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SummaryBringing back the warmth
The GoodFinal Fantasy IX is a complete antipode to the previous game. The eighth tried to reform the gameplay system and mix fantasy with teenage soap opera; the ninth is all about going "back to the roots".
Final Fantasy IX returns to classic medieval setting, abruptly stopping the ever-growing tendency of the series towards sci-fi. Despite being totally traditional, the world of Final Fantasy IX is depicted and presented with great care and taste. It is not yet another medieval world without personality and style. The necessary attributes of a medieval society appear as part of the game's story and influence the relationships between its characters.
For instance, the fact Zidane is a mere thief and hence is "unworthy" of such lady as princess Garnet plays an important role in the game, but this situation would have been impossible if the game were not set in a medieval environment. Princess Garnet is torn between the boring existence in the palace and the adventurous life Zidane offers to her. Steiner's behavior and his entire system of values would have been out of place in a modern or futuristic world. Most characters have a distinct style of speech: the thieves talk in a "low" jargon, while Steiner's and Beatrix' speech is "cultivated" and haughty. Such fine characterization and attention to detail are typical for the whole game.
The game's character cast is probably its strongest point. The characters come across as truly lovable, by far surpassing the casts of the two previous games and getting close to the sixth one; in fact, I liked "hanging" with those characters even more than I did with the heroes of the 16-bit classic.
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. He is decidedly one of the most appealing characters to have ever appeared in the series.
But the rest of the cast is equally strong. Princess Garnet really grows as a character; Vivi's touching naivete and Freia's faith and consistency make the player want to have them in the party. But for me, the one who truly steals the show is Steiner. I have almost no hesitations in proclaiming him my favorite character in the entire Final Fantasy series. He is original, goofy, and entertaining throughout the whole game; he is also one who resembles most a real human being.
What's really new and pleasantly surprising in Final Fantasy IX is its humor. The series was hardly known for its sense of humor before, but Final Fantasy IX provides the much-needed light touch that seemed to have disappeared from the series following the release of its two megalomaniac predecessors.
Similarly to Final Fantasy VI, the "meat" of the narrative here are the little personal stories and relationships between characters, while the main story arc is rather unremarkable. There are significantly less plot twists and Freudian escapades than one would expect from a Square game of that time. But in many ways, I found the story of Final Fantasy IX better than any of its predecessors. The story is warm, emotional, and draws you to the characters and their conflicts until they are resolved in the ending movie.
The most conservative aspect of Final Fantasy IX is its gameplay. The tendency of having a fully customizable party, which has been dominating the series for quite a long time, is abandoned. For the first time since Final Fantasy IV, character classes cannot be changed, and the player has to deal with strengths and weaknesses of each class without being able to change anything. Typical old-fashioned Final Fantasy classes like dragoon or blue mage make a triumphal return. Heavy armor management re-appears, after having been reduced or eliminated in the two previous games.
But not everything is old in the gameplay of Final Fantasy IX. The 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. Spells and abilities can be equipped on characters in a special menu with limited slots. So the hunt for weapons and armor also becomes a hunt for new skills, increasing the feeling of reward.
Graphically, Final Fantasy IX doesn't show anything new compared to the two previous games, but its pre-rendered backgrounds and wonderful CG movies still contain enough eye candy.
The music is fantastic. Already the opening theme has so much style and atmosphere, with its modal harmony and unusual orchestration, that finely reflect the medieval setting of the game. The obligatory pop song Melodies of Life is surprisingly beautiful; it is my personal favorite of all vocal pieces in the series.
The BadFinal Fantasy IX has the best character cast in the series; but it also has some of the most annoying characters. They just had to have a spoiled little girl who seems to have a crush on the protagonist; I can't stand this particular character stereotype. For reasons unknown to me, it keeps stubbornly re-appearing in Japanese games.
I actually thought Kuja was an interesting character, but his graphical design made me cringe. What is it with the Japanese and their fondness for effeminate men?..
There are secrets and optional quests in Final Fantasy IX, but less so than in the seventh game. A larger game world and perhaps an optional character or two wouldn't have hurt.