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SummaryReturning to the roots, with partial success
The GoodAt first, Final Fantasy IX seems like a complete antipodes to the previous game. The eighth tried to reform the gameplay system and mix fantasy with teenage soap opera; the ninth is self-proclaimed "back to the roots".
Those who were bothered by the dubious innovations of the previous game can sigh in relief: Final Fantasy IX is much more conservative in its gameplay, to the point of going back all the way to the fourth installment. Character classes cannot be changed, and the player has to deal with the strengths and weaknesses of each class to create a well-rounded party. Typical old-fashioned classes like Dragoon or Blue Mage make a triumphant return. Heavy armor management re-appears, after having been reduced or eliminated in the two previous games. And having four active party members instead of three is always a plus.
But not everything is completely old in the gameplay of Final Fantasy IX. Ability growth is handled with simple elegance: various spells and abilities can only be learned from equipment, and monster encounters bring not only experience, but also ability points. After reaching the amount of points needed to learn an ability, you can remove the equipment you have learned it from, and equip your character with a stronger or more suitable armor or accessory. So the hunt for weapons and armor also becomes a hunt for new skills, increasing the feeling of reward.
Final Fantasy IX returns to classic medieval setting. Despite being totally traditional, the game world has been created with great care and artistic inspiration. Only slightly "super-deformed", the visuals wonderfully convey a delicate mixture between moody, atmospheric medieval fantasy and a naive fairy tale. From a technical viewpoint, the graphics are somewhat modest; but the lovingly crafted backgrounds and well-directed dramatic cutscenes truly bring the world to life. Among the most memorable moments of the soundtrack are the opening "medieval" tune and the charming, sweet theme song that is also used as world map music.
The writing in Final Fantasy IX is surprisingly good. It is, in fact, a quantum leap compared to all the previous installments. Maybe bad translations were to blame, but this is the first time I actually enjoyed reading text in a Final Fantasy game. Characters have distinct styles of speech that go beyond phony accents. Humor is also noticeably more frequent, often rising above meaningless comic relief.
There is finally a genuinely charismatic protagonist in a Final Fantasy game, replacing the sociopaths from the two previous entries; the way he deals with the tragedy of his past (which is by the way much more serious than the imaginary suffering of the other two) can serve as an example of truly heroic behavior. Some of the supporting characters are interesting as well. Steiner, in particular, is delightfully goofy, and his uneasy devotion to the princess and semi-comical adherence to medieval etiquette is endearing. For a while the game does a very good job shifting the focus of the story from one character to another - something the series hasn't done since the sixth game.
The BadFinal Fantasy IX attempts to re-capture the spirit of older incarnations of the series, but forgets a very important aspect: freedom. There are still secrets and optional quests in the game, but noticeably fewer than in the classic installments. The game world is somewhat small and the customary linearity of the first half can easily get on your nerves. Formulaic structures become more and more evident with each iteration of the series, and this game does nothing to alter them.
Other gameplay components clearly begin to show their age as well. I would have eliminated random battles a long time ago, but Final Fantasy IX is somehow more offensive in that respect than the two previous games. Loading times can get aggravatingly long, and for some reason the battles themselves seem slower than before. Random encounter rate is uneven, with world map areas sometimes getting positively maddening with their battle frequency.
Final Fantasy IX has some of the best characters in the series, but also some of the most annoying ones. They just had to have a little girl who seems to have a crush on the protagonist; I can't stand this particular character stereotype. Kuja is an interesting character on paper, and his motivations are believable; but his graphical design made me cringe. What is it with the Japanese and their fondness of effeminate men?..