Review by Mariner
"Glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity"
Every review should be able to answer one simple and obvious question. Is the game fun? And yet, when I look at this game, the ninth in a highly acclaimed series (and a series I enjoy), I find it hard to answer that question. On the one hand, I did play through the game in its entirety, and I did like some of it. Yet, on the other hand, I can't pinpoint much about this game that I can point to and say ''this is good, this is right.'' The game itself is an enigma, pretending to get back to its roots while being, in reality, something entirely different. Such pretending seems to be at the heart of the game, as the whole thing feels like its simply going through the motions.
It's evident from the very moment you start. We start with a scene of a Black Mage named Vivi (replete with beady yellow eyes and a pointy hat, of course) approaching a castle and staring at an airship. You can almost hear Square saying ''see, it's a fantasy game!'' Vivi eventually meats up with the hero of the game, Zidane, a thief sent to kidnap the princess of this castle (Alexandria) named Garnet. And, like practically every other RPG in existence, events occur to bring these folk to meet other folk and save the world as Zidane and Garnet fall in love. What else is new?
Fortunately, though, the events that are occurring are rather interesting. The beginning is basically about a mad queen declaring war on the other nations on this continent and how people react to that. Such down to earth (by videogame standards, of course) problems and developments were exciting to watch as they unfolded. I wish the plot could have stayed at this ''superficial'' level and watched the leaders of the nations square off against each other and the characters react as their hometowns are destroyed.
But unfortunately, the plot moves on as the war fades away, into yet another crazy guy in mad scheme for power bit. Sure, Kuja was a different sort of villain than, say, Sephiroth (both in motive and in, er, visual appearance), but his story just wasn't as interesting. Yes, I did find myself getting somewhat involved with Terra and Garland and the genomes, but I just preferred the more direct, realistic story that the beginning offered. But it was the crystals, advertised so heavily as a return to the series' roots, that really ruined it for me. They were merely wedged in at the very end, seeming blatantly artificial and entirely superfluous. The story would have been much better if Square ignored them completely and didn't try to jam them in where they didn't belong. But hey, they needed to pretend this was an old school story, so whatever.
With the somewhat mixed story comes somewhat mixed characterization. For the most part, your heroes are mere caricatures, 1-D cutouts who say the same sort of thing over and over again. I was getting sick of hearing Quina talk about food or Steiner's bumbling naivete. Perhaps even Square recognized this, as Zidane even comments on Eiko's one track mind. Speaking of which, Zidane's also kind of bleh. Your first impressions of him are as a free-wheeling skirt chaser, yet as the game wears on Square seems to convert him into some sort of perfect role, as if he was an ambassador for humanity or something. His chemistry with Kuja and Terra just didn't gel, making the shocking events up there kind of forced and unbelievable. Fortunately, though, Garnet and Vivi are well scripted. Vivi's existential questions on his life, and his eventual optimism as they are slowly answered made him the deepest character of the game, while Garnet's struggle to cope with the disasters occurring around her made her interesting to watch. These were really the only strong characters, but I guess 2 out of 7 ain't bad.
Of course, this story serves as a backdrop to some fine gameplay elements. FFIX is pretty much what you've come to expect from Square - a well structured RPG with a variety of locales that is seldom frustrating, never dull, and quite impressive. Unlike many novice RPGs, there are no wild jumps in difficulty, interesting bosses and locales, and some special moments that really make the game stand out. And, like every FF game, it has a certain uniqueness to it, namely the ability and class systems.
The ability system in this game is equipment based. Basically, each piece of equipment has a couple abilities ingrained in them. These can be support (like invulnerability against certain status elements or extra damage to certain enemies) or action (like cure, fire, steal, etc). Thus, you must worry about these skills as well as the typical stats of the weapons and armor. Of course, as you wear these equipments in battle, you gain ability points, and can eventually be able to use the abilities without wearing the specific equipment. Do you want to upgrade your weapon now, or wait until you finish learning that skill that may or may not be useful? It was a decent idea, and I enjoyed switching my equipment around and balancing the need for ability learning vs higher stats. Granted, it's not as deep as Materia or the job system, but it was still enjoyable. I can't claim it was the best idea they could have done, but it was a nice change of pace.
