose of May, You’re Not Alone and Jesters of the Moon, though these are but a handful of the incredible music this game has to offer. It’s easy to get lost in the charm and beauty of the game’s world, with the combination of lush visuals and such a top-notch soundtrack.
With a few minor niggles here and there, the gameplay is absolutely the high quality one would expect from PS1-era Square, with a traditional yet highly refined battle system, mini-games and side-content as bizarre as catching frogs in a swamp or answering trivia questions for prizes, and a refreshingly unique system of gaining new character skills by drawing out the latent abilities of equipped items. Most of the game is spent exploring the overworld, cities and dungeons, and solving minor puzzles to progress through area, though the game allows just enough of a sense of freedom to not feel entirely too linear. A few elements help to mix things up and keep the experience fresh, such as a hunting festival where you must compete to score the most kills within a time limit, or the collectible card game Tetra Master.
Those who have played Final Fantasy VIII may remember Triple Triad, a minigame involving collecting and battling with decks of cards. It was everything a good minigame should be — easy to learn, difficult to master, and generally enjoyable to play. Tetra Master, Square’s second attempt at an in-game card minigame, is none of these things — some of the game mechanics are intentionally obfuscated and seem to make no sense, and what should be an enjoyable minigame (which, in one section, is mandatory to progress the story) is an exercise in frustration. This is a minor niggle and the entire card game can be largely ignored, however.
Despite some small flaws, Final Fantasy IX still stands out as one of the finest games in the series, a thoroughly enjoyable and heavily story-driven adventure which will charm all but the most hard-hearted. While often overshadowed by its predecessors, IX is a classic and unforgettable game every JRPG fan should try, a richly-detailed world full of life and character, with secrets and surprises hidden around every corner. I’d even consider this an excellent contender for the first Final Fantasy game a player should experience, if they’re completely new to the series.
If you love the bright, colourful, cheerful worlds of the earlier Final Fantasy games, then you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not trying IX, a throwback that manages to stand on its own two feet as an unforgettable experience, in addition to being jam-packed full of nostalgia.