"The Final Fantasy series is one of the most revered in gaming, and with good reason. Picking up one of these epic RPGs is a beautiful feeling - you almost know that you're in for a great time. And Final Fantasy IX, the last original Final Fantasy game to be released for the PSX, is certainly no exception. Returning to the old-school styling, with a tale of wizards and warriors replacing the steam punk trappings of the last two games, Final Fantasy is getting back to it's roots, and in doing so t..."
The Final Fantasy series is one of the most revered in gaming, and with good reason. Picking up one of these epic RPGs is a beautiful feeling - you almost know that you're in for a great time. And Final Fantasy IX, the last original Final Fantasy game to be released for the PSX, is certainly no exception. Returning to the old-school styling, with a tale of wizards and warriors replacing the steam punk trappings of the last two games, Final Fantasy is getting back to it's roots, and in doing so taking the series ever forward into the future.
FFIX tells the tale of blonde-haired, monkey-tailed Zidane Tribal. When we join the action Zidane, apparently part of a travelling band of actors, is headed to Alexandria Castle to perform for Queen Brahne and her daughter, Princess Garnet. Meanwhile, young mage Vivi (who looks quite a lot like Orco from He-Man) is breaking in to the castle so that he can watch the play, and the Princess' guard, the burly Adelbert Steiner, is fretting about security arrangements, his rivalry with Beatrix, the most able of the Queen's guard, and the fact that Garnet has, well, wandered off. As the play begins, we learn that not all is as it seems - Zidane and co. are plotting on abducting Garnet. As Zidane sneaks into the Castle, attempting to find the Princess, he spots a young hooded lady. She turns to reveal that she is Garnet, before jumping off the building. Before Zidane can act, Steiner attacks him. Garnet lands safe and sound on Zidane's ship - she seems well up for being kidnapped - and the group make preparations to leave. The Queen gets wind of this and launches a full attack on the ship, despite the fact that it harbours Garnet, and all hell breaks loose. Through some rather spectacular explosions the ship finally escapes the castle, with Steiner, Garnet and Vivi on board, but it is heavily damaged, and crashes into a nearby forest. And this is just in the first half hour! Of course, from this point on things do get more complex - why exactly was Garnet a kidnap target, and why was she so willing? Why has Brahne seemingly gone more crazy than a rabid monkey on LSD? And just who is the chap with the ivory coloured barnet who's lurking, just in the background of proceedings...? Needless to say, it all becomes clear, and as you've probably guessed, by the time the fourth and final disc rolls around, you'll be leading Zidane, Vivi, Steiner, Garnet and friends in a battle to save the world. No pressure, or anything.
What does become apparent about the plot, however, is that it 'borrows' quite heavily from Final Fantasy VII. Now, when you come down to it, most Final Fantasy games share plot traits with one another, but whereas most of the games are happy to just swap parts of their plot around like school kids swapping sandwiches at lunch time, Final Fantasy IX is the school bully who comes storming in, walks up to FFVII and takes most of the damned lunchbox. Or, to put it another way, many key plot details from FFVII are reproduced in this game, only with Zidane and friends in place of Cloud, Sephiroth et al. Still, the lack of originality doesn't make the plot in this game any less enchanting or epic. Indeed, there are several scenes that are bound to stay with you for a long time - the aftermath of a city-wide attack (the scenes where the survivors are getting on with simply rebuilding what has been destroyed are actually more memorable than the destruction itself), a rather novel form of underground transport, a scene, which many of us can relate to, which sees Zidane moping over his beer about the woman he loves, and many others that I can't reveal for fear of giving away key plot surprises. What does make a refreshing change from other Playstation Final Fantasies (FFs VII and VIII) is the fact that, unlike Cloud or Squall, Zidane is actually a cheery, happy-go-lucky character, rather than a sullen tortured soul. Now while that isn't to say that there's angst aplenty in store for Monkeyboy, the fact that he's far more likeable makes his tale all the more involving, and even poignant. What's more, the characters actually seem to grow during the game. For example, Steiner starts off as a mere comedy character - he's always protesting Garnet's decisions and he really has it in for Zidane. However, by the end of the game he has changed from a bumbling buffoon into quite a noble and heroic character, and the beauty of it is that it happened with such fluidity and majesty that you can't pinpoint the exact moment at which he changed. Marvellous.
If you've played any Final Fantasy game before, you'll doubtless feel right at home here, as, in any ways, the game follows the standard formula to the letter. You can lead your merry men (and women.... and... well... let's just say 'other's') around the various landscapes in the game, chatting to locals in towns, finding items lying around (helpful, if a little patronising, is a question mark which appears above your character's head when passing items that are just waiting to be found scattered amongst the scenery) , playing cards, and partaking in hundreds of random battles.
As ever, it's the exploration that is the most heart-warmingly superb aspect of the game. Entering a brand new area of the map and just looking around is truly an engaging experience, and there is a true sense of wonder in this game that will lead to you wanting to delve into every alcove, talk to every passer by, and examine every painting hung on a wall, every bookshelf, every desk or table. It's entirely possible to distance yourself from the main quest for as much as an hour at a time to just go sightseeing. This sense of awe and discovery is all too rare in modern videogames, so all credit to Square for delivering it here.
