Opening with a lavish piece of theatre, a tale of tragedy and romance, Final Fantasy IX sets the stage perfectly for the tale to follow.
Final Fantasy IX is a love letter to the series’ past. The entire game is littered with references to the franchise’s history. Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and director Hiroyuki Ito sought to take the franchise back to its roots, away from the sci-fi vision of Final Fantasy VII and VIII. As such, the game is firmly based in fantasy with some added steampunk, similar to the aesthetics of Final Fantasy VI.
The Tantalus group, a band of thieves posing as performers, plot to kidnap the princess of Alexandria. To their surprise, the princess is all too willing to be whisked away. So begins Final Fantasy IX. What ensues is one of the most fantastical and intriguing journeys a video game has to offer. Like any good story, however, there are twists and turns along the way. True to form (and genre), what begins as a benign tale about a thief and a princess transforms into something more sinister and impactful by the game’s end.
What makes Final Fantasy IX’s narrative stand out is not its plot, but its unique and unforgettable characters. They range from Zidane, a vibrant womanising thief, to Vivi, a small Black Mage discovering his place in the world and the nature of his existence. Each character in Final Fantasy IX represents something greater than themselves. Zidane comes to personify virtue, Garnet devotion, and Steiner the dilemma of duty. Wait long enough on the title screen and you’ll see this for yourself.
However, this does not render them as caricatures. Each undergoes transformation and growth throughout this nearly 40-hour adventure. Even the villain is given attentive characterisation. The garish Kuja, who speaks almost entirely in metaphor, goes beyond the stock villain. It’s a pleasant change from the one-dimensional, exclusively evil villains of past installments – a prime example being Kefka of Final Fantasy VI, whose primary motivator was destruction and world domination. Kuja is more nuanced in his motives, a classic example of the tragic villain. The fact that Final Fantasy IX can make us feel sympathy for him in the end is testament to the power of its storytelling. The characterisation is not flawless, however. Even some characters within the main party are soon forgotten, their development forgone in favour of plot exposition.
Final Fantasy IX in achieving as much as it does within its narrative is quite the accomplishment. Like many JRPGS at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, the themes inevitably stray towards the meaning of existence, life, and all reality. Death, perhaps, is the overarching theme of Final Fantasy IX, although none would ever envisage it at the beginning of the journey. The theme punctuates the entire game. Even the final boss is ultimately a representation of death. Final Fantasy IX’s finale has endured in gamers’ memories, for both positive and negative reasons.
The fundamental gameplay is largely unchanged from previous entries in the franchise, and is divided into two sections: exploration and combat. Combat is turn-based and, unfortunately, based on random encounters. It is regrettable that Final Fantasy did not follow its contemporaries Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross in removing random battles for a fairer experience. The levelling and ability systems have been simplified compared to Final Fantasy VIII. The tedious, broken junction/draw system of Final Fantasy VIII is gone, replaced with a more traditional system featuring Ability Points. Earn enough points and you can learn an ability from a piece of equipment. Simple.
Yet this simplicity is also a weakness. The system lacks the depth of Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system, or Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. Perhaps this was all in line with the vision of returning to tradition, but this is taken too far at times. The battles in Final Fantasy IX are among the slowest in the franchise. A camera that pans around at the beginning of each battle doesn’t help. Also, Trance – the special mode each character can enter after taking a certain amount of damage – is quite frustrating. It is essentially this game’s version of limit breaks. The difference is that you have no control over Trance. It activates instantly and ends when a battle is done. Often, you will waste this on random encounters rather than using it strategically on bosses. When this happens repeatedly, it quickly becomes annoying.
The Steam version of the game addresses some of the pacing issues in the gameplay. There are several “game booster” modes available. Some of these break the game outright while others are quite useful. The high-speed mode helps with some of the more tedious side quests in the game (I’m looking at you, Chocobo Hot & Cold). In fact, much of the optional content in Final Fantasy IX is uninteresting, becoming a monotonous grind. Still, I’d advise first time players against any of these boosters. I believe the game should first be experienced as it was intended, even with its flaws.
In typical Square-Enix fashion, the Steam version of Final Fantasy IX is a hastily thrown-together mobile port. The reaction to the recent Chrono Trigger port is evidence of Square-Enix’s mistreatment of revered classics. Final Fantasy IX got lucky. The user interface hasn’t been altered and the audio isn’t a butchered MIDI mess like the Final Fantasy VIII Steam port. There are a few issues, however. The game runs in a 4:3 aspect ratio. 16:9 widescreen support would have been nice after all these years. Also, the resolution of the character models has been increased. That seems like a good thing, but there is one problem: pre-rendered backgrounds. The backgrounds are still at the original resolution, causing a visual mismatch. This small detail does a surprising amount of damage to Final Fantasy IX’s visual presentation.
Which is a shame. It is undeniably a gorgeous game. The pre-rendered backgrounds are dated by today’s standards, but in every screen the beauty and detail of the artwork shines through. This varied world is designed with love and sheer passion. Your adventure will take you from the towering heights of Lindblum castle, to the endless deluge over Burmecia, all the way to the alien biomes of Terra. Something as simple as seeing birds flying to their nests outside of your room adds so much to the world. It feels alive. With each different landscape, you become more convinced of this world’s vibrancy.
An essential part of Final Fantasy IX’s presentation is its soundtrack. Composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, it ranks among some of the greatest music ever written for a video game. The music will surely leave a lasting mark – you’ll catch yourself whistling one of the many indelible melodies (of life) long after you’ve finished the game. The combination of ineffable score and the charming visuals make Final Fantasy IX’s aesthetic and atmosphere unforgettable.
Final Fantasy IX is an unmissable experience. Despite some of the gameplay weaknesses and technical issues with the Steam port, Final Fantasy IX stands tall as one of the finest JRPGS ever created. With its memorable cast of characters, unique world, and a story which sends your imagination soaring, you’ll become unavoidably attached to the game. It is difficult to come back to reality when the adventure is over. I sat glaring at those dreaded words, “The End”, as the familiar Final Fantasy prelude theme played, not wanting to return to real life. Final Fantasy IX is truly worthy of being hailed as a classic.
- Captivating and varied world
- Memorable characters and story
- One of the greatest soundtracks of all time
- Excellent artwork and visuals
- Battles are slow
- Side content is weak
- Hi-res characters don’t match pre-rendered backgrounds