We’ve come to the final franchise entry for the PS1 era. The series developed from the 8-bit medieval fantasy into a more realistic and futuristic game, each with a twist on game mechanics and story-telling. Though the past three main Final Fantasy games ascended into a more ‘technological era,’ this last entry was a nod back to the originals that started the epic journey. Set against a medieval background with a cast of quirky and unforgettable characters, it would be easy to believe that Final Fantasy IX is a light-hearted adventure; but don’t be fooled. While the look is more cartoon-ish, the story-line is incredibly dark as well as charming. There are many pros and cons to this fantastic entry, and it is definitely a fitting swan song for the PS1 era.
Back to the Classics and New Additions
Final Fantasy IX is quite the turn after Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Seeped in past lore, we leave the materia and GF-Junction systems behind as we return to the single class character design and buying upgrades. The game has several nods to past franchise entries including character inspirations, musical throw-backs, and collectible items. This lends a lovely touch of nostalgia without completely relying on the past. Of course, since this is a Final Fantasy game, the music is master piece by the wonderful Nobuo Uematsu in one of his greatest scores ever. All of these cherished aspects combine into one of the most well-balanced and visually stunning games in the series.
While the game returned to its roots, it’s not without innovations. One in particular is the addition of ‘Active Time Events.’ These cut-away scenes were added to provide additional insight and character development for a richer narrative. Other new developments involve a new way to learn abilities, an option to forge new weapons and armor, and a series of mini-games to form a truly enjoyable game. Regardless of the changes or throw-backs, the greatest part of Final Fantasy IX lies within its story.
Welcome to Gaia
Our story begins in the world of Gaia on the onset of war between two of the great nations. Players join Zidane Tribal, a plucky thief in a traveling band of misfits called Tantalus. He and his crew are attempting to capture the princess of Alexandria, Garnet Til Alexandros XVII. What begins as a high-stakes kidnapping turns into a game of cat and mouse. It catches not only the princess and her protector, Adelbert Steiner, in a daring escape, but also poor Vivi, a young black mage and innocent bystander. As our plot thickens and the cast of characters grow, tension between the nations of Alexandria, Lindblum, Cleyra, and Burmecia rises. War rages against the power hungry Queen of Alexandria and Garnet’s mother, Queen Brahne.
While Zidane and the others face the threat of Alexandria, a third player is pulling the strings. With the mysterious introduction of Kuja, a mysterious arms dealer, our heroes soon discover that not everything as it seems. It is a twisted story of war, self-discovery, and other-worldly surprises.
A Fine Line between Comedy and Tragedy
Final Fantasy IX has one of the most intricate stories of the series. On the surface it begins as a war story, but the narrative sinks into a dark allegory concerning our own existence. Unlike previous heroes who jump into the fray because they are ‘the chosen ones,’ we have characters who press on out of obligation, love, or self-discovery. While the powerful arc pushes each character to his or her limit, they exponentially grow by the conclusion. The lines of good and evil are so blurred that it’s hard not to show sympathy for characters on both sides. Even the all-powerful villains seem to have some redeeming qualities that can alter our perception.
The world of Gaia is covered in shades of grey – while some moments are clearly black and white, the narrative touches on the aspects that make us all human, while using both human and non-human characters. Filled with silly moments and downright bone-chilling scenes, Final Fantasy IX tells a powerful story that players will want to revisit. It is incredibly well-balanced; the heavy moments are complemented by charming comedic scenes that allow for a rounded narrative.
Change isn’t Always Good
That being said, there are some issues. The main story becomes a little muddy and difficult to follow. While all of the characters are very interesting, some of their development doesn’t reach full potential, including the main villain. At points, the pacing is a little slow, but the worst error is a mandatory section that requires players to play Tetra Master. Rather than having a mini-game add extra fun, this card game is forced on the players and it does not play as well as it’s predecessor, Triple Triad. There is no worthy reward for playing the game, and it really doesn’t fit in. That being said, these aspects are not overwhelming enough to destroy the game experience. The game mechanics and the wonderful characters are enough to keep gamers wanting more.
Getting Ready for Battle
Final Fantasy IX has game-play very similar to its predecessors. Players have access to a main party that consists of eight playable characters: Zidane, Dagger, Vivi, Steiner, Freya, Quina, Eiko, and Amarant. There are other NPC characters that gamers can control for a determined amount of time. Players can explore the world map, towns, and dungeons like previous entries; however, rather than using a save point, Final Fantasy IX utilizes moogles for that function. When players encounter a moogle, they can talk with it, buy basic items, and take part in the mini-game ‘Mognet’ which is an on-going letter exchange between all the moogles in the game.
In addition to the save point change, Final Fantasy IX includes a field icon to assist in finding exits and treasure on screen – which is a huge help considering the intricate graphics. There is also a new approach to puzzle solving and story-telling through the ATE – or active time events. These events can allow for slight differentiation in game play, character development, and navigating dungeons – almost like Final Fantasy VI.
Also, like previous entries, players navigate the world map by foot, chocobo, boat or airship and can run into random battles.