"Eventually, my favorite “mini-game” simply involved me finding all the references to early Final Fantasy games in this one. Square went above and beyond the call of duty in making sure us players got enough nostalgic moments to last any number of lifetimes. Look! It’s the classic black mage design! Hey, that old geezer’s named Garland! He was the bad guy in the original Final Fantasy!"
Final Fantasy IX was supposed to be this great throwback game, foregoing the more modern, post-industrial worlds the last three games had visited to send players back to a magical world of fantasy -- complete with classic elements such as old-timey black mages and the four magical elemental crystals.
Instead, the game was simply an exercise in mediocrity. Regardless of how pretty it was (and being a Square epic, you know it looks G-O-O-D), it wound up feeling less epic and enthralling than either of the two “crystal-based” SNES Final Fantasy titles. It just seemed like Square got the idea they could throw a bunch of nostalgic moments together and automatically have a great game.
At first, it looked like they actually had a chance of pulling that off thanks to a quite entertaining intro. After meeting our hero, a young lad named Zidane, it’s quickly explained he’s part of a group of thieves planning to kidnap Princess Garnet right from under the watchful eye of her mother, the monstrous Queen Brahne, an Alice in Wonderland version of Jabba the Hutt. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned and Zidane winds up trapped in a cursed forest with his partners in crime, as well as the princess; her bodyguard, Steiner and a young, naive black mage named Vivi -- who got caught up in the turmoil while watching a play which Zidane’s crew were using as a distraction to pull off the abduction.
And thus the adventure begins. It doesn’t take a great deal of playing to realize that Garnet might be safer with her abductors than with her mother, as Brahne, along with her two extraordinarily annoying jester buddies, demonstrates a megalomanical desire to conquer the world -- a plan which seems to involve the poor girl’s involvement in a less-than-pleasant way. Meanwhile, Zidane’s a pretty likable, light-hearted chap -- even if Steiner doesn’t particularly trust his intentions.
More characters join the party as time goes on and more villains enter the fray -- none more significant than an enigmatic chap named Kuja (who looks like a slightly more feminine Sephiroth). Zidane and company’s first encounter with him makes it quite apparent this fellow’s going to be a powerful force to contend with....
Unfortunately, as time goes on, the game’s storytelling takes a turn for the worse. When folks like Brahne and Kuja start showing off their destructive abilities, Zidane almost instantly transforms from a light-hearted, fun guy into another generic world-saving hero who gives plenty of speeches about finding himself and knowing what he has to do. Adding to the angst, in fine Square fashion, he also discovers a “dark” secret about his past. Suddenly, his easy-going appeal and charm have flown out the window along with most of the game’s.
Simply put, there just wasn’t enough backbone in Final Fantasy IX to hold up after the plot descended into the same generic template Square had used to some degree in both their other PlayStation Final Fantasy titles. I personally found this to be one of the easiest RPGs I’ve ever played, with the exception of one optional boss. There were a couple of early-game areas I found it beneficial to build levels for a bit, but for most of the game, I simply coasted through virtually everything.
It also was very easy to obtain spells and special attacks for my characters. Most pieces of armor and weapons have some sort of goodie locked within it. Keep them equipped for enough battles and those abilities will be unlocked. It’s just like the Espers and Materia from the sixth and seventh installments of the series -- only MUCH simpler in execution. It never seemed to take a long time to gain an item’s hidden skills, so I never even really thought about it, as the odds were in favor of me getting everything I wanted from one piece of equipment long before something new came into my possession.
I also never really had to think much about my quest, as this was the most linear Final Fantasy since the NES era. For the lion’s share of the game, Zidane and company are essentially on rails, getting sent from one region with barely an opportunity to stop and see the sights.
Then again, when I was given the time to stop and have a little bit of fun, there wasn’t a huge amount to do. I could play the card battling mini-game, but I’d done that with a superior version in Final Fantasy VIII. There’s a neat chocobo treasure hunting game that leads to a slew of great treasures, but as my memory serves, it wound up being a lot of tedious work to get a few great items (and the right to encounter that aforementioned tough optional boss).
Eventually, my favorite “mini-game” simply involved me finding all the references to early Final Fantasy games in this one. Square went above and beyond the call of duty in making sure us players got enough nostalgic moments to last any number of lifetimes. Look! It’s the classic black mage design! Hey, that old geezer’s named Garland! He was the bad guy in the original Final Fantasy! The relatively obscure (but still massive pain-in-the-ass) Final Fantasy V boss Atomos returns as a summon. A collection of monuments the princess must read (and place in the correct order) describe the events of a portion of the NES’ Final Fantasy II more eloquently than the dialogue present in games of that time ever could.
While I’d be hard-pressed to deem the gameplay in Final Fantasy IX as being anything better than “competent”, the great production values do serve a valuable purpose in making this disc a bit more than merely a trip down memory lane. Some of the cinematics are simply incredible. Watching the lumbering Steiner’s pursuit of Zidane early in the game brought a wide grin to my face, while only a little while later, I was sitting on the edge of my chair watching the party attempt to escape the cursed forest before being overwhelmed by sentient plant life. Whoever was in charge of directing the cinema scenes in this game should be commended as they deserve recognition as being among the best on the PlayStation.
Still, that’s not enough for me to whole-heartedly recommend this game. Take away those great cinema scenes and the nostalgic appeal for fans of the classic games in the series and Final Fantasy IX is a pretty average effort that just doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by those games it’s trying to imitate.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (May 11, 2007)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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