Written by  :  Kit Simmons (267)
Written on  :  Apr 01, 2009
Platform  :  PlayStation
Rating  :  3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars3.8 Stars

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Roll for initiative, monkey boy!

The Good

Born in an age of technical limitations, Final Fantasy borrowed elements of classic Western RPGs of its time and turned their slightly repetitive epic deeds into more personal affairs with players feeling attached to their avatars through more than their stats and gear. Its often soap-operatic quality aside, the drama that shone through even in the earliest instalments has persisted, mixing it with humour and the spirit of adventure, but never quite belying its video game roots. Final Fantasy IX came after the first two PlayStation instalments which not only marked the series’ change to a new hardware generation allowing for a much more cinematic story experience. Final Fantasy VII and VIII also veered drastically from their predecessors’ plots and settings by being darker and more futuristic. However, instead of trying to top the modernism of VII and the graphic realism of VIII, IX makes an almost 180° turn and celebrates everything that was quaint (and corny) about the classics 8 and 16-bit Fantasies. Its renewal of time-honoured traditions, game mechanics and also clichés feels strangely fresh and series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s guts to create such an anachronistic game must be admired, especially considering IX was originally meant to be a ‘gaiden’ spin-off to the main series. However, a return to what first made the series great in this case doesn’t mean a degeneration of an early 21st century game to gameplay and characters from two decades ago.

Final Fantasy IX is set in a medieval fantasy world in which colourful monsters still roam the countryside freely. It even allows for some mild technological advances from other ages, such as steam power, to add plot elements to the upcoming adventure. So far, so classic. The graphics are as in the preceding games a combination of real-time rendered 3D characters and animated, pre-rendered backgrounds. The overall art style is colourful, whimsical and cartoony, populated by people with slightly over-sized heads (perhaps a nod to the 2D sprite graphics of the series) and the odd anthropomorphic animals wandering around as ordinary citizens. (Not to mention series staples like moogles and chocobos!) Pre-rendered FMVs tell especially dramatic events and don’t fall short of the technical quality of the cutscenes in Final Fantasy VIII. The adventure starts when a band of roguish bandits under the name of Tantalus gets hired to kidnap princess Garnet Til Alexandros of Alexandria. Already some changes to past formulas are noticeable because the kidnappers’ field agent isn’t a run-off-the-mill adventurer or moody mercenary. One Zidane Tribal by (default) name, players are instead introduced to an impish boy with a monkey tail and the bravado of a teenage Errol Flynn. As if that wasn’t enough, the plot takes off on an unusually humorous note as Tantalus bumble their way through the kidnapping under the cover of a courtly theatre festival. All eventually comes to an end when not only the princess unexpectedly request her kidnappers to whisk her away while her comically fussy protector, Adelbert Steiner, tries to intervene. Her wrath incurred, Alexandria’s vile-looking queen Brahne tries to stop the getaway of the involved in a way demonstrating a startling disregard for her daughter’s safety. One airship crash-landing later, bandits, princess, knight protector and an innocent black mage bystander who got dragged along find themselves trapped in a magical forest. It is there that after the vibrant prelude the classic RPG mechanics fully take off: party formation, exploration and combat. Final Fantasy IX strays from the previous two games’ convention by allowing players to field four party members at a time instead of three. Combat plays out using the series’ innovative ATB system in which enemies and party members take it in turns to act once their individual time gauges are filled. Instead of allowing character customisation through classes or jobs, Final Fantasy IX establishes well-imagined personalities whose defining abilities adhere to their backstories and advances during the story. It is, however, possible to outfit them not only with the standard RPG gear of weapons, armour and assorted stat-boosting trinkets. Similar to the job system of Final Fantasy V, most equipped gear grants the characters special abilities which can be learned to be wielded indefinitely over time.

