Final Fantasy IX - Review

The Place Square will Return to Someday


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 8
   Interface 10
   Music/Sound 9
   Originality 8
   Plot 10
   Localization 10
   Replay Value 9
   Visuals 10
   Difficulty Medium - Slightly difficult
   Time to Complete

45-60 hours


Title Screen
 The place I'll return to someday. Perhaps not only Zidane's words, but those of the FF development team as well?

    The Square logo disappears, and "The Place I'll Return to Someday" begins to flute softly. Magical sound. I'm listening to it as I write this, in fact. Just as I had been playing FF 4 when I reviewed it. Just as how I had found FF 6's instruction booklet and looked through it once when I wrote FF 6's review. Just as I had just finished drawing Kid prior to writing the Chrono Cross review. The games I'm absolutely most fond of receive a 10 from me, but I need something to stimulate my mind before I can tell the world properly why the game is godsend. So I don't shortchange it. Thus I picture the Square logo fading away as my CD player treats my ears to the music from FF IX. A game that successfully took every previous game in the series, filtered out everything that was wrong with each, added upon the result, and proceeded to capture this particular writer. And after it was done, I sat back and sighed, thinking, "This will be the last phenomenal game I will see for a while."

When new FF IX gossip leaked out month after month, I grew increasingly happy. I expected a very nice finish to the pre-128-bit Square series. I expected too little. I thought that the grandness of FF 4 and 6, and the magic of Chrono Cross, would never be duplicated in my lifetime. I made the mistake of not thinking again. Maybe I blame Chrono Cross for astounding me to the point where I was jaded at all other games. But whatever the reason, I was greatly surprised at the grand time FF IX gave me. I'll stop rambling and tell you why.

   Does anyone remember old role playing videogames? Dungeon crawls, commands and menus up the wazoo? Enter Final Fantasy, with its more simplified battle system. Whack an enemy over the head? Fight. Need to recover HP? Spell, or Drink. Turn after turn, faster paced battles. Simplicity. Fun. Through eight games the Final Fantasy battle system has undergone refinements and changes. Drastic changes at some points. But not once did it lose its core engine -- quick and easy, yet requiring keep-em-on-their-toes attention. Sure Final Fantasy 7 started the trend of minute long summons. Sure Final Fantasy 8 got too boring too fast, and too easily, mainly due to the awful unbalanced Guardian Force system. But not once did the core engine stray from simplicity. And it still hasn't. Final Fantasy 9 sports the familiar Active Time Bars, simple Menu pop ups, and this time it goes back to the 4-character party of old standard. Universal Fight and Item commands do exactly that -- attack with the equipped weapon and use items, respectively. Character specific commands execute your party members' individual abilities. Black and White magic, Summons, you name it -- and just select it -- and watch the pretty color on screen. And, unless you set it to wait, everything is in real time -- better watch that ATB or how long you spend in a menu during battle, or you'll get duffed. Think you can get by just holding down the fight button? Keep doing that, but when you reach a big bad-arse of a boss, see how long you last. "What about limit breaks?" Square renamed them to "Trance" abilities. Rather than being able to use them only once when your Limit bar filled, a la FF7, or every time your health hit one-quarter of the max, a la FF 8, your Trance abilities are activated when your Trance bar fills up and de-activated when it empties. Another difference is that it enhances your character's attack strength and another innate ability, rather than giving you a super-move (except in Zidane's case). For example, the Black Mage Vivi's "Black Magic" shifts into "Double Black" -- cast two spells in one round. Steiner's physical strength simply becomes ridiculously powerful. And Freya's "Jump" command lets her sit up in the sky for three rounds, sniping with her spear like a camper in Unreal Tournament. This makes for more balanced battling (ahem, Gunblade Limit Breaks, cough), and still retains the fun of the core battle engine. People may whine that it's more of the same, but if it still manages to be fun, why protest it (case in point, fighting games)? My only complaint is that the ATB bar fills a tad bit too slow for my tastes, but when the bosses became tougher I didn't really care.

   Bless the simple battle system. But even more so, bless the mercifully simple Interface. Items are sortable, and you have a big bag to carry them in. Menus are wade-free. Abilities are relievingly easy to assign, so those who struggled with Junctioning need not worry. Abilities progress is visible from every useful vantage point -- from the Equip screen to the Abilities screen itself. Final Fantasy's menu system was never problematic, and continues not to be. Square even blessed us with "Classic Mode" -- turn this on and you get a pretty blue backdrop for your menus, a la FF games of old. Crisp, maneuverable, nostalgic interface -- perfect.

Yea Zidane... ballet leotards'll do that to ya.  

   Another thing I'm grateful for is the "rebirth," if you will, of Nobuo Uematsu sama. After the tragedy that was FF 8's soundtrack, I was afraid that the music god had lost his touch. However, Final Fantasy IX's soundtrack showed that this amnesiac has recovered. The opening tune, "The Place I'll Return to Someday," screams "Old School FF!" More importantly, it screams, "Nobuo is Back!" Final Fantasy IX leaves the clunky, electronic and tinny-sounding, melodically impaired kind of sound in the dust. The soundtrack is best described as, like the game, grandiose. Noble. Definitely epic. Many many songs are reminiscent of the Final Fantasies of old, back when Square and Nintendo were cohorts. Is the four-disc soundtrack worth actually buying? Well... yeah! Uematsu-sama does a marvelous job creating melodies, messing with their main themes to make new ones, and bringing the gamer into the game. My only gripes are the Airship theme and perhaps Steiner's theme, which both sound a bit cliche and whose melodies are quite uninspired. But does it really matter? With musical masterpieces abound in Final Fantasy IX, a blah piece or two shouldn't bother you at all.

