Great way to end the 'classic' Final Fantasy line.
The setting of the game is back to the medieval tone of the pre-FF6 Final Fantasy's, and it's a nice change. I've always been more of a fan of that setting than of the Industrial settings Square seems to cherish lately. Black mages, airships, classic spells and legendary swords all make a grand comeback. But does the nostalgia make for a good game?
It makes for a great game. You play as Zidane Tribal, a nice young man who happens to have a monkey tail. You're part of a group of thieves who double as actors in a popular theater troupe. The game begins as your gang arrives in Alexandria to kidnap the beautiful Princess Garnet, but soon we find out that the Princess actually wanted to be kidnapped for some reason. What could push her to want to leave the castle? You learn that and more throughout the story.
Talking about the story, it isn't the game's strongest point. Don't get me wrong, overall it's awesome storytelling but it does have some flaws. The game starts off awfully slow. The first CD feels like a chore and not until the halfway mark of the second CD does the story pick up and oh boy does it pick up. But then the story itself is a bit weak, and the fault falls a bit on the main antagonist's shoulders. He's just not very threatening.
So the story starts out slow and on top of that it isn't very good so for what reason would we possibly want to sit through tons and tons of text? Because of the characters. This game has the best characters since...since probably ever in the series at that point in time. They're all likable, except maybe Amarant. They all have interesting back stories, and they all feel very human. You'll play this game only because you love the characters so much, and they're totally making the story interesting for you. Vivi is adorable, I'd want Zidane as my best friend, Garnet as my girlfriend etc. They're very very deep and well constructed characters and they make the whole game.
This game is also very good at pulling your heartstrings. Square has been trying for years to portray love in their games, and FF9 is the first one where it really works. At the end of the second CD I had tears in my eyes and they stayed there for a couple of hours since the game was so good at making everything melodramatic. The ending is also very very awesome. This is probably the game that made me the most emotional in quite a while, maybe since Xenogears and considering the masterpiece story that Xenogears had this is quite the statement. This is truly a game you play for the people who populate it, not for the storyline.
Those characters are also very unique in the ways you play them. Square went back to their old ways of having every character a specialist. Zidane is a thief, Vivi is a black mage, Steiner is a Warrior etc. So whatever you do you will never be able to make Vivi hit hard physically or have Steiner throw lightning bolts, which is a great change from FF6, FF7 and especially FF8. You can customize them somewhat with the additions of abilities. Every weapon and armor in the game has abilities attached to them, and when you equip them on certain characters they can learn the abilities included within the equipment, and that's how spellcasters learn their spells and how everyone else learn their abilities. The equipment also contains sort of 'basic' abilities which are global and that everyone can learn, such as defensive abilities against status ailments for every character or monster type specific damage enhancers for every fighter type. It allows for flexibility while keeping your characters unique.Thus you could have Vivi being a total offensive powerhouse by using abilities to boost his magical power but if you do that you will have to neglect the defensive abilities so he'll catch every status ailment coming his way and so forth. It's a great system that is simple and that won't make you scratch your head. As for the summons, they went back to FF7's model where you call em, they do their thing and they leave. The animations are not as long as in FF7 and after calling them the first time they'll start appearing sometimes with shortened animations, although they're actually less powerful when their animation is short so every time you call one you always hope to see the long animation sequence.
Speaking of summons, the graphics in this game do the trick. This is a PS1 game after all so you can't expect much, but the pre-rendered backgrounds look nice although the quality varies from scene to scene. The FMV's are awesome as always. The game falters a bit when talking about full 3D, but it is still very nice especially with the PS2's smooth option on, since it clears up the texture to make them less muddy. Even though the 3D is rough around the edges it is still spectacular.
The sound is probably the weakest part of the game. The melodies themselves are great but the equipment used to make them is so 16 bit, I mean what are they doing? Games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Chrono Cross have like this great orchestral soundtrack but the PS1 Final Fantasy games have this old midi music which is just so out of place. Excepting a few tracks in the game most of em sound a bit thin on instruments and it's just disappointing. It's not that the music is hard on the ears, it's actually very nice but it could have been much better and there's no reason why I should be hearing Super Nintendo era music in a 1999 CD based game, especially with the budget they put on it.
Oh well, that aside this is an awesome game, a great ending to the classic 1 to 9 games. I highly recommend it, especially at the price you can get the game now, it's a steal.