Final Fantasy IX - Review

Crystals Indeed...

By: Andrew Long

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 5
   Interface 7
   Music/Sound 8
   Originality 2
   Plot 3
   Localization 7
   Replay Value 3
   Visuals 7
   Difficulty Easy to Medium
   Time to Complete

15-70 hours


Title Screen

 Despite selling close to two million copies in North America, Final Fantasy VIII was received on a relatively lukewarm level. Too many things about the game didn't quite seem to fit in with what have become the expected elements of a Final Fantasy title. Perhaps realizing that their stranglehold on the RPG market was in danger of eroding as a result of the changes in their flagship series, Square decided to take the series back to its roots, setting the ninth entry in a strictly fantasy-themed world. The results? Well, Square has managed to squeeze the graphical capabilities of the PlayStation for all they're worth, many old elements from the series return, and gradually, it becomes clear that these elements aren't just old- they're played. As a result, much of what is a fairly enjoyable game is rendered unmemorable, and after an initial sense of blissful nostalgia, Final Fantasy IX feels... well, old.

Just as Final Fantasy VIII claims to be about love, that's really the underlying theme of Final Fantasy IX, although friendship certainly does play a large role. Just to avoid any confusion between the two titles, however, Square has also packed in a wide assortment of ponderings that seem scraped from the proverbial bottom of the philosophical barrel. Final Fantasy IX also marks a return to the days of old. Gone are the gunblades, the missile silos, the giant cities with giant reactors, the evil corporations and, thankfully, the trains, planes, and automobiles. In their place is all the stuff these things replaced; the airships, chocobos and sailing ships of yore all make their return, and there's even a sizeable dose of moogle for those who were pining for Mog(who also makes a return after undergoing an apparent sex-change operation).

Grounded in its heritage, Final Fantasy IX makes a return to some other hallmarks of games gone by. Parties are back up to four members, which creates a rather interesting dynamic shift. While it might seem that there's no real difference between three and four fighting players, that fourth member can make all the difference, and is integral to the battle system, which is actually challenging at times. Challenging because, sneakily enough, this system is almost, but not quite, turn-based. Attacks are entered in sequentially, but instead of executing immediately, they sort of queue up into a backlog. This makes for some excessively long battles, a situation which isn't helped by the horrendous loading times; it's a good fifteen seconds from the start of a fight before you can even enter a command. Thankfully, however, you are no longer required to wade through four hundred or so screens after running from a fight; but then again, there's really not very many occasions when you'll want to run, so this particular improvement is mostly wasted. What it comes down to, basically, is that the Active Time Battle has been used in so many games that it's no longer very interesting.

Once again, however, the system is not without its benefits. A giant blessing is the shortened length of the summon spells. Gone are the behemoth half-minute orgies of graphical majesty, and in their place come much more manageable five or ten second sequences(although the first time you cast the spells, they tend to be somewhat more lengthy); that said, if you're a glutton for punishment, the Boost ability does allow you to sit through the whole excruciating experience. There is a much-reduced roster of summons, as the ability system relies not on the summoned monsters but on items. This is something of an irritation, since selling items becomes less appetizing when you discover later on you need an ability you've sold off. Adding to this lack of incentive is an item creation system known as 'Synth'ing, which involves combining multiple items to create new ones. Fortunately, many Synth'd items can be found in the field, so the system isn't as integral as in some recent games; it's still there, though, which is annoying to no end, if for no other reason than the bloating of your inventory. At any rate, you learn abilities by equipping items. Once so equipped, characters accumulate ability points until they obtain the skills. There are two types of these skills: inherent skills, indicated by pretty (although meaningless) red crystals, and equippable skills, denoted by equally ornamental blue crystals. Yes, the crystals are back; aside from serving as a tangible representation of skill points, they sneak into the storyline somewhere along the way for a brief cameo. Lamentably, or perhaps not, they're otherwise less than significant in the grand scheme of things.   

