Abbreviated boilerplate! Once again I return to this ongoing series, in which I attempt to play through every game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I can get my hands on, from FF1 through Lightning Returns, and a variety of the spinoffs and other titles not included in the ‘main series’. This list continues to undergo revision, and I seriously considered removing Final Fantasy 9 from it for personal reasons. In addition, no MMO titles will be played. Sorry, folks?
I think all of this is extremely important knowledge, and that the human race will be improved by my research. Let’s move on!
The traditional mood music is at hand!
Version Played: Original PSX discs, played using a “slim” PS2 system
Final Fantasy IX is a game that for me, and mine, and my generation of gamers… feels more modern than it actually is. How many among us would be surprised to learn that Final Fantasy IX was released in November of 2000? We are approaching its 15th anniversary. It’s perhaps the newest of the old Final Fantasy games. Except, we don’t think of Final Fantasy VII as old, do we? It is, and we should. Some of us probably do. But that still seems odd to me. Truthfully, Final Fantasy XIII probably has more in common with VII than it does with I. Evolution is an ongoing process, and it’s one that ongoing fans have learned to accept.
But there’s a lot going on in Final Fantasy IX that would be both weirdly prescient and altogether ignorant of the future. It’s an interesting game in many ways.
The core conceit behind FFIX is that it’s a return to the “roots” of the Final Fantasy series. Superficially, there can be no argument about this at all. Final Fantasy IX brings back the saga of the four crystals that rule or shape the world (a premise which every game before Final Fantasy VI incorporates). It’s got airships, it’s got the ATB gauge, you buy and equip weapons and armor, and your abilities are gained as you level. After Final Fantasy V (with its variable Job System), and VI, VII, and VIII… which allowed total freedom of customization to the player given more or less application of effort… Final Fantasy IX has our characters locked into their classes, in a nod to Final Fantasy I and IV.
The designs of both the world elements and (particularly) the characters are also a deliberate reaction against VI, VII and (especially) VIII, which featured increasingly advanced technologies and settings that were undeniably darker than previous Final Fantasy realms. Final Fantasy IX’s – and this is important – surface tone is much goofier. The character designs reinforce that for the entire game. Of course, this game is actually full of some really messed up shit… way more than I remembered there being, in fact. Even in the darkest pits of this game’s soul though, the bobblehead characters work to lessen the impact. There’s nothing creepy about them, for the most part.
The unfortunate side-effect of your characters being “locked in” to their roles is that a certain party composition is virtually required to complete the game. With enough ability gimmickry, you might be able to pass the game’s challenges by overleveling significantly and abusing Auto-Potion, but in general, you will take one of the game’s White Mage characters, Eiko or Garnet. Neither provides any meaningful offense. Garnet has offensive Eidolons, but their MP cost remains prohibitive until perhaps the very end of the game, with a few notable exceptions. Physical fighters like Steiner, Zidane and Freya remain your bread and butter as always, though Black Mage Vivi can certainly contribute. Indeed, my own party for this entire playthrough consisted of Zidane, Garnet, Vivi, and Steiner.
The one nod to character customization available in this title are character “abilities” which are learned off of equipped weapons, armor and accessories. Calling this system “customization” is a bit of a stretch, as all unique character abilities are learned this way (i.e., Garnet’s weapons will teach her White Magic, which Zidane and others cannot learn), along with the same pool of generic abilities for each character. Some abilities are easier to come by than others on certain types of armor. For example, Zidane’s light armor and daggers have easy access to thief abilities, as well as physical combat abilities such as Bird Killer or Golemslayer. You have a limited number of points with which to “equip” learned abilities, and equipping the proper status resistances and combat proficiencies can mean the difference between victory and defeat in many of the game’s areas.
That’s about all there is too it, really.
I have trouble taking the main antagonist of this game seriously, and it turns some of the dramatic moments into silly ones for me. Aside from that, however, it would be difficult to earnestly argue that this game doesn’t live up to what the Final Fantasy brand represents. It’s even a little meatier than its predecessors in VII and VIII in terms of core story, taking a fair amount of time to work through. In addition, some of the battles in IX can be difficult unless you’ve substantially overleveled. Once you’ve identified the best abilities for each situation, you won’t have much of a problem, though this game’s final boss might be the most difficult one I’ve faced, other than the infamous Cloud of Darkness from FF3. As always, your own mileage may vary, but I have a hard time conceiving of ways to make a more infuriating storyline boss.
All of that goes triple for Final Fantasy IX’s superboss, the dreaded Ozma. Although there are many cheesy workarounds available to make him much easier to defeat, he will still feel completely impossible unless everything goes perfectly. I have defeated him, but elected not to do so during this playthrough. I did defeat the other optional boss, Hades, in Memoria, which gives access to the game’s most complete Synthesis Shop. Taking advantage of the items available there will make the game’s final challenges – and Ozma! – quite a bit easier to deal with, and Hades is nothing more than a fairly difficult boss.
On the whole, I found IX to be fairly uneven. Its plot is a bit on the ridiculous side, which I’ve come to realize is an appropriate thing to say about most of the Final Fantasy games. The only ones whose stories have stuck with me so far were IV, VI, and VII, and maybe a little bit of FFT. Will this improve? Hmmm! The gameplay is very straightforward, which is a mixed bag. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you’ll have your ‘strong’ party, and the occasional swap of abilities to protect against local status effects will be enough to find your way. Certainly, I did not find the system here to be nearly as engaging as the ones from VI, VII and VIII, but nor is it entirely without substance (such as in FF1). Still, probably the weakest system to be seen since FFIV’s similarly static model. When the game was fun and interesting, it was fun and interesting, but I did spend periods tiring of the random encounter rate, wishing the graphics were better, and hating the back of Zidane’s face with the scorching power of my brain. Him and his stupid tail.
But I knew going in that this one would be far from my favourite installment. I actually think I enjoyed it more this second, and probably final, time through. So there’s that.
One word of caution for anyone looking to play back through this title: I played on the physical PS2 plugged into my HDTV, and boy did this game look like shit. I highly recommend pretty much any solution but the one I chose. The text was mercifully still quite legible, and the cutscenes scaled nicely, but the in-game graphics… well. Let’s say that I was startled after having played through the nicely-upscaled Steam ports of VII and VIII, and the beautiful PSP version of FFT.
Oh, and join me next time when I discuss the jump to the Playstation 2 with Final Fantasy X!
This game’s soundtrack is far from one of my favourites. It took time just to pick two songs for this piece. Yikes.