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RELEASE DATE (NA): November 14, 2000 GENRE: RPG
// review by SoyBomb

Back to the old-school, back when things were awesome.

It's been almost a full year since I braved Final Fantasy VIII and wrote my stunning review. And here we are, in May of 2010, and I return from another journey, one quite different from that which I undertook a year ago. The overly complex Junctioning system to customize each character was far more than I cared to bear, and it ultimately left such an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth that I decided not to undergo any more Final Fantasies for quite some time. But when I opened up the Pandora's Box that was Final Fantasy IX, I was concerned that I would have the same somewhat overwhelming experience that had plagued me before.

Not so.

Everything that caused me anguish in Final Fantasy VIII has been practically reversed to better suit what I prefer, and everything that I already liked in the Final Fantasy series is present and accounted for. In fact, if anything, Final Fantasy IX is an homage to what made the older titles so popular, going back and plucking bits and pieces from the past to combine them into a melting pot of RPG deliciousness (carefully overlooking the FFVIII pantry). Basically, I consider this to be a Final Fantasy game directly tailored to me.

Final Fantasy IX takes place upon the planet of Gaia (another term for Earth, though this is definitely not the planet I'm used to -- where is the Arby's, and where is the person outside of Arby's throwing up in the shrubs?), most specifically, on the Mist Continent for the first half of the game, named for its overabundance of green mist used for numerous purposes, including the powering of vehicles and the creation of certain types of special beings. There are numerous kingdoms on the Mist Continent, inhabited by different races. The initial focus is on Zidane Tribal and his theatre group, Tantalus, who is planning to kidnap the Princess of Alexandria, Garnet. However, as we come to learn that Garnet desperately wants to escape the confines of her mother and her recently extreme and maniacal behaviour, their trek to nearby Lindblum is just the tip of the iceberg on a long quest to hide from, and later on, destroy the tyranny of, the nasty (and hideously ugly) Queen Brahne. Eventually, alongside Vivi, the confused Black Mage; Steiner, the loyal royal knight; Freya, the Burmecian soldier; Eiko, the young summoner; Amarant, the renegade with crimson locks; and my favourite character of the bunch, Quina, the always cheerful gourmand with a wagging tongue, they will embark on an experience that goes beyond simple matters with a power-hungry queen. Not one to want to spoil an entire game's storyline in a review, I'll leave it to you to discover the rest, but let me just say that there is more to this tale than initially meets the eye. Oh, and the ending was a bit of a tearjerker. Yes, I admit it.

I will admit, however, that there are points where the game becomes clichéd, but considering its attempts to mimic the greatness of the past, it's a successful cliché. As an added bonus to the storytelling element, FFIX features "Active Time Events", allowing you, the player, to see events that are happening outside of the main character's perspective, such as the explorations of another character within the same town. At least you know they didn't just disappear into thin air. I must also say that the characters are far more unique than in Final Fantasy VIII. I could certainly enjoy the company of the protagonist much more, as he is far less stuck-up and grumpy this time around. Consider him to be the underdog who initially seems like a hapless womanizer at first, but becomes quite the hero to everyone. Character development is a key element to the progression of the game, and I like it.

Random battles are the norm, just as in all other games in the main Final Fantasy series up to that date. The battle system is fairly straightforward and typical of a turn-based RPG: all characters can attack, defend themselves, use items, and try to run away (although the escape feature feels less effective and it takes forever to actually succeed in running). Then, every character has their own set of special moves custom to them only, and it's based solely on their class. For example, Quina is the only character who can use Blue Magic, while Steiner is the only one capable of special sword techniques. All of these techniques and spells are learned from certain equippable items; this is an integral part of the game which I will explain in a moment. There is also a meter below each character's health ratio that slowly increases as they take more damage. Once it reaches its full capacity, the character will automatically enter Trance Mode, changing colours significantly and increasing their attack stat for a short while as the meter dwindles back down to empty. Handy during key battles, but irritating when they happen right at the end of a random and relatively irrelevant battle. You can't carry over your Tranced state to the next battle, so once you have it, you have to wait until the meter refills itself to achieve this state again. This pales in comparison to the Limit Break feature of previous titles, where you could expend all that pent-up rage whenever you wanted to. This system simply feels wasteful. That being said, the battles, though fairly enjoyable in themselves, take way too long to load. I ended up switching channels to watch a TV show for 10 seconds while I waited for my battle to begin. Luckily, I found a nice spot to level up my characters to significant levels fairly quickly, so it wasn't so painful.

