After Final Fantasy 8 moved the game series in a more serious and realistic direction (at least as far as character design goes), Square got back to its roots with a love letter to what made it so great to begin with. This is really both its greatest virtue and biggest flaw; by going the more traditional route and thus retreading ground, it makes certain elements of the game as comfortable as they are stale. It’s a double-edged sword in this regard, and how you as a gamer respond to it depends entirely on your history with the series.
Those who haven’t played many games in the series or who disliked the direction that Final Fantasy 8 took the series in will find Final Fantasy 9 to be an incredible game. Those who enjoyed Final Fantasy 4 and 6 in particular will find plenty to enjoy, as many elements are borrowed from both and the general tone of the story falls somewhere between the two. For those who enjoyed the uniqueness of 8, however, 9 will undoubtedly feel like a step backward for that very reason. From general plot points to the combat system, very few things stand out as innovative, yet having enjoyed 8 doesn’t preclude the enjoyment of 9—even for all of the borrowed elements and the general lack of risk-taking, Final Fantasy 9 is a great game. At worst, one can simply believe it to not be the best game in the series, and at best, it stands as the perfection of the promise 4 and 6 had, realized in 3D and with beautiful CGI sequences scattered throughout.
Zidane, the main character, is a womanizing, thieving, kidnapping scoundrel. Princess Garnet (though she goes by “Dagger” for most of the game), his all-too-willing kidnap victim, spends most of the game sulking. I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, that kind of dynamic in a Final Fantasy game… this must be one of those stories that focuses on love again.” Correct, good sir or ma’am. Like most Final Fantasy games, the two main characters spend the entire game secretly pining for one another while being too stupid to actually say something. It’s uncomfortable at times, but no more distracting than in the previous games. Other characters also fit into the typical Final Fantasy roles; Quina in particular is very similar to Gau from Final Fantasy 6, being largely detached from the more serious aspects of the game and frequently coming into play to insert weird humor into various scenes. I mean, they even share the whole “stealing your enemies’ attacks” thing.
The story is incredibly difficult to talk about without spelling out the entire plot, but suffice it to say that it’s unique enough to work on its own while possessing many familiar elements. There are moments where anyone who has played a previous Final Fantasy game will be able to guess what happens next, but there are also some more unexpected developments that balance the whole thing out nicely. In fact, the plot, though a bit abstract and weird toward the end, is probably one of the best things about the game. It hits on many familiar points, however: A group of your characters getting caught and escaping from captivity, a late-game jaunt through a weird castle, several points where you’re forcing your way through various things in an airship… let’s just say that there’s a lot of recognizable stuff all around ranging from the more subtle to the outright.
Speaking of outright, the combat system. Combat plays out like in virtually every Final Fantasy game, with the bars that slowly fill up and allow you to act once they’re filled. The most obvious borrowing from previous games (at least, the most obvious to me), however, are the abilities and spells/special moves you pick up. When you equip an item, you gain the ability to use certain passive and active abilities that come with that item so long as you have it equipped. These abilities range from new spells to increased damage on certain enemy types and everything in between. You can only use so many at once, though you’re able to use more and more as you level up, and your mastery of these skills increases as you gain ability points in battle. Once you’ve mastered a skill, you can use it without having the item equipped, meaning that the whole thing is incredibly similar to learning magic from espers in Final Fantasy 6. Individualizing your characters with specific abilities, while great, isn’t even the best part of this system; by allowing for a steady stream of new abilities, grinding actually becomes fairly painless compared to earlier entries.
Unlike the previous entry, you don’t get “limit breaks” or anything like that when your characters are near-death. Instead, a separate bar fills up as you take damage, and this filling up all the way affects different characters in different ways; while Zidane gains access to the “Dyne” command full of powerful attacks, Vivi the black mage gets a “Double Black” command that allows him to use two spells in a row, and Steiner just has his attack and defense increase to ridiculous levels. Some characters strike me as being more useful than others in this sense, though I suspect that it varies quite a bit depending on how you approach fights. For example, Eiko’s “Double White” can be a godsend if you focus on staying alive and slowly doling out damage, but is utterly worthless if you’re all about quickly dealing as much damage as possible.
Much like Final Fantasy 8, there’s a card game. Unlike 8, it’s basically worthless and won’t have any effect on the game itself. Cards can’t be reduced to items or used in any meaningful way, and the minigame itself is obtuse and unclear as far as the rules go, meaning that it’s a complete waste of time to even get involved with it unless you rank among the most obsessive of the obsessive. If that’s you, however, it may be time to think about a strait jacket and white padded cell.
Graphics are what you’d expect from a Playstation 1 Final Fantasy game, being blocky but pretty in a more artistic sense. Lots of memorable locations, lots of pretty colors, and lots of shiny CGI. The character design, on the other hand, has taken a bit of a step backward, going from the realistic character models of 8 to weirdly-proportioned ones. There are also several kinds of anthropomorphic animal-people, though this isn’t really bothersome except for when a serious moment is occasionally undermined by the lamentations of a hippopotamus-person. Those hippo people were the ones that really bothered me. Maybe I’m racist against hippos or something. Yes, I know “hippo” isn’t technically a race.
The music is great as always, and I say that without any qualifications. Though I personally found the soundtrack weaker as a whole than Final Fantasy 8’s, 9’s is (arguably) better than Final Fantasy 4, 5, and 7’s. The main villain’s theme in particular is very catchy, and unusually head-bobbing-worthy when the alternate version with drums comes on:
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