Final Fantasy IX
Tension pervades the world of Gaia. The mighty domain of Alexandria is becoming increasingly hostile, and Alexandrian Queen Brahne craves power and dominance like never before. In an effort to extract his niece from a potentially dangerous environment, Regent Cid of neighbouring city Lindblum sends the company of loveable rogues, Tantalus, to Alexandria masquerading as a theatre group to kidnap the princess, Garnet Til Alexandros XVII.
A game like Final Fantasy VII must be a Hell of a tough act to follow. FFVIII – although still widely loved – is considered by many to be significantly weaker than its predecessor (myself included), and Square circumvented the futuristic, cyberpunk tones with FFIX by going back to the ideals of the Fantasies I through VI, and making everything Olde Worlde and wind-powered. FFIX also takes a step back from its predecessors stylistically, forgoing the ‘realistic’ elements of the previous two titles, and adopting a very colourful, fantasy-like world, full very Manga-esque characters.
“A game like Final Fantasy VII must be a Hell of a tough act to follow.”The plot and characterisation has always been one department which the series has excelled in and FFIX is no different. On the defensive against the all-conquering Alexandrian forces (commanded by renowned warrior General Beatrix), our team of heroes have to find out why Brahne has suffered such an extreme change in personality, and who or what is behind these events. As ever with a Final Fantasy plot, proceedings quickly develop, and things are never as simple as they at first seem.
You can recruit up to eight allies this time around. Main character Zidane is a likeable, optimistic, roguish sixteen-year-old (and a bit of a womaniser), which is a refreshing approach after FFVIII‘s introverted and eminently distasteful Squall. Princess Garnet (or Dagger, as she comes to be known) is the archetypal Final Fantasy dark-haired female lead, and there’s the likeable support cast in confused orphan Vivi, honourable knight and guardian of the princess, Steiner, forlorn warrior Freya, plus a few others.
As you’d expect, a lot of time will be spent travelling between towns, villages and settlements (both afoot and later in a variety of vehicles and airships). The random battles are very much prevalent, as has been a staple of the series since its inception. There are no major reinventions or surprises here, so if you’ve played any of the previous games in the series you should be able to fall straight back into things. Another element harking back to the days of pre-FFVII is that each character has unique abilities, such as Zidane’s Thievery, Vivi’s Black Magic and Eiko’s Eidolons (FFIX’s Godlike beings; the equivalent of Summons/Espers). Battles are, in essence, the same as previous games in the series – a mixture of turn-based melee attacks, aggressive and support magic, each character’s unique abilities, interspersed with occasional item use. You now command a team of four fighters (another nod back to the FF games of yore), and things are definitely faster-paced than the last couple of games, although the elaborate and flamboyant attacks still remain. Perhaps the most notable difference in this respect is that the Eidolons’ animations are far shorter than the last two games (if no less impressive), and this means less time is spent watching the screen, and more managing your team (and hopefully kicking ass).
Kelvin Tay’s viewThe return to form is not purely cosmetic. Final Fantasy IX‘s battle mechanics also remind me of those wonderful SNES days. Once again you are in control of four characters at the same time (as opposed to three characters in the previous two FF games). You have your usual attack, magic and item commands which may be selected as soon as a character’s turn comes up; in accordance with the flow of time as dictated by the series-staple Active Time Battle system. There are also additional commands available that are unique to each character. Zidane is able to steal items from enemies, Vivi the black mage can cast a dazzling array of offensive magical spells (your typical Fires, Thundagas and Meteors here), and hard-headed knight Steiner has an assortment of elemental-powered/status-inflicting sword arts to incur some physical pain. This specialisation means that all characters have their use at various points throughout the game; none are ever made redundant (cf. FFVII and FFVIII where all the characters were virtually universal). Are you more of a prudent warrior? The evasive high-jumping dragoon Freya and the white mage princess Garnet are perfect frontliners. For the gung-ho fighter, tough-guy bounty hunter Amarant and bumbling knight Steiner are your men. It’s your choice.Gaia is a fantastic and detailed world, and there is much to do therein. Habitual Final Fantasy mainstays Chocobos and Moogles return, as you’d expect, and you’ll meet many of the endearing creatures on your travels (including recurring travelling Moogle Stiltzkin). The card game from FFVIII, Triple Triad, returns under the guise of Tetra Master, and with a few rule adjustments to make things a little less complicated, and it is a time-consuming, compulsive and enjoyable diversion. Other mini-games include Chocobo Hot & Cold where you use one of the immense chickens to search for treasure, Jump Rope (self explanatory), which is surprisingly addictive, and Frog Catching, where you must capture frogs as the game’s most unusual character, Quina.
