The World of Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy IX
Shortly after the shock of "Final Fantasy VIII", a new Final Fantasy game appeared on the stage. Only one year separated them from each other, yet it is hard to find other two neighbor Final Fantasies that were so different in virtually every aspect. "Final Fantasy IX" is the absolute opposite of the previous game: while "Final Fantasy VIII" was revolutionary and daring, "Final Fantasy IX" returned to the cosy world of earlier Final Fantasies, with their classically transparent gameplay and medieval fantasy setting.
The last Final Fantasy game for the Playstation console symbolizes the series' return to its roots. It terminates abruptly the new tendency of the series towards original, bizarre settings, mixtures of sci-fi, retro, and other styles. The setting of "Final Fantasy IX" is medieval fantasy, and its world seems to be taken directly from a fairy tale. Kingdoms, princesses, dukes now exist undisturbed by robots, submarines, or evil mega-corporations. "Final Fantasy IX" is turned towards the past even more decidedly than "Final Fantasy IV", that featured such products of modern technology as a hovercraft. Although the rich mythology common to all Final Fantasies doesn't let "Final Fantasy IX" become a real children's fairy tale, and its story, that poses many deep questions and introduces elements such as the creation of the world, genetic experiments, etc., the game still bears signs of innocence that were gone from the two other Playstation Final Fantasies.
The setting of "Final Fantasy IX" is presented with a masterful attention to detail and authentic references, and in its own way, it is perhaps the most realistic picture of a society a Final Fantasy game has given us until now. Unlike other Final Fantasies, which are mixture of many different styles and cultures, "Final Fantasy IX" is strictly European. Princesses, noble knights, and mighty lords think, talk, and act according to their epoch. The language style and the dialogues of "Final Fantasy IX" are the best of the entire series, being natural, refined, and smooth, often with a lot of humor, and always delivered with great tact and good taste. People of different classes talk differently, and the conversations between people belonging to different layers of the old feodal society, like for example between the aristocratic warrior Steiner and the thieves, are a veritable pleasure to follow.
"Final Fantasy IX" tells the story of a group of wandering actors, who also have a second profession: thievery. The boss orders the gang members, among them Zidane, a young fellow with a tail, to kidnap Her Highness Garnet, the princess of Alexandria. The kidnapping takes place, but not quite the way the thieves had hoped. Meeting many other people on their journey, Zidane and the princess realize the whole world is being threatened by a mysterious power they are unable to recognize. But more importantly, they also have to learn the truth about themselves, the truth that was concealed from them for a long time.
Typically for modern Final Fantasies, "Final Fantasy IX" concentrates on personal experiences of its heroes rather than on the formal plot line. The story is told as seen from the point of view of Zidane and his friends, and is a perfect example of genuine Final Fantasy-like "subjective storytelling" technique. The intimate emotions of the characters dominate the entire game, and the relationships between them play the most important role. The character cast of "Final Fantasy IX" is perhaps the most memorable one of the entire series. All characters are deep, original, and created with care and attention. Zidane is one of the most attractive main protagonists ever, being a kind, tolerant, and caring person, with a heart unspoiled by greed and envy. Garnet is the most charming female character of any Final Fantasy ever, being totally different from the stereotype girls of Japanese manga comics. She is anything but a submissive, big-eyed, large-bossomed ideal of Japanese teenagers. She has a strong will, is quite stubborn, and is capable of making crucial decisions. Other characters are as lovable as the two main heroes: the shy black mage child Vivi, the wild and uncivilized ex-criminal Amarant, and many others. Especially original is the figure of the stiff, strict commander Steiner, who is definitely one of the most brilliant and humorous characters ever created for a Final Fantasy game. The personal relationship of the main characters with the villains of the game, and their uncertainty about those villains being truly vile, is an obvious tribute to "Final Fantasy IV".
