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Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation) artwork

Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation) review


"
Right at Birth
"



Right at Birth

If we consider the life of Final Fantasy from its origins, when characters moved like pixilated beasts, to Final Fantasy VIII, when characters moved like full-bodied humans, then Final Fantasy IX resembles Zidane Tribal: half-man, half-beast. A short yet nimble human with the tail of a monkey, Zidane is an odd choice for a main character but quite fittingly embodies the message that "old doesn't mean broken". Take one look at the cover beneath the jewel case - big heads, small bodies, and a black mage, all in happy-go-lucky colors - and you will remember the days before Final Fantasy's growth stunt into the third dimension. Gameplay elements, new and old, have come together upon the virgin lands of Gaia, composing an easy, breezy romp through the pages of Final Fantasy. Indeed, nostalgia speaks loudly in Final Fantasy IX, if not too loudly. At times, this four-disc adventure feels like sitting next to a bumbling kindergartener that just won't stop singing:

"...chocobos here, moggles there, here a card game, there a summon, everywhere a plot thread..."

But though the game warbles along our memories without knowing what it wants to say, Final Fantasy IX has the innocence of a child. It does not run through the historical halls of Final Fantasy because it's stupid and immature. It does so because it's fun, and truthfully, you'll be all to happy to follow along. The only trouble is that once the fun stops, you turn around and realize that you're not a kid anymore.

Child's Play

Like a fairy tale that lures you with delight, the watercolored world of Gaia spreads into imagination. You will be thrust into a landscape filled with flying ships, grand castles, and Renaissance flair. Smooth, rounded palettes brush the scene from the first moment you aboard the M.S. Prima Vista and step into the flower-filled streets of Alexandria. The detail is so rich and refined that you will likely take it for granted, as you play merrily and undisturbed. Even as you sprint across verdant fields, thrust your sword into gnarled monsters, and summon eidolons of awe and majesty, the backdrops invisibly immerse you in the pages of a storybook...

...The world sways like a field of un-plucked cotton, seamless and gently magical.

Whether you are skipping along a forest trail, splashing puddles on the streets of Burmecia, sailing through thunderous clouds with a mechanical ship, or swishing your legs between the feathers of a chocobo, you will hear melodies that join you in pleasant animation. Nobuo Uematsu orchestrates cheer, in its bubbly tones, with such incredible range that melancholy songs gain poignancy simply by contrast. Princess Garnet's lullaby is an empathetic solo reflecting her lonesome yet kind heart, and the theme for Burmecia - The Land of Eternal Rain - cascades through minor progressions, quivers on medio-fortissimo, and shrills upon restless arpeggios. The spectrum of compositions, instruments, and rhythms shows an appreciation for music that isn't forced. Unfortunately, the musical paint is spread thin across ninety-one tracks, and while the light and charming themes are comforting, you will detect an air of immaturity. Don't expect to hear anything dramatic like One-Winged Angel from FFVII or Liberi Fatali, the opening theme for Final Fantasy VIII. Battle music, in particular, lacks dynamic urgency, neither rising nor falling enough to make you care about fighting.

But such analytical nuance doesn't really matter. The music will run to you, smile, and play a finger-painted splattering of bright tone colors, and you just won't have the heart to say anything but that it's wonderful.

Teenage Traps

As you hop-scotch through your adventure, you soon learn an inevitable fact: life isn't all just fun and games. The world has rules, and as you try to fit those rules into your once fun-filled life, you will scoff at how unfair everything is. Wanting to both please its fans and reach a new audience, the game struggles to balance old mechanics with new ones. Though Final Fantasy IX is amusing and approachable - FFIII and FFVII easter eggs will surprise fans often, and mechanics are generally simple and traditional Final Fantasy fair - characters have rigid roles, either as physical attackers or magic users. Due to this over-simplicity, many of your decisions in combat are already made for you, and you will miss the flexibility that a materia system from FFVII or a transferable magic system from FFVIII would allow. Furthermore, this tight-casting unfortunately stereotypes the abilities of your characters to their class. Vivi is a black mage that casts elemental spells, and Steiner is a knight with sword abilities, and that's all they'll ever be. Assuredly, this harkens back to early Final Fantasy classics, but the lack of customability here is too much of an unnecessary step backward.

New equipment-based skills try to make up for the lack of customability, but they don't give you the same sense of freedom that the sound and graphics make you believe you should have. Granted, learning and setting skills is at least simple. Weapons, gear, and accessories all contain skills that characters can learn permanently by vanquishing monsters for AP. Each character has reusable skill points, represented by shiny aquamarine stones, which you use to turn skills on and off; however, more than a few flaws crack this simple system. For one, every time you want to see what your skills actually do before you learn them forces you to switch out of the equipment screen and find your way through the exhaustive skill list.