The continuative story turns of Final Fantasy IX are perhaps not the most original in the series, revolving around queen Brahne’s attempts to conquer her neighbouring kingdoms with the help of an effeminate arms dealer named Kuja. True to Final Fantasy tradition and cliché, however, the person who seems to be the root of all evil is seldom more than a puppet behind who an even more powerful mastermind eventually manifests. Apart from its pleasantly whimsical world, Final Fantasy IX derives a great deal of its appeal from the main characters’ personalities. Almost all have deeper motivations and dilemmas they are facing which are well balanced with the funnier aspects of their characters: Zidane, a thief by profession, is boisterously boyish and philandering, yet has problems admitting his deeper feelings for his leading lady Garnet. Garnet, a white mage, struggles with the huge responsibilities of her future rule and being the last of the summoners known as espers. Her guardian Steiner is duteous and stubborn to a fault but must ask himself whether his sometimes misguided sense of responsibility is the only trait defining his character. The party’s painfully shy and clumsy black mage Vivi makes some startling discoveries about his origins and questions the very purpose of his existence while the dragoon Freia’s search for her missing lover and loss of her people’s home at the hands of villains she can’t fight make her question the worth of her knightly lifestyle. The team roster is completed by gluttonous blue mage Quina, taciturn bounty hunter Amarant and Eiko, a cheeky six-year old with mystic powers not unlike Garnet’s. Although the various characters aren’t always deep by themselves, there’s an undeniable chemistry between them, be it Steiner’s obsequiousness towards Garnet and Vivi and his disdain for Zidane or Eiko’s crush on Zidane and bossy attitude towards an easily intimidated Vivi.

The Bad

Ironically true to its concept of ‘back to the roots’, the problems Final Fantasy IX has have plagued the series since its beginnings - and by extension the whole JRPG genre. Like most Final Fantasies and spin-offs, IX is an almost thoroughly linear affair with little character customisation, side quests or important, plot-altering decisions the player can make. Whoever dislikes random battles won’t be too pleased with the game, either, but such people are generally not advised to play console role-playing games. On top of that, however, the battles in IX feel a little more sluggish than in other parts of the series. Time gauges fill up slowly and the game takes almost over ten seconds to switch to its battle screen. That’s ten seconds wasted waiting before every encounter. Levelling isn’t hampered too much by this as the XP rewards are adequate. On that note, it seems odd that defeating boss enemies doesn’t give the party any experience points at all. Although the cities players can visit are full of people going about their daily business, most prolonged stays can bring the game to a halt as some time may be spent searching for manipulable hot spots or approaching people to hear them spout single-sentence inanities about their personal lives or giving useless advice. Although the game’s characters are one of its definite highlights, not all are brilliant. The thoroughly weird Quina features interesting blue mage abilities but in the story is little more than a comic relief. Girly girl Eiko can be a little grating and Amarant seems like a character haphazardly written into the plot so someone could fill the traditional gambler/ninja class. Many fans’ main gripe is with the villain Kuja, and for a reason. The almost painfully androgynous, swaggering pretty-boy appears to channel the most obnoxious qualities of the JRPG genre’s youthfully arrogant antagonists. Being the mere compilation of stereotypes and bad clichés that he is, it’s hard to take him too seriously in spite of his ruthless deeds.

The Bottom Line

I admit to having an ambiguous relationship with the Final Fantasy series. As a video game phenomenon I find it deeply interesting even though I find many of its core mechanics simplistic or downright annoying. All in all it must be acknowledged that several of its concepts have been of an unmistakable gain to video games as a storytelling medium. Final Fantasy IX plays like a revue of past things positive and negative of the series, yet with the enhanced technology of the newer console generations. It is whimsical and light-hearted, perhaps not as appealing as Square gem Chrono Trigger but overall in the same line. Having played I, II, IV, V, VI and X, I can honestly say IX is my personal favourite. It is refreshingly free of overly lofty heroes or simplistic game mechanics that get artificially complicated (e.g. junctioning or the sphere grid), yet gaudy and sometimes even trite in an amiable, nostalgic way.