And if you don't like that, his cousin spins hip-hop!
DJ Giant Onion spins a killer set  

   With a system that is effectively a hybrid of the previous three Final Fantasy titles, Final Fantasy IX can feel rather like a retread at times. Though the plot itself is original enough, there are certain elements of the game that have just been played out a few too many times. The name 'Cid', for instance, is losing all meaning; though older fans will probably remember the little mustachioed fellow from Final Fantasy IV as Cid the best, there's now a distinguished engineer/frog/oglop, schoolmaster, airship pilot, and overinflated balloon to choose from as well. It's elements like these that kind of need to be put to rest, because it really doesn't enhance the story to include a character named Cid just for the sake of sticking in someone named Cid. Then, too, there is Square's love of an ever-ascending chain of villainry. Fortunately, they've outgrown the 'Now-see-my-true-form' stage, but they have chosen to retain other hackneyed elements which effectively simulate this sort of evilness. Overall, the story doesn't suffer too greatly from these problems, but it's not that great a storyline to begin with, so that's not saying particularly much. Oh well. At least the ending is good.

At first, it seems as though Uematsu has finally lost his touch. The music in this game seems downright unmemorable on the first playthrough. There are a number of pieces in this game that stand out, however, and once the pieces become familiar it grows clear that Uematsu hasn't gotten worse; he's just changed his style. As a result, the score tends to be less distinctive based upon the melodic quality of the songs, but is instead notable for its overall musical strength. The quality of the sound and sound effects is also unparalleled by any of the previous titles in this series, and in the end, while not as strong as some earlier entries in the series, the music of Final Fantasy IX can hold its own, and frequently does.

   Following on the heels of Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy IX's translation is marvellously done; however, also following on the heels of Chrono Cross, the characters tend to have the personal diversity of toast. It's really hard to believe that something's life could revolve around eating or unreasoning honorability. Still, the translation itself is a bang-up job, without error, so far as I could tell. There were a few questionable lines, however: "Fear leads to hate... hate leads to suffering..." Hmm... where have I heard THAT before? Oh well... Square hasn't bothered to rip off Star Wars since Final Fantasy IV, so I suppose they can be excused; in fact, Skywalker Sound is listed in the credits, so maybe they were just tossing in a tribute to their partners in production.

You do it like this...
Vivi's misguided get-rich-quick scheme: Steal rich people's hats  

If only George Lucas had also had a hand in the graphics, maybe they would've looked a little better(although Alexandria, incidentally, looks an awful lot like the capital city of Naboo from Episode 1). After all, Square proved with Chrono Cross that the Playstation doesn't have to be limited to a pasty color scheme. Unfortunately, things take a slight step backwards with Final Fantasy IX, and the game doesn't quite live up to the standards set by Chrono Cross. Granted, the FMV is spectacular, but the battle scenes are just a little rough around the edges. In terms of the actual art, things have returned to the deformed look of old, and, at least in the FMV sequences, the facial expressions are actually very detailed. The prerendered backgrounds are also fairly well-conceived, and while Final Fantasy IX does not have the greatest graphics on the PlayStation, it most certainly does not have the worst.

One of the fantastically useless Pyrotechnics spells
One of the fantastically useless Pyrotechnics spells  

Since the storyline to Final Fantasy IX isn't particularly time-consuming, Square has thoughtfully provided a number of mini-games to ensure the game is sufficiently long to satisfy the tastes of its fans. To this end, there are Chocobo Hot and Cold, a horrendously addictive game which, as the name suggests, involves a Chocobo playing a modified version of the children's game of Hot and Cold, and a disappointing card game, Tetra Master. After Triple Triad, which was simple, compelling, and perfectly integrated into Final Fantasy VIII, Tetra Master comes across as an afterthought. The rules seem entirely arbitrary, and though it is possible to get the hang of it, more often than not things work out due to blind chance. Still, if you do take the time to collect all 100 cards, and dig your way to glory in Chocobo Hot and Cold, you can expect Final Fantasy IX to take upwards of 50 hours to complete. That said, the speedy player can likely squeak in at just over 20 hours and finish the game.

So really, Final Fantasy IX, while it serves as a fitting summary of the series to this point, also shows the series' advancing age. There's only so many times you can repeat the same thing without it becoming passe, and that is where the danger lies here. I can't help but wish Square would just remake some of the older games in the series up to the standards of Final Fantasy IX and go in a different direction with its newer games. Still, Final Fantasy IX does retain a lot of the magic of the earlier titles, and is definitely a game worth playing. Just don't expect anything earth-shatteringly new. And definitely don't expect crystals.

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