The gameplay of "Final Fantasy IX" underwent the most drastic change. It is extremely old-fashioned, compared not only to the revolutionary system of the previous game, but even to the flexible, open system of "Final Fantasy V". "Final Fantasy IX" is, together with "Final Fantasy II" and "Final Fantasy IV", the only game of the series that firmly assigns classes to its characters. All party members belong to a certain class, and there is no possibility of changing or customizing those classes. Most of the classes are typical for classic Final Fantasy: Vivi is a black mage, Freia a dragoon, Quina a blue mage, etc. The player has to deal with the strengths and the weaknesses of each class, but since there are many characters to choose from, certain customization skills are still required to build an effective party. "Final Fantasy IX" returns to the tradition of having four characters in an active party. The equipment and skill system is simple, yet very fine and interesting. All skills and magic have to be learned by equipping certain weapons or armor; once a skill is learned, it can be used even if the appropriate equipment is removed. As the characters level up, more and more skill slots become available, so that there are many possibilities of how to protect a character or to make him (or her) more powerful. The skills vary from simple magic and support abilities to monster summoning and status protection.
Graphically, "Final Fantasy IX" is more modest than its two predecessors, although its pre-rendered backgrounds and CG animations are as wonderful as those of "Final Fantasy VIII". However, it is clearly visible that while the two previous Final Fantasies own a great deal of their appeal to their graphical presentation, "Final Fantasy IX" doesn't depend on it that much. The character graphics are once performed in a typical "super-deformed" style, contrary to the realistic figures of "Final Fantasy VIII". The stylish music of "Final Fantasy IX" includes such wonderful tunes as the opening "medieval" melody, and the song "Melodies of Life", which is one of the most lovely musical pieces ever written for a video game.
References to older Final Fantasies, in particular to the first three games (and mostly to the very first one), abound in "Final Fantasy IX". Once again, crystals appear as a part of the story; the four guardians of elements await the heroes in the final dungeon; "saving the princess" is a central theme of the storyline; the character classes are mainly the most ancient ones, such as black mage, thief, etc.; even Garland, the first boss of the entire series (the first boss enemy you have to defeat in the original Final Fantasy), is one of the game's important characters. But the heaviest reference of all is the traditional gameplay, which is based on systems of such old games as "Final Fantasy II" and "Final Fantasy IV".
Although "Final Fantasy IX" was extremely nostalgic, made constant usage of early Final Fantasy terminology, and resembled to older Final Fantasies in many aspects, it is still obvious this game was a product of a different epoch. It would not have been possible to create "Final Fantasy IX" during the late eighties, and it would have never appeared without its immediate predecessors having previously cleared the way for it. As much as it was inspired by early Final Fantasies, "Final Fantasy IX" has a lot in common with the other two Playstation titles. Its characters are much deeper, its dialogues much more lively and cleverly written, and its atmosphere more intense than in any early Final Fantasy. The influence of "Final Fantasy VIII" is clearly visible, since love, comradeship, and relationship between the heroes occupy a large part of the game, and the main storyline, just like in "Final Fantasy VI" or "Final Fantasy VIII", serves more as a vehicle to deliver all the refined, intimate stories dedicated to the characters themselves. And once again, romantic love is the central emotion of the game. Formally, "Final Fantasy IX" belongs to the past; but in its ultimate content, it is closer to modern Final Fantasies.
"Final Fantasy IX" seems to be the most traditional, conservative, and old-fashioned game of the entire series. The whole game emanates tremendous nostalgia and is full of original Final Fantasy spirit more than any other post-NES Final Fantasy. But it would be a mistake to think this game is nothing more but a remix of old ideas, a regressive phenomenon, a symptom of lack of creativity by the designers. It is a solid proof for the fact a game doesn't have to be particularly original in order to be great. "Final Fantasy IX" is the warmest and most human game of the series, with infinite generosity and tenderness, and perhaps the most memorable character cast of all Final Fantasies. It is a beautiful story of love, friendship, and trust, a light and enchanting fairy tale, that possesses exceptional charm. Its classic gameplay, its perfect balance of style, form, and content, its transparent, logical story-telling, and its sensual beauty make it an instant classic and the pinnacle of old-school role-playing.
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