Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX was developed alongside Final Fantasy VIII and both were follow-ups to the incredibly successful previous title, Final Fantasy VII. While 8 took a turn to the more realistic and futuristic, Final Fantasy IX brought the series back to its roots. This game is truly a fantasy RPG - evident in both the story and the setting.
Final Fantasy IX received huge accolades when it was released and is still listed as one of the top games in the series - though it is definitely not my favorite (as outlined below). The gameplay is solid, the story and the characters are a true throwback to previous Final Fantasy games.
So let’s get this out of the way right from the start… Final Fantasy IX is my least favorite game in the entire Final Fantasy series. In saying that, I do not mean to imply that it is a bad game, but it certainly has more flaws and problems than any of its predecessors and these flaws and problems were much more difficult to ignore. FF9 is definitely still worth playing, and is still a good game overall, but it does not compare to some of the other games. This review will focus more on the negative aspects of the game which is a reflection of the high standards I have come to expect from the series.
Final Fantasy IX was developed at the same time as Final Fantasy VIII and the two games are vastly different. While the quality of graphics are similar (as a result of them being produced for the same system), the stylistic differences are immediately apparent as soon as you start the game. The setting and plot of FF9 are a throw back to the more old-timey feel of earlier titles in the Final Fantasy series.
The game draws many of its elements from previous games, including Chocobos, Moogles, and even many of the character names and settings. The addition of up to four characters on the battle screen (which might appear new to some players) is actually a throwback to the earlier titles in the series (Final Fantasy 1-6 inclusive) as well.
My primary issues though with Final Fantasy IX have to do with some key problems that really slow the general flow of game play down. For starters, the battle sequences and the frequency of fights in this game. The transition from the world map or dungeon into the battle screen seem to be much slower and the frequency of random encounters much higher. By the time you get to the end of the game you begin to absolutely dread the thought of being thrown into another random battle.
New to this game is the introduction of Active Time Events (ATEs). As you play through the story, a small warning window will come up allowing you to watch other characters in real time who are not near Zidane, the main character, by pressing the Select button. At first, it seems like a very interesting and unique way to tell the story in a creative way. It does not take long though before ATEs tend to feel like more of an interruption as one progresses through the game. They quite often divert to other characters whose actions are completely irrelevant to the progression of the plot, unless one makes the argument that it helps with “character development” (hint: it doesn’t).
The mini-games and many of the side quests feel quite tacked on and lackluster - more so when compared to Final Fantasy VII (but Final Fantasy VIII is fairly lacking as well). We’ve gone from cool mini-games involving a bike chase through the streets of Midgar and Chocobo Races in Gold Saucer, to the “Catching Frogs” side quest and “Racing Hippaul” side quest (which are both extremely boring).
One of the larger mini-games, Tetra Master, which is somewhat similar to Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII, is on the complete opposite spectrum in terms of its importance to progressing through the game. One could argue that Triple Triad had too much of an impact on the flow of the game, allowing players who mastered the game and played it regularly to level up their characters and stack them stat-wise very early in the game. Tetra Master is the complete opposite - it offers very little in terms of rewards other than the “satisfaction” associated with being able to say that you found all of the cards. It is one of the worst side quests in the Final Fantasy series.
Thankfully the music is still extremely strong. A few of the songs are clearly pulled from Final Fantasy VII soundtrack, but the remaining songs offer just as much to the story as in previous titles. The plot is also fantastic with well written and well rounded characters at least from a character development perspective. The game did leave something to be desired in terms of character customization - each of the characters is specifically geared towards and pigeon-holed into a specific class. Vivi, for example, is not capable of being anything other than a Black Mage. And Final Fantasy IX suffers from the same problem as Final Fantasy VIII - the primary villain/antagonist has a very limited background story (albeit not nearly as bad).
My final complaint has to do with the Trance (Limit Break) system. Limit Breaks have become one of the staples of the series. They are quite often implemented in very different ways within each of the games, but the Trance system has to be one of the worst. The Trance gauge fills up each time a character takes damage, but the character automatically goes into a Trance once the gauge is full (rather than selecting their Limit Break like in previous titles). As a result, characters will quite often go into a Trance right at the end of a battle or during a battle against an inconsequential random fight on the world map. This system made it next to impossible to use a character’s Trance for any type of strategic advantage.
Some Final Fantasy fans still rank Final Fantasy IX as one of their favorite titles in the series, but that is a bandwagon that I just can’t get behind. I would still recommend giving it a playthrough as it certainly a very unique addition to the series, but there is no question that it is my least favorite game, and unfortunately the slowness of the flow of the game would make me hesitate to play through it again.
Overall score: 8/10
(which is still not bad, but not up to the standards I expect from a Final Fantasy game!)