Even more frustrating is that skills are the only way you can prevent negative statuses like poison and confusion, but there are numerous status effects - and severe ones at that - which skills don't account for. Having no defense against Berserk, Mini, Death Sentence, Virus, Trouble, Zombie, and Instant Death is not just unfair, it's neglect. Now, enemies don't inflict statuses often until the end of the third disc, but later bosses - particularly the last one - abuse your lack of immunity as viciously as a slime-green Great Malboro. Sure, you can use status-removing items, but they can act as temporary, status-by-status cures. In fact, since death removes all status effects except for Zombie, you will resort to killing off any of your highly infected characters and reviving them later. Such a strategy makes you realize that no matter how powerful your characters become, they will die.

Older and Older

As you slowly reach the end, the game will begin to lose its grasp on creativity. Final Fantasy tradition restricts FFIX's battle system, magic system, and practically every other system under a common guise: Why change? To be sure, you cannot fault the game for reusing battle mechanics that work. The combination of Active Time Battles, "-ara" and "-aga" suffix upgrades for elemental spells, cinematic summons, feathered chocobos, waddling moggles, and an outrageous cast of characters on an outrageous adventure - is a signature formula that has worked wonders for years.

The magic, nonetheless, is starting to experience a mid-life crisis. Limit Breaks are now erratically called Trance, except that it occurs automatically at random moments. You have no control.

Standing in for save points are moggles - little animals that, of all things, want you to deliver mail to their fellow kin. If you ever wanted to know how a human letter sorter feels, try remembering where Moguo, Mogryo, Mogki, and Mogmi are, let alone their names. If that bores you, why not try a card game - ala Triple Triad from FFVIII - called Tetra Master, a game that requires skill, fortitude, a need to ask random strangers to play with you, and a willingness to receive almost nothing but a Collector's Rank for your efforts. Or how about going on a worldwide journey on a chocobo, pecking the ground for treasures with just a photograph, and realizing that this is just an elaborate update from FFVII that tries to justify itself with rewards and color-changing birds?

Even if enjoy these side quests, there is little connection between them and the main quest. Any special equipment and items you gain also doesn't help against status effects, and standard upgrades are more than enough to deal with the majority of enemies.

Reminiscence

Looking back, the story of Final Fantasy IX is one that lives from moment to moment but doesn't hold its attention on any particular point. From the beginning, we see a conflict between officers and outlaws, as Steiner and his Knights of Pluto try to save Princess Garnet from Zidane and the shipmates of the M.S. Prima Vista. Characters, revolving around the romantic story between Garnet and Zidane, also have their own conflicts: Freya wants to regain her honor as a Dragon Knight, Eiko doesn't want to be lonely anymore, and Vivi struggles with his self-identity. Thankfully, well-crafted dialogue portrays these conflicts with strong content and smooth transitions, using occasional one-liners that have a depth you wouldn't expect from such a cheery game:

"The only thing about the future is uncertainty."

Unfortunately, the plot employs more than a few fixed battles, in which the game is taken out of your control and you are forced to lose. Moreover, although most character arcs reach resolution, they are usually forgotten as quickly as they were made. At the end of the game, you will ask whether anyone except for Zidane has relevance to the plot. And then Zidane begins to ask: What is truth? Why am I alone? Why am I here? Instead of focusing on the love story or any of the character's motives, the story concludes with pseudo-intellectual existentialism. Philosophical endings that suffocate in the overused device of an evil entity bent on total destruction is a trend in Final Fantasy that needs to stop. Powerful stories built on layered character progressions and plot threads shouldn't be squandered by a final knot that leads to nowhere.

Memoriam

Someday, you will look back on your life and the adventures you had. On a journey that lasted you a lifetime - within a mere hundred hours or more - you will recall hardships, conflicts, and regrets. Then, you will remember what you had kept secret and safe. Final Fantasy IX is like a family treasure, a charm that is passed down from one generation to the next. The crystal embedded in its logo symbolizes two worlds of different meanings merging together: romance with philosophy, innocence with nostalgia, the old with the new, and man with beast. It will remind you of a time when all these troubles meant no more than a passing memory. All the things that the game breaks by running through the halls can be gleefully forgiven and forgotten.

Returning you to your childhood is the power of the charm, whether it is cracked, chipped, or a round piece of plastic in a jewel case.

Rating: 7/10

draqq_zyxx's avatar
Community review by draqq_zyxx (June 21, 2006)

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