Riding high off the sales of Final Fantasy VII, its immediate sequel sought to capitalise on the darker more futuristic trend that had started to work its way into the series in Final Fantasy VI. It was a surprise then for gamers in the western world when Final Fantasy IX was announced in all its medieval fantasy glory. Very much a return to the series’ roots, it harkened back to the early days of Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy IX is very much the perfection of what has come before it, and the last great PSOne RPG before the Playstation 2 arrived to take the crown. Squaresoft (pre-merger with Enix) had considerable experience using the hardware and developing for the format which led to one of the most polished titles on the system. It’s a divisive gem (though what Final Fantasy doesn’t get argued about) that some loved for its flippant nature and other despised upon release, but nobody could argue about its quality.
The game uses 3D character models rendered over high quality (but not HD) background art that is full of minute details and animated elements so as to blend seamlessly with the characters. The characters themselves express emption visibly through a number of poses and actions that makes scenes feel more visually dynamic. Following on from the trend breaking change from blue text boxes in Final Fantasy VIII, IX opts for a simple grey text boxes with speech-bubble style flicks to better show which character is speaking. This skips the need for character art to appear and allows for boxes to jumble around on top of each other when multiple characters argue. The characters themselves have simple but classic designs inspired by earlier titles with each party member fitting into the roles and classes Final Fantasy has become known for. Thief, Knight, Black and White Mages, a Summoner and a Dragoon are all present along with their accustomed visual flair. The world itself is largely high-fantasy with a touch of Steampunk thrown into the mix for airships and similar technologies.
Sound effects are solid but do have a synthetic vibe to them that is noticeable in this day and age of surround sound speakers. That said they are well produced and there are an awful lot of them that still sound right for the scenario. A Moogle twittering as it opens the book to save or a candle being lit sound like you want them to rather than what they probably would in a more realistic scenario. Music is once again excellent and always a staple of the Final Fantasy series, in this case taking on a medieval tone that is haunting in its opening melody before sampling a number of instruments throughout the games length. Characters, locations and specific events all have their own themes through which you quickly come to recognise them.
The story sounds very simple on paper and can be summed up in one sentence, ‘How far would you go to save the princess?’ Obviously this being Square there’s a whole lot more to it than that premise but it does a good job of summarising the main theme. Zidane is a thief and member of a band of airship pirates who are on route to kidnap Princess Garnet from the kingdom Alexandria. To do this they will stage a play for the queen whilst he and a friend sneak in and snag her. Upon arrival things go according to plan until Zidane finally meets the princess and the first thing she does is ask for his help escaping the castle. The ensuing scenario ropes in a mage in the audience and her loyal bodyguard who will be a comedy duo for the duration of the game and sees the ship crashing in a near-by forest. From there things escalate quickly and soon the nature of the world begins to reveal itself, especially the strange mist that ships sail on that covers most of its length and is full of monsters. The tone shifts between touching moments, exciting set pieces and comedy with style and dialogue is always well constructed without cycling through multiple text boxes when one or two can suffice and keep a sense of character.
Gameplay is a mixture of the tried and true JRPG conventions and a few attempts to shake up the formula. Two players can now participate in the turn based battles taking two characters from the full party of four each, making for quicker decision making when the Active Time Battle System makes every second count. This is the last appearance of the ATBS in a mainstream Final Fantasy title and they push it to its limits with every trick they can think of. The games limit break system is called Trance that is rationalised in-game as being the character’s emotions hitting a peak in battle, something they follow through with as a plot point later and make good dramatic use of. Trance gives characters a second form with new attacks and greatly buffed stats but only lasts as long as it takes for the counter to tick down and can’t be saved for later. Some characters double up in the party for special attacks, with the black mage enchanting the knight’s sword, etc, and Summons are at their most powerful when the full animation plays, making you hopeful for the long version rather than the quicker remixed equivalent. This is backed up out of battles by a system that allows you to choose to watch small events happening away from the party to build a sense of world in a cutaway similar to that of a film, and a revamped edition of the card game Tetra Master that first appeared in Final Fantasy VIII and is at its most tactical and polished in this format. The game is traditional Final Fantasy through and through however, and almost akin to a Dragon Quest title in how old-school it feels at times. Skills are learned through buying and equipping weapons and items that have them attributed to them and can be used immediately or learned permanently by the character over time, making even the most useless knife worth equipping at one point or another.
In all Final Fantasy IX is a powerhouse on the PSOne and a benchmark in gaming on the system. It has polish, a fantastic script and likable characters. Final Fantasy VII may get more love from the fans and served to bring the genre back into the eyes of the western world, but even creator of the series, Hironobu Sakaguchi believes that Final Fantasy IX is the ultimate cumulating of his plans for the series. These days it plays spectacularly as a mobile game on the PSP and is easily available for the PS3 on the Playstation Network, perhaps even better than it did as a console title. The story is engaging, grinding to learn skills feels less of a mammoth task, and the graphics really get a chance to shine on the smaller screen of a PSP.