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Capsule Review - Final Fantasy IX

Title Final Fantasy IX
Developer Square
Year 2000
Platform PSX
Capsule Rating
Capsule Review:

When Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII came out, they were the subject of endless debates in gaming circles. Many gamers believed that the popular appeal of those games indicated that Square "sold out," and no longer cared about quality; in their eyes, Square's departure from certain "traditional" Final Fantasy themes was more evidence of that fact. They disliked modern environments such as Midgar and condemned Square's use of FMV in key plot scenes. In their eyes, Square had become "graphics whores" who relied on good graphics to sell games, instead of good storylines or gameplay. It may sound silly now, but back then, the message boards of this very site featured many a heated argument on this very subject.

This very debate may have provided Square with the marketing push for Final Fantasy IX. The game was billed as a "return to the roots" of Final Fantasy. It would feature fantasy settings and not science-fiction ones; the characters would be deliberately made to look unrealistic; traditional equipment systems would be back; and so on. Where the logo of Final Fantasy VIII featured a romantic embrace between the two protagonists, its successor displayed the traditional Final Fantasy crystal. Thus, Square would close its PSX reign with, essentially, an homage to itself.

To those who weren't obsessed with "the roots" of the series, this was bad and not good news; Square had ended its Super Nintendo days with Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger, two superb, state-of-the-art games that elevated the RPG genre to a new level instead of looking back to the past. But if we look at the game itself, we can see that in reality, Final Fantasy IX is not greatly different from its immediate predecessor. There is still lots of FMV, and it has more or less the same visual style as before, the same kinds of pre-rendered backgrounds with slightly blurry lines and a similar sort of overworld map; although the characters are less "realistic," they're no less stylized, and Garnet for one looks exactly like Rinoa in the previous game. Square brought back the famed Yoshitaka Amano to do a few character drawings (which were surprisingly uninspired; Zidane looks like Locke with a tail), but filtered them through Tetsuya Nomura, who had done the artwork for all the recent Playstation Final Fantasy titles.

The battle system did indeed return to "tradition" in some ways. Once again, the player buys sets of equipment in stores, or finds them in the field; like in Final Fantasy VI, different characters can equip different kinds of equipment. (The abilities are then learned from this equipment, and not from Espers or level gaining, which is fairly original.) Also like in Final Fantasy VI, characters have unique skills reflecting their role in the story: for instance, Zidane the thief can Steal, but not use White Magic; the mage Vivi can use Black Magic, but not Steal; the dragoon Freya can Jump (the first time this particular ability has appeared on the Playstation) but not use Black Magic. You get the idea.

But in another sense, the battles remained unchanged from Final Fantasy VIII. First of all, they are presented in exactly the same way; first the camera flies around wildly as the enemies appear, then the fight begins, with the heroes' ATB gauges in the bottom-right corner. Then, when enemies are killed, they have complicated death animations, after which they disappear. The backgrounds in these battles have the same aesthetic as the ones in Final Fantasy VIII, even if they reflect different environments; the characters all take battle-ready stances, run toward the enemy with their weapons, attack, and do victory poses at the end. The content of the battles is different, but the style remains the same.

Furthermore, the battles of Final Fantasy IX continue the devolution that began with Final Fantasy VIII. There's a pretty good ability system in the game, but despite it, the battles themselves are boring and repetitive. Usually, you only fight one enemy per battle, sometimes two of the same kind. I only remember one occasion in the entire game when a battle contained four enemies. This is quite different from the Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games, which thought nothing of putting you against three, four, or five enemies at a time; occasionally you had just one opponent, but that was by no means the norm. Here, though, it happens all the time, which eliminates a great deal of challenge and strategy from the game. For instance, in the dungeon called Oeilvert, you fight just two sets of enemies (one with two opponents, the other with one), over and over. The gameplay has potential, but isn't given a good field in which to use it. This lack of variation really hurts the game. Final Fantasy VIII had the same drawback - there, you also often fought just one enemy at a time - but it also had the enemies gain levels over time, which provided a little bit of extra challenge. Final Fantasy IX doesn't do that.

