Review: Final Fantasy IX
Note: This is the ninth of a multi-part series featuring reviews of Final Fantasy games.
The Nostalgic's Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy IX was developed with one main purpose: as a thank you note to fans of the series by making a game full of references, characters and music from older Final Fantasy titles. They're all over the place, from the use of the Mt. Gulug theme from Final Fantasy, the use of two characters named after two similar characters from Final Fantasy III, to even a backhanded line of dialogue referencing the main characters from Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII. For fans of the first eight games, Final Fantasy IX has much to make them happy. It helps that Final Fantasy IX is also an excellent game in its own right. With a variety of characters, an intriguing plot and visuals that take full advantage of the PlayStation's capabilities, Final Fantasy IX has a lot going for it.
It's a shame, then, that the game has received little love from Squaresoft over the years. With its initial released bogged by a controversy by its "official" strategy guide forcing players to go online to get more information, to now being the only Final Fantasy of the first ten not to see itself remade or enhanced onto a second platform (it never got a PC release like the other two PlayStation Final Fantasy games did). Some fans have also ignored Final Fantasy IX for not being like the other two PlayStation games, or just because Final Fantasy IX didn't receive as much of a marketing campaign as the other two. In any case, a number of factors have led to Final Fantasy IX's, shall we say, underexposure. Still, that doesn't say anything about the game's quality.
A Familiar Look
The first five Final Fantasy games all took place in medieval settings, with your basic sword, magic and dragon setup. Final Fantasy VI mixed this up by adding a more steampunk theme to the game, which Final Fantasy VII expanded upon. Final Fantasy VIII took a few more steps forward, creating an almost futuristic setting. Final Fantasy IX, however, goes back to the medieval setting from the first five games. Final Fantasy IX, in turn, becomes the first Final Fantasy in a medieval setting to be in full 3D, with many of the pre-rendered locales and the world map looking top notch as it makes full use of the PlayStation's abilities.
The plot, meanwhile, is fairly unique on its own. What little advertising the game did receive at the time noted that the crystal comes back - the Final Fantasy IX logo even features a crystal - but you don't come across anything even resembling a crystal until the very end of the game. There's no mission to restore or save the crystals here, as was often the case in earlier Final Fantasy games. Instead, the storyline features a botched attempt to capture a princess that quickly becomes a fight against a queen gone mad with conquest, perhaps being used as a puppet behind the scenes.
One thing that takes away from the game's beauty is the use of mist, a vital plot point throughout the game. The 'ground' level of the world map is shrouded in this mist for much of the game, which makes everything look gray and uninteresting. Once you get out of the mist, though, things really look great and its a shame the game uses the mist as often as it does.
The game's soundtrack is as impressive as other games in the series. The PlayStation line of Final Fantasy games really had a strong set of soundtracks overall, and Final Fantasy IX brings it with a great overworld theme, a strong set of battle tracks and several songs from older games, including the aforementioned Mt. Gulug theme as well as the Shinra theme from Final Fantasy VII. In all, Final Fantasy IX is yet another excellent sounding game.
Final Fantasy IX (PS1) on Amazon
A Familiar Feel
Borrowing from Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy IX features eight playable characters, all of whom are of a set class, with a set of battle commands that aren't easily changeable. Unlike Final Fantasy IV, where abilities are simply learned via level up, Final Fantasy IX uses a system where characters learn abilities via equipment. There are two types of abilities: ones used in battle (such as magic, as well as techniques by non-magic characters), and passive abilities that characters can "equip" in a separate menu that require a set number of points to equip them. While not on the same level of customization as the previous four Final Fantasies, the amount of playable characters makes up this difference enough to where you can find a combination that suits your preferred method of battle.
Final Fantasy IX is the final game in the main series to utilize the Active Time Battle system. The Limit Break system used in the last two (well, three) Final Fantasy games takes a much different form in Final Fantasy IX, which are now called Trances. Like Final Fantasy VII, characters have "trance" bars which fill as they take damage, however now when the bar is full characters automatically undergo a "trance" where they transform into a much fancier version of themselves. This unlocks a special ability or attack for each character. Zidane's thief abilities, for instance, are all replaced with ultimate damage-dealing attacks. Vivi and Eiko can cast two spells per turn, while Steiner is able to deal triple his normal damage output. The trance bar decreases during this period, and the character turns back when it hits zero or after the battle (the trance bar goes to zero after battle regardless).
The problem with trances is that, because the characters automatically transforms once their trance bar is full, there's no means to 'stock' the trance until a battle where it would be more useful, and often times a character will go into trance just as a battle comes to an end anyway, wasting the trance. Battles, in general, also take a long time in Final Fantasy IX, due in part to the lengthy load times and the lengthy intro sequence for every battle.
Final Fantasy IX continues the tradition set by its PlayStation counterparts by featuring a large quantity of minigames and quick time events. There are two really notable minigames in Final Fantasy IX: the chocobo "hot and cold" minigame necessary to train and "upgrade" your one chocobo in the game (a sidequest full of worthwhile rewards), and the return of a card battle minigame.
However, Final Fantasy IX's card game, Tetra Master, is a completely different game than Final Fantasy VIII's Triple Triad. Cards in Tetra Master have arrows on one of eight possible sides that will beat other cards if unmatched by another arrow. However, if that side does have an arrow, stats held by both cards will 'clash' and one card will be determined the winner partly by random. Unlike Triple Triad, which uses no random factors during each battle, this makes Final Fantasy IX's card game more difficult to deal with.
Also, unlike Triple Triad, where the rewards for earning the top cards are great, there's little reason to stick with Tetra Master in Final Fantasy IX besides possibly one part in the game where you're forced to compete in a Tetra Master tournament. It would be nice to go into that with a decent hand, but with the game's random element it can be unnecessarily frustrating.
Where to Play Final Fantasy IX (Outside of Japan)
Final Fantasy IX
Also on PSN
Graphics (by PS1 standards)
Final Fantasy IX pays heavy homage to the many classic Final Fantasy games before it and, in turn, Final Fantasy IX has become a classic in its own right. With top-notch production values and serviceable gameplay, Final Fantasy IX is undoubtedly what you would call a Final Fantasy made specifically for long-time fans of the series.
The game isn't without its faults, particularly with loading times and the plot in the latter half of the game, but these are minor errors that do not plague an otherwise excellent experience. The game is hard to come back nowadays unless you have a PSN account and are willing to pay for a digital version of the game, but its definitely worth your time and money.