Review by UltimaterializerX
"One of the single most underrated and best games Squaresoft has ever produced"
Final Fantasy IX is an absolute masterpiece. The fatal flaw with the game is that it was released in the year 2000, a time period in which Playstation 2 hype was running wild all over the world. To this degree, Final Fantasy IX simply did not get the attention it deserved. To hardcore fans of the Final Fantasy series, this game will feel like a tribute to the rest of the series, which it is. Throughout the entire game, virtually everything within the game itself can be traced to a past Squaresoft Final Fantasy of some sort, be it Zidane's reference to Cloud in the Lindblum Weapon Shop, or the speech of the game's final boss. The reason for this tribute is most likely because the game was released in the year 2000, but this is speculation on my part, and completely unconfirmed.
You begin the game as the main character, Zidane, who is a member of a traveling group of thieves and thespians known as Tantalus. The initial mission is to kidnap the princess of Alexandria, whose name, we are told, is Garnet. Once the plan for the abduction is laid out to the player, the scene shifts into the town of Alexandria itself, where the player takes control of the single greatest little guy in the history of Squaresoft, Vivi. Vivi's initial story is that he is a black mage child in Alexandria to see the play being performed by Tantalus, 'I Want To Be Your Canary'. After a small time of the player controlling Vivi and getting used to the game's various controls and nuances, the scene finally shifts to the play itself, and the initial planned abduction of Garnet. After a small chain of events, the theater troupe sees their theater ship crashed into the nearby Evil Forest, and the player is left on his own with his band of adventurers on his quest to save the princess of Alexandria, who happens to have been thrown from the theater ship in the crash into the forest. Or so the player thinks. Like every other Square title ever made, the into is basic, but the story eventually shifts to an unlikely group of heroes setting out to save the world from impending doom at the hands of a maniacal villain.
And thus, the trek through the world of Final Fantasy IX has begun.
Simply put, the gameplay is the sole reason I can't give this game a perfect score; specifically, the battle system.
As for every other facet of the game, they are solid works of art and together form one of the greatest games ever. The game flows very well from one event to the next, and for the most part, the speed of the game is perfect. There aren't a ton of unexpected plot twists that confuse the gamer. Everything presented is both simplistic in its brilliance yet gives enough to be emotionally riveting at all the right times. The characters mesh well with one another in both characterization and surrounding environment, and with the occasional rare exception, every word put into the script works well.
In terms of pure gameplay --that is, the control styles and the difficulty levels-- Final Fantasy IX delivers with astounding results. Veterans of the Final Fantasy series will find the controls very similar to its Playstation predecessors, and in the event of a button or two feeling a little out of place, the controls can be customized. There are also a couple of little added bonuses that make Final Fantasy IX unique in the series. When a treasure or point of interest is encountered by the character in control of the player, an icon will appear over the character's head, making discoveries simplistic to players who may have difficulty finding the treasures that are a bit harder to reach than others. Another new system includes the Active Time Event, or ATE. By simply pressing select once the ATE icon appears, the player can see an event going on outside the point of view of the character in control. This adds a more personal feel to the characterization and development behind each character, thus serving what I believe to be the purpose of the ATE quite nicely. Squaresoft wants us to see how the characters interact with their surrounding environment when not in plain view of the main character.
Another new system of point are abilities, and the methods by which characters learn them. Gone are the days of simply turning your characters into deities by slapping a few materia on them. Time must be taken to get your characters to optimum status, simply because abilities are learned from items. If the player simply rushes into equipping their characters with the best items before abilities are taught from the old items themselves, the characters will miss out on much-needed abilities, and the characters will fall behind. This may sound annoying, but this could not be farther from the truth. There is an obvious amount of work put in by the game's creators to ensure that the abilities taught from items don't take forever to ascertain among characters, and few sessions of levelling up are required to get characters to optimum status. This is another example of how everything in the game was balanced out to near perfection to create wonderful flow.
Lastly, there is the method by which the characters equip the abilities once learned. They have magic stones that must be allocated to each innate ability through the menu screen, and the higher the character's level, the more magic stones there are at his or her disposal. As a quick example, we'll use the innate ability Auto Reflect to illustrate. The player simply goes into the Ability menu screen and clicks on Auto Reflect. Simple as that. Obviously the better abilities require more magic stones to allocate.