Typically, the sounds and score are exceptional. Of particular note are Garnet’s Melodies of Life and Kuja’s Theme, a fantastic piano piece (which is almost as good – almost – as Sephiroth’s chilling theme ‘Those Chosen by The Planet’ from FFVII), but they are supported by dozens of excellent environment and character-driven tunes. The standard battle theme is a variation on the series’ usual one, and sound effects are excellent right across the board, again much as you’d expect (but it’s easy to take for granted so readily). Overall the soundtrack may not be quite as memorable as Nobuo Uematsu’s wonderful FFVII score, but it’s still excellent across the board, and definitely one of the game’s strongest aspects.
Despite the serious plot and dark events therein, there is a definite comedy undertone throughout, never more apparent than scenes involving Tantalus or Alexandria’s defunct (and somewhat inept) Knights of Pluto. The script is of high quality, partly written in old English (like stable mate Vagrant Story), and partly in contemporary language – particularly where Tantalus are concerned.
The graphics are lovely – probably some of the best to grace the PS1, with a high level of detail on both characters and the intricately designed pre-rendered backgrounds. The style is prominent and distinct, with the characters wide-eyed and slightly disproportioned in a Manga fashion, and almost everything manages to have an admirably rustic and steam-driven medieval feel to it. There are also several high-quality FMV sequences held in reserve for pivotal moments, culminating in nearly an hour’s worth.
It’s worth mentioning the game’s antagonists, who are varied, colourful, and memorable for a lot of reasons. Brahne is a bloated, greying elephant of a woman, and her warmongering is really what starts events rolling in the story. Of course, it’s not long before we discover that she has not been acting alone, and there are others operating from the shadows behind the throne, both for and against the kingdom of Alexandria – and indeed, the whole world of Gaia. Kuja is another principal enemy who is not all he seems at first. He is reminiscent of Sephiroth in that he is effeminate and has beautiful, flowing, slivery hair, although his revealing garments are a far cry from the black-clad FFVII villain. Zorn and Thorn are aides of Brahne with some unique and devious sorcery, who also help with some mild comedy interludes and interesting use of language.
The main flaws you could flag up are really with the plot, when it starts to all get a little odd toward the end. This is never better emphasised than with the very last boss, Necron, who appears with no prior warning or reference and says it wants to destroy the world because of the terrible things it has witnessed – it doesn’t seem terribly justified, and feels a lot like it was thrown in there just for the sake of it. Another slightly jarring element is that late in the game the plot begins to resemble FFVII to a certain degree, with the revelation of a couple of central characters having been ‘created’, much in the same way as Cloud and Sephiroth. Of course, if you haven’t played FFVII then this will not be an issue at all, but for the rest of us it begins to feel a little similar.
“Excellent JRPGs are a dime a dozen these days, but the fact FFIX still stands tall as one of the best speaks volumes of its qualities.”If you have not been persuaded by other Final Fantasy games then this is not going to do anything to change your mind. However, if you have enjoyed the other entries in the series and haven’t given this little gem a try yet, I strongly suggest you do so as soon as possible. Excellent JRPGs are a dime a dozen these days, but the fact FFIX still stands tall as one of the best speaks volumes of its qualities. Don’t miss out on one of the best games in the esteemed Final Fantasy series.