So how do characters improve themselves? Well, it's not just through the gaining of experience points and subsequent increases of hit points that will save your behind, though it is of the utmost importance that you do so. (Keep in mind that you have up to eight characters to level up, and you really should be leveling them up a fair bit, because at one point or another, you'll be forced to use everyone in your second string, even all in the same party at one point). It's a matter of collecting Ability Points through battle that will help you improve your overall status. Every weapon, every piece of armor, and every accessory you can equip has its own innate abilities that players could potentially learn (the abilities of many items do tend to overlap). You must equip them, and complete as many battles as it takes to meet the total numbers of Ability Points (AP) needed to use it without requiring that item to be equipped. The abilities range from being stronger against specific types of enemies, to immunities against different negative status effects (poison, petrification, etc.), to the more miscellaneous, including "Auto-Regen", which will automatically apply a renegeration spell upon you at all times for immediate healing. I strongly recommend everyone to quickly learn the "Level Up" and "Ability Up" abilities, which will allow you to gain more experience points and AP points respectively from battles, allowing you to literally level up faster than an average character would normally do. However, take heed! Each character can only apply so many abilities at one time; each ability requires a certain number of magic stones in order to activate it, and you only have so many stones to allocate (the number of which increases as you level up). Choose wisely.

But there are definitely a few aspects of the gameplay that I found to be utterly pointless or irritating. First off, it seems like Squaresoft has an affinity for wedging mini-games into their Final Fantasy games. Let it be forever known that we didn't buy any FF game for this reason. FFIX is no different: we have another silly card game, Tetra Master. But unlike the card game in FFVIII, you HAVE to play it at one point in the game's plot, and you HAVE to win a few times. I was almost ready to drop my controller and walk away because I really stink at any little included games in RPGs, and I try my best to avoid them whenever possible. Luckily, I have a will of steel and managed to survive that accursed card game of doom. Another feature is Mognet, where you basically pick up mail from Moogles (who also save your game) and take them to other Moogles later on. Why am I suddenly the Gaia Postal Service? I have more important things to do than deliver a dozen letters that all feature the term, "Kupo!" Lastly, there are Synthesis Shops, where you pay a fellow to synthesize an item after giving him a specific pair of your own items. Not exactly an awful idea, but this could have been removed and I could simply buy the items flat out. No need to synthesize anything. All of these things, minor though they may appear, still affected the complete happiness I should have experienced.

On the plus side, if there's a secret hidden in a corner, a bubble with a "!" mark will appear above your character's head. Finally, no more button-pressing everywhere in hopes of making a discovery! Let's make every single developer consider this simple in-game mechanism!

This is a beautiful game with countless moments of lush scenery, both of natural and supernatural stature, not to mention fine examples of architecture in the various buildings the party encounters. Character design is top-notch, though not necessarily as directly relatable as in previous games due to the unusual species employed, and there is a definite variety in the appearances of all the races and relevant characters. Their look is far more comically based to emphasize the more lighthearted nature of the game, and that made for a more enjoyable and less tense experience. The CG movies interspliced between bouts of gameplay are quite beautiful (by 2000's standards, though they would likely be even better had the game been created in this generation), and the transition between the full motion video and the pre-rendered backgrounds shows obvious attention to detail in Final Fantasy IX's development. Likewise, the soundtrack -- as provided by legendary series composer Nobuo Uematsu -- is equally touching, and like all fine RPGs, will become embossed in your brain as you play on. Many of the themes here are derived from previous songs from the series, but again, because it's like a throwback to the past, it works.

To summarize, Final Fantasy IX was everything that I really wanted from a Final Fantasy game. It dropped all the major complexities of the previous FF title that made it so off-putting, and brought back the humour and lightheartedness that was so sorely missed. You certainly get your money's worth with four -- count 'em, four -- discs of action, adventure, and top-notch production values. Final Fantasy IX felt much easier than some RPGs I've tried out, but it should still pose the same level of challenge as the other FF games, so there should be no worries to that regard. As you can probably already tell, I highly recommend this game, especially over Final Fantasy VIII. It's just more fun, more intriguing, and features more Moogles. Need I say more?

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