The Battle System
Simply put, the battle system is the tragic flaw of Final Fantasy IX. Most of the time, a weak battle system can be ignored, but this is simply not the case in Final Fantasy IX, simply due to the fact that a good part of every RPG is dedicated to fighting the enemies.
I'll start with a few good points, however. As I said earlier, this game is more a tribute to the series than anything else, and as such, the in-battle systems are recognizable to fans of Final Fantasy IV. Each character is given an innate job class, and that's it for them. Zidane can only be a Thief, Vivi can only be a Black Mage, Steiner can only be a Knight, etc; furthermore, the characters are not all given the same abilities, even though many of them can learn many abilities through the course of the game. Rather, each character's ability list is unique to the character and his or her job class. I have always liked these sort of skillsets, simply because a game where too many options are available either become too easy or too confusing to manage. The perfect example of an easily abused battle system would be Final Fantasy VII. Scrape a random wart off of a toad, spend hours giving it the best materia combinations possible, and watch as that random wart defeats the game's optional super boss in a matter of minutes. In Final Fantasy IX, however, the options are limited, thus creating perfect simplicity on top of making the game innately more difficult, as was the case in Final Fantasy IV. None of the characters can become all-powerful deities, which I have always been in favor of.
Every yin has its yang, however, and in the case of battle within Final Fantasy IX, the flaw of battle is so apparent that the annoyance level rivals that of a room full of brats never knowing when or how to shut the hell up. Battles in Final Fantasy IX take forever, plain and simple. A large chunk of the player's game time will be spent watching the battle load through camera panning and quick cuts to the scene of the battle to the death among nature's evil Mist-spawned inhabitants. From there, the enemies always seem to be faster than the player in charge of the characters in battle, even when the battle option is set to Wait. Add to this how long it takes for a character to take action once resolution commences, and you're looking at roughly 90-180 seconds spent per each simple random battle, and upwards to 5 minutes or more for the difficult random battles in the game. And pray that you never encounter an enemy that counterattacks each of your actions, because between the eternity it takes for each entity in battle to perform its action and ending the battles themselves, you might be collecting social security before the battles are over. They can take that long, especially the more involved fights. This is okay for boss battles, but it is completely unnecessary for each and every random battle in the game, and gets far beyond annoying by the end of disk two. But this one flaw aside, the game is still worth playing.
The last note I will make about the game's battle system is that I feel that there are far too many points in the game where a party is forced on the player. This leaves items left on old characters, underdeveloped characters, and characters who have trouble holding their own late in the game.
I already introduced the very beginning of the game, but that was merely the very beginning. Once the party's theater ship crashes in the local forest, the story must eventually be presented to the player, and this is where my neverending praise of Final Fantasy IX takes back its stride. The story plays out like, well, a play. In the beginning, much exposition is introduced to the player in simple and philosophical perfection in both flow and presentation. After the story's basic outline is introduced, it advances to the characters realizing that they are mere players in the grand scheme of a maniac, and they set out to uncover the truth. The game's story then veils itself piece by piece, with more dramatization added to each truth, until the main plot is finally introduced at the end of disc one! We don't even see the game's main villain until then, which is exactly the type of presentation I have always preferred in RPGs. Everything being thrown at the player all at once is never a good thing, but rather a slow unveiling of a master conspiracy theory behind the events entailing the game's characters through easy to understand dialogue. Final Fantasy IX does this perfectly, and it continues to the very end of the game.
To be very blunt, Final Fantasy IX has one of the single greatest casts of characters and backstories ever assembled into any RPG I've ever played, and to add to the brilliance of this, not one single backstory for any of these characters is hidden through vague hints and superfluous banter from meaningless characters.
