Of all the Final Fantasy games I’ve beaten, IX remains the one I think about the most. It’s my pick for the most poignant, most touching, most unbelievably human of the franchise. If you want nothing more than a quick point towards what I think of this game, in short, it’s a phenomenal piece of art that you should absolutely go play – but why do I love it so much? Let us count the ways.
Final Fantasy IX (Android, iOS, PC, PS1, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Released Jul 2000 | Developed / Published: Squaresoft
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 39 hours
I feel like I’m not alone when I say that I think of the Final Fantasy franchise as having at least two distinct eras. There’s the point in time where the series was still in its infancy, exploring gameplay ideas and working out what they could achieve with their narrative and character writing while still confined by both the technical hardware limitations of the time and also still trying to figure out what a “Final Fantasy” world looked like. We could call this the era of “classic” Final Fantasy if you like, since in my head this more or less encompasses the games released on the NES and SNES (and their Famicom equivalents). Certainly from the first game through to V we see games that are still working out that Final Fantasy seems to mean a largely traditional fantasy world with some sci-fantasy, ancient-precursor-tech kind of setting, where we see the writing explore ideas that wouldn’t be out of place in a D&D homebrew campaign before evolving into more character-driven dramas, and where the games we get to play all still fit a similar mould, even though they try and expand how that mould is presented.
VI seems, to me, to represent that changing point where Square started to try and take the series into a new place and certainly by the time the PS1 rolled in with VII we were squarely in a more modern era of the franchise, where fantasy elements could either be discarded or we were getting to see less “fantasy” stuff and more defined “Final Fantasy” stuff that carried over between games regardless of setting changes. Character writing started getting pushed to the fore and I think it’s fair to say the series since VII has been more experimental than ever, from the utterly alien world of X’s Spira to the single-player MMO that is XIII or the industrial time-twisting weirdness of VIII. I’m not saying either era is better than the other at all, mind, but in the middle of the wild experimental PS1 years, one game stands apart and a little different from its peers. Final Fantasy IX is, without a doubt, an attempt to throwback to those wonderful halcyon years of early Final Fantasy, but without throwing out the lessons learned along the way.
For a start, it’s definitely shooting for a traditional fantasy aesthetic in place of any kind of science-fantasy, at least for much of the game. It’s all still couched in an instantly recognisable Final Fantasy sheen though; our first character is a steeple-hatted black mage who recalls the original game’s sprite for the same class, chocobos roam the forests of the world, and great airships float gently through the sky. It gives IX a unique identity, a comfortable familiarity on both fantasy and Final Fantasy levels; you get the sense that if Squaresoft had been able to craft a fully 3D world back in 1987, this is what would have emerged. There’s a beautiful sense of wild-eyed wonder and weirdness that comes down upon you as you wander the streets of Alexandria at the outset of the game. The quaint medieval town bustles with life as folk rush around you, clamouring to get tickets for the performance of a beloved play delivered by an airship-bound theatre group, but it’s presented with such earnestness that there’s no question of whether you’ll buy into the fantasy or not.
It’s not long before we move away from Alexandria to explore the rest of the world of Gaia and we soon discover the thing that Squaresoft really took the time to craft was its atmosphere. From the twisting gnarled finger-like branches of the Evil Forest to the rain-soaked streets of neighbouring kingdom Burmecia, to the sunset-lit solitude of Madain Sari, IX is full of locations that stand out long after the credits have rolled, filling you with a sense of wonder at a world filled with isolated villages and a lingering emptiness; but then you return to Alexandria, or Lindblum, or Treno and immerse yourself in thriving and toiling cities that teem with life. The lush FMV backgrounds, a staple of the PS1 Final Fantasy games, are stunning, especially in the upscaled release currently on the PS4 and PC, and they really help tie together the vision Square had.
But while you can definitely gawp at IX all day, that’s not the real draw. There’s some gameplay and some story rolled in there as well. The game begins with Tantalus, a theatre group, pulling into Alexandria in order to stage the beloved play I Want To Be Your Canary, which draws in a huge crowd including the queen, Brahme. However, Tantalus aren’t just actors, but thieves as well, and they’re using the play as a cover to do their biggest heist yet: to kidnap the royal princess Garnet! Turns out she wanted to be kidnapped though and, along with her loyal guard Steiner and the hapless black mage Vivi, wind up aboard Tantalus’ ship as they attempt a swift getaway. Unsurprisingly, this pisses off Queen Brahme something fierce, and the ship is shot down, forcing the party to hightail it across the world as Alexandra mobilizes for war and begins invading everyone they can see.
In some respects, while the plot is fun and engaging, the real draw here is the character writing, and it pushes along the story events in a far more effective way than the actual plot beats. I think what makes IX’s characters so good is that they all undergo a healthy amount of crippling existentialism. In fact, existential crises, considering the virtues of nihilism, and constant querying of what it means to be human are many of the central themes to IX’s writing, and perhaps it’s just that I’m a depressed millennial but those are so horrifically relatable that IX constantly resonates with me.
