Final Fantasy IX – Retro Review

What it is: Final Fantasy IX is the ninth (obviously) main entry in Square-Enix/Squaresoft’s vastly popular Japanese RPG series, Final Fantasy. It was an important game as it marked a return to the series’ true fantasy roots, and was a salute to the then already-long-running series.

Why I dig it: I’m particular when it comes to fantasy. I can buy just about any apocalyptic scenario, and far-future sci-fi tale, and just about any superhero story, but for fantasy, it either works or it doesn’t.

All things considered, I shouldn’t like FFIX — whimsical setting, anthropomorphic animals and 15-year old theives with tails; immeninent, over-the-top magic and a sappy, generic love story at it’s core are all things I can’t stand. It’s almost like a fairytell setting, but for some reason, I love it. It could be the combat, the unique skill system, the great music, or perhaps it’s just the honesty and lack of melodramam and cynicism — things that have seriously marred the series ever since Final Fantasy VII brought in zippers and spikey hair, and filling it with more angst and moodyness than a Hot Topic. It’s truly a “fantasy” setting.

Final fantasy IX has a great — albeit goofy — cast of characters, including the mischievous thief Zidane; young black mage Vivi; adventurous Princess Garnett; and the mysterious dragoon Freya, to name just a few. You meet many characters along the way who all fit the Final Fantasy molds, but as with everything in FFIX, they have a charm and whimsy that characters in other Final Fantasies lack. Then again, it may just be that most of the NPCs are anthropomorphic animals, but who knows.

The story is good, balancing a s story book tale with perilous journey and warring kingdoms. There are some interesting twists, but because of the game’s lighter tone (when compared to games like Final Fantasy VI or VII), some of them don’t pack much of a punch, and for the most part, even when the villian’s plans have been uncovered, there isn’t a strong sense of peril. Still, the character-driven story is more than enough to keep you engaged.

When not reading through lines of dialogue, you’ll find yourself actually playing a game! (not to sound too facetious, but Final Fantasy isn’t exactly an action packed series). The good news is, it’s a good game. The combat is pretty similar to most Active Time battle systems, and features a “trance” meter, which builds throughout encounters, and allows you to perform powerful moves. Some scripted battles will begin with a party member already in trance (usually due to story reasons), giving you a bit of an edge in certain circumstances.

The skill progression in FFIX is probably the most interesting and unique system in the game. Skills and abilities are tied to certain pieces of equipment, meaning you can only have access to the skills your equipment comes with. However, the longer you wear the equipment, the higher a skill is leveled until it is “mastered.” Mastered skills can be used without needed a specific item. The catch here is finding the right balance between stat boosting and skills. You might find an much stronger weapon, but the one you have currently equipped may have a few highly beneficial skills tied to it. Do you wait and level your skills until they are mastered, or take the stat boost and be more effective in general combat? It’s a very fun and deep system, and one that requires a bit more strategy and planning than other skills systems in the Final Fantasy series. Unfortunately, it can also mean you’ll be spending quite a bit of time grinding, but the combat is good enough that having to do so isn’t always a chore.

I’m not as invested in this series as most. I’ve played a few titles here and there, but mostly, it’s not on my radar. That being said, Final Fantasy IX might be my favorite final Fantasy; 7 may be more widely beloved, 6 might have the better story and characters, and 12 might have the better combat, but 9 has an undeniable charm that has drawn me back to it time and time again. As I said, I’m not much of a Japanese RPG fan beyond the few titles I’ve mentioned in this review (and classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy Tactics), but for what it’s worth I feel Final Fantasy IX may just be the perfect Final Fantasy to play if you’ve ever been curious in the series or longing to return to the series.

Even thought the main antagonists are a giant clown queen and androngenous male with a visible g-string under his garments.

Score: 4/5

Pros: Fun story; combat is strategic, but still quick enough that it doesn’t become a bore; great skill/equipment system; returns the series to its roots and avoid the problems that have befallen the latter half of the Final Fantasy catalogue.

Cons: Dated graphics and sound; some pacing issues; saves system is archaic and can be frustrating; often feels more like an interactive story than “role playing” game.

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