Zidane plays the role of the game's main character. A Thief by nature and a 16 year old horny male teenager by heart, Zidane is not the typical Final Fantasy antagonist by any means. Not only does Zidane refuse to play the moody loner accustomed to many characters in the Final Fantasy series, he goes out and commits more acts of heroism than most any character in the series to come before him. Unlike many other characters, Zidane acts human. He speaks his mind when he's upset, is attracted to the beautiful girls when he sees them, and is fiercely loyal to his friends. Cloud and Squall on the other hand were simple morons who knew how to swing a sword. That's it. Cloud was a basketcase who failed in mostly all of his attempts to stop the party from encountering danger, and Squall never said enough for me to become attached to him. Zidane, on the other hand, refuses to allow the player to ignore him. He is simply too much like the rest of us for us to do as such, but he also possesses the qualities most of us never see. He is not only fearless around beautiful girls, but is a true hero. In fact, Zidane performs more acts of simple heroism in the first two discs of Final Fantasy IX than most other Final Fantasy protagonists claim a part of in the entirety of their games. And if the fact that Zidane acts a bit childish turns some people off, don't worry about it. The character development employed by Squaresoft snaps him out of the annoying stage real quick.
Princess of Alexandria of the Mist Continent, Garnet has seen very little outside the castle walls, save a horrific flashback to a boat tumbling in a hurricane close to the shores of a burning village. Due to recent erratic actions of the queen of Alexandria, Garnet allows Tantalus to kidnap her in an effort to save her mother from an obviously evil influence. She also wishes to see more of the world than what she has been confined to within the castle walls.
Steiner is the loyal bodyguard to Garnet and captain of the Alexandrian Knights of Pluto, and there is far more to Steiner than what we are led to believe at the beginning of the game. A feud erupts between Steiner's desires to return the princess to the castle and Zidane's desires to allow the princess to be free. However, Steiner is also a victim of wonderful character development, and he soon realizes that there is more to life outside of blind servitude. He also realizes that the one thing missing in his life is a love of his own, and personally, I believe this has more than anything to do with his attempted interruption of Zidane's plans. By the end of the game, however, Steiner turns into one of the best characters in the game, both for in-battle abilities and character development. He is solely responsible for one of the funniest lines in the game, and is later responsible for one of the most emotionally riveting lines in the game.
As I said earlier, Vivi is the greatest little guy ever. His total cluenessness of the world around him reminds us all that there is far more to the world than what we are in direct control over, and his discoveries of the truths around him are as shocking to the player as they are to him. Vivi is a reminder to never take anything for granted through the entirety of the plot, and his sheer personality alone is one of the driving forces of the party. One minute, Vivi is completely clueless and depressed about the life around him, and the next minute, he busts out of his shell to prove that even the smallest of characters can make the most emotional of differences to the party. This back and forth transition between helplessness and courage has caused virtually every player of Final Fantasy IX to love Vivi, for he is the cathartic example of how many of us can live our lives, as well. Take nothing for granted, always trek forward, and never give up.
Freya is pretty much the best character early in the game. First and foremost, she is a member of a pack of rats known as the Burmecian Dragon Knights. No seriously, they are actually a pack of rats. And they're Dragon Knights. Rats are cool, and Dragon Knights are cool. I find it amazing that game companies have waited this long to combine the two entities. Secondly, Freya's backstory is the most heartbreaking of them all. While in Burmecia, Freya fell in love with a Dragon Knight named Sir Fratley. He eventually left Burmecia to pursue ways to protect the kingdom. He of course goes missing, and the rumors swirl about Sir Fratley's current status. This causes Freya to become a Dragon Knight herself so that she too may leave Burmecia in an effort to find Sir Fratley. It is in her search that we meet Freya for the first time, and the sheer hell that this poor woman goes through right in front of our eyes can cause tears to even the most heartless of gamers. And if this weren't enough, the music surrounding Freya is the best in the game. The themes for Gizamaluke's Grotto, Burmecia Castle, and Freya herself are simply mind-blowing. I advise every player to simply leave the TV on once encountering these themes and to simply let them play for hours. They are that good, and they only add to the love of Final Fantasy IX for any of its fans.
Quina may be one of the funnier characters to ever grace a Final Fantasy. A member of a bunch of chefs known as the Qu Clan, Quina sets out to eat the various foods of the world to achieve spiritual enlightenment. In English, this teaches him Blue Magic spells in battle. His overall characterization is also hilarious, and he serves as the comic relief during periods of turmoil for the party.