   However, something that may look like it'll bother people is Final Fantasy IX's originality factor. "It borrows from all the past games" or "Where's something new?" comes to mind. One thing to keep in mind is, it's not always about what Final Fantasy games may borrow from each other, but how they handle it. Final Fantasy IX puts all the best aspects of the past games into a new development engine in which the characters gain abilities from items. Now I'm sure it sounds familiar. "That's just like espers and materia!" you shout, "Because all you do is equip and learn!" For the sake of argument, I offer this: lots of people raved about how Materia was bright and original, and then how Junctioning -- while complicated -- was also innovative. But then how can those two be considered innovative (and the Abilities system not) when, at the root of it, they too are "Equip, Gain Points, and Develop" systems? Something to think about. What's original about the Abilities system is, well, the abilities! "Protect Girls" (which does exactly that), "Chemist" (which doubles potion potency), and "Annoy" (that one's an evil one, just try it out!) are among the new ideas that FF IX brings to character abilities in RPGs. Also original is the whole MogNET concept, which is a game-wide and worldwide network of Moogles who interact with each other through letters, help you save and tent up, or sell you items. While not bursting with originality, Final Fantasy IX continues to bring lots of small new ideas to the table.

   "Well, at least, is the plot original?" Ehhh, yes and no. However, forget about that for a second -- when's the last time you truly hated a game's storyline just because it may have been a little cliched? Lots of plots have big twists and unexpected turns. Lots of plots have important (premature) deaths, be it main villains or characters which play an integral role. Lots of plots end up borrowing. And you know what? It doesn't matter that much, provided that the execution is well done. For Final Fantasy IX, that is a true understatement. The storyline for the game, while familiar to those who know their FF, is great for nostalgia -- and even better for newbies. It's not so convoluted that you'll get lost and frustrated. At the same time, it's not so straightforward that you can tell generally how the story will end after only completing disc 1. True to Final Fantasy form, again, the plot is well balanced and ever-entertaining.

   And no, you won't find a spoony bard here or an off course there. Hell, don't expect to find "civilzation" (an old Xenogears typo, fyi) there either. Final Fantasy IX, like Chrono Cross, is masterfully translated and localized. Zidane's character is budding with enthusiasm. You can almost feel within yourself Garnet's and ViVi's curious outlook on life. You begin to pity Steiner for being such an @$$ kisser. And Quina. Oh god, Quina. The Homer Simpson of Final Fantasy IX. And we can enjoy it all, thanks to the excellent localization. How's this for localization? Talk to an old man in Lindblum and he'll say, "Go away! I forgot what I had to do... ... ... oh right, I remember. I had to go take a dump."

Getting the Queen a facelift and a Stairmaster: priceless.  

   "Yeah well once I beat it I'm putting it down." Hold on. Have you mastered every mini-game? Found every summon? Did you get all the coffee beans (seriously!)? What about the Chocobo -- did you put its beak to work at all with Chocobo Hot and Cold? Final Fantasy IX overflows with little minigames that lead to hidden weapons, spells, items, and secrets that you'll spend hours on. Nevermind playing for different endings, which lots of other games are pushing nowadays. With the single ending in this game anyway, you'll only need one. But back to the topic. Explore, explore, explore! That's what Final Fantasy has always been about. Talk to such and such to find so and so. Bring this party member to that location and watch something happen. Go to the Auction house and get items. Activate that item over there. Get all of Quina's blue magic, even. This game, like almost any other Final Fantasy, won't let you put it down. And if you're not a minigame/exploration type of person, you might still want to play it through again just for fun -- because the game is just that exquisite.

Have you had enough? Too bad, because it gets even better. I've always been one to say that if the game itself is magnificent, but it looks like it's been done on an NES, so what. I'd pay good money for it anyway. But, if the visuals were improved, I'd pay money for that version -- it doesn't hurt to be treated to good visuals while playing a magnificent game. Well, what a treat FFIX's visuals are. Characters have returned to the familiar semi-deformed look. While it may not appeal to some players, it still gives the whole game a sort of "bounce" in its step. Not less maturity, but just more livelihood. The landscapes, of course, are just of superior quality. While not as colorful a game as Chrono Cross is, Final Fantasy IX is still very detailed, more so than the vast majority of Playstation games out there. The movies are stunning, as usual. Don't expect any less than you've seen in past Final Fantasies.

Will you ever get to see those movies, though, is the question. Don't worry, it's not *that* difficult of a game. However, don't think you'll be coasting. Compared to the last two Final Fantasies? I actually died a couple of times in normal battles. Maybe I just suck, but then if I sucked, consider the fact that I never died in a normal battle in the other two. This game gets a bit tough, as they make up for the fact that you now have four characters. Some enemies hit hard. Bosses hit even harder. Some of the new status alterations (annoy for example) make fighting a pain in the neck (but always fun, mind you). Overall it's not the hardest game out there -- but it brings back Final Fantasy 4 difficulty in some senses.

It's ViVi's arse!

This game is also not horribly long, nor disappointingly short. The game's minimum can be estimated to a healthy 45 hours, to about 60 hours for a maximum (which you can go over, of course, if you're crazy, bored, or job/school-less). Rushing through it might cut it down to 40 hours, but then will you really have had fun with it? This is a game you want to sit down and savor.

In closing this review I find myself playing "The Place I'll Return to Someday" for the umpteenth time. Yes, it's taken me a while to write this. The game is excellent and the experience is riveting -- there's no way I could have made short work of a review on a masterpiece such as this. Perhaps the last true fantastic throwback, Final Fantasy IX should be cherished. Relive the fantasy one last time, and pray to be pleasantly surprised by a return to fantasy in the future. This will truly be the "Final" Fantasy for a while. Kudos to the Gooch and Squaresoft -- you've won me back again.

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