And it would be ridiculous not to talk about the return of the class system. Yes, for the first time since FF4, all your characters can't become anything they want to be. Only Vivi can use black magic, Garnet and Eiko use white magic or summoning, and Steiner is clearly the best for physical attacks. Although I prefer the more customizable later FFs, this was a nice breath of fresh air. Really, any team could work out for you, and the people you choose will depend on your own preferences. There are some balance issues (the worst aspect is that Eiko and Garnet are practically the same in every way, except Eiko does everything slightly better), but you can still make it with the worst characters like Quina. Like the ability system, it's a nice change of pace from the more complex FF games of late, and it works fairly well. I don't think I'd like it to be the norm, but it's still ok.
Of course, this is merely the standard for Square, items we should expect. And unfortunately, there are items we shouldn't expect out of an FF game - some poorly balanced details that veterans like Square should have eliminated immediately. The most obvious is the Auto-regen ability. Unlike previous FFs, regen is very powerful here, and having it automatically cast on your characters means you will never have to cure in battle. Just summon a monster and by the end of the cut scene, all of your characters will be completely healed. I should also point out the number of abilities for each character. Zidane and Steiner, for instance, always had more abilities than you could use, making you choose which ones were the most important (which is as it should be). But characters like Vivi and Garnet had too few, giving you extra spaces to equip abilities that were completely irrelevant. There are times when people leave and exit your party, which is only natural. Unfortunately, it also means that when you all reunite again, half your characters will be at level 30 and the other half at level 15. Couldn't Square kindly level them up offscreen; wouldn't that make more sense? Summons had their own problems. You gain a select few, and then all of a sudden get half a dozen at once. The only reason I ever used Shiva and Ifrit were merely to see what they looked like; by the time I recieved them there were already plenty of stronger summons at my command. Sigh...
Of course, it's the Trance that takes the cake for the dumbest idea. The new version of the Limit Breaks, it was completely and utterly useless. It only lasted through the one battle that you gain it in, meaning 9 times out of 10 you gain and lose your trance on an easy worthless random battle. And then your trance meter empties and you have to waste forever getting it back, only to once again fall into a trance 5 seconds before ending another easy battle. What a waste.
It should also be pointed out that this game is extremely linear. From the moment you start, you are stuck on your path until about half way through the second disk. It's an inconvenience, to be sure, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. What is bad, however, is that it interferes with the major minigame of this game - the chocobo treasure hunt. This minigame gives some nice rewards, but takes forever to complete. It's the type of thing that, if you want to do it, should be done for short perids of a time at regular intervals. But because of this linearity, you can't go back to it regularly, thus hurting its potential. By the time you get your second shot at it, the rewards you're likely to reap are weak and unsatisfying, and you're forced to spend forever building up your chocobo. I don't mind the linearity, but Square should have found a way around this, perhaps by providing multiple chocobo forests. Such inattention to obvious problems is typical of this game, unfortunately.
However, if there is one overwhelming positive, it is the atmosphere. The game is downright gorgeous, especially the two major castles. Their spires glitter in the sky; the great sword of Alexandria high up in the heavens and the massive fleet of airships slowly orbiting Lindblum caught my eye from the very first moment I saw them. Other places are almost as cool and certainly quite atmospheric, from the chilly ice cavern to the creepy forest to the prehistoric caverns. And the cut scenes... I say bah to those who complain about not wanting to see a movie. They're amazing, pretty, and a joy to watch. I've always wanted to see epic battles with airships, and I finally got my wish here (and then some - one of the last cinemas is simply mindblowing). It's a glitzy, visually appealing game, and it's certainly the best thing going for it.
If only the character design could have taken its cue from the awe inspiring landscape and cut scenes. In short, they're all either incredibly generic (Garnet) or downright goofy. Steiner, a knight, looks like he's wearing shorts and tennis shoes, and his face appears to be painted on. Quina is simply ridiculous, Amarant is out of proportion (and the whole not-seeing-his-face thing is just stupid), and don't get me started on Kuja and Queen Brahne. Its hard to take the game seriously with designs like that.
And in the end, these designs are just another example of the overall pointlessness of this game. Is it epic? Yes and no. Is it ''old-school''? Yes and no. Is it good? ...Yes and no. The conflicting goals, appealing to the jaded fans while not pissing off the new ones, bringing the series back to its roots while still keeping some originality, toning down the darker nature of the past few games while not turning it into a parody, hurt the game overall. Important aspects that should have been fixed just seemed to fall by the wayside. Yes, you're still getting a quality Final Fantasy experience. Unfortunately, it's a watered-down, tasteless experience. I'm not sorry I played it, but I don't think I'll be going back to it again.
Final Score - 7.0
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 09/29/03
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