Scott Hardie | June 1, 2002
Last night I beat "Final Fantasy IX" after about a month of playing it. It's a very good game, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the genre. For the first two discs, it seems truly excellent, perhaps the best in the series. Then things slowly fall apart, and you wonder how Square lost its sense of greatness. (It's still a good game in the end, just not as excellent as it started out being.) I doubt most people here on TC care about this game or this series or perhaps any video game, but it's my weblog and I can write if I want to. [I do discuss the late stages of the game, but I try to be as vague as possible.]

There are two plot elements that are common to all Final Fantasy games, that I don't think I'm spoiling if I mention them here: The moment when the real villain kills the false villain, and a gradual escalation of the plot, so that the story starts on a personal scale and winds up involving the planet, the galaxy, the universe, or all existence itself. FF9 includes both of these elements, and both involve frustration.

The real-villain-killing-the-false-villain moment, which comes at about the halfway point in the game, is frustrating because that's when the story begins making huge jumps and not keeping the player up to it. Prior to that, we followed every step of the plot as it happened, but the game gives us a cataclysmic moment, then a brief and vague glimpse of an after-moment, then the plot is advanced days forward with no explanation. If you've played FF8, recall what Edea does to Squall at the parade at the end of disc 1, then suddenly you start disc 2 and you're in prison with no connecting explanation. It's frustrating because it distances us from the characters. We don't know how they got to where they are, so we care a lot less about their predicament. I cite that moment in FF9 as significant because it's the first such moment in the game, and because it's a harbinger of things to come: The game begins making other large jumps in plot with no warning or explanation. You can still follow along, but you feel less connected afterwards, like the game doesn't care to involve you in the process of telling its story.

The other problem that I stated is much worse. For 80-90% of the game, events are limited to this little world. There are kingdoms at war and the future of certain civilizations is at stake, and that's okay, we can handle that scale. Then suddenly things start getting cosmic, and by the end of the game we're fighting for the future of all existence itself. Huh? When that happened in FF8, at least there was some buildup in the plot, but it just suddenly happens in FF9 and we're expected to care about it. The game had kept things on such a small scale for such a long time that I had a very hard time believing that these characters could play such a significant role in the entire fucking universe.

So, those are two big flaws, my only two major complaints about the game. Other minor complaints:

- You don't get to involve your whole party at the end of the game. In all previous FF games, your entire party would get involved in the last dungeon or the last fight, either randomly or by your determination. (Even FF7 found a rather weak way to do it.) Here, you pick which four characters you want to use, and that's that. I liked all eight characters, I had an emotional investment in all eight characters after playing them for weeks and seeing them work out their issues in life, so naturally I want to see them make a contribution to beating the game. At least the game didn't make you have Zidane in the party for the last fight.

- Steiner's devotion to Alexandria gets really old during the course of the game because for a long time it's the only element to his personality, but at least he finally gets over it after a while. That's more than can be said for Quina's desire to eat everything. A one-joke character's one joke isn't very funny after it's been told dozens of times. (Still, some of the best jokes in the game come from Quina, such as his/her reaction to seeing a frog on the deck of the Blue Narciss.)

- The mini-quests are lame. I did a couple of them, then read about the rest in the FAQ and decided not to bother, which is a first for me. When I think of really great mini-quests, I think of the buried castle with Odin in FF6, Yuffie stealing the materia in FF7, the deep sea research facility in FF8. Here, what do we get? Stellazio coins? The Chocobo Lagoon? Daguerreo? Please. The only one that sounded interesting was Mognet Central, but you don't get any reward for doing that.

- [Spoilers here about the villain.] And speaking of lame, Kuja is hardly a worthwhile villain in the series. He's so lame, he actually apologizes (in so many words) for trying to destroy the world after he's beaten! The only things that are bad about him is that he's very arrogant, and that you want to kick his ass to prove to him that his arrogance is unfounded. But of course, the game won't let you fight him until very near the end and then again at the end, so you have to put up with his lameness throughout, and it's frustrating. I miss Sephiroth. I miss Kefka. Fuck it, I miss Golbez.

Those are my complaints. Otherwise the game is excellent. Square's best achievement with it is creating a complete world. The art design department should win an award: Every building and person is unique, yet at the same fits into this wonderful, quirky world with everything else. The aesthetic is not only held supreme but is also beautiful and stylish. The music, as usual, is excellent, with the most unusual tracks being some of the best ones. (My favorite music tracks include the Black Mage Village, Madain Sari, and Mt. Gulug. I placed an order for the soundtrack on Amazon for $79, then fortunately did a search on eBay and found two dozen of them barely selling and I "Bought One Now" for the price of $24. Forget Amazon.)

Fans of the human element in FF8 might be disappointed by the cartoony appearance of some of the characters in FF9 (I was when I first saw them), but have no fear, they have plenty of feelings. For frame of reference, they're about as cartoony as the characters in FF7, and have about as much emotional range, which is to say good but not great. One of the wonderful things about them is that Square lets them be archetypes instead of letting them pretend to be something new. Zidane is the self-proclaimed ladies man, like Irvine and Edgar. Dagger is the romantic lead who falls in love and has trouble admitting it, like Tifa and Rinoa. Vivi is the wimp who must learn to find courage, like Edward and FF4's Cid. Steiner is the heavy who constantly loses his temper, like Barret and Zell. Quina is the weirdo who exists mostly for comic relief, like Mog and Cait Sith. Freya is the warrior who was wronged by the villain, like Vincent and Terra. Eiko is the tough-talking little girl, like Relm and Selphie and Yuffie. Amarant is the cool badass who slowly learns to care, like Squall and Shadow and Edge. These characters were created to reflect the previous characters in the series.

And that's one other wonderful thing about the game: It embraces its heritage whole-heartedly. Besides the character archetypes and many similar plot elements, there are many hidden references to previous games in the series. Some are characters, some are places, some are summon beings. There's all kinds of things. It would be neat to see more, but the game should be appreciated for including as many as it did. I could list some of my favorites here, but I don't want to spoil them. Keep an eye out.

I like the equip system. A lot. You learn your abilities by equiping specific items. It gives you some of the flexibility of the materia system from FF7, but with the difference that you permanently learn the abilities after having them equipped for a while, which makes life a lot easier. I plan to run my own FF RPG soon, and I will use a combination of FF7 and FF9's ability systems. My only complaint regarding this system is that the game frequently chooses your party members for you (you don't even get to truly choose your group until disc 3), and characters who leave the party take their equipment with them. The game should un-equip everything when a character leaves the party! MY game will un-equip everything when a character leaves the party.

Lastly, the element that draws in today's players, the FMVs. They're all high-quality and beautifully presented. And, best of all, they're used very sparingly, which lends them a great deal of extra weight. The game's designers also remember how much more facial expressions can be made in FMV scenes, so they don't just use them for the big cinematic moments, but for the human moments as well. The closing FMVs are particularly well-done, and the last image in the game is just as powerful as the last images in FF7 and FF8.

That's about all I have to say. If anybody's played this game and wants to discuss it with me (I can say a lot more to someone who's played it), send me an email.

Coming to me next week in the mail: Final Fantasy X.

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