Eiko is the last remaining member of the summoner tribe of Madain Sari. She also happens to be an overly emotional little girl with an obvious crush on Zidane. That little flaw aside, however, Eiko is another character who grows through development, and can be very well-liked by the end of the game. The problem with her is that she isn't introduced until near the end of disc two, and not enough time gets put into her character. Still, she is a great asset to the party, and her spells help immensely in battle when a certain someone not only leaves the party, but is utterly useless shortly after their return.
Rounding out the controllable characters is the most wanted man in all of Treno, Amarant. A bounty hunter by trade, he is nicknamed ''Red'' by his fellow bounty hunters, and even aids the party when they first meet face to face. However, Amarant soon becomes the necessary moody loner prevalent to all Final Fantasy games, but in an odd way, this helps both his character and the game. People like characters like that for some reason.
The queen of Alexandria, Brahne, had been acting rather odd since the recent appearance of a guest in the castle. Her true intentions are eventually revealed, of course, and she easily becomes one of the characters I have come to loathe the most in the series.
Kuja is the game's main villain. Simple as that. He is behind all the scenes, and pulls all the strings. Yet believe it or not, he too succumbs to amazing character development. He gets more evil as the game progresses, and unlike a certain villain named Sephiroth who only performed one memorable deed and failed in another, Kuja's wicked traits actually pay off most of the time.
The regent of Lindblum and master engineer is named... Cid. Shocking. What is a Final Fantasy without both a Cid and a few vehicles? Of course, thanks to a spell cast upon him by his lovely wife, he only has the mind of an oglop when we first meet him, which serves the purpose of both story and humor very nicely.
Aside from the mentioned characters, every character in the game gets a name. Each and every one. When the player speaks to anyone, their name appears before their script, which further shows the detail put into the game. Lastly, the main characters are unique in that they all represent a personality trait that exists within each of us, and they hold true to the trait through the entirety of the game. The personality traits are listed in the game's intro should the player decide to let the game run for a little while.
Final Fantasy IX marks the end of the graphical era for the original Playstation, however this did not stop Squaresoft from going out with an enormous bang. The cutscenes in this game, quite simply, ar the best in any game I've played in the series, including Final Fantasy X. They're that breathtaking at times. As for the non-cutscene graphics, they're a story all in itself. Every single entity, item, character, spell, and frame were drawn by hand, and most of them were directly incorporated into the game with little in the way of computer tampering. To me, this is amazing. It not only adds a sort of cartoon feel to the game, but it's almost as if the game's graphics are a tribute to the work of the Squaresoft artists. I went out and bought the Final Fantasy IX Artbook, and the sheer amount of work put into this game was simply amazing. And we aren't looking at pasted polygons and badly animated sprites, either. The effort put into this game's graphics were insane, especially considering that the game was never given a fair chance to succeed in the first place.
Final Fantasy IX has one of the best musical scores from top to bottom of any game in the series. Not only that, but every piece of music fits its environment perfectly. Fun-loving music gets put to fun-loving towns, emotional music adds drama to scenes that are riveting in and of themselves, and everything else in the game is placed with sheer perfection. There is not one flaw with the game's music. Not one. Other Final Fantasy titles have certain tracks that can be better than most of the tracks in Final Fantasy IX, but in my opinion, no other game in the series has as good an overall score to it. As I said earlier, some of the game's tracks should be left playing for a long time simply so that the player can absorb the sheer work of art involved. From the opening intro the the theme for the ending credits, this game's music does not disappoint.
Aside from a few flaws that cannot be ignored, Final Fantasy IX is easily the most underrated game in the series, and to some fans, it may be the best. It's that good to anyone willing to look beyond the surface and see the beauty underneath the skin of the game. As for what I have not yet mentioned, this game features all the necessities to be considered a staple within the series, including moogles, chocobos, an airship or two, and a ton of little mini games to enjoy. Just steer clear of Tetra Master. The game is bad, and there are no rewards for it whatsoever.
The game can be completed as short or as fast as the player wishes. The game has enough options to allow for speed runs and master files alike, and neither is potentially too difficult to achieve once the player is familiar with the game itself. Personally, Final Fantasy IX is one of my favorite games of all time, hence the long review. There are just a few things that I wish would have been changed, otherwise we could have what I feel to be one of the best games of all time on our hands.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 03/31/04, Updated 09/27/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy IX (US, 11/13/00)
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