As great as the exploration aspect is, the true heart of the game lies in the combat. On the map screen, or in hostile environments, you will very often be plunged into conflict with an enemy. These fights are random - you can't see the bad guys shuffling around the screen before they attack, and many people cite this as an annoyance when discussing the Final Fantasy games. However, I like it. The fact that you never know when you'll come under fire creates a sense of tension that can, when you're towards the end of your health and about half an hour away from the last time you saved, be almost thick enough to taste. The battle system has again been given a bit of an overhaul, meaning that all three Final Fantasy games created specifically for the PSX have significantly different mechanics. This time around the series sees a return to parties of four playable characters in battle (the first time that this happened in a PSX Final Fantasy). This not only makes the game feel fresh, but also manages to create a warm fuzzy nostalgic feel deep down in your stomach. Indeed, the concept of getting back to the series' roots seems to flow throughout FFIX. Each of the four characters in your party has a timer bar that ticks away. When it reaches the end, that character can perform an action. The actions available are far more character-specific this time round, with each character falling into a specific category - Zidane is a thief, and as such can steal powerful (and not so powerful) items from the enemies, Steiner is your basic muscle man, Vivi is adept in magic spells, and Garnet can summon forth mighty guardian monsters to either protect your party or rain down merry havoc upon your foes. The other playable characters fall into similar categories, but since you don't meet these until you are at least a few hours into the game, I won't go into too much detail here. You'll just have to find out for yourself.
The method by which you come about these abilities has changed since the Junction system of FFVIII, or the Materia system of FFVII - in this instance every piece of armour, clothing or accessory that you can equip to a character not only boosts their stats (attack power, defensive capabilities etc.) but comes with the abilities such as magic spells, attacks and summon spells built in. If a character falls into the class that can use these abilities then they have instant access to them. Use the accessory, weapon or clothing in enough battles, and the ability becomes yours permanently, whether you are using the relevant item or not. Being both startlingly simple to get to grips with, and deceptively complex when you attempt to learn the right abilities needed to beat that boss, or get past that type of enemy, this is a fantastic system that works staggeringly well.
There are also plenty of sidequests and mini-games to get to grips with. As in FFVIII there is an addictive card game featured - the rules are explained in the game, so I won't explain here, but suffice to say that collecting and winning cards becomes astonishingly compulsive, and you'll find yourself dashing like a headless mongoose to the nearest save point as soon as you win or receive a particularly rare card - even if it means backtracking several screens. There is even a card tournament in the game, a richly satisfying experience as you get to witness your hours of practice go to use. Although not quite good enough to be a game in itself, as a diversion when the main quest gets too overbearing, there are few better than the card game on display here. But although the most prominent, the card game is far from being the only sidequest in the game - there are oodles of them, from a strange creature who appears at random to test your Final Fantasy general knowledge (by posing a question then getting you to attack the right answer... no, really!), to racing an unfit child through the city streets to get the little chubster back into shape, there's always plenty to keep you occupied in this game.
What's more, this is almost undoubtedly the most well-presented PSX title on the market. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful.... it's hard to believe that it's even possible to stretch the PSX any further than this. The characters all have the rather charming 'big-head, tiny body' look that was eschewed in favour of realistic character models for the series' eighth instalment. However, the sheer detail lavished upon the characters, complete with an odd, washed-out style colour scheme that runs right through the game, means that this game could never be accused of looking too childish, despite some of the, frankly outlandish, characters on display. The environments too are suitable diverse, and all utterly breathtaking. Each town has a distinct look that separates it from it's peers, and the backgrounds on display seem to stretch for miles. This coupled with the multitude of non-playable characters just going about their business really makes it feel like you are in a living, breathing fantasy world. As unbelievable as this may sound, this game really does put many next-generation titles to shame in the looks department. It's that good.
Aurally, too, this game is a treat. Final Fantasy games have always had suitably epic scores, and this is no exception. There are many tunes that will be familiar to Final Fantasy veterans out there, and many more new tunes, but, new or old, every single melody is near perfect for the situation you find yourself in. The music in this game can be both tense and dramatic, light-hearted and jovial, and touching and poignant. You'll be hard-pressed to find better on the PSX. In fact, the only real downer is the 'victory music' that plays at the end of battles. Now, this sequence will be familiar - it is a Final Fantasy mainstay, but in this game it just sounds.... wrong. It's hard to explain, but take my word for it - the victory music seems much more lifeless in this game than in previous Final Fantasy excursions.
Final Fantasy IX really did push the Playstation, and the Final Fantasy series, to it's limits at the time of it's release. It looked, played and sounded beautiful, it had a great plot, and the old-school charm gave it a fresh feel. The fact that closer examination revealed that large parts of the story had been grafted from Final Fantasy VII was a bit of a detraction, meaning that Final Fantasy VIII just about scoops the position of best Playstation Final Fantasy game, but it's a very close call. And even if the plot (like the graphical style, and overall setting for the game) borrows from the series' history, the more rounded and accessible battle system, stunning presentation and oodles of variety really moved the series forward. The kind of money being asked for PSX games now means that if you don't already have this game, you'd be cer-azy not to get it in right now. A landmark in Playstation history.
Community review by tomclark (March 06, 2004)
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