A perfect swansong for the series on PlayStation
As its name would suggest, Final Fantasy IX is the ninth instalment in the long-running RPG series from Squaresoft (now Square Enix) and the third game in the franchise to find its way onto Sony's PlayStation console. Its older brothers, FFVII and FFVIII, have both prided themselves on exploring new gameplay mechanics (the Materia and Junction systems respectively) and establishing the post-modern, semi-sci-fi RPG. In this respect, FFIX couldn't be further from them. Not only does it adopt the style of presentation from older incarnations, but it also borrows a vast number of old gameplay mechanics too. So, a lame cash-in, you might think. A tired franchise duplicating past games. Well, no, actually. Quite far from it. FFIX isn't a duplicate FF, merely a return to the series' roots.
So what's the story, morning glory? If you don't know it by now, or confuse the plots of different games in the series, or just can't remember, FFIX is the story of bandit/monkey-boy Zidane Tribal. At the start of the game, Zidane and the rest of his daring troupe are posing as actors in a bid to infiltrate Castle Alexandria and kidnap Princess Garnet Til Alexandros XVII. It's the typical, imperially oriented stuff you'd expect from Final Fantasy, at least if you're familiar with the series' origins, and the story that unfolds doesn't disappoint. An international war, a corrupt queen, inanimate Black Mages and powerful Eidolon summoning all follow suit, and that's still only scratching the surface of what FFIX has to offer.
On top of this plot, FFIX builds on the character empathy that's become something of a series hallmark. While the graphical style may be more cartoony and relaxed than FFVIII's gritty realism, all of the characters are believable and have their own personality traits that can be identified with. Of particular interest is the Black Mage Vivi, who has become something of a cult character. His outlook on life and confused nature almost mirror the feelings of uncertainty associated with adolescence. This ability to recognise the emotions of the characters makes FFIX perhaps the most accessible FF to date.
Of course, none of this would matter if FFIX didn't play well. Thankfully that's not a worry. The gameplay is traditional FF-fare, with some aspects clearly recycled from the fabled SNES era of the series, but everything is refined and given a fresh lick of paint. Despite so much being borrowed, the end result doesn't feel like a rehash. It plays like FFIX. As per usual, the gameplay is divided into three core areas: exploration (moving from town to town, on foot or via airship/chocobo), side quests (such as the initially fun but ultimately tedious Tetra Master Card game) and random battles.
FFIX's battle system is perhaps the most refined battle engine of any RPG to date. Yes, the battles are still random, and thus the fans will still be divided, but the level to which FFIX's battles have been detailed is enough to convert the indifferent. Once more harking back to its glory days, the series has returned to allowing four characters to participate in battles. This, coupled with the individual battle styles of each character, makes for highly tactical conflict. In particular, the boss battles require a fair amount of strategic thought to come out on top. This harks back to FFIV, where characters had their own abilities which were beneficial in some areas and hindered in others. The system works really well, and serves as a reason for mashers of the X button to break their ways.
Final Fantasy games have always looked and sounded amazing, pushing consoles to their absolute limits, and FFIX is no exception. Graphically, FFIX surpasses everything before it and just about everything after it. Never has anything on Sony's little grey box looked so phenomenal. The characters are detailed, the environments lush, and the FMV is of the standard we've all come to expect from Square. But where FFIX really shines is in its battles. The gorgeous magic and Eidolon summon spells are delivered at an astonishing frame-rate and you'll never forget the breathtaking showdown between Bahamut and Alexander as the former lays siege to the Alexandrian empire.
The sound doesn't disappoint either. Nobuo Uematsu delivers a thematic and ambitious score that reflects the Elizabethan, industrial empire setting perfectly. The only detrimental thing about FFIX's soundtrack is the superiority of the soundtracks of its SNES inspiration. Put simply, Uematsu-san can't out-compose himself. The music does its job, and it does it very well, but it doesn't change the fact earlier games, and FFVI in particular, have done it better.
In conclusion, FFIX is everything you've loved about the series to date distilled into a single package, without being a clone of its predecessors. As well as paying homage to what has made it what it is, Final Fantasy IX is a stunning RPG in its own right that you'd be mad not to experience. It may not be the best Final Fantasy, but it's the most refined, most accomplished, and most accessible in the series. Play it now.