Likewise, the story has some similarities to earlier Final Fantasy games: it does indeed take place in a more "medieval" setting, it features elements of Final Fantasy iconography such as black mages (who hadn't been seen since 1992), and contains references to the earlier games in the form of names like Garland, Lich, and Kraken. But the execution of these elements is quite in line with the most recent Final Fantasy games. The black mages are not the black mages of Mysidia, but rather manufactured war machines who amble around and say "KILL!" a lot. That sounds macabre, and it is, but it doesn't matter, since the black mages are out of the picture by Disc 2 anyway, despite having figured prominently in the beginning. There's a guy named Garland, but he's a space alien and genetic enginer. There are medieval cities, but the game doesn't spend enough time in them to give them a distinct character, and too often, they just serve as props for some FMV explosions. It's really kind of disturbing to see the designers construct these ornate backgrounds of colourful fairy-tale towers, and then gleefully blow them up two minutes later. The dramatic sequences in the game work the same way; in one scene, the game introduces you to some NPCs, and kills them off in the same breath. As a result, the scene comes across as totally artificial, and fails to make its intended impact.

You could argue that Final Fantasy VI did a similar thing in the scene depicting the fall of Doma Castle; however, there, the scene was carried by memorable characters and their actions; instead of numbing the player with fake-looking explosions, the game used dialogue and slow camera shots to make its effect. There was also some exposition prior to the action, which gave insight into the mindsets of the characters. Final Fantasy IX rarely does this. Its villain is an effeminate, supercilious nihilist who likes to spend his time taunting the characters and coming up with impossibly contrived traps for them, such that when they try to fight him, they end up doing something to help him instead. To show that he's evil and thus should be resisted, the game has him blow up a bunch of towns, but due to the slick presentation of his misdeeds, and the lack of good writing and character development that could really convey their horror, he doesn't manage the same aura of pure malevolence as, say, Kefka. No, Kuja is really more like Exdeath in Final Fantasy V; he laughs a lot, preens a lot, but isn't very interesting as a character. When one learns a big dramatic revelation involving him and the protagonist, it carries no weight since one couldn't care less about him and his relationship to Zidane.

Like the rest of the game, the main characters bear some similarity to earlier games, but follow the blueprint established by Final Fantasy VIII in practice. The game focuses on the hero and heroine inordinately. The dragoon Freya, the coolest character in the game, is unceremoniously shoved into the background shortly after she joins the party; she has a brief moment in the spotlight when she wrings her hands (paws?) about those flashy explosions, but quickly is reduced to saying nothing at all. Even in the ending, she only appears in one very short shot. But maybe that's a good thing; see, the game's idea of character development is to introduce some random-ass plot point. So, for instance, the game has a fairly unpredictable revelation about Garnet's "true past." Now, this would be one thing if Garnet's true past was somehow of key value to her character, the game doesn't explore it that much, so it's like she doesn't really have a great emotional connection to it. It would be as if Final Fantasy VI suddenly told you that Celes was really Banon's daughter, or something. Sure, it would be a "twist," but it wouldn't really have relevance to anything important. To be fair, Final Fantasy IX does have a few moments of banter between the characters; this is nothing substantial, but it's certainly more entertaining than the game's other "character development."

The game contains numerous fetch quests. At one point, Kuja manipulates the party into going to some place called Oeilvert to retrieve something; the game has some explanation for why he needs that thing, but it's not a major plot point or anything. The designers just needed another dungeon, so they sent you off to Oeilvert. Cut out that dungeon, and the game will have lost no content. Later, you have to go to a place called "Ipsen's Castle." There's a justification for it as well, but it's not tied to the characters, so this part is also like a fetch quest. You get the idea. These locations are used, not because anything of dramatic substance goes on in them, but because the designers needed to stretch out the running time. To that end, there's a complicated mini-game called Chocobo Hot & Cold, which involves gathering hidden items. I'm pretty sure that there's no way you'll find them all without the aid of GameFAQs. But if you do all that, you'll get to fight a special boss, much like in the other Playstation Final Fantasy games. Instead of returning to tradition, Final Fantasy IX follows the recent trend of including lots of extra gameplay completely unrelated to the plot, or to the main gameplay system for that matter.

So, ultimately, Final Fantasy IX is not a return to tradition at all. It merely uses some superficial cosmetic elements of "old school" RPGs, while continuing the worst tendencies of "new school" ones, without the strengths of either. There are a few references thrown in the game to thrill aging, nostalgic gamers - oh look! that guy's name is Garland! and Steiner uses an attack called Shock! and those black mages sure have pointy hats! - but more than anything, they indicate that Square is running out of ideas with this series.