It would be no great stretch to say that the Final Fantasy series has been one of the most popular and influential contributions to video gaming. From the earliest consoles to the modern day next generation platforms, the franchise has propelled the status of role-playing games in the North American market and has continually broken gaming standards with each new installment. The experience of embracing a Final Fantasy title has always been akin to losing oneself much like reading a masterfully written fantasy novel. Now, in its latest adventure, Final Fantasy IX, demonstrates that this is no exception. Being the last chapter to grace the PlayStation console, Squaresoft leaves its fans with quite possibly their greatest RPG among the series to date.
Reflecting upon the previous titles - Final Fantasy 7/8 respectively, Square had fans believing that the Final Fantasy series was irrevocably heading more towards an science-fiction atmosphere, and thus in the process, abandoning the admired fantasy approach. While both were deemed popular, it was widely agreed that the series was starting to loose its direction and become separated from its fantasy roots. Essentially, the games began to feel less and less like its predeccessors, and more like playing with the crew from Space Quest with the occasional mogul. Contrary to its predecessors, Final Fantasy IX returns to the 'golden age' atmosphere - full of traditional medieval elements, magic and mystery. Gone are the spaceship chases, time-traveling nuances, and mega-corporations; in return of the black mages, utopian towns, and an insanely imaginative populace. Magic is the primary fundamental item in many RPG's, and in regards to the latest chapter, makes for a highly imaginative gaming experience that has not been as enticing since Final Fantasy 3 (still considered by many fans to be the best in the series).
As one should expect, Final Fantasy IX is an epic adventure expressed through a cast of captivating and unique characters, all of them being unlikely allies which band together to combat a crisis that affects them all. The situation this time around doesn't truly materialize until late into the game. However, without giving too much away, it's a story of greed and world war prompted by one man's quest for the ultimate form of magic; (and in case you don't get it, this man is really, really evil). The world is consists of four main sections, the Mist Continent being the largest and most visited region throughout the game. The journey will center around the inner continents and in time expand to other regions accessible via airships and boats. Players will engage challenging battles, unearthly monsters...but above all, as with many epic stories, you'll succeed in saving the world and get the girl.
Your main player is Zidane, a young thief who -- in following with Fantasy cliche -- has no recollection of his parents or past. While you'll spend a substantial degree of the game portrayed as Zidane, you'll encounter new party members, thus engaging the game through their personal backgrounds. Additional support characters to the story include Vivi (a mysterious young black mage), Garnet (the Princess of Alexandria), Steiner (the guard sworn to protect her), and Eiko (the young summoner) - all who are linked together by various threads and plot twists. Of course, while there are a few others who will join your party, the aforementioned cast above are the most significant and integral to the entire story.
In history, no epic war has ever been fought without smaller battles, thus they remain as being one of the most important elements of the series. Once more, the battle system has been altered and tweaked - building on the strengths of games past. Instead of the now-standard three-man approach, Final Fantasy IX has reverted back to the four-man set-up seen in some of the earliest chapters in the series. Fighting is executed using the active-time approach (which can be switched to turn based via the configuration menu). This refers to the AT bar beside your character's name which, when filled, allows your character to perform an action. While essentially all battles are turn based, enemies will not wait for you to attack them if their AT fills up before yours. This is where the strategy kicks in; choosing which characters attack the fastest and which you can afford to save up for bigger attacks. To see a good demonstration of what not to do in battle, try leaving the game unpaused while you answer the phone; it's merciless.
Since the warriors of the Fantasy universe come in all shapes and sizes, you'll find that not one of your characters operates in battle exactly the same as the next. Of course, everyone is given the standard battle system options (i.e. attack, defend, item), but your characters can develop separately based on two options: improving on their original distinct skills or learning new abilities. Original skills are the abilities that the characters "naturally" possess. Vivi, for instance, is a black mage and is a practitioner of the black arts , whereas Zidane or Steiner lack the ability to utilize a majority of the black magic featured throughout the game. While in contrast, Zidane specializes in stealing, something which Vivi cannot learn. These character specific traits can be added on by equipping various items and learning their hidden abilities by acquiring attack points (AP) in battle. Garnet's first sword, for example, gives her the power to cast 'cure' whenever equipped. By having it equipped and earning the required AP for 'cure', she can learn it permanently and then move on to bigger spells. It is by this method that all magic is learned and used. No more frustrating draw spells (read: FF8), just the trusty magic points. Confusing? No worries, the game goes to great lengths in teaching the various fighting arts mostly through Active Time Events (ATE's), an optional feature to view events that occur periodically. Skip these and you may miss out on important information. Whereas if you watch them all, you may grow bored to tears. :P
The summoning ability has also returned, but is present more so for the sake of the plot rather than battle. For the most part, these 'eidolons' will be used against your party depicted through an impressive display of full motion video sequences to ever grace an RPG. You can use them as well, only a couple of your characters will actually have the ability to summon an elemental monster. The huge amount of MP needed to do this, however, will cause you to think twice.