The shining stars are two of the main leads, Zidane and Vivi. Zidane is already exciting when he begins the game since he’s a lovable, mostly honourable rogue type, which is something a bit different for Final Fantasy, and we quickly get a read on what kind of person he is. He’s obviously a thief like the rest of Tantalus but it’s established pretty early on that he thinks he’s a bit cool and rather than motivated by money he’ll do pretty much anything if it means he gets to play hero and try and impress a girl; in fact, it’s a surefire tell that something’s wrong if he’s only interested in a cash reward. What’s fun about Zidane though is that while everyone around him goes through these huge emotional arcs, he remains a supportive rock, which is unusual for his kind of character, and it seems like he’s got things sorted out for himself. It becomes clear that this is largely a facade though, and the moments when the mask slips make for some of the most evocative and powerful points in the game.
Vivi however is the epitome of heart-wrenching tragedy. Of all the cast, although it’s close, I’m tempted to say Vivi undergoes the most emotionally traumatic arc, and it’s heartbreaking to see it unfurl since he’s such a pure-spirited lad. While other characters grapple with perfectly solid themes, it is Vivi who bears the brunt of the game’s heaviest writing, and although it’s all filtered through a fantasy veneer, the core ideas are deeply relatable and incredibly powerful. Suffice it to say that I consider IX one of the most emotionally heavy and beautifully written games in the franchise. It maybe didn’t make me cry quite as much as the ending of XV, but it’s up there.
Much like the setting, the gameplay of IX also feels pretty familiar and old-fashioned. Combat uses Final Fantasy’s signature ATB system, so it’s turn-based but characters get to act when their turn bar is filled, giving the combat a very slightly frenetic feel. While there’s no character classes or similar kind of individual customisation, each member of your party definitely fills a niche that resembles a class; Zidane’s a thief, so he can steal things, Vivi is a black mage so he gets access to damaging elemental spells, and so on. For quite a large amount of the story you don’t have control over who is in your party, so sometimes the game’s challenge comes from managing your party to meet the threats facing them even when you don’t have characters whose skills would be more useful.
I love the simple and elegant way this game manages abilities. Each piece of equipment that can be slapped onto your team comes with attached abilities that have a required amount of points to learn. After each battle you earn ability points and once the point threshold is met, that character permanently learns that weapon’s ability, meaning you can unequip your gear and move onto something new while still being able to use the learned ability. Obviously, not all characters can learn everything, so equipment becomes a game of managing whether you want better stats from a piece of gear your character can’t learn from, or whether it’s worth keeping a hold of weaker stuff to gain new powers from. Each character in turn has a limited number of slots to equip abilities onto, so even if you learn tonnes, you’ve still got to weigh up what you want to have available and when.
I do have a small gripe to bring against IX, which is that its implementation of the usual Final Fantasy Limit Break system is absolute trash. We’re talking pure garbage-tier here, folks. The mechanic this time around is called Trance. Each character has a Trance bar which fills up when they take damage; you’d be forgiven for thinking that, once full, like any other game, you’d be able to activate Trance at your leisure, letting you choose when your characters get a spicy anime powerup and get access to upgraded versions of their regular skills. However, for some utterly unfathomable reason Square decided this time around to make it automatically activate as soon as the bar is full, meaning you have basically no good control over when your characters use their Limit Break. More than once I got unlucky with getting hit and someone would get all excited and powerup at the end of some random encounter against some pointlessly weak spod and then that’s that Limit Break good and wasted. It’s a minor grumble though; it just means you end up taking on IX without ever relying on it, and if it does happen at an opportune time, the better.
Although originally a PS1 exclusive, IX has seen a fair few re-releases over the years. I’ve played both the original release and, for this review, picked it up on PS4 to take advantage of the upscaled graphics and just generally to feel out if there was anything especially interesting in it. Like with the re-release of VII, Square-Enix have taken the chance to add in some extra features; in fact, I’d consider them as fantastic accessibility options given it includes togglable battle help, infinite health, safe overworlds and sped-up gameplay modes, all of which can be turned on or off via the pause menu. Obviously, I’m sure there are purists out there who balk at the prospect of playing IX with what are, in all fairness, basically just cheats, but frankly I’m all for them; I’ve beaten IX before anyway, and they’re a very fine way of letting more people experience what is largely a story-based game anyway.
As is usual when it comes to Nobuo Uematsu’s scores, it would be remiss of me not to spend a tiny moment of time waffling about how good the music is. Personally IX contains what is possibly the single most resonant piece of music ever created for a game, You’re Not Alone. The point where this piece plays is one of the most powerful, emotive moments in the game and it’s without a doubt the sequence that immediately jumps to mind whenever I recall IX. It’s also simply the aural pinnacle of the PS1’s glorious MIDI output; the breathy flutes intertwine with the choir, creating an ethereal atmosphere while behind them a simple drumbeat clips with a powerful, distorted presence. The guitar line that cuts in afterwards is a melody which is burned into my memory and it only gets better when the baritone choir joins in. It’s a sublime song, and one which I come back to sporadically just to listen and relive the emotions of that moment in the game.
You might get the sense from this review that I rather like Final Fantasy IX. Let me leave no illusions; IX is among one of my all-time favourite games, let alone my favourite game I’ve beaten in the Final Fantasy franchise. The depth of the writing is what truly sells it for me, but really IX is just one of the pinnacles of the JRPG genre, and excels in every area. I appreciate turn-based battles and lengthy dialogue aren’t for everyone, of course, but I think the modern re-release of it offers some handy options for people who don’t mind a slightly truncated experience; for everyone else, IX remains an exceptional experience in its unadulterated form as much as its re-released version.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.
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