Final Fantasy IX - Reader Re-Retroview  

Blast from the Past
by Jeremy Michael Gallen

20-40 Hours
+ Decently-implemented battle system.
+ Nice soundtrack mixing old and new tracks.
+ Decent visuals and FMVs.
- Battles and graphics could have been more polished.
- Tetra Master is vastly inferior to Triple Triad.
- Highly derivative, unoriginal plot and characters.
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   Princess Garnet of Alexandria is celebrating her sixteenth birthday, with the Tantalus Theater Troupe arriving to put on a show, during which they kidnap her, sparking a long chain of events where her mother, Queen Brahne, wishes to take back her daughter by force. Squaresoft's Final Fantasy IX was the last numbered installment of the series to appear on the Sony Playstation, marking a return to the franchise's roots in many respects. The ninth installment is a decent title overall, although in many ways it takes the series' tradition a little too far.

   FF9 yet again marks the return of randomly-encountered active-time battles, but this time, fights have up to four participating characters rather than three like in the seventh and eighth installments. Rather than having endless customization like in FF7 and FF8, moreover, each character's ability lists, consisting of two unique skill sets alongside normal attacks and item usage, are fixed, much akin to the fourth installment, with unchangeable classes as well; for instance, Zidane is a thief that can steal items, Vivi is a black mage who can cast attack magic, and Dagger can use both healing magic and summon spells, called Eidolons in this installment.

   Each character gradually learns a number of MP-consuming and innate support skills from whatever equipment they're currently wearing through AP gained after combat alongside standard experience, money, and occasional items. In order for such skills to be permanent additions to each character's skill selection, they must keep the gear containing these skills equipped until mastery, after which they can proceed to learn skills from other equipment. Outside battle, the player can "equip" support skills learned from weapons, armor, and accessories (with effects such as protection against certain status ailments), with a number of points occasionally increased from leveling dictating how many they can equip.

I share a birthday with Yakov Smirnoff. In Soviet Russia, juice sleeps *you*!

   Characters in battle, furthermore, have gauges that slowly build up whenever they take damage, allowing them to go into Trance mode when filled, having various effects from character to character such as increased attack damage. Overall, combat has plenty going for it, although there are some shortcomings such as long loading time before battle, frequent lag (even on the fastest active-time setting) between command input and command execution, and some irritating randomized elements such as whether or not summon spell animations become significantly shorter and Zidane's rate of stealing rare items from bosses. Still, support skills can sometimes turn the tide of tough fights, and ultimately, the battle system serves the game well.

   The interface has a few things going for it, such as a relatively easy menu system, although the learn-skills-from-equipment system can create a mild character management nightmare, with the player having to constantly scroll through equipment lists to find another skill from which a character can learn skills after mastering one piece of equipment's skills, and while there is an option to optimize equipment based on strength, one to optimize equipment based on skill-learning would have been nice, as well. The player, moreover, must have a character in the active party in order to actually manage their equipment.

   As with its predecessors, moreover, Final Fantasy IX has a number of sidequests and mini-games such as Tetra Master, a more complex version of Triple Triad from FF8. While Triple Triad was not without its share of issues, Tetra Master is more or less an unplayable nightmare, with abysmal in-game explanation of its rules, and few tangible benefits from playing. Chocobo Hot-and-Cold, though, is actually fairly decent and with a few rewards. There are some other issues such as occasional poor direction on how to advance the main storyline, and ultimately, while interaction doesn't severely hamper the game, it could've been better as well.

I'm goan kill you Eminem gets turned into a goblin

   Whereas the eighth installment of the series was the epitome of innovation, the ninth installment borrows far more heavily from its predecessors for its gameplay and story. The learn-skills-from-equipment system originated in the sixth installment, where there were some pieces of equipment (alongside Espers, if one considers them "equipment") from which characters could learn skills, and FF9 screams as though someone looked at that small aspect and said, "Hey, let's focus the whole game around that." The ninth installment further borrows gameplay elements from FF4 (fixed ability sets) and FF7 (with Trances resembling Limit Breaks).

   The plot certainly doesn't alleviate the game's unoriginality, with endless elements that players will recognize from its predecessors, and even some references to other RPGs, such as Wild ARMs and the original Star Ocean (with Zidane resembling a Fellpool, basically a tailed human, from that particular title). The Active Time Events system, allowing players to occasionally view cutscenes of what's happening with other characters when the party is separated, really doesn't demonstrate much creativity, either, aside from the occasional optional nature of such scenes. Granted, there are some mildly inventive elements such as the skill-equip system, but otherwise, the ninth installment is more or less a retread.

   Story-wise, the ninth installment certainly puts the "fantasy" back into the franchise's moniker, what with its change from the modernistic setting of the seventh and eighth games back to a more medieval setting. As mentioned, though, the narrative borrows heavily from its predecessors, with a number of generic characters such as a protagonist with a mysterious past, a rebellious princess, a generic black mage, a power-hungry monarch, a villain manipulating things behind the scenes, and so forth. Their development varies, with some like Zidane having decent backstory, and others like Quina being filler characters at best. All in all, while the plot has some things going for it, it boldly goes where most other RPGs have gone before.

Because ours suck Time to steal some hats

   The soundtrack of Final Fantasy IX is largely a mix of the old and the new, with a few central themes such as a theme song vocalized during the ending credits, "Melodies of Life," some nice original tracks, and some remixes of pieces from past installments such as the Mount Gulug theme; the normal battle theme also sounds like a cross between those from the sixth and eighth installments. Of course, it certainly wouldn't have killed Nobuo Uematsu to have composed more than one normal battle theme, and some of the sound effects are a little irritating, such as the annoying sparkly sound whenever a character or enemy casts a spell. Still, the ninth installment is more or less pleasant to the ears.

   Visual quality, however, hasn't improved much since the eighth installment, though there are some significant changes, such as the less realistic nature of the character design, with models showing more unreal proportions, sometimes giving the illusion that the graphics look a bit worse than those in FF8. Character models do look a bit grainy when far from the screen, although the pre-rendered environments very well convey the game's fantasy setting, and the FMVs, as with before, are the high point of the Playstation's visual capabilities. The visuals are one of the game's strongest suits, although they could have certainly used more polish.

   Finally, a straightforward playthrough of the ninth installment takes somewhere around thirty hours, although as with just about every other entry into the franchise, sidequests can boost playing time indefinitely. Overall, Final Fantasy IX, while certainly not without its flaws such as a derivative story, decently pays homage to its predecessors, serving as one final retread of the franchise's past before continuing the tradition of innovation and change commenced in the seventh and eighth installments. Those in want of something fresh and different can certainly find it in other installments of the franchise, but those wishing for a breath of nostalgia from the series might just find the air quality good and pure.

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