Finally, another new addition to fighting is the 'trance' bar. As your character inflicts damage, the bar fills and (once you've been knocked around enough) transforms your character in 'trance mode'. Similar to the Limit Break system introduced in Final Fantasy, this 'rage meter' allows your character to access powerful skills and abilities which lay dormant until provoked. While I find this feature effective for boss encounters, it's hard to strategically implement its timing during standard monster battles.
As is a trademark for most RPG's, Final Fantasy IX features an abundant degree of optional side-quests and mini-games to pass the time, and aid in enhancing the overall gameplay factor. These are the addictive little extra games that tend to detract you from your initial goal of ...say for instance...saving the planet and everyone you care for. Final Fantasy IX boasts a large number of these, the greatest of them being the new and improved card game and Chocobo treasure hunt. Returning from FF VIII, the card game (or Tetra Master) which has a generous learning curve, contains a substantial degree of strategy and significance to the game itself. Initiating a card game is still as easy as talking to someone, and you will find that no matter what the situation, everyone from the littlest kid to the hobo on the street will be willing to have you a game. Ideally, the goal in Tetra Master to achieve the highest card collector ranking by searching for the rarer cards in every nook and cranny of the world, but for the most part, completing Tetra Master is for bragging rights - nothing more. Of course, if this is your goal, you discover an integral factor to quest by playing the new 'Chocobo Hot-and-Cold' game. This in effect is an optional side-quest which will take almost as much time to play as a standard GameBoy game. In it, you'll guide your own Chocobo (aptly named Choco), and search for treasure map-esque items called Chocographs hidden throughout the Choco Forest. Choco-rific! Once found, you must take your Chocobo to the designated location and proceed to dig around until you hit pay dirt. As the game progresses, your Chocobo can learn new skills and access different areas, ultimately entering 'Chocobo Paradise' - provided you have the will and determination to find all the treasures. Aside from these two games, there is nothing like the Golden Saucer featured in FF7, but this latest batch of events and games are quite diverse...you just have to search them out.
As with the gameplay, the Fantasy series has always been scrutinized for how their visual appeal. In this case, Final Fantasy IX has little to worry about. Graphically, what the previous editions on PlayStation games established as exemplar has been harnessed to a tee by its successo. Each town and dungeon is so expertly rendered that you will more than once feel guilty about running through an area without spending at least a good half-hour to see the detail which has gone into the backgrounds. Even those who aren't primarily intrigued to style and savviness will marvel at the amount of ingenuity and thought that has gone into the town architecture and lush, complex outer environments. You could honestly frame any scene from this game and not feel like a geek for having it on your wall - Final Fantasy IX is truly a delight to look at. The character animations are clean and well defined, blending in perfect harmony with the battle backdrops and various enviroments. Finally, the cinematic sequences are yet another element of excellence, retaining the Hollywood inspired action and cinematic dynamics; truly the best that's been expressed on the PlayStation to date.
Sound is the integral feature to enriching the RPG experience, and in the case of Final Fantasy IX, it remains one of the areas that never really excites or disappoints. To its credit, Final Fantasy IX contains a vast number of themes for individual locations. Unfortunately, after you've heard them over and over, it grows to a point that you tend to overlook them...instead of being captivated. One area where I would've liked to see Square add dynamic appeal, being this is the last chapter for PlayStation One involves the integration of actual voices within the cinematic sequences or even in-game scenes (as featured in Grandia 2). As it is, FMV's are packed with sound effects and music and in-game events are driven through by the tradition text-message fashion. Some day, Square will hopefully change this aspect. In retrospect, even without the use of voice acting, the music complements all. In fact, the soundtracks always do well commercially. The only real letdown is that you don't get the feeling of a whole orchestra, but that of a guy sitting down with a synthesizer and a computer.
Finally, Final Fantasy IX marks the beginning of Squaresoft's online initiative. While not at the point of allowing for multi-playing just yet (as is planned for future titles in the series), Square has set up www.playonline.com , an open forum for the game that features an online store, tips and strategies for gamers to use. Basically, its everything you wanted to know about Final Fantasy IX, but were too lazy to find out on your own. Personally, I found the site is very useful, but it can easily spoil into become dependant on its availability.
It's unfortunate that the PlayStation is an aged console. Under the weight of its own kin (PS2) and various competition, the PlayStation will have to fight hard to stay afloat in the upcoming year. If they could release a game like Final Fantasy IX every month, they would have no problem retaining interest in the system. Final Fantasy IX is not only an entirely enjoyable game to play, but it is also one of the most visually impressive console games to date. Square's last Final Fantasy title for the PlayStation is not only the best in the series, but quite possibly one of the best RPG's to bless the system.
· · · Agent Smith